The Institution of Marriage

How should we define and think about marriage today? There’s been a lot of controversy and confusion over what many refer to as “the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage.” But what’s been the actual history of marriage?

Going back to the time of the Roman Empire, most Christians were married in the same way as pagans – in common-law or ‘free’ marriages. There were no marriage licenses issued by the government, no religious ceremonies or weddings inside a church, and unless you were wealthy and needed a contract to specify certain property rights – much as with pre-nuptial agreements today – Christians were usually married in simple public ceremonies without any license or written agreement. At that time, informal gay and lesbian marriages were also common.

Later on, after the reign of the Christian Emperor Justinian (527-565), Christians were married in more formal civil ceremonies, according to the Justinian Code. Though prayers and blessings were sometimes added to the ceremony, marriage was not a sacrament of the church and it did not directly involve the church.

It was only much later that marriage finally became a sacrament: first by way of Pope Innocent III’s Profession of Faith in 1208, and sometime later and much more definitively at the Council of Trent in 1563. It was during this period that marriage was gradually established as one of the seven sacraments of the church based in Rome. For the first time, this new sacrament required a ceremony before a priest and two witnesses. It makes what many call ‘the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage’ a relative latecomer in the history of the church.

Should we assume that it always should have been that way – marriage as a sacred institution between a man and a woman – even though the church only came around to the view much later? Not really. Because it happened for reasons that most people don’t understand. The reason that heterosexual marriage was belatedly transformed into a religious institution was so that the church – more specifically Rome and the Pope – could exercise much stricter control over the laity. It was a bid for more power and influence in domestic affairs.

We know this is the case is because that was the reason given at that time – the necessity for the church to exert more control because too many people were getting divorced or living together without the benefit of a civil marriage, and too many children were born out of wedlock. Though it is telling that at the same time that marriage was being sanctified and brought within the church, married priests were being forced out of the church entirely and chastity was much more strictly enforced.

In 1074, only a quarter of a century before marriage had entered the long process toward ultimate sanctification, Pope Gregory VII legislated that everyone ordained as a priest must first pledge celibacy, arguing that “the Church cannot escape from the clutches of the laity unless priests first escape the clutches of their wives,” (Citing the authority of St. Paul in 1Co 7:33-34). But earlier in church history, and throughout the first millennium, though chastity was considered the highest standard of devotion for priests, married priests were common and generally accepted. Many early Popes had been married. It was properly considered a matter of choice and the church didn’t try to interfere. But all that had suddenly changed because now the church wanted much stricter control over their priesthood, just as they sought more control over the laity.

So at the same time that marriage was sanctified for the laity, the church began imprisoning married priests and driving them out of their parishes to die of hunger, even selling their wives and children into slavery, as a warning to others. So much for the ‘sacred institution of marriage’ if you happened to be a priest! The Second Lateran Council (1139) declared that, “For since they should be called the temple of God, the vessel of the Lord, the abode of the Holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they (priests) indulge in marriage and in impurities.” Marriage became a ‘forbidden impurity’ for priests, while becoming a ‘sacred institution’ for the laity. Though seemingly inconsistent to the point of Theological Schizophrenia, the logic is clear once you realize that both actions were aimed at the same goal – to increase the power, authority, and wealth of the church. Controlling marriage and divorce would become a very profitable monopoly, and by forcing their priests to remain chaste, the church could retain all the wealth that would otherwise have gone to their families.

Not surprisingly, this was the same period when the Inquisition was getting under way. The ‘sacred institution of heterosexual marriage’ has a lot in common with the rack and thumbscrew – especially if you are gay or lesbian and trying to make a heterosexual marriage work. This was the period in church history when the persecution of homosexuals was begun in earnest. John Boswell writes, “It remains nonetheless clear that a considerable transformation of public attitudes towards homosexual behavior took place during the latter twelfth and thirteenth centuries.” [1]The church’s drive for more uniformity and control resulted, not only in the sanctification of heterosexual marriage and the persecution of married priests, but it was also the motivating factor behind the persecution of homosexuals.

But why should we be surprised when we recognize the same motivation in many of our religious leaders today? Together with the Roman Catholic Church, the religious-right in America have become the prime advocates for the notions of the sanctity of heterosexual marriage and the sinfulness of the ‘homosexual lifestyle.’ It seems that whenever the church has gained too much political power and influence – as in medieval Europe and in contemporary America – the tendency is that they, who already have too much power, seek even more control. Controlling the lives of others becomes their religion, and this is made easier when they can pretend to be speaking for God.

