When Margie and Stephen Zumbrun were battling the urge to have premarital sex, a pastor counseled them to control themselves. The couple signed a purity covenant.
Then, when the two got engaged and Margie went wedding dress shopping, a salesperson called her “the bride who looks like she’s 12.” Nonchurch friends said that, at 22, she was rushing things.
The agonizing message to a young Christian couple in love: Sex can wait, but so can marriage.
“It’s unreasonable to say, ‘Don’t do anything ... and wait until you have degrees and you’re in your 30s to get married,’” said Margie Zumbrun, who did wait for sex, and married Stephen fresh out of Purdue University. “I think that’s just inviting people to have sex and feel like they’re bad people for doing it.”
Against that backdrop, a number of evangelicals are promoting marrying earlier, nudging young adults toward the altar even as many of their peers and parents are holding them back.
Questioning young marriage
Couples like the Zumbruns are caught between two powerful forces — evangelical Christianity’s abstinence culture, with its chastity balls and virginity pledges, and societal forces pushing average marriage ages deeper into the 20s.
The call for young marriage raises questions: How young is too young? What if marriage is viewed as a ticket to guilt-free sex? What about the fact that marrying young is the No. 1 predictor of divorce?
The conversation is spreading from what pastors say is a relatively small number of churches and ministries that promote early marriage to the broader evangelical community, with the latest development being a Christianity Today magazine cover story this month titled “The Case for Young Marriage.”
The article’s author, University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus, argues that evangelicals “have made much ado about sex” but are damaging the institution of marriage by discouraging and delaying it.
Marriage or abstinence
Regnerus is not saying that premarital sex is OK. But he does suggest that abstinence has its limits, and that intensifying the message won’t work. When people wait until their mid to late 20s to marry, he writes, it’s unrealistic and “battling our creator’s reproductive designs” to expect them to wait that long for sex.
Statistics show that few Americans wait. More than 93 percent of adults ages 18 to 23 who are in romantic relationships are having sex, according to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. For conservative Protestants in relationships and active in their faith, it’s almost 80 percent.
Regnerus, a conservative Presbyterian, knocks the “abstinence industry” for perpetuating “a blissful myth” that great sex awaits just beyond the wedding reception. He advises against teen marriage, but argues that early 20s marriages are not as risky as advertised.
“I’ll probably get framed as I want people to marry because I don’t want them to have premarital sex,” said Regnerus, author of “Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.”
“I think marriage is just a fantastic institution for people who think rightly about it, have realistic ideas about it and put the requisite work into it.”
The median age for first marriages in the U.S. is about 26 for women and 28 for men, the highest figures since the Census Bureau began counting. Solid data on evangelicals is not readily available, but research suggests they marry only slightly younger, Regnerus said.
Couples ask, ‘Why wait?’
High-school sweethearts Megan and Jay Mkrtschjan planned to marry at 20. But the suburban Chicago couple waited an extra year to finish college under pressure from Megan’s parents.
There were few doubts in their minds about marrying young. They had found each other. Why wait?
“For me, it was really a trust issue,” Megan said. “Marrying right out of college was showing our friends, showing the people we were acquainted with, that we trusted our lives with God.”
For Jay, a songwriter and guitarist, the “sex issue” was the best argument for early marriage. “By getting married young and dating for a shorter period of time, it leaves less room to sin sexually,” he said.
Now four years married, the Mkrtschjans say their relative youth helped them through early trials, which at one point took them down to $26 in the checking account.
“We were going through these hardships together,” said Megan, a fifth-grade teacher who owns a cake-decorating business. “It made things easier because we weren’t stuck in our ways. We were open to what each other had to say.”