24 Nov Preparing Our Children for Marriage
Published November 24, 2020
By Andreas Köstenberger, PhD, and Margaret Köstenberger, PhD
Just recently, we were led to ask ourselves the rather weighty question: How are we preparing our children for marriage? And how are we preparing them for service in the church? When we send our children to college for four years, that college will prepare them for all kinds of things (even things we wish it didn’t). Marriage and serving in the church aren’t among these and any messages they receive in this area might likely be contrary to what we would hope. And, what to do with that complicated experience of meeting and getting to know a person whom they might marry? That’s where we as parents have an important role to play. Preparing our children for marriage, as well as serving God, must be a significant part of our vision for parenting. Many of us have embraced the notion that preparing for a vocation takes years of preparation, but marriage can be entered on a whim if we just meet the “right” person! Thus, many young people enter marriage unprepared, and often experience a rather rude awakening after the initial honeymoon phase is over (if not before or even during the honeymoon)!
One of the trickiest and most controversial subjects in Christian circles then is the question of dating. How are you supposed to meet your future spouse in a godly way? Should you shop around until you find the best available husband or wife? Is it simply a process of trial and error? How does your child know whether he and a potential spouse are compatible? And where is God in all of this? One school of thought holds that if the potential partner is a believer, it’s up to you to decide. Others contend that God has one person for you to marry and you can trust Him to lead you to that person at His perfect time. The question is: Can you, and should you, trust God to lead you in this crucial area of life, or can you, and should you, trust yourself to make the right choices and go and find yourself a husband or wife? Or is it somehow a combination between the two ends of the spectrum?
It won’t surprise you that we believe that God does indeed bring two people, a man and a woman, together to lead them into a relationship so they become husband and wife. God is the ultimate “Matchmaker”! The book of Proverbs says that “He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the LORD” (18:22 NIV). As the God of providence, the God who sovereignly directs the affairs of men—and women, too—cares for every intimate detail of our lives, much more so about whom we will marry. As Peter writes in his first epistle, “Cast all your anxieties on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7 NIV). So what does it mean to trust God in this area of our lives? It means that we resist the urge to take matters into our own hands as parents, or as the one seeking God in this matter. We don’t encourage manipulating others by flirting or aggressive behavior. Young men take appropriate Spirit-led initiative, while young women joyfully respond—or graciously resist—as they sense the Lord’s leading (or lack thereof).
Clearly, the area of male-female relationships including a possible marriage relationship is too serious a matter to take out of God’s hands into our own. We need to be careful to find the appropriate and responsible balance of influence in our children’s lives in this area. Often the wisdom of parents is given insufficient weight while, at least in our experience, peers and even pastors (doubtless with good intentions) tend to take over. Cooperation and coordination between parents and pastors, however, can be helpful here. So be in touch with the college pastor if there is one. Instructing our children in this area of life involves helping them realize that God knows the end from the beginning; he will do what He knows is best.
At the same time, as in education, we as parents should take our responsibility seriously to guide our children in this very important matter. It seems vital to begin training and guiding them relatively early to help boys not to “burn” with passion and turn to pornography because they are not married. Similarly, if girls wait too long to get married, they may be tempted to settle for a husband who is not a strong Christian partly out of loneliness. Remaining single for long may engender too much independence. The same goes for young men as well. The longer they wait, the more difficult it may be for them to be flexible and open to accommodate another person in their life.
We also need to be ready to discuss that in some rare cases, God may call a man or woman to remain unmarried so they can serve Him without being distracted by family responsibilities. But be clear that God will lead this way normally only if He gives them the gift (“charisma”) of singleness (or celibacy). If your child shudders at the thought that they may have such a gift, chances are they don’t! As a matter of fact, you can encourage them that from the beginning God created man and woman for each other for companionship and fruitfulness on purpose. It follows that God intends that most people marry. In any case, there are many ways in which God can bring a man and a woman together and confirm his leading in their lives.
FINDING A SPOUSE
The Bible says that “it is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18 ESV). We believe that the same principle holds true for women, too. We were made for companionship, not aloneness, and can all attest to the fact that loneliness is a scourge, not a blessing. So, how should we look for a potential partner to share life with? Should Christians date? And if so, how? Or is what people sometimes label “courtship” a better way to go? The difference between these two approaches is that in dating a man and a woman spend time together exclusively for a period to determine whether they’re meant to get married while in courtship a commitment is made at the outset that a couple is pursuing the likelihood of marriage, having previously known each other in a larger social context such as church, college, family relationship, or friendship group.
What are the pros and cons of dating versus alternative approaches? Dating, especially dating at an early age, usually involves long periods of time spent together to determine compatibility. There may be a certain trial and error component in the process involved as well, as one would assume (though this is not necessarily an accurate assumption) that people gradually get smarter and learn what they need in another person to be fulfilled, until—so the theory goes—they eventually find “The One.”
