Christian views on marriage

Most Christian authorities and bodies view marriage (also called Holy Matrimony) as a state instituted and ordained by God for the lifelong relationship between one man as husband and one woman as wife. They consider it the most intimate of human relationships, a gift from God, and a sacred institution.[1] Protestants consider it to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith,[2] while Catholics[3] and Eastern Orthodox Christians[4] consider it a Sacrament. Biblically, it is to be "held in honour among all…."[Heb. 13:4]

Jesus Christ maintained the importance and sacredness of lifelong marriage in his own teachings. He quoted from both Genesis 1 and 2, stating in Matthew 19:3-6 that God had created humanity as male and female,[Genesis 1:27] and that in marriage "'the two will become one flesh'.[Genesis 2:24] So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate".

Civil laws recognize marriage as having social and political statuses. Christian theology affirms the secular status of marriage, but additionally views it from a moral and religious perspective that transcends all social interests.

While marriage is honored and affirmed among Christians and throughout the Bible, there is no suggestion that it is necessary for everyone. Single people who either have chosen to remain unmarried or who have lost their spouse for some reason are neither incomplete in Christ nor personal failures.[5]

In the Catechism of the Catholic Church is explained that "the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws. God himself is the author of marriage." The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. " By reason of their state in life and of their order, [Christian spouses] have their own special gifts in the People of God."This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple's love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they "help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children." Christ is the source of this grace. "Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony. "Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another's burdens” “ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love”

The New Testament teaches that sex is reserved for marriage.[5] It calls sex with the wife of another, or sex with someone else other than the husband, the sin of adultery. (See also fornication.)


Christians seek to uphold the seriousness of wedding vows. Yet, they respond with compassion to deep hurts by recognizing that divorce, though less than the ideal, is sometimes necessary to relieve one partner of intolerable hardship, unfaithfulness or desertion.[5] While the voice of God had said, "I hate divorce",[Malachi 2:16] some authorities believe the divorce rate in the church is nearly comparable to that of the culture at large.[6]

There is considerable disagreement among Christians as to the biblical way to define the roles of each marriage partner, and how each should interact in the family to create healthy family relationships and to please God. Roles in Christian marriages between opposite-sex couples challenge deep-rooted beliefs, teachings, and traditions—most dating from biblical days. Opinions and teachings vary among three principal groups—one group that believes in a full and co-equal partnership of the husband and wife, and two others which advocate a male-dominant hierarchical structure in marriage:

Some Christian authorities used to permit polygamy (specifically polygyny) in the past, but this practice, besides being illegal in Western cultures, is now considered to be out of the Christian mainstream and continues to be practised only by fringe fundamentalist sects.

Family authority and responsibilities

Christians today hold three competing views as to what is the biblically ordained relationship between husbands and wives. These views range from one that believes the New Testament teaches complete equality of authority and responsibility between the man and woman in marriage, all the way to one that calls for a return to complete patriarchy in which relationships are based on male-dominant power and authority in marriage.[9]

Orthodox betrothal depicted by Vasily Vladimirovich Pukirev, 1862.

The great debate about marriage in contemporary Christian circles is among three primary groups—"Christian egalitarians", "Complementarians", and "Biblical patriarchists".

Much of the dispute hinges on how one interprets the New Testament Household Code (Haustafel) which has as its main focus hierarchical relationships between three pairs of social classes that were controlled by Roman law: husbands/wives, parents/children, and masters/slaves. The Code, with variations, occurs in four epistles (letters) by the Apostle Paul and in 1  Peter. The Roman law of Manus gave the husband nearly absolute autocratic power over his wife, including life and death. The law of Patria Potestas (Latin for "Rule of the Fathers") gave a husband equally severe power over his children and slaves. Theologian Frank Stagg[10]:pp.187ff finds the basic tenets of the Code in Aristotle's discussion of the household in Book 1 of Politics and in Philo's Hypothetica 7.14.[11] Serious study of the New Testament Household Code (Haustafel) began with Martin Dilbelius in 1913, with a wide range of studies since then. In a Tübingen dissertation by James E. Crouch,[12] he concludes that the early Christians found in Hellenistic Judaism a code which they adapted and Christianized.

Biblical egalitarians, Complementarians, and Biblical patriarchists each differ on how the provisions of the New Testament Household Code are to be interpreted today, both as to meaning and to intended audiences. Some authorities view them as applicable to 1st century new Christians living under an oppressive Roman legal system, while others believe they were intended to apply to all peoples of all times to come, including today.

Stagg believes the several occurrences of the Code in the New Testament were intended to meet the needs for order within the churches and in the society of the day. He maintains that the New Testament Household Codes are attempts by Paul and Peter to Christianize these harsh Codes for Roman citizens who had become followers of Christ. Stagg writes that there is some suggestion in scripture that because Paul had taught that they had newly found freedom "in Christ", wives, children, and slaves were taking improper advantage of the Haustafel both in the home and the church. "The form of the code stressing reciprocal social duties is traced to Judaism's own Oriental background, with its strong moral/ethical demand but also with a low view of woman.... At bottom is probably to be seen the perennial tension between freedom and order.... What mattered to (Paul) was 'a new creation'[Gal. 6:15] and 'in Christ' there is 'not any Jew not Greek, not any slave nor free, not any male and female'".[Gal. 3:28][5] Such codes existed in Greek tradition. Two of these Christianized codes are found in Ephesians 5:21-33 (which contains the phrases "husband is the head of the wife" and "wives, submit to your husband") and in Colossians 3:18-4:1 (which instructs wives to subordinate themselves to their husbands).

