The great apologist CS Lewis embraced marriage as a sacrament towards the end of his life in That Hideous Strength, adding it to the two commonly-accepted sacraments (by Protestants) of baptism and communion. I find myself coming to the same conclusion that marriage is indeed a sacrament.
Early Christians in the first through third century understood marriage to be the union of one man and one woman created by God as a consummated partnership described in Genesis 2. Early Christian leaders, such as the Apostle Paul, explained that marriage was more than just a union between two people. It was also an act of worship that pointed to Christ’s sacrificial relationship with the church (Ephesians 5). Therefore, marriage was not about a contract or a financial engagement as had been the custom for centuries prior, but a sacred union that reflects God’s love. Christ turned the accepted cultural norms about marriage on its head.
The word "sacrament" is from Middle English and from Old French sacrement, from Latin sacramentum ‘solemn oath’ (from sacrare ‘to hallow,’ from sacer ‘sacred’), used in Christian Latin as a translation of Greek mustērion ‘mystery’ (the same Greek word used in Eph 5:32 where Paul uses marriage as a illustration ("mystery") of the union between Christ and the church.
A sacrament is a Christian rite recognized as of particular importance and significance. There are various views on the existence and meaning of such rites. Many Christians consider the sacraments to be a visible symbol of the reality of God, as well as a means by which God enacts his grace. Many denominations, including the Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist and Reformed, hold to the definition of sacrament formulated by Augustine of Hippo: an outward sign of an inward grace that has been instituted by Jesus Christ. Sacraments thus signify God's grace in a way that is outwardly observable to the participant.
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven sacraments: Baptism (also known as Christening), Confirmation, Eucharist (or Holy Communion), Reconciliation (Penance or Confession), Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders. The Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church also believe that there are seven major sacraments, but apply the corresponding Greek word, μυστήριον (mysterion) also to rites that in the Western tradition are called sacramentals and to other realities, such as the Church itself. Many Protestant denominations, such as those within the Reformed tradition, identify only two sacraments instituted by Christ, the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) and Baptism. The Lutheran sacraments include these two, often adding Confession (and Absolution) as a third sacrament. Anglican and Methodist teaching is that "there are two Sacraments ordained of Christ our Lord in the Gospel, that is to say, Baptism and the Supper of the Lord", and that "those five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and Extreme Unction, are not to be counted for Sacraments of the Gospel". In the Community of Christ, a restorationist denomination with traditional Protestant theology, eight sacraments are recognized, including "baptism, confirmation, blessing of children, the Lord's Supper, ordination, marriage, the Evangelist Blessing, and administration to the sick."
When marriage is regarded as a sacrament, it can only be performed within the church by ordained clergy between one man and one woman, both baptized believers. Other unions can exist (i.e., civil marriage, common-law marriage, polygamy, same-sex unions, etc.) but they belong in the civil realm. In contrast, sacramental marriage is characterized thus:
- it is for life
- between one man and one woman, both believers
- it is performed by ordained clergy and recognized by the church
- divorce is prohibited except for very specific circumstances
- marriage normally ends via one of two ways: death or annulment
The Roman Catholic Church understands Marriage to be a Sacrament (Cf. Mt. 19:4-6; Mk. 10:6-9; Jn. 2:1-12). Outside of sacred Scripture, Matrimony as a Sacrament was carefully articulated by Ignatius of Antioch in his letter to Polycarp around the year 110 A.D., and again, even more clearly by Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in 411 A.D in his Marriage and Concupiscence:
“Certainly it is not fecundity only, the fruit of which is in offspring, not chastity only, the bond of which is in fidelity, but a certain sacramental bond of marriage that is recommended to the faithful who are married, when the Apostle says: “Men, love your wives, as also Christ loved the Church” (Eph. 5:25).
Undoubtedly the substance of the Sacrament is of this bond, so that when man and woman have been joined in marriage they must continue inseparably as long as they live, nor is it allowed for one spouse to be separated from the other except for cause of fornication (Cf. Mt. 5:32). For this is preserved in the case of Christ and the Church, so that, as a living one with a living one, there is no divorce, no separation forever. So perfect is the observance of this bond . . . in the Church of Christ by all married believers, who are undoubtedly members of Christ, that, although women marry and men take wives for the purpose of procreating children, one is never permitted to put away even an unfruitful wife for the purpose of getting another to bear children. If anyone does this, in the law of the gospel he is guilty of adultery, just as a women is if she marries another. But this is not the case in the law of this world, wherein even without crime a divorce is granted whenever the parties want to join in marriage with others, a concession which, the Lord bears witness, even the holy Moses granted to the Israelites only because of the hardness of their hearts . . . . (Cf. Mt. 19:8-9).
Thus, between the living spouses there remains a certain conjugal bond, which neither separation nor union with another can take away. It remains, however, for the injury of crime, and not for the bond of covenant. So it is with the soul of an apostate. Even though its faith is cast aside in withdrawing, as it were, from its marriage with Christ, it does not lose the Sacrament of its faith, which it received in the bath of regeneration. . . . The apostate retains the Sacrament even after his apostasy; but now it is for the aggravation of his punishment and not for his meriting a reward.”
The Roman Catholic Church recognizes Protestant marriage as sacramental provided both husband and wife were baptized believers and the ceremony was conducted by church clergy (Protestant baptism in water is also recognized and considered sacramental by the Roman Catholic church). Civil marriage by unbelievers is recognized as valid, but not sacramental. The Roman Catholic Church makes a distinction between sacramental and civil marriage, but recognizes both as valid marriage.
