According to the title of this series, part two should be about sex, but let’s face it, as a topic, sex is far more interesting than marriage and I didn’t want to go there too quickly. Besides, sex is supposed to come after marriage isn’t it? 😉
Defining Marriage — Marriage as Event
Let me start with a little ditty about Jack and Dianne.1 Maybe Diane caught Jack’s eye or maybe it was the other way around, but someone saw something fetching in the other and they start dating. And things go great — each finds the other attractive, they have fun when they’re together, conversations are engaging, they make each other laugh, and they resolve conflicts well. Before too long, they’re both deeply in love. Some period of time passes and eventually they decide they want to get married. One proposes, the other accepts, and they’re engaged. Their parents have some significant reservations and make them known, but at the end of the day, it’s their decision. Soon enough, they wed in a church in front of friends and family, and live happily ever after.
There are many aspects of this story that are unique to our time and I’ll highlight some of them later. For now, I want to point out that in this scenario, marriage can be understood as an event-based institution. Prior to the event known as their wedding day, Jack and Dianne were single. After the event, they’re married.
In contrast, let’s dial the clock back about three hundred years and revisit Jack and Dianne’s relationship.
Defining Marriage — Marriage as Process
Jack’s father owns a large bit of land. Some of it he uses for farming, but some of it is too hilly and rocky to raise crops so nothing but grass grows there. Diane’s father owns a large herd of goats and while he’s been getting by with letting them graze on public lands, he wants to expand and the only way to do that is to find more grassy acreage.
Jack’s father and Dianne’s father realize that each has something the other needs. They meet and agree that merging their families would be a mutually beneficial arrangement so they decide that Jack and Dianne will wed when they’re old enough (arrangements like this could be made when their kids were as young as six or seven — sometimes even younger). At this point, Jack and Dianne are betrothed. I’ll say more about betrothal later, but for now, the important thing to note is that their betrothal means that they have begun the process of being married.
Throughout their betrothal, Jack and Dianne get to know one another in carefully controlled/monitored settings. Unfortunately, they discover they don’t like each other and can’t ever imagine living with or loving the other. They bring this up to their parents and ask if they can be paired with someone else but to no avail. This is something that will greatly benefit both families and that’s all that really matters.
Years pass and the two reach the age where they can marry. Because Jack and Dianne’s parents aren’t wealthy enough to afford an elaborate communal ceremony to mark the event, Dianne moves into Jack’s family household and that’s that. They’re married and live miserably ever after.
Defining Marriage – Then and Now, an Overview 2
- Then (mid 19th century and prior)
- Marriage arranged by parents, children have little to no say in the matter
- Now (mid 19th century and onward)
- Partners find one another on their own, parents have little to no say in the matter
- Marriage partners selected on pragmatic factors, usually finance/property related criteria, least of all, love3
- Marriage partners selected on relational factors like compatibility, attraction, ability to communicate and resolve conflicts, and, most of all, love
- Marriage was seen as a process that began at betrothal and culminated when the two were wedded
- Marriages begin at an event – the day of the wedding
- Unless the families were wealthy or of nobility, the finalization of a marriage could be as simple as the wife moving into her husband’s household – no church or ceremony involved
- Many couples choose to declare their marriage through ceremony and celebration
In a way, the only thing more remarkable than the radical changes marriage has gone through is how fast those changes took place – a complete upending of marriage took place in less than two centuries.
However, there is an often overlooked, surprising resonance, between then and now.
Defining Marriage – Betrothal
In his book Marriage After Modernity, Adrian Thatcher makes this observation: “the informal entry into marriage via cohabitation [or a long-term, committed dating partnership]…4 is a partial return to premodern nuptial orthodoxy.”5 And by “premodern nuptial orthodoxy,” Thatcher is referring to betrothal which is
the recognized rite of transition from friends to lovers, conferring on the couple the right to sexual as well as social intimacy. Betrothal ’granted them freedom to explore any personal faults or incompatibilities that had remained hidden during the earlier, more inhibited phases of courtship and could be disastrous if carried into the indissoluble status of marriage.6
In other words, there’s a similarity between the lost tradition of betrothal and the modern practice of dating, with this crucial difference: whereas most churches today teach that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them, there was a time when the church allowed betrothed couples to have sex prior to a formal wedding service because a betrothed couple was understood to have begun the marriage process.7
Stated succinctly, Thatcher is saying that allowing couples to engage in sex prior to a formal wedding ceremony is not a new phenomenon – there’s precedent for it in church history/tradition.8
Defining Marriage – Conclusion
Now what does all of that mean for the phrase under consideration in this series — that it’s a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?
Well the fact that there was a time when the church allowed betrothed (pre-married) couples to have sex should open up new avenues of conversation in the church. In particular, the parallels between betrothal then and long-term, committed dating partnerships today is striking and the question, “if betrothal and dating are so alike, why did the church allow sex in one context but not in the other?” On top of that, maybe a return to the understanding of marriage as process, rather than event, could be a new way to think and talk about dating, sex, and relationships.
As with the previous post, my hope is that the (re)introduction of the lost tradition of betrothal can prompt curiosity, spark dialogue, and propose some new ways to talk about what it is that God desires for us as sexual beings.
As always, questions and critique welcome in the comments below. That said, don’t be an asshole. I reserve the right to delete comments that are overly rude or dismissive.
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org (no really, that’s an email address I own and use. Thank you, Google!)
For those interested in the history of marriage, I recommend the following books:
Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage by Stephanie Coontz.
A History Of The Wife by Marilyn Yalom.
A History of Marriage: From Same Sex Unions to Private Vows and Common Law, the Surprising Diversity of a Tradition by Elizabeth Abbott.
Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating by Moira Weigel
- Please forgive the heteronormative nature of this introduction. If there was a popular genderqueer song that got the same idea across, I would have used it. ↩
- The story of Jack and Dianne and the differences listed between marriage then and now are based on research drawn from a number of books. I’ll include a bibliography of sources below. ↩
- Stephanie Coontz writes, “Certainly, people fell in love during those thousands of years, sometimes even with their own spouses. But marriage was not fundamentally about love. It was too vital an economic and political institution to be entered into solely on the basis of something as irrational as love.” Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2006), 6. ↩
- His book looks specifically at the issue of Christians living together prior to marriage, but I see no reason why his work can’t also be applied to dating couples who happen to live separately. ↩
- John Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), 47, quoted in Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 29. ↩
- Adrian Thatcher, Marriage After Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1999), 112. ↩
- Thatcher notes that “about half of all brides in Britain and North America were pregnant at their weddings in the eighteenth century.” Ibid., 112. ↩
- Thatcher’s ideas are thoroughly researched and clearly reasoned and deserve far more attention than I’ve been able to give them here. And lest one think his project is one where he is seeking to simply justify sex prior to marriage, his book is riddled with cautions and caveats that show this simply isn’t the case. As for why the church abandoned betrothal, that is better addressed in another Thatcher book: Living Together and Christian Ethics. ↩
- On a loosely related note, in this post, I made the argument that despite what some in the conservative Christian may claim, it’s not LGBTQ folks who have redefined marriage. The modern redefinition of marriage was the work of heterosexuals. ↩
- Sexual incompatibility is not a deal breaker for all couples, but for some, it can be a deciding factor. ↩