The Estate of Marriage


Estate of Marriage

Among the many topics the Reformer, Martin Luther addressed was the topic of marriage. Luther, as you know came out of a culture where Papalism said that priests should remain celibate. Eventually, Luther himself did get married. I want to take some time to review a treatise by Luther titled, The Estate of Marriage.

Luther discusses who should marry and whom to marry, per the Bible and further Luther discusses whom should be celibate and why. I will review his three-part treatment in even smaller segments. Please refer to this link to see Luther's actual treatise as translated into English by Walther I. Brandt.


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The Estate of Marriage was written in 1522, which was rather early on during Luther's initial transformation considering the 95 Theses was penned in 1517 and his excommunication after the Diet of Worms occurred in 1521.

Luther is reluctant to tackle this topic because it is so emotionally charged and has been grossly distorted by the "two swords" of power, that being the Church and the State. But he begins by affirming that man and woman are supposed to be together by divine design, referencing Gen 1:27. Luther further points out something that was true at least until modern surgical technique:

"I cannot make myself a woman, nor can you make yourself a man; we do not have that power. But we are exactly as he created us: I a man and you a woman."

I guess no matter how crafty the surgeon's knife, a person's gender is still set from birth, even a hermaphrodite shows a dominant gender.

Luther then simply goes on to show the purpose of the two genders:

"God had made man and woman he blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply" [Gen. 1:28]. From this passage we may be assured that man and woman should and must come together in order to multiply. Now this [ordinance] is just as inflexible as the first, and no more to be despised and made fun of than the other, since God gives it his blessing and does something over and above the act of creation. Hence, as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not my prerogative to be without a woman. Again, as it is not in your power not to be a woman, so it is not your prerogative to be without a man. For it is not a matter of free choice or decision but a natural and necessary thing, that whatever is a man must have a woman and whatever is a woman must have a man."

Barring the argument against our power to be another gender, Luther here summarily says that men should be with women and women should be with men, for the purpose of procreation at the very least. Luther even more forcibly states that if men and women try to hinder the necessity of procreation, or at least the act of it, they will and do fall into sin.

"Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but creates them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice."

This comports with the biblical text that says,

"[Husbands and wives] Do not deprive one another [of sexual relations] except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control." -- 1 Cor 7:5

But Luther is not without understanding that not everyone will marry; he gives three biblical exceptions to this otherwise natural and mandated reality.

  1. Eunuchs from birth
  2. Eunuchs made such by other men
  3. Eunuchs made such by their own devotion to the kingdom

"Apart from these three groups, let no man presume to be without a spouse. And whoever does not fall within one of these three categories should not consider anything except the estate of marriage. Otherwise it is simply impossible for you to remain righteous. For the Word of God which created you and said, "Be fruitful and multiply," abides and rules within you; you can by no means ignore it, or you will be bound to commit heinous sins without end."

This is true in the fact that the human is a sexual creature and must have relations. Those who do not enter into the estate of marriage cannot remain righteous. Yet this begs to address a statement by the apostle Paul.

"But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." -- 1 Cor 7:6-9

Note how Paul desires, not out of command but as a wish or concession that people were as he, unmarried. Where Luther says an unmarried person, not being an eunuch must marry or fall into sin, Paul says if the person can exercise self-control then they should prefer to be unwed. Paul gives his reasons in verses 25-38 where in summary Paul says because of the troubles Christians were going to endure in the first-century, it would be better if they could remain unmarried since marriage causes a person to be more devoted to their spouse than being free of time and responsibilities to devote to the Lord.

Lastly for part one of this review, Luther says yet another statement that is untrue due to modern medicine.

" cannot promise that you will not produce seed or multiply, unless you belong to one of the three categories mentioned above. And should you make such a promise, it too would be foolishness and of no avail, for to produce seed and to multiply is a matter of God's ordinance, not your power."

Actually it is within our modern power not to produce seed and to not multiply even if we have sexual relations, even without going to the extent of being an eunuch or some other form of permanent sterility. But does this invalidate the principle behind Luther's argument?

Perhaps the better argument is that human beings are designed to be sexual creatures, which purpose is indeed to procreate but even if procreation can be halted, as it is with modern medicine, humans are still sexual creatures and thus as Paul says: should marry if they cannot exercise self-control. As we know, most humans cannot exercise self-control, so the estate of marriage should be the norm.


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Because Luther thinks no one should vow to be celibate, since it is against divine design, he also believes the vows of monks and nuns to remain celibate are invalid.

