Luther’s Regard for Children

[1] In recent months I have had several conversations with colleagues in various aspects of church work about their experiences balancing family life and vocational obligations. Two particular scenarios stand out sharply. In one instance a friend and I discussed exhortations (or was it reprimands?) we had received from childless persons about not allowing our children to run our professional lives. In another instance a pastor told me that when, anticipating the birth of his first child, he asked the congregation’s council to raise his salary to meet the newly revised synodical guidelines, he was turned down and told that in an area where almost all families required two incomes, it was not an unreasonable expectation that his wife would work. At the least, their decision to have her stay home with the child was their business; it was not the congregation’s responsibility to underwrite this lifestyle choice.

[2] Although a former first lady made the African aphorism, “It takes a village to raise a child,” a popular catchword in American political discourse, American society shows itself schizophrenic on this issue, as on so many others where the personal and the public overlap. Proposals for health care reform usually begin with universal coverage for children. Concerns at the way the public education system seems to be failing its students have fueled various policy proposals, from the implementation of state standards and tests to the provision of increased state-subsidized financial support to help the next generation of citizens afford the astronomical costs of a college education. Simultaneously, the fact that such obvious basics of child welfare have been so dangerously neglected betrays a certain indifference, if not hostility, to children and the adults who bring them into the world and then expect the citizenry at large to help shoulder the cost of their actions. Not long ago James Surowiecki in one of his “The Financial Page” articles in The New Yorker discussed the kind of economic activity child rearing represented. He pointed out that parents, while doing work that may indeed be personally rewarding for them, nonetheless, by becoming parents, take upon themselves a task critical for society as a whole. Communities benefit from their efforts, without having to share the hands-on daily grind of parenthood, and thus are rightly obliged to underwrite and support those who are so engaged. We baby-boomers and -busters are relying on upcoming generations capable of productive economic activity and social responsibility if our own life’s work is not to fall to ruin and if we are to have our turn at collecting the benefits seniors in this country regard as a societal obligation to them. The short-term advantage of getting a parent to favor personal professional achievement over the relational work of family life may well prove illusory in the long run.

[3] As we think about how to value family life and child care in our own lives of discipleship, Luther’s theology offers some helpful ideas. One cannot overestimate the radical change wrought in the society of his time by Luther’s understanding of vocation. The late medieval church regarded the celibate life under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to be a higher spiritual way to live out one’s faith. And indeed, in a time when marriages were arranged according to social advantage, where the opportunities for women were sharply curtailed by their relegation to the domestic sphere, and when pregnancy and childbirth were often deadly, life in the monastery, as a number of feminist historians have argued, was likely more often experienced in terms of its possibilities (self-governance, social recognition, safety and education) than defined by its deprivations. Good arguments can be made for the view that on the whole the Reformation represented a net loss for women: they lost the arena for the formation of spiritual identity in their own right with the closure of the convents. The stripping away of saints’ days from the liturgical calendar removed most of the female figures celebrated by the church as exemplary witnesses to the faith. And the abolition of religious activities connected with such practices as funeral rites and processions deprived women of public roles in the life of the church. Once the Protestant Reformation moved beyond its initial radical stage to become a new form of religious establishment, it did not compensate these losses for women.

[4] In contrast to the monastic ideal, Luther hallowed domestic life and celebrated the way it anchors women and men in the world. The purpose of Christian freedom created by the Gospel was to enable the believer to live in God by faith and for the neighbor by love. It is a constant process of breaking the bondage of self-absorption, the state of being incurvatus in se, so as to turn one outward to the world beyond one’s own interests. The course of one’s life is now charted by the needs of one’s neighbors, and there are no neighbors nearer nor more constant in their need for our self-emptying than our children. In his earliest writings on marriage Luther gave the institution a grudging endorsement as the best defense against lust. Marriage covered the evil inherent in the sexual congress of a couple and made possible the non-imputation of the sin of lust. However, later writings show Luther’s growing appreciation of the positive good achieved in the married state, the joys of companionship and the excellent arena for evangelical discipleship which it provided. The greatest good of marriage was the creation of family; married couples bearing and raising children were the foundation of both the church and the civil community and thus essential to both the left- and righthand kingdoms.

