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Christian views of marriage

Throughout history, Christians have regarded marriage as ordained by God for the lifelong union of a man and a woman. Most Christian wedding ceremonies take place in churches, but now some couples choose quaint or nostalgic secular locations in which to be married by clergy.

Divorce is seen from a Christian perspective generally as less than ideal. Some see divorce as an unavoidable, but regrettable, part of life. Others believe that a divorce is never truly recognized by God and view it as universally wrong. There are many views in between these extremes.

The Christian church at large has not escaped liberal influences of the sexual revolution. An indication of such influences is greater tolerance within some churchs of couples living together without marriage (cohabitation, and if sexual, fornication), extramarital affairs (adultery) and no-fault divorce. This is happening in spite of the fact that these practices conflict with doctrinal beliefs present in Christianity since its founding.

Biblical Foundation

The foundational principal of regarding Christian marriage as being ordained by God for the lifelong union of a man and a woman was first articulated biblically in the Book of Genesis (). Later, Jesus set forth his basic position on marriage by bringing together two important passages from Genesis (). He pointed to the completion of the creation — "male and female he created them." Then he described marriage as a relationship, a union, so intimate and real that "the two become one flesh." As persons, husband and wife are of equal value. In truth, they are one. Finally, Jesus added his emphasis on marriage being God-made and lifelong:

Have you not read, he replied, that at the beginning the Creator "made them male and female," and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate ().

The Apostle Paul quoted these passages from both Genesis and Jesus almost verbatim in two of his New Testament books (and in ).

For Christians, Jesus dignified the institution of marriage by performing the first of the recorded miracles of Jesus at a wedding. See Marriage at Cana ().

Christian marriage is seen by Paul as paralleling the relationship between Christ and the Church, a theological view which is a development of the Old Testament view that saw a parallel between marriage and the relationship between God and Israel (also ).

Marriage, especially marriage between believers, is often analogized to a picture of the Trinity. Though a woman and a man are separate individuals, in Christian marriage they become joined by God as one flesh in a manner analogous to Adam and Eve, who were distinct persons though literally created from the same flesh (, , , ). The relationships — (a) in the Trinity, (b) between husband and wife, and (c) between Christ and individual believers — are analogous to each other. Each of these relationships points to the unity of individual believers and the Church with Christ and with the Father. Christian marriage is portrayed as the epitome of mutuality. Neither spouse owns her or his own body; that body belongs to the other spouse, and to them both jointly ().

All major Christian groups take marriage to be normal and proper, to be "held in honor among all" (). Biblically, weddings are described as times of joy. In , St. Paul talks of heretics who, among other things, "forbid marriage" and he describes their views as "doctrines of demons." Catholicism and Orthodoxy traditionally see an even greater value in celibacy when that celibacy is undertaken for the sake of a more single-minded devotion to God, but believe that not everyone has this calling from God and acknowledge marriage is preferred by most people. This belief comes from Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth in chapter 7 which he sums up in verses 8 and 9 as:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion ().

View of Roman Catholic Church

In Roman Catholicism, the Church teaches that marriage is God's doing: "God himself is the author of marriage," which is his way of showing love for those he created. Because a marriage is a divine institution it can never be broken, even if the partners are legally divorced: as long as they are both alive, the Church considers them bound together by God.

Marriage is intended to be a faithful, exclusive, lifelong union of a man and a woman joined in an intimate community of life and love. They commit themselves completely to each other and to the responsibility of bringing children into the world and caring for them. The call to marriage is considered to be woven deeply into the human spirit. Man and woman are equal. However, as created, they are different from, but made for, each other. This complementarity, including sexual difference, draws them together in a mutually loving union that should be always open to the procreation of children.

In God's plan for marriage, holy matrimony is considered an intimate union in which the spouses give themselves, as equal persons, completely and lovingly to one another. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that marriage is both a natural institution and a sacred union because it is rooted in the divine plan for creation. The valid marriage of baptized Christians is one of the seven Roman Catholic sacraments — a saving reality.

Marriage is seen as a public sign in at least two ways:

  • It is a public sign that a husband and a wife each gives oneself totally to each other.
  • It is also a public statement about God: the loving union of husband and wife speaks of family values and also God's values.

According to the Church's Catechism, "the spouses as ministers of Christ's grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.

In opposing making same-sex unions equal to marriage, the Catholic Church views marriage as originating from God, though it is regulated by civil laws and church laws. Therefore, its stance is that neither church nor state can alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage. Husband and wife give themselves totally to each other in their masculinity and femininity.

