How Martin Luther Transformed Marriage

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How Martin Luther Transformed Marriage

With my wedding, I have made the angels laugh and the devils weep. (Martin Luther)

Marriages and families are facing increasing pressure, due of the stress of modern life. Divorce rates among Christians are comparable to those among secular couples. Christian homes are being broken and disrupted at an alarming rate. Marriage rates in America are at historic lows. People are getting married later, or simply not marrying or engaging in other alternative living arrangements.[1]

Christian teaching since the patristic period has postulated a tension between salvation and pleasure: most influential Christian thinkers have nurtured a gloomy suspicion that one cannot be attained without renouncing the other. Similarly, the medieval church long remained suspicious, even hostile, towards family ties. Church leaders suspected that conjugal affection and parental love often disguised sensual entanglements and worldly values.

For this reason, theologians saw little value in family attachments. While Luther never completely rid himself of this tension, he initiated a movement within Christianity that made it possible to be a good Christian, while simultaneously being happily married and having an enjoyable sex life.

For most of the Christian era prior to the Reformation, marriage and family were discouraged—even denigrated. Sexual relations were condemned and associated with the evil of original sin. Singleness and celibacy were exalted as a higher and holier state of spirituality.[2] Not until the Reformation was marriage and family restored to a place of honor within the Christian community. One individual who contributed much to the restoration of marriage and the family to a place of honor and respect was Martin Luther, the great German reformer. The purpose of this article is to examine how Luther’s views on marriage transformed the institution of marriage.

Martin Luther elevated marriage and family life to a place of respect and honor within the church and society. He “placed the home at the center of the universe. His teaching and practice were so radical and so far-reaching, that some scholars have argued that other than the church, the home was the only sphere of life which the Reformation profoundly affected.”[3]

An analysis of Luther’s views on marriage and family will reveal that Luther’s reformation was not merely theological, but also profoundly sociological. His rejection of celibacy as a form of superior spirituality, his elevation of marriage and family life to the arena of spirituality, his moderate ideas on divorce—all these are now commonly accepted views within the Christian community.

Although Luther is known mainly for his teaching on justification by faith in the theological world, I would argue that his views on marriage and the family were just as significant and impactful for society at large. Most non-believers have never heard of justification by faith, but they have all been part of a family, and whether they like it or not, Luther’s teachings on marriage and the family have had a significant impact on marriage and the family in the Western world. In light of the present crisis facing marriage and the home, I would argue that there is an urgent need to reexamine and reapply Luther’s valuable principles regarding marriage and the family.

The Medieval State of Marriage and Family

Marriage during the time of Luther was one of the seven sacraments, which were decided during the council of Verona in 1184.[4] Although termed a sacrament, marriage was not required to take place in a church, or to be officiated by a priest. The church viewed marriage as gift from God and an act of consent between a man and a woman, and thus church law did very little to regulate it.[5]

In the early medieval age, daughters were handed over by their fathers to their husbands in a public ceremony which was then followed by the consummation of the marriage. By the late medieval period, however, the practice was no longer universally followed; as a result, boys and girls as young as fourteen were betrothing themselves to each other without parental consent. A problem arose when some of these young couples would make secret agreement with each other, promise to marry in the future, and then validate this with consummation.[6]

Young men would pledge marriage, consummate the marriage, and then deny having done so, leaving the girl no longer a virgin and, in some cases, pregnant. These secret betrothals and promises of marriages resulted in thousands of “he said/she said” arguments.

The ecclesiastical courts were overrun with cases of contested betrothal: girls seduced on alleged promises of marriage, parents challenging the secret unions of their children, bigamous Casanovas accused of secretly promising marriage to two or more women, and possibly the most embarrassing of all, men and women sincerely attempting to make public their private vows, only to be challenged by someone claiming to have been secretly promised marriage by one of the partners.[7]

Luther recognized that, like so many of the teachings and practices of the Roman Catholic Church, this institution was broken; it had fallen into disrepute and dishonor among Christians, and was in need of major reformation:

According to contemporary observers, marriage and the family were in a crisis in late medieval and Reformation Europe. Humanists, reform-minded Catholics, and especially Protestants decried the amount of domestic litigation, particularly that of contested first marriages, and a casual demeaning of marriage and family life they perceived all around.[8]

