Luther's Contribution to a Christian Sexual Ethic
© Scott David Foutz

It is clear the Luther understands sexual intercourse as inextricably linked to the estate of marriage. This view derives from his literal reading of the creation account of Genesis One and Two, in which God creates for Adam a unique and specific creature, namely Eve, whom God then "hand delivered", so to speak, to Adam. In this event, Luther sees God's provision of the institute of marriage. Immediately following the introduction of Eve to Adam, God commands them to "Be fruitful and multiply" (Gen. 1:28). This narrative provides the foundation for Luther's entire sexual ethic, of which two points stand out as significant contributions.

The first is Luther's understanding that the sexual drive experienced by the individual derives from one's created nature. Rather than viewing sexual impulse through a dualistic scheme which holds sex in contempt of all that is spiritual or right, Luther sees God's hand and good will in the very fact that humans experience such. This conviction derives from the Genesis narrative in which the two are told to "Be fruitful and multiply". Much more than a simple command, this is, for Luther, a "divine ordinance" which describes a state of affairs within the human constitution that could not possibly be ignored or overcome. Innate within the human nature is the divinely structured necessity to multiply through sexual intercourse. This understanding of the sexual impulse elevates, not only the individual who finds within himself such urges, but also the sexual act itself, in that what had heretofore been seen as an evil to be avoided or at best put up with, is now a divinely instituted reality.

Luther equates the inevitability of one's sexual impulses with one's being male or female, for just as the latter state is far without our control of manipulating, so also is the former. This implies that all humans by design inevitably move toward multiplying through sexual intercourse. But this drive is not to be pursued unchecked, and marriage here is the checkrein. Since the ordinance of sex takes place within the marriage of Adam and Eve, so also the sexuality of the individual is to take place within the estate of marriage. Also derived from this is Luther's conviction that within the estate of marriage, marital love elevates those involved above all other possible "love" relationships. In marriage, humans find the apex of physical existence 1 . And so, as Luther's view has elevated both the individual and the sexual act, so also here, marriage is highly elevated and replaces the then contemporary notion that marriage was an evil to be suffered by those unable to live righteously before God, etc. So closely is sex tied to marriage, that the definition of the latter includes the former. In this way, a "marriage" in which one partner is either unable or unwilling to meet the natural need of the other is in Luther's view a mockery and false imitation of the estate of marriage 2 .

This being the case, the question then arises regarding what becomes those who fail to marry, to which Luther's answer is very simple. "It is certainly a fact that he who refuses to marry must fall into immorality. How could it be otherwise, since God has created man and woman to produce seed and multiply?" 3 Luther does allow for exception to this, based on Matthew 1:19 in which Jesus mentions three categories of men exempt from the estate of marriage, but adds that such exceptions are very rare. The vast majority of humans remain subject to the natural inclination of our design toward producing seed and multiplying. And without one's participation in the estate of marriage, this sexual nature inevitably leads to immorality, regardless of whether one's having avoided marriage is due to sincere vows or mere convenience. For those desiring to vow chastity, Luther strongly maintains that, apart from the special miracle of God (as outlined in Mt 19), no one can promise not to not produce seed and multiply, a fact which makes any attempt to vow such simple foolishness. It is recognized that one may indeed avoid the sexual act, but one will not avoid the negative consequences of stifling a natural function of the body. Luther likens such abstinence to the consequences of abstinence from food, water, sleep, defecation, or any other natural function of the body, yet moreso in that only sex was accompanied by a divine ordinance. The consequences of such abstinence manifest themselves physically, mentally and spiritually. In similar fashion, any one who avoids marriage out of mere convenience will also find within himself or herself the detrimental results of denying this natural tendency toward sex. From this fact, fornication arises and presents itself as a temporary relief, but which nevertheless renders the individual worse off spiritually, and may in fact endanger one's physical well-being due to disease. In this light, Luther has no hesitation to claim that anyone refusing to participate in the estate of marriage will inevitable encounter immorality working within one's physical, mental and spiritual spheres.

A second contribution which Luther's view makes to the Christian sexual ethic pertains to sexual freedom of the married in relation to any other external authority. Since the sexual drive is innate within all humans, and that by divine design, and since God has divinely ordained that such production of seed and multiplying take place within marriage, it becomes clear that the sex within marriage is founded upon a much greater authority than any which man might try to employ.

