Saturday, August 08, 2009

Marriage

I read with interest a provocative article that recently appeared in Christianity Today: The Case for Early Marriage. The author, Mark Regnerus, notes that current sexual/marital trends in the evangelical subculture, namely pledges of chastity and the like, have had minimal impact on our sexual behaviour. In America at least, we aren't that different from the world. He goes on to argue that this is primarily due to a deficient, even unbiblical, view of marriage. For all our defence of traditional marriage, we have simply come to view marriage as "a central source of human contentment" and "romantic love [as] the key gauge of its health". Thus, marriage has been transformed into an ideal. Result? Unsurprisingly, many young adults are now much more wary of entering something so 'big'. The message they hear is: get yourselves and your lives sorted out first. And so marriage, and sex, is put on hold. But, sex is hard to put on hold, hence our disappointingly worldly behaviour. There is also a demographic dimension: simply put, there are more women than men in church. And judging from conversations I've had, this seems to be true just about everywhere - East and West.

This, Regnerus argues, tends to exacerbate rather than solve the problem. He anticipates and answers objections such as economic insecurity, immaturity and so on. Marriage is, first and foremost, a covenant, where we learn what self-sacrifical love and commitment really looks like. "Chemistry wanes. Covenants don't". Marriage is not some ready-made perfect union where you will enjoy bliss upon exchanging rings, but a place where both partners will continue to be formed in character. In conclusion, young Christian couples who are maturing in their faith should be encouraged towards marriage.

Does a right, biblical view of marriage necessarily incline one towards early marriage? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly in my church circles, I would say people get married earlier than average, and that some definitely encourage this.

But whatever you think, Regnerus is absolutely right to point out that all too often, our views of marriage are misshappened. I know I want to claim that Hollywood and novels and pop music have not affected me one iota. Considering I just went "awww" this morning at this Sleepless in Seattle story while chomping on some bacon, I'll say my claim doesn't exactly rest on solid foundations.

Historically, Christians have given three answers to the purpose of marriage, as I only found out recently. There are
1. procreation
2. intimacy
3. societal order
with Roman Catholics typically majoring on the first and Protestants the second, and no one really wanting to champion the third! All three can be biblically supported. So although romance and chemistry has been downplayed somewhat in this post, they're clearly a gift that God blesses his world with, and married couples should not be ashamed to delight in it.

But all of this needs to be understood within a covenantal framework. That is, marriages are not in service to us, but in service to God. Marriages are not just about what goes on in the bedroom, but how they function as a social and family unit. Christopher Ash, who has thought about this subject deeply, shows this from a sensitive and compelling reading of Genesis 1 and 2*. I take it Regnerus agrees with him.

To be honest, I haven't thought about the whole "what is the nature of marriage" question at any length before, and the only reason I've dwelt on it more recently was due to one or two pastoral situations that arose this past year. (Isn't that usually the case?) It's very counter-cultural to my own thinking.

I'm still not completely sure if that mandates early marriage. I remember at a conference early this year, there was a "you should definitely be thinking about marriage" line handed down to all of us (who were mostly in early to mid-20s). But in many cases, most people were already seeking to get married. The question then becomes, are you being too fussy? Well, maybe. But maybe not. I don't think that it was necessarily wrong to encourage marriage. That is, to engender courage in people that getting married isn't a bad thing and you can trust God! But perhaps a parallel emphasis that singleness is also a gift from God was needed.

But I'm starting to get somewhat off-track. Anyway, an important subject to think about.

*Christopher Ash has written both a weighty theological tome on the subject, simply entitled Marriage, and a book for laypeople, Married for God. I've only read the latter. He has also written an excellent summary article for the Christ on Campus Initiative.



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