Book Review

Returning to a foundational view of marriage

A review of “The Future of Christian Marriage” by Mark Regnerus

May 10, 2022

As the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated trappings fade from view for many Americans, we are looking for a “new normal.” This is not merely a concern for business and government facilities, but for families as well. In October 2021, Brad Wilcox, Wendy Wang, Jason Carroll, and Lyman Stone released The Divided State of Our Unions: Family Formation in a (Post) COVID-19 America. Their research reveals a gap between religious and secular Americans concerning how marriage is viewed and whether its desirable. 

Much could, and should, be said concerning what the author’s data portends. However, in my reading, the study reminded me of an important, though much neglected book (likely due to its release date) from University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). Regnerus is one of America’s leading researchers on marriage, sex, and religion, and his The Future of Christian Marriage makes an important contribution to our understanding of the culture of Christian marriage and dovetails well with the findings of The Divided State of Our Unions. 

A unique factor of Regnerus’ work lies in the global perspective it captures. Collecting survey data and interviews from participants in seven different countries (The United States, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Russia, Lebanon, and Nigeria) allows Regnerus to consider international trends in Christian marriage, not just an American context. This perspective produces the conclusion that “Christians around the world are increasingly accommodating . . . wider shifts in marriage trends. But there is also resistance . . . rooted in vibrant, productive religious groups” (3). It should not be surprising that the Christian faith and Christian marriage are tied together in a symbiotic relationship. But this positive correlation does signal a need for Christians, and especially the formative institutions of the Christian faith, to shore up both our understanding of discipleship to Christ and what precisely God means to do in the institution of marriage.

Marriage as a foundation or capstone?

On the latter, consider the broader trends Regnerus is concerned about. The most prominent is the shift from a foundation view of marriage to a capstone view. In the foundation view, marriage is an institution on which someone can construct a life of deep meaning and satisfaction. As such, those with a foundation view tend to marry earlier and do so with a premium on marriage’s practical importance and the complementary strengths of each spouse. By contrast, the capstone view understands marriage as something to build toward and a symbol of successful life development. As such, fewer people end up getting married; those who do tend to marry later, and with a greater emphasis on “psychological satisfaction.” Regnerus writes, “I cannot over emphasize how monumental, consequential, and subtle this shift is . . . . The capstone vision has unwittingly turned marriage into an unaffordable luxury good” (39-40). 

With Regnerus, I am concerned about the effects of this view within our churches. In my role as a pastor, I have been working with a young couple on their pre-marital counseling. They are among the first of their friends to get engaged, and they do so emerging into the post-COVID world. At the end of one discussion, I asked, “Do you have any questions?” which received the response, “Do you think culture, even within the church, does young people a disservice in encouraging us to wait until we are older and more settled to marry?” 

My initial response was to point out the pros and cons of both a late marriage and an early marriage. However, it struck me mid-sentence that I was essentially saying “foundational marriage or capstone marriage, there are strengths and weaknesses to both.” While this is certainly true in a limited way, it is also true that a capstone view has a host of unintended consequences when adopted on a societal scale and that a foundational view of marriage seems to have more correspondence with the biblical representation of marriage. Regnerus’ work in The Future of Christian Marriage reveals that these two models should not be primarily understood in light of the tradeoffs associated but assessed in terms of what they offer us and how they conform to the purpose of marriage as an institution.

In an age characterized by deconstruction, the capstone view exhibits remarkable vulnerability. It seems sensible, for example, to suggest an unsatisfying life will result in a deconstruction from the top down, thus beginning with the capstone. As such, a capstone marriage necessarily entails a “voluntary, consumption-oriented, and oft-temporary arrangement” (39). Moreover, increasing concerns about the decline of the middle class should provoke unease regarding this view. If there is either a reshuffling of the current middle class or a dissolution of it all together, then marriage will be perceived as out of reach for an increasing percentage of the populace. The ramifications of this echo throughout the book and one must imagine are only intensified as the world looks increasingly uncertain and unstable. 

However, the primary issue of the capstone view, according to Regnerus, is that it challenges the nature of marriage as tied to four primary expectations — totality (marriage as a comprehensive, whole life institution), children, permanence, and sexual fidelity. These four expectations are anticipated by nearly all marriages, yet they are incompatible and unrealistic on the capstone view. Here, Regnerus presents another critical insight, marriage is a ridged institution. That is, marriage generally rejects attempts to change or adapt its basic purpose or structure. He writes, 

“Marriage either works on its own terms, or it recedes. Alternate versions of marriage may be buttressed for a time—decades even—but the energy and resources it takes to prop up public opinion will wane eventually. Insofar as Christians’ understanding of marriage drifts away from the model [comprised of totality, fidelity, permanence, and children], their interest in marrying diminishes” (83). 

