When sociologists chronicle how the West redefined marriage, they will cite many factors, including progressive social pressure, willing media, and liberal theology. But thoughtful evangelicals shouldn't only point the finger at the outside world.
Even among gospel-preaching congregations, we've contributed to the steady erosion of a once-strong institution. And I'm not primarily talking about divorce or the wink-and-nod treatment for cohabitation. Here are three practical but powerful messages we've sent to our young people, the outside world, and to ourselves about how we really think about marriage.
1. Marriage is important, but not as important as immediate stability.
As a pastor, I can't tell you how often I saw fear in the eyes of parents with children in college. But they didn't fear that their good Christian kid would shipwreck his faith in the secular university or that their daughter would get pregnant.
No, quite often these Christian parents feared that their son or daughter would find a suitable mate, settle down, and get married, while still in college. I once had a nice Christian mom tell me, "I tell my son, every week, 'Don't you go off and get married now. You've got to at least finish graduate school.'"
To be sure, some young men and women just aren't ready to tie the knot. As the father of three daughters, I will make sure the suitors who come to my door (and they will come to my door or they will not be suitors) are mature, spiritually and emotionally. I want to know my daughter isn't marrying a slacker who will live in my basement until he's 35, having mastered every level of Angry Birds.
However, sometimes we treat marriage while young as a plague to be avoided at all costs. We're telling our children, in effect, "All that stuff we say all the time about marriage, it's important. But pay no mind. Really smart people put off marriage until it's convenient." If our kids listen to this kind of advice, we rob them of this blessed, sanctifying tool in the hands of God. These rhythms of life, these cycles of repentance and forgiveness, make them more like Christ.
Yes, some couples should wait. But no one enters marriage perfect or even ready. More often than not we should encourage young couples to get married and watch the inevitable grit and grace of marital intimacy weave a gospel story.
2. Marriage is important, but not as important as our church activities.
Several years ago I attended a wedding at a church in one of the most concentrated areas of the Bible Belt, where traditional marriage still polls well. This couple had come to the altar after a life transformed by God's grace. Their story was one of brokenness, beauty, and redemption in Christ. But you'd think this event was a major disruption to the church calendar.
The bride and groom paid handsomely for use of the hall—and that's what this venue felt like on the big day, a rented hall. This wedding might as well have been celebrated in a sterile city hall building. And I'm not just talking about the lack of Christian symbols in the décor, but the stunning lack of interest, on the part of the church, to celebrate this wedding. To be fair, this megachurch probably couldn't give every single wedding the type of fanfare that family and friends want.
But on this day, the wedding seemed like a nuisance, a speed bump in the highway of the church's important weekend activities. The wedding party had a hard time finding help getting in the facility, finding the right rooms, and figuring out the sound system. The pastor, to his credit, was kind and helpful and had shepherded this new couple toward this day. But the couple heard a not-so-subtle, contradictory message: "Yes, we are happy you are getting married, but don't do anything to ruin our really awesome big idea we are doing on Sunday so we can draw people into our church so they can hear the gospel."
Few things demonstrate the gospel like weddings! Christian weddings aren't merely secular ceremonies. Each one celebrates God's loving, intentional design for the people he has pursued, rescued, and appointed as future kings and queens of the universe. The intimate union of man and woman before God helps us peer into another world. It's a signpost for another kingdom, a city whose builder and maker is God.
Weddings shouldn't be incidental occasions in the life of God's covenant community. They prompt celebration and worship. The church should gather around this new couple and bear them up by their presence, by their prayers, and by their generous giving.
3. Marriage is either the utopia at the end of your dreams or your worst nightmare.
More than one social commentator has suggested that long before the gay-rights movement, evangelicals undermined marriage by modeling in real life the opposite of what they preached. The problem isn't just no-fault divorce. Sadly, many lifeless marriages resemble business partnerships more than intimate union. No wonder many young people seem so disinterested in marriage. They've never seen marriage modeled well in real life. The intimacy, spark, and love evaporates just when the kids start paying attention. Avoiding the seeming hassle of marriage, young people check out all together.
In correcting this problem we can swing wildly in the opposite direction. We sometimes present marriage as something more than it was meant to be. Hoping to cultivate healthy sexuality, we sell marriage as utopia, the ultimate destination for hopes and dreams and good sex. We set ourselves up for disappointment. Even the most vibrant Christian marriage only offers a foretaste of a far better gift, Christ himself.
Marriage is neither the nightmare some portray it to be, nor is it heaven. Instead, it's a temporary theater where Christ is sanctifying us and working out his glory. Let's not preach the gospel from the pulpit but deny it in our attitude toward marriage.