Christianity and Marriage


In my first two part article regarding Christian Ideals vs. Worldly Realities -- regarding the use of money and the just or equitable distribution of wealth -- the clash between the ideals taught by Jesus and business as usual in the real world, while apparent, has always seemed to allow for a certain amount of wiggle-room or compromise, depending on one’s situation in life.  No one in his right mind, for example, would expect a married man with a family to be as indifferent to the necessity of money and financial security as, let’s say, a monk or missionary or professional religious vowed to imitating the life of Jesus.  Such voluntary poverty has long been seen, not as an absolute requirement for being a Christian, but rather, as a more perfect or total response to the invitation of Jesus to “Come, follow me!”

When it comes to matters of marriage, however, the situation is rather different. While voluntary celibacy “for the sake of the Kingdom [of God]”[1], like voluntary poverty, remains a matter of choice, any serious study of the Gospels – unless it has been watered down by institutional or personal compromises – can lead to only one conclusion, which is that Jesus taught that lifelong monogamy, the marriage of one man to one woman is the standard set from the very beginning by God himself.  And in addition, if, due to unfortunate circumstances, a divorce or separation happens, on no account, according to Jesus, may another marriage take place. Such a remarriage, as he saw it, would constitute adultery.[2]

Nor can there be much doubt that such a strict interpretation of God’s law was shock, even to the first Christians, especially those living in a world, including even in Jewish Palestine, where divorce was already rather commonplace.  For example, Paul, who wrote his First Epistle to the Corinthians a few years before even the composition of the earliest of the four gospels that we find in the New Testament, while he allowed a compromise when it comes to new converts, allowing a convert to remarry if a pagan spouse will not longer live with him or her in peace[3], but only after he first said that – and here he explicitly invokes the authority of “the Lord”  – that if a separation does take place, one must either remain single or else be reunited with one’s spouse.[4]

Nor was this the only example of early Christian attempts to find ways of getting around what Jesus actually taught.  The famous “except for…” clause found in the both passages treating with marriage in Gospel according to Matthew as we now have it[5], seems to be an obvious attempt to accommodate to the situation found in first century Palestine where converts to Christianity were still caught up in the centuries-long Jewish debate over the meaning of the words allowing for divorce that are found in Deuteronomy 24:1. There is plenty of evidence, from the late first century that while conservative Jews considered adultery as being the only justification for divorce, some more liberal Jews considered that finding a more beautiful or even-tempered woman, or ridding oneself of a wife guilty of repeatedly burning meals could be justifying causes for divorce.[6]

      If such was the case earlier in the first century, then it seems to me that one solution to the meaning of this puzzling phrase that Meier doesn’t mention but which I came across many years ago and seems to me to better fit in with the radical view preached by Jesus.  It is that the “except” in Matthew’s account is a poor translation of the lost Aramaic record[7] of what Jesus maybe had actually said or meant.  For if the widely divergent reasons being given as justification for divorce described above were already being debated in the first part of that century in Palestine, it is easy to see why Jesus may have lost his patience over such arguments and that he was telling his followers to “forget about” any supposed exception.  If this is the case, then the gist of what Jesus was actually teaching comes across best in the earliest form of the gospel that we now have, which is that ascribed to Mark, where it is all summed up in the pithy saying “What God has joined together, no one must put asunder”.[8]  As for the whole passage in Mark, it seems if there has been any doctoring with what Jesus actually may have said, it is the addition forbidding a wife to divorce her husband, a possibility that was not allowed under Jewish law, according to which only husbands could divorce their wives.  Obviously this is an addition made by the evangelist to get across what Jesus would have said had he been preaching in Rome or elsewhere in the non-Jewish world.[9] 




When we pass from the first century world of the New Testament to into the succeeding centuries, we notice two things. One, noted by Meier, is that little is said regarding divorce and remarriage by the earliest Church “Fathers” or theologians.[10]  Apparently they considered it a very sensitive subject best left to individual conscience or perhaps local pastors to deal with.  The second is that, eventually, different strategies to deal with failed marriages seem to have been adopted by different segments of the Church.  In the Eastern Church or churches, admission or readmission of a remarried person to the sacraments seems to have been allowed rather early on, based on the policy of epicheia – a view which holds that exceptions should be made when strict imposition of a law could cause, in individual cases, more harm than good.  However, as Eastern theological understanding has progressed, such second marriages are not seen as being “sacramental” – even though they may have been allowed by the Church and even “blessed” by a priest.