Marriage, as a ridged institution, is something one must enter to be formed as a person rather than to reformulate marriage around the desires and goals of the bride and groom. From a culture war position, we might take solace in knowing “Public relations campaigns can win ballot initiatives, but they cannot overhaul marriage,” but from a pastoral perspective we need to be concerned that “Marriage rates are shrinking, then, because of increasing disinterest in what marriage actually is” (84-85).

There is a part of me that wants to advocate, at this point, for a moratorium on Christian weddings involving the writing of unique vows or customization of much of the wedding ceremony. Regnerus’ work reminds us of the importance of tying younger Christians, especially as they begin to form their lives and families, to the ancient pathways and traditions of Christian formation — to advocate for seeing oneself as entering something not of one’s own making nor of one’s own purposes. We might do well then to consider what the contemporary resurgent interest in “liturgies” would tell us about preparing, officiating, and pastoring our young adults in marriage.

Correcting the capstone error

Regnerus offers a different avenue to firm up the future of Christian marriage: do away with cheap sex. In relationship to sex, Regnerus returns to the familiar ground of his previous book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (2017). The basic tenant of that work was that sex was becoming increasingly accessible and thus “cheap” for men. He writes, “Sex is cheap if women expect little from men in return for sex, and if men do not have to supply much time, attention, resources, recognition, or fidelity in order to experience sex . . . . The ‘cost’ of sex can be measured by the speed at which a new sexual partner can be found, or in the frequency with which one has sex” (91). 

While primarily being a criticism directed toward the broader culture, Regnerus expresses concern that the Christians do not see sex as being any more “expensive” or holding any more of an elevated view than the broader populace. This “cheap” sex disincentivized marriage and monogamy leading to women often needing to make painful tradeoffs to participate in the dating market. This cheap sex is a pre-requisite for the rise of the capstone view of marriage. Without accessible sex, men must mature and be willing to marry to have sex. If a culture can do away with cheap sex, it can return to a foundation view of marriage. 

There is a sense in which many pastors and Christian leaders are probably happy with a capstone view of marriage if it does not detract from a biblical sexual ethic. However, Regnerus’ data does not inspire confidence that young Christians are pursuing chastity. While we might wonder, at least for Americans, if this is a part of the backlash to the excesses of purity culture, the fact remains that sex — whether real or virtual — is readily available, and many young adults lack the theological equipment to understand why something so glamorized in both the church, and culture more broadly, should be off-limits for, say, an engaged couple planning their wedding.

As a pastor, I find that Regnerus’ concerns run on a parallel track to mine. I want to see the church be a haven against the pressures of cheap sex and expensive matrimony. Unfortunately, it seems that the ability to mobilize Christian institutions like denominations, parachurches, and Christian universities is fraught with the baggage of deconstructing the purity movement and the weakness of those institutions in our anti-institutional age.

If sex is cheap, chastity and matrimony are expensive, which leads to the finding that uncertainty plagues marriage. “Uncertainty and its siblings—ambiguity, individualism, and materialism—characterize the marriage market today, giving birth to the sense that our most significant relationships may be more disposable than we thought” (160). This is the result of several features of the modern world, including economic changes, parental divorce, social media, and online dating. Such features are also connected to the rise of generalized anxiety among young adults. 

It is helpful to remember and reflect that The Future of Christian Marriage was released early in 2020, thus prior to COVID-19 and its associated disruptions, as well as the new global uncertainty surrounding the Russian war on Ukraine. It is not yet clear whether such major events will be the cause of an increasing feeling of uncertainty or if they will reveal the surprising strength of the martial union and encourage a movement back to a foundational view with the church. In terms of COVID-19, Wilcox and Co.’s data was encouraging on this account.

The transition from a foundational view to capstone view happened much earlier among non-Christians. However, that move has not been accompanied by the projected benefits which were presumed to come from delays in marriage. Instead of resisting the cultural impulse, the church, according to Regnerus, appears to be following suit. In light of this, Regnerus closes his book with eight suggestions to “revitalize Christian Marriage” (161). The list reveals the importance of parents, the home, and the local church. In this way, it acts as a good reminder of the importance of subsidiarity and the small platoons of life. Like so many projects that lie ahead, the church will need the faithful presence and thoughtful resistance which accompanies confidence that we follow the risen Lord.

Tyler Hurst

Tyler D. Hurst is the senior associate pastor at The Journey Church (EFCA) of Tucson in Tucson, Arizona. He is a Ph.D. Student in Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. And he was formerly an adjunct professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Biola University in La Mirada, California.  Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24