Family Research Council

On religious questions, Europe's sixteenth century was an era of great passion and conflict, a conflict which at times spilled over into terrible violence and bloodshed. My subject today, Martin Luther, was at the center of this conflict. My intent this morning is not to open up old Christian divisions and wounds, but neither do I promise a carefully balanced account of sixteenth-century controversies over papal authority, marital regulation, and celibacy. I will even avoid my own criticisms of Luther (for example, I would disagree with his claim that adult celibacy is all but impossible; I've known too many faithful Catholic priests to accept that). Rather, I seek to present Luther's views on sex, marriage, and family in a manner that speaks to the issues of our time, nearly five hundred years later.

My theses are in number three, not ninety-five. First, I hold that Martin Luther crafted a unique and remarkably contemporary ethic regarding family, marriage, and sexuality. Second, I maintain that, while grounded in Scripture, Luther's social ethic was forward-looking, even revolutionary, in content. Third, I argue that this social ethic still bears a powerful and relevant message for Christians--and others--in the twenty-first century.

In key respects, of course, Luther's theology of the family emerged in reaction to the circumstances of his time. In the early years of sixteenth-century Europe, the Church claimed about twenty-five percent of the adult population in celibate orders. One of every four adults served as a priest or resided in a convent or monastery, complete with vows of chastity. Over the centuries, religious orders had accumulated through bequests large--sometimes even vast--estates and gathered in the wealth that came through this ownership of productive land. Life in a wealthy and spiritually lax monastery could be easy, indeed. The Knights of the Teutonic Order, to choose a special German example, had been transformed during the Medieval Era from a crusading army spreading the faith into a wealthy military-commercial-political complex. Its members, too, took vows of celibacy.

All the same, there were mounting complaints over the failure of many in the Church and holy orders to keep these vows. Indeed, sexual scandals of a sort rocked Western Christendom in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. So-called "papal nephews" were one manifestation, and it appears that the keeping of concubines by bishops was no longer rare. The great Christian humanist, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, was himself the illegitimate son of a man who later became a priest. Ordained on his own in 1492, Erasmus--while never breaking with Rome--was sharp in his criticism of abuses within the Church. He pointed especially to the widespread sexual disorders of his day: "Let them prate as they will of the status of monks and virgins. Those who under the pretext of celibacy live in [sexual] license might better be castrated....[T]here is...a horde of priests among whom chastity is rare."[1] Some whispered that the sins of Sodom had taken root among the Teutonic Knights and in certain other orders, as well. Certainly, at the 1522 Imperial Diet at Nuremburg, lay Christians placed before the pope a long list of complaints about priests maintaining concubines (a sin absolved through a standard payment to one's bishop); the clerics' drunkenness, quarreling, and tavern-hunting; church trafficking in absolution for offenses such as incest and bigamy; and priestly sexual encounters with the women of their parishes. As Philip of Burgundy, great-uncle of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and himself the Bishop of Utrecht, explained, chastity was nearly impossible among clerics who were "pampered with high living and tempted by indolence." These abuses and problems festered until the Council of Trent convened, starting in 1545.

In addition, the late medieval Church held arguably conflicting views of women. Formally, the Virgin Mary stood as a model of devotion, honor, and emulation. Informally, there were also signs of a certain misogyny, a curious distrust of women complemented by an emphasis on their supposed inferior nature. This sentiment was well captured in a phrase attributed to St. Jerome: "If you find things going too well, take a wife."

Regarding marriage, the late medieval Church held two (possibly inconsistent) views. On the one hand, it considered marriage a Christian sacrament, a divine mystery, a channel of God's sanctifying grace. On the other hand, it projected the message that the spiritual status of a celibate priest, monk, or nun was superior to that of a married lay Christian. Canon law cast marriage as an obstacle to a life of prayer and wholehearted fellowship with God. To enter marriage and to bear and rear children were left as inferior Christian acts, somewhat less than holy. The sexual act itself, even in marriage, stood as unclean, sinful, and degrading.

Marriage did enjoy a high degree of regulation by the Church. Generally, government was not involved. While divorce was prohibited, church marriage courts dealt with issues of annulment and with the inevitable disputes. Yet problems within this church-grounded regulatory system were accumulating. To begin with, the late medieval Church maintained a long list of impediments to marriage, most of which could be overcome by a payment into the right episcopal coffer. Accordingly, cynicism over the institution of marriage grew. In addition, the Church held to the doctrine of "secret marriage." Even if no witnesses were present, a couple would be considered married if they had exchanged private vows and then joined in sexual union. For obvious reasons, the practice generated innumerable disputes, as one party to the event--commonly the male seducer--would deny that vows had been shared.

