Challenging the Challenge to the “Unnecessary” Delay of Marriage

I write this post as a person who is concerned about the abuse of scripture. More specifically, I have been deeply concerned about some of the words of a man by the name of Ted Cunningham, who has just recently written a book Young and in Love; Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage. He says that this book is not for someone like me. The problem is, I am an exegete. I am deeply concerned about the cavalier fashion that scripture is treated. I am also concerned about the “countercultural” but deeply unbiblical messages that resound in churches today.

Hence, I am writing this after reading some previews of this book over at Amazon, and hearing an interview with Ted Cunningham recently on the Boundless Show. I am more deeply concerned that people like Lisa Anderson are endorsing this message. I have been amazed at the way in which scripture can be misused, and words can be chosen to manipulate someone into doing something that you want them to do. Instead of going to scripture to see if we can solve these problems, we go to the culture, current trends from our popular teachers, and then we impose those things back onto the text of scripture.

I will be reviewing Mr. Cunningham’s recent appearance on the Boundless Show, with some information on his book from the Amazon previews. I thought it was grossly disingenuous for Mr. Cunningham to say that this stuff just hasn’t been thought through at the beginning of the podcast. In fact, in his book, he writes:

Sex is dirty, nasty, and ugly, and you should save it for the one you love.”
That was the purity talk I heard growing up in my independent, fundamental, premillenial, King-James-Only Baptist church and home. That message was never spoken in those words, but it was all I heard[1].

In other words, those who disagree with him on this simply have not thought through this issue, and are painted as “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist KJV only types.” I hope that my scholarship on this issue has shown otherwise, but it is amazing the way he portrays people who disagree with him. Even though I have been dealing with this issue since 2006, even though I have dialogued with many of the main supporters of this movement such as Debbie Maken and [briefly] Albert Mohler, and have read and interacted with books such as Candice Watters’ book, Debbie Maken’s book, and the authors over at Boundless, I just haven’t thought through this issue, and I am painted as a KJV only fundamentalist.

Well let me first of all say that KJV only Fundamentalist Baptists who don’t think through things generally don’t last very long at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The reality is, everywhere I have presented this position in the scholarly community, it is rejected. There is very little support in scholarship [both evangelical and liberal] for this position.

Not only that, but I have found that, with a few exceptions, most of the people who promote this view simply do not want to dialogue with you about it. They are the ones who are always closed minded, will not think through things, and will not even entertain counter-exegesis of their pet passages. You can see what happened in my dialogue with Debbie Maken; you can see what happened in my dealings with Deanna Holmes [aka, Captain Sensible]. Who was more like the close minded, KJV only fundamentalist Baptists in that situation?

No, the reality is I have had very few people who support this stuff who are willing to have an exegetical dialogue focused on the texts they like to use. Until these folks are willing to take responsibility for what they have written on an exegetical level, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black when they say that we have not thought through this issue.

Second, being an advocate for young marriage is not the issue. One can say that young marriage is good, without saying that it is required, and going after men who don’t give women what they want by painting them as “immature,” in “extended adolescence,” “not taking responsibility” etc. unless you are with a backpack out in the jungles. If this were just about recognizing that young marriage is a good and viable option, there would be no problem. However, Cunningham knows that is not what this is about, and I am sure most people who read his book know that is not what this is about.

As for the idea that most pastors will accept this, I have actually found the opposite to be true. Most pastors recognize that this is an overreaction to a cultural problem, and will not even give it the time of day. In fact, there are hints that this is true later on in the broadcast where Lisa Anderson says that she gets letters all of the time from women who say that their pastors won’t support this stuff. Also, Ted Cunningham says that he says you must be careful what older mentors you choose, because some will not support this stuff. Even he recognizes that not even all of the older people accept this stuff! I have found this view to be a very minority view; in fact, I have found it to be most popular in the south [with a touch of it out on the west coast].

