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Changing Views on

Women, Marriage and Celibacy

from 303-400 A.D.

Joey Vanderhooft

“Jesus told them, The children of this world marry and are given in marriage; but those who are found worthy to attain that other world, and resurrection from the dead, take neither wife nor husband; mortal no longer, they will be as the angels in heaven are, children of God, now that the resurrection has given them birth.” [Luke 20:34-35]

“If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly towards his virgin, if his passions are strong [or if she is past her prime] and it has to be, let him do as he wishes:  let them marry – it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined in his heart to keep her as his virgin, he will do well. In sum:  he who marries his virgin does well, but he who refrains from marriage does better.” [1Cor 7:36-38]

Marriage and Celibacy

In the early Christian tradition, church fathers frequently interpreted [Luke 20:34-35] and several of Jesus Christ's other sayings as referring to the superiority of celibacy to the married state. In other words, they viewed marriage as an “earthbound” institution, a “part of the present age which [was] passing away, and a reminder of the Fall.” [Olsen, Glenn. “Progeny, Faithfulness, Sacred Bond: Marriage in the Age of Augustine” in Olsen, Glenn (ed.) Christian Marriage: A Historical Study, The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2001, p.101.] This is not to say that most or even a majority of early Catholic Church fathers and theologians held a derogatory view of marriage, despite frequently ranking it beneath celibacy in the hierarchy of states of life. In fact, no less a man than John Chrysostom wrote: “Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent” [Olsen p.103]. In keeping with this line of thinking all but one Early Church exegete interpreted [1Cor 7:36-38] as St. Paul's advice to a father wondering whether or not he should see his daughter married (and thus an implied approval of marriage).

Spiritual Marriage

The one exegete who did not adhere to this interpretation was St. Ephrem of Syria. He understood Paul's words as an endorsement of spiritual marriages (also known as (syneisaktism) [Leyerle, Blake. Theatrical Shows and Ascetic Lives: John Chrysostom’s Attack on Spiritual Marriage. University of California Press, Berkley, CA, 2001, p.80]. These were unconsummated marriages in which both parties were often (though not always) religious who had taken vows of celibacy. In short, a male monastic or clergyman and a “virgin”, the then contemporary term for a woman who had dedicated herself to religious life [Leyerle, p. 78.].

According to Leyerle, although ancient authors often used the terms “monk” and “minor cleric”, not all men in such arrangements were members of clerical orders. Thus, one should view such generalizations carefully. Nonetheless, as the Elvira canons, St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine address only men and women who have taken vows of celibacy, this paper will not concern itself with these rare cases of spiritual marriage among the laity.

Though almost alone among his Fourth Century contemporaries in endorsing such a phenomenon, St. Ephrem would not be the only church father to wrestle with three long-standing questions posed by the syneisaktism phenomenon:

In the patristic period and the early Middle Ages, these questions were particularly important in cases of individuals (male and female) who wished to enter the clergy or monastic life while married, or while their spouses still lived.

Though writing a little later than St. Ephrem, St. Augustine of Hippo's views of marriage were also fairly positive towards spiritual marriages. We will examine his opinions later in this paper.

Clerical Continence

In the next few centuries (indeed, until the First Lateran Council's imposition of clerical celibacy in 1143 A.D.), the debate over the legitimacy of clerical marriage (spiritual and consummated) periodically reared its head. In fact, this subject came up frequently in Iberian church history, and several early councils, most notably the Council of Elvira (c.303-309 A.D.) and the Second and Fourth Councils of Toledo forbade the practice of spiritual and consummated marriage among the clergy. Though harsher in tone than the writings of later church fathers, the surviving Elvira canons on celibacy, spiritual marriage and women reveal a distant similarity to the sentiments of later church authors such as St. John Chrysostom (c. 347-407AD), St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and the Third Council of Toledo's fifth canon (589 AD).

