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  • Daniel Klassen

Reformed Marriages

Of the many effects the 16th Century Reformation had on public life, the drastic change in the common perception of marriage was unexpected. In hindsight, it is arguably one of the most lasting effects of the Reformation. The torchbearer himself, Martin Luther, is to blame for it. Some have gone so far as to say that his marriage to Katharina Von Bora has been the most influential marriage in the history of the church. But Luther wasn't alone in this radical shift, Calvin and the rest of the Reformers, upon recovering the true gospel, also recovered the biblical understanding of what God intended for marriage.

Prior to the 16th Century, reaching all the way back to the early church fathers such as Jerome and Augustine, marriage was discarded as less-pious as celibacy. They argued that the celibate life was a life lived closer to heaven making it a more spiritual and holy life. Thus, what we would call singleness today, the celibate life was lauded, and marriage was decried. This lead to the degradation of both women and sexuality. It is strange that the Roman Catholic Church held marriage as one of its seven sacraments. Nevertheless, into the Middle Ages, a negative view of marriage and an exalted view of celibacy remained. During this time, the monastery became increasingly corrupt to the point where, as one historian put it, "the clergy were celibate, but not chaste."

Martin Luther was a monk of the Augustinian order. He did not start out in that direction, but that is where he ended up. As a monk, he helped smuggle a group of nuns, who desired the married life, out of the nunnery in Nimbsch and brought them to Wittenberg. There he sought husbands for the nuns. He had no difficulty finding suitable men for all the nuns but one, Katharina. She had turned down every man whom Luther had paired her with, adamant that she would marry no one but Martin Luther himself. Luther was reluctant to marry her. He had previously made a decision not to marry for fear of death from the rising persecution. However, on June 13, 1525, Martin Luther and Katrina Von Bora were married. This was to please his parents who, like many other parents wish for their children, wished for him to marry, but also, as Luther put it, he did it to spite the pope.

Surprisingly, this marriage between a former monk and nun thrived. Married life was an adjustment for both Martin and Katie. For Luther, he had to get used to "a pair of pigtails lying beside him." Katie, on the other hand, had a bit more to adjust to; she discovered that the straw in Luther's bed was rotting from his sweat because it had not been replaced in over a year. However, through all their adjusting, they came to see each other as the greatest blessing from God in their lives.

The Goodness of Women

For both Luther and Calvin, the Reformed understanding of marriage came from the study of the second chapter of Genesis. Fighting against the cultural perception of women, they saw that God placed his image on both the male and the female. Commenting on Genesis 2:18, Calvin writes, "The vulgar proverb, indeed, is, that she is a necessary evil; but the voice of God is rather to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well."[1] The problem, Calvin would go on to say, was that by our sinful nature, we invert this ordained order and bring many evils upon ourselves in the bonds of marriage. In the case that sin had not entered the world, "the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman in this would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as a friendly and peaceful intercourse (meaning the non-sexual, common interaction between husband and wife)" (italicized, mine).[2]

Their view of marriage was inseparable from their view of women. Because of God's ordination of marriage, and his image implanted on women, marriage was holy, and women were highly valued. The Reformers view on women was biblical, not influenced by the culture, and that is what made it complex. Their views affirmed and denied the equality of males and females in different respects. In essence, male and female were equally created in the image of God. In responsibilities, they had been given different roles. The difference was described by Luther as the male being "like the sun in heaven, the female like the moon, the animals like the stars, over which the sun and moon have dominion."[3] The fall caused the woman's subjection to be worse than it previously had been, which was liberal and gentle.

Here we see why Paul, whenever he writes about the roles of men and women in marriage and the church, seems to say the same thing as God's curse to Adam and Eve. The New Testament teaching of the wife submitting to her husband was the return to God's initial plan when he created them male and female. Under the curse, submission is a tough and vulnerable; through the gospel, submission is gentle and fulfilling. Likewise, headship under the curse is domineering and forceful, while the gospel causes headship to be loving, caring, and nurturing. In both these cases, God's original plan for husband and wife are restored in the gospel. The wife find safety, security, and love in her husband, while husband find honor, respect, and love in his wife.

Since our present culture despises the submission of wives to their husbands, the 16th Century reform of marriage is needed today. We need a clear view of God's ordination of marriage and the roles which the husband and the wife fill. Not only that, but we need a clearer understanding of the created differences between the male and female. With the progressive feminist movement shaping the way our Western Culture views gender, marriage, and distinctions, we must not be swayed to unbiblical notions of manhood and womanhood. Having husbands look in reverence to God, and their wives faithfully assisting them in that calling, is what God has ordained in Creation. This view is commonly called, "complementarianism," which basically means the God-designed, complementing of men and women. In this, women are held to a higher regard, given greater security in the love and care from their male counterpart, and set in a place of higher glory since they fulfill what their male counterpart cannot. Luther imagined a world in which there were no women. He concluded, "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."[4]

Many find fault with this idea, stating that it makes women reliant on men. “Women are strong, independent, and not in need of a man,” they state. However, they are demonstrably wrong. In physical stature, men are generally larger and stronger. The way the male and female brains work is drastically different. Statistically, men tend to work in respect oriented, and more dangerous professions, while women tend to work in more nurturing professions. In this created difference, women are “a weaker vessel,” and apart from the obedience to biblical teaching, this world is a dangerous place for women. So, when Paul teaches for husbands to love their wives and treat them with care, he is placing women as more valuable in society than our modern concept of social value does. Our modern format for value forces women to become like men in order to be valuable while Scripture places value on women for being women. Of course, one must account for our fallen nature’s ability to ruin that which God deems good, and deem good the things which are opposed to God’s created order.

