Well, at least I know how to strike a nerve. Several years ago, I delivered a major address on marriage to the 2004 New Attitude Conference organized by Joshua Harris, author of influential books like I Kissed Dating Goodbye and Not Even a Hint. Those attending the conference seemed to receive the message with great appreciation, but a rather significant reaction has come from those who take issue with what I had to say.
Speaking on “The Mystery of Marriage,” I tried to address the modern crisis of marriage from a biblical point of view. With marriage in eclipse — both in the culture and in some sectors of the church — I sounded an alarm directed specifically at young single adults who, by their very attendance at this conference, already showed that they shared this concern. With background issues including controversy over same-sex marriage, rampant divorce, and demographic trends indicating significant dangers for the institution of marriage, I went back to the basics.
Drawing from the creation account and other significant biblical passages, I sought to demonstrate that the Bible presents a conception of marriage that goes far beyond what most persons have even imagined. According to the Bible, marriage is not primarily about our self-esteem and personal fulfillment, nor is it just one lifestyle option among others. The Bible is clear in presenting a picture of marriage that is rooted in the glory of God made evident in creation itself. The man and the woman are made for each other, and the institution of marriage is given to humanity as both opportunity and obligation.
From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible assumes that marriage is normative for human beings. The responsibilities, duties and joys of marriage are presented as matters of spiritual significance. From a Christian perspective, marriage must never be seen as a mere human invention — an option for those who choose such a high level of commitment — for it is an arena in which God’s glory is displayed in the right ordering of the man and the woman, and their glad reception of all that marriage means, gives and requires.
The Marginalization of Marriage
Clearly, something has gone badly wrong in our understanding of marriage. This is not only reflected in much of the conversation and literature about marriage found in the secular world, but in many Christian circles as well. The undermining of marriage — or at least its reduction to something less than the biblical concept — is also evident in the way many Christians marry and in the way others fail to marry.
In the larger culture of confusion, marriage is seen by some persons as an option for those who “need” it. Radical feminists have attacked marriage as a hopelessly patriarchal institution, binding women to home and family in what Betty Friedan called “domestic captivity.” A revolution in the law has made divorce easy and quick, undermining the marital bond and redefining marriage as a tentative commitment.
Some of these who desire marriage are driven by the wrong desires. Some are looking for social benefits as others see marriage as a form of self-expression. By any measure, marriage is in trouble.
All this cries out for biblical correction, and Christians must resist the accommodationist temptation to accept the marginalization of marriage.
This generation of young Christians must lead the way in the recovery of the biblical vision, and build a Christian counter-culture that puts marriage back at the center of human life and Christian living. The young people who attended the New Attitude Conference represent a great hope for such a recovery. The heart-felt yearning for marriage so movingly communicated by those who have sent me such pointed responses to my message indicates that these young Christians are also committed to be agents of such a Christian recovery.
The Gift of Celibacy
There is one significant qualification about marriage found in the Scriptures. In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul writes specifically about the gift of celibacy, offering a clear teaching for those who are given this special gift in order to be liberated for strategic Gospel service. Paul’s point is clear. The obligations that are part and parcel of marriage are a matter of deep spiritual responsibility. A Christian who is married is, under the obligations of that sacred institution, less free to seize some opportunities for ministry that would be open to one who is unmarried.
Paul celebrates the gift of celibacy for Christian service, but he says nothing about those who simply would choose singleness as a lifestyle option. His concern was to see the Gospel preached throughout the world, even as the moral reputation of the Corinthian congregation was restored on matters of marriage and sexuality.
Furthermore, Paul speaks very specifically about the sexual aspect of marriage and instructs, “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9, NASB). I appreciate Paul’s apostolic candor. He did not condemn sexual desire and sexual passion, but he directed the Corinthians — and us — to marriage as the proper arena for such passion to be expressed.
With all this in view, it would seem that the Bible offers two specific teachings about marriage that should frame our understanding and our engagement in the current debate.
First, marriage is presented as a sacred institution, a covenant made between the man and the woman before their Creator, and an arena in which the glory of God is demonstrated to the watching world through the goodness of the marital relationship, the one-flesh character of the marital bond, the holiness of marital sex, and the completeness that comes with the gift of children.
