Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage

Tertullian is the early Christian author who once scathingly described women as “the devil’s gateway.”[1] I’ve known about this shocking, and therefore memorable, remark for some time, but more recently I’ve read several truly wonderful statements he has written about equality in marriage.

This is what Tertullian says in book 2, chapter 8 of Ad Uxorem (“To his Wife”).[2]

How shall we ever be able adequately to describe the happiness of that marriage which the Church arranges, the Sacrifice strengthens, upon which the blessing sets a seal, at which angels are present as witnesses, and to which the Father gives His consent? For not even on earth do children marry properly and legally without their fathers’ permission.

How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice. They are as brother and sister, both servants of the same Master. Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another. Side by side they visit God’s church and partake of God’s Banquet; side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations. They have no secrets from one another; they never shun each other’s company; they never bring sorrow to each other’s hearts. Unembarrassed they visit the sick and assist the needy. They give alms without anxiety; they attend the Sacrifice without difficulty; they perform their daily exercises of piety without hindrance. They need not be furtive about making the Sign of the Cross, nor timorous in greeting the brethren, nor silent in asking a blessing of God. Psalms and hymns they sing to one another, striving to see which one of them will chant more beautifully the praises of their Lord. Hearing and seeing this, Christ rejoices. To such as these He gives His peace. Where there are two together, there also He is present; and where He is, there evil is not.[3]

Tertullian is speaking here about a marriage where the husband and wife are equal, and where mutuality, rather than patriarchy, is the prevailing dynamic. He also remarks that there is no cause for anxiety, secrecy, or fear in carrying out Christian duties when both partners are Christian.

Tertullian’s reason for his expressions of equality and harmony becomes apparent when we understand the situation he was addressing when he penned these words. The situation was high-status Christian women who could not find high-status Christian husbands.

Tertullian on Equality for Christian Men

In Tertullian’s time, men outnumbered women in the Roman Empire. This was due to the accepted practice of female infanticide, as well as the sometimes fatal consequences of childbirth and abortion on women of childbearing age. It has been estimated that in Italy, in Asia Minor, and in North Africa (where Tertullian lived), there were about 140 men for every 100 women.[4] But the situation was quite different within Christian communities.

Rodney Stark observes that “ancient sources and modern historians agree that primary conversion to Christianity was far more prevalent among females than males.”[5] (Primary conversion is where “the convert takes an active role in his or her conversion … Secondary conversion is more passive …”)[6] Women were actively converting to Christianity in greater numbers than men, and a fair percentage of these women came from the upper classes.[7] This created the problem of high-status young women with property not being able to find Christian husbands with similar wealth and status.

In Ad Uxorem Tertullian acknowledges that it is hard to find a rich man “in the house of God” and he posed the question, “What, then, are women to do?” He answers his question by encouraging the young women, those who wished to marry, to marry “beneath” them.

Tertullian understood that “it is irksome [for a woman] to wed a believer inferior to herself in estate.”[8] So he couched his advice in Ad Uxorem in words of equality to make it seem more appealing. His rhetoric about equality, mutuality, and harmony was designed to elevate the desirability of lower class, poorer Christian men, making them appear equal to the higher class, richer Christian women.

Callistus’ Concern with Preserving Clarissima

Callistus, the bishop of Rome (c. 217-222), faced the same problem as Tertullian. Callistus urged the high-status women in his congregation not to marry pagans, but to “marry” lower class free men or even their own Christians slaves. He promised that the church would sanction and bless these unions, even if the unions were technically illegal under Roman law.

Marrying a slave was illegal. Marrying a free man on a lower social rung, while not necessarily illegal, jeopardised the clārissima, or noble rank, of a high-status woman.

Peter Lampe explains:

A Christian woman who wished to retain the title “clarissima” had two options. She could marry a pagan of the same social status … Or she could live in concubinage with a socially inferior Christian without being legally married. The second option received the blessings of Callistus in Rome. In this way he prevented two things: mixed marriages with pagans and the social decline of Christian women. Both were in the interests of the [Christian] community.[9]

Commodus and MarciaAs an aside: Callistus had himself been a slave and was sentenced to hard labour in the tin mines of Sardinia. It was a high-status Christian woman, Marcia the concubine of the emperor Commodus, who persuaded Commodus to free Callistus and other Christians and allow them to return to Rome.[10]

Christian women of the upper classes could be influential within the church and could be influential in broader society on behalf of the church.

