Marriage as a Religious and a Legal Concept

By Albrecht, Christian | Currents in Theology and Mission, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Marriage as a Religious and a Legal Concept


Albrecht, Christian, Currents in Theology and Mission


It may be surprising when, in my contribution to the debate about women after the Reformation, I focus on the institution of marriage or, to be more precise, on the religious and legal understanding of marriage. However, it is my conviction that the Reformation brought about a threefold change in the perception of women, thereby starting a process which has neither lost its significance nor yet come to completion. The first aspect is the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which implies an enhanced religious competence of women. The second aspect is the abolition of celibacy in the Protestant church, which led to the construction of a new model, namely, the family of a pastor in which the pastor's wife plays an enhanced role in the house and especially in the education of children. The third aspect is that of a new understanding of a woman as a partner in marriage, and this is due to a changed legal concept of marriage. I mainly want to address this last point, for here we can gain a distinct underst anding of the social and cultural consequences of the Reformation for the self-understanding of women and their real options for life in society.

I suggest a simple proposition: The Reformation brought into line the secular practice and the religious interpretation of marriage. I develop this proposition in three steps. First, I show that a problematic tension had arisen in the pre-Reformation period between the secular practice and the religious concept of marriage. Second, I identify the main arguments that the Reformers, and Luther in particular, used in order to defuse this tension. Third, I look at the consequences and limits of this conceptual modification.

Medieval Catholicism

We need to remind ourselves that the medieval church contributed greatly to the establishment of marriage as a legal institution. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the founding of cities at an increasing pace. This was mainly based on the economic conditions of craftsmen, merchants, and farmers. Within this social context, and especially since the fourteenth century, a legally concluded marriage no longer remained the privilege of the nobility. Instead, it became possible to enter into marriage on an economic basis provided by trade and farming. Thus, certain sections of the population, which so far had not been able to marry, acquired the right to become independent from extended households and could set up their own households. (This process eventually contributed to the evolution of early modern society.) The medieval church supported this development by encouraging a form of marriage based on mutual consent. The legal status of marriage no longer depended on a permission to marry from parents or over lords. Rather, an agreement between a bride and a groom was sufficient for the validity of a marriage. The main purpose of ecclesiastical support for marriage by consent was to prevent the disorder of illegitimate cohabitation. At the same time, however, the church effectively made it easier for men and women to enter into a legally recognized relationship and to have legally recognized, i.e. legitimate, children. The medieval church basically contributed to the establishment of marriage as a widespread and reliable legal institution.

Hand in hand with this establishment of marriage went the church's vigorous enforcement of celibacy on the clergy and its emphasis on a qualitative difference between clerical or monastic life and married life. The status of the clergy was regarded as an outstanding status and more pleasing to God than any other form of noncelibate and noncontinent life among the laity. What had started as the promotion of a process of modernization led to an impasse with the separation between marriage as a legal institution and cultural practice on the one hand, and the devaluating religious understanding of marriage on the other. Another conflict resulted from the indissolubility of marriage after marriage had come to be seen as a sacrament in 1184 C. …

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