Christian marriage differs from earlier practice and from modern secular usage most notably in the dignity it has sought for the woman and the life-long nature it ascribes to the marriage bond. Early Hebrew law, which was founded on marriage by purchase, assigned a low status to the woman, who could be divorced for some ‘indecency’ (Deut. 24: 1 RSV). In His teaching about matrimony Christ was concerned to restore it to its original place in God's plan of creation (Mk. 10: 6–9; Mt. 19: 4–6). He insisted therefore that divorce was contrary to God's will. Mk. 5: 31 f. (unlike Lk. 16: 18) and Mt. 19: 9 (unlike Mk. 10: 11), however, assume that He intended an exception in cases of unchastity, implying His agreement with Deut. 24: 1. Remarriage is excluded to underline the Divine intention that the union should be for life. Unlike other Jewish thinkers, Christ also saw a place for celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19: 10–12). While acknowledging the Lord's opposition to divorce (1 Cor. 7: 10), St Paul's pastoral practice permitted separation (1 Cor. 7: 11) and in some circumstances apparently freedom to remarry (1 Cor. 7: 15). This became the basis of the so-called Pauline Privilege developed (and widened) in RC moral theology. Paul teaches the equality of men and women in Christ (Gal. 3: 28), but at 1 Cor. 11: 3–12 he echoes the patriarchal assumptions of his Jewish background and Graeco-Roman context.
The purposes of matrimony have traditionally been understood as fidelity, the procreation of children, and the union of the parties in the marriage. The procreative, often understood as the primary end, demands that the good of children be put before other considerations. It has also led many Christians to repudiate all artificial methods of family limitation (see contraception, procreation and abortion, ethics of). In the W. marriage came to be regarded as a sacrament, unique in that the parties are the ministers, and the priest only the appointed witness.
The rite of marriage consists of two parts: the betrothal and the marriage proper. The betrothal consists of the giving of a ring (or the exchange of rings) and the joining of hands. It also includes the making of vows. The marriage service is essentially a service of blessing; from the time of Tertullian it included a celebration of the Eucharist (Nuptial Mass). The Nuptial Mass was often replaced even in the medieval Church by a service of blessing in front of the altar, and this arrangement is preserved in Protestant Churches. In the E. Church, the marriage service preserves an Epistle and Gospel, the couple are given crowns (representing the crowns of martyrs) and then share a cup of wine.
It was only in the 11th cent. that the claim of the Church to exercise exclusive jurisdiction in matrimonial cases was conceded. In England, however, civil marriage was established in 1836 and in 1857 the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts in matrimonial cases was abolished. Subsequent legislation provided ever-widening grounds for divorce until the Divorce Reform Act 1969 made the ‘irretrievable breakdown’ of marriage the sole criterion. Similar developments have taken place in other countries. While civil legislation has not affected the belief of the Church, in the RC Church there has been an increase in the number of petitions for nullity; these are heard in Church courts. In some parts of the Anglican Communion after a civil divorce another marriage in church is sometimes allowed; in other Provinces a blessing may be given after a civil marriage and both parties are subsequently admitted to Communion. In the Orthodox Church divorce has been tolerated since Byzantine times, though a different ceremony is used for second and third marriages.