The Council of Elvira’s (in)famous 33rd canon was the first piece of church legislation to mention clerical celibacy and (by implication) prohibit spiritual marriage. The canon itself reads:

Bishops, presbyters, and deacons and all other clerics having a position in the ministry are ordered to abstain completely from their wives and not to have children. Whoever, in fact, does this, shall be expelled from the dignity of the clerical state. [Laeuchli, Samuel. Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1972, p.130.]
From the wording and tone of this canon, one can easily infer that the synod's bishops were most likely speaking to men who had entered into the clergy after marriage, as the canon itself does not specifically state when the men in question married their wives. Further, it makes no suggestion that the men married after joining the “clerical state”. On a surface reading, this canon is simply a clear and unequivocal prohibition against clerical marriage and an imposition of clerical celibacy. While this cannon could potentially be interpreted to allow for spiritual marriage (in which both partners “abstaine[d] completely” from each other), a closer reading reveals that this is not so. The cannon speaks in absolute, not conditional terms (i.e. "clergymen may marry as long as they vow to abstain from relations with their wives") and it also implicitly defines sexual relations as an inherent aspect of marriage: if not, why would the canon's authors have needed to demand celibacy in the first place? Thus, with these two sentences, Canon 33 not only subtly defines marriage as a committed heterosexual relationship entered into for the begetting of children, it officially opens the debate on clerical celibacy and spiritual marriage.

Attitudes towards women

Along with questions about the nature of marriage and celibacy brought up by Canon 33, the Council of Elvira also introduced several ideas about women into patristic Christianity. More than one fourth of the council's eighty canons are directed at women [Laeuchli, p.97]. While some of these canons address seemingly inexplicable (and even, by today's standards, benign) situations (Canon 35, for example, forbade women from frequenting cemeteries), several of them were directed at the sexual practices of women including female adultery (canons 8-10, 61-63), breaching of vows of virginity (canon 14), and women marrying pagans (canon 15).

The Elvira Council's focus on women is sometimes attributed to “hostility” from the male clergy, who after “[forcing] themselves… [into] a life without sexual intercourse” vented their frustrated, “repressed” sexual needs by punishing women in their churches for every conceivable transgression [Laeuchli, p.97-99]. This analysis is not only naive in its outmoded Freudian assertions, but it also amounts to a reduction of issues surrounding sex into nothing more than “a battleground over which various forces [contend] for ‘power’” [Olsen, Glenn. “Marriage in Barbarian Kingdom and Christian Court: Fifth through Eleventh Centuries” in Olsen, Glenn (ed.) Christian Marriage: A Historical Study, The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2001,  p.148].

Further, it displays a misunderstanding of the purpose behind Catholic local and Oecumenical councils. As harsh as many of these canons may seem to modern sensibilities, it must not be forgotten that the Elviran bishops, like Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine after them, were concerned with keeping their flock on the correct path to heaven and with keeping them from falling into mortal sin. Thus, their intention was not, conceivably, to dominate and abuse, but to teach the truth as they understood it.

Despite the grandiosity of his assertions, Laeuchli does touch upon a valid contention; when addressing women, the Elvira cannons primarily did so on matters of sexuality, vanity, infidelity and other moral weaknesses. A frequent emphasis on such concerns indicates the bishops’ belief that women were somehow morally weaker than men and, as such, in need of more supervision and attention. This is a view that Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine would repeat and (in some degree) expound upon in the later decades of the Fourth Century A.D.  Further, the Elviran concerns with female purity and marital fidelity would also influence both saints’ positions on syneisaktism.

Motivations for Spiritual Marriage

Monks and virgins entered spiritual marriages for a variety of reasons during the patristic period. It was often practised as an “ascetic [labour]” in much the same way some ascetics would fast for the entire forty day period of Lent with food and water within reach. In these cases, the chaste couple (or man and several women) would share a house and even a bed in order to prove they could successfully resist temptations to carnality [Leyerle, p.76]. Additionally, spiritual marriage may have been a “pragmatic” solution for people who wanted to live a monastic life in regions that lacked monastic communities [Leyerle, p.82].

Nevertheless, such marriages seem to have been contracted largely in order to provide for the virgin, as (baring the rare case of independent wealth) few social or financial provisions existed to support women who wished to pursue a call to celibacy [Olsen, p.102].

