Marriage is a universal institution of civilization. We find no human society in which marriage has not existed in some form, and virtually all marriage ceremonies historically have involved religious elements. Yet for many years now, natural (“traditional”) marriage and the family have become the subjects of secular ridicule, with the family increasingly politicized and socialized by “progressive” government bureaucracies. As Charles Murray has shown in his books Losing Ground (1984), In Our Hands (2006), and Coming Apart (2012), the result has been an unprecedented decline of the family and civil society in America and the West, producing increasing rates of nonmarital births, divorce, juvenile crime, drug and alcohol abuse, and other pathologies. However, this unsustainable trend can and should be reversed, because the “progressive” narrative that supports it is deeply flawed and easily refuted.
The biblical account of marriage begins in Genesis 1:27, with the creation of man in two sexes: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them.” And Genesis 2:24 explains, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.” Jesus later called humanity back to these truths (Matt. 19:4–6; Mark 10:6–8), and the Christian story of the world is viewed as culminating in the wedding of Christ and his bride, the Church. All Christian discussions of marriage stem from this “great mystery,” as Paul called it (Eph. 5:32).
Hence, in Christianity, marriage is a sacred union of the highest order. Although Martin Luther, in praising marriage as “pleasing to God and precious in his sight,” also declared that “weddings and marriage are worldly [i.e., secular] affairs,” almost all Christians have continued to regard marriage as sacred.
A Debunked but Stubborn Theory
However, since the Enlightenment, marriage has increasingly been defined in purely secular terms as a strictly civil union. And in many academic circles, natural marriage has been further viewed as an institution of patriarchy based on men’s long-standing desire to dominate and oppress women. Such treatment of women has purportedly been supported by religious despots, especially Christian church authorities in the West.
This progressive narrative is based on the theory that primitive mankind was originally egalitarian, matrilineal, and socialist, and that communal sexual relations were the norm. Edvard Westermarck noted in his influential book The History of Human Marriage (1891) that this view was treated “as a demonstrated truth” by such nineteenth-century anthropologists as Lewis H. Morgan, Johann Bachofen, John McLennan, John Lubbock, and Alexis Giraud-Teulon, despite the obvious biological and kinship basis of heterosexual pairing.
Relying primarily on the shoddy science in Morgan’s subsequently discredited book Ancient Society (1877), Friedrich Engels claimed a priori that, historically, the nuclear family and private property were creations of the ruling classes designed to oppress women by passing on private wealth to men. Hence, in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), he asserted that “the modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules.” (Interestingly enough, Engels admitted that because this alleged societal transformation occurred prehistorically, no one could actually know when or how it happened.) Nevertheless, for both Marx and Engels, as they stated in The German Ideology (published posthumously in 1932), “the abolition of the family is self-evident.”
Despite having been refuted, this theory has endured in certain academic and political circles and is seldom publicly challenged. For instance, the influential twentieth-century feminist scholar Eleanor Burke Leacock, parroting Engels, stated in her 1972 introduction to The Origin of the Family:
The separation of the family from the clan and the institution of monogamous marriage were the social expressions of developing private property; so-called monogamy afforded the means through which property could be individually inherited. And private property for some meant no property for others, or the emerging of differing relations to production on the part of different social groups. The core of Engels’ formulation lies in the intimate connection between the emergence of the family as an economic unit dominated by the male and this development of classes.
Marriage in the Ancient World
Against such claims, most scholars have long agreed with Westermarck that promiscuity by women was historically either nonexistent or limited to very tiny groups:
[T]here is not a shred of genuine evidence for the notion that promiscuity ever formed a general stage in the history of mankind…. [A]lthough polygamy occurs among most existing peoples, and polyandry among some, monogamy is by far the most common form of human marriage. It was so among the ancient peoples of whom we have any direct knowledge. Monogamy is the form which is generally recognized and permitted. The great majority of peoples are, as a rule, monogamous, and the other forms of marriage are usually modified in a monogamous direction.
However, it is true that throughout most of the ancient world, at least since Aristotle, men viewed women as inferior to themselves, and a wife as the property of her husband. This was the case in ancient Jewish communities, where marriage was the standard, and almost every adult was married. By age thirteen, a man’s wife was selected for him and then betrothed to him, at which point she was regarded as legally married to him. The man was the head of the family, and his wife was considered his property.
In his book The Rise of Christianity (1996), sociologist Rodney Stark notes that in the Greco-Roman pagan world, legal marriage was reserved for citizens, and while a wife shared her husband’s station as the mother of his children, she and the offspring were his. And whereas wives were prohibited from committing adultery, no obligation to sexual fidelity existed for husbands. Prepubescent girls were often forced to marry older men, and husbands could compel their pregnant wives to have abortions, almost always a death sentence for the young mothers as well. Moreover, infanticide was commonplace, with girl babies disproportionately abandoned, resulting in “131 males per 100 females in the city of Rome, and 140 males per 100 females in Italy, Asia Minor, and North Africa.”
Christianity & the Uplifting of Women
Stark shows that it was only with the arrival of Christianity that the status of women within marriage began to change, as obligations were placed on husbands: “Christians condemned promiscuity in men as well as in women and stressed the obligations of husbands toward wives as well as those of wives toward husbands…. The symmetry of the relationship Paul described was at total variance, not only with pagan culture, but with Jewish culture as well.“
Stark further shows that Christianity began recognizing women as equal yet complementary to men, all being sacred in the eyes of God. Christian wives did not have abortions (neither did Jewish wives), and Christians opposed infanticide, polygamy, incest, divorce, and adultery, all of which prohibitions added to the well-being of women. No longer serfs to men, women had dignity, could choose their own husbands, enjoyed better marriages, and served as leaders in the rapidly growing Christian communities. Christian women married at older ages than pagan women and into more secure families; if widowed, they were not forced to remarry; and if needy, they were given assistance. Stark quotes Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:2–5:
But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again.
Paul does admonish wives in Ephesians 5:22–24 to “submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” But he also instructs husbands to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
In Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters (2004), New Testament scholar N. T. Wright explains the unique and revolutionary complementarity of Christian marriage, in which both wife and husband are equally called to model their love for each other after the perfect sacrificial love of Jesus:
The fascinating thing here is that Paul has a quite different way of going about addressing the problem of gender roles. He insists that the husband should take as his role model, not the typical bossy or bullying male of the modern, or indeed the ancient stereotype, but Jesus himself…. The church became the Messiah’s bride, not by being dragged off unwillingly by force, but because he gave himself totally and utterly to her. There was nothing that love could do for the Messiah’s people that he did not do. Although the crucifixion plays a central role in Paul’s thought in almost every topic, nowhere else outside this passage is it so lyrically described as an act of complete, self-abandoning love…. Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical…. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead—though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as “taking the lead” becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.
Relearning History’s Lessons
Thus, the “progressive” narrative upon which virtually all contemporary anti-family policies rest is utterly false. Only through Christianity did women receive equal marriage rights and gender equality in voluntary fidelity, and ever since, the natural, private, and monogamous family has been shown to best serve the human needs for love and companionship, for economic and social well-being, and for a stable and loving environment for the rearing of children. The abandonment of these lessons is at the root of the modern decline of the family. Secularized government schemes will only result in further erosion of the rights and benefits of the Christian-inspired institution of marriage, through which the lives of countless men, women, and children have been uplifted.
Thus, if we are to restore and protect the family, major reforms of privatization and depoliticization must be achieved. Now is the time for civic, business, and religious leaders to speak out and challenge the current folly.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in Touchstone Magazine (January/February 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission from the author.