Choosing the Right Spouse in Geneva

Courtship

This post is a revision of a post titled “Courtship in Geneva” based on John Witte Jr and Robert Kingdon’s book Sex, Marriage and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.  

Marriage was done differently 500 years ago than it is today. Today many, if not most marriages are arranged by the two parties with little consideration of what their parents or other adults might think of the proposed spouse. Often the path that leads to marriage is taken by the two parties alone. There is very little parental instruction to the young people on how to proceed. From the youngest years dating dominates our interaction with the opposite sex and usually our closest advisers are peers. This usually means that the choice of a marriage partner is driven by a fluttering heart or an excited body instead of reason, discretion, and prudence.

But it has not always been so.  In John Calvin’s time romantic interaction with the opposite sex was supposed to be reserved for when a person could physically and financially marry. When a couple began to seriously consider marriage they were usually overseen by their parents or guardians. In the third chapter of Witte and Kingdon’s book they explore this process of courtship in Geneva.

In Geneva, courtship did not take an exact shape. Calvin gave a few courtship rules such as no sexy dressing, unsupervised trips, overnight stays, dancing, “ribald letters,” and premarital sex. But as to the exact way a courtship worked out there were no strict rules. The parents were involved. There had to be free consent of both parties. There parties were to be honest about their financial state. But the details of courtship were a matter of wisdom. “While the Bible said a great deal about the sins of fornication, it said little about the ethics of courtship.” Since Scripture is largely silent on the specifics of courtship, so was Calvin. This is an important point for modern courtship advocates. I believe courtship is the model most rooted in Scriptural principles. There are general guidelines, which should govern courtship. However, the specifics should be left up to the parents, couple, and church. Those specifics will flex from family to family, community to community, and age to age. To say, “This is how courtship must be done” is to go further than Scripture.

While how a couple courted was left vague, who they courted was not. There were two issues. First, who could they legally and biblically marry. There were “conditions, experiences, or relationships past or present [that] disqualified [certain parties] from courtship and marriage.” It was forbidden for certain people to marry certain other people and in some cases people could not get married at all. This idea is explored in later chapters of the book.

Second, a potential spouse’s moral, physical, and socio-economic status were to be evaluated.  Christians were expected to think through these factors before pursuing marriage. A potential spouse’s moral character was most important when determining whether or not to marry. A person with moral failings, such as laziness, a bad reputation, or sexual immorality should not be pursued. Someone of a different class should not be pursued either. An educated man should not pursue an uneducated woman. A rich woman should not consent to marry a poor man. The elders at Geneva would not have necessarily forbidden such a marriage, but they would have strongly counselled against it. They felt marrying in the same class would give the couple the greatest chance of success. Reformers were especially wary of young men marrying rich widows. All of this backs up what Steven Ozment says about the Reformation approach to marriage.

While moral and class issues played a large role in courtship, Calvin did not ignore the physical side of it either.

Physical beauty was thus properly part of the natural calculus of courtship and marriage, Calvin believed. It was not ‘wrong for women to look at men.” Nor was it ‘ wrong for men to regard beauty in their choice of wives’…It was thus essential to Calvin that couples spend some time together before considering marriage…If there was no natural and mutual attraction, there was no use for a couple to go forward toward marriage. Accordingly, Calvin opposed the late medieval tradition of arranged or child marriages, sight unseen.

The authors conclude the chapter with this,

A strong pro-marriage ethic and culture was the new norm of Reformation Geneva…One key to a strong marriage, Calvin insisted, was picking the right mate-a person of ample piety, modesty, and virtue especially, of comparable social, economic, and educational status as well. A mate’s physical beauty could play a part…but spiritual beauty was the salient issue.

There is one funny anecdote in the chapter. Calvin was a bachelor for quite some time. In fact, he had all but given up getting married when someone suggested an Anabaptist widow named Idellette, whom he eventually married. Calvin’s good friend Farel wrote to him saying that she was an excellent wife, filled with all godly virtue and to his surprise she was pretty as well. Was Farel surprised that such a godly woman could be so pretty? Or was he surprised that a man like Calvin could land such a pretty woman? I am betting on the latter, but unfortunately we do not know.

