Volume III - Church History

Tenth Century

Church and State

The tenth century saw the increasing interpenetration of the ecclesiastical and civil aspects of Byzantine society. The Church received greater control over such matters as marriage and the family. For example, a church blessing—regulated by Orthodox canon law—came to be required for a marriage to be acknowledged as valid by the civil authorities. At the same time, the Church became more concerned with establishing “minimum requirements” for marriage.

This can be seen vividly in the so-called “fourth marriage dispute.” In 906 the patriarch of Constantinople Nicholas Mystikos (r. 901–907, 912–925), a disciple of Saint Photios the Great, refused to grant a fourth marriage to Emperor Leo VI (r. 886–912), whose first three wives all died young without bearing an heir to the throne. For Patriarch Nicholas’s refusal to recognize Emperor Leo’s fourth marriage, he was deposed. He was restored as patriarch upon the emperor’s death in 912.

In 920 a council in Constantinople declared that the Church would never grant a fourth marriage to anyone. The Church’s theology of marriage upholds perpetual monogamy as its standard—a union of one man and one woman which is not destroyed even by death. Remarriage, even of widows and widowers, does not conform to this standard, even though it may be accepted as a concession to human weakness. With the “fourth marriage dispute,” however, attention comes to focus on the minimum—hence the misleading notion that the Orthodox Church “allows” three marriages to its faithful.

At the same time, the beginning of the 10th century witnessed for the first time the “rite of crowning” as a separate marriage service apart from the context of the Divine Liturgy. Civil law now established the practice of “legal marriage” apart from the sacramental marriage of the Church. It also established a special secular form for the adoption of children which was also previously done only by the action of the Church.