St. Chrysostom notes this motivation by mentioning that he understood the male religious’ claim to be helping the virgins “out of obedience to the one who commanded that we assist the poor”, he nonetheless states that the monks are assisting them at the expense of poor men who are “in a weaker state than women because of…advanced age, sickly condition, bodily mutilation [and] severe illness…” [Clark, Elizabeth A. Jerome, Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations, Quod regulares feminae viris cohabitare non debeant. 4:36-42,  p.183-184]. Moreover, and while aware of the couples’ claims to be practising “virgin continence”, he frequently condemned spiritual marriage on no uncertain terms, claiming that such arrangements had the appearance of scandal:

When the virgins [involved in spiritual marriage] invade the marketplace or when a conversation takes place about them at home, the people who discuss this strange coupling [when referring to the female companion] do not call her his mother…nor his sister…nor his spouse (for she does not dwell with him according to the law of marriage), nor by any other relation’s name on which we can agree and which is legitimate; instead they call her by a term which is shameful and ludicrous. For my part, I will not even suffer to pronounce it, so much do I despise and spurn the very name. Even the expression “living together” offends me. [Clark, p. 220]
As neither Leyerle nor Chrysostom see fit to define “law of marriage”, I submit that St. Chrysostom meant not only the lack of sexual consummation and procreation, but also the submission of the wife to the rule of her husband [Eph 5:22-23]. This assertion is in line with St. Augustine’s thinking on the subject of marriage (despite his slightly different conclusions in the area of spiritual marriages).

Chrysostom’s condemnation of Spiritual Marriage

St. Chrysostom was also wont to refer to the women in these relationships as prostitutes, despite the fact that virgins were even willing to submit themselves to gynaecological examinations to disprove any species of this contention [Leyerle, p.86]. But for him, their status as virgins did not revolve around the hymen's intactness (or lack thereof), but rather around a “public demeanour” that displayed “a commitment to seclusion and quiet contrition” [Ibid.] as opposed to strolling through public markets and “[babbling]…about unsuitable topics” with their men as prostitutes might [Clark, Adversus eos qui apud se habent subintroductas virgins II.56-57, p.198]. In short, Chrysostom was concerned that spiritual marriages not only shamed the Church by making their clergy and virgins appear to be living immorally, but that such arrangements actually encouraged immoral behaviour even if sex was not involved.

For him (and for St. Augustine in a slightly different context), Christian marriage provided the only acceptable channel for affection between men and women. In one of his best known homilies on marriage, for example, the saint instructed “young husband[s]” [Olsen, p.117] to speak tenderly and respectfully thus to their wives:

"I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in the life reserved for us …. nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you." [Catechism of the Catholic Church, 568]
With this understanding of the divine love and friendship Chrysostom sees in Christian marriage, his reservations about syneisaktism (which is outside the rather ambiguous term marital “law”) become clear. Chrysostom was concerned about the nature of the friendships monks and virgins formed in such ‘extra-marital’ unions as they had no context in Aristotelian influenced Rome and no discernible context in the Christianity of his day.

Because Aristotle maintained that friendship could only exist between equals [Leyerle, p.85] and St. Paul only mentioned heterosexual friendship existing in the confines of marriage, St. Chrysostom inevitably came to the conclusion that men and women in spiritual marriages were attempting to define “a new kind of friendship” based (ironically!) on [Luke 20:34-35], the very scripture often cited as a justification for a celibate clergy. In this "new order", women would have to “become male” in order to be friends with their spiritual spouses. They would then be freed from their “femaleness” (often viewed as synonymous with flesh in the Stoic duality of male/spirit and female/flesh) and become “manly” [Ibid, p. 85, 87-88].

Thus, spiritual marriage, in Chrysostom’s view, would succeed in subverting not only sexual difference, but potentially in undermining Christian marriage itself as an institution based on the "complementariness" of two different and physiologically compatible sexes. Similarly, St. Chrysostom worried about spiritual marriage encouraging effeminacy, weakness and softness among male clergy. In one of his more strident condemnations of the practice, he spoke of men who strut to the church door to open it for the women. They seem to him “as though transformed into eunuchs” who occupy themselves less with the mass and more with “waiting on the virgin's pleasure”, an attitude which brings “disgrace upon themselves” while breeding conceit and presumption in the hearts of their women [Clark, Adv. eos 10.32-47, p. 194.]

Interestingly, St. Chrysostom seems to directly tie the male clerics’ submissive behaviour not only with pride and corruption, but with avarice. On page 91, Blake Leyerle states that in portraying the monks as eunuchs, the saint also imagined them taking frequent “occasion to visit silversmiths, perfumers and linen makers, all purveyors of goods for the elite” when out running errands for their virgins. For him, it seems sexual sin and gender confusion lead to further disorder in the form of greed. This contention is interesting in light of Chrysostom’s concerns over the grave problems of confusing the married and single states (to be discussed shortly).

