Christians Who Changed Their World

The Reform of Private Life, Part 2


Glenn Sunshine

In preparation for the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation this October, it is appropriate to spend some time reflecting on the influence of Protestantism on European culture. Religious ideas have consequences, and the core ideas of the Reformation had implications for society far beyond what we think of as religious life.

In the first article in this series, we began to look at the impact of Protestantism on private life and particularly on marriage. We noted that by eliminating clerical celibacy, Protestantism made marriage the new norm for all segments of society. This affected not only pastors, but all people, particularly women who now had no opportunity to resort to the cloister if they could not find suitable husbands.

This was not the only change introduced into the institution of marriage by Protestantism, however. In this article, we will explore two other changes to marriage introduced by Luther and his followers, and their influence on society.

The Desacramentalization of Marriage

Luther argued that the Catholic Church was wrong in defining marriage as a sacrament. Protestants believed that only things that Jesus Himself had specifically commanded us to do qualified as sacraments, and though Jesus attended a wedding, He never commanded us to marry. Further, if Jews, Muslims, pagans, and even atheists marry, how can it qualify as a Christian sacrament? Protestants instead saw it is a creation ordinance, something God mandated to all humanity at the creation, and thus primarily a civil rather than ecclesiastical institution.

Shifting responsibility for regulating marriage to the civil government led to a reform of marriage laws in Protestant areas, especially concerning consanguinity and affinity—that is, how close a relative you could marry. The Catholic Church had rules on who could marry whom that were far more restrictive than either the Bible or Roman law. According to Catholic canon law, incest was defined as marriage within seven degrees of separation: You count up generations from the prospective husband to the nearest common ancestor with the fiancée, and then down the generations to her; if there were less than seven generations, you were consanguineous and could not marry without a special dispensation from the church (which, of course, you had to pay for).

But it was even more complicated than that. Godparents and in-laws were also considered to be relatives by affinity, and so a parallel process had to be followed to determine whether a couple was too closely related spiritually to marry. In many villages, it was impossible to find a spouse who didn’t fall afoul of one or the other of these rules, and so marriages had to be contracted with people from other villages or extra fees had to be paid to the church for a dispensation to allow a marriage to take place.

Protestants relaxed these rules. They typically followed Roman law, which prohibited marriage within four degrees of separation. Rules on affinity generally disappeared except for spouses of close relatives in line with biblical law. These rules made contracting marriage far easier and less costly since it was no longer necessary or possible to obtain dispensations to marry more distant relatives.

Protestants may have seen marriage as primarily a civil rather than ecclesiastical matter, but that does not mean that churches were not involved. Marriage is fundamentally a means of regulating sexuality, and since sexual activity can result in children, it is a matter of public morality and therefore partially the church’s responsibility. To put it differently, both church and state have a legitimate interest in marriage, and thus both were involved in marriages. Civil law determined the basic rules for the institution, but pastors typically performed the marriages, blessed them, and did so in the churches. Both church and state, God and government, had a stake in marriage, and thus both were involved in marital law and practice.

The reform of marriage laws also included provisions for divorce. As noted in the previous article, Catholic law does not permit divorce, only annulment. Protestants believed that a reform of marriage required allowing for the possibility of divorce, though only in cases of adultery or abandonment, in keeping with a strict reading of the New Testament.

In neither case, however, was divorce guaranteed. Adultery had to be proven conclusively, but even if there were aggravating factors, the authorities might insist on a reconciliation rather than grant the divorce. Abandonment was even more difficult: The spouse, almost invariably the husband, had to leave home and not return for seven years, during which time he must not have contacted his wife or children; every effort had to be made to find him and to get him to return. Only if all that failed might a divorce be granted, and once again it was not guaranteed.

Nonetheless, however limited, divorce was now possible, and this changed the nature of marriage in Europe, with long-term effects that could not have been foreseen at the time.

Marriage and the Priesthood of All Believers

A third change introduced by Protestants that affected marriage was the idea of the priesthood of all believers. The core of this idea is that Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity, and thus we all have direct access to God through Him without needing an additional intermediary in the form of an earthly priest. This idea helped to break down the sacred/secular divide that was part of the medieval worldview. We will return to other implications of the priesthood of all believers in later articles, but for now, we need to note its impact on family.

If all believers are priests, though the clergy perform an essential function in the community by celebrating the sacraments and preaching the Word, they have no more special access to God than anyone else; spiritual authority was no longer concentrated in their hands. This led to a new understanding of the role of the father in the family. Protestants argued that the father was the first pastor to his household; that is, he had primary responsibility for the spiritual well-being of his family. This followed Old Testament precedent, where only males were circumcised and the line of promise passed through fathers, in keeping with God’s words, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Jewish fathers were expected to teach their children the Torah, explain the Exodus during the Passover Seder ceremony, and so on. Protestant fathers were to perform a parallel role as spiritual leaders in their households.

Protestants also rejected oral confession of sins to a priest and thus the office of confessor. Eliminating confessors had the effect of reinforcing the authority of the father within the family by removing any outside spiritual authorities from the household that might have given the wife leverage in dealing with her husband.

That said, the best studies of the impact of Protestantism on family life show that it was good for wives and children. Far from being tyrannical or domineering, husbands demonstrated a great deal of love for their wives and children. Luther may have insisted on proper marriages for women, but that was largely because he saw the convent as the center of women’s sexual repression, cultural deprivation, and male clerical domination. Marriages were to be built on consent, mutual respect, and true companionship. The evidence we have of marriages in the period shows that Luther and his followers largely succeeded in making these ideals the norm in Protestant households. It is hard to imagine Katherina Schütz Zell or Katharina von Bora Luther tolerating a domineering husband. The reform of marriage thus undercut the misogyny of the Renaissance and led to a new recognition of the worth of women.

In the next article, we will turn from the reform of private life to Protestantism’s impact on education.

Image courtesy of EIPS.

Glenn Sunshine is a professor of early modern European history specializing in the Reformation at Central Connecticut State University and a senior fellow of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Have a Follow-up Question?

Want to dig deeper?

If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.


Short Courses

Related Content