Catholics are encouraged to marry other Catholics in order to attain a "perfect union of mind and full communion of life," but it is also the priest's duty to remember that marriage is part of God's natural law and to support the couple if they do choose to marry. In spite of ideal of Catholics marrying Catholics, the reality is that today it is common for Catholics to enter into a mixed marriage (a marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic). Couples entering into a mixed marriage are usually allowed to marry in a Catholic church provided they have embraced the following principles:

  • They have chosen to marry of their own accord with no external pressure
  • They intend to remain together for life
  • They intend to be faithful to each other
  • They intend to have children if the bride is of childbearing age

When one member of the couple is not a Catholic, a dispensation is required for a mixed marriage to take place. This is normally granted by the bishop of the diocese in which the marriage occurs.

If one of the partners is not baptized (they belong to a non-Christian religion, or to none) a dispensation for disparity of the cult is required. This must be granted by the bishop. It is usually a straightforward matter as long as the dispensation is applied for in time. The priest will usually take care of the paperwork.

In the case of either a mixed marriage or disparity of cult, the Catholic party must promise to raise any children born in the marriage Catholic. The non-Catholic party must be informed of the promise, but is not required to make a similar promise.

Before a marriage takes place, a couple must spend time with the priest to talk about the sanctity of marriage and their role within the church in preparation for their life together. Questions concerning family and children, money issues, lifestyle choices and religion will be asked.

These marriage preparations are known generally as pre-Cana. It is an educational and maturing process for married life. Pre-Cana can take place over six months or an intensive weekend course and is mandatory for Catholics wishing to get married.

While a couple is engaged but not yet married, they are expected to refrain from sexual activity: "They should reserve for marriage the expressions of affection that belong to married love." This is because the Church teaches that sex is part of the procreation process and should only happen within the right framework, which is marriage.

View of the Eastern Orthodox Church

In Eastern Orthodoxy, marriage is treated as a Sacred Mystery (sacrament), and as an ordination. And, like all ordinations, it is considered to be a martyrdom, as each spouse learns to die to him- or herself for the sake of the other. Like all Mysteries, Orthodox marriage is more than just a celebration of something which already exists: it is the creation of something new, the imparting to the couple of the grace which transforms them from a 'couple' into husband and wife within the Body of Christ. In addition, marriage is an icon (image) of the relationship between Jesus and the Church. This is somewhat akin to the Old Testament prophets' use of marriage as an analogy to describe the relationship between God and Israel. Marriage is simplest, most basic unity of the church: a congregation where "two or three are gathered together in [Jesus'] name" (). The home is considered a consecrated space (the ritual for the Blessing of a House is based upon that of the Consecration of a Church), and the husband and wife are considered the ministers of that congregation. However, the do not "perform" the Sacraments in the house church, they "live" the Sacrament of Marriage. Because marriage is considered to be a pilgrimage wherein the couple walk side by side toward the Kingdom of Heaven, marriage to a non-Orthodox partner is discouraged, though it may be permitted.

Unlike Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodox Churches do not consider the sacramental aspect of the marriage to be conferred by the couple themselves. Rather, the marriage is conferred by the action of the Holy Spirit acting through the priest. Furthermore (and again, unlike in the West), no one besides a bishop or priest—not even a deacon—may perform the Sacred Mystery.

The external sign of the marriage is not the exchange of rings (which takes place at the betrothal, not at the marriage); rather, it is the placing of wedding crowns upon the heads of the couple, and their sharing in a "Common Cup" of wine. For this reason, the Orthodox name for the Rite of Marriage is "Crowning". Among the Greeks, the crowns will often be white garlands, either of flowers or made of mother-of-pearl; among the Russians the crowns will usually be of gold, in the form of a closed Crown Imperial, with an icon of Christ on the groom's crown and the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) on the bride's crown. These crowns may be joined together by a ribbon. Once crowned, the couple, led by the officiating cleric and followed by their best man or woman, walk a circle three times in a ceremonial "dance" in the middle of the church, while the choir intones the joyous three-part antiphonal hymn "Dance, Isaiah":

Dance, Isaiah, for the Virgin had in womb,
and bore a Son, Emmanuel, God and Man,
whose name signifies the coming of the light,
and Whom we glorify, as we praise the Virgin.

Saints and martyrs, who bravely
witnessed and were crowned,
intercede to the Lord
to have mercy on our souls.

