Marriage is a divinely ordained institution. It was established by God himself for humanity’s good. After creating the first man, God saw that it was not good for Adam to be alone. So he gave him a helper or companion, in Eve (Genesis 2:18-25).
Following the fall of man into sin, the entire range of creation has been distorted. And this applies no less to marriage. Child marriage is an example of this distortion. As predicted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF), between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls will be forced into marriage. Although widely sanctioned by diverse cultures, the light of Scripture helps us discern how the practice negates God’s plan for human flourishing.
Societies which tolerate the practice are often influenced by tradition and their religious beliefs. And these are considered below in light of the Christian perspective.
Traditional, cultural and religious reasons
Among many cultures, both within and outside Zimbabwe, child marriage has been practiced for generations. Perpetuating it is widely seen as keeping within the community, past and present. And this is of no small concern within African settings. Within some communities, such as the Shona tribe, young girls are even given as spouses to the husbands of their late sisters or aunts. This practice is called “chimutsamapfiwa” which literary means “the one who takes up the stones which balance the pot on the fire”.
The idea behind this practice is to maintain the existing family ties by replacing the late sister or aunt with a family member and also, where there are children, it is believed that this kind of replacement ensures that those children will be taken good care of. To reject an offer or protest against it results in being treated as an outcast, for kicking against the traditional goads. So, many people follow the traditional practice of child marriage because of the communal sense of identity that comes from the idea that an individual member of a community is who he is because of other fellow members (Ubuntu or hunhu).
Also, in some communities such as the Ndau people of east Zimbabwe, an educated and independent woman is viewed as a threat to men. The assumption is that they will not be “submissive” in marriage. According to the Ndau culture, women must absolutely submit in a marriage, while men have license to rule and dominate. So, the reasoning goes, the best bride to marry is someone who is still young, immature and uneducated, because she is easy to manipulate, control and rundown. It is quite sad that in such a culture women may be viewed as objects rather than fellow human beings.
Many groups practise child marriage because it is sanctioned by their belief systems. Muslims claim it is sanctioned under Islam, while certain indigenous pseudo-Christian groups, such as the Jekenishen and Mapostiri, believe that God can instruct an elderly person to marry a minor. Such “instructions” are usually uttered when the so called prophet falls into a trance. Another group which accepts the practice is the Chikindingi Zion Church, whose services the author sometimes attended while growing up.
Our identity is derived from God
The Bible reveals that God has made humanity in his own image (Genesis 1:26). As such, our ultimate identity lies in the fact that we are humans fashioned after the likeness of our Creator. Furthermore, the Christian is to be conformed to the image of Christ. This means we cannot conform to a practice simply because we belong to a community. While we are members of a group, our supreme commitment must be to what God wants us to do.
We must weigh every practice in light of scripture
When humanity sinned against God and became corrupted, the resulting depravity reached into all of creation. Every part of God’s creation is affected, including cultural practices. Therefore, a practice cannot be maintained solely because it is long standing within a tribe or community. Like everything else, we must inquire whether it is in line with God’s character and will.
Marriage requires that only responsible adults take it up
When we adhere to wrong beliefs, we are likely to end up with wrong practices. Non-Christian religions hold to a false or partial revelation of God and humanity. As such, it is not surprising that some of them encourage wrong practices. Marriage as an institution was established between two fully developed adults as indicated by the creation story (Genesis 1:27; 2:21-25).
From its inception, marriage was designed for both parties to complement one another (Genesis 2:23), a goal that child marriage cannot realize. The admonition to honour marriage and keep the marriage bed holy (Hebrews 13:4) also indicates the gravity of marital relationships. A child should not be dragged into a situation they are inadequately prepared for or incapable of handling due to their lack of maturity.
The Spirit does not guide believers in ways contradictory to Scripture
Christian traditions differ on whether God can still give revelations to believers outside of the Bible. However, one principle is certain: the Holy Spirit will not contradict himself. Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), so if God does give revelation today, it cannot violate the directives or principles laid down in his Word.
Considering how the traditions and beliefs mentioned are incompatible with God’s design for marriage and expectations within it, child marriage is clearly a distortion of God’s purposes for human flourishing. And the church has a role to teach, preach and counsel against it.