Menu iconFilter Results
Topics: Book Reviews, Eikon

The Future of Christian Marriage (Book Review)

November 16, 2022
By David Talcott

Editors note: the following book review appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Eikon.

Mark Regnerus. The Future of Christian Marriage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Where is marriage headed for Christians? That is the question Roman Catholic sociologist Mark Regnerus tackles in his new book. He writes “This is a book about how modern Christians around the world look for a mate within a religious faith that esteems marriage but a world that increasingly yawns at it” (2). To answer this, he and his team interviewed 190 young Christians in seven different countries around the world. Each chapter presents stories from these interviews, which adds life to his data-driven arguments. His central contention is that the meaning of marriage has not changed, but our interest in marriage has. People generally know what marriage is, but their other beliefs and values mean that marriage increasingly takes a back seat when it comes to concrete life decisions.

His introductory chapter documents the decline of marriage around the globe. Though many of us feel this intuitively, the hard data is pretty striking. In 1980 in the Netherlands, for example, 80 percent of women in their late 20s were married or had been married. Currently? Only 20 percent. Not every nation’s decline has been that dramatic, but in every nation the movement has been in the downward direction. The question becomes, how are Christians navigating this new environment?

In the second chapter Regnerus argues that Christians’ beliefs about the nature of marriage have not changed, but our beliefs about the place of marriage within a well-lived life have changed dramatically. Based on his interviews, he concludes that young Christians around the world still correctly understand what marriage is: a lifelong union of man and woman for the sake of mutual love and children. However, marriage used to be part of the “foundation” of an adult life, as the launchpad for joint successes. Now, however, it is increasingly viewed as a “capstone,” something you enter into at the end, once all the pieces are set in place. On the latter view, marriage is a status achievement only available to people who have already been successful in life, primarily through economic stability (“a career”) and personal growth (“finding oneself” through travel, experiences, etc.). But this proves to be a high barrier to entry. Rather than think, “How can I partner with this person and together achieve financial stability and mutual, intertwined growth?” we instead think “I’m not ready for marriage yet; I haven’t done enough with my life and I’m not in a secure enough place.” Embracing the capstone model inevitably leads to delayed marriages, which can quickly turn into marriages that never happen. The fertility rate, too, will suffer since delaying childbearing into one’s thirties makes high fertility difficult to achieve. The “capstone” view has thus become a major impediment to Christian marriages and pastors should consider the extent to which the church has complacently accepted the culture’s understanding of the place of marriage in a well-lived life.

The third chapter may be the most directly relevant to discussions about complementarianism, for in it Regnerus examines how young men and women are adapting to changing expectations of male and female roles in marriage. His general argument is that as more androgyny and interchangeability creep into our idea of marriage and the sexes, the less interest in marriage we will have. More complementarianism, more marriage. More egalitarianism, less marriage.  He writes, “Where spouses are functionally interchangeable and basically independent, they simply do not need the marriage“ (67). Why would this be? He argues the more we see our potential partners as simply copies of ourselves, the less we think we have to gain by getting married. Though some may bristle, he approaches this through the “Becker Exchange Model of Marriage,” which looks at marital unions through the lens of economic analysis. In traditional marriages, men and women specialize and trade. Men focus on certain things and women focus on other things. Each gains productivity through the specialization, and thus the mutual goods are even greater in the partnership where each party specializes. Further, men and women are not identical by nature, and so the sexes have a comparative advantage over one another when it comes to certain activities (childbearing being the most obvious and unavoidable one). The upshot is this: if we think “he/she is very different from me, he/she brings something to the table which I could never bring,” we are much more likely to see the benefits of a marital union with that person. And this doesn’t have to happen only at the level of conscious thought. The old poetry of romance, driven by the complementary differences of the sexes, reflects an intuitive heart-knowledge of this same idea. Rejecting gender roles, and sex differences in general, means rejecting one of the real motivations for marriage. More androgyny, fewer marriages. One need not fully accept his “economic” analysis to see the common sense of the conclusion.

Later chapters continue to be insightful and reward a careful reader. Chapter four argues that the separation of sex from marriage and children is a significant driver in the decline of marriage. Using another “economic” analysis of sex and marriage by comparing them to “markets” (i.e. a “market for sex” and a “market for marriage”), he argues the “price of sex” is now lower due to internet pornography, greater numbers of males in prison, and contraception. The latter is crucial, he thinks, since it broadly separates sex from children, enabling sexual indulgence with reduced natural consequences. Regnerus writes, “It is a key, I hold, to understanding modern relationship dynamics” (105). It drives down the “price of sex” by substantially reducing the potential “cost” represented by unexpected pregnancies. One need not adopt the Roman Catholic view that morally condemns all contraception in order to see the point of his analysis. By dividing sex from children it becomes more practical to divide sex from marriage. By dividing sex from marriage, it becomes more practical to delay marriage to much later in life. Sex before marriage is now the norm, rather than marriage before sex. This chapter particularly builds on themes Regnerus has explored in earlier works.[1]

