Gay marriage seems to be increasingly in the news, for example today the Victorian branch of the ALP has voted to send a message to PM Julia Gillard to change the party platform and to support it.
Many conservative Christians would say that it makes no sense (in a church or christian sense) for someone to marry another of their own sex. That it goes against the Biblical view of marriage and the Christian understanding for centuries of this sacred commitment.
So lets review the history of Marriage from Old-Testament times to today to give a background of what exactly Christian marriage was and is.
In the ancient Israelite societies, marriage was the norm. There appear to have been few people who remained unmarried. A man selected a wife (or had one selected for him) from within his own tribe, usually at around the age of 13. The woman was then betrothed to him and in the eyes of society would be legally married. Upon consummation he would pay the bride-price to her family which compensated them for the loss of her labour. There was no religious ceremony at betrothal or any other time, although there would usually be a feast when the husband received the wife and consummated the marriage.
The husband ruled over the wife and his will was binding on the whole family. She was essentially considered to be his property, and there was not necessarily any requirement for consent from the woman for this arrangement.
There are many different types of marriage described in the Old Testament but they all seem to follow this pattern of ownership of the woman by the man. Polygamous marriages were frequently described and were common for those men rich enough to afford them. Concubines were permitted and were essentially sexual partners of a lower status than wives. Female prisoners of war were taken and would be made wives of the soldiers that had conquered their lands, and female slaves could be made wives at any time. Deuteronomy states that a woman who has been raped must be married to the attacker, so one path to marriage would be for a man to sexually attack a woman that appealed to him and then later paying 50 shekels to her father.
This then is the type and conception of marriage in the Old Testament, and it has to be seen against a culture which had no conception of women being of equal status to men. The Jewish man began his daily prayers by thanking God that he was not born a woman or a slave, some Jews still say this prayer. The woman was the possession of the man and if divorced would not be able to remarry – unlike the man who could of course purchase as many brides as he wanted or could afford.
Moving to the New Testament, and we can see that the status of women has been substantially improved. Jesus speaks against divorce and this was supported by the writings of Paul – essentially I believe to counter the unethical treatment of women in such situations and in so doing making the relationship closer to one of equals. The NT does not prohibit polygamy but states that Pastors should be the husband of only one wife – thus establishing a norm or ideal of a partnership – one man and one woman.
But still there is no concept of marriage being a specifically religious or godly matter. If one was in a marriage one had to behave ethically and orderly, but there is little sense that marriages were a specifically Christian thing to do or were blessed by the church. Jesus and Paul make it clear that celibacy was to be preferred and marriage undertaken very much as a second choice, perhaps only entered into if one could not endure the celibate life.
In the early Church there was still no marriage ceremony, it was not important for the couple to be blessed by a pastor or priest. There was no formal liturgy for marriage in contrast to formal liturgies that were established early on for baptism and the Lord’s supper. This may reflect the early church’s ambivalent attitude to marriage and seeing the absence of family-ties and celibacy as a preferrable state. There is no detailed account of a Christian wedding ceremony until the 9th Century, it wasnt until the 12th Century that a priest became involved in the ceremony and not until the 13th Century that he took charge of it. Many Christians today would be surprised to find that the church did not consider itself to have a role in marriage for almost half its history.
Gradually however theologians began to interpret a spiritual significance in marriage and eventually the Catholic church made marriage a sacrament. It essentially abolished divorce and also instituted a complex system of prohibitions and rules allowing or disallowing certain marriages. For example since a married couple were deemed to be “one flesh” all relatives of the couple on both sides were deemed to be related to each other. Marriage was therefore prohibited between any of them. By mediating and controlling these arcane rules the Church gained considerable power and influence in people’s lives.
At the Reformation, Luther and Calvin rejected the notion of marriage being a sacrament and thought that the church should have no role in it. Luther declared marriage to be “a worldly thing . . . that belongs to the realm of government”. The English puritans in 17th century even passed an Act of Parliament asserting “marriage to be no sacrament” and soon made marriage purely secular. The Catholic church responded to this challenge by asserting its authority over marriage and making more restrictions. In Catholic countries it retained its power to grant or dissolve marriages almost until this day.
Polygamy has over time disappeared as an option for Christian marriage. Luther condoned it in exceptional cases, unofficially permitting Landgrave Philip of Hesse to take two wives. An attempt was of course made to revive it by the Mormons in the 19th Century but was almost universally condemned by the Christian world.
Conservative Protestants particularly in the 19th and 20th Centuries have asserted a role for the church in marriage, but the control and regulation of marriage has passed from the church to the state. It must also be remembered that for much of its history marriage was an economic rather than a romantic or companionship arrangement and benefited the man rather more than the woman, who remained in a subordinate position until quite recently.
So Christians have had widely varying views on Christian marriage over the centuries – from asserting that the church has no role in marriage at all, to asserting that it has the central role. From permitting polygamy to celebrating celibacy, the church has changed its views many times in its existence.