Friday, February 04, 2005

Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage, Part 8

This is part 8 (of 9) [parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 , and 7 are here] in a continuing series on Martin Luther and his marriage, exerpted from the forthcoming book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

Children Are the Sweetest Fruits of Marriage

As mentioned above, Luther believed that main purposes of marriage were companionship and children.[1] “Children,” he said, “are the sweetest fruits of marriage; they tie and strengthen the bonds of love.”[2] He described the raising of children as the most noble task God assigns:

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 all the world this is the noblest and most precious work, because to God there can be nothing dearer than the salvation of souls.[3]

The arrangement of marital fellowship and procreation to the glory of God offers a faint echo of paradise:

This living together of husband and wife—that they occupy the same home, that they take care of the household, that together they produce and bring up children—is a kind of faint image and a remnant, as it were, of that blessed living together [in Eden].[4]

Specifically, the task of childrearing is the most valuable work in the kingdom of God:

This at least all married people should know. They can do no better work and do nothing more valuable either for God, for Christendom, for all the world, for themselves, and for their children than to bring up their children well.[5]

It is preaching and teaching like this that leads Steven Ozment to conclude that “Never has the art of parenting been more highly praised and parental authority more wholeheartedly supported than in Reformation Europe.”[6] This vision of childrearing yielded a new vision for the Christian home:

With them God makes of your house a hospital, and sets you over them as chief nurse, to wait on them, to give them good words and works as meat and drink, that they may learn to trust, believe, and fear God. . . . O what a blessed marriage and home were that where such parents were to be found! Truly it would be a real church, a chosen cloister, yea, a paradise.[7]

This is really quite stunning when you stop to think of it. Luther is saying that of all the things you can do in the world—of all the ministries you can start and all of the hours you can invest—the most significant and meaningful task takes place right in our homes. This leads to our next point.

The Ordinary Must Be Sanctified

One of Luther’s great contributions to our view of the family involved the sanctification of the ordinary. Many sadly neglect their family and their friends because they are pouring all of their time into “ministry”—neglecting to see that all of life should be ministry and every sphere should be sanctified. We must have eyes to see that the ordinary duties of life contain great spiritual significance. Luther describes the message that the world whispers in our ear:

Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason . . . , 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. . . ?”[8]

But into this context Luther breathes fresh gospel air:

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. . . . God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling—not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.[9]

We must put on the spectacles of faith and see all of life as infused with meaning and significance by our Creator. Set in this context, Luther greatly elevated the place of the family within the church of Christ.

The Institution of Marriage Is to Be Praised

When studying Luther’s teaching on marriage, one of the things that stands out is the freedom and frequency with which Luther sung the praises of marriage. It is not just that he is teaching about how to have a good marriage. It is not that he is just praising a specific marriage—whether his own or another’s. But Luther judges it to be of great importance for pastors and preachers—and all of us, really—to exclaim the beauty and the wonder of marriage itself. Whereas at one point he seemed to regard marriage mainly as a place to avoid the lusts of the flesh, he soon came to speak of the sweetness of the institution itself:

Ah, dear God, marriage is not a thing of nature but a gift of God, the sweetest, the dearest, and the purest life above all celibacy and singleness, when it turns out well, though the very devil if it does not. . . . If then these three remain—fidelity and faith, children and progeny, and the sacrament—it is to be considered to be a wholly divine and blessed estate.[10]

Though he did not shy away from acknowledging the difficulties of marriage, he could write: “I consider marriage to be a paradise, even if it has to endure greatest poverty.”[11] “The union of man and woman is a great thing.”[12] “One should not regard any estate as better in the sight of God than the estate of marriage.”[13] “I say these things in order that we may learn how honorable a thing it is to live in that estate which God has ordained.”[14] For Luther, an important element of a joyful marriage was to be found in the belief that the marital institution itself was a good, God-ordained gift. “No one can have real happiness in marriage who does not recognize in firm faith that this estate together with all its works, however insignificant, is pleasing to God and precious in his sight.”[15] The church would do well today to emulate Luther’s example and to speak often of the goodness of the gift of marriage.

Love in Marriage

Luther also wrote often about the importance of love within marriage. At first blush this might seem rather insignificant. As the old Frank Sinatra song goes: “Love and marriage, love and marriage: go together like a horse and carriage. Here I tell you brother, you can’t have one without the other!” It is easy to forget, though, that such was not always the conventional wisdom. Marriage had a terrible reputation at that time, and women were looked upon as a necessary evil. Luther lamented:

The estate of marriage has universally fallen into such awful disrepute. There are many pagan books which treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage, such that some have thought that even if Wisdom itself were a woman that one should not marry. . . . They concluded that woman is a necessary evil, and that no household can be without such an evil.[16]

Part of Luther’s legacy is that he reintroduced love as an essential element of marriage. He wasn’t the first to do so, and obviously there were already married couples at that time who loved each other deeply. But Luther was at the forefront of advocating martial love and making it the norm for entering into marriage and thriving within marriage.

An important part of this teaching was that we must distinguish between initial lust and sustaining love: “The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.”[17] He explains:

It is the highest grace of God, when love continues to flourish in married life. The first love is ardent, is an intoxication love, so that we are blinded and are drawn to marriage. After we have slept off our intoxication, sincere love remains in the married life of the godly; but the godless are sorry they ever married.