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] From Luther’s perspective celibacy was not a superior means of spiritual formation but a deforming of the human being. It could be received as a divine charism, but to require or impose it as a superior way of life was both cruel and blasphemous.

[6] Luther takes every opportunity to milk a biblical text for support of his campaign against enforced celibacy. For example, in his Genesis Commentary Luther portrays the patriarchs and matriarchs as exemplary role models for the German burghers of his own day. The men, as heads of households, have much to teach about bearing the burdens of rule over others. The women are paragons of modesty, hospitality and obedience (or if not, as in the case of the allegedly gadabout Dinah, their fate reinforces Luther’s moral lessons in domestic discipline). The life of Sarah is a reproach to papist presumption.

. . . Sarah cooks, makes butter and cheese, feeds the cattle, etc. I agree that these are tasks of servants and maids. Yet they are presented by the Holy Spirit as an example.
But if the papists despise these works and choose for themselves other extravagant, difficult, and arduous performances of good works, let them take delight in their folly, and let them regard the duties of the household as filth. But let us maintain that if faith is joined to those menial works, they are regarded as more precious than all gold and as more excellent than any celibacy without faith.
Surely the Holy Spirit depicts the saintly mistress Sarah with these colors to make it clear that even though she is married, she surpasses virgins in chastity. Therefore it is a great sin for the papists to inveigh against the marriages of the patriarchs, which are most honorable workshops not only of chastity but of all other virtues. These facts should be carefully noted in order to shatter the opinions of the fanatics. (LW 3:211)
[7] Luther makes one keenly aware that for the purposes of salvation the commonplace human activities of marriage, child-bearing, and family life prove to be essential. It is in these vocations that the patriarchs and matriarchs receive and preserve the promise of God. The mothers especially, tried by the burden of barrenness and obliged at times to overrule their husbands in matters pertaining to the welfare of their sons, embody cherished Lutheran doctrines: the dialectic of law and gospel, the simul iustus et peccator, the theology of the cross. They also enact the eternal struggle between the true and the false church. These women in their domestic modesty prove to be simultaneously movers and shakers of God’s redemptive plan for humankind.

[8] The couples of Genesis are in many ways exceptional cases, women and men faced with unique, often dire circumstances that justify extraordinary actions on behalf of the Word, actions that are clearly not normative for discipleship in general. At the same time they manifest God’s power to bring forth saints from the common clay of family life and household management and thus remind parents how high their calling is coram deo.

Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool – though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith – my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling – not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. Those who sneer at him and see only the task but not the faith are ridiculing God with all his creatures, as the biggest fool on earth. Indeed, they are only ridiculing themselves; with all their cleverness they are nothing but devil’s fools. (LW 45:40-41)
[9] In Luther’s eyes, all mothers and fathers bear responsibility for the preservation of God’s promise because their labors make it possible for children to become the mature, ardent confessors of the evangelical faith and the responsible citizens God desires. If the next generation is to be able to proclaim the grace of God in Christ, they must first experience it through their parents’ care.

[10] Luther identifies four crucial duties that fall upon parents as “bishop and apostle” to their children: to provide the sacrament of baptism for infants, to form children in the true faith as they grow, to attend to their education for a worthy vocation, and to provide them with a suitable spouse in a timely fashion, that is, before lust drives them to take matters into their own hands and risk significant sin. A ferocious defender of infant baptism over against the Anabaptist critics of his day, Luther hails the practice as showing forth the utter graciousness of the gospel. While he plays with the idea that infants may indeed have faith (think the baby who becomes John the Baptizer leaping in his mother’s womb when the pregnant Mary comes to visit her), Luther does not finally care much one way or the other, since what makes any baptism a sacrament is not the faith of the recipient, whatever her age, but the promise of God attached to the sign. Even an infant carries within her the deadly inability to trust, fear, or love God, and it is the measure of God’s mercy that God takes action on her behalf, bestowing upon the unknowing child what she could never secure on her own. Infant baptism also witnesses to the church’s deep trust in God to bring to fruition the good work God has initiated in the sacrament.

