Is marriage a sacrament?

If marriage is a sacrament, does that mean single people are missing out on a blessing from God? Why is a wedding considered to impart some kind of special grace? David Pullinger explains a little of the history behind the different denominational practices and beliefs around marriage…

What is a sacrament?

A sacrament is a religious ceremony or rite of passage recognised by the Christian church that infers some blessing or grace on people who receive it. There are seven sacraments in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, penance, anointing of the sick, marriage and holy orders) but only two in the Protestant Church (Eucharist and baptism).

How was marriage identified as a sacrament in the Catholic church?

In Jesus’ time, Roman law pronounced people married by mutual consent. Children were the purpose and the main reason for having the Roman Lex Julia (an ancient Roman law) saying people should be married. The stance was supported by the Jewish authorities. Both groups wanted more population of their own people.

Early Christianity embraced both Jewish and Roman philosophies of marriage and added its own rituals. When Emperor Constantinople declared his Empire as the Holy Roman Empire, he created priests as clerks in holy orders to undertake the state administration of births, marriages and deaths (this is why, in the Western world, priests still wear Roman clothes). Liturgies were developed for them to use, including the marriage ceremony.

It was Dominican friar and theologian Thomas Aquinas who, in the 13th Century, declared a marriage “in the Lord” to be as much a sacrament as baptism and Eucharist. By the Middle Ages, marriage was considered one of seven sacraments, and ecclesiastically defined by its purposes: a “contract” for the procreation and nurturing of children, and the mutual help it provided spouses. These intents remain in the Church of England service, but marriage itself is not considered a sacrament (rejected partly because of the travails of Henry VIII in seeking to bear a son and heir to the English throne).

What is the Protestant position on marriage as sacrament?

Martin Luther, a 16th Century priest and seminal figure in the Protestant reformation, insisted that no human status – being a priest, a vowed religious person or a married person – was greater in the eyes of God than any other.

Another reformer, John Calvin, insists in his influential theological book, Institutes Of The Christian Religion: “The last of all this [discussion of sacraments] is marriage… It is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking and shaving are lawful ordinances of God; but they are not sacraments. For in a sacrament, the thing required is not only that it be a work of God, but that it be an external ceremony appointed by God to confirm a promise. That there is nothing of the kind in marriage, even children can judge.”

How should we think about marriage and singleness in this context?

It is perhaps ironic that the Catholic church, with its single celibate priesthood, should point to marriage as a sacrament; and that the Protestant church, which rejects this, appears to place so much emphasis on marriage and the married.

It is church tradition that determines whether marriage is considered a sacrament or not. What we can say is that, when we return to the words of Jesus in Matthew 19 and Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, both appear to accept that many would be married, but suggest that singleness could be for the purpose of the Kingdom of God – when freely chosen.

In this sense, there are those who are married; those seeking to be married, who should be helped and supported; and those accepting the gift of singleness for a season or permanently. In the community of faith, there should be no distinction based on marital status, but loving active companioning in our different journeys of life and faith.

 

Acknowledgements:

I am indebted for some thoughts to Alice L Camille, writing in answer to the same question:

https://vocationnetwork.org/en/blog/questions_catholics_ask/2013/10/why_is_marriage_a_sacrament

And to Elizabeth Drescher, writing about it in the context of the Episcopal Church in the USA:

http://religiondispatches.org/marriage-is-not-a-sacrament-for-protestants-and-why-that-matters-to-lgbt-christians/

 

David Pullinger July 2019