New Horizons

The Reformation of Marriage

Alan D. Strange

Marriage and family were prominent among the many issues that the Reformers addressed. The Western church before the Reformation made both too much and too little of marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church made too much of marriage in that it considered it a sacrament. In its sacerdotal view of grace and salvation, taking one from birth (baptism) to death (extreme unction), one’s life choice was sacramentally defined, either by marriage or by ordination.

The Reformation discovered, however, that marriage is not a sacrament given only to Christians through the church. Rather, it is a creation ordinance given to all mankind in the state of innocence and continuing thereafter for fallen man—though its purposes, as our wedding form reflects, are properly realized only in Christ.

Rome, on the other hand, also made too little of marriage, because it was regarded as inferior to the other life choice, holy orders, which involved celibacy. Because of the assumption that even married sexuality was less than completely pure, the celibate state was considered superior to marriage. As a result, the practice became established early on (though not officially until the First Lateran Council in 1123) that the clergy, and especially the higher clergy, should not marry. This prohibition extended both to the regular clergy (the monks and nuns) and the secular clergy (the parish priests).

The Roman Church considered celibacy to embody the ideals of the life that all Christians were called to, but which only the clergy, especially the regular clergy, properly lived out on behalf of the whole church. The average Christian, then, the one who got married and had a family, was considered to be living in a decidedly inferior state in comparison to the clergy.

All of this changed at the Reformation. Besides limiting the sacraments to the two ordinances instituted by our Lord—baptism and the Supper—the Reformation embraced a higher view of marriage and family than had been held in the Western church in the Middle Ages. With the Reformation, the clergy could now marry, and the married life of the laity was not seen as a sort of second-class Christianity.

A More Biblical View of Sexuality

The world into which the apostolic church had emerged was more sexually licentious than even our own. Because sexual sin was so widespread, the early church focused on sexual purity. That commitment developed into placing a premium on virginity and consequently celibacy. In the Roman Empire, in the time of Christ and the apostles, perhaps forty percent of the people were slaves. Many things could be said about the slavery of that day, but one thing is clear: it involved the sexual abuse of those in bondage. Even apart from slavery, though, a host of sexual perversions abounded among the pagans.

Christianity thus emerged in a world that, outside of the Jewish environs that had imbibed the biblical ethic, was decidedly sexually immoral. Christians (think Tertullian) promoted an ethic that so opposed this errant pagan sexuality that it tended to undervalue sexuality even in marriage, seeing it as purely for purposes of procreation. Augustine, for example, famously counseled married couples to think of the commandments and the creed during sexual intimacy in order to maintain proper purity. The ideal for many, particularly as the Middle Ages developed, became virginity, and it was best fulfilled in the life of the clergy.

The Reformation recovered a more biblical approach to sexuality within marriage, understanding that it was also for the well-being of the couple, a significant expression of their oneness. Part of this recovery included reinterpreting the Song of Songs, recognizing that this spoke not only of Christ and the church, but also of husband and wife in their marital relationship, understanding that marriage itself points to the union of Christ and his church.

An immediate practical outworking of this Reformational recovery manifested itself in clerical marriages. One thinks particularly of Huldrych Zwingli and Martin Luther. The latter, as a forty-one-year-old monk, while matching former nuns with interested mates, found himself a man short for Katharina von Bora, who boldly claimed Luther himself. Marriage provided Luther, John Calvin, and many others in like positions with much help and comfort (though Calvin’s wife died after only eight years of marriage).

A Higher View of Women

The Reformation, in its return to the Bible, also emerged with a higher view of women. Earlier, Christianity had advanced over pagan notions, declaring a woman to have been created in the image of God and thus to be fully a person. However, the church’s view of women remained improperly developed. Rhetoric of the Middle Ages often portrayed women as temptresses and sources of distraction for men.

The Reformation recovered the implications of the biblical truth that men and women are both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28) and that there is neither male nor female in Christ (Gal. 3:28). This pointed to an ontological equality between male and female, even as there is such equality in the persons of the godhead, whatever functional differences there may be. It took some time for the fuller implications of the full personhood of women to work themselves out in civil society, but this too is part of the legacy of the Reformation.

While the Enlightenment, and the secularization that it engendered, have affected men and women in some deleterious ways, the Reformational heritage of ontological and soteric equality is a good thing. With respect to the latter, all men and women are fallen in Adam and the new humanity is restored in Christ. There are not different ways of salvation for men and women; rather, salvation is through the one mediator between God and humanity—the one who, eternally God, added humanity to his deity. First Timothy 2:5 does not use the Greek word for “male,” but for “human,” when it speaks of “the man [human] Christ Jesus” and when it speaks of him being the one mediator between “God and man [humankind].”

The point here is not to downplay that Jesus is male, but to highlight what is at issue: his humanity. He became a human being so that he might reconcile human beings to God. Indeed he is male, but this is not what’s in view, as maleness is in view in many pagan cults, in which salvation is exclusively for males or in which women are saved in a different, decidedly inferior way.

Jesus came to save both males and females and to call men to love their wives (Eph. 5:22–33) and to live with them in an understanding way (1 Peter 3:8), even as he calls women to submit to their own husbands, regarding them with love and respect. Matthew Henry, in his Genesis commentary, famously captured it this way: “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

Biblical Teaching on Divorce

At the same time that the Reformation recovered a more biblical, and thus higher, view of marriage, it also, in rejecting marriage as a sacrament, recovered the biblical teaching on divorce. Since marriage for Rome was a sacrament, the relationship that it established could never be altered. So Rome taught that even in the case of adultery, the most that the innocent party could press for was the separation of bed and board. This meant that the spouses could live separately, but the marriage was not actually dissolved. Such dissolution could only come by annulment, the declaration of the church in its courts of canon law that there never was a proper marriage in the first place and thus that the bond was null and void.

The Reformers came to understand that adultery and desertion by the unbelieving party formed grounds sufficient for divorce and that the innocent party was free to sue out such and to remarry as if the offending party were dead. This was clearly expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 24, “Of Marriage and Divorce” (as it was by Puritans before the Assembly, such as William Perkins and William Ames). It was also the position of many of the Continental Reformers (e.g., Martin Bucer and Theodore Beza). The Reformers believed that the Bible provided for genuine divorce because it permitted remarriage after such, understanding that if the divorce was biblical, the remarriage was biblical.

We should not end on this note, however. The Reformers strongly taught against the sins that led to a legitimate divorce and counseled Christians to live in the married state in such a way that divorce would not be necessary. Many of the Puritans, as Leland Ryken points out in his book on them (Worldly Saints, chapters 3 and 5, especially), had rich and rewarding marriages and a fulfilling and joyful family life. That the home was to engage in private worship, as was the church in public worship (and the individual in secret worship), is made manifest in the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for Family Worship. Christian marriage and family were seen, together with the church, as the bedrock of a stable society that advanced the good of mankind and the glory of God.

The author, an OP minister, is a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary. New Horizons, May 2017.

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