A Husband Must Maintain His Authority

Family 1

In my last post from William Gouge I quoted him on how a husband’s love for his wife is the foundation for all his duties. We are not surprised to find this emphasis in Gouge. Modern evangelical husbands are frequently exhorted to love their wives, which of course is good and right. However, Gouge’s next section might come as a bit of a surprise. If you remember the title of this chapter is, “A Husband’s Affectionate Authority over His Wife.” The affection part we get. The authority over part we have a harder time with. But for Gouge love is expressed through a husband’s authority. A husband cannot properly love his wife if he is not maintaining and exercising authority.

All the branches which grow out of this root of love as they cover the husband’s duties, may be drawn to two heads

  1. A wise maintaining of his authority.
  2. A right managing of the same.

That these two are branches of a husband’s love, is evident by the place in which God has set him, which is a place of authority; for the best good that any can do, are those which are done in his own proper  position, and by virtue of it.  If then a husband relinquishes his authority, he takes away his ability to do that good, and show those fruits of love which he otherwise might. If he abuses his authority, he turns the edge and point of his sword in the wrong direction. Instead of holding it over his wife for her protection, he stabs her body to her destruction, and so show by it more hatred than love.

We all get Gouge’s last two sentences. We frequently hear about how husbands are not to use their authority to abuse their wives. This was a problem in Gouge’s day as well and he rebukes it soundly throughout the book.  Continue reading

A Husband’s Love for His Wife in All Things

husbands

Can love and authority be combined? For many today the answer is no. Authority is about power and control, not love. Love is about giving people the freedom to do what they want and be who they want to be. But in Scripture authority and love are not enemies. William Gouge, in the first chapter of his book where he addresses husbands, does a wonderful job of weaving together love and authority.  In this post I want to look at his description of a husband’s love for his wife. He begins the chapter by explaining that because the husband has authority he is more accountable.

As a wife is to know her duty, so the husband much more his…The higher his position the more knowledge he ought to have in how to walk worthy of it. Neglect of duty in him is more dishonorable to God, because by virtue of his position he is “the image and glory of God” (I Cor. 11:7), and more destructive not only to his wife, but also to the whole family because of that power and authority he has.

A basic principle of Scripture is that authority brings greater responsibility and therefore greater judgment should it be misused. But the assumption here is that there is such a thing as authority. Without authority there cannot be greater responsibility. Gouge then moves to the principle command to husbands, that of love.

The head of the rest [of his duties], love, is plainly set down and alone mentioned in this [Ephesians 5:25] and many other places in Scripture, whereby it is evident that all other duties are included under it…in this place love  is expressed four times beside that it is implied under many other terms and phrases. Whoever therefore takes a wife, must…love her. Many good reasons for this may be given:

  1. Because no duty on the husband’s part can be rightly performed except it be seasoned by love. The apostle exhorts all Christians to do all things in love (I Cor. 16:14, much more ought husbands. Though in position they are above their wives, love may not be forgotten.
  2. Because of all persons on earth a wife is the most proper object of love. Neither friend, nor child, nor parent ought to be so loved as his wife. She is termed, “the wife of thy bosom” (Deut 13:6), to show that she ought to be as his heart in his bosom.
  3. Because his high position and power of authority may soon puff him up, and make him abuse his wife and trample her under his feet, if an entire love of her is not planted in his heart. To keep him from abusing his authority, love is so much pressed upon him.
  4. Because wives through weakness of their sex (for they are the weaker vessels) are much more prone to provoke their husbands. So as if love is not ruling the husband there is likely to be but little peace between husband and wife. Love covers a multitude of imperfections.
  5. Because as Christ by showing first His love stirs up the church to love Him, so a husband by loving his wife should stir up her to love in return.

