Consider these statistics:
-- Fewer Americans are marrying than they once did. In 1960, 72 percent of adults over age 18 were married, compared to 51 percent in 2010.
-- The age of first marriage has gone up dramatically since the 1970s. In 2011, the average age at first marriage for men was 28.7; for women 26.5. In the 1960s, men and women were much more likely to marry in their early 20s.
-- Birthrates for cohabiting women have reached records highs, according to a new report, indicating that the decline in rates of marriage also is signaling a steady increase in non-marital childbearing that currently hovers around 40 percent nationally.
Since marriage in America has changed so much, we want to focus on one of these changes -- people entering marriage at later ages -- to determine what problems or risks that trend might pose to our families and churches.
Various factors influence later marriage -- such things as educational attainment, income, debt and the availability of sexual activity outside of marriage due to loosening social norms. Oftentimes, the reasons given for delaying marriage seem more akin to American prosperity theology and sexual freedom than biblical wisdom. Today, more choose to delay marriage until their careers are established -- what some call a "capstone" model of marriage. Statistically fewer people enter marriage at a younger age -- what some call a "foundation" model of marriage.
But the question remains: When should a couple marry? Is there a precise age? What do Southern Baptists think about this issue?
To answer that, you'd have to ask Southern Baptists.
We're a diverse denomination spanning multiethnic cultures. Here in the Nashville area, The Tennessean daily newspaper published a rather confusing article Aug. 13 that drew from interviews and quotations from the authors of this op-ed. We agreed to do the interview in order to give the perspective of what one pastor preaches in one church and what one public policy expert believes is sound social policy on marriage -- not what the convention believes as a whole. We were interpreted as suggesting that Southern Baptists as a matter of convention policy ought to marry younger.
Contrary to media reports, there is no official "policy" as to when Southern Baptists should get married since we are a convention of autonomous churches. We think there are biblical wisdom principles that should influence when a couple is prepared to enter marriage, but to assume that a one-size-fits-all standard applies across the board is too heavy-handed.
Frankly, it is indeed our personal opinion that marrying earlier staves off the hormonal rush that comes with sexual temptation. Marriage is an institution that is divinely shaped to serve the needs of men and women; it isn't a capstone to an already-built career. Sadly, we've known Southern Baptist parents who have counseled their children to delay marriage while turning a blind eye to their fornication in order to not jeopardize Suzy and Johnny's education.
We do not advocate a specific age; rather, we believe that young people should make themselves "marry-able" younger. They need to push against the cultural norm that extends adolescence for an indefinite period of time and reach maturity more quickly so they can be ready for marriage sooner than the national average.
We believe this for both biblical and practical reasons.
First, God designed men and women to be married both by creation ordinance (Genesis 2) and for gospel proclamation (Ephesians 5); therefore we believe marriage serves as a foundation for life, not a capstone.
Third, the Bible condemns pre-marital sex as sinful and a violation of God's design for sex in the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman for life. It is impractical and unhelpful to advise and encourage young men and women who reach sexual maturity at the age of 12 or 13 to wait 15 years before marriage and still remain pure.
Fourth, we believe that all of us are sexual sinners whether in thought or deed and need the grace of God in the Gospel of Jesus Christ to forgive us and empower us to pursue God's design in marriage.
Ultimately, there are Southern Baptists who will agree and disagree with us, which is expected given our denomination's size and vastness. Even some in our own churches would disagree with us. The question of when a couple is ready for marriage is one that requires wisdom and discernment for each person considering marriage and, ideally, the involvement of a local church that seeks to shape and influence potential spouses in a way that prioritizes and mirrors the Gospel in covenantal fidelity.
Jon Akin is senior pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon, Tenn.; Andrew Walker is director of policy studies for the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
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