The Case For Early Marriage?: Confusing Is and Ought


In doing some research this past week, I came across an old article from Christianity Today. I remember reading it when it came out and being frustrated by the poor argument – and that was before I had my feminist framework in place. Reading it again as a nearly 27 year old still single person with years of research into feminist ideology and theory under my belt, I’m even more incensed by the proposals and ideas within the article. I thought it might be good to examine some of the ideas which undergird the framework for this piece. The piece is "The Case for Early Marriage," written by Mark Regnerus, for a 2009 issue of Christianity Today. It’s the cover story for that particular issue, and therefore is quite long.

But the article can be summed up in a few points:

  1. Good family structure is good for society. Family, in the Biblical sense, consists of a mother, father, and kids (multiple, of course).
  2. Secular society is delaying marriage further in people’s twenties, which turns the abstinence only dictate from evangelicalism into hogwash.
  3. The problem, however, is not that abstinence only is a fundamentally bad idea, but that we haven’t done enough to promote marriage at younger ages – ages which would skirt that troublesome mid-20s sex drive and fertility push.
  4. Delayed marriage is bad because people are having sex before marriage because of it (why this is bad is never fully explained). Delayed marriage also, evidently, encourages extended adolescence in men, resulting in women having to “marry down” if they want to marry at all.
  5. Solution: we encourage people to marry young and work out their problems within a marriage relationship, rather than dating around. This way we can encourage the family structure as well, keep people from having premarital sex, and bolster society because … family’s the cornerstone and stuff.

There are several premises that go unquestioned throughout this piece. The first is that a family structure consists of man, woman, kids. The second is that extramarital or premarital sex is a society-destroying problem. The third is that marriage is less about right people than about right practices and hard work. And the fourth is that marriage is, of course, for the sole purpose of procreation.

All of these are tied up in a concept of marriage as a salvation tool, as The Thing that the church needs to be relevant and helpful to a dying society.

There’s a lot of hoopla that Regnerus makes here about women waiting to marry until they are past their prime years of fertility. Technically, prime years of fertility are a woman’s teens, but since that’s not socially acceptable (despite its undisputed place as the Biblical model), Regnerus has given a little ground and now advises that a good age for marriage is in the early 20s. 20-22, that range.

Now, before I get angry comments about how “I married at 20 and we’re 11 years strong!” (good for you!), I am not talking about your marriages or the marriages of those who decided to marry young and it’s still working. What I am discussing is the harmful teaching from the church that says people should marry at that age. It’s the universal rule that I’m challenging, not the individual cases.

Regnerus’ advice is harmful precisely because he imposes an “ought” onto a “maybe.” He makes the mistake of moving from the specific (in many examples, his own young marriage) into the general. This is an incredibly common error in logic, and unbelievably common when it comes to church relationship/dating teachings. I see people who made mistakes in their dating relationships – having sex before they were ready for it, to take one very common example – take that personal error and turn it into a rule, a black and white comment about when other people should or ought to do something.

This is most clear when he discusses objections to early marriage. He says of the idea of poor matches in early marriages:

There is no right answer to such questions, because successful marriages are less about the right personalities than about the right practices, like persistent communication and conflict resolution, along with the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much about marriage, and a bedrock commitment to its sacred unity. Indeed, marriage research confirms that couples who view their marriages as sacred covenants are far better off than those who don't. [emphasis mine]


While it’s true that couples who view their marriage in a way that takes divorce off the table will probably not get divorced, I hesitate to use the language the author does in calling this “better off," because that's an unquantifiable, vague idea. However, that’s small potatoes compared to the idea that a marriage is less about “right personalities” and more about “right practices.”

This is legalism. This is rules-based Christianity. This is blaming the problem not on the actual causes but on the victims of those problems. You’re encouraged by the church to marry your first boyfriend and to do so quickly and you discover the relationship was a bad idea because of fundamental personality clashes? You’re just not doing marriage right – there’s nothing wrong with the institution or with the push to marry early – it’s all on YOU, the person on the ground, for not performing it right.

It’s a version of the No True Scotsman logical fallacy – it conveniently pushes off the failure of numerous early marriages on those who divorced, conveniently implying that they just didn’t have the right practices for their marriage, rather than admitting a fault in the doctrine of early marriage itself. It's the "if your [x thing you were praying for] didn't work, you're just not right with God" approach.

But "right" practices mean nothing if you don’t have a person you’re willing to invest time and energy in. And while day to day feelings change and fade, there’s always a basis of love for the other person. If you don’t have the right person in your match, all of your "right" practices are going to mean diddly squat.

And this is the ultimate problem – Regnerus refuses to recognize the diversity of human beings and human relationships and seems to think that if a couple is having problems in their marriage because they married before realizing fundamental personality differences (differences that may only arise after both people have had chances and time to discover who they really are, which happens at different ages for literally everyone), then the problem is with them simply not trying hard enough. He doesn’t realize that it’s like trying to shove an elephant into a sweater meant for a cat – sometimes there is no right solution and no right way to fix a marriage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. But instead of acknowledging that, yeah, people need time to mature and know themselves outside of a relationship and on their own, he proposes that people simply need to work harder – as though pushing really hard will somehow make the elephant's head fit into the sweater's neck.

Life doesn’t work that way. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for marriage. Marrying at 20 works for some people. Marrying at 40 works for others. We all mature in different ways and the opening up of choices for women in terms of careers and who they have the ability to say “yes” to has shifted the demographics and that is not de facto bad.

This doesn’t even touch on the extremely utilitarian view of marriage that Regnerus is pushing – early marriage is necessary because of fertility and Christians marrying earlier gives them the chance to have more kids, giving them a demographic advantage. This view, in fact, devalues marriage (and women) because it turns marriage into a means by which the next generation of (hopefully Christian conservatives!) is produced, rather than a glorious celebration of love and hope for renewal and desire to dedicate a life to working with a partner.

Perhaps it is not society’s view that is dishonoring marriage, but Regnerus’ utilitarian, baby factory one that erases the beautiful bright diversity of love within humanity in favor of brutal, cold demographic sustenance. I’d rather never get married than experience a marriage that has all the right practices but none of the right person.