What makes us think we’ve finally gotten it right?

I’ve just finished reading most of Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages, by Frances and Joseph Gies; about one-third of the book was devoted to life among the nobility, and so I skipped past those chapters. But the rest is very good, especially because it takes the time to set the stage by describing the marriage and family patterns among the groups that fed into medieval society, mainly Greeks and Romans and Germans and Christians.

It turns out that those pre-medieval patterns of marriage were very much different from what we see as normal today, and that many of the important shifts came during the Middle Ages, usually in response to shifting economic circumstances. For example, the decision to marry became more of a private and individual matter because the parties involved could afford it—as peace and prosperity increased, the need to use marriage as a tool for extending the family decreased. Similarly, family life turned inward because prosperity allowed for more independence from the community.

What disturbs me about the historical understanding of marriage that I’ve gotten from the Gies and from Stephanie Coontz is the same thing that always disturbs me when I study social patterns in history: why has there been so much variation over the years in what were seen as Christian standards? With marriage, for example, the church as an institution only began to intrude toward the end of the first millennium, and it was nearly three hundred years from the time that the church asserted a role in marrying people to the time when that role was accepted among the people.

In this book I found that many things we see today as biblical standards for a marriage were in fact cut from whole cloth one thousand years after the canon of scripture was closed, usually by some church thinker who waited hundreds of years for the church to be able to partially impose only some of his conclusions about what scripture dictated. And each time I have to wonder: if this fellow was right, then why did God see fit to let His people wander for a thousand years in ignorance before finally using this fellow to enlighten them?

Anyway, next time you read or hear some Christian teacher who lays out what he claims is a biblical pattern for marriage or the family, I encourage you to not simply accept the pattern at face value but to spend some time looking at patterns that have actually existed in history. Most Christians in most of history have followed different standards than the ones we are being exhorted to embrace today, and we ought to at least think about why that might be so.


9 thoughts on “What makes us think we’ve finally gotten it right?

  1. Often you don’t even have to look back into history – just look around into other cultures. If a particular model is Scriptural it will be applicable regardless of culture. Yes, sometimes culture needs to change to fit the Biblical model – the inclusion of Gentiles into the first century fellowship comes to mind as an example. But, the Biblical model is usually far less confining than the traditions of men that we erect to fence everyone into our nice, clean, usually North American systems that enable us to (fill in the blank) “God’s way.”

    Thanks for the thoughts Rick.

  2. Yes, “Biblical models” for stuff often amuse me because, you’re right: That model has shifted over the years depending on culture and context.

    That’s not to say that standards and commands don’t exist, but that our interpretation and application is often overly zealous for our current culture and context.


  3. Can you give an example or two of the “many things we see today as biblical standards for a marriage were in fact cut from whole cloth one thousand years after the canon of scripture was closed?”
    I have seen how the pre-conceived notions I have of Scripture have colored my interpretation in various areas, and I want to be truly Biblical in my thinking. I’m just having a difficult time grasping what sort of standards/guidelines you’re speaking of.

  4. I was fascinated to read, in Rodney Stark’s *The Rise of Christianity,* that early Christian leaders from the Roman Empire allowed upper class women to marry non-Christians of their own class rather than require them to marry Christians of a lower class. The reason? Somehow doing so would disinherit them. So, someone from a very different time than ours saw fit to rule that it was better for such a small minority of women to keep their property than to marry other Christians. Wise? I don’t know. I would think it could cause other problems, but apparently the early church didn’t interpret “yoked unequally” as applying to marriage.

  5. Laurel,

    For once I hesitate to give examples, because I don’t want to suggest that I am either for or against any particular idea that has been promoted as a biblical standard, but only to encourage people to wrestle with these matters themselves instead of simply accepting the conventional wisdom. On the other hand, I am strongly opposed to the sort of blowhardiness that makes such strong statements without backing them up with examples. So here are a few that illustrate that the church’s definition of what is “biblical” has changed over time, is not always in line with common practice, and often goes beyond the plain reading of scripture.

    Celibacy. This is probably the best known example, and should resonate with Protestants. By the year 1100 “Although marriage had long been abolished among the upper clergy and frowned upon for the lower, many priests were married and many more openly kept concubines, generally with the approval of their parishioners. Pope Leo IX had condemned clerical marriage in 1049, and ecumenical councils at the Lateran in 1123 and 1139 pronounced priestly orders a fatal impediment to marriage and vice versa.”

    Incest. “Still another [problem] was consanguinuity, the Church’s extreme seventh-degree taboo having opened the door to unforeseen troubles.” That is, the church required that husband and wife be so distantly related that it led to easy grounds for divorce.

    Grounds for divorce. “Finally, there was indissolubility, a bedrock Church dictum on collision course with the fundamental requirement of royal and aristocratic marriage, the procreation of heirs.” That is, the nobility in particular required that a marriage be fruitful.

    Consummation. When is a couple married? “Among the peaants informal or clandestine marriage, often without witneses, was an old custom, and one that was coming to trouble Church courts more and more.”

    The problem in all these cases was that scripture did not speak clearly and in detail about them, if it said anything at all. The Church’s position evolved over a thousand years, not usually in tandem with the culture. As the Church intruded more and more into everyday affairs, tension increased between what the Church dictated and what the people could tolerate.

    Finally some Church thinkers (in the case of consummation, Gratian and Peter Lombard) came up with positions that were at least internally consistent and largely enforceable, in large part because they paid as much attention to custom and common wisdom as they did to scripture. But even these positions have not proved final; for example, Gratian and Lombard thought that a marriage was consummated by mutual consent (“I take thee …”), with or without witnesses or ceremony, whereas today we view it as being consummated by priestly act (“I now pronounce you …”).

  6. Thank you for the examples, Rick. I was guessing the lack of them was intentional and well-reasoned; I was just coming up with a total blank on my own. That was a helpful addendum. I “get it” now.

  7. This is a really smart post and it’s one of the hardest thing to get across to students when one is teaching the history of the church: that historically Christians themselves have defined and understood Christian and Biblical standards in hugely contrasting terms. This doesn’t mean they weren’t Christians, or even that they didn’t understand the Bible, or that they were stupid. Cultural mores have influenced the lived versions of Christianity at every turn.

  8. Just a coule of quick notes on the examples from a catholic…

    Celibacy: Priestly celibacy has never been a moral dictate in the catholic church. It is a discipline that can be (and has been from time to time) modified. In fact, there are many married priests in good standing with the catholic church today. In the eastern rite, for example, the discipline is different. Married men may become priests, but cannot get married after recieving orders (after becoming a priest.) There are even exceptions in the roman rite where there are married roman catholic priests, as I said, in good standing.

    Consummation: The catholic understanding is that the spouses are the ministers of matrimony, not the preist or minister. From the catechism, 1623: “According to Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.”

  9. Great thoughts as always Rick. I think a lot of our conceptions of the Christian nuclear family, headed by a married couple, are an inheritance from Martin and Katie Luther. I do not think that this is in any way a bad thing (Very good in fact) but simply not as old as a “Biblical way”.

    I received the same shock some time ago when reading about codification of concubinage in the Christianized Byzantine Empire.

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