January 21, 2021

Luther’s surprisingly “modern” view of marriage


At home I have good wine and beer and a good wife, or, shall I say, lord.

• Martin Luther

• • •

This past weekend, we celebrated my parents’ 60th wedding anniversary. I’ve been thinking a lot about the vocation of marriage and family lately.

One of Martin Luther’s greatest contributions was his emphasis on the high calling of marriage. Luther, a monk, married the former nun Katherine von Bora, and gave the following reasons defending his decision: he said the union would “please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh and the devils to weep.”

Though he was a man of the 16th century and believed men should be the head of the household and rule in positions of authority, he based his view upon the fact that God had imposed this kind of order on the world as a result of the Fall. However, God’s original plan in creation was for an equal partnership between husband and wife in the marital relationship.

Martin Luther’s own marriage reflected much more equality than those of most in his day. Katie controlled the family finances and ruled the household affairs. She also grew or raised most of the family’s food, brewed beer and made wine, and, in essence, ran a boardinghouse because of the many people who visited and came to stay with the Luthers. He once put Katie on a search committee for a church seeking a new pastor, to the consternation of those who thought such authority unsuitable for a woman. But Martin trusted her judgment and was unswayed by their arguments. He sought her opinion on intellectual and political matters, and asked her to handle much of his business with publishers.

The following is from Luther’s lectures on Genesis and reflect some of his comments on Genesis 2:23: “The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She will be named ‘woman’ because she was taken from the man.”

The word woman presents an amazing and lovely picture of the institution of marriage. Everything the husband has also belongs to his wife. Not only do they share their assets, but also their children, income, food, drink, bed, and home. Besides that, they are to be one in mind and spirit. The only difference between a husband and wife is in their anatomy. Otherwise, they are the same. Because of this, whatever the husband has or owns also belongs to his wife.

Compared to the very first marriage are marriages today are only pathetic copies of the original design. If a married woman is honorable, moral, devout, and God-fearing, she and her husband will equally share the cares, duties, and responsibilities of their household. This is why she was created and why she is called woman.

Even though a wife doesn’t come from her husband’s flesh and bone as Eve did, she is still a head of the household the same as her husband because she is the wife. This doesn’t invalidate the law, given after the fall into sin, which places the wife under the authority of her husband. This punishment, like the others, clouds the glorious life humans enjoyed in paradise. This passage reminds us that Moses wasn’t describing the miserable life of married people today, but the innocence humans enjoyed in paradise. Back then, the authority of the husband and wife were equal. Now, men are obligated to work by the sweat of their brows, and wives are commanded to place themselves under their husbands’ authority. Nevertheless, we still see a remnant of the original design in marriage because the wife is called woman and because she owns property and possessions jointly with her husband.


  1. Luther sounds like an egalitarian, a code word for “liberal” these days. But in Luther’s defense, he probably hadn’t sat in on a class in complementarianism in a church that’s exploring New Calvinism.

    So he didn’t know any better…

    • He wasn’t, though.

      • If he wasn’t egalitarian, he must have been a sloppy complementarian to let Katie take charge. I mean, it’s either/or, isn’t it? Either biblical or liberal?

        It’s what I’ve heard.

    • Calvin probably needed to sit in on a class to learn New Calvinism. I bet he would have been surprised what is being associated with him.

      • I’ve been sitting in on classes and I’m confused.

        I mean, I’ve had maybe eight or ten college/seminary courses in theology, and I don’t mind being challenged, but confusion is quite another thing. My BS meter keeps going off, and in my mind I hear the apostle John whisper, “Beloved, test the spirits, for they are not all from God.”

        So I must be going mad.

      • petrushka1611 says

        I’d imagine he would be surprised to learn Calvinism was being associated with him. 😉

  2. Martin Luther probably couldn’t have lorded it over Katie if he tried. If the bios are even half correct, the woman was a force of nature in her own right. 😉

    • In addition, Luther was extremely irresponsible when it came to managing money and resources; if were completely up to him, he would have given away every dime to those who asked, and invited anyone in need to live with him in his household (that’s why there were always so many guests staying with him). If Katie hadn’t put her foot down, and been strong in opposing her husband’s tendencies, they would have been financially shipwrecked.

      • This actually fits the ages-old, not-so-liberated narrative pattern of a wife saving her husband from his own self-destructive tendencies, even when they are a result of his idealism. Imagine poor Katie trying to prevent Martin from giving the children’s last bit of food money to the nearest needy neighbor or stranger, and finally managing, after a protracted battle of words, to wrest control of the family purse away from Martin, lest they be completely ruined.

