Christian Concepts of Marriage

Sexuality and Marriage in Early Christianity

The above theory belonged to Gregory of Nyssa, an influential early Christian bishop. His ideas stemmed not from his fear of the moral dangers of desire but from a wish to transcend temporality. "Sexuality, for him, meant reproduction: the continuity of the human race through reproduction was accepted by him as a sad, but faithful, echo of the abiding purposes of God" (Brown 296). Gregory believed the sexuality came about as a result (not cause) of Adamís fall. . . ."The present division of the sexes into male and female formed part of the present anomalous condition of human beings. This division made sexuality possible. Sexuality was designed for marriage and childbirth: it enabled mankind to continue its forlorn attempt to stem the tide of death by producing progeny" (Brown 294). Therefore, for Gregory, sexuality was not to be viewed of as an act of disgust. Instead, God gave humans sexuality after the loss of their immortality so that they could bear future generations. Sexuality and marriage spoke of Godís gentle persistence in carrying the human race to its appointed fullness, if, now, "by a long detour (Brown 296).

While marriage was accepted and sexual acts between husband and wife were expected, the married Christian fell second to the virginal Christian. Marriage provided a safe union, a type of God-made safety net, for man and woman outside of Eden. Man and woman were joined in marriage to produce offspring there-by continuing themselves even after death.

However, the idea the continuity of death by reproduction disturbed Gregory. He longed to stop such a "tainted time" so removed from Eden. To do this, Gregory advocated virginity. In his time, sexual acts were only permissible in marriage. Such acts were necessary to produce heirs. Gregory felt that "only by the drastic step of abandoning marriage and childbirth was it possible to exorcise the anxiety created by a sense of the inexorable passing of time" (Brown 297). He thought that those people who remained virginal attained "a touch of the "pure" time of Adam." Further more the choice of virginity was a refusal of the body to serve society as "an instrument of succession unto death". (Brown 301). And this was a decision that affected more than a person's physical state but also their soul. Christians who choose a virginal life were permitted a taste of some sweeter time out of reach for those who married. The lack of married saints is more validation of this presumed deeper connection of the virginal to God.

Marriage as a Sacrament

Today marriage is accepted by the Catholic Church as the seventh sacrament. However, it was not always considered as such. Initially, in the pre-Christian and early Christian eras marriage was not the same institution that it is today. In these earlier times marriage was based much more on a financial contract and it did not hold the same restrictions. The required elements of a sacrament are:

1. it must be a sacred religious rite instituted by Christ;
2. this rite must be a sign of interior sanctification;
3. it must confer this interior sanctification or Divine grace;
4. this effect of Divine grace must be produced, not only in conjunction with the respective religious act, but through it.

Because marriage involved the exchange of money or a dowry, it was unclear that it should be considered a sacrament on the grounds that no one should be able to pay for divine grace. Despite these reservations, marriage was affirmed as a sacrament at the Lateran Council of the early thirteenth century. This affirmation meant that marriage was not considered as a civil contract, but a holy act. However, unlike other sacraments, marriage did not require the blessing of a priest: "The first theologian to designate clearly and distinctly the priest as the minister of the Sacrament and his blessing as the sacramental form was apparently Melchior Canus (d. 1560): It is, indeed, a common opinion of the schools, but not their certain and settled doctrine, that a marriage contracted without a priest is a true and real sacrament; the controversies on this point do not affect matters of faith and religion; it would be erroneous to state that all theologians of the Catholic school defended that opinion." (Catholic Encyclopedia Online)

Although marriage is considered a sacrament, it still is considered unique among sacraments in that the "exterior sign" of the sacrament is a civil or financial contract and does not necessarily require the presence of the participants. Because it is a sacrament, it is impossible to undo it, and so the Catholic Church does not allow divorce. Annulments are possible if it can be determined that no valid marriage existed.

The Catholic Church finds evidence for the sacrament of marriage in Scriptural text. The Apostle Paul (Eph., v, 22 sqq.) explained that the course of marriage should resemble the relationship that Christ had with the church.
"Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life; that He might present it to Himself a glorious church not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy, and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones."

Thus, the foundation of the sacrament of marriage is considered divinely ordained. Humans are not free to change the gender inequalities inherent within this relationship.

