A short history of Christian marriage


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.


— wazza2

21 thoughts on “A short history of Christian marriage

  1. Thanks for the effort you put into the short wazza history of marriage, which may have some merit, but I think it may be incomplete.

    Goodness, you almost convinced me marriage was a mistake!

    I’m so glad I can look at my wife and see the blessing of being married to her, and thank God for the wonderful children who have come from our 30 year union!

    What happened to the notion that a man who finds a wife finds a good thing and the blessing of the Lord comes with her?

    Some of the great heroes of faith in the OT went to great lengths to secure the woman of their heart, including amazing courtships. Song of Solomon particular gives a vivid description of the Jewish concept of intimate courtship and marriage.

    Under the NT the woman possesses the man’s body, and the man the woman’s body, the marriage bed is undefiled, and marriage is likened to the mystery of Christ and the Church, which you do not mention once.

    For all believers mutual submission is a must in the fear of the Lord before any consider marriage. We who believe are under the ownership of Christ not man.

    The husband is to love the wife, and the wife reverence the husband in a mutual bond. He is to give himself for her as Christ gave himself for the Church.

    From the beginning man inspired Adam to prophecy that a man would leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife and the two would be one flesh – she would be his helpmeet, an equal partner who came alongside and adapted herself to him, just as the rib which had been removed was an essential art of his body to complete him.

    Of course, if you don’t believe Adam really existed…

    Jesus attended the marriage of a friend at Canaan and blessed it with the first miracle, turning water into wine to enhance the celebrations, ensuring a successful occasion.

    The ceremonies of the Church have always reflected the Biblical principles outlined in the NT with reference to the OT. Christian marriage is a very powerful and beautiful thing which glorifies God.

    It is God who puts a man and woman together, and woe to any who tries to divide them.

    Those are just some thoughts off the top of my head. Strange you mentioned not a single one of them in your brief wazza history of marriage.

    What are you really trying to say?

  2. That should be ‘God inspired Adam to prophesy’ the marriage institution.

    Isn’t it amazing how God could give such a brief detail of marriage and yet it cover so much ground and be so clear. Such an economy of words with so much meaning and depth.

    And the genesis of marriage completely lacerates the notion of same sex unions.

    The reason there is so much discussion about t is that it is so hugely controversial. The amount of pressure being put on the Western democracies to legalise something which is firmly against nature and cultural norms is presently intense, but only because it is so difficult to shift people from deeply entrenched ideas, and this one is correctly established and founded in God’s own directive to man.

    I can understand the secular and humanist unbelievers wanting to go this way, but Christians? Believers?

    Come on!

  3. Steve, thanks for your analysis of the article. Whilst it was not a relevant, reasonable or honest analysis it still was, I suppose, an analysis.

    I was not arguing against Marriage itself, but showing that the concept has changed over time, and that the church has generally not seen a role for itself in either regulating it or making pronouncements on the institution of marriage. Where it has intruded into this area it has generally not been beneficial for society.

    “Some of the great heroes of faith in the OT went to great lengths to secure the woman of their heart, including amazing courtships”

    Can you name two?

    I’m suprised you mentioned Song of Solomon, given that you dont believe in the divine inspiration of Solomon’s other writings. How could we know whether this book is inspired by God or not?

    What are you really trying to say?

    I say or do not say, there is no try.

  4. I understood that at some point in the last few centuries, the marriage ceremony was formal and recorded between the groom and the bride because of the property rights involved, inheritances and so forth. Lesser members of society might have just moved in together – maybe they had a feast or maybe not, but they were recognised as a permanent partnership. In other words, the ceremony varied, and was often to do with recording things rather than religious blessing, but the community had no issue recognising the relationships as permanent regardless.

    After all, even christenings weren’t really for blessing babies – they were for recording births for the purpose of taxes in later life.

    I saw a 400 year old family document that recorded the marriage of one of my ancestors recently. The wife was referred to in the same way as property. It was fascinating.

  5. I wasn’t clear – I was under the impression that the lower classes didn’t necessarily have marriage ceremonies at all in some times, nor maybe even feasts, but were still regarded as marriage.

    Marriage was always recognised by society between men and women, but not formalised the way we do now. Which is why the defacto thing is interesting – committed people are told they are living in sin when they become part of a church community, but perhaps even by biblical standards this is not so, if their commitment is permanent. God can see better than we can.

    Re marriage between same sex – if I was not a believer, I would probably support this – my main reservation would be to do with the adoption of unrelated children. (Even there, you could argue that it is better for a child to be adopted by a same sex couple than be shunted around between foster homes, despite missing either a mother or a father.)

