Learning to thrive in the new life Jesus offers us – 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage

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 been acquainted with this shocking, and therefore memorable, remark for some time; but more recently I’ve read several truly wonderful statements, written by Tertullian, about equality in marriage.

This is what he 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. He was speaking about the situation of high status Christian women who could not find high status Christian husbands.

Equality for Christian Men

In Tertullian’s time, men vastly outnumbered women in the Roman Empire. This was due to the accepted, and not uncommon, practice of female infanticide, as well as the frequently fatal consequences of abortion and childbirth 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] Plenty of women were actively converting to Christianity, and plenty of women were actively involved in early congregations. 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—that is, those who wish 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 sound 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 at some point had been sentenced to hard labour in the tin mines of Sardinia. It was a high status Christian woman, the emperor Commodus’ concubine Marcia, 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 very influential within the church, and in broader society on behalf of the church. Sometimes they even persuaded their partners to convert to Christianity.

Illustration is of a bronze medallion showing Commodus and Marcia, taken from History of Rome by Victor Duruy (Trench & Co, 1884).


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] He is 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 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 wise, gracious and generous, when considering and interpreting the household codes in our own time.


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 some societies today. I believe Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:20 are addressed to grown children (i.e. adults).

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

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?

Posted September 4th, 2016 . Categories/Tags: Equality and Gender Issues, Equality in Marriage, Greco-Roman Culture, , ,

Unkind, judgemental, bizarre, and off-topic comments will be deleted.

11 comments on “Tertullian on Equality and Mutuality in Marriage

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

    bless you

    • Marg says:

      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 hope to write on Chrysostom soon.

  2. Lynn says:

    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.

    • Marg says:

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

    • Jennifer says:

      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. 🙂

      • Jennifer says:

        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.

        • Marg says:

          Polygamy was illegal under Roman law. Most husbands in the Roman Empire had only one wife, whether legal or not. On the other hand they could have mistresses as well as either a legal wife or a concubine.

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

          Multiple wives, let alone bigamy, is practically unheard of in Roman times.

  3. Rob Dixon says:

    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?

    • Marg says:

      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?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2009–2017   Margaret Mowczko | Powered by WordPress