Luther on the Family

[1] It is fitting, if frustrating, to find myself working on this article while my pre-adolescent child is throwing a prolonged fit over her mother’s inability to accommodate one more companion animal in the household. I am a divorced single parent, currently getting a snootful about my maternal shortcomings. It comes with the territory of parenting, I know, and I am actually doing a better than my average job at setting the limits and keeping them this time around. Alas, tonight there is no singular satisfaction in that for me. The dinner dishes still aren’t done, and somebody has to take the dogs out once more before bedtime, and then there is the homework that should be checked. It does make a body tired, and I know there are parents all across the United States, collapsed on couches, wearied to infinity and beyond by the limitless demands of family life and fantasizing, like me, about a brief sabbatical in some alternate universe.

[2] Some years ago, before I had a family of my own, I went with a friend of mine and her young son to a Lenten service. He kept himself occupied with crayons and a coloring book at first, but during the prayers, when his adult companions bowed their heads and closed their eyes, he sprang into action. In mid-petition we heard a howl and looked up to see the boy wedged in behind the American flag. His father, the pastor, looked beseechingly at his wife, who effected a rescue. After the service was over, my friend said ruefully, “All I wanted tonight was just a little quiet time to pray . . . . Well, I got two things out of the evening: another reason for removing the flag from the chancel and a reminder as to why I have often found the idea of convent life compelling.”

[3] Indeed, one of the most celebrated aspects of Luther’s theology is its pronounced shift with regard to the primary arena for Christian discipleship. The medieval church celebrated the spiritual estate, in which Christians strove to embody a foretaste of life in the heavenly kingdom, where they neither marry nor are given in marriage, by embracing the evangelical counsels and living under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They tried to place themselves beyond this world’s distractions, including the claims of family, so that they might be wholly available to the working of God’s spirit. In contrast, Luther insisted that the best place to experience the transformative power of grace was in the midst of the world’s everyday demands and commonplace duties. And, as his biography makes clear, he came to know intimately whereof he spoke in the course of his eventful life. Luther, an Augustinian eremite for many years, married in 1525 and with his wife raised six biological children and provided shelter and care within his household to a number of other dependents.

[4] Luther was sharply critical of the pursuit of an alleged higher righteousness. Rather than looking for crosses that flattered their sense of holiness, Christians should go about their daily business and be confident that life would provide more than enough crosses to form, foster and challenge their faith. No vocation is in and of itself holy. All kinds of work can become holy when they are received as part of God’s good creation, exercised as part of a life rooted and grounded in the promises of the Gospel, and pursued with respect for the neighbor’s need and welfare. This is particularly true of the vocation of marriage. In his earliest writings on the married state, which focus on its superiority to enforced celibacy, Luther emphasizes its being a divinely-appointed remedy for lust. He later balances this view of marriage as a prophylactic against sin with a profound appreciation for the blessing of companionship and the delights of love and sexual compatibility that the marital bond makes possible. Best of all, in Luther’s view, is the fact that marriage produces family life. He writes:

But 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. Now since we are all duty bound to suffer death, if need be, that we might bring a single soul to God, you can see how rich the estate of marriage is in good works. God has entrusted to its bosom souls begotten of its own body, on whom it can lavish all manner of Christian works. Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops, and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel. In short, there is no greater or nobler authority on earth than that of parents over their children, for this authority is both spiritual and temporal. (LW 45:46)
[5] As “apostles, bishops and priests,” parents are responsible for insuring that their children are baptized and raised in the covenant of that baptism. Moreover, parents must be mindful that they are the first and most pervasive witness to the Gospel their children experience. Children need to learn of God’s grace not only through exposure to preaching and catechesis but pre-eminently through the experience of human care and protection. Parents, as much as theologians, must be able to distinguish the law from the gospel and apply both rightly. We hold our children responsible and call them to account. We convict and seek to bring about repentance – a turning from old, unproductive, even harmful ways of behaving and a turning to something new and healthier. We also forgive, creating for our children the extraordinary experience of mercy, which acknowledges injury without inflicting shame. It is in its way a kind of exercise of the office of the keys, which takes responsibility for determining what to bind and what to loose and when. As the writer Barbara Kingsolver remarked about her own experience as a parent, one battles with temptation in a new way when charged with the daily exercise of power over a child. Clearly, the ordinary realities of family life are shot through with the great truths of the faith.

[6] We are now in day two of the kitten stand-off at my house. My daughter launched some very smart verbal bombs before our departure for school. This kind of exchange renews the meaning of the old term “trespasses” – “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And these boundary violations, which can trigger toxic mutations in our sense of ourselves, burn with a sense of betrayal. The child can sense the danger of having gone too far and moves quickly to apology and the rescue of forgiveness. So what now? Is attrition an acceptable alloy of contrition? As my daughter informed me, “I said I’m sorry, but I guess there is nothing more to do if somebody doesn’t want to forgive. What’s your problem anyway?” That, of course, is the fearsome aspect of family life, as Luther recognized. It makes us face constantly the problem with us: the sinful incurvatus in se that struggles fiercely against the call to self-emptying, the deliberately maintained porous boundaries of the self in relation to the world and the other. Especially in relation to one’s children, in whom one is particularly tempted to see an extension of the self, does the Christian’s discipleship become acutely challenging, not least because a parent is on 24/7.

[7] For me, a Lutheran critique of the parental vocation has been revealing, daunting and encouraging. I tend to panic in situations of conflict. I have trouble separating confrontation from threat. I have labored for years with a sense of false discipleship (which I have christened “discipleship lite”) whereby a Christian female of whatever age will be a nice girl. So when my daughter doesn’t make nice, I resent her because it makes me uncomfortable and requires of me that I too go beyond “nice.” My daughter tries to manipulate her way to forgiveness – and a renewed entrée for pursuing her original goal, that kitten – but at that particular moment it is not grace made cheap that she needs or is really asking for, but firm limits to chafe against and rest securely upon. Paying the cost of providing them is my job, my vocation. So is staying the course in the labor-intensive, ever-surprising process of reconciliation and transformation that must mold our relationship as she grows up and I grow old.

[8] Luther advised people to receive their spouses as a particular gift from God. It is this woman or man God has brought into one’s life to be one’s companion, mate and teacher in the faith. For through our relationship to him or her our own person takes its shape and creates its history. So it is with our vocation as parents as well. God gives us this particular child or these unique children so that through our relationship with them we may learn to be laid wholly open to the neighbor’s need, to find our life in the spending of it in service to those who are in some sense ours but stubbornly not us. Luther was right about not having to seek crosses. Never could I have designed a program of spiritual formation for myself as thoroughgoing as motherhood has proven to be.

Jane E. Strohl

Jane E. Strohl is Professor of Reformation History at Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, CA.