A Message to Millennials about Marriage

 Photo by  Hermes Rivera  on  Unsplash

Photo by Hermes Rivera on Unsplash

A few years ago, the Pew Research Center published the results of a survey: Millennials in Adulthood. Bradford Wilcox has a summary in the NRO. According to the study, Millennials have become disconnected from some basic institutions: marriage, church, and work—though not in exactly the same way in each instance. In response, I thought it might be helpful to address Millennials (aged 18–34) directly on these issues.

According to Pew (via Wilcox),

Only 26 percent of Millennials are married, a record low for their age group. By contrast, back in 1980, when they were the age that Millennials are now, 48 percent of Baby Boomers were married. The Millennial retreat from marriage is particularly worrisome because it hasn’t stopped many of them from having children. In 2012, 47 percent of births to Millennial women took place outside marriage, a troubling trend because such children are much more likely to end up in single-parent families that put them at higher risk of educational failure, poverty, and emotional distress.

Millennials seem to have given up on marriage.

In their defense, a Millennial might argue, “We’re just being consistent. The Boomers showed us that marriage is a joke. They gave us ‘no-fault’ divorce, the Gen-Xers were a half-way house, and we’re consistent. We spent our youths shuttling between angry and disappointed parents. Why would we want that for ourselves and our children?” Fair enough. The Boomers could argue that their parents, “the Greatest Generation” (World War II) were trapped in cold, stifling marriages that made a mockery of true love and romance. There’s probably some truth in that characterization, but most of the (now aging) Boomers were raised in stable, two-parent households whose greatest mistake was spoiling their children in reaction to wartime deprivation. We could go back to the Dustbowl Generation and fault them for giving up on the fundamental convictions that undergirded the institution of marriage. The sins of one generation reverberate through history to the next and the next.

So, the Millennials are not entirely at fault. They are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of previous generations who weakened the institution of marriage. Still, are the Millennials right to give up on marriage? No. Why? Because God instituted marriage for a reason. In this fallen world, nothing will ever be perfect. One of the more basic reasons that we’ve lost faith in marriage as an institution is that we have been sold a bill of goods about what is possible in this life. The Christian faith has a vision of the future, of how things will be one day. We call that vision “eschatology” or “the doctrine of last things” or “of ultimate things.” Despite what you may have heard and read, this life is not the “ultimate thing.” This life is a penultimate (next to last) thing.

The world has offered us cheap replacements for Christian doctrine.

Modernity has offered us a series of competing visions of heaven on earth: Marxism (when the proletariat are in charge), Romanticism (when we’re all experiencing the most sublime experiences), and so on. They’re all cheap replacements for the Christian doctrine of judgment and glorification. The problem with these competing visions of the end is that they have inflated expectations about what is possible in this life. One advantage the older (pre-Boomer) generations had is that they tended to expect a little less from this world and so weren’t as easily disappointed. The life of the Dust Bowl generation was more like that of the Founding Fathers than it was like ours. They were still getting used to electricity. They likely couldn’t imagine a world where we expected a new pocket telephone-television-computer every twelve months. The computerized technological revolution has only fueled those visions of what is possible in this life that tend to make mundane, routine, and ordinary life seem inherently bound for failure.

Marriage is still a divine institution given to us from God.

So, why should you, Millennial, re-think your suspicion of the institution of marriage? That’s a fair question. The first part of the answer is, despite all the corruption and effects (and affects) of the fall, marriage is still a divine institution. It is built into the nature of things. Scripture says,

Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” …The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So Yahweh Elohim caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Yahweh Elohim had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”
Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed. (Gen. 2:18, 20–25; Revised from the ESV)

Marriage was instituted before the fall. Even before the fall it was not good for us to be alone. The human fall into sin brought with it deception, broken relationships, and pain, but after the fall there was something else: mercy and grace. Though he did bring to pass the threatened curse for our covenant breaking (death), God also showed mercy in not destroying us. He showed mercy in restraining the effects of the fall. As bad as things have sometimes been in this world (e.g., the Black Death of the 14th century), they’ve never been as bad as they might be. God’s restraining mercies toward his rebellious creatures do make a difference.

Marriage is still good—both for believers and unbelievers.

As part of his restraining mercy, God continues to make marriage a good that men and women are intended to share. As a young Christian, I once thought that marriage must only be for believers, but a dear friend gently pointed out that heterosexual marriage (which should be redundant but must be made explicit in our confused age) is for all of God’s image bearers. Even to non-Christians, marriage points back to the original state and to a future state. At its best, it is a witness that things have not always been this way and shall not always be as they are.

Beyond the restraint of evil, from which all humans benefit, he also showed undeserved favor to rebellious humans by promising deliverance from the judgment we had brought upon ourselves. We call that undeserved favor grace. God promised to pour out his last days (eschatological) wrath upon the child of the Eve, and that child would conquer the Evil One, who, in God’s mysterious and all-wise and utterly good providence, had introduced corruption into the world (Gen. 3:14–16).

Christian marriage is a signpost to believers of the way Christ loves his church.

The apostle Paul, who himself was a widower, said that Christian marriage is a signpost to believers of the way Christ loves his church. Reflecting on the very institution of marriage that we saw in Genesis 2, Paul says:

This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:32–33 ESV)

The second part of the answer is that, despite all appearances, marriage is still good. Marriages are complicated and messy. Your own experience of your parents’ marriage may have been quite blessed or perhaps not. Whatever your experience, you should be a little skeptical of the story the mass media has been telling about marriage and divorce. Things are bad, but they aren’t quite as bad as they are made to seem on TV. There are good marriages out there. It’s not true that you have only a 50% chance of staying married. The statistical likelihood of your marriage surviving is much greater than 50% (here’s a summary).

God is good. Despite what you’ve been told, creation (though fallen) is good too. Marriage is one of those creational goods in which God intends for most of us to participate.[1] I know you’re nervous. That’s okay. I know that most of your friends don’t seem interested in marriage. That’s unfortunate, but they’re confused and misinformed. A million Frenchmen can be wrong. Your desire for sexual union with someone of the opposite sex is normal, and it needs to be ordered in the divinely intended way.

In the next post “A Message to Millennials about Church,” we’ll look at another institution that can help you with this one.


R. Scott Clark is professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California) and the author of Recovering the Reformed Confession (P&R, 2008).

This article by R. Scott Clark was first published at https://heidelblog.net/2014/03/messages-to-millennials-1-marriage/.

 

[1] Singleness is a gift from God (1 Cor. 7:8), but it is the exception rather than the rule. If God has called you to singleness, then praise God. If not, praise God but please don’t confuse fear and uncertainty about the future for a call to singleness.

Related Article: 6 Things to Do If You Want to Be Married—and Aren't Yet

Recommended: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller