Early Marriage - a solution to sexual frustration?

Growing up in the conservative evangelical subculture, my friends and I used to say that we hoped God would delay the rapture until after we had the chance to get married and have sex.  We were joking….sort of.  

Now that I’ve lost both my virginity and my belief in the rapture (got married in 2003; read Surprised by Hopein 2008), I haven’t spent much time thinking about those angst-filled years. But a recent Christianity Todayarticle entitled "The Case for Early Marriage" piqued my interest, and I thought I’d ask your opinion.

The author of the article, Mark Regnerus, wrote a similar op-ed piece for The Washington Post.  In both, Regnerus rightly notes that the average marrying age in America continues to rise, as does the average age for starting a family. In evangelical circles in which abstinence is encouraged, this creates a significant challenge, as our bodies essentially scream to engage in sex, beginning in our teens.

Writes Regnerus, “I am suggesting that when people wait until their mid-to-late 20s to marry, it is unreasonable to expect them to refrain from sex. It's battling our Creator's reproductive designs.”

His solution?  Young adult should buck the system and get married earlier…despite the fact that that early marriage is the number one predictor of divorce. (Regnerus offers some interesting perspectives on these statistics.)

It’s hard for me to form a strong opinion about this issue, as I got married at 22 and am pretty detached from the current conversation regarding singleness and sex. However, I sense that Regnerus hit on some important points that raise questions worth discussing here. Some observations:

  • When folks are hitting puberty at ages 12 and 13, but not getting married until ages 27 and 28, it does seem as though we are putting considerable physical strain on singles by asking them to abstain from sex.  Our bodies were made to have sex during these years.
  • In talking with singles, I’m hearing more of them question the biblical foundation for abstinence.  It was a different culture, they reason, one in which men and women got married at much earlier ages and under dramatically different circumstances. Perhaps it is time for religious groups to relax their expectations, they suggest.
  • On the other hand, many Christians argue that we live in a gratification-based culture, and that the solution is not to relax standards but to provide a better community for singles within in the church.  Just because abstinence is getting harder doesn’t mean it can’t be done, they say.
  • Advocating for early marriage has some appeal, but I can see where it could lead to folks getting married simply for the sake of having sex…which seems like a bad reason to get married.
  • On the other hand, expectations regarding marriage have also changed over the last 50 years. In a consumer-driven, pleasure-focused culture where marriages are often abandoned over negligible differences, we perhaps put too much effort into creating so-called “perfect matches” rather than helping couples through the ups and downs of a lifelong commitment. 

What do you think? Should Christians advocate “early marriage”? Is it too much to ask young adults to abstain from sex for ten to twelve years after puberty?

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Reader Email - Breaking the Cycle of Cynicism

Today I want to focus on an important question: How do we respond with love when we feel that the Gospel is being distorted?

The question was inspired by an email I recently received from reader.  She is a recent Christian College graduate, and from what I can tell, an intelligent and compassionate young woman. Here are some excerpts from her message to me:

I'm emailing you because I have a really hard time reading your blog. I rarely make it through two posts in a row, but not for the same reasons I might have had this problem a year ago.

I struggle with it because I find myself so frustrated with many of the same things that frustrate you. I have read your blogs and agreed in the past. The difference is, perhaps, that I've never owned the questions before. I've never been a skeptic, never been disillusioned with the Church or Christianity like I am now, and I've never struggled with cynicism about the Christian culture, so it all feels new and foreign and terrifying, like I don't know where this is coming from or who I am becoming in the process.