Second, the Bible presents celibacy as a gift — apparently a rare gift — that is granted to some believers in order that they would be liberated for special service in Christ’s name. Paul’s discussion of celibacy indicates that this gift is marked by the absence of lust and sexual desire that would compromise or complicate ministry as an unmarried person. Accordingly, those who have been given the gift of celibacy find in Christ the satisfactions others are given through marriage.
Paul privileges this gift of celibacy, stating that he would have many of the Corinthians demonstrate this gift and “remain even as I” (1 Corinthians 7:8). Yet, most Christians in every age have been married — not celibate. Marriage has represented the norm for adult Christians in every generation since the time of Paul’s writing. This is consistent with the purposes of marriage as laid out in the biblical pattern and is acknowledged by Paul in numerous passages dealing with husbands and wives, parents and children, and qualifications for church leaders. Celibacy is a wonderful gift — a gift the whole church should celebrate — but it is a rare gift.
The Problem of Extended Adolescence
Now, to the hard part. Demographic trends, cultural shifts, and a weakening of the biblical concept of marriage have produced a situation in which marriage is in big trouble, even among many Christians. Divorce must be listed first among the ills that have befallen marriage in recent decades, but at the New Attitude Conference I was asked to address young singles who had not yet married. While the problem of divorce must always be acknowledged and confronted with biblical truth, in speaking to never-married single Christians my purpose was to point them to the glory of God in the comprehensive goodness of marriage. Speaking to that audience, I addressed a problem much closer at hand.
By any calculation, the statistics indicate that young adults are marrying much later in life than at any time in recent human history. As a matter of fact, demographers have suggested that this new pattern of delay in marriage has established a statistical pattern that in previous generations had been most closely associated with social crises like war and natural disaster.
Here are the plain facts: According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the first marriage for the average male is now at age 27. For white females, the age is slightly lower. This amounts to a delay that often has devastating consequences. With puberty coming at earlier ages than ever before — certainly in the early teens for most Americans — the period of time between sexual maturity and marriage is now stretching out into something like an average of 10 to 15 years. The accompanying statistics related to premarital sexual activity parallel the statistics related to the delay of marriage. Can anyone be surprised?
Other problems are closely associated with this delay of marriage. Speaking to this group of Christian young people — an outstanding group of young Christian disciples and leaders — I pointed to what sociologists now describe as “extended adolescence” — a period of life that now is extended well into the 20s and even early 30s by many young adults, often young men, who have trouble making the transition to adulthood.
I urged these young Christians to seize the biblical concept of marriage and all of its glory, to understand that God has set this covenant before them as expectation, and to channel their energies toward getting married, staying married, and showing God’s glory in those marriages.
I shared with those who attended the conference my concern that this delay — the deliberate putting off of marriage even among some who intend some day to be married — was “the sin I think besets this generation.” Continuing, I also made clear that this is primarily a problem that should be laid at the feet of young men. While some young women may neglect the call of marriage, a far greater problem is the unwillingness of many young men to grow up, take responsibility, lead, and find the woman God would have them to marry. As a rule, young women show far greater commitment to marriage, far greater maturity about marriage, and far greater frustration about the fact that marriage has been delayed. I thought I had made that point clearly — but perhaps not.
Is Singleness a Sin?
Those who attended the 2004 New Attitude Conference responded to my message on “The Mystery of Marriage” with a great deal of appreciation and receptivity. I was quickly surrounded by young men who had felt a brotherly kick to the seat of their pants and by many young women who appreciated the fact that I had articulated what many of them had hoped to hear.
Nevertheless, the delayed reaction among some who did not attend the conference has been to the contrary. Weeks after I addressed the conference, much of the message was broadcast on FamilyLife Today, a national radio broadcast hosted by Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine. FamilyLife Today is an outstanding program, and I was very pleased that my message had been broadcast. It seems that others were less than enthusiastic.
Within weeks of that broadcast, a major critique of the message was offered by Camerin Courtney and posted at www.christianitytoday.com. In her article, entitled “Is Singleness a Sin?,” Ms. Courtney decided to respectfully let me have it. She suggested that I had offered “gross overgeneralizations” about single people, and she argued that most Christian singles “aren’t delaying marriage due to selfish motives.” Ms. Courtney went on to say that most singles she knows “earnestly desire to be married, are surprised and/or frustrated that they aren’t yet, and are prayerfully trying to figure out how to get from here to there.”