There were many threats to marriage and family in the laws of the medieval church: On one hand, the church encouraged immature and impulsive unions by recognizing as valid so-called clandestine marriages that occurred without parental permission and apart from public confession. On the other hand, it placed legal obstacles to matured and reasoned marriages between people by arbitrarily defining numerous impediments to marriage between people related by various blood, legal, spiritual, and familial ties. It became a major goal of new Protestant and secular marriage ordinances in the sixteenth century to end such secret unions, and to define impediments more realistically.[9]

An observer in Augsburg reported in 1534 that marriage there had become,

…a weak, despised, and rejected estate, which the young, especially men, fled in fear; everywhere women were said to make fools of men (the biblical stories of the downfall of Adam, Samson, and David at the hand of a woman were current), and both sexes looked on the birth and rearing of children with “superstitious dread,” […] “Having seen how much effort, anxiety, pain, need, care and work are involved in marriage, they would not recommend it to a dog, and to save their children from it, they give them over to the Devil by forcing them into the cloister. Thereby they gain for them an easy life on earth, but they dispatch their souls to hell.”[10]

One of the first reforms Luther instituted was the “desacramentalization” of marriage. He declared that marriage was no longer a sacrament, limiting the sacraments to baptism and communion alone. Ironically, this act made the church more deeply involved in marriage, for now couples were required to meet with their pastors to ensure there were no impediments before announcing their public intentions to wed.

Initially, the ceremony took place outside the front of a church, but as the Protestant Reformation progressed, it moved indoors, and couples were expected to recite their vows before the altar in the presence of the pastor, as well as their family and friends. The carrying out of the marriage in the church and the benediction of the minister became a critical part of the marriage ceremony.[11]

Luther also insisted that marital agreements between minors could not be considered valid without the approval of their parents. He writes, “Who would approve my action if after I had reared my daughter with so much expense and effort, care and danger, zeal and toil, and had risked my whole body and goods for so many years, she should receive no better care than if she were a cow of mine that had strayed into the forest where any wolf might devour her.” Luther continues, “Every reasonable person must concede, I say that this violence and injustice which could be easily avoided if one prohibited secret engagements.”[12]

Luther was also a revolutionary in the area of divorce, which, at the time, was not an option in the case of an invalid marriage. Luther attempted to modify the strict Catholic “no-divorce” policy, and allowed divorce based on biblical grounds (adultery and desertion). He also allowed divorce for physiological deficiencies (e.g. impotence).

Some have accused Luther of opening up the door to easy divorce, which has resulted in a myriad of problems that have negatively affected society. How should we judge Luther on this issue?

Luther, in good faith, attempted to reform a broken system where the church controlled marriage and refused to grant any divorce—even in justifiable circumstances. Marriage was considered a sacred sacrament, and could not be dissolved without the death of one of the spouses. In situations where the church was forced to dissolve a marriage based on the stated impediments (consanguinity, affinity, and spiritual relationship) that it established, such a dissolution was not called divorce, but annulment.

This was an absurd and nonsensical practice, and Luther felt that the church’s position on divorce and remarriage only encouraged fornication, adultery, and other immoral practices. For Luther, divorce and remarriage according to biblical principles would reduce the level of sexual immorality in society by allowing individuals to be legally divorced, and thus be eligible to legally remarry.

Some of Luther’s major reforms of marriage were in the areas of celibacy and chastity. He completely disavowed celibacy as a superior form of spirituality. Some of Martin Luther’s views on marriage and the family reflected the late medieval Catholic view.

Luther was a child of his time and culture, so it should not be surprising that his early views on the subject would reflect the age in which he was born; however, the creativity and originality of Luther becomes obvious in the way in which he transcended his age. Some of the prevailing views on marriage, family, and sexuality are reflected in the following quote, and may have influenced Luther’s views. Historian Steven Ozment comments on the medieval view of chastity:

The clergy of the Middle Ages were obsessed with chastity and sexual purity. Augustine portrayed sexual intercourse in Paradise as occurring without lust and emotion. A vernacular catechism from 1494 elaborates the third deadly sin (impurity) under the title, “How the Laity Sin in the Marital Duty.” According to the 1494 catechism, the laity sin sexually in marriage by, among other things, having sex for the sheer joy of it rather than for the reasons God has commanded, namely, to escape the sin of concupiscence and to populate the earth.”[13]

These ideas on sexuality reached back centuries into the Christian era, where Jerome, writing in the fourth century, compared virginity, widowhood, and marriage. He gave virginity a numerical value of 100, widowhood, 60, and marriage, 30.[14] Marriage was obviously not highly regarded, and even sex within marriage without the intent of procreation was considered “sin.”