Martin Luther's approach to marriage, family, and sexuality cut through this world as a hot knife through butter. While appearing at times to be astonishingly modern, even scientific, in his insights, Luther ultimately built his argument on his reading of Scripture. "Close eyes and ears, and simply lay hold of God's word in the heart,"[2] Luther told the Teutonic Knights in urging them to abandon celibacy in favor of marriage.

Luther, let us remember, was himself an Augustinian monk and priest and a prominent professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg. His new family ethic emerged during the years 1519 to 1523 and exhibited certain traits to be expected in the work of a transitional figure. There were, for example, traditional elements in Luther's approval of the corporal punishment of children and in his occasional use of the word "family" to mean a household encompassing servant, maid, and beast. Yet the principal and historically significant thrust of Luther's thought lay in five impulses which defined a unique evangelical interpretation of family life.

The first of these was Luther's prophetic posture, born of his outrage over the immorality and social irresponsibility that he saw as tolerated by church leaders. "Take [away] those seducers, the priests and monks, who have disgraced our mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters, and made harlots of them," he wrote in his exposition of Psalm 127.[3] Addressing the Knights of the Teutonic Order, Luther boldly noted that "the Knights are suspected and disliked...because everyone knows how rare chastity is, and every man must be afraid for his wife and daughter."[4] With a vivid sense of right and wrong framed by the Ten Commandments, Luther condemned the "smart immaturity" of clerics who avoided marriage and sought to lure young people away from it into unchristian and immoral ways of life. Sounding like an early George Gilder (the author of Men and Marriage), Luther warned specifically about the dangers posed by unmarried men:

Single men cannot be trusted very far; even married men have all they can do to keep from falling [into adultery], although among them there is more justification for hope and confidence. With single men one can have neither hope nor confidence, but only constant fear.[5]

His revulsion against the sexual disorders of his age also led him to advocate strong civil legislation to punish sex offenders and to emphasize the Church's necessary role in shaping, through prophetic teaching, a climate of opinion in which civil authorities could prevent vice and immorality.

The second impulse behind Luther's family ethic was his rejection of celibacy as unbiblical and unnatural. Luther's critics have seen him as a failed celibate, a man unable to control his lusts. Luther blamed the doctrine of celibacy itself. For Luther, God's words in Genesis 1:28, "Be fruitful and multiply," represented more than a command; they were "a divine ordinance [Werck] which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore."[6] Addressing the Teutonic Knights, the reformer emphasized Genesis 2:18: "It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper who shall be with him." Setting himself squarely against the papacy and the church councils here, Luther declared: "Whoever would be a true Christian must grant that this saying of God is true, and believe that God was not drunk when he spoke these words and instituted marriage."[7] Except among those rare persons--"not more than one in a thousand," Luther said at one point--who received true celibacy as a gift from God, marriage and procreation were divinely ordained. "For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man." [emphasis added] The intentionally celibate adult had no warrant from God. Indeed, Luther added: "They cannot boast that what they do is pleasing in God's sight, as can the woman in childbirth, even if her child is born out of wedlock."[8] This unusual praise for the unwed mother underscores Luther's belief in the necessary and valued role of sexuality in human life.

Indeed, beyond a ritualistic nod to the fallen state of humankind, Luther saw sex as natural and--in the right circumstances--good, something purposefully linked to procreation and God's will. He appealed directly here to der Creaturn, humanity's "created physical nature," a work of God that was "mightier than all the words, thoughts, and dreams of all men and devils."[9] Before the Fall, Luther held, "women would not only have given birth without pain, but their fertility would also have been far greater"--a true and pure abundance of children.[10] But even after the Fall, the sexual urge remained in service to God's will. Luther responded to the pleas of a healthy man married to an invalid wife unable to perform the conjugal duty. Could he be allowed to commit adultery? No, Luther said, for God "is far too faithful to deprive you of your wife through illness without at the same time subduing your carnal desire, if you will but faithfully serve your invalid wife."[11] Regarding the sexual act, Luther acknowledged that intercourse was "never without sin." However: "God excuses it by His grace because the estate of marriage is His work, and He preserves in and through the sin all the good which He has implanted and blessed in marriage."[12] Through marriage, sex became a moral good, an expression of God's will. This was the heart of Luther's sexual revolution.

