This page provides a range of key resources on the theology and ethics of marriage. Most, but not all, of these are available online (some though requiring a subscription to be accessed). There are a number of related resource lists on cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, same-sex unions and marriage and transgender.
The initial section points to some helpful introductory and widely reprinted pieces found in dictionaries and readers. There follows a selection of resources particularly focussed on Scripture and then on the Christian tradition.
The final section is on contemporary ethical discussions including those from particular Christian traditions.Last Updated on 3 March, 2021 by Andrew Goddard
Dictionary Articles & Readers
IVP New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology:
- Chapter on Sexuality (71-78) by Gilbert Meilaender
- Marriage (565-8) by Jim Olthuis
SCM New Dictionary of Christian Ethics
- Helen Oppenheimer on Marriage (366-8)
- Lisa Sowle Cahill on Sexual Ethics (579-83)
Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible
- Ruth Anne Reese on Male and Female (477-79)
- Robert Gagnon on Sexuality (739-48)
Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics
- Rebekah Miles on Family (300-2)
- Allen Verhey on Marriage and Divorce (508-12)
- David Gushee on Polygamy (603-5)
There are many relevant biblical texts with the following being particularly important: Gen 1 & 2; Mt 19.3-12 & pars; 1 Cor 7; Eph 5. Commentaries on these are a valuable resource as well as the biblical exegesis in books on marriage.
A short (8pp) and selective overview of the biblical material can be found in Francis Martin, “Biblical Teaching on Marriage: A Brief Survey”
See also N.T. Wright, “What is Marriage For? Tracing God’s Plan from Genesis to Revelation”
The most extensive study of the Old Testament is by Richard M. Davidson – The Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Baker, 2007). To spare you working through its 800+ pages you can get a sense of some of his main lines of argument in relation to marriage (broadly a traditional, conservative reading) from the following:
- Richard M. Davidson – “The Theology of Sexuality in the Beginning: Genesis 1-2”
- Richard M. Davidson – “The Theology of Sexuality in the Beginning: Genesis 3”
- Short review articles of the book by Andre Claris Lombart and David Instone-Brewer and Davidson’s response to them.
- Less relevant but perhaps of interest are two other pieces by Richard M. Davidson – “Theology of Sexuality in the Song of Songs: Return to Eden” and “Polygamy in the OT”.
An alternative approach can be found in Ken Stone, “Marriage and Sexual Relations in the World of the Hebrew Bible”
In relation to the New Testament (and wider Jewish background) the leading scholar is William Loader. The most accessible introduction to his work is Sexuality in the New Testament: Understanding the Key Texts (Westminster/John Knox, 2010).
Other possible resources include:
- Burnside, Jonathan. God, Justice and Society: Aspects of Law and Legality in the Bible. OUP, 2010. This is a major study by an evangelical lawyer and OT scholar with chapters dealing with OT laws relating to sexual behaviour.
- Collins, Raymond F. Sexual Ethics & The New Testament: Behaviour & Belief. Crossroad, 2000. Work of leading Roman Catholic New Testament scholar
- Countryman, William. Dirt, Greed & Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications For Today. SCM, 2001 (original edn 1988). Modern classic reading from a more liberal US Episcopalian scholar.
The classic text here which it is important to read rather than just learn about from secondary literature is Augustine’s On The Good of Marriage (De Bono Conjugali). Good guides to Augustine more generally on this are
- Paul Ramsey,”Human Sexuality in the History of Redemption” in Babcock, William S. (ed), The Ethics of Augustine, pp. 115-45 which offers a helpful discussion of Augustine’s understanding of marriage and sex tracing it through creation, fall and redemption.
- Elizabeth A. Clark (ed), “Introduction” in St Augustine on Marriage and Sexuality
- Chapter 2 of Steven Schafer’s thesis, “Contemporary revisions to Augustine’s theology of marriage”
On the early church more generally the classic text remains Peter Brown, Body and Society.
The best overview of changing Christian views is John Witte’s book From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion and Law in the Western Tradition whose central argument is best summed up in his article “The Meanings of Marriage” (also as a PDF). The volume he edited on Christianity and Family Law (CUP, 2017) offers chapters on the approach of over 25 leading Christians through the centuries and his Introduction gives a helpful summary of its contents. Other resources from Witte are on his website. Among the helpful overview guides there are “The Goods and Goals of Marriage” and “Sex and Marriage in the Protestant Tradition: 1500-1900”
An excellent guide to the theological issues in relation to marriage and sexual differentiation is Christopher Roberts, Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage (T&T Clark, 2008). Roberts summarises the book’s main argument in just over an hour in a presentation and Q&A in this video.
It is also helpful to review the different Anglican liturgies, particularly their opening prefaces, to look at different statements of the understanding of marriage – 1549, 1552, 1662, Alternative Service Book, Common Worship.