The importance of the meaning of "head" as used by the Apostle Paul is pivotal in the conflict between the Complementarian position and the Egalitarian view. The word Paul used for "head", transliterated from Greek, is kephalē. Today's English word "cephalic" (/səˈfælk/ sə-FAL-ik) stems from the Greek kephalē and means "Of or relating to the head; or located on, in, or near the head. " A thorough concordance search by Catherine Kroeger shows that the most frequent use of "head" (kephalē) in the New Testament is to refer to "the anatomical head of a body". She found that its second most frequent use in the New Testament was to convey the metaphorical sense of "source".[13][14] Other Egalitarian authors such as Margaret Howe agree with Kroeger, writing that "The word 'head' (in 1  Corinthians 11:3 and other similar passages) must be understood not as 'ruler' but as 'source'".[15]

Wayne Grudem criticizes commonly rendering kephalē in those same passages only to mean "source", and argues that it denotes "authoritative head" in such texts as 1 Corinthians 11:3. They interpret that verse to mean that God the father is the authoritative head over the Son, and in turn Jesus is the authoritative head over the church, not simply its source. By extension, they then conclude that in marriage and in the church, the man is the authoritative head over the woman.[16]

Another potential way to define the word "head", and hence the relationship between husband and wife as found in Bible, is through the example given in the surrounding context in which the word is found.[Eph. 5:20-33] In that context the husband and wife are compared to Christ and his church. The context seems to imply an authority structure based on a man sacrificing himself for his wife, as Christ did for the church; a love-based authority structure, where submission is not required but freely given based on the care given to the wife.[17]

Some biblical references on this subject are debated depending on one’s school of theology. The historical grammatical method is a hermeneutic technique that strives to uncover the meaning of the text by taking into account not just the grammatical words, but also the syntactical aspects, the cultural and historical background, and the literary genre. Thus references to a patriarchal Biblical culture may or may not be relevant to other societies. What is believed to be a timeless truth to one person or denomination may be considered a cultural norm or minor opinion to another.

Egalitarian view

Christian Egalitarians (from the French word "égal" meaning "equal") believe that Christian marriage is intended to be a marriage without any hierarchy—a full and equal partnership between the wife and husband. They emphasize that nowhere in the New Testament is there a requirement for a wife to obey her husband. While "obey" was introduced into marriage vows for much of the church during the Middle Ages, its only New Testament support is found in 1 Peter 3:6, with that only being by implication from Sarah's obedience to Abraham.[5]:p.190 Scriptures such as Galatians 3:28 state that in Christ, right relationships are restored and in him, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female."[18]

Christian Egalitarians interpret scripture to mean that God intended spouses to practice mutual submission, each in equality with the other. The phrase "mutual submission" comes from a verse in Ephesians 5:21 which precedes advice for the three domestic relationships of the day, including slavery. It reads, "Submit to one another ('mutual submission') out of reverence for Christ", wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to their master. Christian Egalitarians believe that full partnership in marriage is the most biblical view, producing the most intimate, wholesome, and reciprocally fulfilling marriages.[19]

The Christian Egalitarian view[20] of marriage asserts that gender, in and of itself, neither privileges nor curtails a believer's gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home. It does not imply that women and men are identical or undifferentiated, but affirms that God designed men and women to complement and benefit one another.[7] A foundational belief of Christian Egalitarians is that the husband and wife are created equally and are ordained of God to "become one", a biblical principle first ordained by God in Genesis 2:24, reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:4-6 and Mark 10:6-8, and by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 5:30-32. Therefore, they see that "oneness" as pointing to gender equality in marriage. They believe the biblical model for Christian marriages is therefore for the spouses to share equal responsibility within the family—not one over the other nor one under the other.

David Dykes, theologian, author, and pastor of a 15,000-member Baptist church, sermonized that "When you are in Christ, you have full equality with all other believers". In a sermon he entitled "The Ground Is Level at the Foot of the Cross", he said that some theologians have called one particular Bible verse the Christian Magna Carta. The Bible verse reads: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). Acknowledging that there are differences between men and women, he said "in Christ, these differences don't define who we are. The only category that really matters in the world is whether you are in Christ. At the cross, Jesus destroyed all the made-made barriers of hostility:" ethnicity, social status, and gender.[21]

The Galatians 3:28 passage comes after the apostle Paul tells us he would not submit to what was "hypocritical" to the Gospel.[Gal. 2:1-14] The apostle Peter had affirmed the truth of the Gospel in regards to the Gentiles with his words, but his actions compromised it.[22]

Those of the egalitarian persuasion point to the biblical instruction that all Christian believers, irrespective of gender, are to submit or be subject "to one another in the fear of God"[Eph. 5:21 KJV] or "out of reverence for Christ".[NIV] Gilbert Bilezikian writes that in the highly debated Ephesians 5 passage, the verb "to be subject" or "to be submitted" appears in verse 21 which he describes as serving as a "hinge" between two different sections. The first section consists of verses 18-20, verse 21 is the connection between the two, and the second section consists of verses 22-33.[23]:p.153 When discussion begins at verse 22 in Ephesians 5, Paul appears to be reaffirming a chain of command principle within the family. However,

