Luther and marriage...

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Should I get married? Most of us don’t ask the question. We just assume we’ll get married and spend time thinking about whom we will marry.

Martin Luther, however, did ask that question. When he became a monk, he had taken a vow of celibacy and the Bible has stern things to say about those who break their vows. He also thought there was a good chance he would be martyred, soon. There were many people who wanted him dead. Should he marry when his wife could end up a widow before their first anniversary? Too, his Roman Catholic critics believed the new Protestant movement was just a cover for sexual licentiousness. If he got married and others followed his example, this would help silence the critics.

Luther struggled with the question and asked his parents about it. His father urged him to marry and have children, just like fathers everywhere, always, and at all times.

In Roman Catholicism, marriage was a sacrament and regulated by canon law that told you...

who you could or couldn’t marry, and gave the fee you had to pay if you wanted to marry a relative who was “too close.” Those who were celibate were seen to be on a higher spiritual plane than those who married. Sexual intercourse, even within marriage, was sinful. Books from classical antiquity denigrated the institution of marriage. They spoke of women’s depravity and how marriage was a recipe for unhappiness.

At this time, marriage in Germany was in trouble. Divorce was common, as was desertion. One German pastor wrote that it had always been the devil’s plan to attack marriage. Luther agreed. Part of his reforming work was to establish what would become the Protestant view of marriage. What follows is a summary of Luther’s theology of marriage.

First, he denied the sacramental standing of marriage. In his 1520 work, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther wrestled with the sacraments of the Church, ultimately reducing them from seven to two. A sacrament was a sign that had been instituted by Christ and was accompanied by a divine promise (Althaus 1966:345). Marriage lacked this word of promise. Luther also reduced the number of impediments to marriage that had crept into canon law over the years, though he retained those with Biblical warrant (e.g., those found in Leviticus 18).

Second, he denied that celibacy was a more spiritual estate than marriage. He knew intuitively that clerical celibacy must be wrong since it had led so many priests and monks into sin. In his Address to the Christian Nobility (1520), he affirmed the priesthood of all believers. Though believers have different callings, all were priests. Later, he went even further in his exposition of 1 Corinthians 7 (1523), arguing that marriage, not celibacy, was “the most religious state of all (Wengert 2004:173). This really stood things on their head. No longer were celibate clergy by definition more spiritual than married lay Christians.

Third, he argued that all should marry. In his brief treatise, The Estate of Marriage (1522), Luther began with the book of Genesis. God had established the institution of marriage in Genesis 1:26-28. Here, we read that God created man as male and female and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. From this establishment, Luther drew the conclusion that all should marry and the burden of proof was placed on the one who chose not to marry to give cause why he should refrain. Only three types of people had a reason not to get married: (1) the sexually impotent; (2) those who’ve been castrated; (3) those who have the gift of chastity (and not even one in a thousand had this gift).

If I may digress for a moment, Luther’s plain exposition shows the spiritual pride of some zealous Protestants today who encourage young people to consider celibacy so that the world will be evangelized sooner. Sadly, these encouragements, often unspoken but unmistakably present, have led impressionable young men, desirous to please their spiritual mentors, into sexual sin as they’ve tried to have the gift of celibacy when they clearly do not. Those with experience in the Evangelical movement of the last 40 years will be able to call to mind some examples of this error. They’re really out there and it’s awful. Marriage is God’s will for all of us except a rare few.

Fourth, and more controversially, Luther taught that marriage was secular. It belonged to creation and not to redemption, so Christians could marry outside the faith. Just as we may eat and drink with Jews and heretics and Muslims and pagans, so we may walk and ride with them, buy and sell from them, and marry them. Marriage is for all people, not just Christians.

To digress again, I think Luther got it wrong here, also. Yes, marriage is a creational ordinance, but it is bigger than that. Marriage was created to demonstrate the relationship of Christ and the church and functions as an illustration of this most sacred of relations. Thus, a Christian may only marry another Christian.

Fifth, Luther allowed for divorce in certain cases: “impotence, adultery and the refusal of sexual intercourse” (Wengert 2004:175). The reformer was clear that divorce was not required in these cases but it was allowed. Christians, he maintained, should never divorce. However, “if there are believers who already live with their wives in an unchristian fashion, then they should be permitted to divorce in order to demonstrate that they were not really Christians in the first place” (Wengert 2004:177). Christians must live in marriage in a particular and spiritual manner, and not as the pagans do. Marriage is a gift from God and came about by divine establishment.

Finally, he claimed there were three purposes for marriage: children, loyalty and love. God established marriage for our delight and joy, and for the begetting and rearing of children. He tells us “God with all the angels and creatures is smiling at a father washing diapers,” because in this way, the father “is acting in true Christian faith” (Wengert 2004:177). Interestingly, though sexual pleasure is one of the purposes of marriage, “intercourse is never without sin” (Wengert 2004:178). In writing this, he continues the beliefs of early Christian fathers like Augustine. Yet God, in His infinite grace, excuses this sin since it is part of His overall design for marriage.