So rather than preserving the free choice that God originally gave to all of us, they seek to control everyone’s private life, and one method is by enslaving us to an unnatural (even superstitious) fear and awe for certain ‘sacred institutions’ – when our fear and awe should have been reserved for God alone. Rather than maintaining God’s authority and preaching the truth of the Bible, many corrupt, power-hungry, and extremely ignorant men, seek only to increase their power by creating institutions that are sacred only insofar as they accomplish that for which they were originally created; in the case of marriage, it was created to fulfill a basic human need for loving companionship. (Ge 2:18) Jesus warned of religious authorities who, “For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God.” (Mr 7:13) And for the sake of a 500 year old tradition called ‘the sacred institution of heterosexual marriage,’ many religious people have voided the right that God originally gave to every human being: the right to choose the marriage partner most suitable for us.

That’s not to say that the commitment of love that two married people have for each other is not important. But what is sacred about marriage is the level of their commitment, the depth of their love, and the freedom that we were all given to select our partner in marriage.

The corruption that always results from religious tyranny, eventually led to a backlash called the Protestant Reformation. Along with rejecting the notion of a celibate clergy, Martin Luther rejected the notion that marriage was a sacrament of the church, saying that he found no grounds in the Bible for making it one. Instead of being a sacred institution, Luther considered marriage to be a secular institution, established – and to be regulated – by the state, rather than by the church.

“Marriage is a civic matter. It is really not, together with all its circumstances, the business of the church.” (What Luther Says CPH 1959, Vol. 2, page 885) “No one can deny that marriage is an external, worldly, matter, like clothing and food, house and property, subject to temporal authority, as the many imperial laws enacted on the subject prove.” (What Luther Says Vol. 46: page 265.) “Granted, therefore, that marriage is a figure of Christ and the church, yet it is not a sacrament of divine institution; it was introduced into the church by men who were misled by their ignorance both of the subject and the record.” (Luther – ‘The Pagan Servitude of the Church.’)

Marriage was never defined as a sacred institution between one man and one woman in the Old Testament, where polygamy was very common; while in the New Testament, the only sacred marriage is the one that exists between Christ and His bride, the church. Those promoting the ‘sacred institution of heterosexual marriage’ seem to have made their spouse their church and their sexuality their savior.

If modern-day Protestant fundamentalists knew anything about the theological foundations and history of their faith, they would be the last people mobilizing to defend the “sacred institution of heterosexual marriage” as if it were the central tenet of their beliefs. They have been misled by their ignorance, their fear, and their lust for power over the lives of others, rather than concentrating on the log in their own eye. The Reformation was all about reminding us that Christianity is the relationship between a Christian and his/her God, rather than being whatever authoritarian relationship may have developed between the laity and church authorities. Whom we could marry, whether we should marry, when or whether we can divorce, were all considered private matters of conscience – at least, that used to be the Protestant viewpoint, and originally the Catholic view as well.

Unfortunately, there are religious authorities in America who would like to decide, not only for their own flock, but for every American, whatever their faith or beliefs. This form of religious tyranny has nothing to do with Christianity or the Bible and everything to do with a shameless lust for power, wrapped in the disguise of a sacred institution.

Today, people like Pat Robertson and James Dobson are attempting to force their beliefs upon the civil authorities, to deny individual citizens their sacred right to privacy, their sacred Christian liberty, and their sacred choice to marry. They are even attempting to pass a constitutional amendment, which is little more than a Papal bull, calculated to tear down the wall between church and state by formally sanctifying the institution of heterosexual marriage in secular law. They want to bring the institution marriage more completely under their control; and, along with it, to bring the private domestic life of every American citizen under their complete control. What was true 1,000 years ago is just as true today: What comes advertised as a ‘sacred institution’ is all about religious tyranny.

That’s why today, as GLBT Christians, we are not only fighting for our own rights. We are fighting in the front lines of the Second Reformation of the Church, for a re-affirmation of our Christian liberty, and for a return to the freedom that once guaranteed every consenting adult the right to choose her, or his, partner in marriage.


[1] John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2005), p. 301.