Prompted by my post What We Mean By Marriage, several of my readers have asked what the differences were/are between “Classical” and “Traditional” marriage. This post aims to help my readers understand the differences between the two. I should mention, before I go any further, that the terms “Classical” and “Traditional” Christian marriage are my own. They are not drawn from any other source, merely the names I have assigned to the respective notions of marriage as I understand them. So it is doubtful that they will match up with anything you have seen elsewhere in the ‘sphere or on the ‘net.
To begin with I am going to recap the main features of both “versions” of marriage. Keep in mind that these are the religious definitions/understandings of marriage, not the way that the State understood marriage. Lets start with “Classical” Christian marriage:
- A holy union between a man and a woman which is joined together by God, bound by him and their oaths
- The purpose of marriage is to serve God, avoid sexual immorality and to raise Godly Children
- A clear hierarchy in the marriage structure: husband->wife->children
- Binding for Life- the marriage lasted until one party died, with only rare exceptions
- Spouses may not deny each other their conjugal rights
- Contraception was a defilement of the marriage bed
- Clearly defined roles for husband and wife- both worked, although often in different capacities
Now we move on to “Traditional” Christian marriage:
- A holy union between a man and a woman which is joined together by God, bound by their oaths to each other
- The purpose of marriage is to raise Godly children, as well as to civilize men and allow women to achieve their dreams of motherhood
- Recognition of the marital hierarchy, but often accompanied by exemptions and caveats
- Binding for Life- marriage is still supposed to be for life, but there are more “outs” available now
- Spouses are not supposed to deny each other their conjugal rights, but there are exceptions/exemptions
- Contraception is generally a bad thing, but sometimes may be necessary
- Clearly defined roles for husband and wife- the husband works and provides, and the wife raises the children and keeps the home.
Before I talk about the differences, lets cover what they have in common. The first bullet point, while worded differently, is essentially the same between them. Both have the understanding that marriage is a holy union between a man and a woman that is joined together by God, and bound by their vows. Both also generally hold to the same idea that marriage is binding for life. Traditional marriage has more “outs” available- as divorce generally wasn’t available at all under Classical marriage. But otherwise they both had the same concept of marriage being for life.
Both have fairly similar views when it comes to denial of conjugal rights and contraception. Traditional marriage tends to be more “forgiving” of contraception, or at least attempts to try and limit the number of children (through whatever means were available). As for conjugal rights, again, they were not supposed to be denied. Perhaps the biggest change is that such matters were considered inappropriate topics of debate/conversation. As such, they were mostly swept under the rug.
This brings us to the differences. There are three areas where they diverge: the purpose of marriage, the nature of the marital hierarchy, and the roles of husband and wife. I will cover them in order.
Here is a restatement of both of their views on the purpose of marriage:
- Classical Marriage: to serve God, avoid sexual immorality and to raise Godly Children
- Traditional Marriage: to raise Godly children, as well as to civilize men and allow women to achieve their dreams of motherhood
They both mention raising Godly children, as that component of marriage didn’t really change between the two iterations. So it will be skipped over for now.
As you can see, Traditional marriage doesn’t mention serving God and avoiding sexual immorality. I didn’t include them principally because those two components of classical marriage had dwindled in importance by the time traditional marriage showed up. It isn’t so much that they aren’t present, but rather that they were considered less important than the new components found in traditional marriage. Serving God, which I think under classical marriage was much more overt, is under traditional marriage more of an implied thing. Everyone sort of assumes it, but it doesn’t have the prominence it did before. Also, controlling sexuality and avoiding sexual immorality has receded as well. Sometimes it is mentioned and discussed, but more often than not it is skipped over. This is in part because discussions of sexuality tend to be considered “inappropriate” in many circumstances, and just aren’t talked about. And when sex is talked about, it is almost always in the context of lust and sinfulness, and not so much about how sexuality is a good thing in marriage. Actually, as I think on it, I might want to re-word classical marriage’s wording from “avoid sexual immorality” to something more positive, such as “provide a healthy, ordered and moral outlet for human sexuality.”
This brings us to the new components of traditional marriage, “civilizing men” and “allowing women to achieve their dreams of motherhood.” Both of these components are ones that I believe are “baked in” to the common understanding of what “traditional” marriage is. By that I mean that people just instinctively believe them to be true. They may not be “official” teaching, but they might as well be.
