By Jenny Tyree Knowles
What would change if the reasoned case for marriage was examined and taught to young adults, rather than implied and “caught”?
The result of millennials (Americans born between 1981 and 2000) “catching” the cultural importance of marriage is playing out right now. Polls show that the broad majority of millennials support the redefinition of marriage. When the talking heads predict the future of marriage, they point to the current opinions of millennials to tell us that the redefinition of marriage is inevitable.
So how will the church respond? What is at stake?
Some believe it is only a matter of time until every church will have to declare its stance on marriage. Al Mohler, popular Evangelical blogger and president of the Southern Baptist Convention, predicts this issue will separate the sheep from the goats.
In June of last year, Mohler wrote on his blog that there is no “third way” for churches. “A church will recognize same-sex relationships, or it will not. A congregation will teach a biblical position on the sinfulness of same-sex acts, or it will affirm same-sex behaviors as morally acceptable. Ministers will perform same-sex ceremonies, or they will not.”
In light of this prediction, how is the church preparing millennials who will soon be in positions of church leadership?
Default, Not Decision
While the polls are not encouraging, there is reason to believe millennial support for marriage redefinition is by default rather than informed decision. In a recent article, Ryan T. Anderson, a marriage scholar, speaker at the Heritage Foundation, and coauthor of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, writes that for many Americans, the case for marriage “hasn’t been heard and rejected; it simply hasn’t been heard.”
Anderson says when he speaks to college students and makes the case for one-man, one-woman marriage, Christian students tell him they know the truth about marriage in their hearts, but lack the verbal tools to defend it. Non-Christians tell Anderson they have never heard the rational case for marriage.
My experience with such students is similar to Anderson’s. While working for CITIZENLink (the advocacy arm for Focus on the Family), I often discussed marriage with student groups. Tellingly, students from nearby secular colleges often started our conversation by asking why CITIZENLink wanted to “keep gay couples apart.” They seemed surprised to hear that the purpose of marriage in law has everything to do with bringing children into legal relationship with their biological parents and nothing to do with romance.
On the other hand, Christian college students I spoke with held a biblical view of marriage, but did not know how to advocate its value and purpose to someone who did not share their Christian worldview.
Lauryn, a junior psychology major at Harding University, told me how she “caught” her marriage views from her Christian parents and her home church because “the biblical example was always there.” She related that she and her friends at college personally affirm biblical marriage, but engaging peers on the subject is difficult.
“Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram play a huge part in how we get our information, and the stuff that pops up is from friends who are pro same-sex marriage,” she said. “No one wants to post anything pro-marriage because they know they will be attacked.”
She said she cheers for her teachers when they talk about marriage, but doesn’t know how comfortable she would be making an argument herself. “In high school it was hard being the only Christian against same-sex marriage,” she said.
It is standard for churches and Christian colleges to teach young people the biblical view of marriage, and to help students make wise decisions for their own marriages. For example, several courses at Ozark Christian College address marriage, but the focus is on marriage practice within the church.
Psychology Professor Dr. Gary Zustiak said some courses will discuss current events and “how a Christian should respond to any sociological or political pressure to redefine marriage,” but he sees more value in teaching “the correct view of marriage from a biblical standpoint, and all the benefits of this position, rather than spending time teaching why other positions are wrong.”
Beside Biblical Understanding
Of course, the case for marriage does not depend only on a biblical understanding. When he talks about marriage, Bruce Hausknecht, judicial analyst for Focus on the Family, often clarifies how “state interests are different from the church’s, but they cooperate with God’s design. The state is rational,” Hausknecht says. “It wants to promote, reward, and incentivize marriage because it helps the state. The citizens that cost the state the least amount of money are those raised by a married mom and dad.”
These statements could be taken from Political Science 101, but they proved enlightening to Lauryn, the Harding University student. “I’ve never really thought about, or been thoroughly educated about the benefits of marriage,” she told me. Her response isn’t really a surprise considering that the millennial generation has grown up in a culture promoting marriage as an emotional union centered on the changing desires and feelings of adults.
If Lauryn’s comments and those of the student groups are representative of their church-raised peers, then they have effectively caught the value of marriage. It’s a job well done by parents, pastors, home congregations, and Christian college professors. But to change the direction of a marriage culture that was unraveling even before the attempts to redefine it, it’s going to take something more.
Beyond Church Walls
Who is going to teach millennials the societal value of marriage, and how to defend it, beyond the church walls? After all, the millennial generation has not witnessed—as previous generations have—the stability of whole communities with mother-father homes. They must learn what was once commonly understood.
Equipping young adults to make the case for marriage will require teaching beyond the church pulpit on Sundays. It will require that they understand why marriage exists, the integral relationship between stable marriages and thriving churches and communities, the many benefits children of married parents enjoy, and the reasons why marriage should be defended in our country’s laws. They must understand that loving those who practice homosexuality doesn’t require that marriage be redefined.
We can continue to hope that teaching and living out the biblical view of marriage will be enough, but why would we give up an opportunity to have a greater influence? Advancing the civic value of marriage is not an imposition on our culture. It’s one of the answers we offer to a relationally fragmented society.
Hausknecht connects the need to actively defend marriage to the biblical call to spread the gospel. “This country was founded so we could freely share religious views in the public square,” he says. And when we defend the value of marriage in society, we do it “so the gospel can go forward without hindrance. We are defending our right to be the gospel.”
In addition to sharing the saving message of Jesus Christ, our right to be the gospel allows us to influence our culture and its policies. Our inaction will also influence. “It’s a necessity now,” Hausknecht says. “If they can get you to compromise your beliefs on an issue like marriage, then how can the church possibly speak truth to the culture about anything?” So much hinges on future church leaders understanding the full value of marriage.
There is no “third way,” according to Mohler. Put another way, marriage will not be successfully compromised. If marriage is redefined in law away from its purpose of connecting women and men to each other and to their children, it will be weakened to the point of collapse. If people of faith do not step into the gap to be missionaries of marriage and sexual integrity to a culture that desperately needs the message, what will stop the unraveling? The answer is certainly not a government policy or court decision.
The pro-life movement’s endeavor to change hearts and minds and laws is instructive to anyone who cares about the future of marriage. We’ve seen the gains, losses, and change in momentum in the nearly 42 years since the Roe v. Wade decision. Will there be a similar movement for marriage? The only thing we know for sure is that nothing will change if people of faith hold back.
Jenny Tyree Knowles is a freelance writer living in Joplin, Missouri. Before moving to Joplin, she worked for Focus on the Family for 10 years and as a marriage analyst for CITIZENLink for five years.