While occasionally acknowledging in unenthusiastic fashion St. Paul's defense of the single life, Luther was far more comfortable with the social order he described in his Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order. "We were all created to do as our parents have done," he wrote, "to beget and rear children. This is a duty which God has laid upon us, commanded, and implanted in us, as is proved by our bodily members, our daily emotions, and the example of all mankind."[13] Marriage with the expectation of children, in Luther's view, represented the natural and normal form of worldly existence. Not only was this institution affirmed by Scripture: "Marriage has been from the beginning and still is free and honorable even among the heathen, and throughout the world."[14] In this sense, it was a natural and necessary institution, found even where there was no Gospel being preached.

Marital fertility was also a spiritual expression. Luther saw procreation as the very essence of the human life in Eden before the Fall:

[T]ruly in all nature there was no activity more excellent and more admirable than procreation. After the proclamation of the name of God it is the most important activity Adam and Eve in the state of innocence could carry on--as free from sin in doing this as they were in praising God.[15]

The fall of Adam and Eve into sin interrupted this pure, exuberant fertility. Even so, the German reformer praised each conception of a new child as an act of "wonderment... wholly beyond our understanding," a miracle bearing the "lovely music of nature," a faint reminder of life before the Fall:

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].[16]

What a wonderful portrait of the Christian home! In marriage, humans found a taste of Eden. Procreation, too, was, in Luther's words "a most outstanding gift"--indeed, it was "the greatest work of God."

Accordingly, Luther sharply criticized the contraceptive mentality that was alive and well in his own time. He noted that this "inhuman attitude, which is worse than barbarous," was found chiefly among the well-born, "the nobility and princes."[17] Elsewhere, he linked contraception and abortion to selfishness:

How great, therefore, the wickedness of [fallen] human nature is! How many girls there are who prevent conception and kill and expel tender fetuses, although procreation is the work of God! Indeed, some spouses who marry and live together...have various ends in mind, but rarely children.[18]

Luther also understood that marriage was the best protection against the scourge of sexual disease. He wrote:

The estate of marriage...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, in that they remain exempt from...the most terrible plagues [that] have befallen lands and people because of fornication.[19]

The third element in Luther's evangelical family ethic was his concept of a divine call to the vocations of husbandry and housewifery, to fatherhood and motherhood. Emphasizing human frailty, Luther argued that a successful marriage and a fulfilling family life were exceedingly difficult to attain if ungrounded in religious faith. In such cases, the delights of marriage--"that husband and wife cherish one another, become one, serve one another"--would be commonly overshadowed by the responsibilities, duties, and attendant loss of freedom that the married state entailed. Hypothetically quoting "that clever harlot," natural reason (his label for the wisdom of the world), Luther parodied the popular attitudes of his day:

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 that....What, should I make such a prisoner of myself?...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.[20]

Luther believed that happiness in marriage depended on recognition that the married estate, with its attendant responsibilities, was "pleasing to God and precious in his sight." Indeed, women were called by God to be mothers: "A woman is not created to be a virgin, but to conceive and bear children." Similarly, God called men home to serve as Christian "housefathers." In a wonderful passage, Luther describes the father who confesses to God: "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." Luther goes on to assure him that "when a father goes ahead and washes diapers...for his child, God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, because he is doing so in Christian faith."[21] Luther says that in the Commandment, "Honor thy father and mother," we see that "God has done marriage the honor of putting it...immediately after the honor due to himself." The reformer concludes that "there is no higher office, estate, condition, or work...than the estate of marriage."[22] It was, in fact, "the real religious order" on earth, in that the risks of marriage impelled men and women to the most inward and highest of spiritual states, "to faith."

In harmony with this, Luther also cast man and woman as fully equal in dignity and authority, with their marital union a true partnership of work, procreation, and child care. As he wrote in his commentary on Genesis:

Whatever the husband has, this the wife has and possesses in its entirety. Their partnership involves not only their means but children, food, bed, and dwelling; their purposes, too, are the same. The result is that the husband differs from the wife in no other respect than in sex; otherwise the woman is altogether [as] man...[I]f the wife is honorable, virtuous, and pious, she shares in all the cares, endeavors, duties, and functions of her husband.[23]

In short, Luther's sexual egalitarianism could be expressed only through the bond of marriage; where husband and wife--in becoming one flesh--found true equality. And, of course, Luther lived his words. In a famous declaration, the reformer condemned the common late medieval practice of putting the estate of a deceased male only in the hands of another male trustee. Instead, Luther's last will and testament made his wife Katharine "heir to everything" and directed his children to abide by her decisions as long as she lived.

