Here's an odd one from the CARM boards. A Roman Catholic stated the following about Luther:
"how can protestants follow a man who said if a woman was frigid or frail and no longer able to perform the marital act, she should be put to death by the state? Adulterers should also be put to death by the state."
This one sounded vaguely familiar. I recall Luther saying adulterers should be put to death by the state, but the frigid frail woman no longer able to perform the marital act part just didn't sound quite right. I don't always recall every Luther tidbit, especially if I've been busy with other things. After asking a few times where this information came from, it was finally admitted it came from another CARM poster who "seemed educated." I was able to track down this educated CARM person, and then on a hunch and a search engine, I tracked this little bit of Luther trivia back to this page: Martin Luther: The Civil Government Ought to Put Frigid Wives and Adulterers to Death.
Source and Background
The treatise this negative sentiment was pilfered from was Luther's The Estate of Marriage, 1522. It is located in in the English edition of Luther's Works, volume 45. The editors point out no specific information is known as to why Luther wrote this treatise. They do though point out, "Among the practical problems with which every priest, pastor, and confessor had to deal were those involving the marriage relationship. Since marriage was numbered among the sacraments, it was hedged about with numerous rules and restrictions. Luther had for years been a parish priest and confessor to his flock in Wittenberg."
As to papal marriage rules, a large portion of the treatise actually engages them. Judged by our current standards some of the rules seem silly:"If I sponsor a girl at baptism or confirmation, then neither I nor my son may marry her, or her mother, or her sister." Or," If my fiancée should die before we consummate the marriage, I may not marry any relative of hers up to the fourth degree."
Some of the papal rules though carry more medieval prejudice: "I may not marry a Turk, a Jew, or a heretic." Recall, against popular culture, Luther had no problem with a Christian marrying someone who is ethnically Jewish, even until his dying day. Or, note the discrimination here: "When I marry one who is supposed to be free and it turns out later that she is a serf, this marriage too is null and void." Luther reiterates the corruption surrounding all of these rules: if one pays enough money to the papal authorities, any of these rules could be overcome.
Luther himself says he's was even reluctant to get involved in this subject. Recall, he wasn't married at the time. He says,
"How I dread preaching on the estate of marriage! I am reluctant to do it because I am afraid if I once get really involved in the subject it will make a lot of work for me and for others. The shameful confusion wrought by the accursed papal law has occasioned so much distress, and the lax authority of both the spiritual and the temporal swords has given rise to so many dreadful abuses and false situations, that I would much prefer neither to look into the matter nor to hear of it. But timidity is no help in an emergency; I must proceed. I must try to instruct poor bewildered consciences, and take up the matter boldly. This sermon is divided into three parts" (LW 45:15).
Some of what Luther will put forth concerning marriage will seem shocking to us. Even the papal marriage laws Luther responded against don't fair much better. I would venture to say the way our current world is redefining marriage, we would be shocking to Luther and sixteenth century papacy as well! That is, when we read documents like this, it doesn't do very much good to stand in judgment as if our society is morally superior. We may be superior in some ways, but in others we're far worse. Even some of the most shocking things Luther says about marriage show he's a man far more concerned with morality and God's commands than the people of our day.
In part one, Luther considers which persons are qualified for marriage: men and women. They are given a biological need for each other by God. They are told to be fruitful and multiply. For Luther, this is an inflexible ordinance. He Says, "'Be fruitful and multiply,' ...is more than a command, namely, [it is] a divine ordinance which it is not our prerogative to hinder or ignore" (LW 45:17). Not only is it a divine ordinance, it's something people have been created to do. Luther says,
"Therefore, just as God does not command anyone to be a man or a woman but creates them the way they have to be, so he does not command them to multiply but creates them so that they have to multiply. And wherever men try to resist this, it remains irresistible nonetheless and goes its way through fornication, adultery, and secret sins, for this is a matter of nature and not of choice" (LW 45:18).
For Luther, marriage is inherently tied up with having children. To be married and not have children (in most instances) is to break God's divine ordinance. It is something quite serious, as R.C. Sproul would say, it's a form of cosmic treason against one's maker.
This is actually a crucial key to this entire blog post. By keeping in mind Luther's understanding of this divine ordinance , Luther's shocking words about adultery and (allegedly) "frigid women" (we'll see later this description is a misreading of Luther) isn't as shocking as one may think.
Adultery and the Death Penalty
Part two is that section of the treatise that concerns this obscure Luther quote. Luther examines grounds for divorce. If a spouse is unable to fulfill the marital obligation and produce children, a divorce may be appropriate in some instances. For instance, if a spouse goes into a marriage with full knowledge of impotence, but keeps it a secret , this could be grounds for a divorce. Notice, the emphasis for Luther once again is on God's divine ordinance.