"No vow of any youth or maiden is valid before God, except that of a person in one of the three categories which God alone has himself excepted. Therefore, priests, monks, and nuns are duty-bound to forsake their vows whenever they find that God's ordinance to produce seed and to multiply is powerful and strong within them. They have no power by any authority, law, command, or vow to hinder this which God has created within them. If they do hinder it, however, you may be sure that they will not remain pure but inevitably besmirch themselves with secret sins or fornication. For they are simply incapable of resisting the word and ordinance of God within them. Matters will take their course as God has ordained."

This is especially prescient in the issue of the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandals. Requiring an entire group of people to exercise self-control, especially when many of them do make that vow in youth, not fully realizing the power of the human sexual drive, will as Luther says, lead to them inevitably besmirching themselves and others.

Luther addresses what happens if a husband becomes sterile or otherwise unable to impregnate his wife. It is worth quoting the entire segment of the text as some might find it rather shocking what Luther suggests should be done when a spouse is unable to sexually perform or produce children.

"...if a woman who is fit for marriage has a husband who is not, and she is unable openly to take unto herself another and unwilling, too, to do anything dishonourable since the pope in such a case demands without cause abundant testimony and evidence, she should say to her husband, "Look, my dear husband, you are unable to fulfil your conjugal duty toward me; you have cheated me out of my maidenhood and even imperilled my honour and my soul's salvation; in the sight of God there is no real marriage between us. Grant me the privilege of contracting a secret marriage with your brother or closest relative, and you retain the title of husband so that your property will not fall to strangers. Consent to being betrayed voluntarily by me, as you have betrayed me without my consent".

I stated further that the husband is obligated to consent to such an arrangement and thus to provide for her the conjugal duty and children, and that if he refuses to do so she should secretly flee from him to some other country and there contract a marriage. I gave this advice at a time when I was still timid. However, I should like now to give sounder advice in the matter, and take a firmer grip on the wool of a man who thus makes a fool of his wife. The same principle would apply if the circumstances were reversed, although this happens less frequently in the case of wives than of husbands."

Luther, if you didn't catch it is actually advising that an impotent or sterile spouse allow the other to contract relations with another person. As shocking as this may be to our modern ears, it has been shown to be a solution in the Bible when a wife is barren. (see Gen 16:1-2, Gen 21:1-11) It may not be a very good solution as it seems to have always caused jealousy and resentment at some point. Again, modern medicine has almost made this a moot point.

Next, Luther discusses whom to marry, specifically the issue of incest as to regards of marrying kin. Luther strongly disagrees with the Papal "degrees of consanguinity" and instead cites Leviticus 18:6-13. Luther says, the Roman Catholic Church at his time, had 18 banned categories of marriage. I will not address all of them here, but only high-light those relevant to our own generation.

"Here they have forbidden marriage up to the third and fourth degrees of consanguinity. If in this situation you have no money, then even though God freely permits it you must nevertheless not take in marriage your female relative within the third and fourth degrees, or you must put her away if you have already married her. But if you have the money, such a marriage is permitted. Those hucksters offer for sale women who never have been their own. So that you can defend yourself against this tyranny, I will now list for you the persons whom God has forbidden, Leviticus 18:6-13, namely; my mother, my stepmother; my sister, my stepsister; my child's daughter or stepdaughter; my father's sister; my mother's sister. I am forbidden to marry any of these persons. From this it follows that first cousins may contract a godly and Christian marriage, and that I may marry my stepmother's sister, my father's stepsister, or my mother's stepsister. Further, I may marry the daughter of my brother or sister, just as Abraham married Sarah. None of these persons is forbidden by God, for God does not calculate according to degrees, as the jurists do, but enumerates directly specific persons."

Note, specifically that Luther says it is permitted to marry, even your niece or nephew, the daughter or son of brothers or sisters. Interestingly enough, niece or nephew marriage is presently illegal in the UK, in Canada, and it appears 42 of the U.S. states.

Luther goes on to claim the real motivation behind the Papal ban on marriages beyond those in Leviticus 18 is simply a ploy to gain income via some special allowance from the Church.

But Luther does not end there, he even allows that an adopted sibling may marry a biological sibling.

"The fourth impediment is legal kinship; that is, when an unrelated child is adopted as son or daughter it may not later marry a child born of its adoptive parents, that is, one who is by law its own brother or sister. This is another worthless human invention. Therefore, if you so desire, go ahead and marry anyway. In the sight of God this adopted person is neither your mother nor your sister, since there is no blood relationship."

Although technically Luther is correct that an adoptive sibling is not blood related, it seems wrong simply out of the fact of the rearing of these children as if they are blood related. I myself am an adopted child and would find it offensive to have any sexual attraction to my siblings, who are biologically the children of my adoptive parents.

What is further revealing is Luther's insistence that it is fine for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, and he even cites 1 Corinthians 7:12-13.

