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Is Marriage a Sacrament?

For Catholics and Orthodox Christians, yes. For Protestants, no. Here's why.

It is generally agreed that sacraments origninate in the Bible, and in particular in the words and deeds of Jesus.

Christians universally agree that Baptism and Communion (or the Eurcharist) were specifically initated by Christ. Jesus himself was baptized by John and he advised his disciples to do likewise. Jesus also presided at the Last Supper and at that time he instructed his disciples to repeat the ritual of the breaking of bread and the sharing of wine "in remembrance of me." In a very real sense the New Testament documents the emergence of these two, specifically Christian rituals.

Baptism and Communion were central and distinguishing marks of the Christian church from the time of Jesus forward.

Marriage has a far more complicated history.

  • First, it was adopted by Christians from Jewish practice. Jesus did not initiate or even change the institition of marriage. He did perform his first miracle at a wedding in Cana where he turned water into wine, but in this he was simply a wedding guest; he was blessing an existing practice, nor initiating something new.

  • Second, marriage was not identified as a sacrament by the Church until the 12th century. During the Protestant Reformation there was an effort to "purify" the Church of practices, doctrines, and rituals that were thought to be departures from the clear teachings and traditions of the Bible. The reformers believed that there was insufficient biblical authority for referring to marriage as a sacrament.

Note that this is not an argument about the importance of marriage, or any of the five rituals identified by Catholics as sacraments, but seen by Protestants to be sacred, holy, and even central to the community of faith, but not in the same class as Baptism and Communion.

Here are the words of one Protestant leader on the subject. In his "Institutes," John Calvin writes: "Lastly, there is matrimony, which all admit was instituted by God, though no one before the time of (Pope) Gregory regarded it as a sacrament. What man in his sober senses could so regard it? God's ordinance is good and holy; so also are agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, hair-cutting legitimate ordinances of God, but they are not sacraments."

It was partly as a result of the dispute with Protestants over the sacraments that the Catholic Church clarified its position on marriage at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). At Trent it was decreed: "If any one shall say that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the Seven Sacraments of the Evangelical Law, instituted by Christ our Lord, but was invented in the Church by men, and does not confer grace, let him be anathema."

From this point forward the Protestant denominations have been committed to counting only Baptism and Communion as sacraments while Orthodox and Catholic Christians identify seven.

Of course, positions hardened in the sixteenth century could become more flexible with the passing of time. In Protestant circles, it is common to refer to marriage as being "sacramental" in the sense that a good marriage is an outward sign of inner grace. And those who are involved in ecumenical dialogue and debate could find grounds for agreement about marriage, should more serious issues still dividing Protestants and Catholics be resolved.

What are the Sacraments?

Wedding Planner

Is marriage right for me?


Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.