Most of the church teachers, including Augustine, Tertullian, Ambrose, Aquinas, and Gregory the Great, considered sexual expression with any passion to be  a “sin,” “evil,” “befoulment,” and not much different from adultery, while virginity and celibacy were highly honored.[15] Jerome warned that “any man who loves his wife excessively is an adulterer.”[16] He further stated that “married men and women occupied the second tier, far below the holier, more pure status of celibates. ‘Let married women take their pride in coming next after virgins.'”[17]

These attitudes became entrenched within Roman Catholic teachings, writings, and meditation. At the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church’s response to the Reformation upheld celibacy and, by implication, its attitudes towards sexuality within marriage being restricted to the conception of children.[18]

Three models of sexuality existed during the time of Luther. The first model saw reproduction or procreation as the primary goal of sex. This was a view championed by the Roman Catholic Church. The second model, called the “pollution” model of sexuality, focused on the impurity and pollution caused by sex. Unlike procreationism, it advocated strong limitations on the marital relations by restricting the times, seasons, places, and circumstances in which sex was allowed. Hence, pollutionists attached secondary importance to procreation, tending to emphasize “nature” as a criterion of sexual morality, not being overly concerned with contraception either.[19]

The third model of sexuality viewed marital sex as a source of intimacy and affection, and as a symbol and source of conjugal love. Subscribers to this school of thought regarded sexual pleasure more positively than the proponents of the other two models. Writers at different periods during the Middle Ages adopted elements from each of these models of human sexuality in various combinations, and with varying degree of enthusiasm.[20]

Which of these three models did Luther subscribe to? Did he embrace elements of these three models at different periods during his life? Did his views change over time? From his writings, it appears that Luther embraced all three models at various times. In his procreationist mode, he argued that the chief purpose of marriage is to have children. On other occasions, he appeared to agree with the pollutionist model. At other times, he speaks positively of sexual pleasure in marriage.

The exaltation of sexual abstinence implies a rejection and disapproval of pleasure, of recreational sex, and, above all, promiscuity. Western Christianity has historically accepted (and at some level, most of us still maintain) an unarticulated allegiance to an ascetic ideal of sexual morals: the less sex, the better, and the more, the worse. Implicit is a belief that virtue demands self-control and self-control means a rejection of pleasure; whatever feels good is probably wrong.[21] Luther must be credited with reconnecting sexuality with spirituality. It was now possible to be spiritual and holy while engaging in sex within the boundaries of marriage without guilt.

Lessons from Luther on Marriage and the Family

Luther’s revolutionary teachings on marriage and the family, undergirded by his exemplary marital life, altered and changed those institutions forever. Today, marriage has fallen on hard times. In America, it is at an historic low. Americans are losing confidence in marriage, and are resorting to other living arrangements. Cohabitation is on the rise; single parenting is increasing; remaining unmarried, for whatever reason, is becoming more attractive to many. Some are even questioning the necessity and relevance of marriage. Marriage, for some, is considered a trifling matter to be entered into without any preparation, and to exit with the least annoyance.

Luther’s unequivocal affirmation of marriage is needed today more than ever. Luther called marriage an order of creation—a God-appointed, legitimate union of man and woman, necessary for the human race. He affirmed the permanency, relevancy, and necessity of marriage. Marriage is never out of style or old-fashioned, as long as there are humans living on the earth. Luther described it as the most serious and important matter in the whole world, because it is the source of human society and of the human race. Nothing in life excels it in worth.[22]

Luther’s focus on premarital preparation, and the need for those contemplating marriage to seek the counsel of their parents and to pray to God, is especially necessary when so many rush into marriage unprepared, and are forced to abort their relationship long before it has time to mature, because they did not engage in the necessary work of preparation.

Luther’s concept of marriage as a vocation is a wonderful idea that needs to be recaptured by postmodern Americans. The excessive demands of work, church, clubs, organizations, schools, and a myriad of other responsibilities have squeezed marriage. There is never enough time for all the pressing demands of life. Invariably, marriages and families suffer because many people do not see them as a priority. If we see marriage and family as a vocation, as worthwhile in value as any career, perhaps we would invest the time and energy needed to ensure its success.

Luther’s spirit of flexibility in dealing with the thorny issues of divorce, annulment, and remarriage provides a wonderful template for Christian leaders dealing with similar issues. Luther attempted to balance his counsels by staying away from the rigid legalism of no divorce, while not succumbing to the equally pernicious extreme of easy divorce. Using common-sense reasoning and biblical counsel, as well as the extenuating circumstances of each case, he attempted to forge a path that would not be too burdensome for the parties involved, without compromising the word of God.