I am amazed at the continued uncritical citation of Genesis 2:18. As I have pointed out before, the problem with this usage of Genesis 2:18 is that it is not understood in the context of the flow of the narrative. This is before the fall, and the fall had an effect on marriage:

Genesis 3:16 To the woman he said, “I will greatly multiply your pain in pregnancy. In pain you will give birth to children. Also, your desire will be to [dominate] your husband, but he will rule over you.

Would anyone seriously suggest that these things are “good?” And yet, this is the punishment for man and woman’s disobedience in the garden, things we must live with even today. Hence, it is not hard to conclude from this text [and the sexual and marital problems that exist throughout the rest of the book of Genesis] that, just as it is “not good” for man to be alone, it is “not good” for man to be married. It is “not good” because of what sin has done to the institution of marriage.

The automatic objection that people raise at this point is that I am dishonoring marriage. No, I am not dishonoring marriage, anymore than I am dishonoring humanity by pointing out that we are sinful. Marriage, by itself, is something that is good and honorable; it is what our sin does to it that is “not good.” The point is that our only hope is for the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent [Genesis 3:15]. Marriage cannot do that; only Jesus Christ can.

Also, I am getting little tired of hearing that marriage is “normative” and singleness is the “exception” [meaning normative in the sense in which it is being used in the context of this program]. Where in the world does scripture say that? He says that this is the scriptural teaching, but he gives no exegesis or proof.

I had to just shake my head at the whole “competitive dating scene” discussion. For those of you who don’t know, Ted Cunningham basically stole someone else’s girlfriend, and that is how he met his wife. He tries to justify this by saying that Jerry Falwell did it himself, and that Jerry Falwell told him to do it. In other words, he is promoting the idea that all girls and guys are fair game, unless they have a ring [engagement or wedding]. I would suggest that this will produce disastrous results. The real problem has to do with commitment and brotherly love. Are you really being committed to this person you are in a relationship with if you abandon them because you don’t get what you want? I can’t see why you would even want someone who shows this kind of lack of faithfulness. How do you know that they won’t leave you when you are married, if they are willing to leave this other guy for you?

Not only that, but marriage, although more than a friendship, is, at least in part, a friendship. If a guy wants to stab someone else in the back before marriage, what makes you think that he won’t try to stab you in the back after marriage just in order to get what he wants? How is this kind of thinking even Christian?

All of this is pure, unadulterated selfishness. You don’t care who you hurt simply in order to get what you want. Why would anyone want to marry someone who is this focused upon themselves? I remember saying, when I first started addressing this movement back in 2006, that there seemed to be an element of selfishness in this movement. Not only that, but there seemed to be an element of idolatry in this movement as well. The way this movement has taken shape, and the kinds of things that are now being said by those who promote this error have only confirmed that I was right even back then. Also, he says, “This is what ladies want.” Who in their right mind would ever make ladies’ desires the standard?! I think that the Bible tells us to do the opposite of what Cunningham tells us:

Philippians 2:3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves;


Romans 12:9-10 Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor;

Do these words sound like they are compatible with stealing another person’s boyfriend or girlfriend? If Cunningham hates this, then he hates what scripture teaches, period. No one, not Jerry Falwell, not Ted Cunningham, not anyone who endorsed this book has any right to contradict the scriptures in this way.

Now as far as marrying younger widows, again, there is nothing wrong with this. I do hate the way this term “man” is bandied about as a tool to manipulate people into doing what you want them to do. Amir Larjani has already addressed this on his blog, and I agree with his comments. Also, 1 Timothy 5:14 is being misused. It is one of the basic rules of exegesis that you must find out what the “therefore” is “there for.” If Ted had only backed up a few verses, he would have read:

1 Timothy 5:11-14 But refuse to put younger widows on the list, for when they feel sensual desires in disregard of Christ, they want to get married, thus incurring condemnation, because they have set aside their previous pledge. At the same time they also learn to be idle, as they go around from house to house; and not merely idle, but also gossips and busybodies, talking about things not proper to mention. Therefore, I want younger widows to get married, bear children, keep house, and give the enemy no occasion for reproach;

