The Good Marriage: Foundations in History

Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. (Hebrews 13:4 TNIV)

Discussing marriage in our current cultural context is a touchy thing.  With homosexuals fighting for their right to have legally binding “marriages” to the broader Evangelical community fighting for “traditional marriages,” one is left with the notion that this beautiful thing is nearly undefinable.  To say marriage is between a man and a woman only seems intolerant and yet, simultaneously, “same-sex marriage” is an oxymoron of sorts with “marriage” implying that two different things are coming together.  Merriam-Webster would have us think differently, but it is hard to change the implications of a term when it has been used in a particular manner for as long as the term “marriage” has.

So in all of the mess that often passes as “marriage” in America today, what is marriage?  What makes for a strong marriage?  What roles do sex, finances, and even love play in the marriage of today?  In the next few weeks, I am going to tackle these and other issues pertaining to the topic of marriage.  These posts are open for your discussion and comment, so feel free to respond appropriately.  But remember, as in all cases, especially if you’re a Christian, respond only in love and respect.  Rude comments will not be tolerated, and will be deleted promptly.

Foundations for a good marriage

Whenever you are building a building, you must start with the foundation.  As cliche as it sounds, this is always true.  To discuss sex apart from marriage, for example, creates an incomplete understanding of human sexuality.  Cracks form and, eventually, sexuality is reduced to attraction and copulation.  Of course, any reasonable person would agree that, as complex as humankind is, sexuality composes much more than simply mating.

The same idea is true of marriage.  Without grounding our understanding of marriage in history and, as Christians, Scripture, marriage falls into the same disrepair.  Cracks form and marriage is reduced to a legally binding document and a set of rituals.  All meaning is removed and all symbolism is erased.

A brief history of marriage

Marriage began as a fairly informal agreement.  There was no set-in-stone ritual that declared a couple husband and wife.  In Old Testament Biblical times, it appears that it was nothing more than a monetary transaction and the physical union of the man and woman.  Sex made someone married.  In fact, the Law was such that if a man raped a virgin, she became his wife.  He payed the bride price for her and they were on their way.

By the New Testament era, marriage was a mostly private matter and no civil or religious ceremony was required.  In the Middle Ages, it became common practice to register marriages, which was one of the duties of the institutional church.  Prior to this, marriages were done by way of “verbum.”  A couple who chose to be married would privately make a promise.  If it was worded in the present tense, they were married on the spot.  If worded in the future tense, it was considered a betrothal.  But, if the couple chose to have sex, they were considered married right then and there.  This changed little until the time of John Calvin, when he saw to the establishment of a required civil/religious ceremony that registered and declared a couple “legally” married.

And this is largely how it remains today.  To be considered “married,” a couple must at least sign some legal documents and have someone licensed witness and sign them as well.  Traditionally, this is done as a part of a religious ceremony, but it is not a required part of the ceremony itself, although it is legally required to receive any of the benefits of being married.  (We will not discuss “common-law marriages” at this point for it is mostly irrelevant to our discussion.)

What are the legal and social benefits of marriage?  The legal rights include the right of the spouse to his or her partner’s sexual services, labor, and property, responsibility for a spouse’s debts, visitation rights when incarcerated or hospitalized, control over a spouse’s affairs when incapacitated, and guardianship of children.  Socially, marriage brings two families together in a unique relationship.

This is part of why loving, monogamous homosexual couples want the right of marriage in the United States.  Currently, if one or the other member in these relationships ends up in the hospital on life support, for example, they are unable to decide for their partner whether or not to pull the plug, even if the injured partner has requested it.  It also leaves property decisions largely up to the state and the the individual’s family were he or she to die.

But this is also why the broader Evangelical community is so opposed to homosexual marriage, and even merely legal civil unions.  They do not believe that homosexuals should get the rights associated with marriage for their relationships are invalid.

Historically, marriage has been recognized as solely a rite between a man and a woman, with one of the only, and earliest, documented cases of acceptance of homosexual marriages being the Roman Empire.  From this point on, our discussion of marriage will remain within the context of heterosexual relationships.  And so as not to be sidetracked in the discussion at hand, please keep debate over the issue of homosexual marriage to a minimum.

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3 thoughts on “The Good Marriage: Foundations in History

  1. the Fool says:

    Great post and a very interesting read – and I look forward to the next installment(s).

    Just a point of clarification, you say…..

    ‘By the New Testament era, marriage was a mostly private matter and no civil or religious ceremony was required’

    …… please could you expand on this in the light of the New Testement stories relating to weddings – Jesus turning water into wine, the parable of the 10 virgins etc. Is it simply that there was no religious or civil ceremony, but there was a party?

    the Fool

  2. I’ll be going into that a bit more when I discuss marriage in a Biblical context. But, what I meant was that there was no required ceremony. You’re right about there being a celebration, but a particular form and ceremony was not in place, as far as I know.

  3. the Fool says:

    OK – thanks – I look forward to reding this.

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