Southern Baptists encourage marrying younger, avoiding sexual sin

Southern Baptist Convention leaders know they've lost the culture war on same-sex marriage, but now they're turning their attention inside the church to get congregants to marry younger.

Convention policy expert Andrew Walker said he can't put a hard number on how young Southern Baptists should marry. But he thinks they should be far and away beating the national median age for first-time marriage.

That number is higher now than ever before — 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women, according to a 2011 Pew Research Center survey. But 23-year-old Chris and Susie Martin are well under it.

Their understanding of marriage is consistent with the Nashville-based denomination's theology — that it is a "covenant" between one man and one woman that reflects Christ's relationship with a church. That makes it easier to make marriage a foundation for a good life rather than a capstone to one, Baptists say.

"The covenant foundation of marriage says, 'Even if my bank account is empty, this person is going to be there,' " Chris Martin said.

The denomination has always believed that marriage is fundamental to a just, healthy and happy society. But in recent years, it has changed its messaging about when couples should get married.

The Southern Baptist Convention used to tell couples to wait until they reach financial stability, said Jon Akin, pastor of Fairview Church in Lebanon. "What we've communicated to our young people is finances are more important than sexual sin, and the Bible seems to say the exact opposite of that."

Now, the denomination is emphasizing practical and theological reasons to marry younger. Marriage helps keep young people from sexual sin in the midst of their sexual maturity, Akin said, and helps them fulfill God's design for men and women as complementary beings.

The Martins have found that the foundational framework works well for them. Susie Martin said it allows for more open communication and grace. Their friends and family had concerns about their stability, which made them examine their decision to marry right out of college more closely. But ultimately they determined they were in the right place to make the move.

Akin and his congregation talk about sex and marriage at least once a month, both in Sunday worship services and small-group discussions. In those conversations, his goal isn't to push anyone into marriage before they're ready, or to enforce a hard age ceiling.

What he does want is for young Southern Baptists to get themselves "marryable" sooner. That requires them to go against a cultural current that's "extending adolescence" and delaying marriage.

Chris Martin said wanting to marry for the sake of being married, which he's seen in many people, isn't a good attitude to have. But if the relationship is healthy and the couple can see themselves together for life, there's no reason to wait, he said.

The couple doesn't think the Southern Baptist view of marriage will become the predominant one in America. Some Southern Baptists see that as a sign of social breakdown, but to Chris Martin, it's not "the worst thing in the world."

"The scripture tells us we're going to be different, and that the ways of Christ are going to be foolishness to the world," he said. "I'm not OK with it morally, but it doesn't make me lose faith or shock me."