Dearly Beloved: An Anglican Theology of Marriage (Part III)

Having established that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer lays out a precise theology of marriage, we turn now to the question of this theology’s scriptural underpinning. The liturgy that Anglicans inherited from Sarum, shaped through translation and arrangement by Thomas Cranmer, lays out a vision of marriage that is sacramental and covenantal, claiming that marriage is a good gift from God that was a part of the world even before the Fall, and explaining the different roles of husband and wife that are inherent to marriage because it is at heart an icon of the bond between Christ and the Church. A number of biblical images and citations are employed in the liturgy to substantiate this understanding. The rite’s two primary scriptural sources are Mark 10:1-12 and Ephesians 5:21-33.

I am no biblical scholar. These reflections perhaps only touch the surface of exploration of these passages. Nevertheless, I hope that my brief reflection, however impoverished, is at least somewhat cogent and is faithful to the historical teaching of the Church.

How Jesus Understands Marriage

Though there is relatively little in the Gospels about marriage, this does not mean that Jesus found marriage to be unimportant. As the rite notes, Jesus does marriage a great honor by making a wedding the place where He would begin His ministry (John 2:1-11). But His most explicit teaching on marriage comes in Mark 10:1-12, a passage that is echoed with only a few variations in Matthew 19:1-12.

The situation that elicits this teaching is a group of Pharisees who ask Jesus if it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. The formulation of the question is significant. Jesus’ response, in rabbinic fashion, is to first respond to their question with one of His own. “What did Moses command you?” He asks them. “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her,” is their reply, which draws from Deuteronomy 24:1-4. In Deuteronomy, a man is permitted to divorce his wife for “indecency” or “shame.” The Hebrew word ervah is at issue, meaning literally nakedness but implying some sort of shameful unveiling of the body. Rabbis argued over just what kind of indecency would count, but the key player was always the man. Nowhere does the Old Testament allow or even anticipate that a woman might have grounds for divorcing her husband.

Jesus tells the Pharisees that this commandment was allowed “because of your hardness of hearts.” Some of the early Church Fathers, including John Chrysostom, taught that this was because husbands would murder their wives for a variety of reasons. The law was to prevent this evil from occurring. But in any event, Jesus sets the law aside, insisting instead that “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (verses 11-12). Given that the Mosaic law never gave women such a right, it is significant that Jesus here makes it explicit that women may not divorce either. Raymond Brown has speculated that this indicates either a growing controversy among first century Jews based on the Roman law’s allowance of divorce initiated by a woman (An Introduction to the New Testament, 1997, p. 140-141). It seems to me, however, that what Jesus does here fits with a pattern found throughout the Gospels of Jesus treating women as moral agents with capacities equal to men. Suggesting the equality of men and women, in this or in any context, would have been radical in His day and is thus unlikely to have been included in the text unless it were an accurate reflection of Jesus’ actual attitudes and opinions.

The corollary passage in Matthew 19 and a similar passage in Matthew 5:31-32 modify the Marcan text by opening the possibility of divorce for reasons of sexual immorality. Similarly, Paul expands the escape clause for divorce to include marriages in which an unbelieving spouse leaves one who is a believer (1 Corinthians 7:15). The early Church also expanded the definition to include things like desertion or the threat of violence against a spouse or a child. Nevertheless, even if all this is taken into consideration, it still generally remains the case that Jesus sees the marriage bond as permanent, carrying more than just contractual weight. A legal severance is not enough to undo it.

Jesus grounds His defense of the indissolubility of marriage on Genesis 1:27, 2:24, and 5:2:

From the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:7-9)

By quoting thus, Jesus reveals that the origin of marriage is not to be found in the law but in creation. Marriage is something that came into existence before the Fall. It is linked to the differentiation between the genders, that male and female are meant to come together in marriage to create new family. Indeed, the text highlights the fact that a man leaves his primary family, that of his birth, to enter into the bond of a new family, that which will be created through his joining with hid wife.

Jesus also highlights the bodily nature of the union. The Greek word Sarx indicates a union that is largely biological, even if it is also spiritual or emotional. The bond that is created through the sexual union of partners is in itself binding. Sex unites us. The Apostle Paul, operating from the same verse in Genesis, says “Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute is one body with her? For ‘the two,’ He says, ‘shall become one flesh.'” The grave danger of sex outside of the bond of marriage is that it unites two as one in an enduring way, even if all that was meant was casual and furtive. Marriage is therefore the proper context for sex because within marriage the bond that is created by sex can be celebrated, grow, and flourish.

Finally, Jesus’ use of Genesis emphasizes that the reason marriages should not be torn apart is because God is the one who has rendered them sealed. Marriage is a bond in which there is operative grace, in which the primary actor is God. When a marriage dissolves, it is not simply the end of the relationship between the couple. It is the dismantling by humanity of something divine. Divorce is, in that sense, a metaphor for the Fall.

Marriage and The Church

While Jesus defends marriage’s permanence and its divine origins, Paul explains the inner workings of marriage by appeal to the mystery of Christ’s union with the Church. The material in Ephesians 5:21-33, along with the additional material about parent/child and slave/master relations in 6:1-9, repeats a code of household conduct that we see also in Colossians 3:18-4:1 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. The 1662 marriage rite quotes from all three of these, but relies most heavily on Ephesians. The major difference between the description of marital norms in Ephesians and in the other two household codes is that an ecclesiological metaphor sits right at its center. The reason that husbands and wives should act in particular ways towards each other is because their marriage reveals the love of Christ for the Church. The passage weaves back and forth between talking about marriage and talking about Christ and the Church, moving between the two so seamlessly that at times it becomes difficult to tell whether Paul is talking about one or the other. Paul himself even seems surprised at the power of what he’s saying and the way in which it is equally applicable to both subjects (verse 32).

The passage begins with the exhortation “Be subject to each other out of reverence for Christ” (verse 21). While a case can be made that this verse is more appropriately an end to the preceding passage about renouncing pagan practices than a beginning to the household code, it becomes clear throughout the passage that what Paul envisions in marriage is mutual subjection. Feminist theologians have been duly critical of the way in which this passage and the other household codes have been used as license for male domination. Given the promotion of male headship within marriage, it is easy to see how such passages could be abused. But as Brown points out, Ephesians is unique among the household codes for the way in which it focuses on mutuality:

The lyric language of 5:25-27 (sometimes thought to come from a baptismal hymn) brings Christ and the church into the relationship of husband and wife, so that respectively the subjection and the love are given a uniquely Christian stamp. The obligation of the husband to love is treated more extensively than the obligation of the wife to  be subject, and both are rooted in God’s initial plan for union in marriage (5:31 = Genesis 2:24)… The radical thrust of the gospel is putting pressure on those who have authority and power. (Brown, p. 624)

There is a definite differentiation between men and women that is crucial to how they conduct themselves within marriage. While the marriage as a whole functions as an icon of Christ’s love for the Church, each partner individually becomes an icon as well within the marriage, the husband becoming an icon of Christ’s self giving and the wife becoming an icon of the Church’s holiness and purity. While wives are called to be subject to their husbands as the Church is subject to Christ, respecting the husband’s role as head of the family, husbands are called to love their wives even more than their own bodies, being willing to die for their wives if need be, laying down all that they have and all that they are for them in the same way as Jesus does for us. The forms of submission are different, but they are both necessary for a marriage to be healthy.

Before leaving the subject of feminist critique, it is worth highlighting what is not said here. Paul does not say that the husband is of a greater dignity than the wife, nor that her submission to him as head of the household requires her to think of herself as inferior or to be without her own thoughts and opinions. This is not a plan for a dictatorship. Headship implies a place of leadership in family life, but Jesus showed us what it means to be a leader when He washed the feet of His disciples (John 13:1-17). Christian leadership is not about power but service.

Many scholars doubt that Paul is actually the author of Ephesians. If this is true, it is almost certainly true that the actual author or authors came from a pauline background and believed they were continuing the apostle’s work. For the purpose of this article, it is inconsequential. Whether Ephesians came from Paul’s own hand or from a student who saw fit to continue his work, the epistle is in the canon of scripture and must be treated as the word of God.

