The two sides engaged in a fierce battle over gay marriage may not agree on much, but they come together on this: the institution of marriage faces a crossroads. For one camp, gay marriage marks the culmination of years that have slowly but surely weakened marriage. These conservatives have drawn a line in the sand and refuse to relent this time. For the other camp, gay marriage symbolizes a different sort of Rubicon. After a succession of smaller victories in the sexual revolution, these innovators now seek to inflict a crippling blow to traditional marriage by abolishing the two-gender definition that has guided society thus far.

Yet, as usual in America's myopic debates, not many on either side realize that the struggle over defining marriage has been going on for centuries already.

For example, during the early church period, some religious leaders denounced marriage altogether, while others advocated polygamy. And during the Reformation, Henry VIII infamously flouted the explicit teaching the Roman Catholic Church to seek a divorce.

Not surprisingly, the human tendency over the years has been to reshape marriage to fit temporal desires. But before concerned Christians can defend a "traditional, Christian definition" of marriage as the appropriate, healthy standard for society at large, we need to know what that standard looks like and how it has developed.

A Brave New World for Marriage
Determining the purpose of marriage was one of the early church fathers' most daunting challenges. They discovered rich guidance in Jesus' teachings and Paul's writings but sometimes struggled to shed pagan preconceptions and interpret Old Testament models. Compounding their difficulties, some influential religious leaders offered unorthodox interpretations of Scripture. Tatian and Marcion rejected marriage completely, but Tertullian defended marriage despite preferring celibacy. Carpocrates and Epiphanes encouraged their followers to take common wives, as some Godly men had in the Old Testament. Clement countered by holding up for imitation Peter's monogamous devotion to his wife.

The test, then, was to discover and preach God's intention for marriage. John Chrysostom, a fourth-century leader renowned for his oratorical skills, exegeted Ephesians 5 to illustrate the profound importance of marriage. "The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together," he proclaimed. "Men will take up arms and even sacrifice their lives for the sake of this love. St. Paul would not speak so earnestly about this subject without serious reason; why else would he say, 'Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord?' Because when harmony prevails, the children are raised well, the household is kept in order, and neighbors, friends and relatives praise the result. Great benefits, both for families and states, are thus produced."

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The church fathers expected a great deal from marriage, even though many of them, following Paul's example, remained celibate. Chrysostom, in fact, considered marriage suitable only for the spiritually weak and needy. Augustine of Hippo, who lived from 354 to 430 and left an indelible mark on the church, had spent his formative years indulging himself in sexual sin. But he abandoned his sensual lifestyle in the waters of baptism on Easter in 387. Like Chrysostom and Tertullian, he considered virginity a more admirable state than marriage. In his treatise On Marriage and Concupiscence, though, he pointed out marriage's foremost function: "The union, then, of male and female for the purpose of procreation is the natural good of marriage."

To reach this conclusion, Augustine looked to the first chapter of Genesis, where God told Adam and Eve, "Be fruitful and increase in number." He also explored marriage's other advantages. "It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock," Augustine wrote. "Accordingly it is enjoined by the apostle: 'Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.'"

Paul's comparison of marriage to Christ's love for the church was crucial for the church fathers. The mysterious union of Christ with the church shows how God sanctifies husbands and wives through marriage. Through sacrifice and submission, husband and wife develop godly character. And only in marriage can man and woman express their God-given sexual desires within the secure and Scriptural bond of fidelity.

Civil or Sacrament?
By the end of the early church period, the fathers recognized a threefold purpose of marriage—procreation, sanctification, and chastity (that is, fidelity to one partner, not abstinence). They treated marriage with utmost seriousness. Chrysostom even upbraided his fellow Christians for incorporating supposedly pagan marriage rituals like dancing into the ceremonies. "Is the wedding then a theater?" Chrysostom preached. "It is a sacrament, a mystery, and a model of the Church of Christ, and still you invite dissolute women to it! … But why is there any need of dancing at all? They dance at pagan ceremonies; but at ours, silence and decorum should prevail, respect and modesty. Here, a great mystery is accomplished; away with the dissolute women, away with the profane!"

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By the thirteenth century dancing was no longer such a problem, because marriage became recognized as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church. As a sacrament, marriage was believed to retain its earlier benefits, and also to help couples onward to heaven. Viewed as a direct conduit of God's grace, marriage became a key part of the Catholic economy of salvation. With the Reformation, however, the theology of marriage once again was up for grabs. Like the church fathers and their Catholic counterparts, the reformers venerated the role of procreation within marriage. But they did not consider celibacy the preferred ideal, nor did they consider marriage a sacrament. Luther exemplified the changing definition of marriage by renouncing his celibate past and taking the former nun Katherine von Bora as his wife.

