2016-06-30
Adapted from "Beyond 'I Do': What Christians Believe about Marriage," c 2001 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

It might surprise you to know that, in the beginning, the church took relatively little interest in marriage. Early in church history, celibacy was the preferred state. It was practically sacred. The Apostle Paul said as much in 1 Corinthians, 7:1. And marriage? Well, it was all but ignored.

As one writer puts it, "When asked, some priests might say a blessing as a favor, just as they'd say a blessing over a child's first haircut." Roman law spelled out the requirements for marriage and most early Christians were content to "render unto Caesar" in matters pertaining to marriage.

Marriage was typically announced rather than pronounced. I'll come back to this distinction later, but for now it's important simply to recognize the difference between announced and pronounced marriages. Early on, families would simply announce there was going to be a marriage, and the church took little notice.

Centuries rolled by with virtually no change to this arrangement. But then something began to happen. Historians don't agree on the details, but what seems clear is that power became an issue. Slowly and unevenly, the church exerted its control over Europe's social and political life, writing laws pertaining to marriage, family, and sex. In 774, the pope gave Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, a set of writings that defined marriage and condemned all deviations from it.

But it wasn't until 1215 that the Roman Catholic Church formally decreed marriage a sacrament. Equally important, the church established a systematic canon law for marriage--with a system of ecclesiastical courts to enforce it.

These actions profoundly shaped our understanding of marriage. In 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door in Wittenberg, among his concerns were the Catholic Church's rules about marriage. In 1520, Luther publicly burned the canon law. The battle had begun.

The most obvious issue Protestants addressed was marriage as sacrament. Protestants believed that only those acts Jesus told us to perform could be sacraments. And nowhere does Jesus tell his followers to get married. Reformers like Calvin were people of the Word, and the Word--in their view--didn't put marriage in the same category as baptism or the Lord's Supper.

Centuries later, that's still the official Protestant viewpoint. Marriage isn't a sacrament, but it is sacramental. Over the years it has become one of the rites of the church, and so typically has the look and feel of a sacrament. Protestants believe, as one liturgy puts it, that in marriage "husband and wife become one, just as Christ is one with the church." That's an extraordinary statement, and it has a sacramental ring to it, but what does it mean exactly?

Christians believe something is supposed to happen in a marriage relationship that is profoundly mysterious. In the liturgy we refer to marriage as a "mystical union." In Genesis 2:24 the powerful description of this relationship is "one flesh." It is the most profound relationship possible, deeper in many ways than the relationship between parent and child.

Catholic theology has a helpful insight on this point. Marriage as sacrament, their theologians say, refers to the months and years of married life more than it does to the wedding ceremony. In other words, God's grace becomes visible not only at the church as the vows are spoken, but during a lifetime of shared experiences.

For some Christians, especially Protestants, this may be a new insight into sacraments. We think of a sacrament as something that happens at church. It happens during worship, lasts for a few minutes maybe--and then it's over. In reality, though, a sacrament isn't something bound by a liturgy or a rite. Worship may come to end, but a sacrament has an enduring quality.

One more important bit of history. During the Reformation, not only did Protestants reject marriage as a sacrament; they also changed its very definition. And with this change, a social revolution began. Marriage went from being something that was announced to something that was pronounced--from something privately made to something publicly bestowed.

Protestants instituted several requirements that, depending on the region, had to be observed. A marriage had to involve a public ceremony presided over by a priest and attended by witnesses. The couple being married had to obtain parental consent (up to age 21 or even, in some places, 25). And the marriage had to be entered in a public register of marriages.

The Roman Catholic Church, stung by Protestant criticism, eventually went along. In 1563 the Council of Trent decreed that a marriage not publicly performed in front of the parish priest was invalid. But no Protestant group had the civil authority to bestow public recognition on a wedding, and Protestants weren't prepared to wait a thousand years, as the Catholic Church had, in order to build that power. So they handed it off to the local government.

The state took a strong interest in marriage, a far stronger interest than even the Romans had. Governments made rules about who could and who couldn't be married; set the legal age for marriage; and established reasons for the dissolution of marriages.

Why make such an issue of the seemingly subtle difference between announced and pronounced marriages? Because, very simply, I think the difference is at the root of so many of today's marriage controversies.

In 1998 New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani proposed "domestic partnership" legislation made unmarried co-habiting couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, the legal equal of married couples in a wide range of matters, from housing to death benefits to city contracts.

