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What Was Marriage Like Among the First Christians?

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Primeros Cristianos - published on 10/25/14 - updated on 06/07/17


id, “According to the laws, the consent alone of those whose union is at issue, is enough. Yet if this consent alone is perchance lacking in the wedding, all the rest, even if it is consummated with intercourse itself, is in vain.”

In the following centuries, the Church claimed legal authority over marriage and mandated that consent and the consequent giving of the wedding garment take place expressly in the presence of a priest (ninth to twelfth centuries), in a church, or, more often, at the doors of a church, as several rituals from the eleventh to the fourteenth centuries indicate. This rite was followed by the celebration of Mass and the blessing of the wife.

In order to give it more publicity, it was agreed that the rite take place no longer in the fiancée’s home, but at the door of the church. In this way, what was formerly done by the father or legal guardian, was now done by the priest, with words like these: “I give you [name] to be your wife.” (Ritual of Meaux) Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the form was extended: “And I join you…,” which some consider to be the sacramental form of marriage.

MARITAL FIDELITY

With respect to fidelity, Christianity was markedly different from the customs of the time. Here we find a divergence between the principles of Christian morality and the pagan understanding of marriage. For the pagans, it was merely a social reality that could be formed or broken by a simple decision on the part of one of the spouses. From the time of the first Christians, the husband’s infidelity was considered the same as that of the wife, and in both cases it was considered a grave sin.

For St. Augustine, marriage was a good, and not a relative good in comparison with fornication, but a good on its own, for its own sake. The first natural covenant of human society was given to us, therefore, by married men and women.  Children come immediately after to consolidate the efficacy of this conjugal society as its only honest fruit, the result not only of a simple union of man and woman, but of their friendship and their conjugal relationship.

St. Augustine wondered at the efficacy of marriage and concluded that there is something great and divine in this sacrament: “Which I by no means think could have been of so great avail, were it not that there were taken a certain sacrament of some greater matter from out this weak mortal state of men, so that, men deserting it, and seeking to dissolve it, it should remain unshaken for their punishment.” (On the Good of Marriage, 7)

And so, the equality of man and woman in Christian marriage was another novelty in the society of the time: In marriage between Christians, the woman’s position was that of a companion with rights equal to those of the other spouse.

 Consequently, Christianity gave women greater consideration when we compare it to the majority of the pagan religions of those days.

Thisarticle was reprinted with permission by Aleteia’s Spanish edition. Translated byMatthew Green.

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