Martin Luther: Defender of Christian Marriage?

by Church Militant  •  •  October 29, 2017   

The reformer sanctioned bigamy and adultery

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By T.J. Lang

Martin Luther is typically acclaimed by Protestants as being one of the best Theologians in Christian history. However, it is in the little known teachings of the man that we discover whether he deserves his illustrious reputation as a Reformer of the church. As an example of the teachings of Luther which are little known to the public at large, let’s explore Luther’s teachings on marriage:

First of all, Luther was not impressed with the way that Christianity had previously handled the matter of marriage. As Hartmann Grisar notes in his book Martin Luther: His Life and Work, Luther once said, "Not one of the Fathers ever wrote anything notable or particularly good concerning the married state."

Marriage had been a Sacrament of the Church since the days of the Apostles. In 1520, however, Luther decided it didn't deserve that status. He reduced it simply to a secular matter. "Of any sacrament of matrimony he refused to hear," notes Grisar, quoting Luther: "Know, that marriage is an outward, material thing like any other secular business."

And Robert Herndon Fife, in The Revolt and Martin Luther, wrote that "he finds no scriptural authority for the sacrament of marriage. The heathen have a true and valid marriage, and likewise the unbelievers who dwell among Christians."

This denigration of Christian marriage had a severe impact in the areas where Luther's teachings had been put into practice. Grisar comments:

Father Staphylus, who returned to the Catholic Church, wrote, in 1562: "So long as matrimony was looked upon as a Sacrament, modesty and an honorable married life was loved and prized, but since the people have read in Luther's books that matrimony is a human invention ... his advice has been put in practice in such a way that marriage is observed more chastely and honorably in Turkey than amongst our German Evangelicals.

Here we can see the beginning of the devaluation of marriage in Western civilization. For Luther, the individual conscience had become the ultimate authority. The individual was responsible for the interpretation of Scripture. How can any church which holds to these beliefs possibly ever hold firm and oppose the ever shifting and declining moral opinions of the society?

For Luther, the individual conscience had become the ultimate authority.

In 1539 Luther officially sanctioned the bigamous marriage of Prince Phillip of Hesse, his most powerful protector. A summary of the affair is as follows: The prevailing penalty for bigamy at the time was death, and yet Luther sanctioned the immoral bigamy, which flew in the face of 1,500 years of Christian Tradition. He did it in writing and in his role as the head of his Lutheran sect. Luther then counseled everyone involved to lie about it, and when the truth came out, he doubled down, refusing to admit his role.

In appreciation for Luther's sanction of his bigamy, Prince Philip sent him a "cartload of Rhenish wine" and "rather more than thirty pieces of silver." In the end, Luther refused to admit that he had done anything wrong.

Phillip was Luther's most important secular defender. He intimated that he would abandon the cause of the Reformation and possibly even join the papal camp if Luther wouldn't grant him the bigamy. In the end, Luther's only regret was regarding the severe damage that was done to his cause once the bigamy became known. Interestingly, it was Luther who claimed that someone who lied on one matter should not be trusted in any: "He who tells a single lie is assuredly not of God and everything else he says is suspect."

In spite of this understanding, Luther was more than willing to justify his lie and then advise that others lie. As Henry Vedder wrote in his work The Reformation in Germany, the reformer "was now adding to his moral turpitude by professing a willingness to do any needful amount of hard lying to cover up his original fault. 'What is it,' said he, 'if for the good and sake of the Christian Church one should tell a good, strong lie?'"

All of those who were advised by Luther to keep the secret did so, to their discredit. The affair was revealed when documents belonging to the mother of the "additional wife" came into the hands of secular authorities.

It was not the Christian Church that stood to lose credibility by Luther's actions becoming known, but rather the Lutheran church — his church.

The bigamy of Prince Philip is one of the better known of Luthers errors, no doubt because it caused such a stir at the time and resulted in a substantial portion of his followers deserting him. Unlike the standard Legend of Luther, the sanctioning of bigamy for Philip was not an isolated incident. Steven Ozment, in his work Protestants, The Birth of a Revolution, noted:

Because of the importance attached to companionship in marriage, the reformers tolerated bigamous attachments, particularly among powerful rulers, whose protection they needed and whose reckless behavior they could not curb anyway. They also endorsed for the first time in Western Christendom genuine divorce and remarriage. ... Luther personally preferred secret bigamy to divorce and remarriage, when a marriage had irretrievably broken down. He sanctioned such an arrangement for women with impotent husbands as early as 1521.

