The Waiting Game
The following article is part of Christianity Today's cover package on "The Case for Early Marriage."
The Wheaton College newspaper recently published an article detailing frustrations that married students experience on campus because of their choice to marry young. The article surprised me. From my perspective, Wheaton College, along with much of evangelical culture, seems obsessed with marriage. The number of students desperate for a "ring by spring" and the many marriage seminars at local congregations suggest that marriage remains a high priority.
Despite my different perspective, I feel for these married students. Certainly in our society, where strong marriages are so difficult to maintain, the Christian community should rally around these couples. And as I read through Regnerus's argument, I found myself agreeing with several of his points. Yes, abstinence rhetoric is problematic, and many singles have difficulty maintaining their purity. And yes, characterizing marriage almost entirely by romance and great sex is dangerous.
But is encouraging early marriage the answer? As Regnerus admits, early marriage is a risky proposition. While some young Christians might be ready, I worry that emphasizing early marriage will hasten the marriages of many who should wait.
I also worry that this solution addresses only one aspect of the problem. What about those who will not marry early—or at all? Many Christian women in particular must face this reality. What do you do if you are the one in three who doesn't find a spiritually mature man to marry? God can perform miracles, but despite the assurances of many Christian dating books, he doesn't necessarily provide everyone with a spouse.
What we need, then, is to change not simply how we talk about marriage but also how we talk about singleness. Rather than relying on the old standby of "wait until marriage," we must consider why God might ask some of us to remain single. What does it mean to live a celibate life even if you haven't taken a vow of celibacy? Can you live as a full person if you aren't sexually active? Can celibacy be a witness to the gospel?
In a world where a good sex life is seen as essential, I believe that celibacy can serve as a radical testimony to God's love and provision. By approaching it as a spiritual discipline that reminds us that our ultimate fulfillment lies in our union with God, we can begin to see singleness as a productive time of serving God rather than a period of simply waiting for the right partner. Is the celibate life easy? No. But by the grace of God, it is possible.
We should support young Christians who decide to marry. But we need to combine that message with another that affirms the value of celibacy and the truth that single adults can live fulfilling lives that reveal God's goodness: a message that affirms not only older singles who may never marry, but also younger singles who may need to wait before marrying.
Christine A. Colón, associate professor of English at Wheaton College, and coauthor of Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today's Church (Brazos, 2009)
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This article responds to the cover package on "The Case for Early Marriage."
Previous Christianity Today articles about marriage include:
My Top Five Books on Marriage | By Charles W. Tackett, CEO of PursuingHeart.com (May 7, 2009)
Choosing Celibacy | How to stop thinking of singleness as a problem. (September 12, 2008)
Practicing Chastity | A lifelong spiritual discipline for singles and marrieds. Lauren F. Winner reviews Dawn Eden's The Thrill of the Chaste. (March 15, 2007)
30 and Single? It's Your Own Fault | There are more unmarried people in our congregations than ever, and some say that's just sinful. (June 21, 2006)
Sex in the Body of Christ | Chastity is a spiritual discipline for the whole church. (May 13, 2005)
Reflections: Sex, Love, and Marriage | Quotations to stir the heart and mind (February 1, 2003)