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:

“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 women

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.

Ancient Greece

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.


Ancient Rome 

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.

medieval woman

Mediaeval Marriage

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.


20th Century

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.

Woman’s Rights

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.

Marriage today:

  • 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).

My Thoughts?

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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9 Comments on “What is Marriage? A Brief History of Marriage.

  1. Jesus did not trivialise marriage nor did he relegate it to the worldy realm. On the contrary, he stated rather emphatically that any man who divorces his wife commits adultery if he remarries and furthermore is held accountable for his wife’s adultery if she were to remarry. (Read Mark 10:11) Fornication is also a sin, defined as intercourse outside of marriage. Genesis (also reiterated by Jesus in Mark 10) tells us that the Father’s intention in the beginning was that a man shall leave his mother and father and unite with his wife and the two shall become one flesh. (Gen 2:24) If this isn’t marriage in it’s most original form then I don’t know what is. I think we’re in very dangerous territory when we try to reshape our understanding of scriptural truth to fit in with contemporary world views or even human history, for that matter. There were indeed many accounts of sexual immorality throughout the bible but nowhere can I see where this was condoned by God or Jesus or Paul. Paul, in fact, emphasised the need to be careful when entering into marriage lest you be unequally yoked. (Implying one spouse, not polygamy) He uses the term marriage! Marriage is indeed biblical and matters to God! Apart from any of this, Christ followers are called to live holy lives! I’m not homophobic and don’t wish to sound judgmental because I have not led a blameless life in this area, but I’m pretty sure that acting out on immoral sexual lusts (heterosexual or homosexual) is far from living a holy life. When speaking about “godlessness in the last days, i.e signs of the end of the age we are warned that “…men will burn for other men etc.
    (Read Romans 1) Romans talks about how people create their own idea of what God is like, rejecting truth and as a result their minds became dark and confused (Rom. 1.21)
    Of course there is grace for the sinner who repents but there’s the key word repentence.


    • Hi James
      This article was a ‘historical overview of marriage’ not a theological discourse on marriage- You are of course very welcome to your views. Of course marriage is important to Jesus as is celibacy which is what he chose.
      The article is discussing an historical overview which talks about the context of society in different centuries and how things change and thank goodness it has. Jesus was revolutionary in advocating equality in an era where woman were seen as property or were one of many woman in a relationship.
      James it’s important to understand context – any theology professor will tell you that.
      You feel strongly about how you see things I respect that. People follow this blog from all over the work and from many different stages in their journey. The overriding tone of this piece is respect and the ability to hold a safe space for people to converse.
      James I attend a NFP community in Warrandyte.


      • Thanks for posting my comment Lisa. Historical overview or not I felt it important to draw attention to, not my view, but truth as written down long before this generation. Since your overview brought Jesus and the bible into the discussion, I felt what He and Paul said about it was relevant.
        Cheers – James.


    • I certainly am a Christian saved by grace but I think I must know a different God.


  2. We can love others whether we vote yes or no, are you implying there are no other criteria to consider?


    • Hi Anne thanks for your comment.
      The post is about the history of marriage.
      However; People from faith and non faith backgrounds follow this blog. I am just asking that whatever you believe – be loving toward each other in your dialogue and actions.
      The blog post is not about the vote. It is about marriage over the centuries and what it looks like.
      I am saying that there is actually quite a lot to consider. Xxxxx hope this helps


  3. There is no single united Christian voice on the subject of same sex marriage. Conservatives will probably vote no, while liberal or progressive Christians may vote Yes. There is however, a growing consensus that the value of a person is not determined by their sexual orientation, but by the quality of their character. What makes me cautious of same sex marriage is when it becomes law (and it will), same sex couples now legally married may want children. This raises the moral question of surrogacy which is now illegal in Cambodia and questionable in other countries. The flow on from same sex marriage is yet to be experienced. Whenever you open the window to new social concepts, whether it is refugees or same sex marriage, fresh air come in, but so do mosquitos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Lance, respectfully, the questions surrounding surrogacy are broad and not limited to same sex couples. I would argue that to deny equal citizens the right to the institution of marriage based on this ethical quandary, that affects many couples, is not fair. I also have confidence that we can negotiate this particular question in the future: What legislation does Australia adopt towards surrogacy? But it does not influence my vote on Marriage Equality. Which for me is a resounding YES 🙂 Regards, Nicole


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