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?


Professor Daniel Deutschlander often told his students that every Lutheran pastor should read Martin Chemnitz’ Examination of the Council of Trent (at least the first volume) every now and then—just to ensure that he is still a Lutheran.

A couple weeks ago I finished reading part II of Chemnitz’ monumental work, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. As Deutschlander says, “It’s so Lutheran!” The Examen is a Lutheran response to the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, which began in 1545 and was in many ways a response to the Lutheran Reformation. Many of the decrees of the Council are specifically condemning the teachings of the Lutherans. In other places, they continue to group the Lutherans together with the Anabaptists and other radical reformers. However, the main opponent seems to be the Lutheran teaching. The format goes like this: “If anyone says…let him be condemned (anathema sit).” Many have said that if you removed the anathemas from the decrees, you generally have a good statement of Lutheran teaching.

This second volume deals with the Sacraments. It first deals in a general way with the Sacraments, especially with the fact that the Roman Catholics insist on the number seven, and Chemnitz maintains that no matter how you define sacrament, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper stand out as distinct from all others. Then, Chemnitz works through each of the so-called seven sacraments and examines the doctrines and practices which the council commends and condemns.

One of the things that makes this work so brilliant is the way Chemnitz not only deals with the false assertions of the Council, but he manages to present the true, orthodox Lutheran teaching on each of these doctrines. And just because the Lutherans did not maintain seven sacraments does not mean that they had no teaching or practice concerning confession and absolution, ordination, consolation for the sick and dying, confirmation, and marriage.

That said, I think that many Lutherans would be surprised to read the way Chemnitz describes the way “our churches” practice. It appears that Lutheran practice and piety today has been shaped much more by American Protestantism than by the Lutheranism which Chemnitz describes.

Additionally, it always amazes me just how familiar men like Chemnitz were with the church fathers. And then, it strikes me that Chemnitz considers them worth listening to. The Council of Trent regularly made appeal to antiquity and tradition, and repeatedly Chemnitz shows that true antiquity was not what the Tridentine fathers were claiming. Many of the “ancient customs” to which Trent referred were not that ancient, or their writings were taken out of context, or the cited statements were exceptions to normal practice. History was on the side of the Lutherans.

But I don’t know anyone in Lutheran circles today who has this kind of knowledge of the church fathers—not even Seminary professors. And I know many more Lutherans (pastors, even) who wouldn’t particularly care. It is not as though we take our doctrine from the fathers, but I think Chemnitz (and many others) would make the point that they should be listened to. For me, reading more Chemnitz is a start down that path. I have just started reading Chemnitz’ Enchiridion, in which I’m finding much of the same stuff—brilliant. Definitely must-reads for every pastor.

Here’s a page where I started posting some quotes as I was reading: