Good News for African Girls: Child Marriage & Christianity

Tim Cantrell

green and black snake on black surface

Amidst all the world’s bad news, good news was heralded from Sierra Leone last week about the outlawing of child brides, where one third of girls are forcibly married off before the age of eighteen, leading to a high number of maternal deaths (because of premature pregnancy). Child marriage is a longstanding, pagan practice in many African countries, with West and Central Africa currently leading the world with nearly sixty million child brides. In East Africa, fathers in the Maasai tribe can give away a twelve-year-old daughter against her will to a polygamist old enough to be her grandfather. In the Muslim country of Mauritania, it is common in villages to find brides as young as ten or eleven years of age.

Child marriage is worse on our continent, but not unique to Africa. Other countries with high rates of child marriage include Bangladesh and India, especially in the rural areas where more than fifty percent of marriages can be child brides. Between 2011 and 2020 globally, more than 140 million girls were forced into marriage! Truly, “Any culture, ancient or modern, that weds little girls to older men is essentially legalizing child abuse.” Worst of all, even churches, cults, and sects have promoted this captivity in the name of Christ.

What then is the Christian response to this cruel-but-widespread tradition? What impact should the Word of God have in such darkened cultures, and how should the gospel liberate, enlighten, and transform? 

Scripture is not against older men marrying younger women, as seen with Boaz and Ruth and elsewhere. Ancient Jewish culture considered girls as “women” and marriageable after puberty, but boys were not considered “men” in the fullest sense until age 20 (Num 1:18). We also recognize that “every culture has its own traditions and age requirements, and young people in ancient times were better prepared for marriage at earlier ages than they are today, when adolescence is often pampered and protracted.”

However, here are three biblical reasons why Christianity has historically opposed child marriage and why the church should continue to stand against it today: the protection of girls; the purpose of marriage; and the perversion of patriarchy.

Protection of Girls

Wherever Christianity has gone, often the most visible fruit is the elevation of human dignity, seeing all people as made in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27). Historians cannot deny the gospel’s impact when a once-pagan culture starts recognizing the sanctity of human life and protecting those most vulnerable. Four such historical examples where Christianity has changed societies are in the pagan practices of widow-burning, infanticide, gladiatorial contests, and female circumcision.Indeed, the birth of Christ was truly the turning point in the history of women and children (Mark 10:13–16). 

Not only nature but also Scripture would indicate that a young woman is not ready for marriage until she has completed puberty (Ezek 16:7–8, “old enough to love,” i.e., ready for marriage; Song 8:8–9). The account of Jairus’ deceased daughter twice speaks of her as a “little girl” at age 12, implying she was still considered a child, not ready for marriage (Mark 5:23, 41).

Studies show that pregnant girls under the age of fifteen have five to seven times greater chance of dying during childbirth. Child mothers are also more likely to develop fistula, cervical cancer, and other STDs. Girls under eighteen who bear children face a sixty percent greater chance of losing their baby. Child brides are also more susceptible to domestic violence, marital rape, and sexual abuse. Surely then Christians should be the loudest to protest such trampling on the rights of these young girls made in our Creator’s image. Indeed, throughout history Christianity has been an invaluable influence on the elevation of human dignity throughout different cultures, making an impact on practices such as widow-burning, female circumcision, gladiatorial contests, and infanticide. 

Purpose of Marriage

In the Bible, marriage is a solemn covenant, always between a man and a woman (Gen 2:18–25; Mark 10:7). The Greek and Hebrew words used when discussing marriage speak of mature men and women, never child brides. This is because God’s purpose for marriage was both procreation and companionship. From the beginning, Genesis 2 makes clear that our Creator designed marriage for a rich intimacy and the deepest of friendship among two equals, not for polygamy or mere utility. 

All eight chapters of Song of Solomon model a monogamous mutuality: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” The Apostle Paul speaks about a Christian woman not marrying involuntarily, but “to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). Everything about child marriage contradicts this high biblical vision of marriage. When marriage is “held in honor among all” as God requires, women are respected, not exploited (Heb 13:4). If marriage is supremely about portraying Christ’s own tender, nurturing, sacrificial love for His church, this leaves no place for a child bride (Eph 5:22–33).

Perversion of Patriarchy

Finally, child marriage is an abuse of God’s good design for male headship and fatherhood. Instead of the biblical pattern of a godly, wise, loving father doing what is best for his daughter, this pagan practice abandons a daughter to join another man’s harem as no better than a concubine. These are the very practices that Christianity confronts and transforms, not condones and tolerates.

As one Zimbabwean church leader writes, “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.” For those of us raised in the civilized free world, how grateful we should be to God for those that first brought the gospel to our lands to spare us such degrading practices that erode marriage, family, and all of society. Yet as the West keeps rebelling against God’s Word, many are embracing all kinds of pagan practices and dehumanizing darkness (Rom 1:18–32).

May God awaken His church to the evils of child marriage and cause believers to be “salt” and “light” in societies that endanger young girls and turn them into prey (Matt 5:13–16). May we show that Christ is Lord over every tradition, that Scripture and not culture rules our lives (Col 2:8). May we “not conform to this age” but be “transformed by the renewing of their mind” to do the will of God, even in the most godless societies (Rom 12:2).

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Author green and black snake on black surface

Tim Cantrell

Tim serves as Sr. Pastor of Antioch Bible Church and President of Shepherd's Seminary in Johannesburg, South Africa.