        Still, it’s a mark of Luther’s wisdom and humility that he was able to recognize his poor money and business management skills, and hand those responsibilities over to his wife, though the culture they lived in would not have required or expected him to do so. And there’s no doubt that he loved his family dearly: think of the deep grief he shared with his wife when their daughters Elizabeth and Magdalene died in infancy and childhood respectively. It’s too bad that he never seemed to understand that Jewish and Anabaptist fathers loved their families as much as he loved his own.

    • I dunno. The man seemed to have turned the rest of the Western world upside down and is still credited today as one of the most influential men (some even say the) of his millennium. He had a rather firey personality of his own, that the two of them got along so well is somewhat miraculous. My favorite apocryphal quote from Luther: “In domestic affairs, I am led by my wife Katherine. In all other matters I am led by the Holy Spirit.”

      I don’t think it’s a big deal when the woman is managing the household finances. I guess in the west that role has traditionally fallen to men, but in the east it is often the opposite. In the book “What Would Buddha Do?” under the heading “…to be a good wife,” the role of fiscal management is delegated to the wife as her duty. It works very well in my household too.

    • I was thinking that if ‘Katie’ could, on principle, turn her back on an abbess in her cloister, and walk out;
      then she certainly had the moxy to stand up to Luther. Her very name, ‘Katarina’ reminds me of the character in Wm. Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ . . . 🙂

  3. I’m quite surprised by this. Who’d a thunk? I didn’t even know he was married. I think that speaks volumes about his liberality of spirit, especially coming from such an authoritarian culture.

  4. That Other Jean says

    Luther seems to have been less generous to women before his own marriage:

    “Even though they grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, that is of no consequence; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for [Erl. ed., 16 2 , p. 538].”

    I trust that living with an actual woman in what seems to have been a good, mutually respectful marriage altered his opinion considerably.

  5. God had imposed this kind of order on the world as a result of the Fall.

    As far as the NT goes, it seems kind of weird to me. Paul seems to speak on it the most, while talking out of two sides of his mouth. One minute he’s rooting it in the fall, saying the woman was deceived, the next he seems to be rooting it in the pre-fall created order. It gives me cause to wonder about how this works, but I also kind of feel its like speculating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The real question for me is, what does it mean that the husband is supposed to be the head and that the wife is supposed to submit? Again, Paul talks two ways here, both in terms of mutual submission, and in terms of a definite order. But looking at the latter, what is he talking about? How does/should this work itself out in modern marriage? My wife and I both agree with this teaching, but we’re really not sure how it applies to our own relationship very specifically, beyond my occasional demanding of the proverbial sandwich she never makes. You might say that our marriage is functionally very egalitarian, despite our rather traditional roles of breadwinner and homemaker (which she gladly chose as her ideal career: she loves children more than anything). Sometimes I think it is just about me having a primary responsibility for the spiritual well-being of my household, though not to the minimizing of every believer’s individual responsibility. Or it could be that this primitive construct was a device God gave the first humans to guide them in surviving the post-fall and curse world, where men and women would need to cooperate by playing to their respective strengths. Which would render it largely irrelevant in the first world today where the sexes can successfully thrive independently. Paul seems to lean a bit on qualities intrinsic to men and women to show how they were meant to work together in home and church, but if you follow that idea too far down the complementarian rabbit hole you arrive at all kinds of ridiculous ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with anything Paul ever said.

    So yeah, I guess my views and my marriage are in many ways similar to Luther’s, he seems much easier to understand than Paul.

    • It seems more like disorder has reigned around this subject and many others “as a result of the Fall”.

    • But I think that is only because we tend to think of Paul in legalistic and authoritarian terms. What if his writings were specific to certain people in certain situations and were more like guidelines than laws? If such is the case, then he comes across much less contradictory and complicated.

      • No, then it becomes much more complicated. What was the specific situation he was addressing? We become hopelessly dependent upon unknown quantities of unavailable extra-Biblical information to have any idea what he’s really talking about. I don’t go for these types of hermeneutical loop holes, mainly because by that line of reasoning there is nothing inconvenient that cannot be explained away. Unless the Biblical text, or some reliable and consistent information transmitted through tradition, explains what the situation was and why Paul addressed it in such a way, to build our theology on such speculation is, well, speculative.