Along with his concerns over the problems spiritual marriage posed for clerical morality, friendship and sexual difference, St. Chrysostom was also troubled by spiritual marriage's potential to confuse the states of celibacy and marriage. In [1Cor 7:6-9], St. Paul states that individuals are either called to remain single or to marry:  the latter often to avoid obsession with sex and sexual thoughts, and is quite clear that both states are “special gift[s] from God”. The Apostle does not, however, maintain that certain aspects of one state are interchangeable with the aspects of the other, or that the two are more or less the same.

Armed with this understanding, St. Chrysostom admonished men in spiritual marriages not to forget their “call” to the life equal to that lived by the martyrs, as opposed to a life resembling that of King Solomon: whose 700 concubines and 300 wives made him a popular target for patristic and medieval condemnations of promiscuity and concupiscence [Clark, Adv. eos 13.12-14, p.202].  Likewise, he entreats virgins to remember their marriage vows to Christ, who is their true bridegroom and patron [Clark, Quod reg.. 3.44-53, p.216]. In Chrysostom’s mind, a virgin who accepted a monk or clergyman's patronage forfeited the patronage she had as Christ's bride. With these admonishments, he clearly spelled out the differences between married and single life.

In the latter case, monks eschewed acting as women's patrons in order to imitate the previous saints’ acetic examples: while virgins eschewed a man's patronage for that of Jesus Christ, whose marriage to them symbolized His union with the collective Church. In this context, St. Chrysostom saw any other attempt at leading a celibate life as both distracting and inherently sacrilegious.

St Augustine’s advocacy of Spiritual Marriage

In an interesting departure from his contemporary's thoughts about the dangers of spiritual marriage, St. Augustine of Hippo whole-heartedly supported the phenomenon: not because he necessarily disagreed with Chrysostom’s conclusions, but because he shared many of this saint's views about friendship and gender difference. For Augustine, spiritual marriage was superior to marriage involving sexual activity because the former tended to create bonds of “voluntary affection” between couples, which were ultimately stronger than those created by “carnal desire” as they involved the soul's desires rather than those of the body [Olsen, p.129].

Sexual Complementarity

While St. Chrysostom would never have agreed with such an endorsement of an arrangement he considered wholly evil, he would likely have embraced the rest of St. Augustine’s views on consummated marriage, as St. Augustine upheld a position on sexual complementariness and differentiation similar to his own. For St. Augustine, Adam and Eve (and the two sexes after them) were created “for procreation” and, as a part of God's design before humanity's Fall. Therefore, sex within marriage was not only positive; it was also to be free from submission and domination, for God first created Adam and Eve as equal partners. Paulinus of Nola, himself living in a spiritual marriage with his wife Therasia, also upheld this view.

This is not to say that St. Augustine did not believe in a gender hierarchy. On the contrary, he like St. Chrysostom believed that the sexes were different and distinct, and that wives should obey their husbands in all matters and situations outside the marriage bed. In "Against Faustus the Manichee", (written presumably as an answer to the Manichean’s largely anti-marriage and anti-body views) Augustine stated that “…every one knows that the duty of a wife is to obey her husband. But in reverence to the body, we are told by the apostle [St. Paul] that the wife has power over her husband's body, as he has over hers; so that, while in all other social matters the wife ought to obey her husband, in this one matter of their bodily connection as man and wife their power over one another is mutual.”

This was not a justification for men to abuse women outside the bedroom, however. On the contrary, Augustine often described wives as “confidants and counsellors” despite the existence of a gender hierarchy [Olsen, p.123]. He believed that this distinction and this need for wifely obedience stemmed from woman's status as physically and morally weaker beings than men: in the same way the weaker Eve, and not Adam, had fallen “prey to Lucifer's deception” [Olsen, p.123].

Given his statements on this matter in his work "The Good of Marriage": and his apparent lack of any writings on male-female friendship outside the marriage bond, St. Augustine implicitly agreed with St. Chrysostom that Christian marriage - and the male leadership such an arrangement entailed - defined and justified friendship betweenn the sexes.

Clerical Marriage

Though he favoured spiritual marriage, St. Augustine certainly was not an advocate for clerical marriage. Though he speaks poignantly about marital love and the supremacy of affection over carnal desire, St. Augustine was no longer a Manichee when he wrote these sermons. Hence, he did not outlaw physical relations from marriage. They were a part of this calling: and indeed a worthy part, just not an end in and of themselves. Likewise, St. Augustine did not recommend that his own clergy enter into such arrangements, though he operated under often less than ideal circumstances in Africa that sometimes forced him to accept married priests.