Fourth, Luther elevated parenting as a task and responsibility. In so doing, he energized the Christian home as an autonomous social sphere. "There is no power on earth that is nobler or greater than that of parents," he said, adding, "Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel."[24] Luther's disciple, Justus Menius, explained the task of parenting in more detail:

The diligent rearing of children is the greatest service to the world, both in spiritual and temporal affairs, both for the present life and for posterity. Just as one turns young calves into strong cows and oxen, rears young colts to be brave stallions, and nurtures small tender shoots into great fruit-bearing trees, so must we bring up children to be knowing and courageous adults, who serve both land and people and help both to prosper.[25]

According to Harvard historian Steven Ozment, in his surprising book, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe: "Never has the art of parenting been more highly praised and parental authority more wholeheartedly supported than in Reformation Europe."[26] Childrearing was not simply "woman's work." In the Protestant home, father and mother would share the duties of childrearing to an unusual degree. Luther saw the years from birth to age six as a time when a child's reason was "asleep." During these years, the mother took the dominant role in child care. But at age seven, fathers should take the lead, with special responsibility for the moral and practical education of children. Inspired by Luther's message and example, publishers turned out dozens of editions of so-called "housefather" books, sixteenth-century "self-help" volumes for dads. The goal was to instill in children the internal controls necessary to an ordered life: a singularity of temperament, a willed self-control, and a conformity between internal character and external behavior.[27]

On the negative side, Luther condemned men who deserted their families or failed to provide support for their children. Such men were, in his words, "monsters of nature."[28]

Finally, Luther's family ethic rested on his understanding of Christian freedom. While surely a staunch moralist, Luther nonetheless rejected ecclesiastical legalism in favor of responsible Christian liberty. Often asked to comment on one or another existing church rule governing marriage or sexuality, Luther commonly fell back on St. Paul's words, "No one rules over his own body." By this, he meant that Christians must abide by probity and respect for standards of decency. To put an end to the problem of "secret marriages," he did urge that parental permission for marriage be the expectation, thereby strengthening the role of the extended family. Beyond these principles, though, Luther tended to argue that, within clear scriptural guidelines, personal freedom should be granted. Concerning conjugal rights, for example, he declared them "fools who lay snares and laws in such matters." Yet Luther consistently maintained that true Christian freedom from the law could never degenerate into "idleness or wickedness." As he explained, "faith alone is the righteousness of a Christian and the fulfilling of all the Commandments, for he who fulfills the First Commandment has no difficulty in fulfilling the rest."[29]

From this, Luther rejected most of the eighteen impediments to marriage maintained by the Catholic Church. As justification, he turned again to Scripture. Leviticus 18, he said, clearly stated that a man could not marry his mother, stepmother, sister, step-sister, a granddaughter or step-granddaughter, or an aunt. Yet the reformer dismissed as unbiblical the Church's prohibitions on marriage to first cousins, non-Christians, godparents and godchildren, the deaf, and the blind, calling instead for greater freedom to marry. Marriage, he concluded, was not a sacrament, but "an outward, bodily thing, like any other worldly undertaking." Referring to 1 Corinthians 7: 12-13, he approved of a Christian's marriage to a non-believer, noting: "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."[30] [In deference to current debates, though, I should note that Luther never extended this freedom to marry two people of the same sex; for him, it is clear by implication that this would have been an inconceivable, horrific act, contrary to the very order of God's creation.]

Luther endorsed early marriage (at age twenty for young men, for women, ages seventeen or eighteen), years when "they are still in good health and best suited for marriage." In praising early marriage, he also urged young couples to not be overly concerned about financial security: "Let God worry about how they and their children are to be fed. God makes children; he will surely also feed them."[31]

Moreover, Luther rejected an absolute ban on divorce. The words of Jesus in Matthew 19, he believed, clearly allowed for divorce in cases of adultery. Even so, he argued that only the innocent party could remarry. Luther even maintained that "government should...still put adulterers to death," in the spirit of Deuteronomy 22.[32] The only other grounds for divorce that he acknowledged were those cases where one spouse denied conjugal rights to the other, and extreme incompatibility. In the latter case, though, neither party might remarry. In short, while opening the door to divorce slightly, Luther was far removed from a modern "no fault" stance.