According to Ephesians, in as much as husband and wife carry through on fulfilling the roles that they have been given, their marriage becomes not just a benefit for them, nor even merely a benefit to their community, but a sign through which the gospel is proclaimed to the world. It is for this reason that marriage cannot be taken lightly among Christians. The ideals of how husband and wife are supposed to act are quite difficult, and most of us will make a mess of things more often than we will get it right. In this way, the ideals of marriage in Ephesians are not unlike the ideals of human behavior that Jesus reveals in the Sermon on the Mount. The only one who truly fulfills the ideal is Jesus Himself, through His faithfulness even unto death upon the cross. It is only through the cross that we are given the grace to live. Nevertheless, it would be a grave mistake to alter these ideals or otherwise deconstruct Christian marriage. To do that would be to drain Christian marriage of its iconic power, which distorts not only marriage but the gospel itself.

The Purposes of Marriage

These passages from Mark and Ephesians tell us what marriage is and how it is meant to function, but they are not as explicit about what marriage is for. The marriage rite, however, forthrightly expresses that marriage is for procreation, for the licit expression of sexual desire, and for the help and comfort of both partners as they share their lives together.

Jesus and Paul both make use of Genesis in their definition of marriage, quoting Genesis 2:24, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” As I said above, the uniting as one flesh cannot be separated from the implication that marriage establishes family. A man leaves the family of his birth to enter into the family of his marriage. This does not automatically mean that procreation follows, since family is created by the marriage bond itself. Husband and wife are unto themselves a new family, even if no children ever enter the marriage. Nevertheless, God calls upon man and woman, in their married state, to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). While this comes from the first creation story, rather than the more familiar story of Adam and Eve found in chapter two, it is nevertheless a reference to the bond between man and woman rendered in marriage in creation. Both stories are meant to be read in light of each other, and neither the initial writer or writers, nor later editors, saw fit to remove the reference to procreation. Numerous early fathers of the Church uphold this, including Justin Martyr in the eleventh chapter of his dialogue with Trypho, Clement of Rome in the thirty-third chapter of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, and Irenaeus in the twelfth chapter of Book Four of his Against Heresies. Other scriptural references to the marital good of procreation can be found in Psalm 127:1-5, Psalm 113:9, Genesis 9:1 (which echoes 1:28), and Genesis 33:5.

An even greater wealth of scripture points to what the rite calls the second purpose of marriage. Large swaths of the law in Deuteronomy and Leviticus deal with the sanctification of sex and its place within marriage. While some of this is archaic, much of it is reaffirmed by Paul, who spends a great deal of his ministry dealing with the sexual immorality of those in the churches who mistake freedom in Christ for licentiousness.

In 1 Corinthians 16:1-10, Paul says that while he would prefer that people stay single and celibate, he believes that marriage is a necessity for those who do not have the gift of celibacy, “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” It is easy to see how this kind of negative framing could lead some of the western fathers, like Jerome and Augustine, to develop a generally negative view of sexuality. But given that marriage is a gift prior to the Fall, and given also the overwhelmingly positive message about sexuality and sexual pleasure that is found in other places in the Bible, particularly in the Song of Songs, Paul’s negative framing of married sexual expression seems unusual.

To understand what Paul is doing, we must remember two important things about his context. First, he is writing early in his ministry, at a time when the return of Christ was believed to be immanent. Paul counsels generally for people to stay as they are for this reason. More importantly, though, Paul is dealing with a situation in Corinth of unprecedented immorality, in which a member of the community is sleeping with either his own mother or his stepmother (5:1). The Christians in Corinth have misunderstood the freedom of Christ to mean that they should simply follow their whims, wherever those whims may happen to take them, irregardless of moral consequences. Thus, Paul argues strenuously that freedom does not give license for destructive behavior and that the body is not meant to be used and abused for fleeting pleasure. The body is sacred and needs to be treated as such (6:12-20). It is in this context that Paul calls marriage a remedy for “immoralities” and “passion” and a lack of “self-control” (7:1-2, 5, 9). Yet even here, Paul speaks of sex within marriage itself as a good. Sex inside of marriage eliminates temptation and deprives Satan of a victory. Thus, husband and wife should engage in sex and not deprive one another for any reason except prayer (7:3-5). Marriage is not only the place where sex becomes permissible, but in Paul’s view a married couple should be having sex regularly. This may not make Paul into Dr. Ruth, but it certainly makes him appear much more sex positive than he is often made out to be by modern critics.

