She was a gorgeous young thing named, believe it or not, "Barbie." Her Dad was the skipper of an oil tanker, just back from a three-month trip. And I could tell right off that he wasn't much impressed with the long-haired, bell-bottomed, leather-vest-wearing, "Pimples-R-Us" punk who had been dating his daughter during his absence. In short, he wasn't much impressed with ME! We were sitting in his basement, as he lovingly cleaned a beautiful double-barreled shotgun in preparation for the opening of pheasant season. At one point, after asking some basic questions about me, my family, school activities, educational and vocational goals, political views, current bank account, etc., he broke open the shotgun, looked at me down both barrels and said, in a friendly, conversational sort of way, "You know, Brian, my daughters are just about the most precious things in my life. If anyone was to ever hurt them, why, I don't know what I'd do." With that, he snapped the gun shut. The "click" was loud enough to shatter ear drums. And the message came through loud and clear. Not surprisingly, even though I had all the moral instincts of any "normal," hormone-driven, sixteen year old, pagan boy (i.e., none!), my relationship with that young woman was remarkably pure.
Sadly, most fathers do not seem as concerned with protecting their children during the most difficult time of their lives. Since the Industrial Revolution, the time between the onset of puberty and Christian marriage has significantly increased, forcing a period of prolonged abstinence during the very time when a young person's sexual desires are at their peak. Added to the problem is that we live in a sexually saturated culture, where immorality and fornication are the norm. Yet most parents, even many Christian parents, simply turn a blind eye towards their adolescent children, allowing them to be placed in situations where their morality is severely put to the test by raging hormones. Too many parents totally abdicate any real responsibility of helping their children. Most do not carefully supervise whom their children "date" (a nasty and destructive practice that the church has adopted almost without a whimper) and routinely allow young boys and girls to spend considerable amounts of time together, alone, away from chaperones. "But," such parents say, "I raised my children right. I trust them!"
Yet even a rough survey of people my age (early forties) will disclose overwhelming evidence that such trust is misplaced. Any pastor can recount countless horror stories confessed by counseling cases of their disastrous experiences with members of the opposite sex during the years just before marriage. Again and again, when left essentially to their own resources, and the pervasive influence of what their culture defines as acceptable behavior, a significant number of Christians confess to immorality before they were married. Since so many Christians have allowed their values to be determined by a secularized and paganized society, rather than the Scriptures, is it any wonder that the church is so weak and impotent in the world, when we cannot even instill consistent, Biblical practices in our families?
When it comes to selecting a life's partner, Christian parents are usually even more confused and often just as negligent. Most refuse to advise against possible mates of whom they disapprove since they fear losing whatever little influence they still have left with their children. Though choosing the person your child will marry is perhaps the most important decision you and they will ever make in this life, many parents are so scared of appearing controlling and manipulative that they will actually refuse to give their children counsel. "Whatever makes you happy, dear. . ." is not an uncommon response. Parents give a lot more time and thought to a child's college education or sports activities, than with whom that child will spend the rest of his life!
When you think of it, that's not all that surprising. First of all, the parents probably know little or nothing of the partner their child has picked out, or the family he comes from. In American Christian culture today, children are normally separated from their parents at a very young age. They then develop their core beliefs from popular culture, public schools and peers. From surveys done over the last 20 years in various ministries with which I have been involved (agreed, not necessary a scientific or representative sample of the population as a whole), most young people met their life partners at college, the military or in churches they joined AFTER they left home. (The running joke at the evangelical Baptist college I attended was that the school offered two degrees, a BA for the boys, and a MRS for the girls). The prime ingredient of whether or not to marry was almost universally, "Because we're in love." Conspicuously absent from the vast majority of marriages was any significant parental involvement in the whole process. When it came to marriage, the parents' views were just not considered all that important.
Yet the Scriptures are very clear that marriage is a covenant. It involves children's transferring their allegiance from one covenant to another. That's why we have that little bit in the wedding ceremony that says, "Who gives this woman in marriage?" The father, by standing by his daughter, is formally transferring his covenant authority over her from his household to the groom's. The groom is leaving his father's household to set up a new one. There cannot be a transfer of covenant authority without at least the permission of the parents. Yet surely the responsibility goes beyond mere consent. Does it not also require the active participation of the parents in helping their children find suitable partners? Is not the glory of age the opportunity to learn from our mistakes and pass that wisdom on to the next generation? While we certainly cannot protect our children from every bad decision, surely we should be striving to help them make THIS decision based on the wisdom of God's law rather than the whims of transient feelings.
Therefore, godly parents need to consider practical ways they can guide their children. It is too late to wait until your kids are sixteen years old and already looking at all the pretty candy on display, before you lay down these basic principles. They need to become a part of your daily family worship at an early age. I feel deeply for the man with a 24-year-old daughter who comes to me in tears, bewailing the terrible choice of a husband she has picked out. He is caught between a rock and a hard place. If he refuses, she gets married anyway, and he loses his daughter. If he agrees, he gives his blessing to a marriage he hates. But the problem, my friend, is that the father should have been working with that young lady when she was 12, not 24. He has failed to transmit his core beliefs to his daughter. And now he reaps the reward by seeing his covenant seed marry a jerk! Therefore, the following principles and guidelines are offered to parents as they seek to help their children find the right life mate, before it is too late.