In Luther's day and age, this tension between the marital state and external authorities was most obvious through the church's many regulations regarding even the intricacies of marriage. And so Luther's message is one of great liberation, a liberation of one's own nature from external regulations and manipulation. There is, according to Luther, no season or period in which marital sex is forbidden. Nor is marriage between those of one of the many categories of relationships prohibited despite the claims of the church.

A great portion of Luther's treatment of marriage in Estate of Marriage deals with the church's many regulations and policies regarding from whom and in what circumstances marriage is to be prohibited. Given the organic link between sex and marriage outlined above, it becomes clear that in wresting the estate of marriage out of the hands of the officials of the church, in which abuses and nonsensical policies are apparent, Luther is in fact restoring marriage and marital sex to those to whom they rightly belong, namely the individual. Luther's attack on such policies is based on a much more fundamental ground that a mere argument against inefficiency and fraud, but instead grounds the individual's right to self-expression in marital love upon the highest of all authorities, namely God. Control over matters of marital sex does not belong to the authority of the church, for it has neither to power to implement or hinder the forces which underlie it. Instead it belongs to all men and women equally as divinely designed creatures within whom the nature is found.

This indeed is a significant contribution to the sexual ethic of the Christian community. Human sexuality is so interwoven into the ways we feel, think, and behave, that any perspective which seeks to place the control of such in the hands of external authorities could only result in a despair of what ought to be rejoiced in, and an oppression of what ought to be expressed. Luther here is radical is his recognition that such an innate and vital element of human life cannot be surrendered to any other than our own responsibility to seek fulfillment. And that fulfillment remains the estate of marriage, not due to patriarchal traditions, nor a desire to preserve property rights (of men over women), nor a conservative fear of the promiscuities of humanity. But this fulfillment is ensured in marriage due to its being a sacrament of God to each member of the human species. This sacrament belongs and ministers not only to those within the community of faith, but is inclusive of all. And in this sacrament, each human being is given dignity and is recognized as a creature divinely designed. And it is this design which accounts for the natural proclivity toward sex that we can not possibly deny or neglect in our considerations of the visible psychological, social and religious spheres. This is to say that sexuality is a reflection of God's image in us, and is not to be attributed to depravity or brute animality, but is to be understood as possessing dignity.

And this dignity must necessarily carry over to include the very act of sex. Luther cannot maintain that the sex act of fallen creatures remains without sin, but he will maintain that God graciously overlooks any such sin within the marital acts of sex. This restores honor to an event which otherwise loses its core significances due to spiritually uninformed or even perverse views of sexual intercourse. Luther states very clearly that in this relation, and in this alone, a man and woman experience the highest forms of love possible to human beings. Of course, Luther here also implies the entire sphere of marital love and relationship, but as high as the rest is elevated, so also is the marital bed elevated. And this is indeed a contribution to the Christian understanding of marital love, the family and the status of human relations in the scheme of God.

And as the individual and his love for another is so elevated, so then, must the entire estate of marriage be likewise viewed. And no greater need does our contemporary society have than to once again regain a recognition and conviction of the true status and consequence of marriage. Society at large, and with it the church, have been lulled into considering marriage a civil affair in which contracts are made and services rendered. And biblical marriage does indeed contain a degree of such contractual elements. But gone is the perspective that one's life reaches an otherwise impossible fulfillment through the relationship of marriage itself. There may indeed be widespread agreement that the height of the love within the marriage commitment may indeed be the highest expression of love, but Luther wants to say much more than this. The entire marital event is what brings the individual to fulfillment. The highs of love and passion, of course; but also the lows and the struggles encountered between those highs. The entire marital event fulfills the human being. This is a contribution of Luther's which our society has never needed more. And not for its socially redeeming quality is it needed now, but most importantly for the impact such a view has upon the quality of individual lives, as they learn to interpret their own hardships, inadequacies and disappointments through a perspective which is grounds human nature in the design of God. If the individual is left to interpret life's circumstances through either the standard the world idealizes, or the reality the world is forced to attribute to itself, one's nature, expressions of love and marriage are doomed to lesser status, and thereby unfulfilled.


1 This apex assumes God's presence in the life of the individual, and a recognition by that individual of the true nature of the estate of marriage.

2 It is important to point out here that Luther very strongly mantains that should one of the partners in marriage becomes incapable of fulfilling the conjugal duty in the course of marraige, that the healthy spouse is "by no means" to consider the marriage dissolved, for God was instrumental in creating the circumstance in which the married couple finds themselves. In such a case, the healthy spouse is to serve the invalid for God's sake.

3 The Estate of Marriage , LW, vol. 45, p.45