"The fifth impediment is unbelief; that is, I may not marry a Turk, a Jew, or a heretic. I marvel that the blasphemous tyrants are not in their hearts ashamed to place themselves in such direct contradiction to the clear text of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:12-13, where he says, "If a heathen wife or husband consents to live with a Christian spouse, the Christian should not get a divorce." And St. Peter, in 1 Peter 3:1, says that Christian wives should behave so well that they thereby convert their non-Christian husbands; as did Monica, the mother of St. Augustine.

Know therefore that marriage is an outward, bodily thing, like any other worldly undertaking. Just as I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride with, buy from, speak to, and deal with a heathen, Jew, Turk, or heretic, so I may also marry and continue in wedlock with him. Pay no attention to the precepts of those fools who forbid it. You will find plenty of Christians, and indeed the greater part of them, who are worse in their secret unbelief than any Jew, heathen, Turk, or heretic."

To me, it seems Luther not only overlooks the fact that the text is not encouraging a Christian to enter into marriage with a non-Christian, but rather the text appears to speak to the issue of a person who becomes a believer while married, that they should not divorce their unbelieving spouse. The idea that Christians should not marry non-Christians seems to be indicated at least in principle in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15.

"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?"

Of course this principle can and I believe should be extended to all of our relationships. Although we are not to avoid all contact with unbelievers, as shown in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11, however if our main influence is from unbelievers; be they friends or a spouse then we are in danger of 1 Corinthians 15:33 where bad company corrupts good character. I don't believe it is wise for us to knowingly enter into marriage with a non-believer. On this point, I disagree with Luther.

In part 3, we shall continue with Luther and his arguments against the 18 impediments.


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We resume Luther in his examination of the so-called impediments to whom may marry. He next addresses the Papal prohibition against marriage due to supposed crimes.

"The sixth impediment is crime. They are not in agreement as to how many instances of this impediment they should devise. However, there are actually these three: if someone lies with a girl, he may not thereafter marry her sister or her aunt, niece, or cousin; again, whoever commits adultery with a woman may not marry her after her husband's death; again, if a wife (or husband) should murder her spouse for love of another, she may not subsequently marry the loved one. Here it rains fools upon fools. Don't you believe them, and don't be taken in by them; they are under the devil's whip. Sins and crimes should be punished, but with other penalties, not by forbidding marriage. Therefore, no sin or crime is an impediment to marriage. David committed adultery with Bathsheba, Uriah's wife, and had her husband killed besides. He was guilty of both crimes; still he took her to wife and begot King Solomon by her (2 Sam 11), and without giving any money to the pope!"

Again, Luther's point is that it seems like any marital impediment can be annulled simply by paying the pope enough to look the other way.

The thirteenth impediment Luther addresses speaks of how marriages used to be in Europe and much of early America. The father of the bride would ultimately have to give his blessing.

"...a child is supposed to be subordinate and obedient to its father, and not become engaged without his knowledge. In this way, obedience to parental authority will put a stop to all these secret engagements which occasion such great unhappiness."

However, the specific issue which the thirteenth impediment addresses is when someone is engaged and yet the fiancé finds another love before the actual marriage. Luther believes the promise to the first person is binding and therefore the person should marry the promised person. Yet if children are begotten by the second person (not originally promised in marriage), then Luther suggests that marriage to the second person is in order simply for the sake of the children.

Luther concludes his address of the impediments by implying there were even some prohibitions against blind and deaf people from marrying, which of course Luther was appalled that there would be such a prohibition.

We now come to part 2 in Luther's treatise, wherein he addresses for what reasons a person may divorce.

  1. Conjugal inability
  2. Adultery
  3. Depriving of conjugal relations

Luther goes into more detail about adultery even advising that the government should put adulterers to death, so as not to have the question of whom an adulterer can marry after divorce, since it is supposed such a person would still be sexually active. Barring the government's responsibility of executing adulterers, Luther advises the adulterer move to some far country and remarry.

Interestingly enough, Luther advises that a woman has equal right to divorce an adulterous husband as a husband has to divorce and adulterous wife. This shows how the Reformation did more than impact the religious views of society.

As for the 3rd reason for divorce, Luther says:

"...the husband should admonish and warn his wife two or three times, and let the situation be known to others so that her stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation. If she still refuses, get rid of her;"

Supposedly this would as well apply if it were the husband depriving the wife. But the recommended response from the government seems harsh.

"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. We would certainly have to accept it if someone's life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?"

These three cases broaden the reasons for divorce quite a bit.

Luther offers a forth reason for divorce but says if this is invoked that neither the husband nor wife should remarry anyone else, but only be reconcile to each other.

"This is the case where husband and wife cannot get along together for some reason other than the matter of the conjugal duty."