Glory to Thee, O Christ our God,
boast of the Apostles,
delight of the martyrs,
who preach the cosubstantial Trinity.
The sharing of the Common Cup is reminiscent of Christ's first miracle at the Wedding at Cana of Galilee and symbolizes the transformation of their union from a common marriage, as the world knows it, into a sacred union. The wedding is usually performed after the Divine Liturgy, at which the couple will have received Holy Communion. Like all Sacred Mysteries, the bride and the groom must go to Confession before receiving it. Traditionally, the wedding couple would wear their wedding crowns for eight days, and there is a special prayer said by the priest at the removal of the crowns. Currently, this prayer is often said at the end of the wedding ceremony.

Divorce is discouraged, but sometimes out of economia (mercy) a marriage may be dissolved if there is no hope whatever for a marriage to fulfill even a semblance of its intended sacramental character. A lay member may remarry, if they obtain the blessing of their bishop to do so. However, in such a case, a different ceremony, the Rite of Second Marriage, which is less joyful and more penitential, sober and somber is used. This rite is also much shorter than the full Crowning—and in fact, no crowns are used. A third marriage is very much discouraged. This form is used only when both members of the wedding couple have been previously married, so as not to punish the innocent one. The standard formula used to explain the above is that the Orthodox Church joyfully blesses the first marriage, merely performs the second, barely tolerates the third, and invariably forbids the fourth.

Early church texts forbid marriage between an Orthodox Christian and a heretic or schismatic (which would include all non-Orthodox Christians). Traditional Orthodox Christians forbid mixed marriages with other denominations. More liberal ones perform them, provided that the couple formally commit themselves to rearing their children in the Orthodox faith.

In Eastern Orthodox theology, all people are called to celibacy—human beings are all born into virginity, and Orthodox Christians are expected by Sacred Tradition to remain in that state unless they are called into marriage and that call is sanctified. The church blesses two paths on the journey to salvation: monasticism and marriage. Mere celibacy, without the sanctification of monasticism can fall into selfishness, and tends to be regarded with disfavour by the Church.

Those Orthodox priests who serve in parishes are usually married. They must marry prior to their ordination, and if their wife dies, they are forbidden to remarry (if they do, they may no longer serve as a priest). A married man may be ordained as a priest or deacon. However, a priest or deacon is not permitted to enter into matrimony after ordination, whether he has become divorced or widowed, or even if he had been single at the time of ordination. Bishops must always be monks, and are thus celibate.

Overall, there is a far less legislative approach regarding married life than in Roman Catholicism.

Views of Protestant Christians

Almost all Protestant denominations hold marriage to be ordained by God for the union between a man and a woman. They see the primary purpose of this union to be to glorify God by demonstrating his love to the world. Other purposes of marriage include intimate companionship, rearing children and mutual support for both husband and wife to fulfill their life callings. Protestants generally approve of birth control and consider marital sexual pleasure to be a gift of God.

Conservative Protestants take a strict view of the nature of marriage. They consider marriage a solemn covenant between wife, husband and God. Most view sexual relations as appropriate only within a marriage. Divorce is permissible, if at all, only in very specific circumstances (for example, sexual immorality or abandonment by the non-believer).

Many in Protestant denominations and some other Christians have debated whether equality of husband and wife or male headship is the biblically-ordained view, and even if it is biblically-permissible. They fall into basically two groups: Complementarians (who call for husband-headship and wife-submission) and the Christian Egalitarians (who believe in full partnership equality in which couples can discover and negotiate roles and responsibilities in marriage).

The Complementarian view

The Complementarian (also known as Traditionalist or Hierarchical) view of marriage maintains that gender-based male priority structure is required in marriage according to the Bible. Complementarians generall believe that the husband and wife are of equal 'worth' before God, since both are created in God's image, but cannot be equal in function or responsibility. According to this view, the husband has the God-given responsibility to provide for, protect, and lead "his" family. Wives are expected to respect their husbands' authority and submit to it. However, some Complementarian authors caution that a wife's submission should never cause her to "follow her husband into sin.

This Complementarian view of Christian marriage has been articulated by several prominent evangelical leaders in what is called the Danvers Statement,: Biblical authority for gender-based conclusions include , , , and .

A more detailed statement of the Complementarian view of marriage appears in Southern Baptist Convention's Baptist Faith and Message (2000):

Many complementarians also interpret Scripture as forbidding women from holding positions of authority in the religious and sometime the political worlds.

