Marriage – A Christian History


No, this will not be a defense of gay marriage, a history of polygamy, or justification of fringe marriages . Sorry to those who were hoping for something along these lines (but you too will get something out of this). As part of my marriage and family course, I completed a research paper on the history of Christian marriage. It was dry and clinical, but it had some interesting points of how we go where we are today. I tried to rewrite a bit to make it more enjoyable.

OK, let’s do this. . .

Marriage, it seems, does not like to sit still long enough for anyone to capture its portrait. Marriage shifts. It changes over the centuries the way that Irish weather changes: constantly, surprisingly, swiftly.” -Elizabeth Gilbert

Marriage is the union of one man and one woman. It is the bedrock of society and the foundation of the family. We must never allow anyone to redefine it or undermine its importance.” -President Donald Trump

Regardless of politics, religion, or who you believe is the right person to define marriage, the world has been trying to define it for thousands of years. Defining marriage is slippery process. As soon as we think we understand it, it changes, slides out of our hands, and morphs into something else. The more we try to define everyone’s relationships, the less the definition applies.

Across the world, there are opposing definitions of what marriage is. Take the Mosuo People of China and their tradition called Zouhun or ‘walking marriages.’ In their society, the woman can choose as many or as few marriage partners as she wants. She owns the property and can send the man away whenever she wants, most men are sent back to their mother’s house by morning, hence the “walking.”

Why am I talking about this? I want to explore some critical changes to marriage over the first few thousand years of this wild ride call Christianity. I will focus on the Christian definition of marriage, which will not include Old Testament versions. We are talking about AD and on. What I hope to accomplish is a reframing of the idea of marriage that started with a small but vocal portion of the world in the 1950s. A decision that is neither universal nor historical. Yes, this definition has brought many people happiness. Yes, it is an excellent option for many. And, yes, it also made many people miserable. Many suffered trying to fit into a definition when they were left out of the etymology.

In every generation, for thousands of years, the definition of marriage has changed. Societies have added or subtracted components like the ebbs and flows of a tide, and today is no exception. 

Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

The early Church’s views on marriage and family were surprisingly more fluid than they are today. Sorry to those who get triggered by the word fluid, but it means to bend easily to external pressure, so fluid it must be. This marriage fluidity came mostly because early Christians had very little to work with, and what they did have to work with was confusing and contradictory. Luckily, Jesus had a lot to say about marriage; just kidding, he didn’t. He had surprisingly little to say about it. What did Jesus say? He quoted Genesis by saying that a man should cleave unto a woman. Although he was single. Unless Dan Brown was right and he was married. Either way, he certainly wasn’t cleaving, and neither were some of his most trusted apostles.

It took centuries to develop and organize the New Testament, and there were many splinter groups mudding the waters with new and enticing ideas. These groups would quickly become mainstream until a bishop or apologist labeled them “subversive”or “heretical.”

On top of this, there were some pretty intense influences steering early Christians. From Roman law, to the Church’s focus on evangelism, and missionary work far away from their families. These first followers didn’t have much time to “settle down.”

Divorce was relatively easy under Roman Law, and people could quickly enter into or leave a marriage. They did not have to prove fault and there were no penalties. Easy come, easy go.

During the first few hundred years, the Church’s slogan seemed to be “GROW, and maybe we will figure things out along the way.” This boat was being built after it set sail. They didn’t have much time to enforce rules about marriage and divorce. Nor did they have the structure to do the enforcing.

For many early Christians, the Church was their new family. Some thought the ideal way to follow Jesus was to leave their families behind and become ascetics. Ascetics renounced all worldly possessions, including their families, marriages, and children.

I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” – Jesus

Celibacy in the Early Church

Celibacy really threw a wrench into the institution of marriage. It quickly became the happening trend, and stuck around long enough to fundamentally change the early church. Abstinence was en Vogue due to the influence of the monastic movement, the rise of the papacy, and the decline of the Roman Empire. Goodbye families, and hello brotherhood.

The papacy became increasingly powerful in the 4th century, and the popes began to promote the idea of celibacy for the clergy, arguing that it was necessary for the purity of the Church. But really, it kept too much power and wealth from being accumulated in one family. Of course, you can always give your money and power to a nephew, hence nepotism (from the Latin nephew).

Celibacy, had a profound impact on Christian views of marriage and family. It reinforced the idea that marriage was a secular institution, while celibacy was a higher calling.

