Friday, October 20, 2006

Marriage, RIP

Dr Ray Pritchard cites a Seattle Times article claiming, based on US Census statistics, that households headed by a married couple had fallen to less than 50% of total US households. A few numbers demonstrate the trend:

1930: 84%
1990: 56%
2006: 49.7%
The Times article quotes Steve Watters, director of young adults for Focus on the Family, as saying that "the trend of fewer married couples was more a reflection of delaying marriage than rejection of it." Nonetheless, as the article states, "A growing number of adults are spending more of their lives single or living unmarried with partners, and the potential social and economic implications are profound."

Profound isn't the half of it. This is the iceburg ripping into the hull of the Titanic.

Prichard discusses challenges for the Church to minister to the increasingly diverse groups of non-married people, rather than focusing on married families and having on the side a generic "singles" ministry. These challenges are certainly real and Prichard's suggestions are generally good, but don't address the implications of the social changes reflected by these statistics. Watters appears (in the single quote reported) to be attempting to minimize the issue. Marriage is only being delayed, not rejected. This seems better; in truth, it's almost as bad.

What we're seeing here is something that God designed and intended to function together as an organic whole being dissected into its constituent parts: marriage, parenthood, sexuality, and the image of God. The first social relationship ever entered into was created specifically by God. Here's the narrative:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it...."The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."... So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man." For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.... Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all the living.... Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, "With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man." Later she gave birth to his brother Abel.... When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And when they were created, he called them "man." When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. (Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18, 21-25; 3:20; 4:1; 5:1-3 NIV)

The elements of marriage, sexuality, parenthood, and the image of God are all woven together in this fabric. Marriage is quite simply the fundamental social relationship; it is the first one in existence; it is the only one, in this narrative, that is allowed to trump prior family ties. It is the context in which sexuality occurs; it is the context in which parenthood occurs; it reflects the image of God (the relationship among the members of the Trinity) and transmits that image to the children. The metaphor of threads woven together into a fabric doesn't really do it justice: it's more like the separate organs of a living, breathing, multifaceted organism designed by God and given to us.

Our society is taking this living, organic being and inexorably ripping it into its constituent parts, in the naive assumption that the patient will survive the operation. Why should marriage ("a piece of paper") be necessary if two people are truly in love? Why should marriage be permanent? Why should sexuality be reserved only for marriage? Why should pregnancy be a necessary consideration for sexuality? Why should parenthood be reserved for married couples? Why should any of this be affected by a person's religious beliefs?

The fact that marriage is only being delayed, not denied, doesn't mean that sexuality is being delayed. The sad fact is that this is true even within the church--and everyone knows it. God calls some people to singleness. I'm not arguing against that, and we need to have more respect and honor for those who have been called to that life. But He calls people to celibate singleness, for a purpose; not a prolonged indulgent adolescence in which sexual relationships are repeatedly entered into and ended. We don't recognize what we're doing to ourselves when we live like that: repeatedly creating and ripping apart a one-flesh bond that God intended to last throughout our lives. When couples who have prolonged singleness (but not sexuality) finally do get married, how do they make the shift into a new mode of life, in which this relationship is different, this one will last forever? The sad truth is that often they never do. Statistics show that people who live together before marriage have a 50% or more higher chance of divorce than those who do not; this is true whether it is the cohabitating couple who marry one another or people who have cohabitated with one or more other people before marriage.

The consequences are not merely individual. Married couples and parents have a vested interest in providing for one another and for their children; when these relationships break up, that vested interest breaks down (hence "deadbeat dads") and more children grow up in poverty, more must be provided for by the state or charitable organizations. Parents have a vested interest in caring for their own children and usually do without payment a better job than paid child care. Children who grow up in intact families tend to have a greater sense of security than those who grow up without two parents in the home, and tend to have fewer social adjustment problems; it is likely that the current trend toward deferred marriage is at least in part a result of increasing numbers of children of divorce or single parenthood entering adulthood without having had successful marriages modeled for them, and understandably being anxious about entering into such a significant commitment. Marriage and the nuclear family have been called the building block of civilization; I suspect that's not far off the mark.

Just so this post is not misunderstood, I am not taking a position against birth control, or against sex for purposes other than reproduction, or against divorce in all circumstances, or condemning every instance of single parenthood, or advocating very young marriage. The Bible itself places limits on some of these principles; with regard to some there are other social factors to take into account; and some are issues on which honest and sincere believers can disagree.

My point is simply a lament for the inexorable destruction of something God gave to us as a precious gift. He gave us a fundamental human relationship that provided the context, and much of the transcendent meaning, for sexuality and parenthood. I am blessed with a wonderful marriage and family, and I wish that everyone who doesn't specifically have a gift of celibate singleness could know the joy that marriage and family can be. It saddens me that so many people, even believers, don't have that. It saddens me more that so many have given up on it before ever giving it a chance.

HT: Smart Christian. For much worthwhile information and statistics on the topic of divorce, see the statistics page of the Divorce Reform Page.

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