Any time I meet someone new, whether they be a guest at work or a friend of a friend, as soon as they find out that I am married there is a 90 percent chance that I will be asked “Aren’t you a little young to be married?” Now many who ask me this question are genuinely interested in my story, such as why we chose to get married so young. But there is a certain strain of person who asks me this question condescendingly, with that half-smirk so common amongst the particularly enlightened members of our society. These men (it is so rarely a woman) pose the question already knowing the answer: Of course I’m far too young to be married! And I always respond to this question from these people the same way: “Says who?”
Now I know what you’re thinking. “Don’t be so juvenile, Johnny. After all, you are quite a bit younger than the average married couple.” But this isn’t a juvenile question at all, it’s a very serious inquiry. Without a clear understanding of what the standards are for marriage we cannot answer questions like “what is marriage?” and “who is marriage for?” or “is there an optimal age to get hitched?” So the question “says who?” is one of authority: Who defines a marriage?
Now I have had various and sundry answers to this question, but most boil down to this: Marriage is primarily defined by the desires of the self. This is not surprising. We’ve been culturally catechized by everyone from The Beatles to Taylor Swift to Eminem to Kanye West to Justin Bieber that love, relationships, and interaction is primarily about me, myself, and I. Our culture has perverted love from being a verb — a giving of oneself for the good of another person — to being primarily a feeling — the biochemical high I get from being near someone attractive. Even worse, love and lust have become synonymous. And if marriages are based on this definition of love, of course I’m far too young to be married. After all, I haven’t had enough sexual partners to know what I really like in the bedroom. And I haven’t known my wife long enough to know for sure that she’s not going to contradict my personal preferences at some point down the line.
And maybe I am relatively young, but I’ve realized something: The world doesn’t revolve around me. This is why I don’t seek to redefine marriage to suit my preferences. Marriage is not a casual relationship I can cast off in divorce if I don’t like how it’s going. It’s not an institution I can disregard by participating in sexual activity outside of the marriage bed. Marriage is not about finding a mate who caters to our every whim. Marriage is about finding someone to love — not shallow pop-song love, but to truly love them every day in the giving of ourselves to and for them. It’s a formative relationship, maturing both individuals in the relationship. It’s the foundation of the family unit, preparing the way for children.
And so we meet with two opposing views of marriage. The first, marriage is about who I am and what I want. It’s my right to marry who I want, when I want, without question (except, ironically, when you’re as young as I am). Marriage can be between whoever, for whatever amount of time, and it can end for whatever reason. You’ll notice that this definition of marriage rests squarely on the shoulders of each individual. We could call this relativistic marriage.
The second view, and the view I hold to adamantly, is that marriage is not about me getting what I want but about giving someone what they need. Marriage is a responsibility to which I am called, not a right that I demand. Marriage is about serving others, not about being served. Marriage is not primarily about love as a rush of chemicals to the head, but about love as an action word. On this view, the definition of marriage rests beyond us, in something greater than us. I would point to Ephesians 5:25 which paints marriage as a picture of the love of Christ and His Church. We could thus call this revealed marriage.
On the first view, I admit, young marriage doesn’t make much sense. I doubt anyone could argue that the best way to serve their sexuality or independence would be by getting married young. But I would submit that the first view of marriage as defined by the self is deeply flawed. And, on the second view, because marriage is not about me or my desires but about best serving God, my wife, my future children, and my community, young marriage becomes just as normative and advisable (if not more so, in some cases) than later marriages.
Because relativistic marriage holds that marriage is ultimately defined by our expectations, desires, and ideals, and because these things vary from person to person, on the first view the word “marriage” actually becomes meaningless, simply because it means too much. It is very interesting then to hear someone who holds this view of marriage condescendingly question my age. After all, why shouldn’t I get married young, especially if it makes me happy? This instinct belies the fact that ultimately, people recognize the truth of revealed marriage even if they prefer relativistic marriage. People inherently understand that for marriage to mean anything it must mean a specific kind of thing; they even have a vague idea of what that kind of thing is. But we reject revealed marriage because it means that this specific kind of thing will not necessarily be what we wish it would be — it’s easier just to remake marriage as we would have it, rather than as it is.
But if marriage is primarily a formative, others-centered relationship of active love, does it make sense to enter into such a relationship at a young age? Of course it does. First, the sooner any character building event takes place in life, the deeper the character that is built. If in my marriage I will experience a depth of maturation that only this kind of relationship produces, why wait? Second, if marriage is about children, family, and society, then by entering into a young marriage my wife and I will have more opportunity to mature and prepare ourselves as parents. Young marriage allows us to prepare to raise a family together, rather than risking a child out of wedlock or having less time to prepare for children once we’re married later in life. And finally, and most importantly, marriage iconifies Christ and His Church. As such, it is a strong cause of spiritual formation and maturation, through which the Father forms us ever more into the image of His Son.
I will probably deal with this question for the rest of my life. And each time I am asked, I will challenge the premise that there’s such a thing as “young” marriage. What do you think?