In the West, the Church seems to have struggled longer to adhere more strictly to the teaching of Jesus as it understood it to be, and instead paid more attention to looking for various possible “outs” or reasons to declare a marriage invalid or null from the start.  Besides the most common reason used, which was marriages of baptized Catholics “outside the Church” being declared “invalid’, there were some other strategies that could be used as well. Thus much attention was paid to whether or not there was any forbidden degrees of “consanguinity” – for example, the marriage of first cousins was considered invalid or null and void from the start, unless a special dispensation had been granted beforehand.  Great attention was also paid to whether or not a marriage had actually been consummated – something that apparently happened more often when marriages were “arranged”.  If not, it could be “annulled”.  In recent times, great – and largely unwanted public press attention – has been paid to church “annulments” granted on more or less psychological grounds, most on the theory that if one or another of the partner’s real state of mind or hidden character flaws had been evident to begin with, the other partner or even the Church itself would not have allowed that marriage to take place. And then, of course, there is great expectation of what the meeting of bishops in Rome scheduled for October 2014 will bring.  Some bishops have already suggested that we take the more flexible strategy used in the Eastern Churches.




My own guess as to how the Church needs to deal with this subject in the future is based, at least in my mind, in our understanding just who the historical Jesus really was, aside from the doctrinal belief and declarations of Christianity that he was, and still is, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the Word made flesh, the literal “Son of God”.  All this may be true, but it too easily amounts with a view of Jesus that is, in terms of early Christian heresies, “monophysite” or, to translate that term, “one-natured”—a view that sees Jesus as a kind of amalgam of the divine and human, in which, especially in matters of knowledge and will, the divine element always wins out. Otherwise, how could Jesus have been sinless? 

Yet this unbalanced view of Christ largely remains popular, despite the fact that the Council of Chalcedon condemned such views in 451, insisting that the 325 Nicene creed that declared that he is “consubstantial” (or of the same nature) with God the Father in his divinity, needed to be counterbalanced by the declaration that he was “consubstantial with us in our humanity”.[11]  In other words, Jesus was not simply almighty God himself walking around in a human suit or disguise.  Or again, in other words, Jesus, as a human being, despite being sinless, nevertheless may have had human ideas of his own.

If that was the case, it is easy to see, given the tenor of the times, that perhaps he expected the “Kingdom of God”, which he constantly preached about, was very close to arriving, if not during his lifetime, very soon after.  And certainly the earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s genuine epistles, give that same impression, while some of the later additions, like the Gospel of John, the epistles attributed to St. Peter, and several others (like the letters to the Ephesians and Colossians and associated with Paul but not actually written by him) give the impression that the second coming of Christ might be a long way off in the future. 

In any case, I would hope the reader gets my point, which is that, humanly speaking, Jesus of Nazareth seems to have had a very much foreshortened view of time, one which tended to situate the eschatological or “end-time” vision of things as already beginning in the present with his announcement that “The Kingdom of God is among you”, and would soon be consummated when he returned.  In this case, staying within a rocky or miserable marriage, or foregoing marriage entirely, might be a small price to pay.  The downside is that, the second coming not having happened yet, the Church is faced with trying to persuade people that the ideal that Jesus presented needs to be followed literally, at least as much as possible, or else be perceived as giving up on that ideal.

This, of course, leaves ordinary Christians in a dilemma. Do they follow Jesus’ view of what is or will be “The Kingdom of God” [or of “Heaven”] on earth, or revert to raw nature as it emerged from the primeval goop?  As one of my graduate school teachers (John Hardon, SJ, a noted Catholic conservative) pointed out, that Christianity is the only religion that has preached lifelong monogamy, which is a major revolution considering that, as he put, “Man [and here he emphasized he the meant males in particular] is/are naturally polygamous.”  Granted, he said, that “Judaism was gradually progressing in that direction, but only Christianity insisted upon it.” 