When it comes to men, marriage is perceived to “civilize” them, mostly by forcing them “to be responsible” by starting a family and supporting it. While it is true that marriage imposes a considerable amount of responsibility on men, the notion that it civilizes them is absurd and has no basis in Scripture (or Catholic/Orthodox Tradition). In my view this component acts in many ways to infantilize men (or at least portrays them that way), because it impliedly argues that a man needs a woman in his life in order to keep him in line, i.e., civilized. It is inherently misandristic [by the way, what does it say about the world when WordPress recognizes Melisandra as a word, but not misandry?]. I would in fact argue that this component of traditional marriage is one of the first manifestations of feminism within Christianity [feminism being far older in origin than many suspect, but that is a topic for a later post].
Now to women. It seems to me that in “traditional” marriage there is a belief that women are entitled to marry so that they can have children- basically that marriage allows them to fulfill their “higher calling” as mothers. What concerns me about this perspective is the implication that women are “owed” marriage and “owed” children, when in fact marriage is a calling from God (what we Catholics call a Vocation), and children are a blessing from God (not something we are owed). Again, it seems to have this vibe of “female primacy” within it that looks an awful like the Feminine Imperative at work.
Summed up, and put crudely, traditional marriage contains the implicit understanding that marriage makes men less bad and women more good.
The marital hierarchy in classical and traditional marriage is very similar, at least on paper. Both recognize wifely submission and headship by the husband. One minor difference is that traditional marriage is less likely to recognize that God is the true head of the marriage, such that you get God -> Husband -> Wife -> Children in order of authority (something I should have included in my description of classical marriage).
What I think is the real difference here is the belief that the husband should not be involved in some spheres of influence or authority. This is heavily influenced by the understanding of the roles of husband and wife in traditional marriage, which I will talk about in greater depth in the next section. Under traditional marriage the basic idea is that since women (wives in this specific instance) are better at certain things than men are, they should be given free reign to carry out those activities. In other words, while men are still technically the “head” of the marriage, they have limited to no authority over certainly “wifely duties.” Child-rearing is the most obvious example of this- wives need to be the ones to primarily raise children, especially young ones, because they are so much better at it and husband just need to accept that this isn’t something they can question. There are other fields within the marriage that are treated the same way. Essentially, the authority of the husband is curtailed “for the good of everyone” in certain areas, because the wife is better suited to handle them.
This is a usurpation of the authority of the husband, all dressed up in language that makes it seem like it is beneficial for the marriage. Given this early chink in the armor of submission, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that “mutual submission” worked its way into the mainstream of Christian thought.
Lastly, we come to the roles of husband and wife within marriage. Here is what I wrote before:
- Classical Marriage: Clearly defined roles for husband and wife- both worked, although often in different capacities
- Traditional Marriage: Clearly defined roles for husband and wife- the husband works and provides, and the wife raises the children and keeps the home.
The real change between the classical and traditional marriage understanding of the role of the spouses in the household is found in the role of the wife. Under both the role of the husband is essentially the same, as the husband protected the family and worked to provide for it. On the other hand the perceived role of the wife made a dramatic, although difficult to notice, shift during the transition between the two.
The home was/is the primary locus of the wife’s activity under both classical and traditional marriage. Yet what they did, what they were supposed to do, and what they were expected to do is not the same. The best way that I can explain it is that under classical marriage there were/are “Work at Home Moms”, while under traditional marriage there were/are “Stay at Home Moms.” Under classical Christian marriages wives were expected to be economically productive, just as men were. Proverbs 31 is an excellent example of this, for it lauds a wife who brings profit to her household. Anna, the wife of Tobit in the Book of Tobit, did “women’s work” to provide for her family .They might not be expected to, or capable of, providing for a household like the husband (and in fact couldn’t/can’t for some pretty obvious reasons), but wives/mothers still provided for the family. Of course, they still reared children and maintained the home, but that was all part of their general duties towards the household. However, under traditional Christian marriage the wife is often not seen as being required to economically support the family any longer. She fulfills her duties merely by raising the children and “keeping” the home. I suspect that upper-middle class and upper class attitudes were in large part responsible for this. Because of their relative affluence, wives no longer had to work to support the family, and keeping them at home became a status symbol.
Over time this altered the perception of what women were required to do in marriage. My suspicion is that early forms of feminism encouraged this change in perception, as it effectively reduced the burden on women and put more of it on men. It represented another shift in how a Christian marriage was supposed to be.
Again, these distinctions between “classical” and “traditional” Christian marriage are mostly in how people understand marriage, not in how those “versions” look when applied. It is based on perceptions and assumptions of everything that Christian marriage entails. There are many reasons why a wife might not be able to economically support the family in some way, but that is different from her believing that she doesn’t have to support (or bring benefit to) the family if it was viable for her to do so.
That brings this post to its conclusion. I hope that I answered most of the questions about the differences between “classical” and “traditional” Christian marriage that my readers had. If not, ask away in the comments, and I will try and answer as best as I may.