In Christianity, marriage has always been considered the way of life that provides binding normative rules for the social interaction of the genders. Established through a publicly announced, mutual, and voluntary statement of the intentions of the couple, marriage is designed for lasting fidelity. The two leading sources of its meaning are the spouses’ love and dedication to tackling life’s challenges, and the procreation and raising of children. The principal elements of this understanding of marriage can be found in the testimony of Holy Scripture. There, marriage is described as valuable, with socially recognised goods and ends linked to it: ensuring offspring (Gen 1.28), mutual assistance of man and wife (Gen 2.18) and the avoidance of illicit sexual relations (1 Cor 7.2). In his debate with the Pharisees, Jesus interprets marriage as an institution willed by God, hence, a good institution, founded on the spouses’ unwavering love and fidelity (Mk 10.2-12). In spite of this positive Biblical esteem, in Christianity up until the High Middle Ages marriage was considered a way of life inferior to virginity and widowhood. This sceptical basic attitude traced to a certain reservation with regard to the sexual, and to the fear that marriage would deter a spouse from turning directly to God. It was only with the doctrine of the sacramentality of marriage, developed and articulated in the 12th century – following the teachings of Saint Augustine (354-430) – that an unconstrained, positive, and uninhibited view of marriage came about. The underlying intention of this theological doctrine is to convey the event of Christ through the true-to-life reality of concrete, human marriage. As a sacrament, Christian marriage is an image of the Covenant of Christ with the Church; it is a sign and a visualisation of Paschal salvation that conveys grace to those worthy to receive it. This means: the lifelong union of man and wife is a concrete place for the possible experience of salvation; like the Divine Covenant to which it refers, this union is indissoluble. Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Protestant churches did not adopt this doctrine. To them, marriage, as a worldly thing, is a holy status instituted and blessed by God, but it does not constitute a sacrament in the proper sense of the term.
Christianity calls for protection of marriage through state legislation and has a difficult time with more recent societal developments that jeopardise the monopoly of marriage. These developments particularly include liberalisation of sexuality (e.g. pre- and extramarital sex, pornography) and changes in matrimonial law (e.g. divorce, legal parity between homosexual partnerships and marriage). Social change affects the entire area of the relationships between the genders. Much has occurred in this area in recent years; the Christian churches have learned along the way, and today they defend the legal parity of men and women, having abandoned the traditional image of male dominance. In view of marriages between partners of different denominations and religions, the Christian churches have relinquished their strict rejection and for the most part have adopted a more accommodating stance.
Hans-Günter Gruber, Peter Antes
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