    Legally, I think same sex unions should be recognised, and where a permanent commitment is made, they should have the same rights as a married couple, in terms of finances etc. I don’t think churches should be forced to marry them however, as this would force the church to change its definition of marriage. I have no problem with recognising civil unions.

    While there have always been same sex relationships, they have never been regarded as marriage – even in societies where a same sex relationship was regarded as a higher form of love, like in Athens for example. Marriage was for the purpose of creating a household with all its attendant benefits and stability. Often, men would have male lovers, and a wife at home.

  6. By ‘household’ above, I mean a traditional one that was intended to include children, though there would have been some who could not have them.

    I meant to say that I have no problem recognising civil unions, but I don’t think they should be called marriage when that changes an understanding that has existed for thousands of years, even in societies where same sex love was regarded as higher.

  7. I remember reading that too RP. The poor couldn’t afford to get married.

    In A.D. 527-565 during the rein of Justinian lawyers drew up laws called the Justinian Code and this was a regulation of their daily life including marriage. Up until the time of the Justinian Code just saying you were married was enough.

    Until the ninth century marriages were not church involved. Up until the twelfth century there were blessings and prayers during the ceremony and the couple would offer their own prayers. Then priests asked that an agreement be made in their presence. Then religion was added to the ceremony.

    English weddings in the thirteenth century among the upper class became religious events but the church only blessed the marriage and did not want a legal commitment. In 1563 the Council of Trent required that Catholic marriages be celebrated at a Catholic church by a priest and before two witnesses. By the eighteenth century the wedding was a religious event in all countries of Europe.


  8. You know what they say Greg: “you have to get married sometime – you can’t stay happy for your entire life”.

    “thank thank you -I’m here till Friday – try the souvlaki”

    Ah, Greece. What do you get if you cross a guitar with an anti-tank rocket launcher? A bouzouki!

  9. @Margot

    Jacob and Rachel, Isaac and Rebekah….

    I dont think these were courtships in the way we would think of the term. Jacob was working and when asked how he would like to be paid, suggested Rachel. Even then he got a surprise two-for-one offer. Isaac and Rebekah hadnt met before their marriage. In neither case was the woman’s consent required.

    RP, I think for thousands of years marriage has been viewed as ownership, with the man being of course the owner. So to have a marriage between two men or two women would have been as unthinkable as a cow owning another cow, or a farmer owning another farmer. Farmers own cows and that is the only combination possible because of the assumed nature and rights of the participants.

    Marriage has now changed into more of a partnership, so it would seem to be possible to extend it in that way.

  10. @Wazza2,

    “Farmers own cows and that is the only combination possible because of the assumed nature and rights of the participants.”

    Some men might contend that they are in fact married to cows.

    “Marriage has now changed into more of a partnership, so it would seem to be possible to extend it in that way.”

    And since we discovered the law of relativity we can wipe out entire cities with a single warhead. Progress is a wonderful thing.

  11. We are believers here, right? We do follow Biblical principles. Correct?

    I was of the understanding that God wanted to bless all the FAMILIES of the earth through Abraham AND Sarah, and through this line came the SEED.

    The first prophecy given by a man involved marriage.

    It was always a concept in God’s mind.

    ‘Let us make man in our own image’. ‘Male and female he created them’. ‘He said to them, ‘Be fruitful, multiply.’ SEED the earth!

    Greg doesn’t care where a man sticks his private parts! I think you need help, bro! It makes absolutely no sense to say to a man, ‘wherever you stick your private part, to that object, male, female material or beast you shall be married!’

    I can’t fathom some of the things I read here!

  12. RP, I think for thousands of years marriage has been viewed as ownership, with the man being of course the owner. So to have a marriage between two men or two women would have been as unthinkable as a cow owning another cow, or a farmer owning another farmer. Farmers own cows and that is the only combination possible because of the assumed nature and rights of the participants.

    Marriage has now changed into more of a partnership, so it would seem to be possible to extend it in that way.

    Yes, in many cultures its undoubtedly true that marriage was about ownership. It’s probably untrue to say that it was only about ownership though. We do have some examples where it was a partnership for the economic benefit of a household, such as the illustration in Proverbs 31. Also, the bringing up of children has to have been the primary purpose, when children were needed to look after one in one’s old age, and many children died, so you needed to have lots. Occasionally you found matriarchies. Sparta was one, at one point. The queen would take a new king once a year, I believe, and sacrifice him annually then take a new one. In Sparta, when it became more military, both men and women were subordinate to the needs of the nation. The men were almost military slaves. Necessary to keep the actual slaves in their place, since they greatly outnumbered the Spartans. Fascinating actually. (This is all from memory – I haven’t looked it up to check the details.)