Luther seems to imply this would be the case even with an abusive spouse.

Lastly, Luther addresses the issue of a disabled or "invalid" spouse.

"What about a situation where one's wife is an invalid and has therefore become incapable of fulfilling the conjugal duty? May he not take another to wife? By no means. Let him serve the Lord in the person of the invalid and await His good pleasure. Consider that in this invalid God has provided your household with a healing balm by which you are to gain heaven. Blessed and twice blessed are you when you recognise such a gift of grace and therefore serve your invalid wife for God's sake."

Luther says that in this situation, God will give a person strength to resist the natural sexual urges.


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Luther now moves from the discussion of conjugal need to the more practical goodness of women and wives. Luther touches on how the pagan culture had come to see women merely as necessary evil or baby-making factories to supply soldiers for war.

"What we would speak most of is the fact that the estate of marriage has universally fallen into such awful disrepute. There are many pagan books which treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage...So they concluded that woman is a necessary evil, and that no household can be without such an evil...I imagine that if women were to write books they would say exactly the same thing about men. What they have failed to set down in writing, however, they express with their grumbling and complaining whenever they get together."

Ah, it seems this battle of the sexes has always existed. But in all seriousness, Luther is ahead of his time here in understanding that women are not inferior to men, but rather a perfect counter-part. Luther even accurately addresses an issue that plagues our own day; where young men (and women) are led to believe a married life is nothing but pain and drudgery and ought to be avoided. Or in modern vernacular; being married isn't cool.

"For this reason young men should be on their guard when they read pagan books and hear the common complaints about marriage, lest they inhale poison. For the estate of marriage does not set well with the devil, because it is God's good will and work. This is why the devil has contrived to have so much shouted and written in the world against the institution of marriage, to frighten men away from this godly life and entangle them in a web of fornication and secret sins."

But perhaps the summation of Luther's teaching on the estate of marriage is found in this quote from him:

"To recognise the estate of marriage is something quite different from merely being married. He who is married but does not recognise the estate of marriage cannot continue in wedlock without bitterness, drudgery, and anguish; he will inevitably complain and blaspheme like the pagans and blind, irrational men. But he who recognises the estate of marriage will find therein delight, love, and joy without end;"

Luther puts forth the estate of marriage not as a prison but as an esteemed honor to care for children and for one's spouse. He says the carefree life is selfish and not godly.

Luther contrasts how little monks and nuns can comprehend the life and honor of a married person. Although Luther also notes that those married persons who do not realize their marriage is a gift and blessing from God, will no doubt see it as a prison and become bitter; therefore Christian marriage is very important.

Luther even addresses the sentiment that a person can "sow their oats" or "play the field" while young and wait until they are older to become monogamous and marry.

"Many think they can evade marriage by having their fling for a time, and then becoming righteous. My dear fellow, if one in a thousand succeeds in this, that would be doing very well. He who intends to lead a chaste life had better begin early, and attain it not with but without fornication, either by the grace of God or through marriage. We see only too well how they make out every day. It might well be called plunging into immorality rather than growing to maturity."

The next aspect of marriage Luther says is noble is child-bearing and child raising. It is indeed a very important responsibility to bring a child into the world and to raise it in the precepts of God and the Gospel.

Before Luther concludes, he turns to the objection that some won't get married because they cannot support such a life. Luther sees this as a lack of faith in the provisions of God.

"To sum the matter up: whoever finds himself unsuited to the celibate life should see to it right away that he has something to do and to work at; then let him strike out in God's name and get married. A young man should marry at the age of twenty at the latest, a young woman at fifteen to eighteen; that's when they are still in good health and best suited for marriage. Let God worry about how they and their children are to be fed. God makes children; he will surely also feed them. Should he fail to exalt you and them here on earth, then take satisfaction in the fact that he has granted you a Christian marriage, and know that he will exalt you there; and be thankful to him for his gifts and favours."

Note the age frames Luther recommends marriage. It is interesting to see that in his 16th century Europe, the age ranges that even modern Western societies consider appropriate remains constant.

To conclude, Luther advocates marriage for a few reasons:

  1. By nature, humans are sexual creatures and will require release and by such many have fallen into sin through fornication and other abominable activities.
  2. God designed man and woman to be helpmeets, in more than sexual relations but in life in general.
  3. There is great honor in serving God in marriage and especially in child raising.

Yet, Luther does understand that not everyone should get married. There are some special people that for many reasons can and should remain unmarried and celibate.

"I do not wish to disparage virginity, or entice anyone away from virginity into marriage. Let each one act as he is able, and as he feels it has been given to him by God. I simply wanted to check those scandalmongers who place marriage so far beneath virginity..."

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