The Goodness of Sex

Martin Luther was in favor of passionate, and affectionate sexual relations in the bounds of marriage. Because you read this in the 21st Century, nothing seems amiss with that previous statement. However, in Luther’s day, such an idea was unthinkable, if not viewed as sinful. The perspective of that time saw sex as necessary for procreation, but intrinsically sinful. One Cardinal taught that sexual relations in marriage kept the participants out of the highest heaven, and believed that sex was only righteous if there was no pleasure taken from it. Celibacy was highly honored and promoted as being most righteous and holy.

Luther taught that marital sex was a gift from God, ordained to bless us and cause for thankfulness. He believed that even if Jesus were to return while a husband and wife were engaged in sexual intercourse, they would have no reason to fear because they were enacting God’s calling on their life together. In another place, he stated that an essential component to marriage was “the natural desire of sex.” He taught women to “enjoy their husbands’ bodies,” and for husbands and wives “not to grow tired of their own spouses and lose their desire for them.” This was radical thinking in a time where sexual relations in marriage were looked down upon. We may not find our culture having the same attraction to celibacy, but a similar view to marital sex can often be found. Sex without the strings of marriage attached is seen as fun, exciting, and great, while sex inside the bounds of marriage is seen as boring, and passionless. Nothing could be further from the truth! With the wake of destroyed relationships and scarred lives, sex outside of marriage will never suffice; but unifying, secure, and unashamed marital sex will cause the married couple to flourish.

Threatening Dangers

Luther warned married couples of the impending dangers which accompanied marriage. Satan, sin, and our selfish desires all war against the holy institution of marriage. Couples must pray for grace to sustain them through the trials they face together. Luther wrote that “the devil cannot bear to see couples living together in harmony.” So he does everything in his power to destroy them. Our sinfulness always battles against marriage. All forms of evil occur when sin takes over. Adultery, abuse, unconditional divorce, and many other evils seek to destroy a marriage. Luther wrote bluntly about abuse in marriage. To husbands, he wrote, “You will accomplish nothing with blows; they will not make a woman pious and submissive. If you beat one devil out of her, you will beat two into her, as the saying goes.”[5] Women under authority can suffer much due to the sinfulness of man. To this, Luther responded, “The rule is perfect, life is not.”

The gospel is the antidote to these dangers that threaten a marriage. It is through the gospel that sinners are restored in their relation to God, and it is by that same gospel that restores marriage to the institution God intended for his creation to enjoy. When the gospel resonates in the hearts of both the husband and wife, where Satan, sin, and the flesh attack, the gospel restores. For marriages built on the gospel, what the devil means for evil, God intends for good (Gen 50:20). The recovery of the true gospel in the Reformation was a recovery of the method with which God restores marriage.

Lasting Love

For the Reformers, health issues and persecution insisted on destroying their lives and their marriages. Calvin did not write as much as Luther in regards to his marriage to Idelette de Bure, but his affection for her was still great. Being separated due to a plague that was ravaging Geneva, Calvin wrote to his friend that “day and night my wife has been constantly in my thoughts, in need of advice now that she is separated from her husband.” In the tragic death of their only son who died soon after birth, Calvin wrote, “The Lord has certainly inflicted a severe and bitter wound in the death of our baby son. But he is himself a Father and knows best what is good for his children.”[6] Luther also experienced the death of a child. His daughter Magdalene passed away at the age of thirteen. As they were laying her in a coffin, Luther commented, “It is strange to know that she is at peace and that she is well off there, very well off, and yet to grieve so much!”

When Idelette passed away, Calvin wrote, “Truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best friend of my life, of one who, if it had been so ordained, would willingly have shared not only my poverty but also my death. During her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry.”[7] This goes to show the depth to which Calvin, and all those who saw marriage as a gift from God, lauded the ordained institution given by God.

The Reformation produced an understanding of marriage that resounded throughout the succeeding generations. With the recovery of the gospel came the recovery of marriage according to Genesis 2. For both Luther and Calvin, marriage was a joyful union to be embraced, not a begrudging responsibility. While singleness was still upheld as a good and noble path, marriage was restored to its proper place – a holy and honorable path which produced just as much piety as singleness ever could. In fact, Luther would praise marriage as being a better school for humility, patience, virtue, and all holiness than the monastery. The reformation uncovered the understanding of marriage that God intended for his creation.


[1] Calvin’s Commentary (Gen 2:18)

[2] Ibid

[3] Luther’s Works

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] The Reformation Ideal of Marriage by Michael Haykin. (n.d.). Retrieved from

[7] Ibid

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