    To be honest, I do struggle with the issue. I’d actually like to support marriage between same sex couples, because I don’t doubt that their commitment can equal that of heterosexual married couples, especially since I’ve known a couple who’ve been together for at least two decades. The reason I can’t is purely because of what I see as the biblical pattern for men and women, beginning in Genesis, and its use in the NT as a universal illustration of the relationship between God and man. That speaks to me of God’s plan, and I feel that anything less is a result of the fallen world we live in – I don’t blame the people affected for the result. So my view is definitely a result of my faith here, and I can’t get around that.

    It’s hard though since we live in a secular state, and the state does not share my faith. How can I impose my views on others who don’t share my faith? I think its immoral to do so. But if asked to vote on the issue, given that we live in a democracy, I would have to express my view honestly and vote against it at the moment, because in my opinion its not God’s plan so its not in the best interests of society to support it.

    If I did not have my faith, I would be unlikely to have this view. I would still have concerns about the impact on children growing up. We don’t really know the effect of endorsing families across society with two mothers or two fathers. The case recently where the sperm donor who had an ongoing relationship with the child was removed from the birth certificate and the non-biological mother’s name was placed there, was horrific. (There needed to be three spaces on the certificate to acknowledge the truth of the situation – maybe a special one for the biological donor.) I think many same sex parental situations would be fine. Particularly if the child is related by blood to one of the parents. But typically having a mother and a father is good for the development of a child, and I don’t know about endorsing situations where they have two of one and none of the other as if it is the same as a two sex parental unit (and I know those aren’t perfect). This would be an effect of endorsing marriage. That might affect my view if I were not Christian.

    I know that some people will find me bigoted. But this is the result of my faith in the pattern that I believe is presented in the Bible, in a universal sense, regardless of the economics or ceremonial aspects of it.

  13. Sparta is also interesting because while the men were married off, they lived in military barracks for much of their lives, from the age of seven. Sexual relationships between men were common and normal. Marriage served the needs of the state for children. The idea of a romantic bond doesn’t seem to have been much of a factor, though it must have existed sometimes. The idea of marrying for a romantic bond is really very modern.

  14. Why don’t we swap it around – have marriage contracts where the woman is the “owner” and the man as part of the woman’s chattel. Try this out for a few thousand years (or a time period which fairly balances the time period in which the male dominated).

    Of course, it will be up to our descendants to decide, which system, if any, is better.

    Or do we just stick with equality like some of us think we have now?

  15. So many miss the point, marriage, the institution as we now know it is & was a CULTURAL construct. As well it continues as a spiritual/religious one and an economic one in many cultures & for many ppl.
    Christians like to push “Christians Values” like they always existed. There were no Christians mores/values ’cause there was no Christianity or Bible as we know it till at least the 4th century CE. All those mating/coupling/marriage RITUALS ppl like to site from “Biblical” times were beliefs, rituals & value systems of place & culture, & guess what, with passing of time these ALL change & become something else. Just like 1000s of yrs from now what we call culture will look & be totally different. Stop using this interpolated, plagiarized book put together around 4th century from books & stories from many ancient cultures, to exert your ideological will on ppl & create so many problems globally. Research the history of this book outside of strictly Christian sources, it is not “the word of God” but the word of MEN!
    As 4 homosexuality & marriage, anal sex is a practice mainly out ancient Greece & Rome (though in other cultures it may have been a thing too) that continues to be a reality for many to this day! Stop the judgement & let ppl be! Though personally I do feel anal sex, using the rectum(an eliminatory organ, can we say doodoo?!) as a sexual organ is simply biologically adverse, with AIDS being only the latest of infections & ailments from anal sex. Reality check Christians, hetero couples have anal sex too (Christians ones included)! What’s the difference, man/woman or man/man it’s still a penis in an anus. To me it’s just as unhealthy! But hey, doo doo U, it’s your ass, not mine. But I digress, my pt. is, if 2 same sex ppl marry, how does that possibly upset the “sanctity of marriage”?! There r some “gay” couples lovingly together way longer than many hetero couples stay together. Divorce rate among Christians is about as high for non Christians. And even if they don’t divorce, many Christian couples have quite dysfunctional marriages(let’s not even talk about some married pastors). The marriage contract will simply allow gay couples legal rights other couples have(certainly won’t have any bearing on them being couples or not). Fair is fair! Eve has access to things legally Adam’s, why not Steve?!

  16. ***Why don’t we swap it around – have marriage contracts where the woman is the “owner” and the man as part of the woman’s chattel.***

    I could cop being personally possessed by Laura Vandervoort any day.

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