...when interpretation begins with verse 21, the entire passage describes mutual submission within the family. The wife submits to her husband in everything "as unto the Lord." If her husband makes a request unworthy of her Lord, her primary loyalty is "unto the Lord." ...Instruction about submission is four times longer for husbands than for wives. The greatest burden of submission is clearly placed on the husband.[24]

Advocates of Christian egalitarianism believe that this model has firm biblical support:

The egalitarian paradigm leaves it up to the couple to decide who is responsible for what task or function in the home. Such decisions should be made rationally and wisely,[Eph 5:15] not based on gender or tradition. Examples of a couple's decision logic might include:

Complementarian view

Complementarians hold to a hierarchical structure between husband and wife. They believe men and women have different gender-specific roles that allow each to complement the other, hence the designation "Complementarians". The Complementarian view of marriage holds that while the husband and wife are of equal worth before God, husbands and wives are given different functions and responsibilities by God that are based on gender, and that male leadership is biblically ordained so that the husband is always the senior authority figure. They state they "observe with deep concern" "accompanying distortions or neglect of the glad harmony portrayed in Scripture between the intelligent, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the loving, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives".[33] They believe "the Bible presents a clear chain of authority—above all authority and power is God; God is the head of Christ. Then in descending order, Christ is the head of man, man is the head of woman, and parents are the head of their children."[34] Complementarians teach that God intended men to lead their wives as "heads" of the family. Wayne Grudem, in an article that interprets the "mutual submission" of Ephesians 5:21 as being hierarchical, writes that it means "being considerate of one another, and caring for one another’s needs, and being thoughtful of one another, and sacrificing for one another."[35]

Scriptures such as 1 Corinthians 11:3: "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God," (KJV) are understood as meaning the wife is to be subject to her husband, if not unconditionally.[36]

According to Complementarian authors John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others, historically, but to a significantly lesser extent in most of Christianity today, the predominant position in both Catholicism and conservative Protestantism places the male as the "head" in the home and in the church.[37][38][39][40] They hold that women are commanded to be in subjection to male leadership, with wives obedient to their head, based upon Old Testament precepts and principles.[41] This view holds that, "God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church."[42]

Grudem also acknowledges exceptions to the submission of wives to husbands where moral issues are involved.[43] Rather than unconditional obedience, Complementarian authors such as Piper and Grudem are careful to caution that a wife's submission should never cause her to "follow her husband into sin."[44]

Roman Catholic Church teaching on the role of women includes that of Pope Leo XIII in his 1880 encyclical Arcanum, which states:

The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties."[45] This position was affirmed in the 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii, which invokes Ephesians 5:22, "Let women be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ is the head of the Church.[46]

Though each of their churches is autonomous and self-governed, the official position of the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant denomination in the United States) is:

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God's image. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation."[47]

Biblical patriarchy

The patriarchal model of marriage is clearly the oldest one. It characterized the theological understanding of most Old Testament writers. It mandates the supremacy, at times the ultimate domination, of the husband-father in the family. In the first century Roman Empire, in the time of Jesus, Paul, and Peter, it was the law of the land and gave the husband absolute authority over his wife, children, and slaves—even the power of life or death. It subordinates all women.

Biblical patriarchy is similar to Complementarianism but with differences of degree and emphasis. Biblical patriarchists carry the husband-headship model considerably further and with more militancy. While Complementarians also hold to exclusively male leadership in both the home and the church, Biblical patriarchy extends that exclusion to the civic sphere as well, so that women should not be civil leaders[48] and indeed should not have careers outside the home.[49]

Patriarchy is based on authoritarianism—complete obedience or subjection to male authority as opposed to individual freedom. Patriarchy gives preeminence to the male in essentially all matters of religion and culture. It explicitly deprives all women of social, political, and economic rights. The marriage relationship simply reinforced this dominance of women by men, providing religious, cultural, and legal structures that clearly favor patriarchy to the exclusion of even basic human dignity for wives.[9][50]

Historically in classical patriarchy, the wives and children were always legally dependent upon the father, as were the slaves and other servants. It was the way of life throughout most of the Old Testament, religiously, legally, and culturally. However, it was not unique to Hebrew thought. With only minor variations, it characterized virtually every pagan culture of that day—including all Pre-Christian doctrine and practice.[9]

While Scripture allowed this approach in Old Testament times, nowhere does the Bible ordain it. In the Hebrew nation, patriarchy seems to have evolved as an expression of male dominance and supremacy, and of a double standard that prevailed throughout much of the Old Testament. Its contemporary advocates insist that it is the only biblically valid model for marriage today. They argue that it was established at Creation, and thus is a firm, unalterable decree of God about the relative positions of men and women.[51]

Biblical patriarchists see what they describe as a crisis of this era being what they term to be a systematic attack on the "timeless truths of biblical patriarchy". They believe such an attack includes the movement to "subvert the biblical model of the family, and redefine the very meaning of fatherhood and motherhood, masculinity, femininity, and the parent and child relationship."[9] Arguing from the biblical presentation of God revealing himself "as masculine, not feminine", they believe God ordained distinct gender roles for man and woman as part of the created order. They say "Adam’s headship over Eve was established at the beginning, before sin entered the world". Their view is that the male has God-given authority and mandate to direct "his" household in paths of obedience to God. They refer to man's "dominion" beginning within the home, and a man’s qualification to lead and ability to lead well in the public square is based upon his prior success in ruling his household.[9]