Right Focus (Col. 3:17; 1 Cor. 10:31)
First and foremost, we have got to instill in our children that in marriage, as well as every other area of life, our purpose is to glorify God, not to live "the American dream." To glorify God means to submit every area of life to his law and his will. We are not here to live for ourselves, but for God. Thus, if something we want is contrary to God's law, then we must die to ourselves (Lk. 9:23-24) and seek his will instead. This basic orientation will save our children much grief and pain, for God's law is gracious and meant not only for his glory, but our good. Hence every decision they make, especially regarding marriage, ought to be made ultimately and finally as unto the Lord. While most people today make decisions about marriage based on the myth of romantic infatuation (I refuse to call it love), this is no Biblical basis for selecting a life partner. Even secular psychologists acknowledge that romantic infatuation is transitory, lasting at best six months. If a relationship has nothing else going for it than this, then that couple is going to find it very difficult to make that marriage work. We have got to warn our children about "love" and help them to guard their hearts.
Therefore, there may well be people who appear very attractive to our children, but a marriage with them would not be to God's glory. Obviously, those who reject the Faith are unsuitable as potential spouses. We are forbidden by Scripture from marrying unbelievers. But more than that, those who reject the Reformed Faith are also inappropriate partners. Arminianism and antinomianism are grievous errors and will undermine your covenant seed's future. Parents need to protect their children from them. From a young age, we ought to be training our children to have discernment about these kinds of things. Furthermore, we need to make sure they don't have the opportunity to come into contact with unsuitable marital prospects precisely where courting relationships develop. Sadly, economics, not theology, governs most parents' actions. They send their children to various schools so they can get a good job. Then they wonder what went wrong when their young'ns come home with some total flake they met in college. "But Daddy, he's a Christian!" Yeah, right.
Right People (Gen. 2:18)
The theology of finding appropriate partners for our children begins with God's actions for his children in the Garden of Eden. God specifically created a help for Adam that was suitable for him. They were not equals (God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve) but rather complements; i.e., each possessed mutually affirming gifts, strengths and insights. Each was incomplete without the other. Each person had qualities that the other needed to fulfill his covenant duties before God.
Therefore, in the same way, though there may be many possible partners for our children, we should seek to use our superior wisdom to help them find mates that will complement their own unique personalities, abilities, gifts and callings. Young people, going through the most turbulent times of their lives, do not know themselves as well as they sometimes think they do. The average American will change careers repeatedly until age and economic necessity finally make him settle down. If the divorce rate is any indication, young people are no more ready to make a final decision on marriage than they are on vocation. They need their parents' input. Sadly, too many parents do not really know their children because by the time that their kids become teenagers, they spend virtually no time with them. Someone else has educated them (the public schools), someone else has instructed them spiritually (Sunday school, youth group, traveling revivalists, "Christian" rock artists, etc.) and someone else has been their intimate confidant (friends, neighbors, peers, etc.).
But if parents have fulfilled their Biblical role faithfully, they should know their children better than anyone else in the world. They should have 20-odd years of experience with their children, know their moods, tempers, gifts, weaknesses. And hence they are providentially equipped to be in the best position to advise their children about what kind of person they should be courting. When a child reaches the age where courting is now appropriate, parents and child should sit down and do a frank analysis of both themselves and potential partners.
At a minimum, young men seeking our daughters need to demonstrate before courtship that they have a clear focus on their dominion calling. Adam was given a wife only after he had begun his work in the Garden. Once his calling was clear, then a suitable helpmeet was created for him. A man needs a wife who can come along side and work with him.
In the same way, young women are required by God to submit to their husbands. This has never been an easy role for godly women, not since the Garden. We have a responsibility to make sure that our sons have wives who understand their role, are comfortable in it, and will be supportive. Submission is too essential a requirement for godly women to entrust it to some slack-jawed yokel who will misuse it.
Take, for example, a young man who is by temperament rather shy and retiring. He's a good boy, diligent and conscientious, but maybe not all that masterful. He may well be attracted to a strong, dominant type of woman. Would it be a sin for two such people to marry? Of course not. But I can guarantee that those kids are going to have problems. The husband is likely to be severely tempted to abdicate responsibility to his more forceful wife. She will have to strongly resist the temptation to rule over her husband. It's not that such a marriage could not work, but that it is going to entail a considerable degree of time and trouble and heartache. By the parents' carefully and realistically working with their kids to help analyze and evaluate themselves and others, they can avoid a great deal of grief.
Right Heart (Phil. 2:3-4)
The goal of any relationship is ministry, not manipulation. We are not to seek to have our own needs met, but rather to meet the needs of others. Yet usually marriages are made because young people think that a certain person will meet their "needs." Instead, we must raise our children to see life as a process of giving up rights, and taking on responsibilities.
