Caveats: It is long, and it is on the topic of marriage. It is somewhat personal. It is written by a single, twenty-one year old male. It is possible that these three credentials erase any respectability I might claim in this writ.
Continuing: A few weeks ago, one of my more conservative friends (that is a weird one to write) posted a link to this article by Mark Regnerus on a popular social networking website. I gather that it has made its way around the Internet quite a bit, provoking a spectrum of reactions, including mine. I had meant to write and publish this soon after reading it, but the scope of the undertaking daunted me, and even after starting it I found it difficult to finish. It’s been long enough though, so here it is:
On first reading, this article left rubbed me quite the wrong way. I wasn’t quite sure why; I actually was fairly interested all through page 1, but around Dr. Regnerus’ page 2 claim that “it is unreasonable to expect [those in their mid-to-late 20s] to refrain from sex” (really? God allows them to be tempted beyond their means after all?) I began to narrow my eyes. By the end, I felt riled up simply due to the either-or rhetoric being used and the perceived this-is-the-way-things-are mentality inherent in the writing. It took me another few read-throughs to nail down a substantial critique of the thing and to determine that there were some points with which I agreed, and some with which I did not.
One of the main points of Dr. Regnerus’ argument is the idea that men need to step up and address the fact that (from page 2) “there are about three single women for every two single men … a shortage of young Christian men.” This section of the article is actually a little unsettling on a few levels. Confusing semantics aside (3:2 is the ratio of devout singles or just singles in general? I couldn’t quite tell, and how would one know?) I understand that it’s trendy to harangue on Christian males to “take responsibility” and “grow up”. I am all for people growing up. But what’s really annoying here is the way he seems to imply that only men are in need of growth. From page 4: “As a result [of parental advice to delay marriage], many young adults sense that putting oneself in the trust of another person so soon may be foolish and risky. Many choose to wait out the risk – sometimes for years – to see how a relationship will fare before committing. (We seem to have lost our ability to shame men for such incessant delays.) [emphasis mine]” Really. Men only? Women aren’t capable of indecision, of delaying marriage when their other is ready, of immaturity?
It is not as simple as that, Mark. From page 3: “Men get the idea that they can indeed find the ideal woman if they are patient enough.” Yes, true. But women do too, only you seem to have given them a pass for it in the preceding paragraph. Not only are there plenty of Christian women that I would not consider spiritually mature, there are also plenty of spiritually mature women around who seem not to be interested in marriage any time soon. There may be many reasons for this, among them immature men, but I’m sure at least one of the reasons is the above-mentioned idealism. Is it more okay for women? Maybe I myself am exhibiting the immature behavior right now that Dr. R talks about, but something inside of me still tells me that mine isn’t the only gender that could use a bit more maturity in dealing with marriage.
It may seem surprising to read that there are actually a few points where I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Regnerus’ analysis. I definitely agree that marriage is a formative institution (page 4) and that young people, men and women alike, need to recognize that they possess the capability of growing into a good marriage and not feel like they have to wait for a perfect one to drop into their laps. I think that older adults counseling young people to delay marriage for stable career, perfect maturity, and financial stability are not helping as much as they might like to believe. I believe, as Dr. R puts it, that “successful marriages are less about the right personalities than about the right practices,” and that the marriages whose participants view their commitment as a covenantal existance are the better ones.
What I don’t agree with is Dr. Regnerus’ implications that marriage is the end-all be-all of relational problem solving. Nowhere in the article does he mention that divorce rates in the church aren’t any better (according to one site, they are much worse) than those outside of the church. With so much pressure on young Christians to form a lasting marriage commitment, to be such stellar witnesses to the world on how much better Christian marriage is than non-religious marriage, I can see why they might take their time in making the decision.
Speaking as a younger, marriage-minded man (that felt extremely bizarre to type), I have to say that I would rather never get married than get married to somebody I wasn’t absolutely sure I would never divorce, and somebody I wasn’t incredibly confident would help me grow and allow me to help grow deeper in Christ. I take the “covenant” viewpoint mentioned above and in Regnerus’ article, and until I’m confident that my prospective spouse sees the institution in the same light, I am not going to be buying a ring. Formative, yes, but under this viewpoint marriage is also final. The thought of being “trapped” in a relationship where growth isn’t happening as much as it would have if one had simply waited for a bit more maturity and discernment to develop makes it easier to rationalize waiting just a bit longer. The danger here is the aforementioned waiting for the non-existent perfect relationship; surely there must be some middle ground between waiting forever to jump off the diving board and diving head first into the shallow end, but Dr. R doesn’t really talk about that.
Nor does he mention that marriage isn’t the only way to lead a full, God-honoring Christian life. He mentions Paul’s 1 Corinthians treatise on marriage v. burning with passion, but doesn’t mention that just before that Paul expresses his wish that the singles in Corinth might stay as he is. Nor does he really delve into the fact that the hero of the gospels, Jesus Christ, was a single man who never had sex and never married. Our calling as Christians isn’t to get married, it’s to become more Christ-like. And yes, I agree that one of the best ways to become more Christ-like is to be in constant community with somebody who is committed to your constant growth in him. But it isn’t the only way, and Dr. Regnerus’ insistence that we adhere to young marriage because marriage is awesome (my paraphrase), coupled with the importance he apparently places on scheduling around the fertility of women (page 2) leaves me with a few questions as to his reasons for pushing so strongly. Is marriage about having children or about glorifying God by becoming more Christ-like? Are childless marriages worth it, Mark?
In the end, this whole article seems somewhat like a decorated mimicry of Paul’s “better to get married than to burn aflame with passion” talk from 1 Corinthians. “Get married, because sex before marriage is bad and twenty-somethings really feel the urge to have sex.” Great! I agree. But if that’s all it is, then why bring in all this social commentary about men needing to grow up and personality v. practice? Again, I am all for marriage. I hope and pray that I’m there some day. And if so I am going to be stoked to enjoy sex within the boundaries of that marriage and not before. But I’m not sure that there is a 100% chance that those who don’t marry will fall victim to premarital sex (counting me, there is at least one holding out). Nor am I sure that marrying young is necessarily better than waiting for a reasonable time to determine how best to honor Christ with your decision.
In the interest of space I have left not a few things unsaid. There also always exists the possibility that my written words don’t fully/properly convey the measure and meaning of my full thoughts on the subject. If this essay seems a bit sparse or obtuse in places, chances are there’s a thought that I had but didn’t write, and interested readers are as always encouraged to dismantle my arguments piecemeal.