Bryan Spinks, “The Marriage Service in the Church of England: Some Liturgical Considerations” (Liturgical Review (1981) 11:2, 90-112). offers an overview of the history and various changes and a 2012 report within the Anglican Communion – “Rites Relating to Marriage” – offers an account of more recent developments and a theology of marriage.
Charlotte Methuen, a church historian, offers her overview of the changing nature of marriage in “Marriage in history and tradition”
Contemporary Christian Discussions of the Theology & Ethics of Marriage
General theological discussions:
- Gilbert Meilaender – “The First of Institutions” and “The Venture of Marriage” offer accounts from leading Lutheran ethicist. Helmut Thielicke, Ethics of Sex, Part III – “The Order of Marriage” offers an older, fuller Lutheran account.
- Stanley Grenz, Sexual Ethics, Part 2 (especially chapter 3) provides a Baptist evangelical perspective.
- Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God (IVP, 2003) is an extensive account from an evangelical perspective. An article introducing some of his thinking is “The Purpose of Marriage” from Churchman 115/1 (2001) while a more recent popularisation is “Marriage and Sexuality”.
- Martin Davie, Glorify God In Your Body(especially chapters 3-6) offers a traditional evangelical Anglican account.
- Oliver O’Donovan’s main writings include – “Marriage and the Family” in Kaye (ed), Obeying Christ in a Changing World Vol 3, pp. 94-11 and Marriage and Permanence (Grove Booklet). Most recently see his “ ‘One Man and One Woman’: The Christian Doctrine of Marriage” in Thomas A. Noble, Sarah K. Whittle, and Philip S. Johnston (eds), Marriage, Family and Relationships: Biblical, Doctrinal and Contemporary Perspectives (IVP, 2017) which has a range of articles from an evangelical perspective
- Gremain Grisez, The Way of the Lord Jesus Vol 2: Living a Christian Life, Chpt 9 provides a conservative Catholic account.
- William E. May also sets out traditional Roman Catholic teaching in “Marriage: A Person-Affirming, Love-Enabling, Life-Giving and Sanctifying Reality” and “Marriage: A Common Endeavor”
- David Matzko McCarthy offers an alternative Roman Catholic moral theologian’s perspective in ‘Becoming One Flesh: Marriage, Remarriage and Sex’, in Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, Blackwell, 2004, chapter 21. See also his book Sex and Love in the Home (SCM, 2001).
- Lisa Sowle Cahill presents a helpful survey of the recent Catholic discussion in her 2003 article, “Marriage: Developments in Catholic Theology and Ethics”.
- John P. Bradbury and Susannah Cornwall (eds), Thinking Again About Marriage (SCM, 2016) bring together a number of theological writers rethinking traditional teaching about marriage especially in the light of same-sex marriage. Among the chapters are ones by Mike Higton (“Marriage, Gender and Doctrine”) and Ben Fulford (“Thinking About Marriage with Scripture”). NT scholar Stephen Barton offers a short positive overview and review here.
- Adrian Thatcher has written a significant number of books on marriage and related issues exploring cohabitation and same-sex marriage and seeking to give a theological rationale for extending traditional teaching in various ways in response to changing patterns of relationship. Apart from his books, the easiest way into his thinking is through various articles and lectures on marriage and sexuality on his website eg “Marriage in the New Millennium. 1. Theology” (background)
- In 1999 the Church of England House of Bishops produced Marriage: A Teaching Document which remains the fullest recent statement of CofE teaching.
- Bishop John Bauerschmidt offers a helpful short summary of the church’s traditional teaching in the context of US Anglican debates about same-sex marriage in his “Pastoral Teaching on Marriage”. He was also one of the authors of “Marriage in Creation and Covenant” which is online here with critical responses from a number of other Anglicans.
Roman Catholic teaching
Important official statements include:
- Catechism of Catholic Church, Part Two, Section Two, Article 7, “The Sacrament of Matrimony” (Sections 1601-1666)
- 1930 Papal Encyclical Casti Connubii restated traditional teaching on marriage and sex in response to changing Anglican teaching on contraception and the later 1968 Humanae Vitae which reaffirmed traditional Catholic teaching on that subject.
- John Paul II gave a series of addresses now known as “The Theology of Body” and many of these focus on marriage. The best-known populariser of his work is Christopher West who has many resources online such as “Basic Theology of Marriage” and this website. Also important is his 1981 Familiaris Consortio
- Pope Francis’ recent 2016 apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), is a major statement and this is an official summary. This site provides resources relating to it.
- A helpful guide to Catholic Social Teaching on marriage and the family can be found at Virtual Plater.
- These three lectures by Matthew Levering on Marriage and the Cross, Marriage and the Trinity and Marriage and Indissolubility provide a helpful overview by leading RC theologian.
- John Chryssavgis – “Love, Marriage and Sexuality: Orthodox Theological Perspectives for a New Millennium”
- John Meyendorff – Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective (St Vladimir’s Press, 2000)