Martin Luther on divorce and remarriage
Whether the Bible allows divorce and remarriage has been debated for centuries. If you are battling authorities who say that divorce is not allowed and remarriage is always sinful, then you are not alone!
Martin Luther fought that battle against the Roman Catholic Church. In his day, the Roman Catholic Church imposed rules (canon law) on the populace – which made life very hard for victims of adultery, desertion and abuse. The Pope’s laws gave no justice to those who suffered grievous mistreatment by their spouses. In his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), Martin Luther pointed out some of the contradictions in the Pope’s laws.
[Begin quote from Martin Luther]
As to divorce, it is still a moot question whether it be allowable. For my part I so greatly detest divorce that I should prefer bigamy to it, but whether it be allowable, I do not venture to decide. Christ Himself, the Chief Pastor, says in Matthew 5:32, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, Matthew excepting for the cause of fornication, maketh her commit adultery; and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.” Christ, then, permits divorce, but for the cause of fornication only. The pope must, therefore, be in error whenever he grants a divorce for any other cause, and no one should feel safe who has obtained a dispensation by this temerity (not authority) of the pope. Yet it is a still greater wonder to me, why they [the Roman Catholics] compel a man to remain unmarried after bring separated from his wife, and why they will not permit him to remarry. For if Christ pennies [permits?] divorce for the cause, of fornication and compels no one to remain unmarried, and if Paul would rather have one marry than burn, (1 Corinthians 7:9) then He certainly seems to permit a man to marry another woman in the stead of the one who has been put away.
Would to God this matter were thoroughly threshed out and derided [decided?], so that counsel might be given in the infinite perils of those who, without any fault of their own, are nowadays compelled to remain unmarried, that is, of those whose wives or husbands have run away and deserted them, to come back perhaps after ten years, perhaps never. This matter troubles and distresses me; I meet cases of it every day, whether it happen by the special malice of Satan or because of our neglect of the word of God.
I, indeed, who, alone against all, can decide nothing in this matter, would yet greatly desire at least the passage in 1 Corinthians 7 to be applied here – “But if the unbeliever depart, let him depart. For a brother or sister is not under servitude in such cases.” Here the Apostle gives permission to put away the unbeliever who departs and to set the believing spouse free to marry again. Why should not the same hold true when a believer – that is, a believer in name, but in truth as much an unbeliever as the one Paul speaks of – deserts his wife, especially if he never intends to return? I certainly can see no difference between the two. But I believe that if in the Apostle’s day an unbelieving deserter had returned and had become a believer or had promised to live again with his believing wife, he would not have been taken back, but he too would have been given the right to marry again.
Nevertheless, in these matters I decide nothing, as I have said, although there is nothing I would rather see decided, since nothing at present more grievously perplexes me and many more with me. I would have nothing decided here on the mere authority of the pope or the bishops; but if two learned and pious men agreed in the name of Christ (Matthew 18:19 f.) and published their opinion in the spirit of Christ, I should prefer their judgment even to such councils as are nowadays assembled, famous only for numbers and authority, not for scholarship and saintliness. Herewith I hang up my harp, until another and a better man shall take up this matter with me. (Psalm 137:2).
[End quote from Martin Luther. Source: The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Chapter 6, paragraphs 26 & 27. For ease of reading, scripture quotes have been italicised and the quote broken into four paragraphs by Barb.]
What strikes you, dear readers, about these words by Martin Luther?
Several things occur to me.
Firstly, and most importantly, Luther’s humility. He confessed his perplexity and his concern for victims of marital mistreatment. He didn’t arrogate to himself the authority to proclaim his view as law. He didn’t claim to have the last word on this subject — “Herewith I hang up my harp, until another and a better man shall take up this matter with me.”
Secondly, I wonder what Luther would have made of views that came out later, after 1520, and after his death.
I wonder what he would have made of Thomas Cranmer’s view that abuse is grounds for divorce.
I wonder what he would have made of the puritans who argued that divorce for abuse was grounds for divorce.
I wonder how he would have responded to the current positions on divorce and remarriage which wash around the so-called evangelical churches.
I wonder what he would have made of my book.