In our previous article, we reported on Martin Luther’s defiance of the Catholic church through his stand against the Church’s policy forbidding married priests. Not only did he stage a protest, he also offered himself as a personal example, through his wedding to the “runaway nun,” Catherine von Bora.
In this final installment, we’ll look at how Luther’s action also served to change society’s perspective on marriage, especially through its impact on the Christian church.
Philip Schaff, a scholar from the 1800s, said that “the Roman Catholic system makes marriage one of the seven sacraments; but by elevating celibacy above it, and by declaring it to be beneath the dignity of a priest of God, it (the Catholic Church) degrades marriage as if it involved an element of impurity.”
Luther, on the other hand, took away this idea of impurity, giving back marriage its good name.
Marriage: another stage of Luther’s evolving faith
Meanwhile, Luther himself discovered that marriage has a way of changing things. Ironically, for him, marriage became another stop on his own journey of faith. In the book “Here I Stand,” Roland Bainton said that after the wedding Luther’s views of the institution changed. He now began to think of marriage as a “school for character.” As a matter of fact, in Luther’s eyes, it was now held in even higher regard than that other church institution of the time, the monastery, which was thought of as a “training ground for virtue” and the “surest way to heaven.”
Before, marriage was only an alternative to priestly celibacy, and a way to obtain housekeeping services; now it became a noble “calling” in its own right.
Luther, in his book “Table Talk,” listed some of the other benefits of marriage: “Many good things may be perceived in a wife. First, there is the Lord’s blessing, namely, offspring. Then there is community of property. These are some of the pre-eminently good things that can overwhelm a man. Imagine what it would be like without this sex. The home, cities, economic life, and government would virtually disappear. Men can’t do without women. Even if it were possible for men to beget and bear children, they still couldn’t do without women.”
One other unexpected effect that Luther’s marriage had: once there were married priests (or “ministers,” in the language of Protestants), there needed to be housing for the clergy. And so the “parsonage” was born, to address that practical concern. The parsonage was church-provided housing, usually offered at no charge to the pastor and family, as a way of offsetting the relatively low compensation given to ministers.
Sex with love
Luther’s actions also brought a new, improved outlook on intimacy. Old inhibitions began to fade away, ever so slowly, while sexual intimacy no longer had to be only for purposes of procreation. In fact, it also became “an expression and fulfillment of marital love,” according to Gerhard Brendler.
When it came to home life, Luther’s contribution was no less important. He tried to avoid the childrearing methods used by his own parents, by doling out equal amounts of “praise and blame,” according to Walter Von Loewenich.
Women-bashing “most godless.”
Finally, there’s the matter of gender status. While Luther may not have been able to achieve a quantum leap to 21st century female equality (especially with his own patriarchal ways), he did a great deal to begin restoring balance to the standing of the female sex in those misogynous Medieval years. Luther’s take on women-bashing was that it was “most godless.” When a certain bishop criticized the female nature and anatomy, Luther came to the defense of women everywhere--just one example of the many ways he tried to turn the church in a different direction.
To put things in perspective, Philip Schaff compared Luther’s approach to what the church had become accustomed: “The one flees from woman as a tempter; the other takes her to his heart and reflects in the marriage relation the holy union of Christ with his Church. The one aims to secure chastity by abstinence; the other proves it within the family. The one renounces all earthly possessions; the other uses them for the good of his fellow men. The one looks for happiness in heaven; the other is happy already on earth by making others happy.”
Luther’s legacy, without a doubt, is much greater than even he was able to foresee. We are still reaping the benefits today.