Given the widespread reality of premarital sex within the church, one may wonder whether Regnerus was too quick to conclude that young Christians have the right ideas about the nature of marriage. If we think as a practical matter sex isn’t going to be restricted to marriage, are we really thinking correctly about marriage? David J. Ayers of Grove City College, for instance, explores how American culture has indeed shifted ideas about marriage and sex from an ethic of “covenant” to an ethic of “consent.”[2] Doesn’t this constitute good evidence of a shift of thinking about what is and is not part of marriage? And doesn’t an intellectual shift like this better explain the behavior of so many Christians today? Regnerus would likely fall back on his interviews as evidence for his claims. When he talked with young Christians around the world, they were clear they thought of marriage as a covenant.[3] That they were unable to successfully make marriage happen is not news — Regnerus knows that well. The question is about what explains why they were unsuccessful and is that likely to change going forward? That is the goal of Regnerus’s book. Young Christians have an idealized view of the good of marriage, they know it is great and want it for their lives (eventually). But they’re having trouble getting there and they don’t see it as needful for their personal formation while still young. Is that a shift in thinking about the nature of marriage, or a shift in thinking about where marriage fits in a well-lived human life?

Readers may be inclined to bristle at the idea of doing an “economic analysis” of love and marriage the way that Regnerus does in chapters three and four. But Regnerus is clear that the economic is simply a limited model, not intended to tell the full story. His opening and closing chapters make clear he is not reducing love to a rational business transaction. Given that marriage was ordained for “the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity,” economic realities inevitably enter into the analysis of marriage.[4] Given the huge economic partnership involved in forming a common household, raising children, supporting the weak and needy, and the many other economically significant functions carried on by husband and wife, economics will inevitably have something to contribute to our understanding of marriage. The economic modeling is in large part merely helping us see the pre-economic reality behind the model.

One place where readers may more justly quibble with Regnerus comes early in the work in chapter two. There he partially blames the decline of marriage in the West on the Protestant Reformation, which moved marriage from the ecclesiastical to the civil realm.[5] But Protestants had good reasons for doing so: 1) Marriage is a natural institution, not just a Christian one, and so it is properly regulated by the state and not just the church; 2) Marriage had been devalued in the late medieval church in favor of an emphasis on celibacy and virginity; and 3) Allowing marriage to be privately contracted, like other contracts, led to many conflicts, with one party saying they had vowed marriage and the other saying they hadn’t, etc. So having a formal, public means of contracting marriage proves to be very helpful. But this sort of historical speculation is a rare side-trail in the book, the majority of which is wise and helpful in an age of marital trouble such as our own.

In the final chapter, Regnerus asks the question whether Christians are distinguishing themselves from the culture or getting swept along with the culture. The former he calls the “Embattled and Thriving” model, in which a moral minority has a strong self-identity and maintains that identity in the face of moral opposition from the broader culture. The latter he calls the “Moral Communities” model, in which the moral minority is drawn along with the influence of the moral majority. When it comes to Christians and marriage, we are far more “pushed along” than “standing firm.” Thus, Regnerus concludes his book somewhat pessimistically, writing “fewer people are marrying, and I expect that pattern to accelerate rather than slow, at least for a time” (191).

In the past, American culture and cultures around the world were more strongly family-oriented. Regnerus cites Carl Zimmerman’s 1947 book Family and Civilization and its description of “familism,” a system in which the existence and well-being of the family is balanced with and integral to the well-being of individuals. But, over the past century there has occurred a movement away from familism towards more atomistic views of human beings, weakening the cultural support for marriage and family. Thus, again, his reasons for a moderate pessimism. Regnerus has,

weaker confidence the average young adult Christian will resist those forces — described in the earlier chapters of this book — that appear to weaken marriage and emaciate family life. It’s not that Christian teaching will change much. It won’t. It’s just that many Christians themselves have become moral libertarians — content to live and let live (211).

Christians who want to maintain a pro-marriage culture in their churches and communities will have to be much more intentional in creating a genuine counter-culture. Regnerus thinks there will be pockets where marriage flourishes, but they will be unique, thick communities. He predicts that a minority of Christian young people,

will continue to thwart cultural pressures. Almost always these resisters are deeply embedded in religious communities — small groups, tight-knit congregations, or religious subcommunities. These are the sources of vibrant marital subcultures and will stand out from the surrounding culture. But do not overestimate their size (211).

Marriage is a natural reality. It was established by God in the garden and man can refashion it only within certain limits. The need for pastors, Regnerus argues, is not to argue for a specific “vision” of marriage against the culture, but rather “they simply need to stably assert what marriage is, and what it will continue to be” (211). Marriage is what God has created it to be, we simply need to reassert it and foster counter-cultural communities where we can live it.

Overall, Regnerus’s work offers great insight for pastors, youth leaders, professors, and others who are in a position of helping young Christians navigate this new world.

[1] Mark Regnerus, Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy, Oxford University Press, 2017, Mark Regenerus and Jeremy Uecker, Premarital Sex in America, Oxford University Press, 2011, and Mark Regnerus, Forbidden Fruit, Oxford University Press, 2009.

[2] See David J. Ayers, Sex and the Single Evangelical, Lexham Press, 2022, Ch. 2. Other works also explore a shift to a more consent-based ethic. See, for example O. Carter Snead, What it Means to be Human: The case for the Body in Public Bioethics, Harvard University Press, 2020.

[3] See a large number of examples that Regnerus brings forward in Chapter Two, particularly pages 32-34.

[4] “Form of the Solemnization of Matrimony,” The 1662 Book of Common Prayer International Edition, IVP Academic, 2021.

[5] See page 26 for this argument.

Did you find this resource helpful?

You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.

Donate Today