Should Parents Advise Children to Postpone Marriage?

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an old Issues, etc. segment in which this question was discussed. It is no secret that the age at which people get married has risen dramatically in the last several decades. (See Pew Research Study.) It is also no secret that the entire institution of marriage is under attack.

But the question was specifically raised whether Christian parents should advise their children to postpone marriage—until they’re done with school, established in a career, had the chance to date more people, or simply until a more appropriate age. Follow the link and listen to the segment. Hearing this reminded me of a few quotes I ran across in Part III of Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent. In this volume he addresses Chastity, Celibacy, and Virginity.

Satan seeks to attack marriage in every age.

Behold, however, with how much contention, with what tricks and traps the enemy of marriage labored in early times to introduce the superstitious opinion of celibacy into the church! (151)

Living under a vow of celibacy was viewed as superior to marriage. But the reformers pointed out that not everyone is able to live celibate, because it is a gift not given to everyone (Mt 19:11). In addition, many vows were made by force and at an early age. In this section, Chemnitz considers the process of deliberating whether to take a vow or to be married.

“Therefore also [St. Paul] does not entrust the deliberation to people of youthful age, a time when counsel, wisdom, circumspection, earnestness, and constancy are lacking, but wants it left and communicated to the parents or to wiser adults, who are able to judge this matter more correctly, maturely, and diligently. Nevertheless Paul limits the power of parents to this extent, that children cannot be destined either for marriage or for celibacy against their own feeling, will, and ability by command of their parents, but he states that the deliberation of the father is to be moderated and directed according to the intellect, will, ability, and inclination, or, as the Greek translators speak, the opinion and impulse of the daughter…

Furthermore, in this deliberation Paul also wants the age taken into consideration…Before the prime, when the bodies are still growing, and passions and secretions are not yet complete, and have not yet reached their high point, purity can be preserved with moderate diligence by the help of God. And to this diligence the young are to be exhorted…Parents should indeed guard a virgin until she is of age and teach her what is better. (83)

But what about when the body is grown, when it becomes apparent this person does not have a gift to remain unmarried, and wishes to be married?

Paul does not give parents tyrannical power so that they are able to forbid their children marriage and drive them into celibacy against their nature and will, regardless of whether they have the gift of continence or not. (141)

I wonder if the advice (or the culture’s conventional wisdom) to postpone marriage until education and career are established, presents a kind of modern day forced celibacy. Except it’s usually not by force. And in many cases, they’re not really celibate. And that causes problems.

The vow of continence drives nuns to horrible sins, such as the killing of aborted infants, the destruction of nature by medicines, lust toward one another, and other unmentionable acts. (205)

Chemnitz uses the same argument for marriage as the Augsburg Confession: “‘because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife’ and ‘It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion’ (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9b). Second, Christ says, ‘Not everyone can receive this saying’ (Matthew 19:11), where He teaches that not everyone is able to lead a single life…Therefore, those who are not able to lead a single life ought to marry. No human law, no vow, can destroy God’s commandment and ordinance.” (AC XXIII)

Chemnitz and the reformers repeatedly claim that vows or rules or churchly customs do not supersede the ordinance of God in creation and God’s desire for his gifts to be used within marriage. It seems that a question for today might be whether cultural norms, higher education, or career aspirations now trump the words of our Lord and his Apostle?

Love and Marriage

The fact that we can fall in love is a gift from God, but it has to be handled according to God’s will. The natural avenue to a marriage is through falling in love deeply and seriously.

Love is more than falling in love, however. Falling in love can be very powerful and overcome many obstacles. As long as it lasts all one can see is the good points of the one he loves. However, that’s not a tenable basis for marriage. Falling in love seeks its own objectives. It expects happiness by owning the object of its love. It naturally expects that happiness exists when you own each other. Then the problems come, however. The romance cools down. That’s when true love shows its worth. You see a lasting marriage isn’t built on infatuation but on love. God’s intention isn’t that you should be happy by getting something for nothing, by and through another person. God’s intention is that you experience happiness by making somebody else happy. Marriage contains the greatest mission in life: to be useful, a blessing, to be supportive and helpful to someone else, with whom God Himself united you to be able to fulfill just that mission. The idea is that we two, who now are one, should grow together in a devotion to each other that doesn’t seek its own objectives, but instead finds its happiness in being able to give and to share troubles, obligations, responsibilities, and decisions.

To Live with Christ: Daily Devotions by Bo Giertz, devotion for the Monday after the 20th Sunday after Trinity. CPH, 2008.