Marriage definitions were a jumbled mess for the first few hundred years of Christianity. You could get married if you wanted; all you had to do was say it. You could also get divorced without saying it. Yes, yes, divorce is wrong, that has always been clear in the Christian definition of marriage. While Jesus didn’t have much to say about marriage, he did have a lot to say about divorce. Mostly because the Pharisees kept asking. Three times he had to school them on it. But, when it comes to the Christian culture of the first thousand years, the practice of divorce seemed to lean more towards; “let’s not do it, but if you do, OK, just don’t do it again, until you have to, but that’s it, no more, unless you need to. . .” Sounds familiar.

Make Marriage Great, Again, For the First Time

Into this ruckus walk the Gregorians. With their boy band status of chanting. Pope Gregory VII and his band of loyal Gregorians played an essential role in the Catholic Church’s assertion of authority over marriage in the 11th century. Gregory was a reformist pope determined to strengthen the papacy’s power and purify the Church. He consolidated power around marriage and kept everyone looking towards the Church. His cardinals and bishops used this power around marriage to strengthen the local congregations. They saw marriage as a key area where the Church needed to exert its authority, much like Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority of the 1980s.

Gregory and the Gregorians asserted their authority over marriage by promoting the idea that marriage was a sacrament. This was medieval marketing at its finest. Marriage was no longer a civil contract, but a sacred union between a man and a woman that was blessed by God. This gave the Church a great deal of power over marriage, as it was the only institution that could administer the sacrament of marriage. You could no longer only say you were married; you had to prove it. And it didn’t take long before you couldn’t just prove that you were married, you had to prove that you consummated the marriage. Nothing says sanctity of marriage like having an audience in your room on your wedding night.

The Gregorians standardized marriage practices across Europe. They did this by issuing several decrees. Did these decrees last and finally succeed in defining marriage as a Christian church should? Of course it did! In theory. They just had to look the other way when things didn’t go as planned, and if you were wealthy, and if you were royalty, or family. Besides, they had some essential things to decide when defining marriage, like what cousin can you marry? The answer is anyone who is less than your sixth cousin, obviously. Except you, Phillip II of Spain, or you, Charles II of England, or you, Ferdinand II of Aragon, and yes we see you too, Alfonso VI of Leon. Nieces aren’t cousins; you are good.

What exactly did Gregory and his boy band of chanting Gregorians accomplish?

  • Gregory issued a decree in 1075 that required all marriages to be performed by a priest. This decree helped ensure that all marriages were valid and subject to the Church’s authority. If it doesn’t come from us, it didn’t happen.
  • The Gregorians also worked to suppress the practice of concubinage, which is the practice of living with a sexual partner without being married. Ugh! But what about 1 man and 1+1+1+1+1+1 woman? How about we call them mistresses, and then it’s fine?
  • Gregory also issued a decree in 1076 that prohibited priests from marrying. This decree was designed to promote priests’ celibacy and make them more independent of secular influences. It’s not confusing; marriage is a sacrament, but God will give you more power when you don’t partake of the sacrament. So, not partaking of this sacrament is a kind of super sacrament.
  • Divorce? Oh, hell no! Annulment? Maybe. . .

The efforts of Pope Gregory VII and the Gregorians to assert the Catholic Church’s authority over marriage in the 11th century had a profound impact on the way that marriage was viewed and practiced in Europe for centuries to come. Their reforms helped make the Catholic Church the dominant authority on marriage and shape the institution of marriage in ways still felt today.

What about the Common folks?

For most people, marriage was definitely a sacred contract, because it was a work contract. And, it kept them alive. For peasants in the Middle Ages, it was a way to ensure that land and other resources were passed down from one generation to the next and you had someone to help work the land with you.

Plus, you had the very complex challenge of marrying only people in your village.

Surprisingly, many did not marry until later in life. Mainly because they needed more time to save money so they could be seen as a desirable spouse. This was true of both men and women. You needed to marry someone to share the work. The ideal marriage partner was someone with a field or shop close to your own. You could go through your options to swipe left or right in a few seconds. And, if you didn’t choose someone from your village, you were not just the family disappointment; you were a disappointment to the entire village.

Many peasants in the Middle Ages typically lived and worked on small plots of land. They were often required to pay rent and taxes to a feudal lord, and they also had to contribute labor to the lord’s estate. To survive, peasants needed a large family to help them with the work. After you get married, you need to get busy and keep getting busy so you can build that workforce.  

Also, regarding marriage, you had a few extra things to worry about. 