The context is the putting of widows on this list. We do not know what the exact nature of this list is, but it has to do with some kind of service that would require them to not get married. However, notice what Paul goes on to say, that younger widows might become idle, and become gossips and busybodies. It is for this reason that Paul says he wants them to get married so that they will have something to do rather than engage in idle gossip. They are to get married, instead, and serve God in the household. Hence, we are not talking about widows having to remarry; we are talking about lazy widows, who might turn into busybodies because they have been put on a list for service that they were not ready for. Paul’s context here is very nuanced. However, we are not talking about a single mother with six kids. We are talking about a young widow, probably with no kids or a small number of kids, who would become a gossip or busybody if they were given completely to church service. Not a struggling single mother who is just trying to make ends meet.

Now, that doesn’t mean that single mothers cannot be married. Indeed, there is everything good and right about such a situation. However, there is no Biblical precedent for this, it does not make you any more of a “man” to do so, and the only way to make 1 Timothy 5:14 fit that situation is to completely ignore everything that comes before it, and violate one of the rules of exegesis that you learn clear back in High School.

Now, I think that what is really driving a lot of this is the fact that early marriage is tradition. He mentions what he calls the “Builders,” and he says they were the greatest generation, because they came back from the war, so they knew responsibility. First of all, it is really annoying that all men who fit into their category of “delaying marriage” do not know “responsibility.” Apparently, Ted Cunningham thinks that the masters program in Old Testament at Trinity requires no responsibility. If he thinks that, he would not last one year there, and, in fact, I would be surprised if he lasted a semester.

However, as I said, tradition really does seem to be driving this. The builders were the greatest generation, he says. However, on what basis does he say this? Why doesn’t he talk about the generation of the patriarchs? All the patriarchs whose age of marriage is recorded in the Bible are over 30. Hence, this is not the first generation of “delayed marriage,” and, if we turn out as strong in faith as the patriarchs, I would say that it is not something to be ashamed of. Not only that, why does he not talk about the fact that sin existed in the “Builder’s” generation as well? My grandparents lived in that generation, and they told me that the way in which men were allowed to get drunk and beat their women was atrocious. There was sin, greed, evil, and selfishness in that generation as there was in every generation. I think the reality is that the “Builders” were the best generation because they did what Cunningham wants everyone to do-marry young. That, and that alone is the reason they are the “greatest” generation.

One of the things Cunningham is constantly talking about in his book is what he calls “foxes” which might steal your love. He gets this from Song of Songs 2:15. The first time I heard that I just shook my head. The reason is because there is a debate about the Song of Songs, and exactly what is going on in the poem. Is it a collection of poems, or is it one poem? Does it have two characters or three characters? Who are those characters if there are two characters or three characters? Bruce Waltke has an excellent lecture introducing the issues regarding the interpretation of the Song of Songs. The point is that, if there are three characters, then the “foxes” would naturally refer to other lovers. If there are only three characters, but one is to represent Solomon in his potential for love, and the other to represent the evil Solomon [as Waltke suggests], then the foxes would be things inside yourself. Either way, this concept of “foxes” is based upon something that is not by any stretch of the imagination settled in terms of understanding the Song of Songs.

He also says that this comes down to “honoring marriage,” quoting Hebrews 13:4. However, where in the world is he getting the idea that honoring marriage has anything whatsoever to do with marrying young? This is pure eisegesis. In order to honor my father and mother, does that mean I have to become my father and my mother? In order to honor the office governor, does that mean I have to become the governor?

In his book he writes:

In many ways, we applied Hebrews 13:4 in reverse, reading it this way: God will judge the adulterer and the sexually immoral, so don’t have sex, and save it for marriage.” Through all this, we heard even louder the messages, “Don’t!” and “Wait!” In truth, we were taught to honor celibacy and purity and not marriage[2].

Of course, he is missing an entire phrase! Here is what the entirety of the text reads:

Hebrews 13:4 Marriage is to be held in honor in all things, and the marriage bed undefiled. For God will judge fornicators and adulterers.