Another ground is adultery. If the adultery is secretive and only the offended spouse knows, Luther says,"he may rebuke his wife privately and in a brotherly fashion, and keep her if she will mend her ways. Second, he may divorce her, as Joseph wished to do" (LW 45:31). Exposed public adultery though should fall under the rules of the civil authorities, similar to that situation set up under Mosaic law. That is, the state is responsible to enforce the rules of marriage , not the church. Luther states:
You may ask: What is to become of the other [the guilty party] if he too is perhaps unable to lead a chaste life? Answer: It was for this reason that God commanded in the law [Deut. 22:22–24] that adulterers be stoned, that they might not have to face this question. The temporal sword and government should therefore still put adulterers to death, for whoever commits adultery has in fact himself already departed and is considered as one dead. Therefore, the other [the innocent party] may remarry just as though his spouse had died, if it is his intention to insist on his rights and not show mercy to the guilty party. Where the government is negligent and lax, however, and fails to inflict the death penalty, the adulterer may betake himself to a far country and there remarry if he is unable to remain continent. But it would be better to put him to death, lest a bad example be set.
Some may find fault with this solution and contend that thereby license and opportunity is afforded all wicked husbands and wives to desert their spouses and remarry in a foreign country. Answer: Can I help it? The blame rests with the government. Why do they not put adulterers to death? Then I would not need to give such advice. Between two evils one is always the lesser, in this case allowing the adulterer to remarry in a distant land in order to avoid fornication. And I think he would be safer also in the sight of God, because he has been allowed to live and yet is unable to remain continent. If others also, however, following this example desert their spouses, let them go. They have no excuse such as the adulterer has, for they are neither driven nor compelled. God and their own conscience will catch up to them in due time. Who can prevent all wickedness? (LW 45: 32).
Note the sentence, "for whoever commits adultery has in fact himself already departed and is considered as one dead." The editors of Luther's Works point out,
Wer seyn ehe bricht, der hart sich schon selbst gescheyden. The significance of this sentence turns on the fact that the one German word (scheiden) has two distinct meanings—“to separate” either in the sense of dissolving a marriage or in the sense of departing this life—both of which are involved here. Luther’s point is that whoever destroys his own marriage has really left not only his wife but also his life; he has achieved not only his divorce but also his own death.
For Luther, marriage joins together a man and woman, making them one complete person. Adultery is nothing other than killing oneself. Taken with this understanding, one can see the respect Luther had for marriage, rather than the ravings of a madman. He also includes this caveat:
Where the government fails to inflict the death penalty and the one spouse wishes to retain the other, the guilty one should still in Christian fashion be publicly rebuked and caused to make amends according to the gospel, after the manner provided for the rebuking of all other manifest sins, Matthew 18[:15–17]. For there are no more than these three forms of discipline on earth among men: private and brotherly, in public before the congregation according to the gospel, and that inflicted by the civil government (LW 45:32).
So far from Luther being a bloodthirsty lunatic, one must sit back for a moment and ask who really takes the vows of marriage seriously? I don't agree the death penalty for breaking marital vows is warranted, but I can understand why he said what he said, and I don't think it's all that outrageous for the sixteenth century.
Frigid or frail women no longer able to perform the marital act, should be put to death
Here now we come to the section of this treatise that most interest me. Luther outlines what should happen to a spouse who refuses "to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person." First consider again Luther's belief in God's divine ordinance for marriages to produce children. Luther says,
"The third case for divorce is that in which one of the parties deprives and avoids the other, refusing to fulfil the conjugal duty or to live with the other person. For example, one finds many a stubborn wife like that who will not give in, and who cares not a whit whether her husband falls into the sin of unchastity ten times over" (LW 45:33).
"Here you should be guided by the words of St. Paul, I Corinthians 7[:4–5], “The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does; likewise the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does. Do not deprive each other, except by agreement,” etc. Notice that St. Paul forbids either party to deprive the other, for by the marriage vow each submits his body to the other in conjugal duty. When one resists the other and refuses the conjugal duty she is robbing the other of the body she had bestowed upon him. This is really contrary to marriage, and dissolves the marriage. For this reason the civil government must compel the wife, or put her to death. If the government fails to act, the husband must reason that his wife has been stolen away and slain by robbers; he must seek another. We would certainly have to accept it if someone’s life were taken from him. Why then should we not also accept it if a wife steals herself away from her husband, or is stolen away by others?" (LW 45:33).