The essence of this biblical, sincere, marital love, Luther argued, was wholehearted devotion and faithfulness to the good of one’s spouse:

Where conjugal chastity is to be maintained, husband and wife must, above all things, live together in love and harmony, so that one cherishes the other wholeheartedly and with complete fidelity. This wholehearted devotion is one of the chief requirements in the creation of a love and desire for chastity. Where it is found, chastity will follow as a matter of course, without any command. Therefore St. Paul (Eph. 5:22-25) so diligently admonishes married people to love and honor each other.[18]

This love is given by God and praised by God as an example of divine love:

Conjugal love or the desire to marry is a natural affection, implanted and inspired by God. Therefore conjugal love is praised so highly in Scripture and is so frequently adduced as an example of the relations existing between Christ and His Christendom.[19]

If this is true, then forcing or arranging marriages is sinfully unwise. Luther continues:

Therefore parents are sinning against God and human nature when they force their children to marry or accept a spouse for whom they have no desire. . . . Daily experiences clearly teach and show us what sort of trouble has come from forced marriages. . . . And even though God and human nature did not demand that marriage is to be unforced, a heart of fatherly and motherly affection toward children should refuse to tolerate anything but love and delight as the basis of marriage.[20]

“Christian love,” Luther believed, “should be a gushing, surging kind of love which overflows from the inner heart like a fresh stream or brook that is always in motion and never dries up.”[21] And this should be at the foundation and essence of our marriages.[22]

Love Your Neighbor as You Love Yourself

When we hear Christ’s commands to “love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12) and to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39), we often think of love for those outside of our family. But Luther believed that the two could not be separated. Bainton, in commentating upon Luther’s view, summarizes it in this way: “Love indeed there is in Christian marriage, but it is only a heightening of that Christian love which is enjoined toward all. We are told to love our neighbors. The wife is the nearest neighbor. She should therefore be the most beloved.”[23] Or as Lazareth puts it: “It is in this all-inclusive, self-giving sense that the Christian is to love his neighbor—the nearest and dearest of whom is his own God-given wife.”[24] Love your neighbor as yourself—that is, love your spouse.

Luther’s Example of Love

It would be one thing for Luther to preach the importance of love within marriage. But he also intentionally modeled this love in his own marriage. As we saw above, their marriage did not have the most romantic of beginnings. But a deep and passionate love soon developed. Martin’s praise for Katie was often on his lips, and the letters and references that remain are an enduring testimony to his respect and affection for her. “Kate,” he wrote, “you have a god-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it.[25] He often referred to her as “Lord Catherine, doctor and preacher,” “Sir Katie,” the empress,” “my rib,” “my true love,” “my sweetheart,” “Gracious Lady,” “wise woman and doctor,” Your Grace,” “holy lady,” and “a gift of God.” [26] And he referred to himself as “Your obedient servant,” “Your loving Martin Luther,” or “Your Holiness’ willing servant.”[27]

When Luther devised the plan to rescue Katherine and the other nuns from their monastic bondage, marriage was one of the furthest things from his mind. At one point he had even exclaimed: “Good Lord! Will our people at Wittenberg give wives even to the monks? They will not push a wife on me!”[28] But as we have seen, the Lord had different plans for Martin Luther. As the following quote indicates, Luther learned to treasure Katie for her virtues and her faithfulness—and saw her as a good and gracious gift from God.

I would not want to exchange my Kate for France nor for Venice to boot; to begin with (1) because God has given her to me and me to her; (2) because I often find out that there are more shortcomings in other women than in my Kate; and although she, of course, has some too, these are nonetheless offset by far greater virtues; (3) because she keeps faith and honor in our marriage relation. [29]

It is obvious that Katherine von Bora had brought tremendous change into the life of Martin Luther. But their love and commitment and example also brought significant reform to the church and to the world.

[1] LW 44:8.

[2] Cited in Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 93.

[3] LW 45:47.

[4] LW 5:133.

[5] LW 44:12.

[6] Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983), 132.

[7] Cited in Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, 145.

[8] LW 45:39.

[9] LW 45:39-40.

[10] Cited in Bainton, What Christianity Says About Sex, Love and Marriage, 82-83.

[11] LW 48:321.

[12] WLS, 2773.

[13] LW 45:47.

[14] LW 45:41.

[15] LW 45:42.

[16] LW 45:36.

[17] Bainton, Here I Stand, 235.

[18] WLS, #2807.

[19] Ibid., #2792.

[20] WLS #2792, emphasis added.

[21] Cited in Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, 232.

[22] I hasten to add—lest any reader conclude otherwise from this study—that not all of Luther’s teachings on marriage are fully biblical. One of the intentions of this chapter is to highlight the positive, biblical, revolutionary teachings and example of Luther that had such a tremendous impact upon the church. But Luther also had his blindspots. For example, though he advocated love as the foundation for marriage, he failed to insist on the Scriptural teaching that Christ must be the foundation for both marital partners. In conjunction with 1 Corinthians 7:12-13, Luther thought that it was permissible for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. He wrote: “You will find plenty of Christians—indeed the greater part of them—who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk, or heretic” (LW 45:22-30). 1 Corinthians 7:12-13, however, does not sanction a believer and a nonbeliever to enter into marriage; it only speaks to the issues of divorce once that marriage has occurred. And 1 Corinthians 7:39 contradicts Luther’s reasoning by insisting that the only absolute prerequisite for marriage is that a man and the woman be “in the Lord.”

[23] Bainton, What Christianity Says About Sex, Love and Marriage, 81.

[24] Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, 231-232.

[25] WATr 1:554, no. 1110.

[26] LW 49:236, 267, 154; 50:208, 209, 210, 218, 305, etc.

[27] LW 49:238; 50:223, 292, 304, 306, etc.

[28] LW 48:290.

[29] WLS, 2774.