The problem is that this phrase is syntactically related to the phrase “marriage is to be held in honor in all things.” The two are connected with the conjunction καί. The main problem with Cunningham’s interpretation is that it leaves the phrase “Marriage is to be held in honor” hanging, and you have the conclusion based on the defiling of the marriage bed, without any mention again of marriage being held in honor.

The problem is that καί has many semantic functions, and, although it is usually translated as “and,” it can have other semantic connotations. One of the uses of καί is the “epexegetical” usage. This usage has the meaning, “that is to say[3].” Applied to this text, it would read, “Marriage is to be held in honor in all things, that is to say, the marriage bed is to be undefiled. In other words, the second phrase “the marriage bed undefiled” defines what we mean by “Marriage is to be held in honor in all things.” Thus, no one is “applying” this text “in reverse;” we are simply allowing for the full range of syntactical functions that a common conjunction like καί can have. If that is the case then, yes, the way in which we honor marriage is to not engage in sexual sin.

Not only that, the text does not say, “Marriage is to be honored in all things so that the marriage bed is undefiled.” I have not found a single instance of καί which is used for result. Unless Cunningham knows something I don’t, I will have to say that this is sloppy exegesis.

As for grandparents being involved and people not having children, the issue I have is not with the identification of these things as problems, but unfairly labeling those who delay marriage intentionally, in order to manipulate them to do what you want them to do in order to solve the problem. It doesn’t work that way. Imagine a church that had a shortage of elders, and hence, the church starts saying that only those people who are elders are true men, and anyone who is not an elder is just engaged in delayed adolescence, and needs to grow up, become a man, and become an elder. We can snicker at such nonsense, but that is exactly the way Cunningham, and others who hold this position are trying to solve these problems, and it doesn’t work.

The way to solve these problems is to point out the fact that there is a need, and to ask the people of God to pray, and see if God is calling them to this area of ministry. This is exactly what we would do if we had a shortage of elders in the church, or if we have a shortage of people to work in teaching Sunday school or hospitality. Yet, when it comes to this act of service, people lose their sanity, and everything is imposed in a manipulative fashion.

However, the manipulation doesn’t stop there. He says that, “If you have friends that are in prolonged adolescence, it is time to find some new friends.” The problem is, if your friends are showing the exegetically tenuous nature of this position, and showing you that this is mere selfish emotion that is not Biblically grounded, you are going to interpret them as being in “prolonged adolescence,” and thus, you are going to drop them as friends. It is sorta as if I were to say, “If you have friends who manipulate you into believing that delaying marriage is ‘extended adolescence,’ find some new friends.” In other words, my goal is to keep you from being open to hearing what the other side is saying. If you just automatically label the other side in that way, you are engaging in a debate tactic called “poisoning the well.” However, if that is what you have to do to keep people from hearing the other side, do you really have the truth?

At the very end of the section, Cunningham shows us the fact that there really is a deep seeded idolatry for marriage that causes a person to say these things. He says, “No more purity talks; give us marriage talks.” In other words, marriage is more important than purity. The only other way I can take this is that we are to trust in marriage for our purity. Either way, the problem is very simple. While marriage is an important and honored institution, it is not more important than purity. As all Christians should be, I would rather be holy than to be married. If I had the choice of being married or being holy, completely conformed to the image of Christ I would choose the latter. Holiness is part of who God is-the thrice holy God [Isaiah 6:3]. Hence, it is far more important, and far more noble to talk about purity, rather than to talk about marriage, because when you talk about purity, you are talking about the very essence of who God is, something marriage as a mere creation can never come close to.

In fact, Cunningham, in this broadcast, states that he tells his daughter that nothing will make her dad more happy than for her to be a wife one day. The incredible idolatry in that statement just made my skin curl. If I ever have children, I want them to be like Christ one day, holy and blameless, and I could care less whether or not they get married. Where have our priorities gone? Has marriage become such an idol that it is something that we want most for us and for our children above even conformity to the image of Christ? As I said, this is an issue that goes well beyond simply advocating young marriage. It goes to the heart of sin itself, to worship the creation [marriage] rather than the creator [God]. We cannot solve any problems in this way; we will only create worse problems.

