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 have been 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 far later than previous generations. Fifty years ago, the average age of marriage for young Americans was in the very early 20s. Now, it is trending closer to age 30.
Why is this important to us all? Because a secure and functional culture requires the establishment of stable marriages and the nurturing of families. Without healthy marriages and family life as a foundation, no 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 creature made in His own image.
Cohabitation is replacing marriage
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” (Genesis 2:24). That 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 leads to marriage in most cases.
Andrew Cherlin of Johns 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 magazine story actually pointed to yet another worrying pattern — millennials having children outside of marriage at astounding rates.
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.
God has a better plan
Delaying adulthood is not consistent with a biblical vision of life, and for most Christians who are young, marriage should be a central part of planning for adulthood and faithfulness to Christ. As husband and wife achieve adulthood together, 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. When Time magazine is concerned about Americans not getting married, Christians must be doubly concerned.
Young Americans, and that includes 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, who faced 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.
Dr. Albert Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of several books, including We Cannot Be Silent.