…I get so angry at how we treat people we disagree with and how close friends/family of mine would treat you in knowing you accept evolution. It's difficult because the post about Piper made me cry with frustration and long for the days when I read Desiring God with all the innocence and devoutness of an un-jaded 15 year old. I just get so frustrated with the bad sermons and harsh teaching and misguided theology and misplaced passion that I see all around me. I even get frustrated that I call it "misguided theology" when I don't have a Bible degree, so who am I to say?
I don't know what to do with my frustration, with my anger, with the intense emotion that springs to my eyes when I see mostly well-meaning Christians proclaiming the "truth" of Jesus which I often feel is almost a false Gospel, when I feel the censure of conservatives (wait, aren't I still a conservative? what happened?) and when I empathize with the alienated followers of Christ who don't look like everybody else. I even found myself struggling with attending church - and I've always loved church!
I guess I don't feel like I can go around and speak about Jesus and what relationship with God is all about because the more I see people who seem to "get it wrong" and who have good hearts but bad theology, good intentions and bad expressions of love....the more I become afraid that I will just become part of the problem and not the solution. I know that is putting far too much weight on my own responsibility and not recognizing the sovereignty of God and the grace that He allows us to receive and express...but it still scares the hell out of me.
I know God is sovereign, but we do damage people by our misrepresentations of His gospel and of the scandalous grace that is our lifeblood. I don't think my response is going to be silence--I don't think I could do that--but I don't want to respond by getting "stuck in cynicism" or becoming a destructive rather than constructive voice in the sphere I am in. But I have to do something with this crazy strong emotion --that urge to stand up in the middle of a sermon and contradict the pastor--that I can't seem to dismiss or deny.

How would you respond to this reader? How do we react CONSTRUCTIVELY when we feel the Gospel is being distorted by people in the Christian culture? Where do you turn when you are feeling strong emotions like these?

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A New Kind of Fundamentalist

I’ve signed my fair share of doctrinal statements through the years. I’ve recited many creeds. I’ve defended my orthodoxy by insisting that I believe Jesus is the Son of God,  that he was born of the Virgin Mary, that he died and rose again, and that he is coming again. I’ve tried to take all the right positions on all the right issues—salvation by faith, the inspiration of Scripture, the Holy Three-In-One.

But no one has ever asked me to promise to love the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength or to love my neighbor as myself.

I’ve been called a heretic for believing that God will show mercy to the un-evangelized, a “cotton-candy Christian” for being an Arminian, a liberal for accepting evolutionary theory, and a “danger” for having questions about biblical inerrancy.

But no one’s ever questioned my commitment to my faith based on my tendency to gossip, to judge, or withhold from the poor.

When I started this blog, one of my goals was to re-examine the fundamentals of my faith in the context of a changing culture and my emerging doubts about Christianity. This has led us to deconstruct and reconstruct our theologies together—sometimes debating, sometimes agreeing, sometimes not knowing exactly what to think. 

So it almost surprised me the other day when something was said about the “fundamentals of the Christian faith,” and I thought to myself—“I think I know what those are.”

Love God.

Love people.

It seems so simple and so obvious, but it took me three years of serious doubt, two years of study, an ongoing sense of skepticism, a trip to India, a blog, and a book to really figure this out for myself. I guess when you live in a town famous for “fundamentalism,” you have to sort through a lot of so-called “fundamentals” before you get to what’s most important.

When Jesus was asked about the fundamental elements of the faith, he replied with uncharacteristic directness. Referring to the celebrated Shema of Deuteronomy 6, Jesus said, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depends the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22)

When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, a story that carries extra significance when considering the fact that the Jews hated the Samaritans for their mixed Gentile blood and alternative worship style. Surely Jesus foresaw the irony of “Samaritan” becoming synonymous with kindness!

The first disciples clearly treated Christ-like love as the most fundamental part of being people of faith.

As John famously wrote:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love…No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. “ (I John 4:7,8,12)

In the days of the early church, what made someone a “true Christian” was his or her reputation for love.

Both Paul and Peter wrote that above all, we are to love (Colossians 3:14; 1 Peter 4:8). Paul said that without love, no amount of eloquence, wisdom, knowledge, prophecy, faith, charity, or sacrifice can compensate for the fact that we are little more than noisy, clanging symbols. (I Corinthians 13:1-13.) Paul encourages his readers to abide in faith, hope, and love, and adds that “the greatest of these is love.”  James wrote that “pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:27)

Love is fundamental. It’s more important than being right. It’s more important than having all our theological ducks in a row. It’s more important than any commitment to absolute truth or a particular hermeneutic or a “high view” (read: “my view”) of sovereignty or the Bible or faith or the Church.