Protestant Concepts of Marriage

Martin Luther:

Martin Luther is known for breaking away from the Catholic church and creating the first form of Protestantism. He began the Protestant Reformation in Europe by nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenburg Cathedral. One of his problems with the Catholic Church was the way that sacraments were imagined; he believed that they were signs of the will of God towards humans and that one had to have faith in the transformative powers of the sacraments. They were not simply outward signs that one belonged to a religion. Luther eliminated Matrimony or marriage as a sacrament, leaving only Baptism and the Eucharist. He also made it acceptable for members of the clergy to marry:

And in Germany, four hundred years ago for the first time, the priests were violently compelled to lead a single life, who indeed offered such resistance that the Archbishop of Mayence, when about to publish the Pope's decree concerning this matter, was almost killed in the tumult raised by the enraged priests. And so harsh was the dealing in the matter that not only were marriages forbidden for the future, but also existing marriages were torn asunder, contrary to all laws, divine and human, contrary even to the Canons themselves, made not only by the Popes, but by most celebrated Synods. [Moreover, many God-fearing and intelligent people in high station are known frequently to have expressed misgivings that such enforced celibacy and depriving men of marriage (which God Himself has instituted and left free to men) has never produced any good results, but has brought on many great and evil vices and much iniquity.] From Luther's Augsburg Confession

Martin Luther, from Lycos Image Gallery

For women too, marriage was important:

Accordingly, Cyprian also advises that women who do not keep the chastity they have promised should marry. His words are these (Book I, Epistle XI): But if they be unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better for them to marry than to fall into the fire by their lusts; they should certainly give no offense to their brethren and sisters. Martin Luther

The modern Lutheran church upholds a fairly conservative view of gender roles in marriage, citing Paul's letter to the Ephesians as their source for this model:

"For husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church" Ephesians 5:23.

"Wives submit to your husbands, as to the Lord" Ephesians 5:24

John Calvin

Out of John Calvin's early Protestant thought eventually came the Presbyterian church. Like Luther, Calvin also had problems with marriage as a sacrament. It was originally thought of as a sacrament because it was an earthly signifier of the sacred union between Christ and the Church; this is how Paul explained marriage in Ephesians:

"He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the Church," (Eph. 5: 28, 32.)

Calvin recognized that this was simply a way of explaining the phenomenon of marriage, and therefore marriage did not signify the spiritual union that Paul spoke of. He saw marriage as being the good and holy ordinance of God, and he spoke of the Catholic Church's labeling of it as sinful with sarcasm. How could something sinful be a sacrament? Finally, he was not able to see how the church could exclude anyone from marriage:

Marriage being thus recommended by the title of a sacrament, can it be anything but vertiginous levity afterwards to call it uncleanness, and pollution, and carnal defilement? How absurd is it to debar priests from a sacrament? If they say that they debar not from a sacrament but from carnal connection, they will not thus escape me...Be this as it may, this connection is a sacrament from which no Christian can lawfully be debarred, unless, indeed, the sacraments of Christians accord so ill that they cannot stand together. John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion

The modern Christian Reformed Church which has grown out of traditional Calvinism, sees marriage as a permanent unity ordained by God. It sees divorce, or any failure to keep a marriage covenant as sin, but condones supporting those who have suffered through a divorce. Read More from the official CRC Website.

The fact that both of these Protestant leaders elevated the status of marriage by removing the negative associations of it with carnality and sin. By allowing the priests in their churches to marry, Calvin and Luther were making marriage a natural and acceptable part of life, and were declaring that the state of marriage and sex within marriage were not sinful, thereby departing greatly from the Catholic ideas of matrimony as a sacrament and marriage as not "good enough" for members of the clergy.

The Discipline of Divorce

When speaking of marriage, it is impossible to ignore the implications of divorce. While today civil divorce is quite common (near 50% of all marriages ending in it in the United States) prior to this century its existence as an institution was negligible. This is largely due to the opinion of most Christian sects on the subject, following from the words of Jesus which are stated in each of the four gospels: For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. Therefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. (Mark: 10:7-9) Several times in St. Paul's epistles, the apostle expounds that once married, a couple should remain whole until death, and that the practice of divorce should never become common. The Law enter'd, that the offence might abound (Romans 5:20).

However, it should be stated that while divorce was nearly impossible, marriage "annulment" was still a quite valid possiblity. While annulment completely dissolved a marriage as if it had never existed, divorce broke the bonds between the wedded while holding that neither of them can re-marry.