Most specifically, Ms. Courtney was offended by my suggestion that, except for those given the gift of celibacy, marriage is the God-given context for the achievement of maturity in adulthood. Many others have responded to that argument as well.
In the days following Ms. Courtney’s article, I received a flood of email messages and other contacts. Most have been very clear about their outrage, but also very thoughtful in suggesting exactly where they felt I had gone wrong. Interestingly, every single response to Ms. Courtney’s article I have yet received has been written by a woman.
In reflecting on these messages and the points these very articulate and thoughtful women have raised, I am led to wonder if parts of the total message may have been edited or missing from the version they read or heard. But even if all the arguments were present, I wonder if some of them may have been missed or minimized.
In any event, the ensuing controversy affords all of us a good opportunity to look again at the biblical teachings concerning marriage and commit ourselves to accountability before God for the totality of our lives. Some of my respondents clearly missed the point concerning celibacy. But others still want to argue that intentional singleness — apparently without respect to celibacy — can be an acceptable lifestyle option for believers.
No, Singleness is Not a Sin
I stand unmoved, even more convinced that the argument I made at the New Attitude Conference is precisely correct.
Singleness is not a sin, but deliberate singleness on the part of those who know they have not been given the gift of celibacy is, at best, a neglect of a Christian responsibility. The problem may be simple sloth, personal immaturity, a fear of commitment, or an unbalanced priority given to work and profession. On the part of men, it may also take the shape of a refusal to grow up and take the lead in courtship. There are countless Christian women who are prayerfully waiting for Christian men to grow up and take the lead. What are these guys waiting for?
The delay of marriage has caused any number of ills in the larger society and in the church. Honesty compels us to admit that this is indeed tied to levels of sexual promiscuity and frustration, even as it means that many persons are now marrying well into their adult years, missing the opportunity of growing together as a young couple, and putting parenthood potentially at risk.
Almost all of the women who have written me in response to this article have indicated their grief and frustration that they are not yet married. Not one has indicated in her message that she has intended from the beginning to be single and to remain single. To the contrary, each writer has affirmed her own commitment to marriage and to be married, and each has spoken of her personal frustration that her hopes have not been yet fulfilled.
Given this commitment and hope as articulated by these thoughtful young women, it should be clear that when I spoke of a pattern of sin in the delay of marriage, I was certainly not attributing that sin to them. To the contrary, as one who believes wholeheartedly in the biblical pattern of complementarity and in the male responsibility to lead, I charge young men with far greater responsibility for this failure. The extension of a “boy culture” into the 20s and 30s, along with a sense of uncertainty about the true nature of male leadership, has led many young men to focus on career, friends, sports, and any number of other satisfactions when they should be preparing themselves for marriage and taking responsibility to grow up, be the man, and show God’s glory as husband and father.
Recovering A Biblical Vision of Marriage
I am not calling for high school students to marry, and I am certainly not suggesting that believers of any age should marry thoughtlessly, carelessly, and without sound spiritual judgment. But I am most emphatically arguing that this delay of marriage now presents the church with a critical test: We will either recover a full and comprehensive biblical vision of marriage in all of its glory, or we will soon find believers so accommodated to the culture around us that all we seek in our marriages is to do marginally better than what we see in the world.
Sensitivity demands that we understand the grief, frustration, and concern of Christian young adults struggling with this issue. They are the inheritors of a culture that has minimized marriage and has sent mixed messages concerning sex, gender, marriage and all the rest. The full biblical vision of marriage was not, in the main, held before them from their earliest years at home, and was not encouraged and enriched as they grew through adolescence into adulthood. Many of them — especially many young women — feel victimized by this pattern, and they are frustrated by the reality.
Now is the time for the church to take this conversation to the next level. This generation of Christian young adults has the opportunity to seize the moment, reverse cultural trends, and show their elders the glory of marriage as God intended it from the beginning.
I stand by my argument — renewed in this conviction even by the controversy that has followed. At the same time, I’m going to be a good bit more careful to make clear that young men must accept most of the blame for this situation. I will also remind these young men that, armed with a biblical mandate and fueled by Christian passion, they can also be the vanguard for recovery.
Let’s keep this conversation going, and encourage each other to pursue God’s glory in every dimension of our lives — and to settle for nothing less.