Writes Greg Boyd, “For the church to lack love is for the church to lack everything. No heresy could conceivably be worse! Until the culture at large instinctively identifies us as loving, humble servants, and until the tax collectors and prostitutes of our day are beating down our doors to hang out with us as they did with Jesus, we have every reason to accept  our culture’s judgment of us as correct. We are indeed more pharisaic than we are Christlike.” (The Myth of a Christian Nation, p. 134-135)

What’s wrong with the church when folks like Shane Claiborne who have reputations for loving their enemies, giving without expecting anything in return, and withholding judgment can’t get speaking gigs because of their “questionable” theological positions? What’s wrong with evangelicals when surveys show that people perceive us as gay-hating, judgmental, hypocritical, and closed minded?  What’s wrong when people can get kicked out of churches for getting pregnant or being gay, but not for being unloving or prejudiced? What’s wrong when folks in theological societies scream and yell at each other over a disagreement about divine foreknowledge?

We’ve labeled all kinds of things fundamental…but we’ve left out love, which is why I think it’s time for a new kind of fundamentalism.

This, of course, raises some important questions: How does love as fundamental work itself out practically? How do we call out violations of love within the church without defeating the purpose and becoming judgmental with one another? How can we hold the church accountable?  What does love as fundamental look like in day-to-day life? How important are statements of faith and creeds? How do we foster unity where there is so much division? What does it look like to really imitate Christ in this culture, during these wars, amidst all of this wealth and privilege, despite all of our past failures? Can I  hold love as fundamental and still stay mad at John Piper? (I know the answer to that.) 

I’ve been doing a lot of deconstructing over the past few years, but now that I’ve got a new foundation, I think it’s time to start the reconstruction process.

Will you help me?

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Six Questions for John Piper

As much as I disagree with John Piper’s theology, I was sad to see the popular Reformed theologian and pastor join the ranks of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson by claiming that a natural disaster was the result of God’s wrath regarding homosexuality.

In a blog post entitled, “The Tornado, The Lutherans, and Homosexuality,” Piper confidently proclaims that the tornado that hit downtown Minneapolis yesterday was a result of divine judgment on a group of Lutherans meeting in a local church to discuss, among other things, a “social statement” that could make it easier for the church to accept homosexual unions. The tornado did significant damage to the church’s steeple.

I’m sure that the blogosphere will erupt with responses to Piper’s extraordinary claim, so I’ll try keep mine simple, with six questions to correspond with his six points.

Dr. Piper:

1. Citing the Apostle Paul, you argue that the unrepentant practice of homosexual behavior will exclude a person from the Kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Jesus said that greed will exclude a person from the kingdom of God (Luke 14:33;  Luke 18:24-25). Were inclement weather conditions to flood or destroy the Christian bookstore at the downtown campus of your mega-church, should we interpret that to be an act of God in judgment of materialism?  

2. You say that “the church has always embraced those who forsake sexual sin but who still struggle with homosexual desires.” Do you think that blaming a tornado on homosexuality is the best way to reach out to the gay community and show them the love of Jesus Christ?

3. You argue that “official church pronouncements that condone the very sins that keep people out of the kingdom of God, are evil” and then conclude that the tornado must have been God’s response to such evil. And yet Jesus said that God “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  (Matthew 5:45) Do you believe that homosexuality is so extraordinarily evil that it warrants special divine intervention while little children dying of famine and lack of water do not?

4. You claim that Jesus “controls the wind, including all tornadoes.” While the Bible includes stories in which God does alter weather conditions, such things are not always linked to divine intervention. In fact, the book of Job indicates that Satan was behind the storm that killed Job’s family…and the Gospel of Mark never states that God started the storm that Jesus calmed.  Do you believe that God orchestrates every natural disaster, and that the death and suffering that occurs is always a result of God’s wrath upon the people involved?