Protestantism, and Lutheranism in particular, paved the way for marriage's dual function as a spiritual and social institution. This departure from the sacramental model stemmed largely from the Lutherans' rejection of Roman Catholic assumptions. The Roman Catholic worldview presupposed church supremacy over society, while Lutherans recognized a separation between church and civic spheres. In the Lutheran model, marriage, though still divinely ordained, performed essentially earthly functions. As a result, the state took responsibility for marriage.

The modern ascendancy of the state helped entrench Lutheran expectations of marriage in the West. The church continued to exert a strong influence on marriage so long as the state largely reflected church values. But in recent decades, as the church in many Western countries has lost prestige and society has become increasingly secular, marriage suffers from being disconnected from its spiritual roots.

Toward Better Marriages
In order to reclaim God's plan for matrimony, the church needs a healthy theology of marriage. The early church fathers teach us that God ordained the union of a man and woman to help sanctify us and allow us to fulfill our procreative mandate. Marriage cannot be taken lightly—our example and inspiration is Christ's everlasting commitment to his church.

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No matter what the courts or legislatures decide on gay marriage, the struggle will be won or lost in hearts and minds. Neither the state nor the church can mandate strong marriages for unwilling couples. Yet even if gay marriage remains taboo in Western culture, people will find new ways to challenge God's design. We can only pray that God will use this latest test to strengthen our stance against other threats, including divorce and infidelity.

Collin Hansen is editorial resident for Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.

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Christian History Corner, a weekly column from Christian History & Biography, appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

Why does Easter's date wander? | And why the Eastern Orthodox Easter can differ from the Western by weeks. (April 08, 2004)
'St. Mugg' and the Wrestling Prophets | A modern British journalist gives us timely words from yesterday's sinner-saints. (March 26, 2004)
Patrick's Italian Brother | Lost amid the celebration of Patrick is the important story of Benedict, the father of western monasticism (Mar. 19, 2004)
Rediscovering the Language Jesus Spoke | Millions of Americans have spent two hours listening to the characters in Mel Gibson's The Passion of The Christ speaking in an exotic, unfamiliar tongue. Yet not all find Aramaic so alien (Mar. 12, 2004)
Is Christianity Oppressive to Women? | Sometimes our Christian heritage must be overcome, not celebrated. (March 05, 2004)
Just a Closer Walk … with the Historical Jesus | Mel Gibson's movie raises again the question: How much can we know historically about Jesus' life and times? (Feb. 27,2004)
Why some Jews fear The Passion | Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ gives Christians the chance to disavow a shameful history of anti-Semitism. (Feb. 20, 2004)
One Nation Under Secularism | France's peculiar aversion to public religiosity is rooted in a sordid history of sectarian violence. (Feb. 13,2004)
The Blood-and-Fire Mission of the Salvation Army | Where did this tuba-playing, kettle-wielding social force come from, and what's it all about? (Feb. 06, 2004)
Would You Like to Super-Size Your Ministry? | Joan Kroc's $1.5 billion bequest to the Salvation Army promises to boost its admirable outreach, but history suggests new challenges and temptations lie ahead. (Jan. 30, 2004)
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When God—or Allah—Is In the Details | What do Islamic "sharia" law and the colonial Massachusetts' Puritan experiment have in common? (Jan. 23, 2004)
"The Bible Alone"? Not for John Calvin! | When we seek answers to churchly and societal issues in the Bible alone, citing the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, we are actually contradicting the Reformers. (Jan. 16, 2004)
Top Ten Stories of 2003 … with a Christian History Twist | Here is our review of "the Christian history that made the stories that made the news." (Jan. 09, 2004)
Resolutions Worth Keeping | The origins of new years' resolutions, and one famous list. (Jan. 02, 2004)
The Habits of Highly Effective Bible Readers | What we can learn from the church fathers that will enrich our own Bible study (Dec. 26, 2003)
Can Anything Good Come Out of New England? | Evangelical revival in the land of the liberal Brahmins may not be as historically odd as we suppose. (Dec. 12, 2003)
300-Year-Old Man Returns to Lead His Church | Evangelicals need this grandfather figure more than ever. (Dec. 05, 2003)
Thanksgiving in the Midst of Fear | Seriously ill in the days of the Black Plague, poet John Donne still celebrated God's goodness. (Nov. 26, 2003)
Good News to the Jew First | Critics of The Passion of Christ assume the story embodies an anti-Semitic message. But does it? (Nov. 21, 2003)