Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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 Christian 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. And thankfully most Christians recognise that slavery is abhorrent. Their approach to Paul’s household codes is inconsistent, to say the least.[12]

Conclusion

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 continue 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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Footnotes

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

Hardest NT Essay Question Ever! Can You Answer It?

11 thoughts on “Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage

  1. Thanks Marg!
    Very interesting history and social background to the household codes.

    bless you

    1. Thanks Barb.

      I was surprised to read Tertullian’s beautiful words, and how he seems to leave the interpretation of Paul’s words up to us (i.e. “for our consideration”).

      I have a few articles that feature Chrysostom, but most are about ministry rather than marriage. Chrysostom was one of the good guys, but like most men of his time, he believed men were superior to women. And this belief is expressed in some of his sermons. https://margmowczko.com/tag/chrysostom/

  2. Fascinating! Of course, women outnumber men in the church even today, making it difficult to avoid marriage to an unbeliever. Possibly the answer to the problem comes right from Bishop Callistos – encourage Christian women to marry or establish a kind of church-sanctioned concubinage with Christian men who might not legally have the ability to marry in the USA at all – i.e. undocumented immigrants. In our own society, undocumented immigrants have great difficulty obtaining Green cards, and marriage to an American citizen is probably a legal gray area. However, the Christian Post reported that most undocumented immigrants are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean countries – 83% Christians according to Pew Research Center.

    1. Hi Lynn, I’m Australian, so the situation you mention is foreign to me.

    2. Lynn (and Marg):

      I’m in the U.S., older and single (50-something). The current gender imbalance in churches occurred to me, too, as I read Marg’s article here.

      Knowing that there is a dearth of women in foreign countries seems like the ideal balance/complement until you learn how the women are expected to behave. I’m not confident in the ability of immigrant males to treat us as equals. The thought didn’t occur to me until I read an article on the lack of women in China and India due to selective abortions among other things. When I read that these young, capable men (in India at least) were sad that they “had to” rely on their aging mother to cook, clean and generally care for them and otherwise see to their household needs, I was sad.

      We need more males to go into the mission field, which apparently largely consists of females, to introduce them to Christ who honored his mother.

      “Concubinage” is a rather unsettling alternative to lifelong singleness. Maybe you’d care to elaborate. 🙂

      1. I have also thought that, since concubinage often means becoming one of multiple wives, wouldn’t it be more practical for the men (who are greater in number) to be one of multiple husband’s? I know it sounds radical, but it makes more practical sense.

        1. Multiple wives, let alone bigamy, was rare in Roman times.

          Polygamy was illegal under Roman law. Most husbands in the Roman Empire had only one legal wife or one concubine. On the other hand, married men could have mistresses. Concubines weren’t mistresses, but they had less legal rights than legal wives.

          For Christians, polygamy was the antithesis of the one-flesh union that marriage was meant to symbolise.

  3. As someone who has spent the last several years challenging Tertullian, I’m glad to read this. Thanks for posting!

    Interesting note about the class distinctions. Does it in any way cheapen Tertullian’s words to know that he’s couching (or spinning?!?) his phrasing to alleviate this social dynamic? Any thoughts?

    1. Hi Rob,

      I’m fairly certain there is spin in his descriptions of equality and mutuality in marriage, his objective being to encourage high status women to marry beneath them if need be.

      I’m also fairly certain there is spin in his “devil’s gateway” diatribe, his objective being to encourage wealthy women to dress with less opulence.

      Nevertheless, I think Tertullian’s comment that the Apostle’s words are brief and are left for our consideration (interpretation?) is frank and honest.

      As I said, I don’t think Tertullian or Callistus expected high status women to be unilaterally submissive to low status husbands. And what do we do with the NT household codes when the “wife” is also the master, and her “husband” is her slave?

  4. Just found this site, and have really enjoyed reading and thinking through the posts here. The (beautiful!) quote by Tertullian here did surprise me a bit, as I’ve heard a lot more of the…”other” sorts of quotes from him. I was a bit surprised at the conclusion, though; from my own studies, it seems to be pretty consistent throughout church history that the husband was counted as head of the wife. And, in its best forms, that this diversity in roles led to a unity of love, in representing the diversity/unity between Christ and his church.

    In fact, Tertullian actually seems to hold to this himself, at least in Against Marcion:

    “Now, when I find to what God belong these precepts, whether in their germ or their development, I have no difficulty in knowing to whom the apostle also belongs. But he declares that ‘wives ought to be in subjection to their husbands:’ what reason does he give for this? ‘Because,’ says he, ‘the husband is the head of the wife.’ Pray tell me, Marcion, does your god build up the authority of his law on the work of the Creator? This, however, is a comparative trifle; for he actually derives from the same source the condition of his Christ and his Church; for he says: ‘even as Christ is the head of the Church;’ and again, in like manner: ‘He who loves his wife, loves his own flesh, even as Christ loved the Church.” Tertullian Against Marcion, Ch XVIII) (c. A.D. 200). (from https://www.scripturecatholic.com/husband-as-head-of-the-family/)

    (In context, Tertullian is chiding Marcion the heretic for taking his “pruning-knife” even to prepositions of the book of Ephesians, not to mention entire “pages” of the Bible, to suit it for his own liking.)

    In this way, Tertullian, even with his quite off-putting sayings, does seem to strike a good and biblical balance between authority/submission in marriage, along with mutual equality in essence before God as man and woman. Though, maybe you know, did he ever renounce this view of headship/submission later on, closer to becoming a Montanist?

    1. Hi Zack,

      Authority and power in the Greco-Roman household, and in broader Greco-Roman society, was based on social status and linked to levels of wealth. With this in mind, Tertullian notes that a wife with a higher status (and more money) than her husband is not subordinate to her husband. So I think my conclusion is reasonable: “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.”

      Importantly, one of Paul’s aims in his household codes In Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3 was to temper the power of the powerful, not endorse or encourage it. I’ve written about this here: https://margmowczko.com/household-codes-power-not-gender/

      Paul’s precise sense of kephalē (“head”) in Ephesians 5:23 is debated, but it is clear that it is part of a head-body metaphor signifying unity. And note that Paul never tells husbands that they have authority or that they are required to lead. Rather, he uses the word “love” 6 times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33. Husbands are to love and nurture and give themselves up for their wives. I have several articles on Ephesians 5:22-33 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/equality-and-gender-issues/ephesians-5/

      Note also that kephalē was not a usual metaphor for a person in authority in Koine Greek. I have a few articles that look at Paul’s use of kephalē: https://margmowczko.com/tag/kephale/

      You may be interested in this article that looks at John Paul II’s apostolic letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem (“Dignity of Women”). Here he discusses the household codes and mutual submission in marriage: https://margmowczko.com/catholic-church-mutual-submission-marriage/

      The quotation you provided can be read in context here:
      https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/03125.htm

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