Martin Luther, the confirmed celibate priest, had no intentions of marrying. He had theology on his mind. As it turned out, no one was more surprised than Luther to find himself at the marriage altar. Instead, as he later recalled, “Suddenly and when my mind was on other matters, the Lord snared me with the yoke of matrimony.”
What Luther discovered to his own surprise was that good theology has a way of touching down in places none of us expect. The impact of his theology of marriage would ultimately blindside him and totally change his life…for the better.
The forces of holy matrimony began closing in on an unsuspecting Luther when a wagonload of shipping barrels were deposited on his doorstep. Those barrels, originally packed with a cartload of herring that was unloaded at a convent, now contained surprising cargo: twelve renegade nuns who had defected from Catholicism to Protestantism and had appealed to Luther for help.
Luther was tasked with the responsibility of finding proper homes for the former nuns. Three were safely returned to their families. But families of the remaining nine refused to take their daughters back. So it fell to Luther to find husbands for them. He began systematically arranging marriages for the remaining nine.
He successfully found husbands for eight out of the nine. That left Katherine von Bora, who was proving hard to please. Luther came up with a couple of different options. None of them would do.
In 1953, the Lutheran Church produced a biographical film about Luther which portrayed a stymied Luther fruitlessly proposing candidates for Katie, when he saw a look in her eye that left him squirming nervously. The next scene was their wedding—a marriage of convenience for her and of inconvenience for him, or so he thought.
No one would have suspected the ultimate outcome of their relationship when a doleful Luther remarked, “I feel neither passionate love nor burning for her.”
Luther would discover, much to his surprise, that along with the theological and religious changes the Reformation was advancing, his marriage to the strong, smart, capable Kate would spark a social revolution as impactful as the Reformation of doctrine.
The Reformation of Marriage
Obviously the freedom for clergy to marry was yet another significant Protestant break with Roman Catholic doctrine (then and now). In his pre-Katie von Bora days, Luther had argued from his study of scripture that the requirement of celibacy for the priesthood was unbiblical. Within the Catholic Church, that should have been obvious, given the fact that the Apostle Peter—regarded as the first pope—had a mother-in-law. Justification (pun intended) for Luther’s marriage to Kate was theological and pragmatic. Over time, due to his relationship with Kate, his understanding of the value of marriage would deepen and a Blessed Alliance between them would take shape.
Beyond their marriage, Luther’s revolutionary views of celibacy and marriage created a seismic cultural shift. It violated established negative views of women and marriage that were embedded in the church and still have a lingering effect.
I’m married to a church historian and Reformation scholar who on frequent occasions has pointed out the misogyny that permeates the works of the Early Church Fathers. These are the men who shaped much of today’s orthodox Christian theology and doctrinal creeds. But when it came to their theology of marriage and women, these men were entrenched in their culture and they missed the truth by a mile. Statements from them that we have on record seem to have more in common with some of today’s demeaning “locker room talk” regarding women than the Bible’s view of God’s daughters.
Only think of the devastating impact when men of theological stature and acumen assert that celibacy is godly and marriage is not (Jerome) or that women are “not the image of God” (St. Augustine). Origin described women as “worse than animals,” and Tertullian added his two bits when he accused women of being “the devil’s gateway”—fueling the enduring notion of women as temptresses.
Aristotle believed that a woman is a “botched male.” According to Albert the Great, the fairer sex has a “defective nature,” and is “a poisonous snake” and “a horned devil.” Odo of Cluny employed scatological language, portraying women as “a sack of manure.”
We may roll our eyes at such outrageous language, but those Church Father’s words have done lasting damage in diminishing women to an unspoken but no less real second-class status vis-à-vis men in the wider culture and also in the church.
So when Luther revoked the celibacy requirement for the clergy, he was undermining long-held cultural and religious assumptions about both women and marriage. When he stood at the marriage altar to become Kate’s lawfully wedded husband, he was living out his theology.
But what is most remarkable with Luther and Kate is that, in their case, marriage didn’t simply mean companionship, the house swept clean, dinner served on time, and little ones underfoot. Over time, their relationship took a radical turn that changed everything for both of them.
Luther and Katie Cracked the Code
Much to his surprise, Martin Luther fell deeply in love with his wife. He quickly grew to treasure, admire, and respect his German bride. Although he remained a man of his time in many respects, he found her strengths were assets on which he could safely rely. Katie brought strength to their relationship and was a capable manager of their home and of their farm. Best of all, she was a spiritual ally and a source of courage in the ongoing battles he fought with opposition, death threats, and bouts of depression.
Luther became utterly devoted to her.
On his last journey, he penned letters to her in which he playfully addressed her as “Housewife of the Heart” and “Madam Pig-Marketer,” affectionately signing his letters as “your old love-bird” and “the willing servant of your Holiness.”
At his death, Luther broke with cultural protocol, naming Katie (instead of a male relative) as the executor of his will. He wrote, “I appoint you, Katie, as universal heiress. You bore the children and gave them your breast. You will not manage their affairs to their disadvantage. I am hostile to guardians, who seldom do things correctly.”
Their Blessed Alliance was fortified by their shared commitment to their Protestant faith and an ever deepening love for each other. They were in the battle together—no matter what God put in their path—ministering to their sick and dying neighbors during the Black Plague (instead of fleeing as other did) or staying strong together in the adversity the Reformation brought their way. Their confidence and trust in God and in each other was profound. We are the beneficiaries of their Blessed Alliance.
Pigtails on His Pillow
We should thank God that Martin Luther faced the shock of Katie’s pigtails on his pillow. It was the beginning of a good man’s great awakening to God’s wisdom in creating his male and female image bearers to join forces and do his work together. The church rightly credits Luther for breaking theological ground with respect to celibacy, marriage, and women. But we do him and Katie a great disservice if we stop there and fail to recognize the bigger implications of their marriage.
Their relationship went well beyond establishing the equality of women and men or simply getting along. Together, Martin and Katie point us to the power unleashed when God’s sons and daughters join forces to strengthen each other and advance God’s kingdom together. Their Blessed Alliance is a worthy study and corrective for the church in reassessing the state of relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ and reminding us that we all have more ground to gain in forging that Blessed Alliance.
Originally published at MissioAlliance.org