Marriage Should Matter to You
By: Dr. Kent Olney
Census data from 2010 reveal that less than half of all U.S. households (48 percent) contain a married couple. This is the first national census to indicate that marriages are found in fewer than 50 percent of American homes. While married households are shrinking in number, one-person households are on the rise and now make up 27 percent of all households in our country (see Table 1). With married households at an all-time low, and one-person households at an all-time high, how should the church respond?
Table 1. Percentage of U.S. Households by Type: 1970, 1990, 2010
Household type 1970 1999 2010
Husband-wife present 70% 55% 48%
One person living alone 17% 25% 27%
Not married, not living alone 13% 20% 25%
Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Census Briefs: Households and Families, 2010; U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports: Household and Family Characteristics, 1997.
In the last issue of The Epworth Pulpit (September 1, 2012), I noted that marriage matters to God. Yet today marriage is often presented as nothing more than one choice among many comparable options; it is seen as no better, and in fact might be worse, than other types of relationships. The result is that marriage is increasingly postponed or rejected altogether. Sadly, these trends are as true among churched people as they are among the unchurched. Important questions arise in a climate such as this: Does it really matter how one views marriage? Isn’t it all about personal choice and preference? Isn’t marriage just a concern for the shrinking number who happen to choose that lifestyle? Why should marriage matter to the average person sitting in my pew on a Sunday morning, especially if the person is not married?
I want to suggest there are several theological and sociological reasons why the institution of marriage should be of concern to all of us, whether we are married or not. Let’s consider some of those reasons here.
As Christian believers we hold that God’s view (i.e., theology) is primary above society’s view (i.e., sociology). So let’s begin by noting four theological reasons why marriage should matter to every believer, regardless of marital status. Those four reasons are: divine authority, biblical example, holy living, and religious liberty. An exploration of each follows.
1. Divine authority. As noted in my previous article, marriage matters to God. Evidence of this fills the pages of scripture. Anything that matters to God – whether it be creation, children, the poor, widows and orphans, marriage, or a host of other things – should also matter to us, His people. We are called to respond in obedience to His authority, to make His priorities our own. That means, of course, that the fluctuating numbers of married people in society is not our barometer for determining the value of marriage. Since this institution was created by God and matters so much to Him it ought to matter equally to us.
2. Biblical example. Another reason marriage should matter to every believer is because it was modeled as the Biblical norm. The vast majority of Biblical characters were married, including the apostles (see I Cor. 9:5). In fact, the list of never-married people in scripture is a short list that includes Jeremiah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and Paul. What is particularly interesting about this list is that each of these individuals, though not married, had a strong pro-marriage message. In fact, John the Baptist lost his life due to his defense of marriage (Matt. 14:1-10; Mark 6:17-27). The example of Scripture is clear: most people entered the institution of marriage that God designed at creation, and those that did not gave themselves to unique and focused ministries that included speaking boldly in support of marriage. Biblical precedent makes it difficult for any believer to ignore the value of this sacred institution.
3. Holy living. Paul associates sexual behavior and marriage with holiness (for example, see I Thess. 4:1-8 and Eph. 5:25-27). Marriage, along with the sexual union that fuels marriage, is tied to holy living. Gary Thomas, author of Sacred Marriage (2000), is correct: God’s principal plan for marriage is to make us holy. We have distorted this idea so that we now think of marriage in terms of personal happiness rather than holiness. And even worse, we have sometimes promoted the idea – either explicitly or by our silence – that holiness is more easily attained through singleness than it is in marriage. Marriage should matter to every believer because scripture suggests it is a common tool that the triune God uses to form us into His image and make us holy. What potential marriage holds to make us more like God.
4. Religious liberty. Marriage has become a contested political battle and the stakes are high. Our right to practice and promote religious teaching rests in the balances. The central question is: Who has the right to define marriage? Will the church be forced to cave in to outside forces when it comes to marriage teaching and practices? Peter and the other early apostles declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This same issue is on the table today. Who will we follow in the marriage debate, God’s Word or contemporary culture? The Manhattan Declaration (www.manhattandeclaration.org), drafted in 2009, speaks with eloquence and concern regarding both marriage and religious liberty in America; the document is worth reading. If we lose the battle over marriage, we can expect to lose future religious liberties as well.
