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?
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.