As we come to (hopefully) the pinnacle of the marriage equality debate in Australia, it seems timely to reflect on the portrayal of marriage in the Bible and the history of marriage reform.
In opposing marriage equality, conservative Christians believe that they are protecting the ‘traditional’ view of marriage: upholding the Word of God to ensure that culture and society do not degrade it. They perceive their stance as noble and necessary to the longevity of Christianity itself.
However conservatives fail to recognise that marriage has been influenced by cultural norms throughout history. There has never been one traditional accepted version of marriage.
Marriage in the Bible
If you think that people in biblical times walked down the aisle of their local church, followed a ceremony overlooked by a religious leader, signed legal documents and then upheld them for the rest of their lives then you need to read your Bible (and possible attend a history class).
David had many wives, Solomon had 700 and Jacob had 2, just to name a few. Polygamy was common in ancient times and perfectly acceptable according to the culture of the day.
And this is not the only type of relationship depicted in the Bible. Ryan Grant Long’s infographic (below) gives a great summary of the different depictions of marriage in the Bible.
Of course there are also many examples of marriage between a man and a woman.
I’m not going down the rabbit hole of pitching verse against verse. Arguing over which verses apply to today’s culture and which don’t (bacon and cotton blends anyone??) is a pointless debate.
But while the writers of the day may have described the marriage of one man with one woman in Genesis 2:24, it’s worth noting they did not use the words only or exclusively between.
A Religious Ceremony?
Anglo-Saxon marriage was for most of history a civil ceremony, not associated with the church at all. The main purpose of marriage was to forge alliances and for children.
Women were treated as possessions of value, able to be traded for resources such as land, wealth, and status.
Unsurprisingly, when contracts over land and wealth were established in marriages, the Catholic Church wanted to get involved.
Religious ceremonies by priests started to take place in the first century, but it wasn’t until the 12th century that marriage became a Catholic Church sacrament. It was even later in the 16th Century when the ceremony was clearly defined as a sacrament by the church.
Across the western world, laws against interracial marriages were forged as early as the 17th century.
In 1918 Australia, The Aboriginals Ordinance was created to restrict marriage between indigenous women and non-indigenous men in the Northern Territory. And there were similar laws across the states in Australia.
Almost every state in the U.S. had laws against interracial marriage until the 1960s. And these laws were proudly defended by the conservative Christians of the time.
1 Ezra 10: 10-11
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now honour the Lord, the God of your ancestors, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.”
Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons,for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.
It was in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the states could no longer pass laws preventing interracial unions.
Women’s Rights and Marital Rape
For most of history women were treated like commodities in marriage. But even recently the balance of power was heavily in favour of the husband.
From the late 19th century it was common in western countries to enforce a ‘marriage bar’. This meant that women were restricted from certain professions after being married. In Australia the ban on public service jobs for married women was lifted in 1966.
For a long time men were also protected against allegations of rape within a marriage. Judge Sir Matthew Hale in 1736 England said:
A husband cannot be guilty of rape upon his wife for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind to her husband which she cannot retract.
Marriage was seen as a contract that included sex, therefore men were entitled to sex as part of that contract. Consensual or not. Again, this viewpoint was (rightly or wrongly) supported by biblical verse, 1 Corinthians 7:3-4
The husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband.The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.
In the 1960s and 70s, the feminist movement began to fight for the criminalisation of marital rape. But it wasn’t easily won.
Opponents of criminalisation had several arguments including the threat to the sanctity of marriage. Sound familiar?
Marital rape was criminalised in Australia by 1992 and in the United States by 1993. Although even today, South Carolina requires excessive force or violence for it to be treated like any other rape (lack of consent is not enough).
Women were slowly becoming partners in marriage instead of commodities.
Separation of Marriage and Children
In 1942 Tasmania, the marital age was increased to 14 for women and 18 for men. Soon after, the rest of the country followed suit. Previously women were able to be married at 12 years old.
In other-words the purpose of marriage was children and 12 years old was when girls hit puberty.
Another huge reform was also on the horizon, changing the perceived purpose of marriage – birth control.
For nearly 2000 years all Christian churches were opposed to birth control in any form. This was primarily founded on the idea that sex was only meant for procreation within a marriage. Sex purely for enjoyment was not encouraged. Even today, the Catholic Church disapproves of any unnatural birth control methods.
Unsurprisingly there isn’t a lot of reference to modern contraception in the Bible (funny that), but the age old practice of ‘pulling out’ does get a mention in Genesis 38 9-10:
But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.What he did was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also.
However over time perceptions of sex and marriage began to change. Many started to see sex as being an enjoyable ‘gift from God’ for married couples and therefore did not have to be exclusively for reproduction.
As marriage became more about love and less about practical concerns, sex became a natural expression of that love.
In 1965, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that married couples were allowed to use birth control. Marriage and children were no longer necessarily a package deal.
Marriage as a Human Right
The 20th century saw marriage move from a political and economic device to an institution of love.
These changes (along with others) mean that there is no longer the need for ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles within a marriage. There is no need for marriage to provide children. There is no need for marriage to serve a political or economic purpose.
The reforms in heterosexual marriage have meant that it is now applicable to anyone in love. Religious, non-religious, heterosexual, gay or otherwise: all couples have something to gain from marriage today.
Marriage exists in the Bible because marriage exists in culture and not the other way around. Marriage and the family unit (in all its forms) existed long before the Bible’s creation.
Despite constant conservative opposition, Christian perspectives on what is acceptable in marriage have changed dramatically with society.
In recent years those changes have all been for equality, justice and human decency. Marriage equality for same-sex couples is simply the next chapter in the tradition of change.
Support Marriage Equality in Australia:
The Equality Campaign: http://www.equalitycampaign.org.au/home