Apt as I daresay the previous essay is in its thorough examination of New Testament-expressed attitudes towards matrimony, historical Christendom has, needless to say, adopted an entirely divergent mindset on the matter. For adherents to historical Christendom, marriage is indeed an unmixed blessing for men and women, not a concession granted from on high based on a divine understanding of human weakness.
Meanwhile, those troublesome passages, likewise previously cited, are rarely repeated in weekly readings or puzzled over in pastoral sermons. Such apprehension is of course understandable, given the fact that most church congregations consist largely of groups of families; that is to say, of wedded couples with children. Downgrading marriage, by declaring it a less favorable choice than celibacy, doesn’t exactly “sell” well to such a congregation.
Indeed, passages from the New Testament are frequently seized upon in an effort to make it appear as if the carnal bond between husband and wife were in fact the highest flowering of agape-style affection. Paul’s lovely poetry concerning what was translated as “charity” by the King James scribe (later rendered as “love” for modern readers, since “charity” strikes our ears as something meek, mild, and lacking in fervor), is now commonly cited with approval at marriage ceremonies:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Yet in truth, these verses little resemble even the most harmonious marriages. It is questionable if they even accurately recall the marriage ideal, given that the carnal dimension of marriage necessitates “passion,” which tends to militate against patience, kindness, absence of anger, diminution of pride, etc. Carnality, rather, tends to cause all of these qualities to grow more pronounced, not less. A husband and wife are meant to love one another as lovers do, and lovers are supposed to love fiercely, if their love is to be understood on a carnal level; that is, if it is to be understood as a proper manifestation of carnal love.
Indeed, a wife whose husband behaved in this manner towards her—mild, sweet, mellow, lacking in possessiveness, un-egoic, disengaged on an “id”-level—would no doubt conclude that he no longer properly loved her, as a husband is supposed to love a wife. And a husband whose wife did not look upon him as a prized possession, who did not feel he was someone to boast about to others, who did not indeed feel proud of being his wife – such a husband would similarly feel himself unloved, in the manner that a husband wishes to feel himself loved by his wife.
Again, it is precisely the carnality of marriage (and earthly marriage is carnal at its core—its purpose has always been to direct this carnality towards the act of reproduction, and thus towards the continuation of the species) that militates against the agape-ideal here rhapsodized by St. Paul. This is not to say that husband and wife cannot be devoted to one another, or that this devotion doesn’t require a degree of patience, kindness, and self-sacrifice. It is simply to note that, even in its “ideal” state, marital love makes an ill fit for Paul’s general description of agape, that is Godly, “love.”
Paul, rather, expressed his preference that a person remain in an unmarried state, and that his carnality be transcended, rather than sated. In this, Paul was simply following Christ’s lead, since Christ also regarded the celibate state as superior, as we have seen.
Through the centuries, however, the Church has seen fit to mute this New Testament strain, perhaps with an eye towards ensuring that a population of future churchgoers is assured, and thus, that money will continue to flow into Church coffers from one generation to the next.
In the broader culture of Christendom, then, marriage has thus come to be regarded as a state identical in stature, if not even superior to, that of celibacy. But it may safely be concluded that, in the words of Christ, “from the beginning it was not so.”