How the Church Redefined Marriage

The understanding of marriage in Western Christendom developed away from the social contract model of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament to a marriage model based on a sexual sacramental union rooted in a neoplatonic understanding of Genesis 2:23‒24 and Ephesians 5:31‒32.

John Witte Jr. (Professor of Law, Emory University, USA) states, “All … [Western] models of marriage started with several basic assumptions … inherited from classical Greco-Roman sources.” Witte defines those sources as Plato and Aristotle, the Roman stoics, and classical Roman Law.1 The term “neoplatonic” will be used to describe them—in particular, their understanding that earthly life is a shadow of a spiritual reality that occupies a different realm.
This article explores how, using these neoplatonic assumptions, a move was made away from the social contract model of the Hebrew Bible, a model that it will be suggested the New Testament endorses, to the sacramental model of the high Middle Ages. Although the Reformers challenged that understanding, preferring the terminology of “ordinance” and “covenant,” they retained the neoplatonic model of marriage—a model not found in Scripture—despite such being embraced by many evangelicals today.