  • Dowry: When a peasant girl married, her family would typically give her a dowry, a gift of money, land, or other goods. If you’d did have this, the often earned it herself by working and saving all the money you could.
  • Household items: if you didn’t own the basics such as pots and pans, you needed to buy them in order to make yourself look like a better match. Sorry again ladies, this one is on you as well.
  • Inheritance: Peasant children typically inherited their parents’ land and other possessions. However, to inherit, they had to be married. The goal is to stay close, marry neighbors, and inherit land until you become the monopoly man of your village.

Now, let’s talk about just the wives. In the Middle Ages, wives helped just as much with the labor as their husbands. In fact, they often worked harder. They were responsible for all the household chores and childcare. They had to work the farm, create a workforce (children), manage that workforce, feed that workforce, and keep everything else from falling down around them.

Peasant wives typically woke up early in the morning to start cooking, then tend to the animals, and the children. They then spent the day working in the fields, weeding, harvesting, and carrying heavy loads. In the evening, they returned home to cook dinner, clean up, and care for the children.

Peasant wives also played an essential role in the cottage industries common in medieval villages. They spun wool, wove cloth, and brewed ale. They made candles, soap, and other household goods. They were the farmers, housewives, brewers, grocers, and basically all of Amazon. The work of peasant wives was essential to the survival of their families. They were responsible for producing the food and other goods their families needed. They also played a vital role in the economic well-being of the village or community.

However, despite their hard work, peasant wives were often treated as second-class citizens. They had fewer rights than their husbands and were often subjected to violence and abuse.

The Protestant Reformation and Marriage

The Protestants came into the scene with their fingers wagging. They said, “just hold on a bit, something isn’t right here.”

Reformation led to a more egalitarian view of marriage in several ways. First, it emphasized the priesthood of all believers, which meant that all Christians had direct access to God, regardless of gender. This challenged the traditional Catholic view of the priest as the only mediator between God and people. Now, any man could be the intermediary between their family and God. Second, the Reformation rejected the Catholic Church’s teaching on celibacy for priests and nuns. This affirmed the value of marriage for all Christians, including clergy. Third, the Reformation emphasized the importance of Scripture as the sole authority for Christian faith and practice. This led to a renewed focus on biblical teachings on marriage, which we already established were set about with extreme clarity and exactness.

The good news:

  • The Reformers emphasized the importance of education for women.
  • The Reformers made it easier for women to obtain divorces.


  • The Reformers emphasized the importance of women’s submission to their husbands.
  • The Reformation led to a rise in religious intolerance, which made it more difficult for women to challenge traditional gender norms.

Modern Marriage

In the 19th century, people began to emphasize love and companionship as the basis for marriage. When you can marry for love, love gives Marriage meaning, and love provides a marriage with purpose. This phenomenon impacted marriage more than anything else in the past. Marrying for love gave both men and women more rights within the marriage relationship. But, it also provided a straightforward reason to leave a marriage. When love was gone, so was the marriage.

Since the 1950s, many factors contributed to a more relaxed and stringent view of marriage. These factors included the rise of feminism, the sexual revolution, and the changing role of women in society. As a result, marriage became more about personal fulfillment and less about social obligation.

Our definition of marriage has changed and expanded in the same way as our freedoms and rights have been revised, expanded, and contracted. Instead of a marriage of love, we needed a marriage of fulfillment. No wonder our divorce rates soared, we looked for fulfillment in another person.

What happens next? We evolve again. As does our definition of marriage. Divorce rates are decreasing. Why? Many reasons. People are getting married later in life. They are encouraged to find fulfillment in their own lives and instead of relying on someone us to fulfill them. Couples and individuals are getting support through counseling and it is accepted and encouraged. As individuals are celebrated, they will find more ways to express their love. Whether that is in a marriage, or not.

References and digging deeper

Barrier, J. W. (2013). Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity: The Reception of New Testament Texts in Ancient Ascetic Discourses. Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Cochini, C. (2002). Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy. United States: Ignatius Press.

Coontz, S. (2006). Marriage, a history: How love conquered marriage. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group.

Gilbert, E. (2011). Committed: A Love Story. United Kingdom: Penguin Publishing Group.

Instone-Brewer, D. (2002). Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. United Kingdom: Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Marriage and Sexuality in Early Christianity. (2018). United States: 1517 Media.

Shenk, R. (2018). The genesis of marriage: A Drama displaying the nature and character of God.  Authentic Media.