In pointing to the place of sex within marriage, the rite quotes Paul’s negative formulation accurately, but the negative framing is misleading. Paul speaks of marriage as a defense against the negative consequences of sexual sin for the same reason that Jesus speaks of marriage as a defense against the negative consequences of divorce. In both cases the teaching comes in response to the kind of questions that they were asked. Yet, in both cases, a positive understanding can be inferred. The rite manages to interpret Jesus’ teaching positively, focusing on His affirmation of the divine origins of marriage and its permanence. Yet, in the case of Paul’s ruminations in 1 Corinthians, the rite takes a more narrow, literal approach.

There is nothing inherently wrong with such an approach, so long as it is accompanied by careful teaching. However, given the overall scriptural witness to the goodness of sex within marriage, it might be more helpful to the understanding of modern people if the rite spoke of the purpose of marriage as being a bond in which the fullness of human sexual desire is to be expressed, rather than simply as a remedy for sin. Some modern prayer books from around the Anglican Communion have attempted to do just that. The 2004 Irish Book of Common Prayer, for instance, states that marriage “is intended that with delight and tenderness [husband and wife] may know each other in love, and through the joy of their bodily union they may strengthen the union of their hearts and lives.” Common Worship, the modern alternative liturgy in the Church of England, makes the point even more explicitly, saying, “The gift of marriage brings husband and wife together in the delight and tenderness of sexual union and joyful commitment to the end of their lives.”

It is the third purpose of marriage that is the hardest to trace back to scripture. According to the rite, marriage “was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.” A biblical case can be made for this, but it requires a few intermediate steps. Nowhere do we find a direct scriptural reference to help and comfort being reasons for marriage, nor are there many good examples in scripture of marriages functioning in this way. In fact, it is easier to come up with examples of friendship or other kinds of kinship that provide a deep and abiding bond of help and comfort (David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, even Jesus and the Beloved Disciple).

Nevertheless, if we understand from Jesus’ reading of Genesis that marriage is permanent and that it creates family through a bond that is both biological and spiritual (“one flesh”), then it is logical to infer that one of the intentions of this arrangement is that both partners will support each other through all of life’s ups and downs. Understood in the light of Paul’s call on both partners to mutual subjection to one another, this begins to make some sense. If both partners are Christians, than both should be treating each other with the kind of love that is described in 1 Corinthians 13, a love that is filled with patience, kindness, selflessness, and endurance. Indeed, there is perhaps no more popular reading at weddings than 1 Corinthians 13. Yet what that chapter is describing is Christian love, which is to be maintained between all believers, rather than the sort of romantic love that we associate with coupling. The love that is demanded of married couples is unique, in that the couple is bonded for life, but it is not of a different kind than that which is asked of all Christians.

Is it fair then to call “help” and “comfort” one of the core purposes of marriage? Perhaps, but only with the understanding that these things flow out of the nature and purposes of marriage already stated. It was wise, then, for the framers of the rite to place help and comfort as the third purpose, flowing forth from what comes before.


The 1662 rite of solemnizing holy matrimony grounds the theology of marriage in the careful teaching of Jesus and Paul. The rite describes marriage as sacramental, covenantal, and an icon of Christ and the Church, all of which is in line with what Jesus says about marriage in Mark 10 and what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5. The purposes of marriage, as outlined by the rite, also have a strong scriptural basis, though that basis is not as well spelled out by the rite and has to be teased out through careful exegesis.

It is, therefore, safe to say that the Anglican theology of marriage is biblical. In what follows, we will look at how this understanding of marriage compares with that of other Christians before finally turning our attention towards how modern Anglican churches might make use of this classical Anglican theology.

This post is the third in a series of five. The other posts in this series can be found here:
Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V

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