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Adulthood is not just a function of age—it is an achievement. Throughout human history, young people have aspired to achieve adulthood and have worked hard to get there. The three nearly universal marks of adulthood in human societies include marriage, financial independence, and readiness for parenthood. Now, the very concept of adulthood is in jeopardy.
Study after study reveals that young Americans are achieving adulthood, if at all, far later than previous generations now living. The average age of marriage for young Americans fifty years ago was in the very early twenties. Now, it is trending closer to age thirty.
Why is this important to us all? A stable and functional culture requires the establishment of stable marriages and the nurturing of families. Without a healthy marriage and family life as foundation, no lasting and healthy community can long survive.
Clearly, our own society reveals the delay of marriage and its consequences, but we are hardly alone. Many European nations display similar patterns of delayed adulthood, with ominous economic, political, and social implications.
For Christians, however, the issue is never merely sociological or economic. The primary issue is moral. When most of us think about morality, we think first of ethical rules and commandments, but the Christian worldview reminds us that the first moral concern is always what the Creator expects of us as His human creatures, the only creatures made in His own image.
The Bible affirms the concept of marriage as a central expectation for humanity. As early as the second chapter in the Bible we read: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).
Now, that reality is becoming more and more rare. In the larger society, cohabitation without marriage is increasingly the norm, but even secular observers note that cohabitation no longer even leads to marriage in most cases. Andrew Cherlin of John Hopkins University recently told Time magazine that most cohabiting relationships among young people in the United States are short term. This is not cohabiting before marriage; it is cohabiting instead of marriage.
The Time story also pointed to another worrying pattern: millennials are having children outside of marriage at astounding rates.
Furthermore, several years ago, W. Bradford Wilcox, relying on research conducted by Robert Wuthnow, argued that the delay of marriage is a primary driver of secularization. This goes hand in hand with the fact that the extension of adolescence comes with vast and often unnoticed effects. Adulthood is meant for adult responsibilities, and for the vast majority of young people, that will mean marriage and parenthood. The extension of adolescence into the twenties (and even the thirties) is highly correlated with the rise of secularism and with lower rates of church attendance.
Christians understand that we were created as male and female to demonstrate the glory of God, and that we were given the gift of marriage as the singular context for which God designed the sexual gift and granted us the privilege and command of having and raising children. For all these reasons and more, Christians must understand that, unless given the calling of celibacy, Christians should honor marriage and seek to marry and to move into parenting and the full responsibilities of adulthood earlier rather than later in life.
Delaying adulthood is not consistent with a biblical vision of life, and for most young Christians, marriage should be a central part of planning for young adulthood and faithfulness to Christ. As husband and wife achieving adulthood together, young Christians serve as a witness of God’s plan and God’s gift before a confused world.
Christians understand that sex before and outside of marriage is simply not an option. Cohabiting is inconsistent with obedience to Christ. Children are God’s gifts to be received and welcomed within the marriage covenant.
Tellingly, secular authorities in the culture are now expressing worry about the delay of marriage among young Americans. When Time magazine is concerned about young Americans not getting married, Christians must be doubly concerned.
Young Americans, and that includes young Christians, face some very real challenges in moving toward full adulthood, and there is no question that economic factors play a part. But even secular observers understand that a shift in marriage points to an underlying shift in morality. The blunt fact is that previous generations of young adults, facing even greater economic challenges, still found their way to adulthood and marriage.
The Christian church must encourage young Christians toward the goal of marriage and must be clear about the necessity of holiness and obedience to Christ at every stage and in every season of life. When the world around us is scratching its head, asking what has happened to marriage, Christians must display the glory of God in marriage and all that God gives to us in the marital covenant.
And we must encourage young Christians not to delay marriage, nor to marry in haste, but to make marriage a priority in the critical years of young adulthood. In that cause, we have no time to wait.