Finally, the racy and raunchy attitude with which this issue is being handled by Cunningham and others is simply unacceptable. At the end of the broadcast he says that you need a Paul who has regular, creative sex with his wife. I immediately thought that anyone who knows Paul and his desire for holiness is just cringing about now. Not only that, but the raciness of this book is just beyond belief. For example, he speaks about his son finding out about his genitalia, and drawing a picture of [what looked like] it in a restaurant [yes, he even uses the p-word] [pgs. 26-27]. He also says, “Amy [his wife] and I made the decision early not to teach our children that there is something weird about their bodies, desires, or sex.” He says that he tells his kids the “anatomically appropriate terms” [p.27]. He says, “I grew up with great confusion about my body, sex, and the opposite sex” [p.26]. What is so sad is that this could actually come from a secular junior high family living class.

I actually expected this. Cunningham had actually written a book before this entitled The Language of Sex. Just in case you are interested, chapter titles include:

Raising the Temperature
Creating the Atmosphere
The Secret to Great Sex
Unforgetable Foreplay
Three big Sexpectations
Cultivate Creativity

I should mention that he does talk about the spiritual aspects of sexuality, but that is not until chapter 10. This stuff could be on the cover of a Cosmopolitan magazine. It is pure hedonism. That is why I was so concerned when I saw that he was heavily promoting his book under the idea that we have gotten this purity thing all wrong, and that “let’s wait” is easier to say when “I do” isn’t too far away. That statement just seemed ominous to me, knowing the chapter titles in The Language of Sex.

The problem is Cunningham has no leg to stand on scripturally for this racy use of language. He might try to point to the Song of Songs, but that would only destroy his own position. As Bruce Waltke says in the lecture I linked to above, the Song of Songs, although erotic, is modest, and not racy. The point is that there is a love of one another, and preciousness to sexuality in marriage that belies any use of racy language. Even the apostle Paul when he is speaking of the topic of marital sex in 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 largely uses euphemisms. The only time explicit language like what Cunningham is using is found in scripture is when the scriptures are discussing sexual sin [cf. Ezekiel 23]. This shows the vulgar and perverse nature of sexual sin and the precious and beautiful nature of marital sex. Yet, Cunningham has taken this explicit, racy language, and applied it to something that is beautiful and precious, treating it as if it were common sexual immorality. In fact, what I find interesting is that this is the same kind of language that was used by those promoting the sexual revolution.

Ted does have one defender in this regard, and that is Lisa Anderson who hosted this Boundless Show podcast. On Amir’s blog she writes:

Ted argues that marriage preparedness isn’t about a number (age), it’s about maturity, and we in the church would do well to start preparing our young adults for marriage at an earlier age rather than discouraging marriage until some arbitrary age of maturity (the 30s in some opinions) while crowing a sexual purity message for singles, expecting them to make it from their teen years through their 20s and into their 30s with no sex. Friends, this is why we have promiscuity and cohabitation rates in the church that mirror those of the world. Not that we’re not responsible for our sin, but good grief, let’s give folks a fighting chance on the front end. Especially if they’ve found a God-honoring match at 21 or 22.

Now, I agree that we should not prevent people from marrying at 21 or 22. However, where in the world does Lisa get the idea that it is somehow wrong for us to expect that, if someone is single in their twenties, they have no sexual relations during that period? I would say such is not an irrational expectation and the reason is very simple: God requires it. If you are single, God requires that you refrain from sexual relations. If we say that this is an unreasonable expectation, then you are calling God himself unreasonable.