Here are a few other quotes from this section on a husband loving his wife.

Their position is a position of authority, which without love will soon turn into tyranny. Their responsibility is especially and above all, to seek the good of their wives. Because wives are the most important and greatest responsibility of husbands, so their most vigorous and greatest care must be for them.

This affection of love is a distinct duty in itself, especially belonging to the husband, and also a common condition which must be joined to every other duty of a husband, to season and sweeten them. His look, his speech, his conduct, and all his actions, in which he has to do with his wife, must be seasoned with love. Love must show itself in his commandments, in his reproofs, in his instructions, in his admonitions, in his authority, in his familiarity, when they are alone together, when they are in company before others, in civil affairs, in religious matters, at all times, in all things.

Neither is it sufficient for a husband to not hate his wife for even the lack of love, though it be only the absence of good is a great vice and contrary also to the duty of love.

For how can he who does not love his wife (whom God has given to him as a token of His favor, and as a help meet for him, to be in his bosom and ever in his sight, even to be no longer two, but one flesh), love God whom he has not seen (I John 4:20)? If any many says he loves God and hates his wife, he is a liar.

In short a man must love his wife.  Without love for his wife all deeds will rot. Without love his kisses are hypocrisy. What does Gouge mean by love? A good window into his meaning is the title of this chapter, “A Husband’s Affectionate Authority over His Wife.” I am not sure if the chapter titles are original, but it hits the bulls-eye.  Love is affection for your wife that is like yeast, which works its way through the entire relationship.  Every interaction and deed is flavored with love. Gouge compares it to salt, which makes all things taste good.

But can love coexist with power and authority? You will notice that Gouge frequently refers to the husband’s authority throughout the post.  To our modern ears this will sound strange. Authority and tyranny are virtual synonyms that are opposed by love and freedom. However, in our next post Gouge will not only say love and authority go together, but he will argue that to love his wife a husband must exercise his authority. His love does not result in him stepping back and letting his household go. Rather the fruit of love is the wise exercise of his authority.

How a Husband Loses His Authority

drunkardAfter William Gouge finishes explaining how a husband should exercise his authority, he lists the different ways a man loses his authority. Gouge here means his functional authority. The husband still has official authority as the head of his home, but people do not listen to him and in extreme cases there can be divorce where the husband loses his primary authority. He lists three different ways husbands can lose authority: undisciplined living, cruelty/tyranny, and refusing to lead the family but allowing them freedom to do as they please.

[Men] who by their irreverence, partying, drunkenness, immorality, failure to take life seriously, wasting money, and other dishonorable conduct, make themselves contemptible, and so lose their authority. Though a wife should not take these occasions to despise her husband, yet it is a just judgment on him to be despised, seeing he makes himself contemptible.

A man who lacks discipline and self-control loses his authority and deserves contempt.

Contrary also to the directions I just gave [how to wisely exercise authority] is the stern, rough, and cruel conduct of husbands, who by violence and tyranny go about to maintain their authority. Force may indeed cause fear, but the fear of slaves, such a fear produces more hatred than love, causes more inward contempt than outward respect.

A husband who leads with tyranny and violence loses the heart of his household. A wife or children may follow, but it is only to prevent themselves harm, not out of love or respect for the husband.

And contrary [to wise governing] is their groveling disposition, who against their own judgment yield to their wife’s inclination in such things as are unlawful; they will lose their authority rather than make their wife unhappy…some husbands allow this by reason of their fearful and foolish disposition, lacking courage and wisdom to maintain the honor of their positions against the pride of their wives. Others upon a subtle, covetous, wicked mind, that by the means of their wives there may be more freedom for receiving bribes. Among these I may reckon those who against their own mind, to satisfy their wife’s mind, allow both their wife and children to follow the latest fashion, to dress themselves in a way inappropriate to their positions, to frequently be with foolish friends, and so on…Husbands may listen to their wives’ suggesting good things, but they may not obey them in evil things.

