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In Bryan Litfin's book, Getting to Know the Church Fathers, I was surprised to read the following about concubinage in the early church, in the context of Augustine's life before conversion:

In Roman society, the practice of concubinage was widely accepted. Even the Christian church was prepared to accommodate it as a kind of common law marriage so long as there was lifelong fidelity. (220)

In Augustine's case, he had no intention of lifelong fidelity, so the point is rather moot. But in many places around the world, both historically and currently, government restrictions make it difficult or impossible for some men and women to be officially "married."

My personal response might be to disregard the government's restrictions and consider a man and woman publicly committed to faithful monogamy as married, and not fornicating, particularly if they have a "church wedding." But in the Dominican Republic, at least, where I periodically do some ministry, the church I work with insists that those living together while not officially (legally) married are committing adultery, despite the legal barriers preventing some from marrying.1

All that to say, this isn't idle curiosity. Did the early church "accommodate" faithful concubinage, as Litfin says? In what sense – was it in the musings of a single church father, or set down at an ecumenical council? And if so, under what circumstances would it be allowed?


1. For more on these barriers, see this documentary or its trailer.

  • There's an interesting follow up to this, in terms of the origin of English common law marriage that made their way into the legal system where I live, in the US. – KorvinStarmast May 11 '17 at 21:06
  • Could you clarify a couple of things about Litfin? Is concubinage to be understood as in addition to a legal marriage (having a wife and concubine(s)) or in place of a legal marriage? Also, do the accommodations apply to converts who already had a concubines or to baptised Christians who wanted to take a concubine? – bradimus Aug 10 '17 at 15:17
  • @bradimus Definitely in place of a legal marriage – i.e., legal marriage is not available and therefore faithful "concubinage" is accommodated (i.e., one never has two partners). Litfin doesn't mention any distinction between keeping a pre-conversion concubine and taking a concubine post-conversion; either situation would be interesting to me. – Nathaniel Aug 10 '17 at 15:25
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Pope Calixtus I, who died around 222, permitted the marriage of high born women to men of a lower class, and even to slaves. This was contrary to Roman law, so the Pope was recognising as validly married people who by law were not married, and could not be married.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia comments:

Here again Callistus was rightly insisting on the distinction between the ecclesiastical law of marriage and the civil law, which later ages have always taught.

Calixtus was unfortunate in that his principal biographer was his worst enemy, and rival, the antipope Hippolytus. In Book IX, chapter VII of his Refutation of All Heresies he wrote

For even also he permitted females, if they were unwedded, and burned with passion at an age at all events unbecoming, or if they were not disposed to overturn their own dignity through a legal marriage, that they might have whomsoever they would choose as a bedfellow, whether a slave or free, and that a woman, though not legally married, might consider such a companion as a husband. Whence women, reputed believers, began to resort to drugs for producing sterility, and to gird themselves round, so to expel what was being conceived on account of their not wishing to have a child either by a slave or by any paltry fellow, for the sake of their family and excessive wealth. Behold, into how great impiety that lawless one has proceeded, by inculcating adultery and murder at the same time!

It is clear that Hippolytus felt able to say that these "marriages" allowed by the Pope were adulterous, presumably as not legal, and also as a matter of consequence often led to abortions. In deeming Calixtus a pope, and a saint, and Hippolytus an antipope, the later church may be said to have supported Calixtus.

The seventeenth canon of the first Council of Toledo,(see Edward Landon) near Madrid, in the year 400, forbade any married man, whose wife was faithful, from also having a concubine, on pain of excommunication. However if a man was unmarried, then he could have a concubine. The thrust is restrictive, rather than permissive, it bans having a wife and a concubine, but this does not (of course) apply to single men.

Pope Leo the Great (pontificated from 440 to 460) wrote many letters, including one to the French bishop Rusticus, in which he answers a number of questions put to him, the sixth of which was:

Concerning those who leave the women by whom they have children and take wives.

and the answer was:

Seeing that the wife is different from the concubine, to turn a bondwoman from one's couch and take a wife whose free birth is assured, is not bigamy but an honourable proceeding.

It seem that, although lifelong commitment to a concubine was acceptable, it was not required. A single man could keep a concubine and, if he chose to turn her out and marry a wife, then this was an honourable thing for him to do. Still, one woman at a time was the limit. Nevertheless it is clear there was uncertainty and variety of practice during the first few centuries.

-3

Marriage, concubinage, polygamy and having a mistress were originally all a little vague in their distinctions. Women, like dogs, camels, and sheep, etc., were a tradable commodity. The basic rule was “You shall not have more women, dogs, camels, and sheep, etc. than you can afford to keep.” This was enough to gain God's approval.

Although it is not mentioned in The NT, Josephus twice mentions concubinage as an institution and Justin The Martyr criticises Jewish teachers for the practice. It can be seen that, at the time of Christ, it was relatively common, regardless of adherence to a particular religion. This is not really surprising as OT characters often had many wives/concubines.

As Christianity progressed, the various NT statements that tend to support monogamy were increasingly read so as to prohibit polygamy (although none are beyond interpretations that permit polygamy.)

Tertullian wrote that monogamy was lawful, but that polygamy was not. Eusabius felt he ought to comment on the polygamy of the Patriarchs and this was then taken as some sort of approval (probably by those who had several wives or had ambitions in that direction.)

Basil of Caesarea wrote in the 4th century of plural marriage that "such a state is no longer called marriage but polygamy or, indeed, a moderate fornication." He ordered that those who are engaged in it should be excommunicated for up to five years, and "only after they have shown some fruitful repentance" were they to be allowed back into the church. Moreover, he stated that the teachings against plural marriage are "accepted as our usual practice, not from the canons but in conformity with our predecessors."

Augustine wrote in the second half of the 4th century: "That the good purpose of marriage, however, is better promoted by one husband with one wife, than by a husband with several wives, is shown plainly enough by the very first union of a married pair, which was made by the Divine Being Himself."

And so it was… well, at least for a time. The rule became strictly enforced after The Church held a synod in Hertford, England, in 673 that declared that marriage is allowed between one man and one woman, and separation (but not divorce) is only granted in the case of adultery, but even then remarriage is not allowed. (At this point I will mention that The Synod of Hertford was blissfully unaware of the Dominican Republic and seemed unaware of the messes that humans can get themselves into via their best intentions.)

Human reasonableness kept rearing its head and even Luther declared: "It is my earnest warning and counsel that Christians especially shall have no more than one wife, not only because it is a scandal, which a Christian should avoid most diligently, but also because there is no word of God here to show that God approves it in Christians.... I must oppose it, especially in Christians, unless there be need, as for instance if the wife be a leper, or be taken away from the husband in some other way."

Luther’s thoughts influence us all today, some more liberally than others, but forcing a doctrine upon people, or making judgements upon uncertain ground is never a good thing to do.

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    You are addressing the status of polygamy/polyamory, but that's not what I'm asking. I am asking about monogamous, faithful concubinage, where legally recognized "marriage" is not available. – Nathaniel Oct 5 '17 at 21:14

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