Despite “his strictness on himself and his clergy”, St. Augustine was not an “alarmist” when it came to sex among the clergy. Indeed, he did not often have the luxury to be so:

"The Catholic Church in Africa was a beleaguered institution that had to make do with whatever clergy it could get. If a married man suddenly found himself ordained, then God [presumably in St. Augustine’s mind] would give him the grace needed to give up sleeping with his wife. Indeed, St. Augustine even treated a young cleric accused of having seduced a nun at her parent's house with surprising clemency, stating that the girl could have simply climbed into his bed in search of sympathy after a disagreement with her parents without impropriety necessarily having occurred. Interestingly, he later had to admit that the same young cleric was indeed guilty of the charge."
[Brown, Peter in "The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity", p.397]
Like St. Chrysostom, then, St. Augustine upheld a distinction between married and celibate life that prohibited traits from one (i.e. the friendship between married spouses) from intermixing with the separate circumstances of the other .

This is not to suggest that St. Augustine wanted for female friends or thought women incapable of intellectual companionship. Though he was circumspect in his face-to-face associations with women after his entrance into the clergy, Augustine never treated women as anything but equals in his correspondence with them: even when discussing theology.

Despite Elvira and St. Chrysostom and St. Augustine’s writings on the subject, the question of clerical marriage continued to haunt Western Christianity: surfacing yet again in the Third Council of Toledo's fifth canon which strictly prohibited “bishops, presbyters and deacons coming out of the [Arian] heresy” from “copulating with their wives out of carnal desire” [David Nirenberg, trans. “The Visigothic Conversion to Catholicism” in Constable, Olivia Remie (ed.), Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1997, p.15].

The Toledo council called upon “prior canons” (presumably from the Council of Elvira as well as the First Council of Toledo) to justify this order. In line with St. Chrysostom’s concerns of a century earlier, this time the motive for enforcing celibacy among the clergy appeared to be an avoidance of scandal. "If against ancient command [the clerics] have had consort in their cells with women who could provoke a suspicion of infamy, let them be punished canonically" and the women "sold [into slavery]" by the bishop [Ibid.].

Once again, the church was attempting to clearly define the difference between the celibate and married states, and once again such arguments (like those given at Elvira over three centuries ago) inherently forbade spiritual marriage while focusing on the penchant for female sexual weakness to tempt good men to sin and uncleanliness.

Sex, love and friendship

The patristic and early Medieval Catholic tradition was fraught by questions about sex's proper place in life. This concern revealed itself in a more than three centuries long struggle not only to define marriage and celibacy as two different states of grace, but to define the nature of gender difference and heterosexual friendship that influenced and underpinned both callings. Through the Council of Elvira, the Third Council of Toledo, and the writings of Sts. Chrysostom and Augustine, patristic and early medieval Catholics sought to define marriage as a heterosexual friendship with carnal elements geared towards the begetting of children, the harnessing of concupiscence and the restoration of the pre-Edenic status of both sexes as equal in maters of love but unequal in matters of moral strength. In the same vein, they also sought to define celibacy as a marriage to Christ to the exclusion of all other people, even fellow celibates. Despite their many (and successful) attempts to clarify and enforce these doctrines, issues of clerical celibacy, spiritual marriage and the role of women in the church continued to trouble Catholicism until the First Lateran Council and beyond.


  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, #568.
  2. Clark, Elizabeth A. Jerome.

  3. "Chrysostom, and Friends: Essays and Translations."
        New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1979, p 183-184, 194, 198, 202, 216 & 220.
  4. Laeuchli, Samuel.

  5. "Power and Sexuality: The Emergence of Canon Law at the Synod of Elvira"
        Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1972, p 97-99 & 130.
  6. David Nirenberg, trans.

  7. “The Visigothic Conversion to Catholicism”
        in Constable, Olivia Remie (ed.),
    Medieval Iberia: Readings from Christian, Muslim and Jewish Sources,
            University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1997, p 15.
  8. Olsen, Glenn

  9. "Christian Marriage: A Historical Study" (ed),
        The Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, NY, 2001.
    “Progeny, Faithfulness, Sacred Bond: Marriage in the Age of Augustine”,
        p 101, 103, 117, 123 & 129.
    “Marriage in Barbarian Kingdom and Christian Court”, p 148.

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