Stephanie Coontz continues to make the case for homosexual marriage, appealing to a principle that is increasingly popular among evangelicals: the state should keep its grubby hands off marriage.

Coontz appeals to history for her case, arguing that the State and the Church viewed marriage as a private decision for sixteen centuries.

But Coontz’s argument is suspect. While common-law marriages have always existed (even in our own country), they were—and are—exceptional. Though the Church may have recognized such marriages, such recognition does not entail what Coontz wants it to—a repudiation of the institutional and social nature of marriage.

In addition, the notion that ‘consent’ was the only criterion for marriage (for either the Church of the State) is misleading. In the middle ages, for instance, families would exchange promises, provide dowries, and then hand over the daughter. Ironically, the Church introduced the principle of consent to curb these practices.[1]

Likewise, the situation in Roman society was equally complex. The late Roman state had a system that approximated the modern state’s control and influence over marriage, and that suggested marriage had public ramifications.[2]

Even granting Coontz’s historical case, her suggestion that we privatize marriage has other unsavory consequences, as both Elizabeth Marquardt and Joseph Knippenberg point out. From Marquardt:

Moreover, in the Coontz system, people who lived together and explicitly chose NOT to be married will find themselves nonetheless held to legal obligations they explicitly did not sign up for (even though they had the chance! With something called “marriage”!). Is that fair? Maybe when there is a child involved we’ll all agree it’s fair, but what if there isn’t? Do you owe financial payments to a girlfriend you lived with for 18 months? Can she tell the hospital whether to pull the plug after you suffer brain damage in a car accident? In the Coontz system, who knows?

As Knippenberg writes, “In other words, government support for, or acquiesence in, the free choices of individuals could in the long run lead to the elimination of government support for the family. This can’t be good for children, but, then, who cares about them?”

There is good reason, then, for Christians to resist Coontz’s suggestions. Not only are they historically dubious, they are impractical and could undercut the position of the family within contemporary society.
By virtue of the fact that it unites two human persons–social creatures, as Aristotle understood–marriage will always resist the totalitarian privatization of those who wish to fashion it according to their own ends.

And for that, we can be extraordinarily thankful.

[1] See “Marriage in Medieval Culture: Consent Theory and the Case of Joseph and Mary,” by Irven M. Resnick. Church History, Vol. 69, No. 2. (Jun., 2000), pp. 350-371.

[2] See, for instance, “The Registration of Marriage under Mediæval Roman Law,” by J. E. G. de Montmorency. Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation, New Ser., Vol. 14, No. 2. (1914), pp. 390-399.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Another excellent history of marriage that details its evolution is John Witte, Jr’s. The Meanings of Marriage from the October, 2002 edition of First Things.


  2. It’s unfair to Coontz to suggest that she claims the early Western view of marriage was based solely on individual consent. In her first paragraph, she writes, “For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.”

    She seems to gloss over the late Roman empire–which was more conservative than the earlier Republic when it came to marriage and divorce–but I think her larger point stands. There is no fixed tradition of what justifies marriage, even in Christendom. Resnick’s illuminating discussion only confirms that.

    Regardless, I doubt privatizing marriage in a Coontzian fashion would fix the institution–I see marriage as private and public–but I’m fairly sure that encouraging gay couples to form stable relationships under state sanction wouldn’t hurt it.


  3. Matthew Lee Anderson November 29, 2007 at 5:47 pm

    Thanks, Charlie, for the link. I didn’t know about it, but I’ll definitely take a look at it.


    I agree that the nature of marriage within Christendom is incredibly diverse. It gets even messier once you hit the Reformation!

    It’s interesting, because the “more conservative” late Roman empire was so, it seems, because of the influence of Christianity (see, for instance, the Justinian Codex).

    But the notion that because there isn’t a “fixed tradition of what marriage means” doesn’t entail what Coontz wants it to, namely, that marriage should be a strictly private institution. That’s the crucial point, I think, that Coontz wants to make and that isn’t (I would argue) supported by the history. Even if there’s diversity within the tradition, the point of the articles cited is that within that diversity there is a strong (dominant?) theme that understands marriage as public. I think that her appeal to history is more philosophically driven than historically validated.

    As to the effects of homosexual marriage on the institution of marriage in America, I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on that.


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