Many cultures in many ages have practiced arranged marriages. I understand that in Jewish culture --at about the time of Christ-- arranged marriages were considered a normal way of life. Obviously if this was a religious value at the time Christianity probably had an opinion about it. Somehow today, many 'Christian' cultures do NOT practice arranged marriages (none in the west, only a few scattered ones elsewhere).

How did this happen? Is it a cultural issue that Christianity never held a position on or did the early Christian church take a stand against the Jewish custom? Was it Christianity and some doctrine that instigated this change, or just coincidence?

  • With the edits, there were multiple "reopen" votes; I've finished those off and purged the comments to start it afresh.
    – Marc Gravell
    Sep 10 '11 at 16:19
  • The title edit is bad though - "ever?" I as sure someone somewhere has, the point of the question is whether that had anything to do with most Christian-heavy cultures not doing arranged marriages.
    – mxyzplk
    Sep 10 '11 at 22:42
  • But someone and somewhere aren't what's being asked. The question is regarding Christianity as a religion. Because of that, doctrines can be examined to determine the answer--we don't have to examine every single person's belief.
    – Richard
    Sep 12 '11 at 1:02

Yes, in general Christianity has worked against arranged marriages historically.

The Wikipedia article on marriage notes:

With few local exceptions, until 1545, Christian marriages in Europe were by mutual consent, declaration of intention to marry and upon the subsequent physical union of the parties... As Christianity spread during the Roman period and the Middle Ages, the idea of free choice in selecting marriage partners increased and spread with it.

A History of Marriage in Western Civilization contends that the previous Greek, Roman, and Jewish traditions of arranged marriage were eroded by the Church's role - first, the focus on asceticism and not always being married, and then by the Church's view of marriage as a sacrament and wanting more say in the process (for example by saying they had the power to annul marriages illicit in some way).

This is of course not universal; despite Ethiopia adopting Christianity in 333 AD they are still moving out of the practice.

This makes sense; arranged marriage tends to depend on two things:

  1. Women being seen as undesirable/commodities by the society
  2. Marriage being seen as an economic transaction between two groups

Christianity has eroded the "women are lesser" argument historically (though imperfect in practice, Christianity's view of women is WAY higher than many other culture/religions) because of the insertion of both the concept of the individual's relationship with God resulting in marriage necessarily being a matter of individual choice - "if they want to stay chaste, they don't have to marry" - and the Church as a cultural force wanting part of the say in marriage for both religious and, frankly, political reasons.

Note that there is also a major difference between arranged marriages that still (technically) require the assent of those being married, and forced marriages:

The Roman Catholic Church deems forced marriage grounds for granting an annulment — for a marriage to be valid both parties must give their consent freely.

This was reiterated at the Council of Trent but dates from much earlier:

The statement of Pope Nicholas I in which he declared in 866, "If the consent be lacking in a marriage, all other celebrations, even should the union be consummated, are rendered void", shows the importance of a couple's consent to marriage. It has remained an important part of church teaching through the years.

You can read an extended dance remix of all this in the Summa Theologica.

For this reason forced marriage is largely constrained to parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East that have not had enough Christian influence to affect their laws. So yes, it is a cultural issue, but one that the Christian Church usually strives to influence, and has done so successfully in many cases.

  • 2
    Arranged marriage is much different from forced marriage. Current western marriages are arranged by themselves (whether you call it dating/love/courting or something else). In asian cultures many couples willingly go for arranged marriages such that boy and girl (until then unknown to each other), followed by parents or family meeting or family meeting first, then coupld meeting and agreeing for it. That is much more christian than dating marriages which tend to break down fast. And it explains high divorce rate in west for sure :) !
    – Jamess
    Sep 11 '11 at 15:57
  • If you use that definition of "arranged," then pretty much only getting drunk and accidentally married in Vegas falls outside its bounds, which is unhelpful and not what the OP is asking.
    – mxyzplk
    Oct 16 '13 at 4:28

As far as I know, there's no biblical or traditional Christian doctrine about whether a person should pick their own spouse or have it arranged by someone else. In the absence of this, it generally gets left to culture, and so you see almost none of it in Western cultures, where arranged marriages are considered a silly, antiquated concept, and a bit more acceptance of the practice among Eastern Christians.

It's worth noting that you'll see the same pattern among Jews. You're not likely to find many (if any at all) American Jews whose marriage was arranged by their parents, for example, not because that is or is not the Jewish way, but because it's a highly un-American thing to do.

  • 1
    This is pretty much what I could come up with off the top of my head -- which is why I asked because I'm surprised (will be shocked if confirmed) that any major issue of culture would slide by without some major Christian tradition having expressed an opinion on it. We don't exactly have a track record of just letting culture just do it's thing! I felt it was more likely that my own history was defunct.
    – Caleb
    Sep 10 '11 at 19:59

John Calvin had a complex set of views about marriage, matchmaking and consent. In short, Calvin is opposed to any marriage where the couple do not consent, but is in favour of parental help in finding a partner.

His Marriage Ordinance of 1546 envisages that parents will play a matchmaking role, but that consent to marriage is ultimately up to the individuals involved. Section 8 says

Let no father compel his children to such a marriage as seems good to him except with their goodwill and consent, but let him or her who does not want to accept the partner his father wants to give be excused, always preserving modesty and respect, without the father imposing any punishment for such a refusal.

Calvin was absolutely opposed to marriage of children, since they lack the ability to consent, and are also sexually immature. This applies whether or not the marriage was arranged. Child betrothal could be permitted; in such cases, the child could freely decide on reaching maturity whether to go through with the marriage.

However, Calvin also believed that parental consent was an important part of contracting a marriage. Lack of parental consent does not prevent a marriage from taking place, assuming that the couple are otherwise able to marry, but he does argue that parental consent is highly desirable.

He also wrote at length about the manner and purpose of courtship, including the criteria that should be held in mind when deciding whether to marry someone. These are based around the couple and their potential for mutual love and support, as well as the possibility of procreation - in other words, generally excluding considerations of money or prestige.

(This answer is based on the book Sex, marriage and family in John Calvin's Geneva, volume 1, Courtship, engagement and marriage, by John Witte Jr. and Robert M. Kingdon; Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005.)

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