of marriageable age

My last post got me thinking about other factors involved in who is ‘allowed’ to marry in different times and places in human history.  One factor is age.

I want to note here that a) what many Christians would say on this issue would reflect (perhaps as it should in this case?) the cultural attitudes around them, b) there is probably no official ‘Christian’ or biblical numeric answer for it, and c) this is an area of morality which seems to be characterised by both binary, ‘either/or’ thinking (either pre or post puberty) and gradient, ‘from-to’ thinking (from less mature to more mature).

The prohibition (‘discrimination’?) regarding people being too young to marry, is (like the prohibitions about gender, related-ness, and number of people) a protective one.  Both the people involved (including their bodies) and the institution are being protected.  In the case of age, the young people are being protected, to be blunt, from their own immaturity.   Which leads to the next point.

The conversation (ethically and biblically) is about maturity.  Clearly we all can imagine the 50 year old fool who is utterly incompatible with even the thought of monogamy.  Like a rattlesnake which has not yet learned to conserve its venom and wastes it all on each bite, he or her has not matured to a point of self-control required to sustain fidelity in marriage.  Equally clearly, especially for those of us in contexts where the legal marriageable age is high (18 in New Zealand – 16 with parental consent), we may have known individuals who were technically under the age, but seemed beyond reasonable doubt to be easily mature enough for marriage.

Traditionally, in older contexts and less ‘developed’ (depending on your standards for what constitutes ‘development’!) contexts, the age for marriage clusters around biology – puberty.  Ability to bear children was and is linked to response-ability to raise those same children.  And fair enough too.  But this mention of responsibility raises a dynamic I find both interesting and worrying…  We seem to be sponsoring immaturity.

We rightly and understandably put off and absolve young people of responsibility until they are old enough, but ‘old enough’ seems to get older and older the more ‘developed’ the context is.  In simple ‘primitive’ cultures, maturity comes earlier because the convenience of delayed responsibility is absent.  The 13 year old is a valuable asset to the family’s sustainability, and must “chop wood and carry water” if they are to survive.  Our teenagers whine about having to put the dishes in the dishwasher.  Which one is ready for marriage?