Have you experienced that moment when someone you respect, someone you look to as an example, says something that just makes your heart sink a little? That moment when you find yourself at odds with the person you admire so greatly? That moment when you realise that, apparently, they too are human after all?

I had that moment a little while back as I was reading the works of Martin Luther. Yes, that’s right. Luther the Reformer. The one who is famous for his courageous adherence to the Bible – “here I stand, I can do no other”. The one who is famous for re-articulating the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone – “the doctrine by which the church stands or falls”. The one who is famous for the rather creative insulting of his opponents (head over to the Luther Insulter to let him insult you too).

So, why did Luther make my heart sink a little? Why did I find myself standing at odds with this famous man of God? Well, it was because he implied that my state of life is inherently, irredeemably sinful.

Let me explain. I’m a single Christian woman who is doing some extensive research on a theological understanding and pastoral approach to singleness. Luther has some things to say about singleness. Some ‘interesting’ things. Some ‘disappointing’ things. And, some, well, 🤦‍♀️ things.

Admittedly, not everything he has to say about it is all bad. At times he refers to unmarried Christians as “spiritually rich and exalted” individuals. But it’s what he has to say more broadly about singleness within the Christian life that troubled me.

Let me give you an example from his general approach to the topic. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus gives three categories of unmarried “eunuchs”: those “who have been so from birth”; those “who have been made eunuchs by men”; and those “who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven”. Luther writes:

Apart from these three groups, let no man presume to be without a spouse. And whoever does not fall within one of these three categories should not consider anything except the estate of marriage. Otherwise it is simply impossible for you to remain righteous […] you will be bound to commit heinous sins without end.

In other words, unless you are physically unable to consummate a marriage, or you are one of the very rare (as he writes, “not one in a thousand”) individuals who he regards as being a “special miracle from God”, you are under a divine command to marry and have children. If you remain single (even involuntarily), you will eventually find yourself committing “heinous [sexual] sins without end”.[1]Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society II, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1522): 21.

Just ponder on that for a moment, friends. If you’re a single Christian of marriageable age, Martin Luther thinks your current state of life will almost certainly lead you to sin. Lots of sin. Lots of really bad, “heinous”, sin. The only solution is to get married — pronto.

Luther is not alone in expressing that sentiment. It’s deeply embedded in our own Christian culture’s attitude to singleness too — more on that in a moment. But when I read Luther’s words, my heart really did sink. Was he really saying that even as someone who didn’t choose singleness myself, I was living in direct disobedience to God’s will for my life? Was he really saying that I was eventually bound to commit endless sexual sins?

As I wrestled with the tension between what I truly understood Scripture to say about singleness in comparison with what one of the Church greats had understood it to be saying, I was reminded of how important it is to understand the broader cultural and historical context in which Luther was writing.

In his teaching on singleness and marriage Luther was directly seeking to confront the corrupt monasticism of the Roman Catholic Church, and to correct the serious theological implications of those practices. He was frustrated with the way monks and nuns understood their celibate life (which was quite often not celibate anyway – but that’s another story…). They taught that the celibate life was one of spiritual perfection, and looked down their noses at everyone else’s life (i.e. all those common married folk) as imperfect.

But even more than that, Luther was appalled that the monastic life urged those who participated in it to put their “trust in works and vows [and] destroy their own faith in the process”.[2]The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows,” in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society I, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1521): 263 Luther could see that the Catholic idolization of celibacy was ultimately a rejection of the gospel of faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone. That’s why he was so vitriolic against Christian singleness as it was expressed at the time.

When we understand the historical and cultural context in which he was writing, we can better understand why Luther thought what he thought, and wrote what he wrote – even if we still don’t necessarily agree with it! In saying what he did about singleness, Luther was trying to love both singles and marrieds alike – by protecting the gospel. Part of protecting the gospel is identifying how taken-for-granted church practices undermine its deep foundations, such as the doctrine of justification by faith alone – the concept that we are right with God, not by anything we do (e.g. taking a monastic vow), nor any capacity of ourselves (e.g. remaining celibate), but by Christ’s death and resurrection on our behalf.

Luther was not alone in having a historical and cultural context. We contemporary evangelical Christians have our own context which, like it or not, shapes the way that we think about marriage and singleness. So, what is that context?

Our Christian culture is almost the exact opposite of Luther’s. Christian celibacy today is not exalted as better, or more “perfect”. Instead, our context has been informed by 500 years in which marriage and parenting have been established as the normal and most noble Christian way of life, leaving singleness very much regarded as “imperfect”.

As the world has increasingly disconnected love and sexual fulfilment from heterosexual marriage, we Christians have reacted by highlighting marriage as the ideal for the faithful Christian life. What have been some of the results of this? Well, we’ve seized upon the worldly notion that romantic love and sexual intimacy is necessary for ultimate human fulfilment. We’ve increasingly subsumed the ideals and intimacy of Christian friendship into the ideals and intimacy of Christian marriage. We’ve become progressively committed to the concept that marriage and parenting are the chief arenas in which God matures us spiritually. And we’ve perpetuated Luther’s idea that, without some sort of rare spiritual empowerment towards chastity, single Christians are eventually bound to explode in lust.

In Luther’s time, the church idolised celibacy and denigrated marriage. Today, the church idealises, perhaps even idolises, marriage, and consequently denigrates singleness. We must ask ourselves the same question that preoccupied Luther – are there ways in which our taken-for-granted church practices and theological attitudes may be subtly undermining the deep foundations and blessings of the gospel?

For example, have we got to a point where we now believe that being married is the authentic way of life for one who Christ has made right with God? Might we be at risk of replacing the ultimate Christian priority of “making disciples of all nations” with “giving birth to children of our own”? By consistently elevating marriage as the ideal form of all human relationships, are we in danger of undermining the gospel blessing of having been united to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ? By arguing that sexual sin is the one temptation which single Christians are unable to resist, are we suggesting that there are some areas of our lives which are beyond the transformative reach of the indwelling Holy Spirit? Have we begun to so emphasise the importance of the temporal earthly family into which we are born, that we are in danger of losing focus on the primacy of our eternal church family into which we have been spiritually adopted?

Of course, the Medieval obsession with celibacy is not the answer! We need a well-rounded, fully-informed understanding of both marriage and singleness as good, though different, ways of life, each with their distinct opportunities and challenges, but equally holy and honourable. This is the kind of issue we’ll be addressing at the Single Minded Conference in September this year, of which Thinking of God is a partner.

I wonder what Martin Luther would think if he could peruse the books on singleness and marriage in one of our bookstores, or listened to the top Christian podcasts, or sat in the pews of some of our churches today. I can’t help but think that perhaps he might find his own heart sinking just a little as well. He might even tell us we need to reform our beliefs and practices so that they might be brought more into line with the Bible, and the Biblical gospel.

References   [ + ]

1.Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage,” in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society II, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1522): 21.
2.The Judgement of Martin Luther on Monastic Vows,” in Luther’s Works: The Christian in Society I, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1521): 263