What is Marriage?
A Brief History of Marriage by Lisa Hunt-Wotton
One of the most contentious topics that we are facing in society today is about same-sex marriage. It is headline news in Australia as we move toward a 12 million dollar plebiscite. The issue is divisive, it is loaded and has become mean and nasty. Whilst I think that this is an important issue, I don’t think that it is worth losing our minds over. In other words, it is not the most important issue on the planet at the moment and we should certainly not be in fear of it.
Can I please admonish all of us. Please do not think of any one who differs from us on the issue of homosexuality, as less than us in any way. Less Christian, less Australian, less worthy of love, or less loveable. Irrespective of your views ‘for or against’ marriage equality. We should, in all maturity, be able to hold differing views with love and respect.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics will conduct the plebiscite, which is a direct vote by all Australians on the issue of marriage equality.
However: this post is about marriage. Not about same-sex marriage. Before we have an opinion on ‘marriage equality’, I think it is important that we know the history of marriage. Where it comes from, how it has evolved and where it stands today in our post modern society.
What is Marriage? As a Commonwealth Registered Celebrant this is a question that I write about every day. When meeting with betrothed couples, one of the questions that I ask them is this. What does marriage mean to you? In legal terms, marriage is the process by which two people make their relationship public, official, and permanent. Currently in Australia it is the ‘union of a man and a woman voluntarily entered into for life to the exclusion of all others’. (Marriage Act 1961).
When I ask couples this question I get many responses. These are the most common.
“Marriage is a lifetime relationship of honesty, trust and love. It is a relationship full of laughter creating life moments to share together”.
“To us marriage is a mysterious life long adventure between two people who love each other”.
“Marriage is spending my life with my best friend and going through life’s crazy rollercoaster. It’s being the best team we can be. Marriage is commitment. It is love and happiness with my best friend for the rest of my life”.
“Marriage is an official union in the eyes of God. It allows two people to become one and to begin their lives dedicated to one another and to God. Marriage signifies to God that you are committing to one partner for a life-time. That you are willing to allow God to walk with you and guide you throughout your life together”.
The Christian version of marriage is this: “By making the covenant of marriage, you make a covenant to love one another as God has loved you – that means to love one another unconditionally, freely, sacrificially. In making the covenant of marriage, you promise to become servants of one another in love. In making the covenant of marriage, you form a union that reflects the love of God and stands as a sign and vehicle of grace”(Richard B. Hays).
Most people think that marriage as we know it today originated from the bible or from Christianity. This is not so. There is actually nothing like marriage as we know it today in western society. It is a totally modern construct.
The first recorded evidence of marriage contracts and ceremonies dates to 4,000 years ago, in Mesopotamia. In the ancient world, marriage served primarily as a means of preserving power and lineage. It is so important to realise that the bible as we know it today was written over a period of thousands of years. Encompassing ancient societies, views and values whose norms for living are very different to how we view society today.
The Word Marriage
The word “marriage” derives from Middle English mariage, which first appears in 1250–1300. The related word “matrimony” derives from the Old French word matremoine, which appears around 1300 CE and ultimately derives from Latin mātrimōnium, which combines the two concepts: mater meaning “mother” and the suffix –moniumsignifying “action, state, or condition”. This supports the understanding of ancient marriage which was to turn a virgin into a mother. In other words to have children in order to protect the lineage of the male line.
Old Testament Marriage or Ancient Marriage
Old Testament marriage is full of Near Eastern polygamy. Widows became wives to their brother in-laws, a woman automatically became the bride of her rapist. Male soldiers could take as many virgins as he liked for brides as booty of the spoils of war. Marriages are dissoluble if she fails to please. Abraham had more than one wife. Isaac is one of the very few patriarchs who, so far as we can tell, have only one. Jacob has two, and then two concubines as well. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which is not a problem with the biblical writers until he takes foreign wives. Todays ideal of one man and one woman is a foreign concept. Above all, women are seen as property, and you could divorce your wife for anything, for any reason at all. (N.T.Wright)
Jesus refused to involve himself in family disputes. He taught that marriage was, technically, a secular matter. Secular in the sense of ‘belonging to this world’ or to this ‘passing age’. In the new heaven and new earth Jesus taught that there would be no marriage. Jesus taught that there was perfect equality between all of Gods children. A radical thought to a people who saw woman as property and breeders. No one owned anyone through slavery or marriage. He taught that family ties are irrelevant in the Kingdom to come. Marriage is basically dictated by the present and passing age.
Marriage could bring a wife into the household following a proper marriage ritual, or merely involved the couple living under the same roof after the signature of a contract. The style of marriage was not really important. It’s function was quite simple; to change a woman’s status from that of a young maid, virgo, to that of a mother, mater. From when she was married, two different fates could await the bride. If she was lucky enough to be fertile and gave birth to three children or more, she would be a respected mother, a wife to be envied and would gain acceptance in the community. If, however, she proved infertile, she would be threatened with repudiation (source).
In both the Roman and Greek cultures, the marriage itself was in fact not regarded as having been fully consummated until the first child was born in the house. Most girls were married at the onset of puberty. Around the age of 12.