Thus, William Einwechter refers to the traditional Complementarian view as "two-point Complementarianism" (male leadership in the family and church), and regards the biblical patriarchy view as "three-point" or "full" complementarianism (male leadership in family, church and society).[52]

The patriarchists teach that "the woman was created as a helper to her husband, as the bearer of children, and as a "keeper at home", concluding that the God-ordained and proper sphere of dominion for a wife is the household. Biblical patriarchists consider that "faithfulness to Christ requires that (Biblical patriarchy) be believed, taught, and lived". They claim that the "man is...the image and glory of God in terms of authority, while the woman is the glory of man". They teach that a wife is to be obedient to her "head" (husband), based upon Old Testament teachings and models.

Other views

See Christian feminism

Biblical foundations and history

Christians believe that marriage is considered in its ideal according to the purpose of God. At the heart of God's design for marriage is companionship and intimacy.

The biblical picture of marriage expands into something much broader, with the husband and wife relationship illustrating the relationship between Christ and the church.

It is also considered in its actual occurrence, sometimes involving failure. Therefore, the Bible speaks on the subject of divorce.[5] The New Testament recognizes a place for singleness. Salvation within Christianity is not dependent on the continuation of a biological lineage.[53]

Old Testament

Rembrandt's depiction of Samson's marriage feast

Christians regard the foundational principle of the lifelong union of a man and a woman to have been first articulated biblically in Genesis 2:24. It was reaffirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:6-8 and by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:16. The Old Testament describes a number of marriages, some of the best known being Adam and Eve; Abraham, Sarah and Hagar; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob, Rachel and Leah; Boaz and Ruth; David, Michal, Ahinoam, Abigail, Maachah, Haggith, Abital, Eglah and Bathsheba; and Hosea and the prostitute Gomer, whom he married at God's command.[Hosea 1:2-3]

Polygyny, or men having multiple wives at once, is one of the most common marital arrangements represented in the Old Testament,[54] yet scholars doubt that it was common among average Israelites because of the wealth needed to practice it.[55]

Betrothal (erusin), which is merely a binding promise to get married, is distinct from marriage itself (nissu'in), with the time between these events varying substantially.[54][56] Since a wife was regarded as property in biblical times, the betrothal (erusin) was effected simply by purchasing her from her father (or guardian);[54][56] the girl’s consent is not explicitly required by any biblical law.[56]

Like the adjacent Arabic culture (in the pre-Islamic period),[57] the act of marriage appears mainly to have consisted of the groom fetching the bride, although among the Israelites (unlike the Arabs) the procession was a festive occasion, accompanied by music, dancing, and lights.[54][56] To celebrate the marriage, week-long feasts were sometimes held.[54][56]

In Old Testament times, a wife was regarded as chattel, belonging to her husband.[54][56] The descriptions of the Bible suggest that she would be expected to perform tasks such as spinning, sewing, weaving, manufacture of clothing, fetching of water, baking of bread, and animal husbandry.[58] However, wives were usually looked after with care, and bigamous men were expected to ensure that they give their first wife food, clothing, and sexual activity.[Ex 21:10]

Since a wife was regarded as property, her husband was originally free to divorce her for any reason, at any time.[56] A divorced couple could get back together unless the wife had married someone else after her divorce.[Deut 24:2–4]

Jesus on marriage, divorce, and remarriage

Sometimes used as a symbol for Christian marriage: Two gold wedding rings interlinked with the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P)—the first two letters in the Greek word for "Christ" (see Labarum)

The Bible clearly addresses marriage and divorce. Those in troubled marriages are encouraged to seek counseling and restoration because most divorces are neither necessary nor unavoidable.[6]

"Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate."

In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus appealed to God's will in creation. He builds upon the narratives in where male and female are created together[Genesis 1:27] and for one another.[2:24] Thus Jesus takes a firm stand on the permanence of marriage in the original will of God. This corresponds closely with the position of the Pharisee school of thought led by Shammai, at the start of the first millennium,[59][60][61] with which Jesus would have been familiar. By contrast, Rabbinic Judaism subsequently took the opposite view, espoused by Hillel, the leader of the other major Pharisee school of thought at the time; in Hillel's view, men were allowed to divorce their wives for any reason.[59]

Some hold that marriage vows are unbreakable, so that even in the distressing circumstances in which a couple separates, they are still married from God’s point of view. This is so in the Roman Catholic church, although occasionally it will declare a marriage to be null (in other words, it never really was a marriage).[62] William Barclay (1907-1978) has written:

There is no time in history when the marriage bond stood in greater peril of destruction than in the days when Christianity first came into this world. At that time the world was in danger of witnessing the almost total break-up of marriage and the collapse of the home…. Theoretically no nation ever had a higher ideal of marriage than the Jews had. The voice of God had said, "I hate divorce" (in Malachi 2:16)
William Barclay[63]

Jesus brought together two passages from Genesis, reinforcing the basic position on marriage found in Jewish scripture. Thus, he implicitly emphasized that it is God-made ("God has joined together"), "male and female,"[Genesis 1:27] lifelong ("let no one separate"), and monogamous ("a man…his wife").[64]

