NEWS | Meredith Flynn
Ask church leaders what is the single biggest threat to marriage right now, and most would probably give the same answer: the stunning wave of approval for same-sex marriage.
But a changing definition of marriage isn’t the only thing endangering the institution, said Baptist leaders at an April summit on sexuality and the Gospel. In fact, it may not even be at the top of the list.
Pornography has dulled the consciences of many Christians. Cultural trends have tended to devalue marriage at the expense of other arguably good things, like education, career and financial stability. And pastors may not feel the freedom or confidence to speak plainly about the issues affecting their congregations: sexual purity, marital fidelity, and what the Bible really says about all of it.
Faced with these threats to marriage, Andrew Walker of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission said the church has a choice: “We can confront these changes, we can acknowledge them, we can work to combat them, or, sadly, we can conform to them.”
One thing the church can’t afford to do: nothing.
For today’s 20-somethings, marriage and family look very different than when their parents were making decisions about who to wed and how many kids to have. In 1960, 72% of American adults were married. In 1980, it was 62%. In 2012, it was just over 50%.
According to a 2013 study by the University of Virginia, the average age of first marriage now is historically
high – 27 for women and 29 for men. Waiting to marry has resulted in a lower divorce rate and better economic prospects for women; however, researchers also point to higher birth rates among unmarried women.
Almost half (48%) of first births are to unmarried women.
“What exists outside the church usually makes its way inside the church,” said Walker, the ERLC’s director of policy studies. In a breakout session at the Nashville summit hosted by the ERLC, he explored 11 threats to contemporary marriage, including:
– The “soul mate” concept of marriage that emphasizes emotional and sexual fulfillment and partnership over biblical covenant and commitment.
– Marriage as an aspiration. People marry later when they wait until they’re financially established, Walker said. “We need to mitigate against the [idea] that someone needs a Master’s degree and $75,000 in the bank” before they get married, he added.
– The rise of “professional marriages” where spouses have individual bank accounts and separate social lives.
Also on Walker’s list of external threats to marriage: divorce. Many would say it’s a threat inside the church too, although the statistics that place divorce rates the same or higher among Christians have been misreported, some researchers say. The more subtle danger may be Christians’ acceptance of the divorce culture.
In an interview last year with Christianity Today, ERLC President Russell Moore said divorce is one way Christians have surrendered to “the patterns of this age.”
“Evangelical Christians are as counter-cultural as we want to be, and it is clear that we are slow-train sexual revolutionaries, embracing the assumptions of the outside culture a few years behind everybody else,” Moore said. “This has had disastrous consequences.”
How these factors have marginalized marriage inside the church is supported largely by anecdotal evidence. The single adults in your congregation likely weren’t raised to focus on whom they would eventually marry. Marriage has been confined to “meeting the right person” for an entire generation (maybe more); it’s not something they can control. So young Christians focus instead on friendships, education and career. On top of all that, they’re haunted by the specter of divorce. Looking toward marriage seems strange to most of them, even limiting – and potentially disappointing.
David Prince is a Kentucky pastor who also spoke at the ERLC summit. He said that when he visits new parents in the hospital, he prays over their babies, and specifically for their future spouses. One grandfather in a hospital room expressed his disbelief that Prince was praying that way already, the pastor said.
The majority of Americans, and even more religious Americans, still have faith in the institution of marriage, according to research presented at the summit by sociologist Mark Regnerus. The question is whether they have enough faith to pursue it for themselves. In the absence of a “marriage culture,” wrote blogger Trevin Wax last year, Christians who marry early and stay married 40, 50 or 60 years will stand out. Which is good news for the church. “We’ll be ordinary oddballs,” Wax said. “So let’s not waste the opportunity.”
A healthier view
If negative influences on marriage and sexuality that exist outside the church have made their way inside, Scripture offers a better way forward. And it speaks to modern-day problems like pornography, said Southern Seminary professor Heath Lambert.
Likening porn to the “forbidden woman” in Proverbs 7, he told summit attenders there is a silent killer running rampant in churches. And it’s not growing acceptance of same-sex marriage.
“A greater threat to the church today is the Christian pastor, the Christian schoolteacher, the Christian Bible college and seminary student, who exalts sound theology, points to the Bible, and then retreats to the basement computer to indulge in an hour or three of internet pornography.”
Regnerus shared daunting numbers: When asked whether they had looked at porn on a given day, 11% of men said yes. Between 35 and 40% said they had within the last week, including 20-25% of Christian men between the ages of 18 and 39. And it’s not just men. In a reflection on biblical womanhood during the summit, Trillia Newbill said research from 2007 showed 13 million women clicked on pornographic web sites every month. Women represent one in three visitors to adult entertainment sites, she said.
“There is a stereotype and a really, really, really bad rumor that women don’t struggle with sexual sin,” said the ERLC’s consultant for women’s initiatives. “The sin that came into the world and corrupted all that was beautiful in the world, also corrupted us women.”
How can churches offer hope and the truth of the Gospel? By presenting marriage and sexuality in the same tone as Scripture, said Kevin Smith, who closed the conference with a message on biblical sexuality within marriage.
“…Certainly, let us avoid vulgarity and certainly let us avoid [language] that will remove the mystery of sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife,” the pastor and professor from Louisville, Ky., said.
“I’m kinda tired of preachers bragging about their hot wife.”
But Smith also warned church leaders not to let a sex-saturated society muzzle proclamations of biblical marriage and sexuality. Avoid the “flattening out” of sex that happens in our culture, which removes emotional, commitment and intellectual aspects of the one-flesh union of the Bible, Smith said.
“The one who is proclaiming the Word of God and speaking of sexuality in a biblical context, we’re trying to heighten the conversation. We’re not trying to make sex less dramatic, we’re trying to make sex more dramatic.”
And more biblical.
Meredith Flynn is managing editor of the Illinois Baptist newspaper. Read the IB online at http://ibonline.IBSA.org.