The week that I received my acceptance to Bible college, I had two bizarre encounters with women from my home church. The first was in my dining room. When I proudly announced my plans to go to school and jump into ministry, a visiting church lady knowingly patted my hand and said “Or you’ll marry a handsome upperclassman and dropout to get married.” Barf. Later that week, I was chatting with a youth group parent who genuinely asked if I was going to get my “MRS” degree. Barf again. I had been aware of the stories and reputation of Bible colleges as nothing more than a matchmaking service for young women who were seeking to become ministry wives and had been reassured by alumni that my institution of choice wasn’t like that anymore. But these casual suggestions from the ladies at my church made me distinctly uncomfortable.
As a chubby and consistently socially panicked individual, a combination of poor self esteem and unnamed asexuality kept me out of the highly competitive Pentecostal dating scene. I have also been privileged to have met the love of my life outside of that particular cultural orb and have felt free to defy the grossly sexist practices that, while absent in secular dating culture, are normative and celebrated in churches. The kids in my youth group dated each other, frequently swapping partners (due to a shortage in the dating pool), and starting drama with each other while group leadership remained oddly passive. The whole thing gave me the heebie-jeebies.
I thought college would be alright and I chose not to believe the myth. I thought that bridal college was a thing of the past and that while many romances would blossom, the “ring by spring” race was more comical than literal. As it turned out, that was not the case. During orientation week, my classmates were already sizing each other up and evaluating who would be the best spouse material. It was told to me that the young men got together to “call dibs” on the various pretty girls. I myself was a part of more than one conversation about who would be a good husband. First years coupled off with each other and with upperclasspeople within weeks. A wise fourth year who became a guide and friend explained the closed, small student body was like a romantic microwave. People moved and heated up too fast, often with dissatisfying results. The engagements started rolling in around October of 2013 and haven’t stopped since. Couples were getting engaged after just months of knowing one another at the encouragement of faculty and peers. The women’s dorm was full of Pinterest wedding board comparisons, ring flashes, and excited/nervous chatter with brides-to-be and newlyweds about sex. I used to keep a tally of the number of engagements but lost track in second year at around 15 (total, from when I started at the school). No one wanted to admit that it was a competition, but it was.
It would be hypocritical of me to frame this post as a condemnation of early marriage or the choices of others. My partner and I are also taking steps towards our future, despite being very young. The real issue lies behind what I believe has become the idolization of marriage as the highest form of Christian living. I heard it repeated to me on multiple occasions that the best way to serve God is with a spouse by your side. That the true fulfillment of God’s image in a person only happens when they are united in marriage (and sex) with their spouse. There was also the given understanding that sex and most forms of physical intimacy (even cuddling! because oxytocin) were strictly for marriage purposes, and that as soon as a couple is married, sex will be perfect and great. Early marriage was endorsed to ensure the most fulfilling marriage and family planning experience.The reinforcement of these ideals, combined with post-pubescent hormones is what I believe is responsible for generating the culture I observed at school.
While there is some validity in the theological ideals that I just outlined, they are incredibly problematic. Not only do they ignore the examples of famous Christian singles (ie. Paul…JESUS Himself), the highly admirable calling to celibacy, and the experiences of asexual and aromantic people, they produced massive quantities of shame and pressure. Christian singles who have not married by the time they reach 30 often feel ineligible and wrong, placing blame on their own perceived lack of faith that God has not placed His “chosen person” for them in their life yet. For dating couples, as soon as there is any inclination that marriage is a possible outcome of the relationship, it must be discussed and planned for. Prohibitions on intimate expression heighten the appeal of marriage without addressing the intricacies and complications of sexuality. As the number of engagements and weddings rose, the more I began to wonder how many of them were pursuing marriage for any or all of these reasons.
I acknowledge that the people making these choices are adults and know themselves best, but I’ve had some troubling conversations with some dear friends on the subject. One person felt a great obligation to marry their partner, despite doubts after several years of dating. Another felt shame for feeling physically attracted to another person and that their relationship was on a set course for marriage, with no flexibility to discuss or rearrange future plans. This makes me feel sad and concerned and that there needs to be a serious reprioritization of goals. Yes, I’m sure marriage is wonderful and great and holy and pure. But I’ll bet it’s also hard and messy and infuriating. I can’t say for sure because I’m not married yet. To paraphrase a former classmate on the subject; “If you think the goal of Christian living is marriage and that your wedding night is going to be more glorious than the return of Christ, then I don’t know what to say to you.” I know it’s easier said, but why don’t we promote companionship with Christ and with the Church as the epitome of Christian living, rather than perpetuate a hurtful culture of child brides and competition? I’m not entirely sure what I wanted to accomplish with this post, other than to plead and implore with you; if you identify with this experience, please use wisdom and discernment with this sort of life decision. Whatever it may be.