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What would Martin Luther think of today's rates of divorce and cohabitation?

POSTED: October 31, 2017 9:00 a.m.
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Editor's note: Oct. 31 marks 500 years since, according to tradition, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to a church door in Germany — an act that sparked the Protestant Reformation and changed both religion and Western society. This article is part of a package of stories exploring the Reformation's impact on the world we live in today.

Getting married was a cop-out in early 16th-century Christianity.

Staying single and devoting oneself to the church was considered taking the high road to heaven. Those who did were conquering lust and therefore spiritually superior to those who caved to the flesh, fell in love, married and raised a family.

That began changing about 500 years ago when Christian reformers put family on a pedestal with game-changing teachings that sexuality and spirituality aren't incompatible and that making a marriage work would do more to get you into heaven than staying holed up in a monastery. Historians trace that change to a monk named Martin Luther — who would later marry a former Catholic nun — and his famous "95 Theses" that according to tradition was nailed to a church door in Germany in October 1517. The theses complained about corruption in the church and launched a religious reformation that would forever change not just Christianity, but also social institutions like marriage.

“They put marriage and the family right at the heart of what it meant to be a Christian and participate in the church,” said Beth Kreitzer, a history and religion professor at Marymount California University.

In the following five centuries, religion and the state would elevate a married couple raising a family to the gold standard for a healthy society, and singlehood would become a problem to be solved. But in recent decades, increasing rates of cohabitation, a divorce rate between 40-50 percent and the highest-ever number of single people in America have sociologists wondering whether marriage has lost its high place in life’s ladder of priorities.

What would Luther think? Historians agree, he would be appalled. But he wouldn’t be hopeless.

“The reformers understood that marriage and family was an ongoing project of reform. It was never going to be rendered perfect,” said John Witte, an Emory University law professor who has studied and written extensively about the legal history of marriage and family. “They would be OK with the idea that marriage and family life continued to be reformed.”

Religious scholars also agree that Luther’s views on sexual relations, preparing for marriage, allowing for divorce, raising children and government’s stake in marriage are as relevant today as they were 500 years ago to those navigating changing social mores that affect marriage and family life.

Enter the state

A survey of world history, particularly times of upheaval and revolution, reveals why it’s no surprise Luther and other reformers quickly tackled issues governing marriage and family, Witte explained. They were following a pattern that both secular and religious leaders followed before and after the Reformation.

“Even (Vladimir) Lenin understood that he who controls the family, controls society,” Witte said. “He understood that this anchor institution really is a fulcrum for how religious and political communities get along.”

The Catholic Church applied this governing tactic in the 13th-century papal revolution when it declared marriage a sacrament, placing it under the control of the church, he explained. Under the sole jurisdiction of the church, however, marriage also became a mess. Secret marriages with no witnesses were a big problem, according to historians, allowing one party (primarily the man) to conveniently disavow any commitment to a woman who was left with no resources but the burden of caring for any children the couple happened to have.

Another problem was the number of clergy who failed to live up to their vow of celibacy. The church tried to address this issue by imposing fines against priests who took up concubines — practices that Luther and other reformers abhorred.

“The reformers thought these financial arrangements gave the appearance that the church was winking at such relationships rather than tackling their serious moral deficiencies,” Kreitzer wrote. “Luther thought the church was unwilling to consider any changes because of all the money to be made in collecting fines.”

The remedy for reformers was to remove the sacramental status of marriage and turn regulating marriage over to the state, Witte explained. Luther taught that while marriage was God’s plan for humanity, it was not necessary for salvation. The state, the church, the community and individual families would share jurisdiction over matrimony, making it a public institution that would ensure against fraudulent unions, encourage couples to make the marriage work and offer support to children and single parents if the marriage broke up.

“That was a pretty radical move to be made in a relatively slow-moving 16th century context,” said Witte, whose book “From Sacrament to Contract” traces the history of marriage over the past 1,000 years.

He speculated that Luther and other reformers would be upset with government’s role in regulating marriage and family today.

“They would be concerned about the exclusion of the church community as an institutional player in marriage formation, maintenance and dissolution,” Witte said. “They would worry about the monopolization of family law by the state."

That inevitable shift to the state started during the Reformation has resulted in changes in marriage and family that the reformers could have never predicted, historians agree, such as no-fault divorce and the legalization of same-sex marriage.

But Witte said Luther could have managed in today's pluralistic society, with religion as one of many players vying for government's attention in issues of marriage and family.

“I think they would be open to reimagining (regulating marriage and family) in the 21st century,” he said, “especially given their appetite to always being open to reform.”

Flexible and far-reaching

While historians describe Luther as a fierce debater who stubbornly held his ground in theological matters, he also seemed flexible, practical and open to ideas about marriage and family.

Take his own marriage. While he encouraged other clerics to marry, he resisted because he feared the fate of others who stood up to the church. “I daily expect the death decreed to the heretic,” he wrote.

Although he still feared for his life, he eventually joined the growing ranks of other married Protestant clergy and tied the knot at the age of 41 to Katherine von Bora, a 26-year-old former nun who, along with several other nuns, had been smuggled out of a convent two years earlier. They had six children.

Luther revered celibacy as a gift from God bestowed on the few who could truly give over their lives to service in the church. But he and other reformers taught that marriage was life’s true crucible and God’s method of protecting men and women from sin. “They saw (marriage) as a life of sacrifice and service, and as the only real and divinely ordained remedy against the sin inherent in sexual desire, which a vow of celibacy could never kill,” Kreitzer wrote.

Even the drudgeries of domestic life were elevated to a heavenly purpose. "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," Luther wrote in his famous sermon, "The Estate of Marriage."

But Luther learned through his pastoral duties that not all marriages would work out. While the Roman Catholic Church did not allow divorce, and Luther did not encourage it, he did believe society should “provide some level of freedom for couples if the marriage is not working out,” said Trevor O’Reggio, a professor of church history at Andrews University.

According to Luther, grounds for divorce included adultery, separation and impotence.

“He certainly does provide a window for divorce within certain boundaries, but at the same time, he would not endorse this free-for-all divorce that we have in our society,” O’Reggio said.

Luther’s flexibility sometimes led to strange counsel for some couples. O’Reggio recounted the criticism leveled at Luther for recommending Prince Philip of Hessey take a second wife rather than have affairs because the prince didn’t have a sexual relationship with his first wife.

The story also illustrates the importance Luther placed on sexual relations. One of his more revolutionary teachings was that the human sex drive was good and not in conflict with being spiritual. He wrote that sex was something to be enjoyed in the bonds of marriage and not just a means to have children.

Given centuries of Christian teaching that sex was an enemy to spirituality and its sole purpose was procreation, Luther’s ideas were a game changer and one of the main attractions of Protestantism, O’Reggio said.

“It was like the restoration of your true humanity,” he said. “You can embrace your spirituality and your sexuality without guilt.”

Just as Luther opposed the early church’s demonization of sex, he would be troubled by today's casual approach to sexual intimacy and marriage, said O’Reggio, who is also a pastor and teaches a course on marriage, family and interpersonal relations.

He believes Luther would endorse a systematic education of young people about sex, marriage and family in the home, church and schools because “if you don’t get these things right then your whole nation is going to crumble … because they are really the building blocks of society.”

O’Reggio explained the crucial role marriage and family play in a healthy society is why Luther’s teachings on marriage and family were so widely embraced and influential.

“I argue that although Martin Luther is known primarily for his views on justification, his views on marriage are probably more far-reaching and consequential because they affect not only the church but the laws of society in general.”
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