Richard Marius, one of Luther's best biographers, explains in A Christian Between God and Death even more troubling notions on marriage by the reformer:

Some of Luther's thoughts on marriage were radical. Suppose a man is impotent, says Luther, and unable to have sexual intercourse with his wife. He might give his wife her freedom to marry another. But at the very least he should grant her the liberty to have sexual intercourse with somebody else. ... Marriage is not an institution where the husband owns the wife as though she were a slave. She has rights, including sexual rights. If the husband loves her, he should be willing to let someone else meet her sexual needs if he cannot do so himself.

According to Luther, traditional Christian morality is trumped by the sexual desire of the individual — thus the beginning of religiously sanctioned sexual immorality.

Another example of Luther's odd interpretations of Scripture has to do with his changes to the traditional impediments to marriage. In 1522, Luther decided that the accepted traditional impediments to marriage were not scriptural, and thus must be revised.

"[W]ith a good conscience before God I may marry the child of my brother or sister, or my stepmother's sister," he once declared. Since the Church had rejected Luther's radical teachings, in his mind, anything the Catholic Church taught and had taught for centuries was suspect.

"He recognized as valid only those impediments of consanguinity and affinity as set forth in Leviticus 18:6–18. This position made it possible for Luther to accept such previously forbidden marriages as those between first cousins, step-relations, and the siblings of deceased spouses and fiancées," Ozment wrote. "According to Luther, 'one may take as (one's) spouse whomsoever (one) pleases."

Of course, this had unintended consequences. Ozment notes:

In 1537, Nuremburg Protestant leaders Andreas Osiander and Lazarus Spengler reported disruptions in their city brought on by the new Protestant domestic reforms. According to Osiander, people in Nuremburg were marrying not only within relationships long forbidden by the church — as Lutheran teaching permitted them to do — but many "false saints" ignored traditional kinship barriers to sex and marriage altogether, threatening Nuremburg with the spectacle of "incestuous whoring and adultery" among the closest family members. Spengler reports rumors from outside the city that Nuremburgers "marry each other like dogs, with(out) discretion ... judgment, and differentiation among the degrees of relationship between them." Faced with such license and criticism, the city fathers had little choice but to re-impose traditional marriage practices.

Clearly the Reformation, and especially the teachings of Luther, even in the first few decades after his revolt, had a destructive effect on the institution of marriage.

Even more shocking is Luther's recommendation that wives who refuse to perform their "conjugal duty" should be put to death by the state. Referencing 1 Corinthians 7:4–5, Luther stated:

When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another.

Luther, as always, justifies his recommendations and actions by quoting Holy Scripture, providing an interpretation he personally developed and which was informed by his malformed conscience. In this case he provides an interpretation virtually no Christian church would support.

This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones.

Protestants are quick to point out that it was Catholic abuses of that which caused the Reformation. They tend to know little if anything, however, about the various un-Christian teachings and practices of the men who founded their own Protestant sects.

At the Diet of Worms, Luther was declared an outlaw of the empire. The final draft of the charges against Luther sum up how he was viewed by the secular and religious leaders still faithful to the Church:

He has sullied marriage, disparaged confession, and denied the Body and Blood of our Lord. He makes the sacraments depend on the faith of the recipient. He is pagan in his denial of free will. This devil in the habit of a monk has brought together ancient errors into one stinking puddle and has invented new ones. He denies the power of the keys and encourages the laity to wash their hands in the blood of the clergy. His teaching makes for rebellion, division, war, murder, robbery, arson, and the collapse of Christendom. ... He does more harm to the civil than to the ecclesiastical power. We have labored with him, but he recognizes only the authority of Scripture, which he interprets in his own sense.

Luther's degradation of the Christian Sacrament of Marriage started a slide down a slippery slope on matters of Christian sexual morals. Many of the problems became obvious in his own day. By what authority did Luther presume to refute and change so much of Christian practice in regards to marriage? Although same-sex marriage was not an issue in the 16th century, it certainly is now. It can never be and will never be allowable in Catholic teaching. But it can in a Sola Scriptura tradition, and in fact is in many of them. That fact alone should cause tremendous concern in the various Sola Scriptura camps.

Catholic leadership is generally aware of the truth about the early Reformation and how badly the Reformers have damaged the Christian Church and specifically, its unity, which leads to the question: Why is the Church taking part in events throughout the world that commemorate and actually seem to honor Martin Luther and the Reformation?

T.J. Lang converted to Catholicism 25 years ago and has been studying the early Reformation ever since. He lives in rural Maryland and has four children and five grandchildren.


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