On Matrimony

Traditional Christian marriage owes more to Rome than Jerusalem.

As a Christian in the developed world it is nearly impossible to avoid the debate raging in the public arena between the proponents of gay marriage and those who cherish marriage's traditional form. Now, I have no intention of joining the fray with this post, but I would like to take a look at one feature of the argument of those Christians who are promoting the traditional view of marriage. Whenever I hear them present their case, I’m always left wondering whether they are aware of the actual history of the traditional form of marriage that they so vehemently defend.

While there can be no doubt that the Bible teaches that marriage is to be viewed by the Church as an honourable, godly institution (Matt 19:4-5, Heb 13:4, et al), what was called “marriage” in the Early Church is significantly different to what many of today’s Christians think of as marriage. David deSilva, in his Introduction to the New Testament, discusses the concept of marriage in the ancient world:
The purpose of marriage was chiefly provision for the future, both in terms of offspring and inheritance. It was not the result of a process of dating, falling in love or talking about compatibilities, but was arranged by parents (or by bride’s parents and groom) with a view to the future of their families and their honor. Marriage was not a provision for the fleshly desires.1
In his short monograph called “Marriage – What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Professor Samuel Rubenson of the Centre for Theology and Religious Studies at Lund University in Sweden looked at how Christianity fit into this picture:
Since Christianity is itself a product of historical development, and not an ideology independent of its historical context, there was no well-defined Christian understanding of and practice in regard to marriage from the beginning of Christianity in the first century A.D. Instead, Christian marriage traditions were formed on the basis of the social and historical setting of Early Christianity and became fairly fixed in Western as well as Eastern Christian tradition only towards the end of the 8th century.2
The two main influences within “the social and historical setting of Early Christianity” were the Jewish and Roman marriage traditions. In the Marriage Customs section of the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible we read:
The idea of marriage was ordained by God in his instruction to Adam that a man should leave his father and mother, and he and his wife should be as one flesh (Gn 2:24). The first actual mention of the word marriage is in Genesis 34:8.3

As Hebrew society developed from the nomadic to the agricultural and village stage, the customs involved in marriage became more complex. Ritual functions such as feasts, processions, and dances were added.4
However, it must be remembered that those customs and ritual functions were added by people, not by God. There are no divinely prescribed wedding ceremonies or marriage rituals in the Bible; every one, Hebrew or pagan, was developed entirely by human beings. By the 1st century, the Jews had developed an elaborate, seven day long marriage festival, complete with the ritualised presentation of proof of bridal virginity.

The Roman tradition was far less celebratory than the Hebrew one and was focused more on the legal and civic aspects of the union. Rubenson again:
Marriage was strongly supported by the state in order to promote the bringing up of children who could be charged with official duties and thus uphold the state and guarantee succession. There was no formal act to be married or to be divorced. Any man and woman who were old enough, were Roman citizens, and lived together with marital affection and the intent to bring up children were considered married.5
The blending of these two marriage traditions by the Early Church resulted in a syncretistic reconciliation between the acceptable aspects of both. The Church adopted much of its central theological and doctrinal understanding of marriage from the Jews, but its ceremonies, practices and societal self-image found their origins primarily in the Greco-Roman culture wherein it grew and struggled. Furthermore, as the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church notes:
Roman matrimonial practice was in many ways also influential in the formation of Christian doctrine. Though under the Empire divorce was readily available to both parties, the jurist Modestinus could define marriage as ‘a lifelong partnership, and a sharing of civil and religious rights’ ... while the legal commonplace that it was not consummation but consent that made a marriage was equally agreeable to Christian belief. One part of Roman law, however, that there could be no marriage between bond and free, was repugnant to Christian sentiment and set aside in the 3rd cent.6
For the strongly egalitarian Christians in the first and second centuries, the legal and cultural restrictions on slaves and women of both Hebrew and Roman traditions were obstacles to overcome. They could not change the laws of Rome (at least not until Constantine's reign), but they could treat their unions differently among themselves. From Justo Gonzalez' Story of Christianity:
The church also began celebrating marriages at least by the beginning of the second century—when Ignatius of Antioch wrote to Polycarp that all marriages should take place with the knowledge of the bishop. It is understandable that devout couples would wish to consecrate their union. But apparently marriages in the church also had another function: to acknowledge unions that were not strictly legal. According to the law of the time, the social status—and the accompanying rights—of a couple was determined by the status of a husband. In the early church women tended to be of higher social standing than men, and therefore official, legal marriages among believers could have serious civil consequences, depriving the wife of some of her rights and standing. The solution was to perform church marriages that had no official or civil sanction.7
So, to summarise, when we examine the original views and customs of marriage in the nascent Church we see that, beyond the self-identification of the couple as Christians, there was no such thing as a Christian marriage. There was no church wedding, no ministerial celebrants and no public declaration of commitment; there wasn’t even any requirement to be in a legal, state-approved marriage. In fact, it was harder to be deemed a member of the Church than it was to be considered married back then. Any adult Christian couple who had consented to a heterosexual, monogamous, near-indivisible union for life would have been considered to be in a "Christian marriage" by the Early Church. The traditional, so-called “Christian marriage” that so many modern Christians are fighting to retain as the exclusive form of state-sanctioned marriage today is not a holy sacrament handed down by the Lord through the Patriarchs; it is nothing more than a quaint cultural accretion on the body of the Church.


1. David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods and Ministry Formation (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2004), 140.

2. Samuel Rubenson, “Marriage – What Difference did Christianity Make?”, Complexity: Interdisciplinary Communications (2006/2007): 81.

3. The Hebrew of v. 8 simply reads "please give her to him." The word for "make marriage" is in Gen 34:9 of the Hebrew text and the Septuagint. This is the word chatan (חָתַן) in the BHS, which means "become related by marriage" (CHALOT) and epigambreuo (ἐπιγαμβρεύω), "to become related by marriage" (BDAG) in the LXX. So, contrary to the Baker Encyclopedia, that is the "first actual mention of marriage" in the Bible.

4. Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988), 1405.

5. Rubenson, “Marriage,” 82.

6. Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1061.

7. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Vol. I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 114-115.

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