Husbands lose their authority when they refuse to stand up to their wives or when they believe one path is correct, but instead go with what their wife says. When they flatter their wives and bend to all their wishes they lose authority. They can do this through cowardice or through manipulation (“receiving bribes”).

Often we husbands get irritated when we are not being heard and our authority is not honored. This is good. A husband and father should expect to be heard. But when this happens the first place we should look is our own lives. Are we lazy and undisciplined ? Do we expect our wife and children to work hard, but we are soft? Are we mean and cruel? Do we rule by threats, yelling, and violence? Finally, can we say no to our wives? Can we go against their will and bear their anger when necessary? If not we lose authority. It is hard to respect a man with no backbone.

Divorce and Reconciliation During the Reformation

Divorce Cake.jpg

Here is a quote on how marriage and divorce was handled in Geneva from Kingdon and Witte’s book. 

A marriage, once properly contracted, consecrated, and celebrated was presumed permanent. The married couple was expected to maintain a common home. Both parties could be called to account for privately separating-particularly if there was suspicion of adultery, harlotry, concubinage, or sodomy. Couples who ‘wrangled and disputed with each other’ were to be admonished by the Consistory to ‘live in peace and unity’-with severe cases of discord reported to the congregation for popular reproof or to the Council for criminal punishment. Husbands were forbidden to ‘ill treat,’ ‘beat,’ or ‘torment’ their wives, and were subject to severe criminal if they persisted. These sanctions became increasingly severe in later years as the Consistory and Council sought to clamp down on domestic abuse. The [Marriage] Ordinance made no provision, even in extreme cases, for the traditional halfway remedy of separation (without divorce). An ethic of perpetual reconciliation of husband and wife coursed through the Ordinance, with ministers, magistrates, and members of the broader community all called to foster this end.

What is meant here is not that the rulers would allow a wife to stay in a physically dangerous situation. What he means by “separation” is the freedom to live apart from one another without ever getting a divorce. This was common in the Middle Ages because the Roman Catholic church believed divorce could not be granted for any reason. Therefore husbands and wives often separated without ever divorcing. Protestant leaders would remove a woman from a dangerous situation, but this was not a permanent solution, unless it led to divorce. In every case, the assumption was the parties would either reconcile or divorce.  Continue reading

The Husband’s Neutered Authority

William_GougeWilliam Gouge’s Domestic Duties, reprinted in three volumes by Reformation Heritage Books and published in 1622, is good antidote to much modern thinking on marriage, husbands, and wives, in particularly “conservative” teaching on marriage.  He does not sound like modern complementarians, despite the fact that complementarians claim they are the traditionalists, holding the line against the liberal egalitarians. For example he has a chapter titled, “A Wife’s Active Obedience to Her Husband.” (The chapter titles might not be original, but they do accurately summarize the content of each chapter.) Hard to see something like showing up in modern books, even by conservatives, on marriage. He also has two chapters on the wife not going against her husband’s will. Gouge is balanced and does not allow for the husband to sin as you will read below. But he also holds to the Biblical view of the husband’s authority and wife’s obedience far better than most conservatives do today. Here is an example from the chapter titled, “A Husband’s Patient Correcting of His Wife,” which is from the 2nd volume, Building a Godly Home; A Holy Vision for a Happy Marriage. Bold is mine.

The authority and responsibility which God has given to a husband over his wife require that when good and right reason presents itself, he should reprove her. This is a special means to draw her from those sins in which otherwise she might live and lie, yes, and die also; and so live, lie, and die under God’s wrath. To free a wife out of this misery and wretchedness is as great a sign of love, as to pull her out of the water when she is in danger of drowning, or out of the fire when she i sin danger of burning…

Against this is the groveling and fearful mind of many husbands who hate to offend, and (as they think) to provoke their wives; and for this reason choose to let them continue in sin rather than tell them of it. They both dishonor their position and the image of God, which by virtue of their position they carry, and also in effect and in reality hate their wives. This the law implies, where it says, “Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thine heart: thou shalt in any wise rebuke thy neighbor, and not suffer sin upon him” (Lev. 19:17).