I honestly think that what this shows us is that we have become quite a bit like the world. We simply cannot control ourselves, and we must have sexual relations. Now, I agree that attraction between the two genders is something that is natural, normal, and something God has created us with. However, I would argue that it is the power of sin that drives people to the point where they have to have sexual relations. As, ironically, the apostle Paul himself said:

1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 For this is the will of God: your sanctification, that is, to abstain from sexual immorality. And that each one of you know how to control his own vessel in holiness. Not in passionate lust as the heathen who do not know God.

The apostle Paul here tells people who cannot control themselves and engage in passionate lust that they are like the heathen who do not know God. Paul obviously did not have the same view that Cunningham attributes to him, nor would he agree with Lisa Anderson that it is somehow unreasonable to expect single people to go through their twenties and not have sexual relations.

As I have said before, this pretty much mirrors the message of the world: “They are going to do it anyways; just make sure we get them condoms.” The message of Cunningham, and, apparently Lisa Anderson too is: “They are going to do it anyways; just make sure we get them spouses.” Then, of course, the fruit of the spirit which is self control [Galatians 5:23] is never developed, and a person will still be left in sin because he cannot control himself.

Don’t get me wrong; sexual purity in today’s culture is hard. We are bombarded with sexual images all over the place. Immoral pictures are only two clicks away on the internet. Billboards for brothels are everywhere. Yes, we live in a culture that worships a lack of self-control. However, what I have found is that it is incredibly easy to avoid sexual sin when you fast. Why? Because, when you fast, you are [supposed to be anyway] focusing on the things of God. You are denying yourself food, in order to focus on God and his word. What that tells me is that avoiding sexual sin is not a matter of getting married; it is a matter of recognizing that you and your desires are not the most important thing in this world, and your obligation is to follow Christ whether that means your desires will be fulfilled or not.

I think it would be best to close with a passage Cunningham tried to use to prove this position, Ecclesiastes 9:9. However, if we take the rest of the context, Solomon’s point becomes clear:

Ecclesiastes 9:3-11 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead. For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun. Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going. I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.

Amazingly, Solomon’s point is the 180 degree opposite of the way Cunningham used this passage. Is point is that there is no point to enjoying the wife you love, or enjoying your reward for toil and labor. Why? Because, as verse 6 states, when you die, your love ceases. The grave is the end. Therefore, it doesn’t matter, really. We all go to the same place: to the grave, whether we are righteous or evil [verse 3]. Solomon’s point is, “Go ahead and do these things; it doesn’t matter. It is all meaningless anyways.”

That fits well with the context of the book of Ecclesiastes. However, I have to wonder if the folks promoting Cunningham’s book have really gotten that message. Outside of fearing God and keeping his commandments [Ecclesiastes 12:13] vanity of vanities, all is vanity [Ecclesiastes 1:2]. Eventually, as Solomon recognized, even the pleasure of sexual relations will go, you will get old, and you will die. The joy of marriage will go away when you start to find out that he snores, or has these disguising habits that you cannot put up with. If these things are not done with the fear of God, and the keeping of his commandments, and you instead replace those things with your desires for anything [including marriage], it will all be in vain.

I hope I have not discouraged people from pursuing marriage with this post. Marriage is, like singleness, something that is wonderful, although corrupted by our sin. The desire to marry is not wrong, and is, indeed, something that is perfectly natural. However, when it gets to the point where we must do it, because we simply won’t obey God otherwise, or when it gets to the point that we start saying that people are in “extended adolescence” if they don’t have it, then we have gone outside of the bounds of scripture, and begun a manipulative process that may just drive people further and further away from marriage. Cunningham thinks he is honoring marriage by what he is teaching. In reality, he is degrading marriage, because he his placing it at a level which the scriptures simply do not give it. That is something that may just end up driving more and more men [and women] farther away from marriage rather than towards marriage.

[1]Cunningham, Ted. Young and In Love, Challenging the Unnecessary Delay of Marriage. David C. Cook Publishers. Colorado Springs, Colorado. 2011. p.25

[2]Ibid, p.26

[3]See Blass, F. Debrunner, A. A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Robert W. Funk, trans. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois. 1961. §442(9)


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