Recently I read two articles (one on msn.com; the other on csmonitor.com) that examined the downward trend of marriage in our culture. One article revealed that now, barely more than 50% of adults aged 18 years or older are married (compared with 71% in 1960). The other article revealed that adults under the age of 30 are more likely to view marriage as obsolete than ever before. Both articles revealed that younger people are waiting longer to marry and that cohabitation among young adults has trended upward while marriage amongst that same demographic has dropped. Now these two articles did not surprise me nearly as much as a third article on CNN.com’s faith page did. It revealed that more and more young adults who claim to be Christian are cohabitating. In fact, it revealed that ‘Christian’ young adults living together is trending upward at the same rate as their non-Christian counterparts.
More Than Just a Sin Issue
The first reaction for many Christians is condemnation. Some may chalk it up to the rebellious nature of youth while others may count it as one of many signs of the times. But we, as the Church, must realize that this is much more than a sin issue that needs to be confronted. The problems that the disintegration of marriage presents go much deeper than a lifestyle choice or a church discipline issue. What is at stake is how we communicate God’s relationship to humanity and the fabric of society as a whole.
I remember several years ago being confronted with a statistic that read one out of every two children is either from a broken home or a home with a single parent. That statistic astonished me at first, but as I thought about the friends I had growing up, I realized I was the only one who had parents that weren’t divorced at some point. When I thought about the kids in the classes I was teaching at the time, easily half of them would have fit into the broken home/single-parent demographic, and I taught at a ‘Christian’ school. The result has been a generation that views marriage as either inconvenient or disposable. So we saw divorce rates rise in the 70s and 80s, but eventually they leveled off and began to drop as the practice of cohabitation began to be more readily accepted by society. TV shows like ‘Friends’ and ‘Seinfeld’ (as well as a score of others) portrayed cohabitation as normal, healthy and funny, and if Satan can get you to laugh at sin then you are no longer taking it seriously.
There is nothing funny about sin. As a minister, educator and friend, I have seen the pain, heartbreak and confusion of divorce. I have witnessed how cohabitation destroys trust rather than builds it. But as I said earlier, this is deeper than a sin issue; it is a family issue. God, in His infinite wisdom, ordained the family. There was to be one husband, one wife and they were to ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ The family became the basic structure for society. Inside the family unit a child learns how to respect others, obey rules, treat the opposite sex, take care of property, work ethic, basic people skills as well as a host of other things. History has proven that when the family structure declines within a society, social problems increase. Crime rates rise (a child wasn’t taught that breaking rules has consequences). Economies suffer (a child never learned a work ethic from his parents). Violence increases (a child missed out on respecting others). I am not saying that it is impossible to bring up good-citizens in a broken home, nor am I saying that all nuclear families will bring up perfect kids. What I am saying is the higher the percentage of kids growing up in single-parent/broken homes, the more likely that several of them will not learn lessons that most kids learn in the traditional family setting.
But the family is more than a building block for society. It is also a microcosm of the Church. Fathers are called to be ministers to their families. Godly instruction begins within the home, not the synagogue, tabernacle, temple or Sunday School class (see Deuteronomy 6:4ff.) A Father is to instruct his child about God through everyday routines. A mother is to impart wisdom to her child through Godly example (see Proverbs 31 for the ideal example of a Godly mother). When we forsake God’s blueprint for marriage, we are destroying the Church from within by destroying the next generation of Christians. If we love Christ and we love His Bride, we must respect and restore the institute of marriage to a place of honor.
Marriage as Evangelism
As Paul began to conclude his letter to the church in Ephesus he shifted his attention from what the Church at large should look like to what the Church in the home should aspire to. He gives wives and husbands specific commands. He tells wives to submit to their husbands and he tells husbands to sacrificially love their wives. Both commands he links to the Church and to Christ. Marriage is a living parable of God’s relationship with the Church. In other words, our marriage is a testimony to the world of whom God is and who the Church is and how the two interact with each other. The love, passion, respect and submission that takes place in marriage teaches ourselves and others about God. More to the point, marriage is at its core a tool for evangelism. If more and more young people inside the Church are forsaking marriage for cohabitation then we are teaching about God falsely. God didn’t merely decide to coexist with us; He entered into a covenant with us! He made a full-fledged commitment to us and backed it up with His blood. His vow? To never leave us or forsake us. His dowry? The cross. His guarantee? The empty tomb. Marriage is a powerful picture of God’s love and commitment to us. Frankly, ‘shacking up’ just doesn’t convey the same message.
Tackling the Issue
Realizing how much is at stake, I believe we have been going about preventing the rise of cohabitation all wrong. The Church for too long has been reactionary to this problem, and our meager efforts at being pro-active have hardly proven effective (do I really need to dig up statistics on how many purity pledges are broken?) Our children are missing out on the Bible’s full teaching on marriage when we focus on sin-prevention and purity, and as a result they grow up not seeing the real importance of marriage. So what do we do? How do we educate, not only youth, but their parents about marriage?
Teach the Positives
Instead of focusing on the negatives, which many purity programs do (abstinence protects us from disease, heartache and sin, etc.) let’s stress the positives about what marriage provides. I’ve already touched on a couple of things: a foundation for society and an evangelistic message. There are more positives than merely these. There is the sense of security that marriage was designed to bring. Another positive is the level of intimacy that a Biblical marriage provides. The sense of stability that children need to thrive and prosper is best found inside the bonds of marriage. Marriage provides fertile ground for the next generation of Christians to grow and mature into productive disciples of Jesus. Are there negatives aspects to forsaking marriage? Yes, and they need to be taught as well, but let’s no let those things dominate our teaching about love and marriage.
It is not the Church’s job to raise children. That responsibility falls squarely in the laps of parents. The excuse, ‘I brought them to church every week’ isn’t going to cut it. Parents have more opportunities to interact with their children than anyone else, thus it is their responsibility to teach their children about the benefits of a Christ-centered marriage. But many parents are at a loss as to how to do this. Why? Because their parents never taught them! For too long the church has focused on teens with purity events and abstinence programs. If we want to reach the kids we need to teach their parents how to talk to them about issues surrounding marriage, including sex, intimacy, expectations, etc. Only then will we begin to make any headway in this particular battlefront.
Imitate Jesus by being ‘Full of Grace and Truth’
I love the Gospel of John. His near mystical approach to the life of Christ has always appealed to me. From the opening lines I find myself mesmerized, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” As you keep reading, you discover something even more miraculous, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld Him as the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” I love that description of Jesus, “full of grace and truth.” When I think about His ministry, I see evidence of both grace and truth. The woman at the well? Jesus offered her the grace of living water before confronting her about the truth of her cohabitation. The woman caught in adultery? Jesus offered her grace by forgiving her before confronting her with the truth about her love life. If we are to reach a culture that is outside of Christ with the truth about marriage we must be willing to offer grace. There are many single-parent homes that need the grace of Jesus if we are to teach them the truth about marriage. The homes across America are littered with the broken pieces of marriages that did not live up to the Biblical ideal. The last thing many of these families need are stones cast their way. Instead, they need some living water and the assurance that they can come to Jesus, even if they are embarrassed, naked and guilty. As I said earlier, this issue is much deeper than sins that need to be confronted; its lives that need to be restored. I pray that by the grace of God, we restore and rebuild marriage to be what God intended it to be.