In Rome, life was all about sex. Rome was drenched in sex. Marriage was understood in the context of preserving the family line. Wives were taken to breed children. Sexual pleasure was acceptably found outside of marriage and married men were expected to have mistresses and married women were allowed to take lovers. Sexual orientation did not matter, it was about power. As long as the lover or mistress was inferior to them in social status. Only a wife was considered of equal status and this was to preserve the family name.
At least two of the Roman Emperors were in same-sex unions; and in fact, thirteen out of the first fourteen Roman Emperors held to be bisexual or exclusively homosexual. The first Roman emperor to have married a man was Nero, who is reported to have married two other men on different occasions.
Romans worshipped Pan, there are statues of him having sex with goats. Pan had sex with anyone that he wanted, therefore so could the Romans. Paul was speaking into a world where sex was everywhere and where people without right were exploited by the powerful. Male slaves were purposely castrated for Roman high society women so that they could have as much sex as they wanted without fear of pregnancy. Paul is writing into a world where the rich lived a life of pleasure and sexual abuse.
Marriage was not based on love; most marriages were political arrangements. Husbands and wives were generally strangers until they first met. The arrangement of marriage was done by the bride and groom’s parents. In the middle ages, girls were typically in their early teens when they married, and boys were in their early twenties. The arrangement of the marriage was based on monetary worth. The family of the girl who was to be married would give a dowry, or donation, to the boy she was to marry. The dowry would be presented to the groom at the time of the marriage.
Gay ‘marriage’ in medieval Europe
Same-sex unions aren’t a recent invention. Until the 13th century, male-bonding ceremonies were common in churches across the Mediterranean. Apart from the couples’ gender, these events were almost indistinguishable from other marriages of the era. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions — also known as “spiritual brotherhoods” — included the recital of marriage prayers, the joining of hands at the altar, and a ceremonial kiss. Some historians believe these unions were merely a way to seal alliances and business deals.
The church did not get involved in marriage until the 5th century when church courts took over and elevated marriage to a holy union. As the church’s power grew through the Middle Ages, so did its influence over marriage. In 1215, marriage was declared one of the church’s seven sacraments, alongside rites like baptism and penance. But it was only in the 16th century that the church decreed that weddings be performed in public, by a priest, and before witnesses.
Love did not enter the picture until the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, up until then, love was seen as being incompatible with marriage. Ancient societies saw marriage as a financial contract which protected lineage and breeding. Love and erotic or sexual pleasure was to be found with a mistress, lovers or prostitutes.
Up until the 20th century inter-racial marriages were forbidden. In June 1967 it became legal in America for inter racial marriages. Until recent decades interfaith marriages were also prohibited. Many Christian denominations quoted the biblical passage 2 Corinthians 6:14 which forbids Christians from marrying outside of their faith. I myself was forbidden to marry a man outside my faith in the year 2000.
As the womens rights movement gained strength in the late 19th and 20th centuries, wives slowly began to insist on being regarded as their husbands’ equals, rather than their property. The arrival of contraception in the late 1950’s fundamentally transformed marriage. Couples could choose how many children to have, and even to have no children at all. If they were unhappy with each other, they could divorce — and nearly half of all couples did. Marriage had become primarily a personal contract between two equals seeking love, stability, and happiness.
The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act allowed ordinary people to divorce. Before then, divorce was largely open only to men, and had to be granted by an Act of Parliament, which was hugely expensive, and therefore was also open only to the rich. Under the new law, women divorcing on the grounds of adultery not only had to prove their husbands had been unfaithful but also had to prove additional faults, which included cruelty, rape and incest.
- A private members’ bill in 1923 made it easier for women to petition for divorce for adultery, but it still had to be proved.
- In 1937, the law was changed and divorce was allowed on other grounds including drunkenness, insanity and desertion.
- The big change came in 1969, when the Divorce Reform Act was passed, allowing couples to divorce after they had been separated for two years (or five years if only one of them wanted a divorce). A marriage could be ended if it had irretrievably broken down, and neither partner no longer had to prove “fault”.
As you will have noted. Marriage today is radically different from what it was in the past.
- Wives are not seen as breeders or property
- Woman demand equal rights
- Wives are not 12 years old, the average bride in Australia is 26
- Sex outside of marriage is not socially acceptable
- You can marry a person of another race or faith
- Marriage is not considered a contract of power or finance
- Most western woman would not consent to an arranged marriage
- Women would not consent to being one of several wives or concubines.
- Divorce is available to all social positions both male and female.
- Rape in marriage. In 1976, for the first time in the English-speaking world, rape in marriage became a criminal offence. Hard to believe I know.
Could I dare suggest that marriage is not defined by the Church or the State but by the lives of the people who marry according to the social and personal beliefs of the time and place. In other words, exactly as Jesus had said, marriage is fundamentally what it has always been – a matter of the present and passing age (Alan Wilson – More Perfect Union).
If we are people of faith we need to make the love of God visible. No one has ever seen God. “But if we love one another, God dwells among us, and His love is perfected among us”. 1 john 4:12. Love acted out within community makes God known to the world. The love of God continues to be visible, not only through the telling the story of the gospel, but also through the ongoing life of the community of faith that lives by that story. By our acts of love toward one another God is made visible. He is clearly seen. If we want to bring our beliefs of God into the arena of marriage we can only do so through the lens of our love for each other.
By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, by your love for one another.
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