[11] What follows is simply living out the consequences of having been baptized, or as Luther puts it in the Large Catechism, to learn to “use Baptism aright.” Here parents play a crucial role in catechizing their children. Although catechesis is necessary for all ages, the young are particularly susceptible to influence, for good or ill. Scholars have noted the irony of the fierce regimentation by which the Lutheran young were to acquire knowledge of Christian freedom. One has only to read Luther’s preface to the Small Catechism to realize that though one was not justified before God by one’s works, one was expected nonetheless to work very hard at one’s formation in the faith and the moral life.

If any refuse to receive your instructions, tell them that they deny Christ and are no Christians. They should not be admitted to the sacrament, be accepted as sponsors in Baptism, or be allowed to participate in any Christian privileges. On the contrary, they should be turned over to the pope and his officials, and even to the devil himself. In addition, parents and employers should refuse to furnish them with food and drink and should notify them that the prince is disposed to banish such rude people from his land.
Although we cannot and should not compel anyone to believe, we should nevertheless insist that the people learn to know how to distinguish between right and wrong according to the standards of those among whom they live and make their living. For anyone who desires to reside in a city is bound to know and observe the laws under whose protection he lives, no matter whether he is a believer or, at heart, a scoundrel or knave. (Book of Concord, Tappert edition, p. 339)
[12] To use baptism aright is a matter of keeping oneself connected with the various means of grace – worship, prayer, proclamation, sacraments – so that one is constantly exposed to the power of the Spirit where God has promised to make that power savingly present. Thus, it is impossible to use baptism aright, to receive its benefits, apart from the church. When Luther encourages the troubled conscience to take heart from the assurance that “I am baptized,” he is not so much reminding us of a specific event in time past but of the lifelong condition of repentance and renewal which it has inaugurated.

[13] Luther shared the common perception of his time that human development proceeded in seven-year cycles, each culminating in a crisis that tested and advanced maturation. The most problematic of these came with the awakening of the sex drive at approximately age fourteen. Thereafter children became aggressive and defied authority. The adults charged with their care had no control over the biological onset of sexual maturity, although they often tried to delay the psychological confrontation with this new phase of personhood, hoping thereby to prolong the child’s relative tractability to good influences. Responses of denial, avoidance and repression were no more successful in Luther’s day than in our own. Luther recognized their futility in the face of the natural, necessary, and God-given force of sexual desire and condemned them as failures of discipleship. This unwillingness to take seriously the neighbor’s real need sets snares for the consciences of adolescents, comparable in Luther’s judgment to those set by required monastic vows of celibacy. A safe passage through puberty and into full adulthood depended on parental honesty in the midst of the crisis and on proper discipline and teaching in the more receptive years of childhood. Since it is impossible and unhealthy to suppress the body’s needs (as much so with sexual urges as with the processes of elimination), the proper response was to proceed with the arrangement of a suitable marriage. Luther strenuously disapproved of secret marriages, that is, the freely exchanged promises between two parties of legally marriageable age, without public witnesses or parental consent. He recognized the parents’ right to dissolve any union contracted without their knowledge and consent, but he also insisted that such interference be for substantive reasons. He did not concede to parents the authority to prevent a child’s marriage arbitrarily. He condemned any attempt to force a child to marry against his or her will or to embrace a life of celibacy. Such actions placed a child at high risk rather than protecting him or her from temptation and sin. Luther presents Abraham as a model parent in this regard when he seeks to find his son a bride. Although the biblical text says nothing about an exchange between the father and Isaac concerning the latter’s marriage, in the Genesis Commentary Luther uses their situation to commend the candor and respect shown by both parties. He exhorts parents and children of his own day to follow their example in matrimonial matters.

[14] Education is the fourth category of parental responsibility discussed by Luther. Before the Reformation the church had been the chief provider of education through its monastic and cathedral schools. The abandonment of monastic life by many and the forcible closure of monasteries by Protestant civil authorities had a devastating effect on schooling. In addition, the already strong disdain for formal education amongst the common people was heightened by radicals who rejected it as unnecessary for the ministry and even offensive to the Holy Spirit which blows where it wills. The wider society became increasingly utilitarian in its estimation of the value of education; one either trained for one of the professions (law, medicine, theology) or one limited one’s studies to matters pertinent to the world of commerce and trade. In contrast, Luther championed a liberal arts program including biblical languages, history, singing, music and mathematics, that was universal and compulsory.