        I don’t think it is us who think of Paul in legalistic and authoritarian terms. I think he just flat out spoke that way. He had a rather sharp tongue and no difficulty at all calling a thing what it is. Among the authors of scripture is known for his rather strong use of language.

        I don’t think the simple or honest solution is “we can ignore those texts and apply these.” The believing interpretation asks “what does this mean,” and “how are these both true,” not “which one really counts.” To a certain extent, the “way of a man with a women” is a profound mystery, one that points to the Gospel relationship of Christ to his church. I’ll take Paul’s paradoxical language and settle for an “I’m not really sure” before trying to force the texts to side one way or the other.

        • It might make things more complicated, but Fundystan’s question does help to address the question you posed above. What do you do when the “letter of the law” approach taken by many complementarians seems to take you down winding side-roads that go nowhere? Or when the language of complementarianism, even when you espouse it, fails to have much correlation to the interpersonal, financial, or social realities you find yourself in?

          This is a sign that something is going amiss in interpretation or application, maybe both.

          It makes sense, when a text is about social arrangements, to discern principles are behind the directions given. One can then ask what this means for us, now. Or at least, when you make the move to try to get the trickier texts to port over to contemporary life, you can check to make sure a point of trivia is not trumping the intent and force of the overall teaching.

          • Danielle – exactly.

          • Complementarianism isn’t a “letter of the law” approach. It’s more of an “invent all kinds of letters that aren’t even there” approach. It’s not about interpretation, but rather, in forcing patriarchal cultural tendencies onto the text.

            Compl and Egalitarianism aren’t an either/or as far as I’m concerned.

            I keep hearing people talk about “discerning principles are behind the directions given,” but never get a very clear, consistent explanation. Instead, I usually see maneuvering to justify a view already held. I don’t have time for that kind of malarky. I’m a fairly open-minded guy who very frequently changes his opinion when exposed to better arguments. I’ve listened long and carefully to that train and I’m just unimpressed.

            when you make the move to try to get the trickier texts to port over to contemporary life, you can check to make sure a point of trivia is not trumping the intent and force of the overall teaching.

            Exactly! Nailed it. This is largely what complementarianism is so whacked, it makes major principles from difficult passages. Start with the clear texts, and use those to help understand the less clear ones. This is what Lutheran theologians teach, and one of the reason that complementarianism has never gained much traction in our churches, despite us being very traditional about the pastoral office.

    • Miguel said,

      The real question for me is, what does it mean that the husband is supposed to be the head and that the wife is supposed to submit?

      Paul seems to lean a bit on qualities intrinsic to men and women to show how they were meant to work together in home and church, but if you follow that idea too far down the complementarian rabbit hole you arrive at all kinds of ridiculous ideas that have absolutely nothing to do with anything Paul ever said.

      The question “what does it mean?” doesn’t get answered satisfactorily by complementarians. It’s all supposed to be the headship of the husband, but that he graciously allows or assigns duties to the wife—similar to Martin and Katie except it looks like Martin caved. Not a complementarian thing to do, but it ends up the same thing. Trying to get comps to define this stuff is like pinning jellyfish to the wall.

      Here’s the Muppet version of a complementarian household. Candace Bergen gets the last word.


    • If we believe that Paul wrote all of the epistles attributed to him, yes, it is confusing. If not all of the Pauline epistles (like 1 and 2 Timothy) were in fact written by Paul, it becomes a bit clearer.

      • How so? Regardless of who said it, it’s still in the text and must be dealt with, right?

        As far as I’m concerned, if the text claims Pauline authorship, then that settles it for me. It’s the word of God. Whatever that means to you, it certainly isn’t subject to my critical review, rather, I am subject to its critical review. This is how faith approaches the scriptures.

  6. Just curious…what does Jesus say about marriage and family, and how does Luther’s take on them line up with Jesus?

  7. Clay Crouch says

    I wonder if the views of Luther and his contemporaries regarding women were formed by the fact that women were not educated. Is it possible that Katie, having been a nun, was educated and on an more equal footing with her husband?

    • That Other Jean says

      That seems reasonable to me. He may have been a famous theologian, but his parents were ambitious commoners; hers were poor but noble, in a period when nobility commanded respect. She was also a much better household/budget manager than he was, for which he was probably extremely grateful, considering their many children, constant household guests, and upheavals in the countryside..

  8. I wonder if, after waiting a while, Katharine felt compelled to say, Marry me, Martin.


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