So there we are.  Much in Christianity is admittedly idealistic and is in direct confrontation with human nature, indeed, with much of all that is natural, when taken “in the raw”.   So unless we are very careful, and pay attention more closely to what we are saying, we are likely to be misunderstood or even make ourselves incomprehensible. 




As an afterthought, although it may seem to be slightly off the subject, I would add an example from the recent release of the Catholic Bishops of Michigan regarding a recent federal circuit court decision over-turning Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage.   Not that we have no right to protest that decision.  After all, marriage between one man and one woman has been the law in these United States for at least two centuries, and even enforced in Utah against the Mormons by the use of federal troops.  However, to claim, as the Michigan bishops do, that marriage can only be between one man and one woman may very well be God’s plan or will, especially as revealed by Jesus, but to invoke “nature” in the same condemnation or even in the same sentence is a rather risky tactic. 

 For one, I would recall again Fr. Hardon’s observation that monogamy hardly seems natural given the history of the human species. Nor does much of the Old Testament, despite the story of Adam and Eve, give that impression. In fact, even human physiology, where males are generally larger and stronger than females -- as is the case within most primates and other species that compete with other males for access to many females -- give us little evidence for monogamy being the natural or even normal mode of human reproduction. Indeed, along with much continued human behavior, it seems quite the opposite.

But I take it that here the reference to “nature” is not so much about monogamy as homosexual behavior.  But again, according to Webster’s, the adjective “natural” can be applied to anything that happens in nature, even if only rarely or occasionally.[12]  If so, then compared to other species, the lack of occasional homosexual behavior among humans, especially human males, would have to be considered unnatural.  What I think or presume the Michigan bishops want to say is that given our society and normal – in the sense of average – way of looking at things, something like “marriage” between people of the same sex is not the “normal” or average way of living ones life.  But for that matter, is celibacy?  But even given the assumption that some homosexual behavior is the result of psychological aberrations, bad influence, seduction, or whatever, I think it is very risky to conclude, against the opinion of many geneticists, that none of it might be genetically innate.  

One may sympathize and even agree with the bishops of Michigan to plead that the term marriage be restricted to a monogamous relationship between a man and a woman, and even plead that this exclusive relationship has been the foundation of our society. But we must realize that this is, nor has been, universally true.  And even then, its apparent universality, especially in societies that have not been greatly influenced by Christianity, is probably more due to economics than anything else: who, but the rich or well-off, can afford more than one wife or husband at a time?[13] And it just might be that the idea of monogamy today, even in the West, owes as much or even more to the Romantic Era’s idolization of perfect love and harmony as it does to Christian ideals. But if this is the case, then, as can we forbid homosexually-inclined persons from forming life-long faithful and exclusive relationships with all the rights and protections of civil law?[14] Even Pope Francis recently raised this question, despite his earlier run-in with government of Argentina over this matter several years back.[15]  At that time, his main problem seems to have been not so much with civilly recognized unions or contracts, but with them being termed matrimonio – since there are a number of other words in Spanish that can be used for the ceremony or partnership itself. In contrast, in French, the word mariage (spelled with a single “r”) covers just about everything.[16] 

Overall, then, given the current trend in the United States, I think the bishops of Michigan, as well as the whole Catholic Church in North America, should be grateful that, despite the ambiguity of the word “marriage”, we can fall back on the word “matrimony”, or even more precisely, the term “the Sacrament of Matrimony”, to protect, enshrine, and promote the Christian ideal of lifelong monogamy between a man and a woman, “until death do them part”.


R W Kropf   3/26/2014                          





[1] Matt 19:10-12.


[2] If anyone questions this interpretation, it is suggested that they carefully read Chapter 32 in Volume 4 (“Law and Love”) of John P Meier’s A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009. pp. 74-180. However, the reader is warned that some of Meier’s chapter endnotes can be even several pages long, even in fine print!


