“In a minute, you’re going to hear … the rest of the story.”
Paul Harvey’s famous catchphrase told listeners the whole story hadn’t yet been told. For those who scratch their head as to why marriage is only for heterosexual couples, they probably haven’t heard the whole story. It’s in scripture as well as church history. When we hear the rest of the story, we appreciate how marriage as a picture revitalized the Roman Empire as well as altered the role of women in that day.
For its first 300 years, the church was mostly Jewish. From early times Jews interpreted the Song of Songs as a picture of the love between Yahweh and Israel as well as the sexual love between a man and a woman. Origen (AD185-254) and Jerome (AD347-420) tell us the Jews forbade the Song of Songs to be read until someone was 30 years old. Judaism did not understand Song of Songs as only about Yahweh and Israel or Jewish leaders wouldn’t have censored it.
Since the Early Church was mostly Jewish, church leaders also viewed marriage as a bodily and sensual picture of the community of love in the Godhead. They interpreted the Bible, especially Song of Songs and the Book of Revelation, as picturing the love between Christ and the church as well as the sexual love between a man and a woman. For example, Hippolytus of Rome (d. 235), Jerome, Augustine, and Origen continued the tradition of interpreting Song of Songs a picture of the love between Yahweh and Israel as well as the bodily, sensual love between husband and wife.
In the Song of Songs, the consummation of a natural marriage between a King and his beloved was aligned with Revelation when Christ receives his bride. The Early Church believed the form of the titles “Song of Songs” and “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” (Rev.19:16) reinforced the connection between the two books. Revelation describes Christ’s consummation of all history while Song of Songs describes the husband’s consummation of his love after wedding his bride. In Revelation 19, the groom and bride prepare for and celebrate their wedding. Afterward, there is a sumptuous banquet. And after the banquet, Christ consummates history (Rev.19:7, 21:9, 22:17).
The sum of scripture, beginning with male and female made in the image of God, as well as church tradition, is why the Early Church viewed sexual consummation as reserved for a man and woman after the wedding feast. The word “consummate” means to complete, restore, or perfect. The church saved sexual intimacy for after the wedding proclamation and celebration, since marriage is a picture of Christ and the church.
Marriage as a picture of divine love accounts for much of the remarkable impact of the Early Church in Roman society. It’s widely recognized that “the Greco-Roman world was a male culture that held marriage in low esteem,” writes Rodney Stark.1 Homosexuality was often a preferred alternative, as well as pre-marital and extramarital sex. Christians stood out as many believers remained virgins until they were married, while they also condemned extramarital sex as adultery.2 Even the great Greek physician Galen was prompted to remark on Christian “restraint in cohabitation.”3
This high view of marriage accounts for the Early Church strongly discouraging divorce. To picture the permanent community of love, the earliest church councils ruled that a “twice-divorced man could not hold church office.” Early Christians rejected the double standard that gave men so much sexual license. Stark notes how one church father declared: “Fidelity, without divorce, was expected of every Christian.” Christianity “regarded unchastity in a husband as no less serious a breach of loyalty and trust than unfaithfulness in a wife.”
Marriage as a picture with a purpose also served to elevate the status of women. Because the Father, Son, and Spirit are equal in nature yet different in roles, Christians saw women as equal in stature while distinct in their sexuality. This contrasted with Greco-Roman society, where women were viewed as inferiors, as property that could be easily disposed of. Divorce laws benefiting men rather than women were widespread, along with laws permitting incest and polygamy. “Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large,” writes Stark.4
In his research on the Early Church, Peter Brown observed how “the Christian clergy… took a step that separated them from the rabbis of Palestine… [T]hey welcomed women as patrons and even offered women roles in which they could act as collaborators.” Historian Wayne A. Meeks makes a similar observation: “Women… are Paul’s fellow workers as evangelists and teachers. Both in terms of their position in the larger society and in terms of their participation in the Christian communities, then, a number of women broke through the normal expectations of female roles.”5
This high view of marriage also changed how Roman society viewed marriage and childrearing. Bearing children required sexually consummating a relationship, and consummation required wedlock. To picture fully enjoying and expanding of the community of love required linking marriage with childbearing. They were viewed as inseparable and sequential—marriage then children. This “four-chapter” script described marriage as an indispensable condition of sexual consummation and child rearing.
This historical record is clear. The church viewing marriage as a bodily picture of an invisible, immaterial, spiritual reality contributed to changing the world. Their understanding of marriage is, however, no longer clear to many Christians today. The confusion concerning the meaning of marriage is partly due to the modern faith community promoting a disembodied faith—a focus on the brain while overlooking how our human bodies help us “see” spiritual realities. This is tragic, since the Early Church held to an embodied faith. What does that mean? Tune in next week to hear … the rest of this story of what is meant by an embodied faith.
1 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 117.
2 Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York, NY: Knopf, 1987)
3 Stephen Benko, Pagan Rome and the Early Christians (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1984), p. 142.
4 Stark, Rise, p. 95.
5 Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians (Hartford, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 71.