Luther doesn't say "if a woman was frigid or frail and no longer able to perform the marital act." Rather, he's speaking of issues in which a spouse refuses sex. He cites Paul "do not deprive each other except by agreement." To willfully deny the other spouse is to rob the other spouse, and is something that is so contrary to marriage, it's like dissolving it. Luther recommends the state step in to compel the spouse, or face the death penalty. That is, marital duties are so crucial to marriage, they need to be taken very seriously. To willfully deny the other spouse is to rob the other, and is actually an act of killing a marriage. To kill a marriage is so terrible, it should meet with severe penalties.
As to an invalid spouse, Luther recommends taking care of the spouse, and says those who can't remain continent because of an invalid spouse are lying. You must serve your invalid spouse:
What about a situation where one’s wife is an invalid and has therefore become incapable of fulfilling the conjugal duty? May he not take another to wife? By no means. Let him serve the Lord in the person of the invalid and await His good pleasure. Consider that in this invalid God has provided your household with a healing balm by which you are to gain heaven. Blessed and twice blessed are you when you recognize such a gift of grace and therefore serve your invalid wife for God’s sake.
But you may say: I am unable to remain continent. That is a lie. If you will earnestly serve your invalid wife, recognize that God has placed this burden upon you, and give thanks to him, then you may leave matters in his care. He will surely grant you grace, that you will not have to bear more than you are able. He is far too faithful to deprive you of your wife through illness without at the same time subduing your carnal desire, if you will but faithfully serve your invalid wife.
When Luther suggested the death penalty, the point was the seriousness of violating marriage ordinances. That's how seriously Luther took spouses being committed to each other. Keep in mind, the 16th century was not the 21st century. Certain things will sound quite odd to us, but were not so outrageous during the 16th century. Recall, the Roman Catholic Church also believed in the death penalty for certain sins during the 16th century. The question is, should Luther's ideas about these marital sins warrant the death penalty? In Luther's mind, the sin was so grievous, it did. I am not an advocate of the death penalty, but I can't help but wonder what would happen if a society took marriage and sexuality as seriously as Luther did.
In Martin Luther: The Civil Government Ought to Put Frigid Wives and Adulterers to Death the author states,
Luther doesn't say whether an impotent man should likewise be put away by the wife or put to death by authorities (the "ED police"?). I suspect he would not take such a position. No, only women who aren't fulfilling their sexual duties (men always do, no doubt) are subjected to such drastic measures, and the adulterous man can flee to another country, where Luther in his wisdom recommends another "marriage" as the "lesser" of "two evils." We can see how the "Reformation" truly liberated women from chauvinistic medieval serfdom, can't we?
It appears the author has misread Luther, or didn't even read the document. Had he did, he would've found one more outrageous point to highlight from the Reformer's pen. According to Luther in this treatise, a spouse entering a marriage deceptively with a such a condition invalidates a marriage. If a spouse becomes an invalid, the other is to take care of him/her and remain continent. If a husband is unable to fulfill conjugal duty for some other reason, Luther recommends a surrogate mate:
If a woman who is fit for marriage has a husband who is not, and she is unable openly to take unto herself another—and unwilling, too, to do anything dishonorable—since the pope in such a case demands without cause abundant testimony and evidence, she should say to her husband, “Look, my dear husband, you are unable to fulfil your conjugal duty toward me; you have cheated me out of my maidenhood and even imperiled my honor and my sours salvation; in the sight of God there is no real marriage between us. Grant me the privilege of contracting a secret marriage with your brother or closest relative, and you retain the title of husband so that your property will not fall to strangers. Consent to being betrayed voluntarily by me, as you have betrayed me without my consent.”
I stated further that the husband is obligated to consent to such an arrangement and thus to provide for her the conjugal duty and children, and that if he refuses to do so she should secretly flee from him to some other country and there contract a marriage. I gave this advice at a time when I was still timid. However, I should like now to give sounder advice in the matter, and take a firmer grip on the wool of a man who thus makes a fool of his wife. The same principle would apply if the circumstances were reversed, although this happens less frequently in the case of wives than of husbands. It will not do to lead one’s fellow-man around by the nose5 so wantonly in matters of such great import involving his body, goods, honor, and salvation. He has to be told to make it right.
Of course, I disagree with Luther (both here and above about the death penalty), but my Catholic readers should pay close attention to Luther's words, "since the pope in such a case demands without cause abundant testimony and evidence." Before you put the noose up for Luther's neck, you should at least explain what he meant by that.