[3] 1 Cor. 7:12-16.


[4] 1 Cor. 7:10-11.


[5] Matt 5:32 and 19:1-9.


[6] According to Meier (Op. Cit., p.94) the Hebrew ‘erwat dābār in Deut 24:1 translates literally as “the shame of the thing”.  The Greek of Matt 5:32 and 19:9 uses the word porneia, while English translations range from “fornication” and “adultery” to some “impropriety” – a range that fairly well replicates the debate that raged between the lawyers and rabbis of that time. If this was already the case in the first part of that century, it is easy to see why Jesus may have lost his patience over such arguments.    


[7] According to the 4th century Church historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, Matthew’s gospel was first written in “Hebrew” (Aramaic) and later translated by others into Greek.  Judging from the thematic arrangement of the words of Jesus as presented in the Greek version of Matthew, scholars today have theorized that the original but now lost Aramaic original was not so much a narrative like the other two synoptic gospels, but rather a collection of “sayings of Jesus” arranged by topics, which in the later Greek version were rearranged within a chronological

framework similar to, but not identical to that found in Mark.  Whether the original Aramaic version that Eusebius spoke of was to so-called “Q” or source document that scholars now speak of, still remains a matter of conjecture and debate.


[8] On p. 123, plus note 150 (Op. Cit., p. 179)  Meier emphasizes the apodictic or imperative form of the verbal phrase mē chōreztō, which is so forceful in tone that some other more tender-hearted commentators refuse to believe that Jesus would have actually put it that strongly.


[9] Mark 10:9. This is also Meier’s opinion, backed up by a extended discussion of women’s rights in the Greco-Roman world as contrasted Palestinian Judaism. 


[10] A quick survey of the best-known authentic documents coming from the early or pre-Nicene (325) Church, turns up only three passages dealing with marriage. The first, from St. Justin Martyr’s “First Apology” (Chap. 15) deals with Christ’s requirement of sexual fidelity in all its forms, especially in marriage, but mentioning, as well, sexual continence in the celibate state. St. Irenaeus (Against the Heresies, Book IV, Chap. XV) deals with the subject from the viewpoint of the Ten Commandments being given by God as a reinforcement of what humans should have known already in their hearts – thus an appeal to what ism now called “natural law”.  Only in Chapter VI of Justin’s “Second Apology” do we find him relating the story of a woman convert to Christianity in Egypt whose steps to be divorced from a flagrantly unfaithful pagan husband triggered a persecution against Christians in Alexandria. Even the Didache, a late first century or early second century catechism of unknown authorship, but probably of Palestinian origin, has nothing to say about the subject.


[11] In fact, the “Coptic” or Egyptian Church refused to accept the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, and for along time, despite considering themselves to be “orthodox” were not accepted by either the Roman or the Eastern Orthodox churches as being doctrinally correct.

In recent times, however, both the Roman and the Eastern Churches seem have concluded that the difference is more verbal (or rooted in stubbornness?) than real.


[12] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. According to Wikipedia, at least 200 species of animals have been observed to occasionally engage in homosexual behavior.  Whether this has been in natural conditions or captivity is not specified. 


[13] In Tibet, at least in past periods of its history, where a large percentage of males became monks, property was passed on mostly to females, who if rich enough, occasionally had more than one husband at the same time.


[14] In 2006, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published a pastoral directive titled “On the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons” which was revision of a 1986 document on the same subject, apparently to further correct impressions that earlier urgings that homosexuals form stable, but chaste, relationships, be misconstrued as a Church endorsement of “gay-marriage”.        


[15] In an interview with Corriere dela Sera, translated and released by the Catholic News Service on March 5, 2014.


[16] Other Spanish terms for the ceremony or living arrangement are boda, casamiento, and unión. In Italian, these other aspects are often called sposalizio.  That our English language term “marriage” is generally used for what Catholics and a few other churches consider to be the state or even sacrament of matrimony, and not just the ceremony, comes from the all-purpose French use of the word mariage.




3/24/2014 -- Christianity&Marriage.doc/html