Similar legislation has passed in San Francisco, and other cities are considering the change. The Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, the late John Cardinal O'Connor, objected to Giuliani's proposal, as did other religious leaders, but no one should have been surprised by it.

For nearly 500 years the civil government has been making all the rules about marriage, including what constitutes a marriage. This was a role the church--Roman Catholic and Protestant--urged the civil government to take. And now that the church is no longer the powerful institution it once was, no one should be surprised that the civil government is moving to act in what it believes to be its own interest.

But there's more at stake here.

The growing number of couples who choose to live together before marriage challenge not only the church and civil government. They challenge long-established patterns of thinking, such as when marriage begins and who may be married.

Centuries ago, marriage began whenever a couple privately acknowledged that they were a couple. Private consent was all that was necessary. In Roman law, all a couple had to do to be considered married was to "regard each other as man and wife and behave accordingly." The Romans never quite defined what "behave accordingly" meant, but they knew it when they saw it.

Not all couples who live together would agree they are married, even in a very limited sense. Sometimes, as a matter of fact, couples are quite emphatic that they're not married and have no plans to be married, at least not in the way our culture currently defines marriage.

And yet, in just about every situation I know of, there is nevertheless the feeling of an announced partnership, even in those cases where the level of commitment is relatively low. Couples of all ages and income levels are living together, and according to recent surveys they are doing so in unprecedented numbers.

How are people of faith to understand what's happening around us?

One explanation for the changes we're seeing is a slow decline in the practice of pronounced marriages, along with a gradual acceptance of the practice of announced marriages. My sense is that our culture is making a return to the past--the distant past. Many couples today simply begin to live together as couples, without waiting for or even wanting the church's blessing. To paraphrase the old Roman law, they are regarding each other as man and wife and behaving accordingly, even when they claim they're not.

Whether or not the church and the state regard those relationships as marriages, in most cases that seems to be exactly what they are. They are marriages in all but official recognition. And I have no doubt that there are among them relationships of deep love, devotion, and commitment.

In recent years the church has struggled with the morality of these relationships. In my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), our highest governing body, the General Assembly, has established new guidelines for ordination that specifically address these social changes. According to the new rules, known popularly as "the fidelity and chastity amendment," people who are not married may not hold an office in the church unless they are living in chastity.

Karl Barth, one of the most important theologians of the last century, complained in his "Church Dogmatics" about how these social changes were being addressed. Both Catholics and Protestants, he wrote, tend to deal with marriage in legal or constitutional ways rather than theological ones. It's time, he said, for some good theological thinking about marriage.

That was 50 years ago.

This takes us back to the question I asked at the beginning of this book: What is it that Christians believe about marriage? Marriage in the Old Testament was primarily an economic issue; marriage for Christians today has become primarily a political issue. To put it simply, the church has politicized marriage.

When marriage is discussed at national meetings of most Christian denominations today, what matters is who wins and who loses. Both conservative and liberal factions are unashamedly seeking control of their denominations. Church members still debate the issues, and the debates sometimes raise theological points, but it's my impression that no one really listens. The theological content of those debates is disturbingly shallow and rarely persuasive.

The final vote count is always far more important today than what we believe.

Denominations like my own could better serve their own people--and speak more persuasively to the surrounding culture --if they put their considerable energy into lifting up the sacramental dimension of marriage. I wish the church would begin to cherish marriage as the visible sign of God's grace and invite couples to work toward that goal..

My personal concern for couples who live together is pastoral as well as theological.

In a recent study, Linda Waite, a researcher at the University of Chicago, found that couples who live together cheat more often on their partners than married couples, are subject to more physical abuse than their married counterparts, and have a greater tendency to divorce when they do get married.

Other long-term studies of announced marriages show that women are worse off financially when one of these relationships ends. It's true that women tend to have a lower standard of living after divorce too, but in recent years state laws have given women a far stronger negotiating position when a pronounced marriage comes to an end.

The end of an announced marriage, however, can sometimes leave a woman with no legal rights. This research should be a caution especially to women who believe that living together is a way to test a relationship's viability. More than that, this research should challenge couples who live together to consider more carefully the nature, quality, and depth of their commitment.

In a way, the research isn't surprising. Many of the announced marriages I know about seem to begin casually, without a great deal of deliberation and thoughtfulness. How would those relationships be different if they began with a sense of covenant? How would they be different if they set out to be signs of God's grace? Would marriage-a distinctly Christian view of marriage--begin to look attractive to these couples?

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