Males as young as 17 should already be thinking about marriage, a Southern Baptist leader said on a recent Campus Crusade for Christ radio program, calling it a "sin" for adults to purposely postpone getting hitched.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler told a single adult gathering in January that it is sinful for adults to put off marriage as "a lifestyle option."
The talk-radio program "Family Life Today" on June 22 played a portion of Mohler's recorded speech at the 2004 New Attitude Conference in Louisville, Ky., sponsored by Sovereign Grace Ministries and hosted by Joshua Harris, a pastor in Gaithersburg, Md., and author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
"The sin that I think besets this generation…is the sin of delaying marriage as a lifestyle option among those who intend someday to get married but they just haven't yet," Mohler said, according to a webcast of the radio program and as reported by Baptist Press.
Mohler cited statistics showing the average marrying age for white males to be 28 and for white females about 26. A century earlier the average male was married by 20 and the average female between 18 and 20.
As a result of that shift, Mohler said, "We have created this incredible span of time where sexual passion is ignited but there is no holy means for it to be fulfilled."
He said a trend toward putting off marriage until their late 20s makes men, in particular, more vulnerable to lust.
"Guys, you know how tough it is to live with this," Mohler said. "From the time you were very, very young when sexual maturity came to you there is in you a drive and a passion that does not long sleep. It is going to be for you an occasion to sin or an occasion to get serious about getting married."
"Now if you're 13 or 14 don't go to the middle school and pop the question," he said. "But where in that young man's life is there someone to say 'I'm in there with you. God's calling you to be a husband, God's making you to be a father, and let's figure out how by God's grace to get you there holy?'"
"If you're 17, 18, 19, 20 or in your early 20s," Mohler said, "What are you waiting for?"
"I don't mean to get married this weekend," he said. "I mean to look for the spouse God has given you."
Mohler said men are most often guilty of the "sin of waiting" but it affects women too.
"Sometimes this sin is shared also by women who think they will put off being a wife and a mother until they can establish their professional identity: 'I want to do this for myself before I would turn to marry,'" Mohler said. "I would beg you to rethink all that. What is the ultimate priority God has called us to? In heaven, is the crucible of our saint-making going to have been done through our jobs? I don't think so. The Scripture makes clear that it will be done largely through our marriages."
Mohler said the problem is compounded by a "boy culture" in which males are not encouraged to grow up into men.
"Guys, the reality is that God has given us a responsibility to lead, to take responsibility as a man," he said. That includes having a job, Mohler said, but it also means "taking the leadership to find a godly wife and to marry her and to be faithful to her in every way and to grow up to be a man who is defined as husband and by God's grace we pray eventually as father."
Mohler said the "corruption of delay" can take its toll when couples postpone marriage. "The longer you wait to get married the more habits and lifestyle patterns you will have that will be difficult to handle in marriage," he said.
While many marriages that start well into adulthood work, Mohler advised, "If you are yet young, I want to exhort you to think of marriage not as something that is out there on the horizon but as one of the nearest responsibilities you face."
"Get serious about this," he said. "Understand this is a matter of accountability. Understand that delay can equal disobedience."
Radio show co-host Bob Lepine joked that Mohler "gets a little countercultural" in introducing the taped segment.
The other co-host, Dennis Rainey, who spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference in 2003, said he hadn't heard Mohler's comments before but he agreed that churches today maintain a "spiritual nursery" of Christians who refuse to mature and that many women are "selling their lives out to the corporate mandate."
Despite warm response from the conference crowd, Mohler's message doesn't appear to be backed up by statistics. Researchers say marriages are statistically more stable when they begin no earlier than the mid 20s.
The Centers for Disease Control says first marriages are far more likely to fail if the wife is a teenager when she marries than if she is at least 20.
The CDC said 48 percent of marriages by women under 18 are disrupted by either divorce or separation within the first 10 years of marriage. The percentage drops to 40 percent when brides were 18 or 19, to 29 percent for women who marry at ages 20-24 and 24 percent for women who marry for the first time at 25 or older.
"Higher age at first marriage is associated with longer marital durations," according to the 2001 report.
"The statistics indicate that early marriages—particularly in the teen years—are much more likely to end in divorce than later marriages, contrary to President Mohler's assertion," said Diana Garland, director of Baylor University's center for family and community ministries. "Yet I wouldn't say that everyone should avoid early marriage any more than I would agree with President Mohler's statement that delaying marriage creates the occasion for sin."
"No one is a statistic," Garland said. "The Apostle Paul talked about celibacy as a gift for some, and even a preferable lifestyle. And Paul had it right; different ones have different gifts and callings in their lives. It is dangerous to assert formulaic answers for what God's will is for others without knowing their life paths and gifts. For some that will be early marriage, for some later marriage, and for others, singleness."
Mohler, whose 21st wedding anniversary is Friday, was going on 24 when he was married, following a three-year "long distance" courtship while he was in seminary and his future wife finished her studies at Samford University.
In a Southern Seminary Magazine article last year, Mary Mohler said she and Al knew each other since they were children but didn't date until the year before he graduated from Samford and went on to Southern Seminary to work on his master-of-divinity degree.
"We endured a three-year long-distance 'I-65' relationship," she said. "At the end of that time, I graduated from Samford and two weeks later Al graduated from Southern with his M.Div. We were married six weeks later," she said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.