If husbands love their wives, they will reprove them.  Weak and fearful husbands who refuse to correct their wives hate them. Gouge then goes to explain how a husband should rebuke his wife. He is discussing the manner of rebuke.

That a husband may clearly show that his reproving his wife is indeed a fruit of love, he must have special care to sweeten it, especially with gentleness...to sweeten reproof with gentleness…the matter of reproof must be just…a trespass [sin]therefore must go before reproof. Where no trespass is, there reproof is unjust…Fairness further requires that the matter for which a husband reproves his wife be important, namely for some fault that is dangerous to her soul, hurtful to their estate [property, house, etc.], contagious by reason of bad example to children and others in the family, but most of all a sin against God which provokes His wrath.

For a reproof to be righteous it must address sin, must be important, and must be done with gentleness. Gouge goes on to warn husbands against three other vices when reproving, naive gullibility, undue suspicion, and hasty reproof.

Gullibility is when belief is given to every groundless report, and as a result blame is laid upon the wife…by this it often comes to pass that they she is wrongfully and unjustly blamed…The same may be said of causeless suspicion..suspicion to the mind is as colored glasses to the eye…suspicion will make a man pervert everything that his wife does, and blame her many times for praiseworthy things….If two these two vices he adds rashness and haste in reproving, and makes every small and insignificant matter which any way he dislikes, matter of reproof, does he not proclaim to all that shall know it that he loves chiding more than the loves his wife?

Gouge says more, which I will post in the future, but that is enough for now. A couple of thoughts on this. Gouge is not arguing that a husband should correct his wife because they are both Christians, though that is part of it. He is saying a husband should correct his wife because he has authority over her. He is the leader, ruler, authority in his house and this includes his wife, though she is not to be treated like a servant or a child. Throughout the book, Gouge’s exhortations are careful, wise, balanced, and Biblical. Yet would anything like this get published today by mainstream complementarians? Of course we have books encouraging husbands to be gentle and kind. But can you imagine a contemporary evangelical book with a chapter specifically on how husbands should correct their wives or how wives should actively seek to obey their husbands? Why is that?

The answer is not simple, but one of the roots is the functional rejection of the husband as having real authority over his wife. Most complementarians neuter the husband’s authority. The husband is the one who breaks a tie should there be a disagreement. That is about it. He does not command his household after him. He certainly does not rebuke his wife. But this approach is weak, unbiblical, and not what our fathers in the faith taught.  A good corrective to this would be a plain reading of the Bible, but perhaps more importantly, since our modern blinders are so thick, a plain reading of our forefathers, such as Gouge, Calvin, and others. Even if a complementarian ends up disagreeing with them, at least they will know they are not standing in the long Christian tradition of teaching on husbands and wives, marriage, and men and women.

Engagement, Marriage, and Consent in Calvin’s Geneva

Wedding Ring

This is part of a continuing series on John Witte and Robert Kingdon’s excellent book: Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva.

Coerced marriages were a problem in Geneva. Men would try to get women to marry them through various deceitful methods. The reasons were the same reason men lie to women today: sex and money with occasional family connection thrown in. The laws in Geneva were designed to make sure both parties consented freely to the marriage. Here were the rules Geneva set down to make sure engagements were not coerced.

First, all engagements were to be initiated by a “sober proposal” from the man in front of at least two witnesses of “good reputation.” “Engagements made in secret, qualified with onerous conditions, or procured by coercion were automatically annulled.” “Engagements procured through trickery, ‘surprise,’ or made frivolously, as when merely touching glasses when drinking together, could be annulled on petition by either party.” They took this so seriously that if a man promised to rescue a woman from a bad situation if she married him, such as an abusive father or being in Roman Catholic city,  she could have that promise annulled because it was coerced. Continue reading