How then might we judge the success of Luther's family ethic? For nearly four centuries, it seems that it worked reasonably well. Luther framed a family life that cast marriage as the highest order and calling on earth, softened and redirected (while not eliminating) patriarchal leadership, spiritually and culturally elevated motherhood and homemaking, celebrated procreation and large families, encouraged greater home autonomy, and refocused adult lives around the tasks of childrearing. Luther's own marriage to Katharine von Bora, their six children, and their busy home become the model for generations of pastors to follow. These pastoral families, in turn, served as models of proper Christian living for their congregants. In these ways, Luther's family ethic successfully worked to reshape the broader culture, producing marriage-centered and family-centered societies in Germany, northern Europe, and beyond.

This Protestant culture of marriage lasted into the twentieth century, but did not survive that century. What went wrong? Too large a question for me to answer fully in this lecture, all I can do is sketch out a few of the changes that undermined the Lutheran model. In the early twentieth century, for example, the allure of birth control spread into the clerical class. Among Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod clergy, for example, one study found that average family size fell from 6.5 children in 1890 to 3.7 children by 1920, despite continuing church condemnations of contraceptive practices.[33] Clearly, these clerical families were restricting births, an example taken to heart by laymen and laywomen. Later, the "divorce" revolution of the 1960s also swept through the Lutheran churches, almost without opposition. Clerical divorce--once a "career ender"--became almost common by the 1990s. The feminist challenge of the late twentieth century, particularly in those Protestant churches which came to ordain women, struck a fatal blow at the special status of "pastor's wife," simultaneously ending the role of "pastor's family" as a model or guide. In short, instead of reshaping the broader culture as during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Lutheran family of the twentieth century was restructured by the broader culture.

Was there a systemic reason for this weakness? Perhaps so. Viewed in historical terms--that is, putting aside the theological question--it appears that ending the sacramental status of marriage may have left the marital institution more vulnerable to outside pressures. As the Catholic scholar R.V. Young writes: "Protestantism enhanced marriage as a means of personal companionship and individual, earthly happiness, but, in desacramentalizing it, lowered its resistance to the pressures of the secular world."[34]

Does contemporary Lutheranism have somewhere within it the moral and theological resources to become again a culture-changing institution, in favor of the family? My answer to that, I leave to another time.

1. Desiderius Erasmus, at

2. Martin Luther, An Exhortation to the Knights of the Teutonic Order That They Lay Aside False Chastity and Assume the True Chastity of Wedlock [1523], trans. W.A. Lambert; in Luther's Works. Vol. 45: The Christian in Society (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1962): 150.

3. Martin Luther, Exposition of Psalm 127; in Luther's Works, Vol. 45.

4. Luther, Exhortation, 142.

5. Luther, Exhortation, 142.

6. Martin Luther, The Estate of Marriage [1520], in Luther's Works, Vol. 45, 18.

7. Luther, Exhortation, 144.

8. Luther, Estate, 18, 21, 41.

9. Luther, Exhortation, 146.

10. Martin Luther, Luther's Works. Vol. 5: Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 1-5 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1958): 133.

11. Luther, Estate, 35.

12. Ibid., 49.

13. Luther, Exhortation, 155.

14. Ibid., 157.

15. Luther, Genesis, 117-18.

16. Ibid., 133.

17. Ibid., 118.

18. Ibid.

19. Luther, Estate, 44.

20. Ibid., 39.

21. Ibid., 40.

22. Luther, Exhortation, 154.

23. Ibid., 137.

24. Luther, Estate, 46.

25. Quotation from: Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983): 132.

26. Ozment, When Fathers Ruled, 132.

27. Ibid., chapter 4.

28. Luther, Genesis, 134.

29. Martin Luther, Concerning Christian Liberty.

30. Luther, Estate, 22-30.

31. Ibid., 32.

32. Ibid., 32.

33. Alan Graebner, "Birth Control and the Lutherans: The Missouri Synod as a Case Study; in Women in American Religion, ed. Janet Wilson James (Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, 1980): 229-49.

34. In Glenn W. Olsen, ed., Christian Marriage: A Historical Study (New York: Herder and Herder, 2001): 274.