This is the second in a series on the changing shape of one of society’s most ancient institutions. The first ran Tuesday, Dec. 27; the third will run on Thursday, Dec. 29.
Many Christians think the practice of marriage, or at least the ideal, has been fairly static, even immutable — one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment — that only recently has been challenged by variant practices.
Not so. Marriage was a cultural creation long before it was a religious institution. And the variations are as creative as the human imagination.
And until a couple hundred years ago, even “Christian marriage” looked more like secular models than the popular ideal. And “biblical marriage” included arranged marriage, “bride price,” and polygamy and concubinage for those who could afford it.
So who decides what marriage looks like?
In marriage, and so many other things, form follows function. Throughout history, societies customized marriage to create security for the clan, familial alliances, political power and always a workable setting for child-rearing, since procreation was a woman’s community duty.
As humans became more agrarian and less mobile, marriage morphed to serve the community’s need for stability and longevity. But it seems love in marriage was an impractical luxury — or even worse, a sin.
Throughout most of Western history, including Western Christianity, the idea of love was typically not a factor in marital dreams or decisions. Love might grow within a marriage, but men and women married out of family duty.
It’s not that people didn’t fall in love and have sex — they always have and will. Love just wasn’t an expectation or justification for marriage in centuries past, regardless of socio-economic status.
Remember, Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy of love, not a triumph.
Marriage was a cultural creation long before it was a religious institution. And the variations are as creative as the human imagination.
When the Apostle Paul commanded Ephesian “husbands [to] love your wives,” it could have been viewed as revolutionary. But interestingly, he mentioned no expectation that the spouses would love each other before marriage.
Ancient church fathers like Augustine looked upon marriage disdainfully, taking the Apostle Paul’s preference for celibacy as authoritative. Augustine conceded marriage is permissible but believed sex in marriage, though not sinful, was nonetheless carnal lust.
Tertullian and Gregory of Nyssa recommended celibacy and lifelong virginity over marriage, even though both church fathers were married. Their opposition was not only theological but pragmatic — they labeled married life as “misery” and “bondage,” while a virgin was free from “the governance of a husband and the chains of children.”
Because marriage was a permanent bond, even beyond the grave, Tertullian said widows committed fornication by remarrying.
So for the first 16 centuries, Christian authorities were not particularly interested in marriage, either to define or regulate it. It was considered a civil matter until finally recognized by the Roman Catholic Church as a sacrament in 1184.
Still, the Roman Church did not regulate marriage for another 400 years, until the Council of Trent (1545-63), and then almost as a footnote during the 24th of 25 sessions. The reason the bishops chose to place rules on marriage for the first time was because arranged marriages and easy divorces were being abused and manipulated to expand rich landowners’ holdings.
That’s why the bishops omitted any requirement for parental consent, while also severely restricting divorce and remarriage and affirming lifelong monogamy. They also commended celibacy and denounced marriages not performed by the Church.
Even so, Christian writings prior to the 17th century usually didn’t use the word “love” in discussing marriage but only to describe a Christian’s feelings toward God and neighbors. If the Apostle Paul meant for love to lead to marriage, he got little support from Christian authorities.
According to some anthropologists, the idea of romantic love as we speak of it didn’t develop until the 17th or 18th century — at least not in the West, and elsewhere only sporadically. Most marriages of that era were arranged by parents to build a network of support and interdependence.
Women entered marriage with “concern for the reproduction of bloodlines according to financial, professional, and sometimes political interests,” says Bonnie G. Smith in her book about French women in the 19th century, Ladies of the Leisure Class.
Other marriages typically developed out of practicality and convenience, not romance.
However, economic changes in the late 1800s began to reshape marriage in an unlikely direction. Before the Industrial Revolution, men and women were more or less equals in the middle-class economy, where the true “mom and pop” shop dominated commerce. “The family business” was the family’s business.
But the Industrial Revolution drove a wedge between home and work, as men left for the factories in the morning. Rather than uniting men and women on parallel tracks of family and work (either on the farm or at the shop), the sexes were separated according to their respective functions.
It was during this era that the role model of the stay-at-home mom emerged as a cultural ideal for women — promoted by women, at least in part — and intended to restore the social importance they lost to industrialization.
In places like France where the Roman Catholic Church was culturally dominant, Bonnie Smith suggests, this was the church’s response to the threats of industrialization and science. And religious education proved very effective in advancing the importance of hearth and home — and the command to procreate.
In 19th-century Europe, elite family patriarchs likewise used the “barefoot and pregnant” model to make sure their daughters married in a manner to preserve the family’s commercial prominence and alliances — again, to have babies. In Germany the popular idiom of “children, kitchen and church” was used to describe a woman’s role in society.
Until that time, as far back as classical Rome, the idea of romance was not linked to marriage. In the Middle Ages, the word “romance” emerged to refer to the non-sexual chivalry of medieval knights, who swore their sword and honor to the Lady of the court.
In the intervening centuries, romance came to include sexual dalliance, but it was enjoyed primarily outside of marriage.
It was during the Industrial Revolution, as married women remodeled their social identity, chivalrous devotion of the knights was grafted into the ideal of marriage and domesticity, historians note. Once the sentimental novel emerged in the 18th century as a way to mediate a sort of peasant pop culture, stories of chivalrous romance celebrated the “honor” of women and connected romantic love to the idea of marriage.
From the 18th century on — aided by the tailwinds of grass-roots Christianity, Christian authorities and popular culture — loving marriage in the West grew from a revolutionary concept to a social expectation.
Marriage ideals in the West were elevated further by conservative and puritanical notions of sex and marriage in 19th-century Europe and the United States. By the middle of the 20th century, the expectations about married life had grown exponentially. For awhile at least both public policy and pop culture in post-war America portrayed marriage as lifelong monogamy, blissful fidelity and easy compatibility, epitomized by the TV families on Ozzie And Harriett and Father Knows Best.
In 1955, Frank Sinatra won an Emmy with a song by lyricist Sammy Cahn, the first hit song written for TV. “Love and marriage … go together like a horse and carriage. You can’t have one without the other.”
Except that the number of cars in America surpassed buggies in 1920, and by 1955 there were 1.3 cars for every household.
Marriage too would soon change. During the 1960s’ Sexual Revolution, the Pill gave women control over their own fertility. Many decided to go to work, opening the door for their economic liberation as well.
The prevailing progressive culture of the late 20th century placed additional social and ethical demands on marriage in the West — values like women’s equality, gender egalitarianism, domestic nonviolence, and expectations for personal fulfillment and happiness.
As a result of those and other factors, especially the economy, the state of our “unions” today is still strong but unsteady.
Premarital sex is almost universal. Cohabitation is the norm. More people are marrying later or not at all. And divorce, although a bit less likely than two decades ago, remains a 50-50 risk for every marriage.
What are we left with? According to marriage historian Stephanie Coontz, the traditional “ideal marriage” is a recipe for disaster.
“Marriage is supposed to be free of the coercion, violence and gender inequalities that were tolerated in the past,” she writes in Marriage, A History. “Individuals want marriage to meet most of their needs for intimacy and affection and all their needs for sex.
“Never before in history had societies thought that such a set of high expectations about marriage was either realistic or desirable. Although many Europeans and Americans found tremendous joy in building their relationships around these values, the adoption of these unprecedented goals for marriage had unanticipated and revolutionary consequences that have since come to threaten the stability of the entire institution.”
— This article was first published in the November-December 2016 issue of Herald, BNG’s magazine sent five times a year to donors to the Annual Fund. Bulk copies are also mailed to BNG’s Church Champion congregations.