This article looks at the early church's view of marriage.

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1994. 2 pages.

Marriage and the Early Church

Modern Western Civilisation is daily tending to drift back into pagan and anti-Christian patterns of thought and practice. From this slide we are certain that a God-sent revival would deliver us. It needs to be clearly understood that it was the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ which set European society free from pagan practices long centuries ago. Dr Alderson here draws our attention to the state of things which prevailed before the gospel came to the Gentile world. Let us pray that the same gospel will soon make its beneficent presence felt again and everywhere.

The Christian attitude to women and marriage differed greatly from the pagan view before it. It is a commonplace that pagan culture at the time of Christ degraded women and debased marriage. A woman was regarded more as a chattel than a person. Plutarch tells us that her rights and interests were totally subordinated to those of her husband. She had no friends or gods but his. It was a permissive age. Even eminent moralists like Cicero and Cato were known to be adulterers. Divorce was the order of the day. Seneca notes that in Nero's reign women measured their years by husbands, not consuls. Martial tells of one woman who married ten husbands in one month, while Jerome later speaks of one woman married twenty-three times. They were no doubt exaggerating, but the marital laxity of the period lies beyond dispute.

It was the glory of Christianity that it elevated the status of women and stressed the sanctity of the marriage bond. St Paul could give marriage no higher honour than to employ it as a type of the union between Christ and his church. Many early Christian writers held this biblical view of marriage. So Tertullian contended vigorously (as was his wont) for monogamy. If God had intended polygamy, he would have used more than one of Adam's ribs! God had permitted polygamy to the patriarchs only because the world was underpopulated.

The Fathers generally adduced two purposes of marriage — children and mutual spiritual support. The primary reason was the procreation and nur­ture of children. This stood in marked contrast to the attitude of many pagans. 'We destroy monstrous offspring', declared Seneca. 'If they are born delicate or deformed, we drown them. It is not passion but reason that sepa­rates the useless from the healthy'.

If Christians did not want children, they abstained from sex. Contracep­tion was universally frowned on in the church. This matter received prominence under Callistus, when certain noblewomen were loath to bear children to slaves, since any offspring automatically took slave status.

The second purpose of marriage was mutual spiritual comfort, and in a passage of rare beauty Tertullian depicts this for us:

How can I paint the happiness in a marriage that the church ratifies, the celebration of commun­ion confirms, the benediction seals? What a union! They pray together, fast together, instruct, exhort and support each other. They share each other's tribulation, persecution and revival. They delight to visit the sick, help the needy, give alms freely. Christ rejoices when he hears and sees this.

Tertullian then depicts the evils of a mixed marriage: 'How can a woman serve two masters, the Lord and a husband — let alone a heathen husband? If there is a meeting to attend, he gives her an appointment for the baths. If there are fasts to be kept, he chooses the day for a dinner party. If she has a charitable errand, never is household work more in the way. For who would let his wife go round street by street to other men's houses, and indeed to all the poor cottages, to visit the brethren? Who will willingly let her be taken from his side for nocturnal meetings, and especially for the all-night service at Easter? Who will let her go without suspicion of his own to that Lord's Supper which they defame? Who will let her creep into a prison to kiss a martyr's bonds, or even to give the kiss of peace to one of the brethren? God's handmaid is persecuted with the odour of incense at all the (pagan) festivals of the demons, and on every day of public rejoicing. She will dine with her husband in clubs, often in taverns; and sometimes she will minister to the unjust — the very men she was to judge hereafter'.

Unfortunately, not all the Fathers held a biblical view of marriage. Second marriages were discouraged or even condemned as 'a respectable form of adultery'. More extreme teachers condemned marriage altogether as unspir­itual. Where most Christians, following the Apostle Paul, saw celibacy, like marriage, as a gift of God, the heretic Marcion exalted it above marriage and imposed it on his followers. In his later years Tertullian became much more rigorous. He argued against marriage as a 'voluptuous disgrace', regarded wives as encumbrances in the Christian warfare, and finally asserted that, in this new dispensation of the Spirit, Christians should follow Christ's example and remain celibate. This imbalance was, of course, later reflected in monasticism. Jerome contrasted the gold and silver of celibacy with the earthenware of marriage. 'The thirtyfold increase of Scripture', he wrote, 'refers to marriage; sixtyfold to widowhood; but one hundredfold to virgin­ity. Marriage replenishes earth but virginity heaven'. Happily, this ran quite counter to the generally accepted view.

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