Despite breaking from the Catholic Church and disavowing marriage as a sacrament, many Protestant denominations, including the Church of England, still largely forbade the institution of divorce. This is not to say that Protestants did not try to change this practice. Famous Puritan poet John Milton wrote his noted tract On the Doctorine and Discipline of Divorce in 1644 after his wife disappeared only a few months after their marriage. Milton, like so many others used a counter example found in the Old Testament:

When a manth hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out from his house. (Deuteronomy 24:1)

It took nearly two hundred years for the words of Milton and others on the subject to be taken seriously, as only in the nineteenth century did divorce even become a legal institution in most countries in Europe. Based on the above biblical passage, it should be emphasized that only men could legally grant divorce -- largely due to the fact that married women had no status in the law at that time. Thus, the institution of divorce was a prime goal for the feminist revolution of that century, particularly in England, which revealed many of the crimes committed against women within marriage. It was with this kind of authority that English feminists challenged the statutes of divorce, and it was divorce that was the first stepping stone for them to have representation under the law in England.

Today, thanks primarily to their work and the introduction of divorce into the legal system, divorce is largely a civil institution in the United States and the majority of Europe. It should also be emphasized that with this separation of marriage from religious authority, the theories of Luther, Calvin, and other founders of the Protestant movement are actualized. It is ironic that it is divorce, rather than marriage itself, that has largely made the movement out of religious/sacramental sphere and into the secular/civil one.

Marriage in the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormonism)

Whereas the early Christians often disparaged marriage, Protestant Reformers restored positive valuations of marriage. The Latter Day saints exceeded and have elevated the Protestant status of marriage to the point where marriage and reproduction become the principal means whereby individuals reach godhood in the afterworlds. According to many Mormons humans are the spiritual children of both a Heavenly Father and a Mother. In 1909 the First Presidency of the Latter Day Saints declared that "man, as a spirit, was begotten and born of heavenly parents . . . All men and women are . . . literally the sons and daughters of Deity." In the words of an ancient Mormon hymn:

In the heav'ns are parents single?

No, the thought makes reason stare!

Truth is reason; truth eternal

Tells me I've a mother there.

When I leave this frail existence

When I lay this mortal by,

Father, Mother, may I meet you

In your royal courts on high? (Hymn #292)

God thus provides the model for human behavior. According to Mormon theology, God has ordained marriage in order for humans to bring God's spiritual children to life on earth, and to progress to divinity themselves. We believe that marriage is the most sacred relationship that can exist between a man and a woman. This sacred relationship affects our happiness now and in the eternities. . . In the celestial glory there are three heavens or degrees; and in order to obtain the highest, a man must enter into this order of the priesthood [meaning the new and everlasting covenant of marriage]. (Doctrines and Covenants, 131:1-3). The doctrine of eternal marriage posits that marriages performed in Mormon temples last beyond this life, and contribute to human and divine eternal progress by adding further spirit offspring to the eternal family.


Mormon Temple (Lycos Image Gallery)

This positive valuation of marriage, however, does not necessarily mean that Latter Day Saints view men and women as equal partners. Gender roles are quite explicit in Mormon theology. First of all, women are expected to bring as many "spirit children" into the world as possible, so their primary function is still reproductive and caregiving. The Mormon doctrine of plural marriage (now abandoned) assumed that a man should have several wives, but not the reverse. The Mormon priesthood is restricted to males on the assumption that women's roles within the Latter Day Saints will revolve around child-rearing: "By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love . . . and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children" (Official LDS Web site). Mormons believe that by excluding women from the priesthood, they are in fact exalting women's roles: .

The Mormon Idealization of Woman as Nurturer

(Source: All About Mormons)

"In the family, men learn to become like the Heavenly Father by exercising the priesthood and women learn to become like the Heavenly Mother by bearing and nurturing children" (Ibid.)

Further, "Since gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose," (See The Family: A Proclamation to the World), "men and women cannot exchange their natural roles." As noted by President Kimball, "these are eternal differences". Because gender roles are preordained and divine, women have the duty to follow their husband's instructions. President David O. McKay counseled: "It is surprising how eagerly the young women and some married women seek calls to go on missions. We commend them for it, but the responsibility of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ rests primarily upon the priesthood of the Church." According to Brigham Young, "I have counseled every woman of this Church to let her husband be her file leader."


Brown, Peter, Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Milton, John, Doctorine and Discipline of Divorce

O'Dea, Thomas. The Mormons. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1957.

Wollstonecraft, Mary, Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Carol Smart, Regulating Womanhood:Historical Essays on marriage, motherhood and sexuality


"The Sacrament of Marriage" in the Catholic Encyclopedia Online

General History of Feminism, Northern Arizona University

John Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion

LDS Official Church Doctrine

Luther's Augsburg Confession

Martin Luther

The Official Internet Site of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints

Read More from the official CRC Website.