Therefore, our children need to learn how to be "other-oriented" in their thinking. Often Christian parents spoil their children by being over-indulgent, allowing their natural affection to determine how they discipline and train children for life. The Puritans actually made their children move out of the home during their teenage years because they feared that such natural affections would lead to the parents' making bad life decisions for their kids! But today, we often require no responsibilities of our children, we buy them what they want, when they want it, subsidize their affluent, pleasure-oriented lifestyle, and then wonder why their marriages break up. Selfishness, pure and simple, is the cause of most marital disasters. People want their own way, because the parents have trained them to think that they are the center of the universe.
The beauty of Christian relationships is that because we are complete in Christ, because his grace and mercy have been granted to his elect, we can be and should be channels of that grace and love to others. Husbands must be willing to give themselves up for their wives. Wives must submit themselves to their husbands. Both man and woman make genuine sacrifices to make a godly marriage. If one or both of the people are not ready or able to make those sacrifices, then they are not suitable marriage partners.
Right Mind (Phil. 2:1-2)
As Christians, we are commanded to have the same mind, to be intent on one purpose, united in spirit. If this is to be true of the church, how much more so ought it to be the norm in the home! Therefore, life mates for our children should share the same life goals and desire a complementary ministry. This also has application to our interests, hobbies, desires, etc. The only way to know this is to spend time with people. One Sunday lunch with the family is simply not sufficient time to evaluate a person properly. Hence, normally speaking, families ought to come together and do things as families. This allows young children to grow up together with people of a like mind.
Right Qualifications (Eph. 5:22ff., Pr. 31:12ff, 1 Pet. 3:1ff., Tit. 1:6-9., 2:2ff., 1 Tim. 3:1ff.)
The best indicator of future performance is past performance. If you want to know what a person is going to be like in the future, just take a long, hard look at where he has been. Now it is the grace and glory of the gospel that God transforms sinners. Yet even so, when deciding on who is or is not suitable as a mate for our children, the past is a great indicator of what they can expect down the road.
Therefore, parents should look for potential husbands who possess headship and leadership ability. Does this boy know his calling and is he working diligently at it? Old Testament law required a man to pay a bride price roughly equivalent to three years' labor. Can the boy save and manage money and thus financially provide for the family (1 Tim. 5:8). Is he good father material (Col. 3:19-20, Eph. 6:1-2)? Look at his own father for insights as to how he will handle frustration, anger, fear, etc. Does the boy's father trust his wife, love her (Eph. 5:21ff), nurture and care for her (Pr. 31:11), granting her honor as a fellow heir (1 Pet. 3:7), understanding her and being gentle with her (1 Pet. 3:7)? The way the boy's father treats his mother is likely the same way he will treat your daughter. Is he a one-woman man (1 Tim. 3:2) or has he had a series of romantic entanglements? Is the boy sensible (Tit. 2:6) and does he possess the general godly character qualities of an elder (1 Tim. 3:1 -ff.)? If not, then no matter how friendly, charming or attractive, look somewhere else.
In the same way, potential wives for our sons should be submissive in spirit (Eph. 5:19) and respectful in their attitude and demeanor. After marriage, they are to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, loving their husbands and children (cf. Tit. 2:3). They are able to do good to their husbands because they are industrious, charitable, skilled in their work, well-dressed (and modestly so), good managers of resources and, of course, they must fear God (cf. 1 Tim. 2:9-10, Pet. 3:3-4, Pr. 31:22). If a woman lacks the qualities necessary for any of these before marriage, there is no way of knowing if she will ever develop them afterwards. Therefore, parents ought to make it a point to examine potential mates according to objective, Biblical criteria. If they don't meet the qualifications, then no matter how attractive they are, they are not suitable for marriage.
Conclusions The person our children want to marry says a lot about what sort of Christian we are, about our values and priorities and about how faithfully we carried out our domestic responsibilities. Granted, even in the best families, there may be reprobate children who reject our wisdom, resist our authority and refuse our counsel. And they will bear in their own lives the pain and frustration of their rebellion. But that does not let parents off the hook. We must do our duty to love our kids, teach them, train them, and most importantly, be involved with them. There is no ministry so important, no job so crucial, no life situation so desperate, that we must sacrifice our covenant seed on the altar of expediency.
There are, of course, many more important things to consider in helping our children find an appropriate life partner. While it is true that despite the principles noted above, any two Christians can marry lawfully, some marriages will take far more time and effort to make work. In this day of emotionalism and lack of commitment to anything except one's personal peace and security, violating these standards will often mean a marriage full of trouble that will distract our children from the real work of the kingdom. The family is the beginning of dominion, not the end. A man at war within his own home has less time, energy and effort to work for the kingdom outside the home.
Understanding and applying these guidelines will result not only in a marriage pleasing to God, but also one that will be the most rewarding for ourselves. They provide the foundation for winning the world for Christ. Our children are our future, and the last best gift we can give to them is helping them find someone to lovingly co-labor with them for the kingdom.a
- Brian M. Abshire
Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.