5. Your example of Jesus’ perspective on the tower in Siloam is a curious one, seeing as Jesus was responding to the hypocrisy of those who assumed that disasters happen to people who are “greater sinners” than they.  I am reminded of the incident in which the disciples, having been rejected by the people of a Samaritan village, asked Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”Jesus rebuked them and said, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (Luke 9:51-56)  And so I will ask you the question that Jesus asked—Do you suppose that the Lutherans meeting in that church were greater sinners than you?  Perhaps the point of Jesus’ question was not to make a general statement about natural disasters, but rather to evoke a response similar to that of the Pharisees, who after being asked a similar question, turned and dropped their stones.

6.  In  your last point, you speak on behalf of God, confidently concluding that “the tornado in Minneapolis was a gentle but firm warning to the ELCA and all of us: Turn from the approval of sin.” A wise man once said, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve…No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” (Ecclesiastes 8:14) What makes you the exception? How can you be so certain that you know exactly what God is up to in extra-biblical circumstances such as these?

Okay, so maybe I asked seven questions.

I could ask a hundred more.

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Are young evangelicals shifting loyalties?

Transient

So I just finished reading The Myth of a Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd, and absolutely loved it. It was a lot like Shane Claiborne’s Jesus for President, (probably because both authors draw heavily from Yoder’s classic, The Politics of Jesus), and it served as such a refreshing reminder of the importance of keeping the kingdom of God holy, set-apart, and distinct from the kingdoms of this world.  I think it should be required reading for all Christian college students.

Central to Boyd’s thesis is the contrast between the “power-over” approach of worldly kingdoms and the “power-under” (servant-like) approach of Jesus Christ and his followers. It’s a contrast between the power of the sword and the power of Calvary-like love, a contrast between laws that force change and actions that inspire change, a contrast between a civil religion that is little more than a Christianized version of American culture and a radically different way of living.

Writes Boyd, “this is not a simple contrast between good and evil, for, as we’ve seen, God gives the governments of the kingdoms of the world power to carry out the service of keeping law and order in a fallen world…The contrast is rather between two fundamentally different ways of doing life, two fundamentally different mindsets and belief systems, two fundamentally different loyalties.”

Boyd does a great job of debunking  common assumptions about America being a “Christian” nation, having a “Christian” history, and holding “Christian values.”  And of course he makes the case that no political party or candidate could ever embody the radical teachings of Jesus. He even criticizes former President Bush’s rhetoric about “ridding the world of evildoers” by force…a message that is completely contrary to the way of Jesus.

At the time that Boyd first presented these ideas (during the 2004 presidential election), there was a significant backlash from conservative evangelicals.  Twenty percent of Boyd’s congregation left his church.

But I’m starting to think that things are changing…particularly among young evangelicals.

For example, Zondervan lists Jesus for President as one of its best-selling books (just below The Purpose Driven Life and the Boundaries series.) That’s a good sign. Also, polls seem to indicate that young evangelicals are slowly but surely moving away from the Republican Party and are more often listing themselves as either “independent” or “unaffiliated.” Anecdotally, I know of many young adults who have expressed disenchantment with the politicization of Christianity and who recognize the importance of maintaining a separation between church and state.

I think the tide is turning. I think our loyalties are shifting.

It really inspires me to think that maybe my generation will be the one to sever the marriage between evangelicalism and politics, end the culture wars, and redirect our efforts toward feeding the hungry, helping the homeless, advocating for the helpless, pursuing racial reconciliation, supporting single moms, rejecting the seductive pull of power and violence, and earning a repuation as peacemakers.

It’s a bit strange to be this optimistic while living in a small Southern town, where religious nationalism goes unquestioned in nearly every church on Sunday morning.  But I have a feeling that if my generation can learn to make this one, vital distinction—the distinction between the power-hungry kingdoms of the world and the humble, grassroots kingdom of God—we will finally get a taste of what it really means to live counter-culturally in all the right ways.

What do you think? Are young evangelicals rejecting the “myth of a Christian nation”?  Are we going to do a better job than our parents at keeping our faith unpolluted by politics and power?

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