Jesus used the image of marriage and the family to teach the basics about the Kingdom of God. He inaugurated his ministry by blessing the wedding feast at Cana. In the Sermon on the Mount he set forth a new commandment concerning marriage, teaching that lustful looking constitutes adultery.[Mt. 5:28] He also superseded a Mosaic Law allowing divorce with his teaching that "…anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality (Gk. porneia),[65] causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery".[cf. Mt. 5:32] [Mt 19:19] [Mk 10:11] [Lk 16:18] Similar Pauline teachings are found in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11. The exception clause—"except for…"—uses the Greek word porneia which is variously translated "fornication" (KJV), "marital unfaithfulness" (NIV 1984), "sexual immorality" (NIV 2011), "unchastity" (RSV), et al. The KJV New Testament Greek Lexicon, KJV says porneia includes a variety of sexual "deviations" to include "illicit sexual intercourse, adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals, etc., sexual intercourse with close relatives…."[Lev. 18]

Theologian Frank Stagg says that manuscripts disagree as to the presence in the original text of the phrase "except for fornication".[64]:pp.300–301 Stagg writes: "Divorce always represents failure…a deviation from God's will…. There is grace and redemption where there is contrition and repentance…. There is no clear authorization in the New Testament for remarriage after divorce." Stagg interprets the chief concern of Matthew 5:32 as being "to condemn the criminal act of the man who divorces an innocent wife…. Jesus was rebuking the husband who victimizes an innocent wife and thinks that he makes it right with her by giving her a divorce". He points out that Jesus refused to be trapped by the Pharisees into choosing between the strict and liberal positions on divorce as held at the time in Judaism. When they asked him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?"[Mt. 19:3] he answered by reaffirming God's will as stated in Genesis 1:27 and 2:24, that in marriage husband and wife are made "one flesh", and what God has united man must not separate.[Mt. 19:4-6][64]:pp.300–301

There is no evidence that Jesus himself ever married, and considerable evidence that he remained single. In contrast to Judaism and many other traditions,[53]:p.283 he taught that there is a place for voluntary singleness in Christian service. He believed marriage could be a distraction from an urgent mission,[66] that he was living in a time of crisis and urgency where the Kingdom of God would be established where there would be no marriage nor giving in marriage:

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life."

In Matthew 22:28-30 Jesus is asked about the continuing state of marriage after death and he affirms that at the resurrection "people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven."

New Testament beyond the Gospels

The Apostle Paul quoted passages from Genesis almost verbatim in two of his New Testament books. He used marriage not only to describe the kingdom of God, as Jesus had done, but to define also the nature of the 1st-century Christian church. His theological view was a Christian development of the Old Testament parallel between marriage and the relationship between God and Israel. He analogized the church as a bride and Christ as the bridegroom─drawing parallels between Christian marriage and the relationship between Christ and the Church.

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, 16th century.

There is no hint in the New Testament that Jesus was ever married, and no clear evidence that Paul was ever married. However, both Jesus and Paul seem to view marriage as a legitimate calling from God for Christians. Paul elevates singleness to that of the preferable position, but does offer a caveat suggesting this is "because of the impending crisis"—which could itself extend to present times (see also Pauline privilege).[67] Paul's primary issue was that marriage adds concerns to one's life that detract from their ability to serve God without distraction.[68][69]

Some scholars have speculated that Paul may have been a widower since prior to his conversion to Christianity he was a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, positions in which the social norm of the day required the men to be married. But it is just as likely that he never married at all.[70]

Yet, Paul acknowledges the mutuality of marital relations, and recognizes that his own singleness is "a particular gift from God" that others may not necessarily have. "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."[1 Cor 7:8]

Paul indicates that bishops, deacons, and elders must be "husbands of one wife", and that women must have one husband. This is usually understood to legislate against polygamy rather than to require marriage:

Now the overseer (bishop) is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.
The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint (or ordain) elders in every town, as I directed you. An elder must be blameless, faithful to his wife, a man whose children believe and are not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient.

In the Roman Age, female widows who did not remarry were considered more pure than those who did.[71] Such widows were known as one man woman (enos andros gune) in the epistles of Paul.[1 Tim. 5:9] Paul writes:

No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds".

Paul allowed widows to remarry.[1 Cor. 7:39-40] [1 Tim. 5:11-16] Paul says that only one-man women older than 60 years[1 Tim. 5:9-10] can make the list of Christian widows who did special tasks in the community, but that younger widows should remarry to hinder sin.

Marriage and early Church Fathers

Building on what they saw the example of Jesus and Paul advocating, some early Church Fathers placed less value on the family and saw celibacy and freedom from family ties as a preferable state.

Nicene Fathers such as Augustine believed that marriage was a sacrament because it was a symbol used by Paul to express Christ's love of the Church. However, there was also an apocalyptic dimension in his teaching, and he was clear that if everybody stopped marrying and having children that would be an admirable thing; it would mean that the Kingdom of God would return all the sooner and the world would come to an end.[72] Such a view reflects the Manichaean past of Augustine.

