Updated: Jun 2, 2022
On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed 95 thesis to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. This document challenged the use of indulgences in ministry of the Catholic church. The gospel message of full forgiveness gained solely through work of Jesus Christ had been replaced by a system where “grace” was bought for the price of copper coin. Such was the state of the Church in 1517 and, as Martin studied the scriptures, he quickly found out that the church had more issues than simply the abuse of indulgences. With this the Protestant Reformation was underway.
In Martin’s list of theological topics, marriage proved to be one of the central issues in need of reform. Luther garnered much criticism when he broke his monastic vows of celibacy to marry an escaped Benedictine nun named Katharina von Bora. This, however, became the hub for a reformation of marriage. The Luther home, with Katharina at its helm, became the testing ground for Martins understanding of a Biblically defined family. In a 1522 sermon, Martin Luther addressed the grave need for a reformation of marriage, saying,
“How I dread preaching on the estate of marriage! I am reluctant to do it because I am afraid if I once get really involved in the subject it will make a lot of work for me and for others. The shameful confusion wrought by the accursed papal law has occasioned so much distress, and the lax authority of both the spiritual and the temporal swords has given rise to so many dreadful abuses and false situations, that I would much prefer neither to look into the matter nor to hear of it. But timidity is no help in an emergency; I must proceed. I must try to instruct poor bewildered consciences, and take up the matter boldly.”
In the same sermon quoted above, Martin revealed his source of truth not just for marriage… but for the whole of life, saying,
I base my remarks on Scripture, which to me is surer than all experience and cannot lie to me.
With the Bible as his foundation, Luther began to throw off both the corrosive views of the world and the corrupt views of the Catholic Church. What he found the scriptures to reveal was a created order inherent in each person’s God assigned gender. God had created two genders, men and women. Marriage then was the lifelong union of one man and a woman. Luther writes,
“In order to proceed aright let us direct our attention to Genesis 1:27, “So God created man… male and female he created them.” From this passage we may be assured that God divided mankind into two classes, namely, male and female, or a he and a she. This was so pleasing to him that he himself called it a good creation [Gen. 1:81]. Therefore, each one of us must have the kind of body God has created for us. I cannot make myself a woman, nor can you make yourself a man; we do not have that power. But we are exactly as he created us: I a man and you a woman. Moreover, he wills to have his excellent handiwork honored as his divine creation, and not despised. The man is not to despise or scoff at the woman or her body, nor the woman the man. But each should honor the other's image and body as a divine and good creation that is well-pleasing unto God himself.”
The concept of God-defined gender and the sanctity of marriage was the bedrock of Martin’s vision of a Biblical family. Any force which sought to weaken or undermine these principles was seen as mounting a direct attack on the institution itself. For example, Luther writes,
“We know only too well that the most terrible plagues have befallen lands and people because of fornication. This was the sin cited as the reason why the world was drowned in the Deluge, Genesis 6:1-13, and Sodom and Gomorrah were buried in flames”
The reason gender was so central in Martin’s view of marriage was because of his understanding of gender roles. Gender differences don’t stop at biology. Luther believed that God holds men and women accountable for different jobs, especially in marriage. However, while Biblically assigned roles were very much different for men and women, they were not opposing roles. These jobs were essentially complementary in nature. Luther writes,
“In order that we may not proceed as blindly, but rather conduct ourselves in a Christian manner, hold fast first of all to this, that man and woman are the work of God. Keep a tight rein on your heart and your lips; do not criticize his work, or call that evil which he himself has called good. He knows better than you yourself what is good and to your benefit, as he says in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” There you see that he calls the woman good, a helper. If you deem it otherwise, it is certainly your own fault, you neither understand nor believe God's word and work. See, with this statement of God one stops the mouths of all those who criticize and censure marriage.”
Luther and Katharina’s marriage was this principle made manifest. While Martin was hard at work in the pulpit and the lecture hall, Katharina was busy managing the home. In one letter, Martin writes,
“In domestic affairs I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Spirit.”
While Martin functioned as the head of the family, he trusted in Katharina’s ability to fulfill the role God had given her. Managing the home was much more than just cooking and cleaning for Katharina. She made much of her role. In one letter, Luther wrote to a collogue saying,
“My Katie greets you. She plants our fields, pastures and sells cows, et cetera. In between she has started to read the Bible.”
Supported by her husband, Katherina became skilled in various aspects of domestic life. In another letter, this one written too Martin, a family acquaintance wrote…
“[Your wife] was created to maintain your health so you will be able to serve for many years that church that was born under you.
Katharina glorified God in her work just as Martin did in his work. There was no lesser or greater job, only different roles. Without the complementing efforts of the other, neither would have accomplished a fraction of what they did together. Nor would they have been able to provide a Biblically structured home for raising children. Martin saw a Biblically arranged marriage not only as being a benefit to the husband and the wife but also for any children God would be bless them with. The Luther’s were blessed by God with 5 children. Martin saw his fatherly role as a divine appointment and his marriage as the sacred space in which children could flourish. Of this duty, Luther writes,
Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason (which the pagans followed in trying to be most clever), takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores, and on top of that care for my wife, provide for her, labor at my trade, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that, endure this and endure that, and whatever else of bitterness and drudgery married life involves? What, should I make such a prisoner of myself? O you poor, wretched fellow, have you taken a wife? Fie, fie upon such wretchedness and bitterness! It is better to remain free and lead a peaceful. carefree life; I will become a priest or a nun and compel my children to do likewise.”
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, “O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers. or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor,will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight”
The raising of children gave a broader meaning to Luther’s understanding of marriage. Marriage became the central building block of society at large. A strong Biblically defined marriage was at the core of a flourishing family. A flourishing family produced children who were instructed in the training and admonition of the Lord. Luther saw this opportunity as the highest benefit of a Godly marriage, writing,
“The greatest good in married life, that which makes all suffering and labor worth while, is that God grants offspring and commands that they be brought up to worship and serve him”.
In addition to producing God-fearing souls, Luther saw a robust family life as affecting every area of civilization. Well raised children become productive members of society just as they (lord willing) become faithful members of the Church. They become the next governors, merchants or farmers and they will be able to function in each of these roles with a Biblical worldview. On this point Luther writes,
“The estate of marriage, however, redounds to the benefit not alone of the body, property, honor, and soul of an individual, but also to the benefit of whole cities and countries,”
With this the cycle continues as these children grow, become members of society and eventually they themselves marry and have children.
Martin Luther emerged into a world where much of God’s instruction for Marriage and the family had been downgraded and even lost. His Reformation of marriage was a going back to the scriptures. Martin was able to rediscover God’s purpose and pattern for marriage by throwing out that which was common and applying only that which was Biblical. In our day, marriage is in a similar state of distress and needing of serious reform. Let us likewise throw out what is common and return to the scriptures. Let us spark a new reformation of marriage in our own day.
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