Thursday, October 31st marks the 502nd anniversary of Reformation Day. The Christian blogosphere and social media accounts will be packed with references about Martin Luther and his involvement in the Reformation. I’m glad this will happen. But I want to take a different direction. I want to talk about his marriage.
Martin Luther didn’t marry until age 42. But when he did, his marriage changed the way the western world thought about marriage.
What’s Luther known for? He’s known for good and bad things. On the good side, he’s known for his passionate views on the doctrine of justification and for his writings — he was a deep thinker and gifted with words. But perhaps his biggest known contribution is his bravery in helping spark the Reformation. 1
What Sparked the Reformation
There are many factors that contributed to the birth of the Protestant Reformation. Big movements (good) don’t happen on accident, and they’re often a response to something (bad) else.
Here are some of the things that helped spark it:
-Nationalism – There was increasingly a desire to reject papal authority for the sake of allegiance to one’s home country and the rules and power that came with it rather than submitting to the Roman Catholic Church.
–Ad Fontes– This is a Latin expression which means, “Back to the sources.” As opposed to merely trusting what others say, like the berenas (Acts 17:10-12), there was an increased desire for one to discover truth on his or her own terms.
–The Printing Press – The guy who invented the printing press died thinking he was a failure. Little did he know he changed the world. With the invention of the Printing press, books and other resources spread much more rapidly.
–Black Plague – People were dying quickly from it. The fear of hell and death haunted people. This made room for the gospel and a safe and secure eternity to shine, as opposed to legalism and self-righteousness, which the Roman Catholic Church advocated, adding to the problem.
–The corruption of the Catholic church —There was much corruption within the church, but perhaps what was most hurtful — both then and now — is the sexual corruption. Priests were taking advantage of others, and many were giving into bigamy.
And herein lies what helped Luther’s marriage to stand out. Because of the sexual corruption in the Catholic church, the biblical idea of marriage — one man and one woman, who stay faithful to one another for life — created so much interest. In fact, it too helped start the Protestant Reformation.
Chief among protestant marriages was the marriage of Martin Luther. Little did he know that God would use his marriage to change the world.
It’s amazing how much good you can do just by being faithful. Your faithfulness will be even more prominent when the bar is set low.
Martin Luther and Katie von Bora
Luther was the one who proposed marriage for clergy, and this idea passed in 1520. But Luther himself did not want to marry. At least not at first.
“I will never take a wife,” Luther said. He continued, “Not that I am insensible to my flesh . . ., but my mind is averse to wedlock because I daily expect the death of a heretic.”
Luther was obsessed with the idea of dying as a martyr. “Why get married if I’m just going to die for the Lord anyway,” he may have thought to himself. But that would change when he met his eventual wife — Katie von Bora.
Katharina von Bora (1499-1552) was a nun. Born of an esteemed family, she was set on being a nun for life, until she secretly read Luther’s book, On Monastic Vows in 1522, which denied clerical celibacy. Inspired by Luther’s book and the prospect of getting hitched, she (and other nuns) abandoned her life as a nun, seeking perhaps to get married.
The other nuns who left this lifestyle either returned to relatives or had success in finding a spouse. But not Katie, who was rejected by one potential spouse as being too old. I suspect she got sick of waiting around, so she took matters upon herself. She herself suggested that she should marry Luther. And whaddya know? It worked. Reluctantly, Luther gave in.
Luther married Katie to “take pity” on her. When they first married, he was not in love with her. He said, “I feel neither passionate love nor burning for my spouse.” Worse, the main reason why Luther married Katie was to “spite the pope.” Nevertheless, they got married in the summer of 1525.
But something amazing happened after they married: Luther fell in love with his wife. He said, “I love my Katie; yes, I love her more dearly than myself.” They were married for 21 years and had six children together.
In a book on Church History, we are told that “ . . . perhaps most significant is the fact that because it was such a public event, it became the paradigm for a new Protestant understanding of marriage. Indeed, many scholars contend that Luther inaugurated a cultural paradigm shift in the very concept of marriage . . . Luther and Katie changed the way the western world thought about marriage.”
For so long, in that day, marriage was about social status, not mutual affection and love. Sex was even looked poorly upon, even by Augustine who wrongly argued that sex, even in marriage between one man and woman, was still slightly stained by sin. But Luther and Katie changed the way people viewed sex and love and marriage and romance. Indeed, their faithfulness to one another for over two decades changed the way the western world thought about marriage.
Martin Luther was not a perfect man. But the Lord used him in great ways. As you reflect on Reformation Day this year, do think about the doctrine of justification. But also think about his marriage. After all, it changed the world.
- Some of the quotes and ideas of this post were derived from Church History (see pages 140-141). ↩