While upholding the New Testament teaching that marriage is "honourable in all and the bed undefiled,"[73] Augustine believed that "yet, whenever it comes to the actual process of generation, the very embrace which is lawful and honourable cannot be effected without the ardour of lust...This is the carnal concupiscence, which, while it is no longer accounted sin in the regenerate, yet in no case happens to nature except from sin."[74]

Both Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa were church fathers who were married. They each stressed that the happiness of marriage was ultimately rooted in misery. They saw marriage as a state of bondage that could only be cured by celibacy. They wrote that at the very least, the virgin woman could expect release from the "governance of a husband and the chains of children."[75]:p.151

Tertullian argued that second marriage, having been freed from the first by death,"will have to be termed no other than a species of fornication," partly based on the reasoning that this involves desiring to marry a woman out of sexual ardor, which a Christian convert is to avoid.[76]

Also advocating celibacy and virginity as preferable alternatives to marriage, Jerome wrote: "It is not disparaging wedlock to prefer virginity. No one can make a comparison between two things if one is good and the other evil."[77] On First Corinthians 7:1 he reasons, "It is good, he says, for a man not to touch a woman. If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one: for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil."[78]

St. John Chrysostom wrote: "...virginity is better than marriage, however good.... Celibacy imitation of the angels. Therefore, virginity is as much more honorable than marriage, as the angel is higher than man. But why do I say angel? Christ, Himself, is the glory of virginity."[79]

Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, said that the first commandment given to men was to increase and multiply, but now that the earth was full there was no need to continue this process of multiplication.[80]

This view of marriage was reflected in the lack of any formal liturgy formulated for marriage in the early Church. No special ceremonial was devised to celebrate Christian marriage—despite the fact that the Church had produced liturgies to celebrate the Eucharist, Baptism and Confirmation. It was not important for a couple to have their nuptials blessed by a priest. People could marry by mutual agreement in the presence of witnesses.[72]

At first, the old Roman pagan rite was used by Christians, although modified superficially. The first detailed account of a Christian wedding in the West dates from the 9th century. This system, known as Spousals, persisted after the Reformation.[72]

Denominational beliefs and practice

Premarital sex and Christianity

Roman Catholicism

Main article: Catholic marriage
Crowning during Holy Matrimony in the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church which is an Eastern Catholic Church and a part of the Saint Thomas Christian community in India.
Catholic couple at their Holy Matrimony or marriage. In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, during the celebration the priest imposes his liturgical stole upon the couple's hands, as a sign to confirm the marriage bond.

Today many Christian denominations regard marriage as a sacrament, a sacred institution, or a covenant,[81] but this wasn't the case before marriage was officially recognized as a sacrament at the 1184 Council of Verona.[82][83] Before then, no specific ritual was prescribed for celebrating a marriage: "Marriage vows did not have to be exchanged in a church, nor was a priest's presence required. A couple could exchange consent anywhere, anytime."[83][84]

In the decrees on marriage of the Council of Trent (twenty-fourth session from 1563) the validity of marriage was made dependent upon the wedding taking place before a priest and two witnesses,[83][85] although the lack of a requirement for parental consent ended a debate that had proceeded from the 12th century.[85] In the case of a divorce, the right of the innocent party to marry again was denied so long as the other party was alive, even if the other party had committed adultery.[85]

The Catholic Church allowed marriages to take place inside churches only starting with the 16th century, beforehand religious marriages happened on the porch of the church.[83]

The Roman Catholic Church teaches that God himself is the author of the sacred institution of marriage, which is His way of showing love for those He created. Marriage is a divine institution that can never be broken, even if the husband or wife legally divorce in the civil courts; as long as they are both alive, the Church considers them bound together by God. Holy Matrimony is another name for sacramental marriage.

Marriage is intended to be a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman. Committing themselves completely to each other, a Catholic husband and wife strive to sanctify each other, bring children into the world, and educate them in the Catholic way of life. Man and woman, although created differently from each other, complement each other. This complementarity draws them together in a mutually loving union.[86]

The valid marriage of baptized Christians is one of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments. The sacrament of marriage is the only sacrament that a priest does not administer directly; a priest, however, is the chief witnesses of the husband and wife's administration of the sacrament to each other at the wedding ceremony in a Catholic church.

The Roman Catholic Church views that Christ himself established the sacrament of marriage at the wedding feast of Cana; therefore, since it is a divine institution, neither the Church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage. Husband and wife give themselves totally to each other in a union that lasts until death.[87]

Arbëreshë Albanian couple during marriage in an Italo-Greek Catholic Church rite.

Priests are instructed that marriage is part of God's natural law and to support the couple if they do choose to marry. Today it is common for Roman Catholics to enter into a "mixed marriage" between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic. Couples entering into a mixed marriage are usually allowed to marry in a Catholic church provided their decision is of their own accord and they intend to remain together for life, to be faithful to each other, and to have children which are brought up in the Catholic faith.[88]

During the Warsaw Uprising (1944), a Polish couple, members of an Armia Krajowa resistance group, are married in a secret Catholic chapel in a street in Warsaw.