The Egalitarian View

Christian Egalitarians believe that full partnership in marriage is the most biblical view. Their position is that equality between a wife and husband produces the most intimate, wholesome and mutually fulfilling marriages. Their belief is that the Apostle Paul's statement recorded in applies to all Christian relationships, including Christian marriage:

"There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (). Jesus, the Son of God, proclaimed, "So, they are no longer two, but one flesh." ()

Christian egalitarian theologians also find it significant that the "two becoming one" concept, first cited in , was quoted by Jesus in his teachings on marriage recorded in and . In those passages he reemphasized the concept by saying, "So, they are no longer two, but one" (NIV). The Apostle Paul cited the Genesis 2:24 passage in writing .

A New Testament passage that has long been interpreted to require a male priority in marriage is which states: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord" and "the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…." Both Christian Egalitarians and Complementarians agree that the Apostle Paul wrote that the "husband is head" and "wives, submit" and that he was divinely inspired to write what he wrote. The difference is where they each end up by way of interpretation of pertinent Scriptures.

  • Complementarians understand "head" to mean "leader" and "authority figure" like the head of an organization being its president or chief executive officer.
  • Christian Egalitarians consider this understanding to be contrary to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ. Therefore, they believe more attention needs to be given to discerning (1) what Paul actually meant when he penned those instructions, (2) to what extent his gender-based guidance was intended for an abusive first century culture in which women were considered disposable entities, chattel (property of husband) and permanently minors legally and to what extent he was prescribing a hierarchical relationship in which wives must be under husband authority for all people in all times.

Much has been written concerning the meaning of "head" in the New Testament. The word used for "head," transliterated from Greek, is kephalē — which means the anatomical head of a body. Today's English word "cephalic" (sə-făl'ĭk) means "Of or relating to the head; or located on, in, or near the head." In the New Testament, a thorough concordance search shows that the second most frequent use of "head" (kephalē), after "the structure that connects to our neck and sits atop our bodies," is the metaphorical sense of "source."

In Hebrew thought, perhaps greatly because of the law of primogeniture, which gave the first-born considerable rights and privileges over later born siblings, it was very important to determine who came first in birth order. Therefore, Paul and other rabbis pointed to the record, "the God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man," making it clear that the male was the first-created (first "born") and therefore perpetually entitled to special rights and privileges under primogeniture. While it is benevolent to consider the husband's headship as meaning he is the source who works to ensure his wife's growth and development as a person, it still requires gender bias, implying that somehow he is uniquely (and better) qualified to provide growth and development to her, more than she would be to mutually provide those benefits to him. The wife's submission is seen in the context of Paul's injunction (in ) for all Christians to submit to one another.

A straightforward reading of , , and may lead one to conclude that Jesus even forbids any hierarchy of relationships in Christian relationships: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you!" While "lord it over" implies abusive leadership, his words "exercise authority" have no connotation of abuse of authority.'''

Views of other Churches

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ("LDS Church"; see also Mormon), "Celestial Marriage" is a sacred covenant between a man, a woman and God performed by a priesthood authority in the temples of the Church. Eternal Marriage is legally recognized, but unlike other civil marriages, Eternal Marriage is intended to continue into the afterlife after the resurrection if the man and woman do not break their covenants. Eternally married couples are often referred to as being "sealed" to each other. Sealed couples who keep their covenants are also promised to have their posterity sealed to them in the after life. Thus, the slogan of the LDS Church: "families are forever." The LDS Church encourages its members to be in good standing with it so that they may marry in the temple. "Cancellation of a sealing," sometimes incorrectly called a "temple divorce," is uncommon and is granted only by the highest authority in the Church. Civil divorce and marriage outside the temple is somewhat of a stigma in the Latter-day Saint culture although currently the Church itself directs its local leaders not to advise members about divorce one way or another.

In the New Church (or Swedenborgianism), marriage is considered a sacred covenant between one man, one woman and the Lord. The doctrine of the New Church teaches that married love (sometime translated conjugal love) is "the precious jewel of human life and the repository of the Christian religion" because the love shared between a husband and a wife is the source of all peace and joy. Marriage is also meant to be eternal and divorce is only allowable when the spiritual union is broken by adultery. When a husband and wife work together to become angels in heaven, their marriage continues uninterrupted even after the death of their bodies, living together in heaven to eternity. Emanuel Swedenborg claimed to have spoken to angels who had been married for thousands of years. Those who are never married on earth will find a spouse in heaven.

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