On Marriage and Family

[1] I am currently teaching a course entitled “The Relation of Man and Woman in Luther’s Theology.” The students, who are of varying ages, are mostly disappointed and sometimes appalled by Luther’s views. They recognize that his ideas must be read in their historical context. They wish the material had more obvious import for the 21st century. Much of the work of the course has been identifying the theology of relationship shaping Luther’s reflections on marriage and family life that doesn’t necessarily play itself out in the domestic particulars Luther favors. The purpose of this essay is to explore Luther’s teachings on marriage and family, recognizing their 16th-century context, and to suggest some points of value for contemporary reflection on these matters. Luther is truly a world away from the questions that challenge us most (and to which the Draft Social Statement on Human Sexuality devotes its attention). For example, marriage is for Luther the relationship between man and woman. Anything involving intimate sexual relations outside of marriage is fornication, worthy of condemnation but not of further discussion.

[2] First and foremost, Luther defines marriage as a vocation, indeed the chief form of discipleship for Christians. Here one finds an interesting intersection of the two reigns of God. Luther rejects the sacramental status of marriage because, unlike baptism and eucharist, it does not convey the forgiveness of sins in Christ Jesus. In fact, it is not in any way a means of establishing the reign of Christ through the Gospel. Marriage has its roots before the fall, in the pairing of Adam and Eve. It is part of the ordering of creation and applies to all people, not exclusively Christians. For this reason Luther is adamant that legislation around marital and family matters rightly belongs to the civil authority, not the church. He gives strength to his case by denouncing in detail the multiple ecclesiastical laws that affected couples adversely.

[3] At the same time the Christian family is essential to the advance of the Gospel. As Luther interprets the creation story, Adam and Eve are the origin of all three of the basic structures of human life: the oeconomia, the family and the church. Adam instructs Eve in the basics of the faith. The couple practices an interesting form of worship by negation. You go to the forbidden tree, you look at it, and then you don’t eat from it. Moreover, Luther suggests that Eve, who makes the mistake of confusing theological speculation and obedience, learns quickly to offer the kind of worship now suited to their fallen state. God imposes harsh punishments on Adam and Eve, but God does not revoke the blessings of their marriage. They are allowed to remain together. They will have children, and for Luther creating a family is the greatest fruit and chief purpose of marriage. Parents are to be bearers of the faith to the next generation. Luther describes mothers and fathers as apostles and bishops to their children. They ground them in the Scriptures; they mold them for godly living; they proclaim the Gospel to them; and they live it out, showing their sons and daughters what it means to repent and forgive, to serve, and to prize love and mercy above all things.

[4] Luther provides a forceful apologetic for the married state and misses no opportunity to defend it. This aggressive campaign against marriage’s detractors has its counterparts in contemporary debates about sexuality and family life. However, the focus of Luther’s particular concern has limited meaning outside of his 16th-century context. The celibate life of a monastic was honored as a superior spiritual estate. Life in the world, including marriage, although important for the doing of God’s will, remained an “also ran.” Luther acknowledged that celibacy was a true blessing and better suited for service to the Gospel than married life. If one were able to forego the commitments of family, one would certainly have far greater freedom for ministry. However, celibacy was a divine charism; it could never be a human choice.

[5] To reject one’s created nature was an affront to God. Male and female were created for companionship and procreation. The sexual drive had been affected by the fall – hence Luther’s incessant warnings about lust — but it had not been corrupted beyond recognition. The Creator still looks at our sexual nature and pronounces it “good.” Mention lust, and folks tend to envision people single-mindedly nailing each other with abandon. In many a TV series it ain’t over until the main characters have slept their way through the whole cast; it’s hard to imagine where one goes from there in the second season. Lust, however, is not exclusively an affliction of the genitals. The mind and the heart succumb to its destructive force as well. Whenever we pursue our own interests and appetites no matter what the cost to others, we have surrendered our freedom to the sin of lust. Luther described sinfulness as being incurvatus in se. Surely the person driven by such greedy hunger for possession, be it of people, things or position, becomes the prisoner of his own sinfulness.

[5] Luther was always concerned to protect the believer’s conscience, and it was on this ground that he blasted the monastic practice of the Roman Catholic Church. Young people were often encouraged to take vows before they had matured enough to know whether they could live as celibates. Yet once those vows were made, there was no escaping them. And so, charged Luther, the church violated its pastoral obligation by insisting on obedience that these people could not muster. Their very created nature made celibacy an impossibility. Bound as they were by this vow and unable to marry, they were driven to what Luther describes as unnatural expressions of their sexuality and to unceasing guilt.

[6] Ecclesiastically enforced celibacy is not a fate facing many in our society. However, as my students have pointed out, the ELCA does make it a matter of conscience for candidates for rostered ministries. According to Visions and Expectations sexual intercourse is only permissible within a marriage between one man and one woman. This accords with Luther’s conviction that only marriage can mitigate sin’s effects on sexual desire, which inevitably degenerates into boundless lust outside of the limits God has created for it. The consequence is to regard being single as a transient state, the holding pen for those who are yet to be married. If that is the direction one’s life takes, “saving it for marriage” might be important. Luther did not envision a vocation of single life as a legitimate alternative to marriage. The reasons were economic and social as well as theological. Our society allows for a wider variety of relationships: persons with the gift of celibacy; partners in marriage; partners who choose not to marry but share “bed and board,” as Luther put it; partners of the same sex; persons who over a lifetime enter into relationship with multiple partners; persons who aren’t much interested in partnership at all. Luther identifies values that are, from a Christian perspective, critical for defining relationships marked by wisdom and grace. It is important to remember that the most intimate act of an intimate relationship is forgiveness. It is important to cherish fidelity, to receive one’s partner not just as a lover but as a neighbor to be served as Christ has served us all. When you can’t be with the one you love, you simply don’t love the one you’re with. You can’t give yourself away again, because you have already given yourself to another. Luther knew without doubt where sexual intercourse fit into all this. For our society, however, the limited location of the marriage bed is no longer a given, although many folks in our church would like to make it so once again.

[7] The Draft Statement includes the following as a sidebar in the subsection “The necessity of mercy always,” p. 38: “This church upholds all members who are single. It encourages them in trustful and trustworthy lives. It respects those who choose singleness as a way of life.” One assumes the church also respects those to whom singleness just happens, because of any number of factors beyond their control and certainly not of their choosing. Singleness is not the same as celibacy, no matter how much we want to make them so, not for the members of our congregations, not for the people we hope to reach with the Gospel, not for our clergy. If marriage isn’t where you find your vocation, does that mean you have forfeited your right to explore to its depths the sexual nature God has given you? Is it necessary that all decent roads of intimacy lead to marriage?

Jane E. Strohl

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