In Roman Catholic teaching, marriage has two ends: the good of the spouses themselves, and the procreation and education of children (1983 code of canon law, c.1055; 1994 catechism, par.2363). Hence "entering marriage with the intention of never having children is a grave wrong and more than likely grounds for an annulment."[89] It is normal procedure for a priest to ask the prospective bride and groom about their plans to have children before officiating at their wedding. The Roman Catholic Church may refuse to marry anyone unwilling to have children, since procreation by "the marriage act" is a fundamental part of marriage.[90] Thus usage of any form of contraception, in vitro fertilization, or birth control besides Natural Family Planning is a grave offense against the sanctity of marriage and ultimately against God.[90]


The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox by William Hogarth, c. 1729 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.).


Essentially all Protestant denominations hold marriage to be ordained by God for the union between a man and a woman. They see the primary purposes of this union as intimate companionship, rearing children and mutual support for both husband and wife to fulfill their life callings.[91] Protestants generally approve of birth control and consider marital sexual pleasure to be a gift of God. While condoning divorce only under limited circumstances, most Protestant churches allow for divorce and remarriage.[92]

Conservative Protestants take a stricter view of the nature of marriage. They consider marriage a solemn covenant between wife, husband and God. Most view sexual relations as appropriate only within a marriage. Divorce is permissible, if at all, only in very specific circumstances (for example, sexual immorality or abandonment by the non-believer).

Roles and responsibilities

Roles and responsibilities of husband and wives now vary considerably on a continuum between the long-held male dominant/female submission view and a shift toward equality (without sameness)[93] of the woman and the man.[94] There is considerable debate among many Christians today—not just Protestants—whether equality of husband and wife or male headship is the biblically ordained view, and even if it is biblically permissible. The divergent opinions fall into two main groups: Complementarians (who call for husband-headship and wife-submission) and Christian Egalitarians (who believe in full partnership equality in which couples can discover and negotiate roles and responsibilities in marriage).[95]

There is no debate that Ephesians 5:12-32 presents a historically benevolent husband-headship/wife-submission model for marriage. The questions are (a) how these New Testament household codes are to be reconciled with the calls earlier in Chapter 5 (cf. verses 1, 18, 21) for mutual submission among all believers, and (b) the meaning of "head" in v.23. It is important to note that verse 22 contains no verb in the original manuscripts:[5]
Ephesians 5 (NIV)

1 Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children 2 and walk in the way of love....
18 be filled with the Spirit....
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, [submit yourselves] to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, marriage is treated as a Sacred Mystery (sacrament), and as an ordination. It serves to unite a woman and a man in eternal union before God.[4][96][97] It refers to the 1st centuries of the church, where spiritual union of spouses in the first sacramental marriage was eternal.[97][98] Therefore, it is considered a martyrdom as each spouse learns to die to self for the sake of the other. Like all Mysteries, Orthodox marriage is more than just a celebration of something which already exists: it is the creation of something new, the imparting to the couple of the grace which transforms them from a 'couple' into husband and wife within the Body of Christ.[99]

Byzantine wedding ring, depicting Christ uniting the bride and groom, 7th century, nielloed gold (Musée du Louvre).

Marriage is an icon (image) of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. This is somewhat akin to the Old Testament prophets' use of marriage as an analogy to describe the relationship between God and Israel. Marriage is the simplest, most basic unity of the church: a congregation where "two or three are gathered together in Jesus' name."[Mt 18:20][99] The home is considered a consecrated space (the ritual for the Blessing of a House is based upon that of the Consecration of a Church), and the husband and wife are considered the ministers of that congregation. However, they do not "perform" the Sacraments in the house church; they "live" the Sacrament of Marriage. Because marriage is considered to be a pilgrimage wherein the couple walk side by side toward the Kingdom of Heaven, marriage to a non-Orthodox partner is discouraged, though it may be permitted.

Unlike Western Christianity, Eastern Christians do not consider the sacramental aspect of the marriage to be conferred by the couple themselves. Rather, the marriage is conferred by the action of the Holy Spirit acting through the priest. Furthermore, no one besides a bishop or priest—not even a deacon—may perform the Sacred Mystery.

The external sign of the marriage is the placing of wedding crowns upon the heads of the couple, and their sharing in a "Common Cup" of wine. Once crowned, the couple walk a circle three times in a ceremonial "dance" in the middle of the church, while the choir intones a joyous three-part antiphonal hymn, "Dance, Isaiah"

The sharing of the Common Cup symbolizes the transformation of their union from a common marriage into a sacred union. The wedding is usually performed after the Divine Liturgy at which the couple receives Holy Communion. Traditionally, the wedding couple would wear their wedding crowns for eight days, and there is a special prayer said by the priest at the removal of the crowns.

Divorce is discouraged. Sometimes out of economia (mercy) a marriage may be dissolved if there is no hope whatever for a marriage to fulfill even a semblance of its intended sacramental character.[99] The standard formula for remarriage is that the Orthodox Church joyfully blesses the first marriage, merely performs the second, barely tolerates the third, and invariably forbids the fourth.[100]

Orthodox Church prepared for a wedding (Hagia Sophia, Thessaloniki.)

Early church texts forbid marriage between an Orthodox Christian and a heretic or schismatic (which would include all non-Orthodox Christians). Traditional Orthodox Christians forbid mixed marriages with other denominations. More liberal ones perform them, provided that the couple formally commit themselves to rearing their children in the Orthodox faith.

