Luther, Marriage, Church & State

By: Rev. Jack Cascione

(1) Who should regulate marriage?

(2) Marriage is not a sacrament.

(3) What is marriage?

(4) When does a marriage begin?

(5) What if the state becomes corrupt and no longer allows marriage as in the State of Massachusetts?

     The November 18, 2003, Massachusetts Supreme Court de facto annulment of all marriages based on gender raises a number of questions about what creates a marriage.


This was the same question asked at the time of the Reformation.  To this day, the Catholic Church claims that marriage is a sacrament and people without the sacrament of marriage are living in sin.


To the other extreme, we find that the ramifications of the Protestant (not Lutheran) Reformation have resulted in a view of marriage just as extreme as the Catholic Church, issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Court.


The Justices write Nov. 18, 2003 :


“We construe civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others.”


“the government creates civil marriage.”


“Civil marriage is created and regulated through exercise of the police power.”


Throughout his career Luther wrote extensively on marriage.  He did not fully develop and expound his views on marriage until writing his eight-volume Genesis Commentary, which is a profound work of biblical interpretation, doctrine, pastoral theology, and practical Christian social commentary.  His views on marriage progressed as he matured from the young and middle-aged bachelor, theologian, into the mature husband, father, theologian.  Being married does help a clergyman understand marriage.



(1) Who should regulate marriage?

The following quotations show that Luther taught that the state, not the church should regulate marriage.


“Marriage is a civic matter.  It is really not, together with all its circumstances, the business of the church.”  It is so only when a matter of conscience is involved. " (“What Luther Says” CPH 1959, Vol. II, page 885)

“No one can deny that marriage is an external, worldly, matter, like clothing and food, house and property, subject to temporal authority, as the many imperial laws enacted on the subject prove.”  Vol. 46: page 265

“We asked him [Martin Luther] what pastors should do in marriage cases, whether we can with a good conscience stay away from these troublesome things.  He replied, ‘It is my advice that we should by no means take this yoke upon ourselves. First, we have enough work in our proper office. Second, marriage is outside the church, is a civil matter, and therefore should belong to the government. Third, these cases have no limits, extend to the height, the breadth, and the depth, and produce many offenses that bring disgrace to the gospel.

. . . Only in cases of conscience should pastors give counsel to godly people. Controversies and court cases we leave to lawyers and consistories.

Dr. Kilian wished to impose on us ministers the hearing and examination of cases, after which we should await the decisions of the lawyers. I was against this and suggested that the lawyers hear the cases and look to us for decisions. Master Philip persuaded Master Cellarius and me that for the time being we should serve our lacerated churches in such cases.’”  (LW Vol. 54: Page 363)

“I feel that judgments about marriages belong to the jurists. Since they make judgments concerning fathers, mothers, children, and servants, why shouldn’t they also make decisions about the life of married people? When the papists oppose the imperial law concerning divorce, I reply that this doesn’t follow from what is written, ‘What God has joined together let no man put asunder.” (LW Vol. 54 page 66)

“Here I want to close and leave this matter for now, and, as I did above, advise my dear brothers, the pastors and clergy, to refuse to deal with marriage matters as worldly affairs covered by temporal laws and to divest themselves of them as much as they can. Let the authorities and officials deal with them, except where their pastoral advice is needed in matters of conscience, as for example when some marriage matters should come up in which the officials and jurists had entangled and confused the consciences, or else perhaps a marriage had been consummated contrary to law, so that the clergy should exercise their office in such a case and comfort consciences and not leave them stuck fast in doubt and error.” (Vol. 46 Page 317-18)

A church wedding signifies the public witness of a Christian marriage, though a couple may continue in Christian faith and witness with only a civil ceremony.

(2) Marriage is not a sacrament.

Luther wanted to free marriage from the Catholic Church, which to this day falsely teaches that marriage is a sacrament.  In other words, the Catholic Church teaches that a man and a woman need to be forgiven for what they do on their wedding night, and that celibacy is a holier life than marriage.

“Neither is there any need to make sacraments out of marriage and the office of the priesthood.” (LW Vol. 37 page 370)

“Not only is marriage regarded as a sacrament without the least warrant of Scripture, but the very ordinances which extol it as a sacrament have turned it into a farce. Let us look into this a little.

We have said that in every sacrament there is a word of divine promise, to be believed by whoever receives the sign, and that the sign alone cannot be a sacrament. Nowhere do we read that the man who marries a wife receives any grace of God. There is not even a divinely instituted sign in marriage, nor do we read anywhere that marriage was instituted by God to be a sign of anything. To be sure, whatever takes place in a visible manner can be understood as a figure or allegory of something invisible. But figures or allegories are not sacraments, in the sense in which we use the term.” (LW Vol. 36 page 92, entire article found in the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church” pages 92-107)

“Furthermore, why do you not also teach that one should or may baptize himself? Why is that no baptism? Why is that no confirmation when a person confirms himself? Why is that no consecration when a person consecrates himself? Why is that no absolution when a person absolves himself? Why is that no unction, when a person anoints himself? Why is that no marriage when a person wants to marry himself? Or can you cohabit with a maiden by force and say that it has to be a marriage, even against her will? I have enumerated your seven sacraments. If it is true that no sacrament can be performed by an individual alone, how is it possible that by yourself you are able to effect this unique and most sublime sacrament?

