This week I've been completing a message I'll give this Saturday, Lord willing, on the impact of feminism. I've been summarizing the philosophies and goals of the three waves of feminism. The first wave developed in the 19th century and, besides organizing for the right to vote (for which I'm grateful, by the way), one of this movement's main goals was to change the institution of marriage. Some early feminists charged Martin Luther with patriarchal oppression of women in marriage. But I don't know where they find merit for this charge. Even modern feminist historians aren't in agreement. Luther's influence on marriage was remarkable.
That led me to read a chapter about Martin Luther in Sex and the Supremacy of Christ, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. This book was based on the messages given at the 2004 Desiring God National Conference of the same name, most of which I heard first-hand (I didn't attend the men's sessions, obviously). But one chapter was added in the editorial process and it is a gem. Justin Taylor contributed a chapter titled "Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage" that is fascinating to read. I regret that it took me a few months to get to it (sorry, Justin!). But I would highly recommend it to single adults.
Why? Because Luther preached passionately on marriage for years as a single man. As Justin writes, "And likely he would have left an impact on the state of marriage even if he had remained single. But the fact that he did enter into marriage made his preaching and teaching on these issues all the more significant."
Luther married at 41, but in the years prior to that he was urging monks and nuns to leave their orders and forsake their vows of celibacy as they were contrary to the teaching of Scripture. He wrote: "Marriage is not only an honorable but a necessary state. It is earnestly commanded by God that in every condition and every station in life men and women, who were created for it, should be found in this estate."
How did he handle the apparent contradiction? I think his perspective and experience are useful to study in this age, when so many Christians disagree about the gift of singleness/celibacy. When he hit his 40s, Luther wrote a letter in which he comments on this tension:
"...I am in God's hand as a creature whose heart God may change and rechange, kill and revive again at any moment. Nevertheless, the way I feel now, and have felt thus far, I will not marry. It is not that I do not feel my flesh or sex, since I am neither wood nor stone, but my mind is far removed from marriage, since I daily expect death and the punishment due to a heretic. Therefore I shall not limit God's work in me, nor shall I rely on my own heart. Yet I hope God does not let me live long."
As Justin notes, Luther acknowledged the presence of sexual desire. Yet he truly believed that his death was imminent and that God had called him to a life of singleness. Hence marriage would be unhelpful and unnecessary, and chastity could be maintained.
But God did change Luther's heart and it was a surprise to many. At 41, he married Katherine von Bora, 26, a young nun whom he helped escape from a convent. Though it appeared to be a marriage of convenience, Luther did write shortly after their marriage that he cherished his Katie. Their marriage didn't have the most romantic of starts, but a deep and passionate love soon developed. He commented often in his letters about his love for his wife. "Kate, you have a God-fearing man who loves you. You are an empress; realize it and thank God for it."
There's much more to read about their fascinating relationship. Katie appears to have been a highly capable woman with lots of energy and a good sense of humor. My favorite account in this chapter was how she humored one of her husband's frequent bouts of depression. In this instance, she went about the house dressed in black, prompting Luther to ask if she was going to a funeral. "No," she replied, "but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in the mourning." Well done! Her humorous reproof jolted Luther out of his gloom.
I highly recommend this book, not only for this chapter, but for the valuable advice contained throughout. It's as appropriate for single adults as married adults. You'll find a link to the book on the right.