All people are called to celibacy—human beings are all born into virginity, and Orthodox Christians are expected by Sacred Tradition to remain in that state unless they are called into marriage and that call is sanctified.[99] The church blesses two paths on the journey to salvation: monasticism and marriage. Mere celibacy, without the sanctification of monasticism, can fall into selfishness and tends to be regarded with disfavour by the Church.[99]

Orthodox priests who serve in parishes are usually married. They must marry prior to their ordination. If they marry after they are ordained they are not permitted to continue performing sacraments. If their wife dies, they are forbidden to remarry; if they do, they may no longer serve as a priest. A married man may be ordained as a priest or deacon. However, a priest or deacon is not permitted to enter into matrimony after ordination. Bishops must always be monks and are thus celibate. However, if a married priest is widowed, he may receive monastic tonsure and thus become eligible for the episcopate.

The Eastern Orthodox Church believes that marriage is an eternal union of spouses, but in Heaven there will not be a procreative bond of marriage.

Oriental Orthodoxy

The Non-Chalcedonian Churches of Oriental Orthodoxy hold views almost identical to those of the (Chalcedonian) Eastern Orthodox Church. The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria allows second marriages only in cases of adultery or death of spouse.[101]

Non-Trinitarian denominations

A Celestial Marriage must be performed in an LDS temple.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

In the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), celestial (or eternal) marriage is a covenant between a man, a woman, and God performed by a priesthood authority in a temple of the church.[102] Celestial marriage is intended to continue forever into the afterlife if the man and woman do not break their covenants.[102] Thus, eternally married couples are often referred to as being "sealed" to each other. Sealed couples who keep their covenants are also promised to have their posterity sealed to them in the afterlife.[102] (Thus, "families are forever" is a common phrase in the LDS Church.) A celestial marriage is considered a requirement for exaltation.[102]

In some countries, celestial marriages can be recognized as civil marriages; in other cases, couples are civilly married outside of the temple and are later sealed in a celestial marriage.[103] (The church will no longer perform a celestial marriage for a couple unless they are first or simultaneously legally married.) The church encourages its members to be in good standing with it so that they may marry or be sealed in the temple. A celestial marriage is not annulled by a civil divorce: a "cancellation of a sealing" may be granted, but only by the First Presidency, the highest authority in the church. Civil divorce and marriage outside the temple carries somewhat of a stigma in the Mormon culture; the church teaches that the "gospel of Jesus Christ—including repentance, forgiveness, integrity, and love—provides the remedy for conflict in marriage."[104] Regarding marriage and divorce, the church instructs its leaders: "No priesthood officer is to counsel a person whom to marry. Nor should he counsel a person to divorce his or her spouse. Those decisions must originate and remain with the individual. When a marriage ends in divorce, or if a husband and wife separate, they should always receive counseling from Church leaders."[105]

In church temples, members of the LDS Church perform vicarious celestial marriages for deceased couples who were legally married.

New Church (or Swedenborgian Church)

The New Church teaches that marriage love (sometimes translated "conjugial love") is "the precious jewel of human life and the repository of the Christian religion" because the love shared between a husband and a wife is the source of all peace and joy.[106] Emanuel Swedenborg coined the term "conjugial" (not to be confused with the more general term for marriage, "conjugal."[107][108]) to describe the special love experienced by married partners.[109][110] When a husband and wife work together to build their marriage on earth, that marriage continues after the death of their bodies and they live as angels in heaven into eternity. Swedenborg claimed to have spoken to angel couples who had been married for thousands of years.[111] Those who never married in the natural world will, if they wish, find a spouse in heaven.

Jehovah's Witnesses

The Jehovah's Witnesses view marriage to be a permanent arrangement with the only possible exception being adultery. Divorce is strongly discouraged even when adultery is committed since the wronged spouse is free to forgive the unfaithful one. There are provisions for a domestic separation in the event of "failure to provide for one's household" and domestic violence, or spiritual resistance on the part of a partner. Even in such situations though divorce would be considered grounds for loss of privileges in the congregation. Remarrying after death or a proper divorce is permitted. Marriage is the only situation where any type of sexual interaction is acceptable, and even then certain restrictions apply to acts such as oral and anal sex. Married persons who are known to commit such acts may in fact lose privileges in the congregation as they are supposed to be setting a good example to the congregation.[112]

Same-sex marriage

Anglican denominations such as the Episcopal Church in United States[113] and mainline Protestant denominations such as the United Church of Christ,[114] the United Church of Canada, the Metropolitan Community Church,[115] the Presbyterian Church (USA),[116] the Quakers,[117] the United Reformed Church,[118] the Church of Iceland,[119] the Church of Sweden,[120] the Church of Denmark,[121] the Church of Norway,[122] the United Protestant Church in Belgium,[123] the Evangelical Church in Berlin, Brandenburg and Silesian Upper Lusatia,[124] the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland,[125] the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau,[126] the Mennonite Church in the Netherlands[127] the United Protestant Church of France[128] and some non-trinitarian denominations suchs as the Unity Church and the Unitarians[116] perform weddings between same-sex couples.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, many Lutheran, reformed und united churches in Evangelical Church in Germany, some reformed churches in Federation of Swiss Protestant Churches or the Anglican Church of Canada does not administer sacramental marriage to same-sex couples, but blesses same-sex unions through the use of a specific liturgy.[129]

The Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Christian Churches in eastern Europe, and other more conservative Protestant denominations do not perform or recognize same-sex marriage because they do not consider it as marriage at all.

See also


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