Luther on Marriage

Week of Monday, July 30, 2001

Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of those larger-than-life figures whose importance for western history would be difficult to exaggerate. Earthy, bombastic, and colorful, he once remarked that whereas people tried to turn him into a fixed star, he was an “irregular planet.” One of my favorite Luther stories is of his encounter with his nemesis Pope Leo X (1513–1521). In his papal bull Exsurge Domine, Leo threatened Luther with excommunication, condemned all his writings, and called him “a wild boar in the vineyard of the Lord.” Given sixty days to recant, Luther did indeed respond, in typically flamboyant style. On the day his period of grace expired, Luther issued a public invitation to the university faculty and students. Then, at 9 am on December 10, 1520, he tossed Leo's bull and other Catholic decretals into a bonfire at the Elster Gate behind the university hospital.

The English edition of Luther's complete works runs to 55 volumes, and by one scholar's judgment more books have been written about him since his death than any figure in history except Jesus. As we just celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary, I was reminded of one of my favorite Luther quotes—and he is eminently quotable—from his work called Concerning Married Life (1522):

Along comes that clever harlot, namely natural reason, looks at married life, turns up her nose, and says: Why, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, change its bed, smell its odour, heal its rash, take care of this and take care of that, do this and do that?It is better to remain single and live a quiet and carefree life. I will become a priest or a nun and tell my children to do the same.

But what does the Christian faith say? The father opens his eyes, looks at these lowly, distasteful, and despised things and knows that they are adorned with divine approval as with the most precious gold and silver. God, with his angels and creatures, will smile—not because diapers are washed, but because it is done in faith.

Beyond the bluster that makes Luther so enjoyable, I have often thought about this quote in relation to my own marriage and thanked God for the directions it has pointed me. But first, another Luther story, this one of his own marriage.

In 1523 Luther collaborated with the merchant Leonard Kopp to help 12 nuns escape from a nearby convent. Three of them returned home, but nine returned to Wittenberg where Luther felt responsible to find them husbands. Two years later all but one had been placed, so on June 13, 1525 Luther married the remaining Katherine von Bora. Said Luther, “I have made the angels laugh and the devil weep.” To his fellow kidnapper, Kopp, he sent a wedding invitation: “I am to be married on Thursday. My lord Katie and I invite you to send a barrel of the best Torgau beer, and if it is not good you will have to drink it all yourself.”

Luther's friends were shocked, for he had kept the wedding a secret, and it all was grist for gossip and slander by his many detractors. He was 42 and she was 26. For a man who churned out 55 volumes of writings, Luther's marriage plunged him into the depths of domesticity, but he accepted the challenge with characteristic flair and charm. Married for 21 years, he and Katie had six children, and raised four orphaned kids of relatives. In addition, because money was tight they ran a student boarding house for 20–25 students.

In fact, Luther's marriage to Katie, says Roland Bainton, “was the most unpremeditated and dramatic witness to his principles.” What does Bainton mean?

First, a general point taken from the quote above. Throughout his many works, Luther often contrasts the perspective of unregenerate, natural reason, which he characterizes above as a “clever harlot”, with the perspective of Christian faith. I find that in much of life, and especially in marriage, it is very easy to confuse what is important in the eyes of contemporary culture or my own unregenerate self, and what is truly important from the viewpoint of faith and God's kingdom. Luther reminds me that the most menial tasks of homelife can be more important than writing a book, cutting a business deal, attending what I imagine are important meetings and the like. Similarly, when done in faith, even the most mundane or secular act, like changing a diaper or writing computer code, can be just as sacred or even more so, than all the many things we think are “religious” acts.

Secondly, and more particularly, Luther intended to and succeeded in reforming the very institution of marriage. He tells us that he married for three reasons, to spite the pope and the devil, to please his father by continuing the family name, and to seal his witness and confirm his teaching before his martyrdom (he fully expected to be burned at the stake within a year). It is his third reason which provides a clue to why Bainton calls his marriage a dramatic witness to his principles and teaching.

By about the second century the prevailing opinion was that clerical office and marriage were incompatible, and by the fourth century in the Catholic church all clergy were prohibited to marry (things were slightly different in the eastern Orthodox church). Luther disagreed and by his own symbolic example hoped to reform and reclaim marriage life for the clergy. To him, celibacy was against Scripture and against human nature. Thus, as Bainton puts it, for Luther marriage rightly replaced the monastery as the primary school for character, the training ground for virtue, and the surest way to heaven.

Interestingly, it is from his own marriage and family life that we have today what might be Luther's most readable, entertaining and insightful work, his Table Talk. After his death in 1543, his students, who had participated to a large degree in his day-to-day family life, collected and edited his sayings from meal times, complete with a woodcut of Luther sitting at the dinner table with his family. The sheer volume is incredible—6,596 entries.

Finally, a piece of marriage advice from Luther himself. An earthy man like him was no romantic. He knew that “the first love of marriage is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real marriage love.” We must work hard to please each other, he said. “Wives, make your husband glad to cross his threshold at night. Husbands, make your wife sorry to have you leave.”1

  1. Most of the material in this essay is taken from Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.