However, moving toward marriage is very different from shopping for shoes or some other item. Men and women are people with feelings and personalities, not inanimate objects! The extended time spent exclusively on dates may render young people vulnerable to sexual temptation when they aren’t yet ready for marriage; as a result, one or both may get hurt in the process. Often much time and emotional energy are spent (wasted) that could have been used in the service of God. Other important and healthy relationships often become marginalized long before a sole commitment is even necessary. Dating, or serial dating, may also have the potential of developing a relational habit of transience rather than one-person permanence and make it more difficult for a person eventually to settle down. And people—especially young women—may feel used or even used up in the process. You get the picture—we’re not huge fans of unbridled dating!
The bottom line is that care and prayer should be taken in the process of getting to know the opposite sex. To counteract the potential negative entailments of dating, some favor an approach called “courtship.” Yet this may be a bit reactionary and cause the pendulum to swing too far to the other extreme, from too flippant and casual an approach to one that gets too serious too soon. In fact, the courtship approach is uncomfortable for some because at times it requires young men to make a commitment to a woman (and vice versa) usually before he (and she) is ready or may not even know each other very well.
Personally, we encourage what you might call a “friendship” approach which allows young adults time to get to know each other in larger and smaller group settings, hopefully in wholesome fellowshipping and in serving the Lord in local church ministry contexts amongst other things. If God leads a couple to recognize the potential for a special relationship beyond the friendship level, they may choose to go deeper, depending also on their age and stage in life. This cautious approach is helpful because it gives the opportunity for people to become acquainted without any pressure being placed on either person to commit before they know what they’re getting themselves into.
Approaches to Finding a Life Partner
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For reasons such as these, therefore, it likely seems best to proceed slowly until there’s a growing and clear conviction that God may be at work. Be patient for God to bring someone across your path at the right time when both are ready to pursue a committed relationship. At that point, a young man may choose to initiate a relationship with a young woman when both are getting close to being ready for marriage, which—depending on circumstances, such as their age and the girl’s parents’ receptivity—may involve the young man’s securing her father’s permission to do so.
Also, encourage them to make the most of the time when they’re not yet married. God is molding and shaping them into the persons he wants them to be. May God be glorified and may young women especially be protected in this delicate area of their lives. As in other areas, we should trust God to guide us, and He certainly will. As parents, we should impress on our children their need for wisdom and discernment in choosing a life partner. We should let them know that we respect their right to choose their own life partner but that we’re available to give input whenever they’re open to it and provide support whenever it’s needed. We could also communicate that while the choice of a spouse is ultimately their decision, it does have obvious implications for the entire family.
On the one hand, we shouldn’t uphold standards that are so high that no earthly being could ever attain to it—especially in their late teens or early twenties! On the other hand, we shouldn’t hesitate to express concerns and reservations if they’re well-founded, and hopefully our children will listen. If they believe that we have their best interests at heart, and that we want them to be happy, they’ll realize that we’re not trying to be obstructionist but rather drawing on decades of life experience from which they can benefit. If parents have been relational all along, being involved in this process won’t be awkward but normal. Parental involvement is especially important with girls who, prior to marriage, would continue to benefit from the guidance and protection of their father.
Our main advice for our children in seeking a spouse is to pray for the person God has designed for them and to discern a prospective life partner first, by the love he has for God and then by the love he has for them. Also, build solid friendships—even in marriage, a strong friendship is a lasting foundation for a strong marriage. In the meantime, help them to be patient and to keep pursuing that to which God has called them in terms of education and vocational preparation. Entering too quickly into a relationship from a point of desperation—not just need—not only has some of the above-mentioned drawbacks but may render one unduly dependent on others and vulnerable to be taken advantage of.
As you pray for them and, as appropriate, advise them and provide a sounding board, help them to find someone who is compatible. By “compatible” we mean not that they’re the same but that they complement each other well. One may have a rather quiet personality and the other may be outgoing. In terms of age, calling, mission, interests, and even socioeconomic and cultural background, it’s likely beneficial to have some similarities of background and, more importantly, calling. In any case, it’s important to work through any differences and expectations for life, marriage, and family to avoid later difficulties in the context of lifelong commitment. It would be easy to dismiss these things when you are “in love,” but the honeymoon won’t last forever.
Note: The above article is excerpted from Chapter 9, “Mission,” in Andreas & Margaret Köstenberger, Parenting Essentials: Equipping You Children for Life (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2020), 132–37. Used by permission.
Dr. Andreas and Dr. Margaret Köstenberger serve on the Recurring Adjunct Faculty of Shepherds Theological Seminary. Andreas serves as Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology. Margaret serves as Adjunct Professor of Women’s Studies.