It wasn’t until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century that the recording of marriages and establishing of rules for marriage became a function of the civil state. Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic priest who initiated the Reformation in Germany said that marriage was a “worldly thing ... that belongs to the realm of government.” A similar opinion was expressed by John Calvin, his Swiss counterpart. Calvin and his colleagues reformulated Christian marriage by enacting the Marriage Ordinance of Geneva, which imposed “The dual requirements of state registration and church consecration to constitute marriage” as valid.
Here are some of Luther's writings on marriage:
“Marriage is a civic matter. It is really not, together with all its circumstances, the business of the church.” It is so only when a matter of conscience is involved.” (source: What Luther Says Vol. II, Concordia Publishing House, 1959)
“No one can deny that marriage is an external, worldly, matter, like clothing and food, house and property, subject to temporal authority, as the many imperial laws enacted on the subject prove.” (source: What Luther Says Vol. 46, Concordia Publishing House, 1959)
“I feel that judgments about marriages belong to the jurists. Since they make judgments concerning fathers, mothers, children, and servants, why shouldn’t they also make decisions about the life of married people? When the papists oppose the imperial law concerning divorce, I reply that this doesn’t follow from what is written, ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” (source: Luther’s Works Vol. 54)
“Neither is there any need to make sacraments out of marriage and the office of the priesthood.” (source: Luther’s Works Vol. 37)
“Not only is marriage regarded as a sacrament without the least warrant of Scripture, but the very ordinances which extol it as a sacrament have turned it into a farce. Let us look into this a little. We have said that in every sacrament there is a word of divine promise, to be believed by whoever receives the sign, and that the sign alone cannot be a sacrament. Nowhere do we read that the man who marries a wife receives any grace of God. There is not even a divinely instituted sign in marriage, nor do we read anywhere that marriage was instituted by God to be a sign of anything. To be sure, whatever takes place in a visible manner can be understood as a figure or allegory of something invisible. But figures or allegories are not sacraments, in the sense in which we use the term.” (source: Luther’s Works Vol. 36; Babylonian Captivity of the Church)
Calvin's writing on marriage include:
“The last of all is marriage, which, while all admit it to be an institution of God, no man ever saw to be a sacrament, until the time of Gregory. And would it ever have occurred to the mind of any sober man? 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.” (source: Institutes of Religion, Chapter 19, no. 34).
Consequently, by the 17th century, many of the Protestant European countries’ governments were responsible for instituting marriage.
English Puritans who rejected the Church of England’s view of marriage and immigrated to America in the early 1600s, also believed that marriage was a civil contract and not a religious ceremony. The law they instituted required that marriage be “agreed” or “executed” (not “performed” or “solemnized”) before a magistrate, not a minister. They also legalized divorce if the terms of the marriage covenant were broken. These customs became the model for marriage throughout New England. Other parts of colonial America followed different traditions — Virginians followed the Anglican view of marriage, Quakers brought their own version to Delaware, and Catholics instituted their belief in Maryland and other states. Unlike its European counterparts, which instituted civil marriage in the 18th and 19th centuries, the United States left the issue of marriage to the states until recently. Marriage was not codified until 1996 through the Defense of Marriage Act.
Were it not for the Protestant Reformation, marriage would not be considered a civil institution today. Had the Reformers followed the early church’s example, marriage would never have been thrust into the realm of civil government at all.
In light of this, Christians find themselves in an ironic and divided situation. As citizens of a secular country they must be licensed by the state to validate a practice that is rooted in religious belief. But should a practice rooted in the Judeo-Christian faith even be under the auspices of government? If marriage had been left to the church, the church could marry those who practice and follow its beliefs. Civil unions among same-sex couples could be left to the government, providing the full range of civil liberties citizens in a democracy expect. The fact that marriage is governed by the state, defies its purpose intended by God for heterosexuals and prevents civil liberties from being granted to same-sex couples. Granted, 17th century Puritans viewed the government as agents of God’s authority, but they never could have foreseen how non-Christians would want to use a Christian practice as a political right.
Concluding that marriage is not a Sacrament logically opened the door to the Reformer's next finding - that the institution of marriage must therefore be under the purview of the civil government rather than the Church. With God out of the marital picture and the institution placed in the hands of the civil government, the government was empowered to do with marriage whatsoever it desires. In the hands of civil government, marriage ultimately became dissoluble with no-fault divorce and remarriage the law of the land. With marriage no longer a permanent union, children became disposable objects, thus opening the door to the redefinition of the procreative act in marriage. The catastrophic result? Abortion became legal and the sexual revolution was in full swing. Once children and conjugal acts between man and woman were no longer connected to marriage, marriage was redefined as something other than one man and one woman. There is no end in sight to the continuing redefinition of marriage and family. Indeed, it was always a Pandora’s Box that ultimately and inevitably leads to human misery and annihilation.
Calvin recognized the truth marriage was instituted by God (Gen 2). In the New Testament we encounter the extraordinary truth in Eph 5:31-32 that marriage mysteriously symbolizes the most sacred, most intimate and most inviolable of all unions - that between Christ and His church. In relegating the responsibility for marriage into the civil realm, the Protestant church foolishly pushed this crucial truth onto the back-burner, paying little more than lip service to it. The sanctity of marriage, as defined in Genesis 2, would be best preserved if marriage had been properly left under the authority of the church. The Reformers got it right on the critical issue of justification, but missed the mark entirely on marriage by unwisely abdicating it into the civil realm.
Because of their view that marriage belonged in the realm of civil government instead of the church, the Protestant Reformation ironically opened the door for wide-spread divorce, gay marriage ... and worse to come. The irony is that a more conservative Reformation understanding of sacraments permits a more progressively liberal theological understanding of marriage. I believe the Roman Catholic and Orthodox perspective is correct on marriage and I agree with CS Lewis.
Marriage is indeed a sacrament.