Luther’s counsel that marriage is a remedy against sin is still good counsel for Christian young people, to prevent them from committing sexual sins. However, because it gives a negative reason for marriage, it is inadequate and must therefore be supplemented by more positive reasons. Getting married to satisfy one’s sexual desires may work for a while, but what about times during marriage when sex is not possible, for any number of reasons? There are more positive reasons that must be emphasized: affection, companionship, friendship, having and rearing godly children, giving and receiving love.

Many of Luther’s ideas are still very relevant, both for those contemplating marriage and for those already married. His counsels are not merely the theological musings of a former monk-turned-reformer, but are counsels deeply rooted in the word of God, undergirded by a rich and rewarding marital experience, where Luther was always seeking to learn, and to share that knowledge with his followers.

Conclusion

Martin Luther’s views on marriage and the family revealed a radical departure from the traditional Catholic views of his times. He elevated marriage and the family to a place of honor and respectability at a time when the single life and celibacy were celebrated as a higher state of spirituality. He denounced celibacy as a cause of lust, rather than an aid to chastity. He advocated a moderate view on divorce at a time when divorce was almost impossible. He provided counsel to couples and those contemplating marriage. He encouraged priests to marry, and followed his own advice by getting married.

Just as he had done with the doctrine of grace that had been perverted and corrupted by the church, Luther devotes no less energy to the restoration of marriage and family to its biblical foundations. One of Luther’s most important contribution was in how he removed the sacred from the church and placed it in the family, so that the mundane activities of cooking, child rearing, and housekeeping took on a sacred nature.

Luther recognized that not only was the theology of Catholicism in need of serious reform, but also the institution of marriage and the family; in his irascible and earthy style, he went about that reform with a passionate intensity revealed in the power of his pen and the courage of his life.

______

Notes.

[1] Cohn, D’Vera, et al. “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married—A Record Low.” Pew Research Centerwww.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/12/14/barely-half-of-u-s-adults-are-married-a-record-low/. Accessed November 21, 2017.

[2] Martin Luther speaks of the contempt with which marriage was viewed in his time: “When I was a boy, marriage was considered so infamous on account of impious and impure celibacy that I thought I could not think about married life without sin. For all were convinced that if anyone wished to live a life holy and acceptable to God, he must never become a spouse but must live a celibate and take the vow of celibacy. This is why many men who had married became monks or contemptible priests (sacrificuli) after the death of their wives.” Luther, “Lectures on Genesis” (Gen 2:22) Luther Works, 1: 135. See also Michael M. Sheehan, James K. Farge, Marriage, Family and Law in Medieval Europe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), pg. 297-306.

[3] Steven Ozment, “Re-inventing Family Life.” Christian History, 12(3) (1993) :22.

[4] Michelle DeRusha, The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk; Katrina and Martin Luther. (Grand Rapids: Baker books 2017), pg. 137

[5] Diarmand MacCulloch, The Reformation (New York: Viking, 2003), pg. 612

[6] DeRusha, pg. 137

[7] Ibid., pg. 138

[8] Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled; Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MS.: Harvard University Press, 1983), pg. 1.

[9] Ibid., pg. 1, 2.

[10] Ibid., pg. 4.

[11] DeRusha, pg. 140

[12] LW, vol. 46, pg. 268

[13] Ozment, pg. 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Fiona Bowie, “Chastity” in The Oxford companion to Christian thought, general editors Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh S. Pyper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), pg. 108-109.

[16] DeRusha, pg. 146

[17] Ibid.

[18] Michael Banner, “Ethics, Sexual” in Encyclopedia of Christian Theology, edited by Jean-Yves Lacoste, 3 vols. (New York: Routledge, 2005), 1 : pg. 505-509.

[19] James Brundage, Law, Sex, and Christian Society in Medieval Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), pg. 6.

[20] Ibid., pg. 5

[21] Ibid., pg. 7

[22] Luther, Lectures on Genesis (Genesis 18:19), LW 3 : pg. 221.

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About the author

Trevor O'Reggio

Trevor O’Reggio, PHD, DMin, is a graduate of Walla Walla University, Andrews University, the University of Chicago, and Gordon Conwell Seminary. He has served as a Professor of Church History, Discipleship, and Religious Education at Andrews University for the past 16 years. Prior to serving in that capacity, he pastored for 15 years in Panama, New York, Michigan, and Chicago. He has been married for 32 years and is the father of three adult children.