Did the 16th century church reformer Martin Luther believe that there was a “War of the Sexes”?
One can certainly make that case. He writes:
There are many pagan books which treat of nothing but the depravity of womankind and the unhappiness of the estate of marriage, such that some have thought that even if Wisdom itself were a woman one should not marry. A Roman official was once supposed to encourage young men to take wives (because the country was in need of a large population on account of its incessant wars). Among other things he said to them, “My dear young men, if we could only live without women we would be spared a great deal of annoyance; but since we cannot do without them, take to yourselves wives,” etc. … So they concluded that woman is a necessary evil, and that no household can be without such an evil. These are the words of blind heathen, who are ignorant of the fact that man and woman are God’s creation. … 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. (AE 45:36-37, in WIMR? 99)
So what did Luther recommend to counter such a state of affairs? Why, Christian marriage of course.
Even then though, Luther’s picture of marriage wasn’t terribly romantic and rosy, but highly realistic and rather jarring.
Here are just some samples of things that he said:
- “…when two people, a man and a woman, live together in an unholy way, it looks just like the married life… You cannot distinguish between how they are living and the married life based on reason” (19).
- “… those who think about marriage but are not married, think that it is a life of lustful desires and good times” (23).
- “…there will be a loss of desire for your spouse. You will feel that you’ve had enough of him or her; that you do not want to remain [sexually] united with your spouse for long…the devil cannot stand that spouses remain on friendly terms and united with each another” (25).
- “…no one experiences alienation from another faster than a husband and wife! A single word spoken flippantly or jokingly can cause it to happen… people say about spouses that get along: It is a special grace and rarely turns out so well” (27, 28).
- “If you are not married, you think that once you are, there will always be laughter and good times. You cannot imagine ever saying a word that might hurt your spouse” (30).
- “…if you follow your thoughts and the lures of the devil… ‘If I only had that other woman or that other man! He or she is so friendly and so nice!’ In such a way, evil desires will indeed strike, just as the poets write that love rages and raves wildly” (34).
- “our flesh is dangerously curious. By nature we are gluttons. We quickly grow tired of whatever God gives us…” (38).
By this point, you might be wondering “What good is marriage if it militates against what we desire and brings such misery? What in the world does Luther think marriage has to offer!?” And “where did you get this interesting information anyways?”
I’m glad you asked…
In 1536 two of Martin Luther’s sermons on marriage appeared in German in a small book, and the quotes above are from the first sermon, on Hebrews 13. Even though these sermons were later printed in several German editions of Martin Luther’s works, they, surprisingly, were only recently translated into English in 2013. My pastor helped get them published, and, when asked, gave me permission to publish the final part of the sermon on Ephesians 5:22-33. This is the passage that Matthew Cochran says is “probably the most hated Bible passage in America.”[i]
That’s right, the answer to “What in the world does Luther think marriage has to offer?” is the meaning of “probably the most hated Bible passage in America.” [ii]
If you want to read on you will see Luther explain how given God’s original intention for mankind, marriage is not only a great gift in this world but ultimately serves to point us towards what is ultimate for humanity: our status as creatures beloved by their Holy Creator, and made One with Him by His work on our behalf.
Here is the extended quotation from Luther, which in the book is chapter 17, “The Christian’s Spiritual Marriage Shapes Marriage”:
We see how nowadays and always Christians are seduced by many a sectarian group. We also see how up to this time the entire world was totally filled with institutes of spiritual fornication and adultery under the papacy.
See, this is what it means for Christendom to be obedient and subject to Christ in all things: So that it might closely stand by him alone and follow only his Word. And not follow those who wish to teach and lead it differently.
Accordingly also in the institution of marriage, the wife should not only love the husband but also obey him and submit to him so as to let herself be governed and bow before him. In short, she is to stand by him and follow him, not looking only to the husband’s authority, as her head, but also place before herself this example.
The example of the Christian’s spiritual marriage to Christ should remind her to think like this: “My husband is an image of the true, high head Christ. For the sake of the latter I will honor the former and do what pleases him.”
In the same way also, the husband should love his wife wholeheartedly for the sake of the great love which he sees here in Christ who has given himself for us. The husband should also think: “Neither I nor anyone else has ever done something like this. I will therefore do as much as I can according to the example. I will behave toward my wife in a loving manner as toward my own flesh in order to care for her, feed her, and provide for her.
I will not act bitterly or strangely toward her but, although she might be with frailties and faults, bear with her in a reasonable and patient manner or make her better by friendly admonitions and rebukes.”
Where this happens, it would then no longer be a worldly and human or reasonable marriage but a Christian, divine marriage about which the Pagans know nothing. For they do not see the precious adornment and great honor of the marriage, namely, that it is a picture of the great spiritual marriage of Christ.
Therefore, as I said, it behooves us as Christians to honor and glorify this institution much more because we are the ones who know the great adornment and glory which are attached to it.
Do not be surprised when the world, as it wallows in fornication and adultery, and also the false, mad saints, consider marriage to be insignificant.
Yet we should justly consider marriage to be the greatest of all institutions of human life. For no other such institution has been utilized by God for such an exalted image.
We know that those who despise marriage, especially when they wish to be called Christians, not only create shame before the world but also bring dishonor and shame upon the exalted holy marriage between Christ and Christendom. They show in sufficient clarity that they think very little of the latter because they despise the former, humble as it is.
Let this be enough for this time on this text of St. Paul where he admonishes the Christians to consider this and to look at their marriage not only according to its external forms, as the world and carnal hearts do. But Christians are to contemplate in marriage something that is larger and greater, namely, the beautiful comforting image of Christ and Christendom.
Christians are to do this so that they might keep this institution of marriage as something precious and honorable—not only because God has ordained and commanded it thus, but also to honor the great spiritual marriage, so as to demonstrate that they would like to be found in the latter. For we are not to let such glory and comfort be taken out of our sight and hearts, or cast it into a corner, as did the monks and the nuns, who applied marriage only to themselves.
They established their false, self-made spirituality instead, pretending that they alone were the brides of Christ, to despise and diminish the institution of marriage. Contrariwise, St. Paul does the opposite preaching such a great example to those united in marriage.
[ii] This also comes to mind: “…this Word of God is necessary for the sake of conscience. The conscience should not suffer because you fully participate in marriage. For God has created and ordained marriage, and is well pleased by it” (23).