It is true (as has been said) that along with the disciples Christ also received himself in the sacrament. And a pastor along with the community itself also receives the sacrament. However, he does not administer and receive it for himself alone but receives it with the community or with others, and everything takes place according to the ordinance and command of Christ. But I am now talking about effecting conversion and constituting [the sacrament]: Can a person by himself effect conversion and constitute [the sacrament]? Certainly I know that where conversion has been effected, everyone by himself may take and eat along with the other persons, for it is a communal food. In the same way I ask whether a person can consecrate himself or issue a call to himself, though I certainly know that, if he has been called or consecrated, he may thereafter make use of such a call. Similarly, if he would sleep with a maiden who does not yet belong to him nor is engaged to him, it is doubtful whether it would be sufficient that he by himself alone would call it a marriage or consider it to be such. But I know very well that, if she consents to it and so belongs to him, after this, cohabiting with her is a marriage, etc.  (LW Vol. 38 154-155)

(3) What is marriage?

Luther provides the following definition of marriage in his Genesis Commentary:

“This is the true definition of marriage: Marriage is the God-appointed and legitimate union of man and woman in the hope of having children or at least for the purpose of avoiding fornication and sin and living to the glory of God.  The ultimate purpose is to obey God, to find aid and counsel against sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children for the glory of God; to live with one’s wife in the fear of God and to bear the cross; but if there are no children, nevertheless to live with one’s wife in contentment; and to avoid all lewdness with others.” (“What Luther Says” CPH 1959, Vol. II, page 884)

(4) When does a marriage begin?

If the church has no authority over marriage, and if the state is called by God to regulate and govern marriage, then, who creates marriage?

For Luther, marriage is created by God, and not created by the state, but regulated by the state.  The authority to be married doesn’t begin in the church or the state but in a man and woman who freely give their mutual consent to marriage.  Luther would have agreed with the framers of the Declaration of Independence when they wrote: “that all men. . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”  God gives the right to marriage to each human being.  For the sake of order, it should be regulated by the State.

“Precisely speaking, matrimony is based on the mutual consent of a man and woman.” (“What Luther Says” CPH 1959, Vol. II, page 884)

“Therefore you see that the Scriptures call a betrothed bride a married woman.” (LW Vol. 46 page 289


“It is just as much a marriage after public betrothal as after the wedding.”  (LW Vol. 46 Page 298)

“Over and above this vow, a person may indeed bind himself to an estate which will be suitable to him and helpful for the completion of his baptism. It is just as though two men went to the same city, and the one went by the footpath, the other by the highway, just as each thought best. So he who binds himself to the estate of matrimony, walks in the toils and sufferings which belong to that estate and lays upon himself its burdens, in order that he may grow used to pleasure and sorrow, avoid sin, and prepare himself for death better than he could do outside of that estate.”  (LW Vol. 35. page 41)”

“Similarly, if he would sleep with a maiden who does not yet belong to him nor is engaged to him, it is doubtful whether it would be sufficient that he by himself alone would call it a marriage or consider it to be such. But I know very well that, if she consents to it and so belongs to him, after this, cohabiting with her is a marriage, etc.”  (LW Vol. 38 155)

(5) What if the state becomes corrupt and no longer allows marriage as in the State of Massachusetts ?

In this case Luther says we should follow conscience instead of the law.

“For whenever such a case or error or doubt comes up, where the conscience could not be aided unless the law or statute were repealed, and yet this same law cannot be publicly repealed because it is universal, one should, before God and secretly in one’s conscience, respect the conscience more than the law. And if conscience or law has to yield and give way, then it is the law which is to yield and give way, so that the conscience may be clear and free. The law is a temporal thing which must ultimately perish, but the conscience is an eternal thing which never dies. It would not be right to kill or ensnare an eternal thing for a transient thing to remain and be free. Rather, the opposite should be true; a transitory thing should perish rather than an eternal one be destroyed. It is better to strangle a sparrow so that a human being may survive than to strangle a human being so that a sparrow may survive.  The law exists for the sake of the conscience, not the conscience for the sake of the law. If one cannot help both at the same time, then help the conscience and oppose the law.” (Vol 46 page 318)

Luther had far more to say about marriage than the above.  The goal here was to address a few pertinent issues related to the Massachusetts Supreme Court that struck down all state laws pertaining to gender in marriage.

December  9, 2003