So you say, “But who can thus spare his children and train them all to be young gentlemen? There is work for them to do at home,” etc. . . . My idea is to have the boys attend such a school for one or two hours during the day, and spend the remainder of the time working at home, learning a trade or doing whatever is expected of them. In this way, study and work will go hand-in-hand while the boys are young and able to do both. . . . In like manner, a girl can surely find time enough to attend school for an hour a day, and still take care of her duties at home. (“To the Councilmen of all Cities in Germany that They Establish and Maintain Christian Schools” in Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, ed. Timothy F. Lull, Fortress Press, 1989, p. 727)
[15] Students who showed greater promise should continue in school longer and perhaps even pursue a life of study. Luther is critical of parents who worry only about their own economic interests when making decisions concerning their offspring’s education. If they keep promising youngsters out of school to work, they sin against their children as well as against the wider community and the prince by robbing them of human resources that could be of great value to church and society. And worst of all they wrong God, who requires a properly educated pool of talent to govern creation and to proclaim the Gospel. In such instances Luther appeals to the governing authorities to act in loco parentis, insuring that such children receive the opportunities their talents warrant. Indeed, the majority of parents, even those who mean well by their children, have neither the experience nor the resources to make adequate provision for their education. Luther appeals to civil authorities to assist and, if need be, overrule parents in fulfilling this part of their vocation; clearly Luther knew that it takes a village to raise a child.

[16] This semester I have been teaching the “Luther and Lutheranism” course at PLTS. The reading list includes works of Bonhoeffer and Tillich. Recently in a discussion of the latter’s concept of ultimate concern, the students were asked to identify options that seem dear to the hearts of contemporary society. The question, they were reminded, is not whether you have faith, for everyone does; rather, the question is what god do you invest your faith in. One of the participants suggested that for some people their children are their ultimate concern and that their devotion to their offspring becomes a form of idolatry – a possibility ripe for troubling the parental conscience. It made me mindful of a passage form Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, which we read earlier in the semester. Whendiscussing the hidden righteousness propounded in the Sermon on the Mount, he writes:

No, they [the scribes] would say, genuine obedience and humility are only to be found in the ordinary, the commonplace, and the hidden. Had Jesus urged his disciples to return to their own kith and kin, back to duty and calling, back to the obedience of the law as the scribes expounded it, they would then have known that he was devout, humble and obedient. He would then have given his disciples an inspiring incentive to deeper devotion and stricter obedience. He would have taught what the scribes knew already, what they would gladly have heard him emphasize in his preaching, namely that true devotion and righteousness consist not merely in outward behaviour, but in the disposition of the heart, and conversely not only in the disposition of the heart, but also in concrete action. * * * The disciples are told that they can possess the ‘extraordinary’ only so long as they are reflective: they must beware how they use it, and never fulfil it simply for its own sake, or for the sake of ostentation. The better righteousness of the disciples must have a motive which lies beyond itself. Of course it has to be visible, but they must take care that it does not become visible simply for the sake of becoming visible. * * * We have to take heed that we do not take heed of our own righteousness. Otherwise the ‘extraordinary’ which we achieve will not be that which comes from following Christ, but that which springs from our own will and desire. (The Cost of Discipleship, New York: Touchstone, 1995: pp. 156, 157, 158)
[17] “Ugh!” I wrote in the margin, “how would I know the difference!?” Although theologically I see the point of this exhortation, pastorally I find myself thinking that this is precisely the kind of self-scrutiny likely to lead to paralyzing scrupulosity (incurvatus in se again) that Luther’s understanding of the Gospel was meant to counteract. Can one love the neighbor, including one’s children, and care for them at the expense of one’s love for God? Yet I would argue that the way to God is not separable from the path of discipleship that sinks us into our neighbor’s need and future. Perhaps it is a blessing that the vocation of parenthood is so constant in its demands that it leaves one little time to brood over possible boundary violations. There can never be too much grace for the work of parents, and given what Luther calls the stout promises of the Gospel, there will never be too little either.

Jane E. Strohl

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