Does God Have an Ideal for Marriage?
June 21, 2012
A man proposes. A woman accepts. They plan a wedding and the bride’s family pays for it. They apply to the state for a marriage license, but the “real” ceremony is supposed to happen in a church. Then they get down and “become one flesh.” Marriage accomplished. The story of love since time immemorial.
Well, not exactly. It hasn’t always been this way. Not even close. But there’s this underlying perception permeating society today that marriage as we know it is marriage as it’s always been. And because of this perception, there’s all sorts of people who complain about today’s marriages: rising divorce rates, single parents, gay marriage rights, feminists and their “gender equality,” or the flood of broken families. Ah, if only we were back in the good ol’ days.
But we’re not the first culture to reminisce about how it used to be. According to Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, even the ancient Greeks complained about the moral decline of marriages. Even the Romans were ashamed of their dramatic divorce rates and longed for a time of more stable family units. The first American settlers complained about the behavior of women and children compared to the family standards back in Europe. Historically speaking, people like to complain about marital changes in society, no matter the time period. Coontz theorizes it’s been a way for people to express dissatisfaction with the culture of their times. Sounds familiar.
No one knows what marriage will eventually become, but for now it’s incredibly personal—it's about two people and their commitment to one another—and each commitment is unique.
Marriage has never been a static thing. Ever see the bumper sticker “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”? No matter your perspective on gay marriage, there’s a little bit of a problem with comparing today’s marriage rites to Adam and Eve. After all, there was no state, no minister and no biblical text that claimed Adam and Eve were married. When we dive deeper into the Old Testament, we quickly discover that when marriage is mentioned, it’s quite different than we know now. Men had multiple wives and “concubines,” slaves who were legally wives but of a lower status. Women were considered property and could be purchased from their fathers with a dowry ("C’mon, Fred, you know my daughter is worth at least a dozen oxen"). And it took thousands of years for monogamy, a marriage between just two people, to become the norm. Believe it or not, the Romans of Jesus' time had a greater emphasis on monogamy than Jews (those dang liberal Romans, taking away our rights!), and it’s possible this influenced the early Christians, too. Paul actually takes time in his first letter to Timothy to clarify that church leaders should only have one wife—which might make us wonder why he would have needed to point this out and why he didn’t expect this from everyone.
Beyond their laws on monogamy, Rome saw marriage as a binding act solely when a couple lived together and considered it a marriage themselves. No forms or fees. Just their intention. And this stuck with the Church for a long time. For the first thousand years of Christianity, marriage only required mutual consent and sexy-time. But in the 12th century, the Bishop of Paris realized there was a problem with this; they believed Mary was a virgin—but still Joseph’s wife. So by their rules, the holy couple wouldn’t have fulfilled marital requirements, and that was just not acceptable. So they changed the rules. Now marriage didn’t even require sex—you just needed two people to claim they were married.
But in a time when daughters were married off for political or financial gain, this created a problem. Young men and women would claim to be married, no longer needing the alone time to consummate the act. This put the church in the awkward situation of “defending young couples,” as Coontz puts it. Parents wanted control of their offspring. The church’s marital regulations had backfired.
So the church changed the rules again. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council required three things for a valid marriage: A dowry had to be given to the bride’s family, the ceremony had to happen in a church, and they instituted the “bann” into the wedding process—which allowed anyone to raise a canonical or civil objection to the validity of the marriage. Basically, marriage once again became focused on the needs of the family unit over the desires of the individual.
But don’t over-romanticize this dramatic turn of events. Love wasn’t a major consideration in marriage until the 18th century. You read that correctly. For the majority of human history, love has not been an active part of marriage. In some cultures, it was even considered distasteful or psychotic.
Coontz explains in her book that marriage, for the most part, has been less about two people in love and more about the needs of a tribe or family. Whether it was tribal hunters, villagers, kings or common city folk, if it happened before the 18th century, marriage was a means of survival, safety, comfort or advantage. It brought groups of people together into mutually beneficial relationships. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But now we live in a time where survival isn’t a day-to-day worry. We have systems set in place that have satiated the basic survival needs for most people in civilized nations. Marriage has changed as we have changed, and now we just happen to be living in one of the most radically changing times in the history of human civilization. Coontz writes, “The relations between men and women have changed more in the past thirty years than they did in the previous three thousand ...” Naturally, changes between men and women mean changes in marriage. Yes, we deal with divorce rates, broken families and controversial definitions of marriage. But what we have today, even with its flaws and failures, is beautiful and personal. Today’s marriage is a relationship that is no longer tied to survival and safety.
So don’t be frightened of marriage. Don’t be frightened of what it once was or what it’s “supposed to be.” It is symbolic, after all. Paul described it as a metaphor for Christ and the Church. So, how we view that relationship is reflective of how we view marriage. If we want it to last, we can make it last. If we want it to be something beautiful and holy, we can make it something beautiful and holy. No one is going to make us treat it one way or another. No one knows what marriage will eventually become, but for now it’s incredibly personal—it's about two people and their commitment to one another—and each commitment is unique. While it still affects our families, they’ll survive. No matter what marriage has been, you and your spouse decide what it will become ... and that is a gift.
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