Paul’s Brief Expressions in the Household Codes

Tertullian closes book 2 of Ad Uxorum with this: “These, then, are the thoughts which the Apostle in that brief expression of his has left for our consideration.”[11] Tertullian is here alluding to the household codes in the letters to the Ephesians and/or to the Colossians (Eph 5:22-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1). Tertullian recognised that the household codes are brief and do not go into detail or cover every situation or contingency a couple in Roman times might experience.

Despite living in the patriarchal world of the Roman Empire, neither Tertullian nor Callistus regarded the statements contained in the New Testament household codes as comprehensive or prescriptive stipulations. Neither Tertullian nor Callistus expected high-status wives to be subordinate to, or unilaterally submissive to, their lower-status husbands.

Now, centuries later, too many Christians are quick to deem the parts of the household codes that refer to husbands and wives as definitive, blanket statements, without considering the original context or possible exceptions. Furthermore, they uphold and implement a patriarchal interpretation of the obligations of husbands and wives, without also upholding and implementing other aspects of the household codes, such as insisting (grown) children obey their father and mother, or insisting that slaves obey their male and female masters.[12] This approach is inconsistent, to say the least.


Paul’s statements in the household codes are brief. They are neither comprehensive nor definitive. There were already exceptions around the time they were first written, and there continues to be exceptions. As Tertullian indicated, Paul has left the “brief expression” contained in the household codes “for our consideration”.[13] We need to be sensible, gracious, and kind when considering and interpreting the household codes in our own time.

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I read two English translations of Ad Uxorem in preparing this post:
(1) Tertullian, “To his Wife”, translated by S. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 4, Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0404.htm>
(2) Tertullian, The Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, translated and annotated by William P. Le Saint, Ancient Christian Writers, vol. 13 (New York: Paulist Press, 1951)

[1] De Cultu Feminarum (“On the Apparel of Women”) 1.1.

[2] In book 1, Tertullian advises his young wife—who he refers to affectionately as “my best beloved fellow-servant of the Lord” (Thelwall translation) or “my dearest companion in the service to the Lord” (Le Saint translation)—to remain a celibate widow on the event of his death. In book 2, also addressed to his wife, he maintains that celibacy is the preferred state for Christians, but he stresses that, if they do marry, they must marry a fellow Christian.

[3] Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage (2.8), 35-36.

[4] J.C. Russell, Late Ancient and Medieval Population (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1958), quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 97.

[5] Stark, Rise of Christianity, 100.

[6] Stark, Rise of Christianity, 100.

[7] Peter Lampe notes that “we can name, before [the time of] Constantine, not even forty individual persons of the senatorial class as Christian; [but] two-thirds of these are women.” From Paul to Valentinus: Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries (Minneapolis MN: Fortress Press, 2003) 119.

[8] Tertullian, “To his Wife” 2.8.

[9] Lampe, From Paul to Valentinus, 121. See also Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries, Vol. 2, translated by James Moffatt (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1998), 239.

[10] Peter Brown mentions this story in The Body and Society: Men, Women & Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), which is then mentioned by Stark in Rise of Christianity, 99.

[11] Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage (2.8), 36.

[12] Most Christians today do not insist that slaves obey their masters. Rather, there are Christians working to free slaves from their masters (cf. Eph.  6:5; Col. 3:22). Furthermore, in many western countries, parents do not expect obedience from their grown children. Yet this was the general expectation in many ancient societies, as well as in some societies today. I believe Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20 are addressed to grown children (i.e. adults), not young children.

[13] Tertullian, Treatises on Marriage (2.8), 36.

Image Credits

1. Portrait of Tertullian (adapted from this image on Wikimedia.)
2. Illustration of a bronze medallion showing Commodus and Marcia, taken from History of Rome by Victor Duruy (Trench & Co, 1884).

Related Articles 

Wives, Mothers, and Female slaves in the NT Household Codes
Wifely Submission and Holy Kisses
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
The First Century Church and the Ministry of Women

Further Reading

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