Marriage matters because it is central to Christian theology. Surrendering marriage would have serious theological consequences. Divine authority, Biblical example, holy living, and religious liberty are all at risk. Clearly, whether one is married or not, marriage should matter to every believer based on theological grounds alone. However, there are also several sociological reasons why marriage should matter and these are discussed next.
Marriage benefits society in a number of important ways. Thus, whether one is married or not – and, for that matter, whether one is even a Christian believer or not – a strong argument can be made that marriage is a public good. Marriage promotes social capital, civil behavior, and economic health. These combine to foster thriving communities. Let me explain.
1. Social capital. Married people tend to have more discretionary time and resources to invest in others than do their unmarried counterparts. Because married people typically divide daily responsibilities with a spouse (e.g., cooking, cleaning, yard work, laundry, paying bills, auto maintenance, etc.) extra time and opportunity exist to invest in others. This is often referred to as social capital. Married individuals and single neighbors alike benefit from the excess social capital created by marriage. This means someone is likely to be available to help rake leaves, shovel a sidewalk, or provide a meal when one is sick. According to Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, author of The Divorce Culture (1986), social capital is highest where marriages are healthiest. Where marriage is weak, on the other hand, social capital is diminished. Simply stated, communities are more likely to flourish when healthy marriages are plentiful.
2. Civil behavior. Marriage has long been understood as a civilizing influence in society, particularly among young men. Sexual restraint and reduced violence are the result. Communities with high rates of marriage report relatively low rates of rape, out-of-wedlock births, and crime. Marriage tames men and reduces behaviors that bring harm to communities. Not surprisingly, then, most people – married or single – prefer to live in a neighborhood where marriage and family are valued. These areas are safer than neighborhoods where marriage is rare and families are fragmented. Marriage elevates civil behavior so that all society benefits.
3. Economic health. Married people, on average, are wealthier than their unmarried peers. Consequently, where marriage is prevalent people are more financially stable and a community’s standard of living is higher. In 2008, economist Benjamin Scafidi conducted an extensive study revealing that divorce and unwed childbearing costs American taxpayers $112 billion annually. That means every individual in the country – regardless of marital status – pays some $360 per year, or approximately one dollar per day, to address problems caused by the breakdown of marriage. That is a heavy tax burden for everyone to bear. Strong marriages contribute to economic health for all society’s members – whether they are married or not.
Make no mistake about it: marriage matters to all citizens. There are private and public rewards associated with healthy marriages. Both theology and sociology point to the institution’s enduring value, despite the recent census report’s indication that marriage is declining. Interestingly, however, another report on marriage offers a more optimistic message from America’s youth.
For nearly 40 years the University of Michigan has surveyed thousands of high school seniors annually, asking them a series of questions regarding their values and dreams. When asked how they view marriage, these young people have responded hopefully and consistently. Since 1980, surveys reveal that 80% of high school females and 70% of high school boys report that they desire a good marriage (see Table 2).
Table 2. Percentage of U.S. High School Seniors who say having a Good
Marriage and Family Life is “Extremely Important,” 1980-2010
1980 1990 2000 2010
Females 80% 82% 82% 80%
Males 69% 70% 73% 72%
Source: “Monitoring the Future,” Survey Research Center, the University of Michigan, 2010.
This is remarkable when one considers how many social behaviors and opinions have changed over the past several decades. Though only 48% of U.S. households now contain a marriage (Table 1), our youth seek a future rich with marriage and family life (Table 2). What an invitation and encouragement these data offer every pastor and church leader concerned about marriage.
This article began by asking the question: How should the church respond? If we listen carefully, we will hear the answer from our nation’s youth. They are saying: We value and dream of a good marriage and family life. Please help us reach our dream. We dare not disappoint them. Let us speak up, teach, and show them that marriage matters to us as well.
Article first appeared on the Epworth Pulpit website: