The Reformation and the Reform of Marriage: Historical Views and Background for Today’s Disputes
Susan Mobley, Ph.D., Professor of History, Concordia University Wisconsin, Susan.Mobley@cuw.edu
“How I dread preaching on the estate of marriage! …. The lax authority of both the spiritual and the temporal swords has given rise to so many dreadful abuses and false situations, that I would much prefer neither to look into the matter, nor to hear of it. But timidity is no help in an emergency; I must proceed. I must try to instruct poor bewildered consciences and take up the matter boldly ….” Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage (1522)
Marriage is often regarded as “the most basic and influential social unit in the world” and arguably has been a core component of all Western societies, past and present, mainly because of its intrinsic link with the family. Marriage, however, is an extraordinarily complex institution: it represents “one of the most fundamental links between the public and the private, between society and the individual”; it links together two people whose families thenceforward are also linked; it involves the exchange or sharing of property; and it constitutes a social unit of a larger society.  For the Christian, marriage is both sacred and secular. Thus, marriage is simultaneously a “social, economic, religious, and legal institution” of such significance in Western Civilization that both church and state have a vested interest in defining and regulating it.
Though marriage has been a core institution in Western societies, it has not always been defined clearly or consistently. Western perceptions of marriage have largely been shaped by Christianity to the extent that in order to understand what constitutes marriage one must consider Christian views of marriage as they developed over time. Christian ideas of marriage stem from the Old Testament, in particular the book of Genesis, but the Christian understanding of marriage developed within the social and historical context of the Roman Empire (the period when the canon of the New Testament was under construction), and was further clarified during the period of the Middle Ages, when it fell under the direct jurisdiction of the Church. The Reformations of the 16th century brought divergent views of marriage between Catholics and Protestants, and many of the denominational differences in views of marriage persisted, arguably until Vatican II. Today, however, one could argue that Christians have a common view of marriage—indeed, “Christians have more agreement on the nature of marriage than they do on divorce.”
A brief overview of Christian understandings of marriage from the period of the Roman Empire through the 20th century offers insights as to what matrimony is, what its proper function in society should be, and how Christians can faithfully uphold marriage as an institution ordained and blessed by God.
Marriage in the Early Church
When surveying early Christian views of marriage it is important to note the world in which the first Christians lived. The entire Mediterranean basin was controlled by the Roman Empire, and its civilization could be conceived of “three concentric circles”: 1) Roman political authority, attitudes and practices; 2) Greek thought; and 3) the Jewish customs and writings. Even though Christian values were shaped by Judaic thought and practice and often expressed in Greek philosophical terms, Roman ideas had a disproportionate impact upon Christian institutions. One reason for this is that Christians represented only a tiny fraction of the Empire’s population in the 1st century A.D., and as a minority they were compelled to come to terms with Roman ways. Still, “Christianity arose at a time when the Roman Empire itself had begun to stress the importance of legitimate marriage and childbearing for the maintenance of social and political life,” and these views accorded well with the Christian stance on marriage.
On the question of marriage, the Christians found answers in the teachings of Jesus and the letters of Paul. In his teachings on marriage, Jesus referred to the book of Genesis and reiterated that God created Adam and Eve, male and female, and commanded them to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). Marriage, then, is a covenant between husband and wife, who become one flesh. The marital union “is part of God’s creative ordinance” and was meant to be permanent, as Jesus indicates (in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark). Therefore, marriage as constituted by God was between one male and one female, and was an indissoluble and sacred bond. Here is the starting point for Christian views of marriage.
For both Romans and Christians, “love and affection between spouses was common and the procreation of children was a central expectation” of marriage. However, the Christian view of marriage was distinct in two significant ways. First, in Christian marriage, the spouses were moral equals and held to a single standard of fidelity (unlike the double standard in Roman marriage where adultery was permissible for the husband but not for the wife), and marriage represented a lifelong, indissoluble bond (i.e., divorce was not permitted). These differences impacted the spread of the Christian ideal of marriage in the Roman world.
The early Christians regarded marriage as “the first natural bond of human society,” linking together man and woman, who, as spouses, owed one another “the faith of their sexual intercourse” both for the “begetting of children” but also as a “mutual service of sustaining one another’s weakness, in order to shun unlawful intercourse.” The Christian view was consistent upon this point: Jesus, Paul and Augustine “centered sexual expression on the marital relationship.” Marriage, then, was a remedy against sin. In his letters, however, Paul indicated that celibacy was an alternative to marriage and many early Christians, among them several of the Church Fathers, understood a hierarchy of perfection, in which marriage was good, but virginity and celibacy were preferred. Augustine nevertheless ultimately defended the sacred nature of marriage. In The Good of Marriage (401 A.D.) Augustine held that “male and female were from the creation made both to desire one another and to live in friendship and physical intimacy,” and that marriage in itself was good and produced three goods: progeny, fidelity and a sacred bond that is dissolved only by death. The Church Fathers, however, “never reached a doctrinal consensus on the role and nature of Christian marriage,” and thus a tension “between marriage, viewed as legitimate, and celibacy, viewed as more perfect,” developed and persisted throughout the patristic period and well beyond.
Marriage Complications in the Middle Ages
The duality of Christian ideals regarding marriage became more pronounced during the Middle Ages with the elevation of the monastic ideal and efforts of the Church hierarchy to extend celibacy to the entire clergy. In the late Roman period, the Church had largely operated on the principle that “a good married life was simply a diluted imitation of monastic perfection,” and thus ideally all clergy, not just monks, should remain unmarried and celibate. Clerical marriage, however, remained fairly widespread until the 12th century. The other problem confronting the Church during the early medieval period was the persistence of pagan customs among the Germanic peoples. While the Germanic peoples accepted Christianity in terms of religious beliefs, they often continued to live as they traditionally had. The Germanic concept of marriage was very different from the Christian one, and the prevalence of polygamy and polygyny among the Germanic peoples was a matter of great concern far more serious than the issue of clerical celibacy.
The Church gradually influenced Germanic marriage practices, so that by 600 A.D., “serial monogamy” (meaning a man who married and dismissed several wives in succession, probably while keeping concubines on the side) became the prevalent pattern. Records indicate that Charlemagne, for example, had five successive marriages and six concubines. By the end of the 9th century, however, the Church’s view of marriage began to prevail among the laity. It must be remembered, however, that for most of the medieval period, marriage belonged to the private sphere of the family, not the public sphere of the Church. Because marriages involved an exchange of property and a linkage of families, they were often arranged by parents or families and celebrated, not in a church, but in private homes, sometimes with, but often without, the formal blessing of the Church or presence of a priest. Thus, the process of Christianizing marriage was slow and difficult in a world full of “illicit, irregular, furtive or clandestine” marriages. The struggle for the Church, then, was to take marriage “from the private or semi-private spheres of home, domestic rite, or unwitnessed promise and to bring it into the public space of a church.” At length, the Church succeeded in inserting itself into the marriage process. By around 1100 A.D. records indicate that it was becoming common for people to include church ritual as part of a formal marriage, though the political fragmentation of Europe prevented the implementation of any consistent marriage law or rite.
In the period between 1100 and 1300, the Church’s concerns focused on six complex issues:
- the definition of marriage—was it a contract or personal partnership between a man and a woman?
- the view of marriage—marriage was viewed negatively as inferior to celibacy because it was a remedy against the sin of carnal lust; marriage was viewed positively as a divinely ordained partnership that was formed to obey God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply”
- the indissolubility of marriage—the Church came to see marriage as an image of the relationship between Christ and the Church, and was therefore a lifelong commitment
- clerical marriage—whether the clergy should be permitted to marry
- establishing ecclesiastical jurisdiction over marriage by sacramentalizing it—marriage was transformed from a secular institution to a sacred one
- developing a rationalized body of marriage law—Church and civil authorities often conflicted on the regulation of marriage.
The problem, of course, was that marriage involved both sacred and secular aspects, and because the laity and Church hierarchy did not always agree on views of marriage, these issues were difficult.
Early Reform Efforts
The concerns about marriage were part of a larger reform movement of the 11th and 12th centuries that focused on correcting abuses, removing lay influence from Church affairs, and governing Christian life. Reformers wanted to establish a body of canon law and a system of ecclesiastical courts that could function “as the primary forum for the settlement of disputes in any way affecting public or private morals, ecclesiastical institutions, or the administration of Church property.” Marriage was an institution that involved property, morality and religion, and as such needed to be properly regulated by the Church. For many reformers, maintaining control over marriage was a way to control sexuality because for them sex, even in the context of marriage, was “tainted by evil” and “a potent source of sin.” These efforts at reform and regulation again displayed the ambiguous Christian view of marriage.
The laity protested in particular against the emphasis on monogamy, indissolubility and exogamy, as marriage was often a way for families, especially noble ones, to promote and protect family interests by contracting alliances. The clergy, for their part, resisted the reform measures because they did not want to give up their wives and children. These 11th– and 12th-century Church reformers, however, persisted because they regarded marriage as a sacred, not secular institution, and saw the prohibition of clerical marriage as a necessary component of a reformed clergy necessary for effective reform of the whole Church. The reformers sincerely believed that a “cleric who succumbed to fleshly temptations, even with the wife to whom he was legitimately married, became impure and his impurity contaminated every liturgical action he performed, sullied the sacred vessels that he touched, and defiled the sacred words that he spoke.” In emphasizing clerical celibacy, the reformers gave renewed emphasis to earlier Christian views that marriage, while a good, was inferior to celibacy in terms of spiritual perfection.
Though it faced stiff resistance from both the laity and the clergy, eventually the Church hierarchy succeeded in prohibiting the clergy from marrying; reorganizing marriage among the laity (by seizing exclusive legal jurisdiction over impediments, validity, and dissolution of marriage); promoting an “ecclesiastical model of marriage,” which stressed monogamy, indissolubility, mutual consent (i.e., the bride and groom should marry of their free consent, and not under compulsion from family), and exogamy; and establishing marriage as a sacrament. The reforms of marriage (among many other things) were completed and affirmed at the 4th Lateran Council in 1215 during the pontificate of Innocent III.
From Lateran IV onward the Church encouraged, but did not require, couples to “solemnify their union with the blessing of the priest, to invite witnesses to the marriage, and to comply with the marital customs of their domicile.” Marriage, then, continued to occur outside of the church (literally outside—the priestly blessing, when sought by the marrying couple, was bestowed on the doorstep of the church). Still, because marriage had been declared a sacrament, it properly fell under the jurisdiction of the Church, which sought to protect monogamous unions, to promote the natural marital function of procreation, to ensure that marriages were contracted between freely consenting parties without coercion, and to determine the validity of marriages. Thus, no significant changes in marriage law and practices occurred between the 13th century and the onset of the Reformation in 1517. The views of marriage established by the reformers and canonists of the 11th and 12th centuries, and promulgated by Lateran IV, continued to prevail, clandestine marriages remained a persistent problem, clergy and government officials kept concubines, and the formalities and rituals that surrounded marriage still varied enormously across Europe. The Church had succeeded in defining marriage, but not in enforcing those marriage principles.
The Reformation—and Continued Complications
Rising resentment of Church practices and abuses reached a crisis point in the 16th century. Theological issues aside, “critics excoriated the accumulated Canon law of marriage as confusing, inequitable, impractical, arbitrary, and easily abused.” Enforcement of this flawed body of law was even worse—“sporadic, ineffective, and often corrupt.” The criticism came not only from religious reformers, but from society at large. In the popular perception there existed “an ever widening gap between marriage in law and in practice” that negatively impacted the “holy estate of matrimony.” The Protestant reformers, almost to a man, rejected the Church’s position on matrimony, which encouraged people to join the marital estate and considered marriage a sacrament while at the same time insisted upon a celibate clergy because celibacy was seen as the more perfect state. “These two tendencies, the fostering of marriage and the praise of celibacy, existed side-by-side within the clerical culture.” Protestants rejected clerical celibacy and the subordination of marriage to it, and denied that marriage was a sacrament.
Marriage law and marriage practices were important issues for many if not most of the Protestant reformers largely because of the intrinsic connection between marriage and family. For them, the family was “the cradle of citizenship,” and marriage “stabilized both individuals and society as a whole.” Because “traditional marriage law and doctrine did not adequately respect and support the integrity and autonomy of the family or facilitate its social tasks, its reform was an urgent priority.” For many Protestant reformers, marriage was a human institution, though one ordained by God, and as such it fell under the jurisdiction of the civil authorities, though they insisted that the secular government was itself instituted by God and thus its laws and rule should be based upon and reflect God’s law. Thus, the reformation of marriage was essential for the reform of theology and the development of Christian faith.
During the Reformation, then, Catholics and Protestants came to have different views on marriage. Protestants abolished the religious ideal of celibacy and replaced it with an elevated view of marriage. At the same time they rejected marriage as a sacrament and promoted it as a divinely ordained institution subject to civil authorities. In their views of marriage, however, Protestants retained many of the principles that had been established by canon law, and the new marriage courts usually were composed of both civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Protestant reformers also enlarged the role of the church in marriage. This is evident in the changed marriage ceremony, which now took place inside the church sanctuary in front of the altar, not outside the church on the doorstep, as had been the medieval practice. The couple no longer simply expressed their mutual consent to wed one another, but “experienced elaborate religious instruction as part of the observances, taking oaths ‘before God’ that had not existed earlier.” According to a suggested marriage liturgy written in 1529, Luther instructed pastors to conclude the ceremony with this prayer:
Lord God who has created man and woman and ordained them for marriage, and has blessed them with offspring, and who has symbolized it [marriage] by the Sacrament of your dear Son, Jesus Christ, and the church, his bride, we ask your boundless goodness not to let this your Creation, ordinance, and blessing be disturbed or spoiled, but rather graciously to preserve it in us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Marriage might, in the reformers’ view, be “an institution of the earthly kingdom, not a sacrament of the heavenly kingdom,” but that did not mean that it was beyond the church’s responsibility and concern.
Protestant criticisms and Catholic concern for reform prompted the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to address matrimony. The assembled representatives began the first discussions of the sacrament of marriage in 1547, but apparently the issues were so contentious and compromise impossible to reach that the Council did not issue its final decree on marriage until 1563. In Tametsi, the Church reaffirmed the traditional theological understanding of marriage as a sacrament instituted by Christ and reasserted that it was holier to “remain in virginity or celibacy than to be joined in marriage,” clear rejections of the Protestant position on marriage and clerical celibacy. The Council also addressed abuses and attempted to correct the problem of clandestine marriage by asserting in Tametsi that the “formal regulations of Lateran IV—that is, publication of banns and the presence of a priest and at least two witnesses at the ceremony—now [were] necessary for the validity of a marriage.” These requirements would make marriage a public, not a private, affair. Parish priests (like Protestant clergy) were also required to keep written records of marriages within their parishes.
Marriage in Church and State
Though Catholic and Protestant views of marriage differed, they were agreed on the need for marriage reform and increased enforcement of marriage law to correct and restrain abuses. The enactments of Trent seem very similar to Protestant reforms by requiring the participation of parents and witnesses in the marriage process and stipulating that the church play a larger role in matrimony. Nevertheless, among both Catholics and Protestants marriage drifted further and further under state control: Trent’s “reluctant imposition of human regulations on marriage spoke much louder than all of its sacramental decrees”: the sacred estate of marriage was endangered and state help was needed in order to protect it as both a spiritual and social institution. On this point both Catholics and Protestants were agreed.
Trent’s reaffirmation of the traditional understanding of matrimony was reasserted in the Code of Canon Law in 1917. Canon 1012 declared that marriage had been elevated by Christ to a sacrament and Canon 1013 declared that “the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children; its secondary end is mutual help and the allaying of concupiscence.”
However, the Church altered its stance on marriage with Vatican II (1962-1965). Many have regarded Vatican II as a significant turning point in both the history of Christianity and the Catholic Church. For marriage, several important theological changes were introduced: first, marriage was regarded as a partnership between man and woman in which they were equals (thus, the woman was no longer subordinate in the marital union); second, marriage was reaffirmed as a covenant in that the married couple stood as an image of God’s covenant by giving of themselves to one another; third, marriage was formed for mutual help and procreation (mutual help was placed on the same plane as procreation); fourth, marriage as a sacrament was not complete at the altar, but instead, all of married life “is called to be sacramental”; and fifth, marriage was a divine vocation (revealing a shift in the perception that celibacy was the higher or more perfect state of Christian life). These reforms were significant for the Catholic understanding of marriage, and in many ways brought Catholic and Protestant perceptions of Christian marriage much closer together to the extent that basic elements of a Christian view of marriage can now be identified: Marriage is a divinely ordained institution that constitutes “a lifelong commitment between a male and a female, which involves mutual sexual rights” and that involves a covenant before God as the marital couple makes mutual promises.
The institution of Christian marriage is once again being challenged. As is so often the case, the assault on moral standards in general and Christian values in particular comes not only from non-Christians but also from Christians themselves. The weakening of marriage as a core institution has resulted not simply from a series of secular court decisions, but perhaps more significantly from a lack of understanding of what constitutes marriage (indeed, does Western society even know what marriage is?!) that has precluded a clear commitment to upholding the institution of marriage even among Christians. In order to protect marriage Christians are called to represent faithfully the institution that God ordained for mutual help, propagation of the species, and the ordering of humanity.