Luther eventually decided to take the plunge.

His teaching on justification had convinced some Catholic clergy. Many wrote to him, as did some nuns. They told him they had adopted his teaching and asked for advice on to how to escape the convent. To help the nuns escape the cloister was a capital offense, so the stakes were high. Luther asked a friend for help and a plan was hatched. This friend used to deliver fish to the convent from time to time. On Easter’s Eve of 1523, he delivered several barrels of fish to the sisters. When the covered wagon left the convent, the empty barrels were on it; but were they really empty? Empty of fish, yes, but not completely empty. They were filled with twelve nuns. Three returned to their parents’ home, but nine came to Wittenberg. It was now Luther’s job to find husbands or positions for them. This was not so easy as they were trained to pray, not to keep house. He was eventually successful with eight of them, but one remained: Katherine von Bora.

Luther thought he had found her a husband, but the wealthy man from Nurnberg backed out at the last minute. Martin suggested another man and Katie turned him down. Luther thought she could ill afford to be choosy and said so. Katie replied that she was not unreasonable and would consider marrying Nicholas Amsdorf (another reformer) or Luther himself.

Providentially, Luther visited his aged parents in their home around this time. When he mentioned Katie’s proposal, probably as a joke, his father Hans took him seriously. He wanted his son to pass on the family name and urged him to marry. Ultimately, Luther gave in. His marriage to Katie would “please his father, rile the Pope, make angels laugh and devils weep, and would seal his testimony” to the truth (quoted in Peterson 1983:24-25).

Luther admitted he was not wildly in love. Katie was nothing special to look at, but in the time since she had left the convent she had received some training in domestics. Soon Martin came to cherish her. Still, it was hard to get used to being married. Luther had not made his bed (=changed the straw) in over a year and it stank with sweat. Yet he was so exhausted he would drop into it and fall asleep without noticing the smell. Katie changed all that. Now when he woke up in the morning, Luther found “a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before” (Bainton 1950:290). While sometimes Martin called Katie, “my lord,” he also called her “my rib,” referring back to the Genesis chapter two.

They had a good but normal marriage. Arguments were not few. Katie had a tongue to match her husband’s. Money was scarce and Luther was generous to a fault. Katie would not have called it generosity, but stupidity. Martin once said he wouldn’t trade “Katie for France or Venice,” yet when she contradicted him at dinner (in front of guests), he proclaimed, “if I should ever marry again, I should [cut] myself an obedient wife out of stone.” On another occasion, perhaps only half joking, Luther said, “in domestic affairs I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost” (quoted in Peterson 1983:14). But Katie was a hard worker. She raised vegetables in her garden, tended an orchard that grew apples, pears, grapes and peaches, raised chickens, pigs, cows and ducks, and caught fish in a nearly pond. She also looked after her family.

They had six children, three boys (Hans, Martin, Paul) and three girls (Elizabeth, Magdalena, Margaretha). Luther knew the joys and sorrows that come with having children. Elizabeth died at eight months old and Magdalena died when she was 13. Her father grieved deeply. Besides the children, Martin and Katie took students into their home (which was very large). They would ask questions at dinner and several of them wrote up these dialogues that were published as Luther’s Tabletalk. So his household was usually full and Katie supervised it all, though she had the help of a number of servants. She even did a fair amount of doctoring as his health started to decline (Bainton 1950:286-304 and Peterson 1983:13-37). Luther was very critical of couples that desired to have only a few children (Wengert 2004:184).

During the 1530s, Luther admitted that “marriage matters” kept him busier than all his other duties in leading the evangelical movement combined. Secret engagements were causing problems so he advocated that all engagements be made public, “because marriage is a public estate which is to be entered into and recognized publicly before the church” (Wengert 2004:181). Parents were not to force their children to get married. Young people should enter this estate freely and willingly. In terms of divorce, he became even harder on those who deserted their spouse than on adulterers. Since marriage belongs to creation (and not redemption), “it is up to secular authorities to deal with marital issues, "not the church. Though marriage has been stained by sin (and thus, spouses should always be ready to forgive), nothing in this world is more beautiful than the trust that exists between a husband and wife (Wengert 2004:182-83).


Althaus, Paul. 1966. The Theology of Martin Luther. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Bainton, Roland. 1950. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury.

Peterson, William J. 1983. Martin Luther had a wife. Wheaton: Tyndale.

Wengert, Timothy, ed. 2004. Harvesting Martin Luther’s Reflections on … Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.


David Wegener

David is an ordained Teaching Elder (Pastor) in the Central Indiana Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church in America. Formerly serving in theological education in Africa with Mission to the World, he and his wife currently live in their hometown of Bloomington, IN.