Tying the knot

In societies today, marriage is entered into through a contractual procedure, generally with some sort of religious sanction. In Western society the contract of marriage is regarded as a religious sacrament, and it is indissoluble only in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The institution of marriage has been altered fundamentally in the Western culture as a result of social changes brought about by the Reformation and the Industrial Revolution. The rise of a strong middle class and the growth of democracy gradually brought tolerance of romantic marriages based on free choice of partners. Arranged marriages, which had been the accepted form of marriage almost everywhere throughout history, eventually ceased to predominate this society, although they continued to persist as the norm in aristocratic society until the middle of the 20th Century.

Among the social changes that have affected marriage in modern times are the increases in premarital sex and divorce occasioned by the changed social and economic status of women, and the liberalization of divorce laws. Also significant have been the legalization of abortion, the improvement and increased accessibility of contraceptives, the removal of legal and social handicaps for illegitimate children and rapid changes in the accepted concepts of male and female roles in society.

In most states the marriage must still be formalized before a minister of religion or before a qualified public official in a ceremony usually referred to as a civil marriage, and in all states a marriage certificate must be registered with the civil authorities. However, as doyle put so well in a write up that is now gone, “The covenant (of marriage) is sacred no matter what the state says--divorce is recognized by the state, but not necessarily by the church--marriage is indeed sacred.”

Getting hitched

Holy matrimony remains a serious commitment within the Christian community. An exchange of rings frequently represents the new bonds between the married couple. The interest of the community is expressed through feasting and dancing and the publishing of banns, the presence of witnesses and the official sealing of the marriage documents. Sanctity describes the quality of the marriage as being holy or literally consecrated. The word sanctity appeared sometime before the 12th century as a derivative of the Latin word sanctus. Around 1390 AD it became sanctité (Old French) a past participle of sancire meaning “to confirm or consecrate.” A second meaning is the quality or state of being holy or sacred. Sanctity possesses an inviolability. As a plural form sanctities are “sacred objects, obligations, or rights.”

From antiquity marriage has typically been a social institution that unites men and women in special forms of mutual dependence for the purpose of founding and maintaining families. This developed from the essential needs of human progeny to undergo a long period of extended development before reaching full maturity. It is the care of the young throughout their years of relative dependency that seems to have been the primary motivator for the development of the structure of families. Marriage as a contract between a man and a woman has existed since ancient times, and as a common practice, entered into through a public act, it reflects the purposes, character, and customs of the society in which it is found.

Marriage traditions vary significantly from one culture to another, the importance of the institution is universally acknowledged. In some societies, community interest in the children, in the bonds between families, and in the property connections established by a marriage are such that special procedures and customs are brought into play to arrange for or protect these values. For example infant betrothals or marriages, prevalent in places such as India and Melanesia, is an effect of concerns for family, caste and property alliances.

The course of true love never runs smooth

In the Hebrew Bible the institution of marriage is intimately related to kinship. Scholars have established indications that marriage was considered an extension of kinship through an informal or written agreement. Words that are used in connection with the covenant, such as love and hate1 2, are also used in the marriage relationship and its dissolution. From at least the 8th century BC onward, the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and Israel is equated to the pledge of marriage, the related convention begins in Hosea 1: 3 and continues in the later writings of Jeremiah 3:1-5.

In chapters 16, 20, and 23 Ezekiel extends this theological element even more by describing Yahweh as freely but ardently and for all time committing himself to the people of Israel. Like Hosea and Jeremiah, Ezekiel develops this aspect of Yahweh’s being and actions by using conjugal descriptions. Yahweh carefully and tenderly nurtures the cast-off child Israel as his bride-to-be. 3 At present, he is punishing her for her continual infidelities, but in the end he will not abandon his spouse to desolation and sinfulness. Rather he will reinstate her prosperity and give her the inner capacity to live in faithfulness to him. 4 Throughout all of this the transcendent God is closely drawn into human history.

By examining this comparison researchers can infer a composite of some of the ethics concerning marriage in ancient Israel, at least for those who created the accounts. Two distinctions may be noted. First the bond was monogamous. Israel had only one God, and God had chosen Israel over all other peoples. Second, mutual fidelity was expected. Adultery was acknowledged as a justification for dissolving the relationship. Hosea entails that the relationship must be one of mutual love, respect and fidelity and that the woman would call her husband “my man” and not “ my master.” 5 The position of women in ancient Israel is an important factor in understanding this foundation of marriage. A woman seems to have always been under the protection of her nearest male kin; for the wife, this was the husband.

Even though monogamy may have been the ideal, polygamy was accepted and practiced throughout Israel’s history. 6 To what degree experts can’t be definite, since the sources for the most part are the product of descriptions about the elite ruling class. The patriarchs took more than one wife, and the kings of Israel and Judah maintained harems of which Solomon was the most notorious. 7 By the Roman period monogamy seems to have been the widespread practice.

A match made in heaven

No thorough teaching pertaining to marriage is found in the Gospels. It can be inferred from the discussions concerning divorce and other passages, that Jesus viewed it positively, with monogamy as the ideal. 8 Paul’s views are more developed, and more controversial. The most detailed discussion is in 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul debates that marriage is a remedy to sexual immorality, but that celibacy is preferable. Verse 26 makes it pretty clear that this view was due to Paul’s belief in an imminent second coming of Christ, but other reasons no doubt were also at work; including Paul’s own unmarried status in verse 8.

As in the Hebrew Bible, the marriage relationship is used in the New Testament to describe the bond between God and his people. 9 10 By using the metaphors of weddings and marriages they all illustrate the end times, when God will be united with his people forever. 11 12 13 14 15 It is from this foundation of evidence presented through the teachings of the prophets, Jesus and the book of Revelation that both Hebrew and Christian religions appropriately view this as the “sanctity of marriage.”


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "marriage," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Oxford Companion to the Bible, Christopher T. Begg, author; Metzger and Coogan, editors, p 218, 1993.

Oxford Companion to the Bible, Russell Fuller, author; Metzger and Coogan, editors, p 496-7, 1993.

Merriam-Webster Online:

Online Etymology: