Just finished Roland Bainton’s classic work The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Bainton’s is an evenhanded treatment of the complexities of the Reformation scene, allowing for the messiness of sin and politics while reading the principle players sympathetically. There were a number of fun little gems, but just one this morning. In his chapter on the domestic repercussions of the Reformation, Bainton points out a couple of interesting things regarding the impact of the Reformation on marriage.
Looming large behind much of the discussion of marriage, annulment, divorce, and remarriage was the question of Henry VIII and his wife/heir problem. Henry VIII was sort of the Miley Cyrus of the day with everyone giving their opinions about the English despot’s marital twerking, including centrally what should be done about his apparent need to take a new wife every few years. You can find opinions on this matter in many of the writings of leaders from Roman, Lutheran, Calvinist, and Anabaptist traditions, not to mention the political leaders of any number of nations. Everyone had an opinion, many had ideas for how Henry ought to maneuver through the ecclesial, political minefield. But that’s just background.
First, Bainton notes in passing, that it seems a little bit ironic (to quote Alanis) that the Roman Church designates marriage as a sacrament while simultaneously insisting that singleness is a more holy calling. Celibacy is not a sacrament in the Roman Church, but it is considered a higher calling than marriage. Figure that one out. It seems likely that the sacramental nature of the union originated from the suspicion that sex even inside marriage must include some measure of sinful desire, and the sacrament of marriage is the grace to cover that “necessary evil.” Perhaps. Nevertheless, the sacramental nature of marriage was the primary sticking point when it came to allowance of divorce. How could a sacrament be undone? This led to the practice of annulment, which apparently functioned as a sort of de-sacramentalizing of the union.
Second, while the Lutherans did away with the notion of matrimony as a sacrament, they tended to continue with the Roman practice of forbidding divorce (and consequent remarriage) but allowing for an annulment in some cases, though annulment would be seen as more of a civil function than an ecclesial one (as in the Roman church).
However, and third, in the Calvinist and Anabaptist traditions, not only was matrimony rejected as a sacrament, the covenantal nature of marriage provided an understanding that emphasized what Bainton calls a “partnership.” Both parties, man and woman, were viewed first and foremost as individuals independently responsible before God and only as they were individually committed to God and His gospel, were they seen as equally yoked for the calling of marriage. This apparently led to two tendencies, specifically in Geneva and the Calvinist countries.
On the one hand, divorce and remarriage was apparently permitted with somewhat more laxity, particularly when it came to spiritual disunity. In those days, as we might imagine, it was somewhat common to find households divided by the Reformation, one spouse persuaded by the claims of the Protestants while the other loyal to Rome. Calvin’s Geneva apparently, after sufficient efforts to draw the erring spouse to the truth, would allow for a Protestant to divorce his/her spouse and freely remarry.
But this emphasis on each party of the marriage covenant owning their own faith independently as a prerequisite for making/keeping covenant became the foundation for a lively and lovely partnership in marriage, “not merely for the propagation of children but in training them in the fear of the Lord and in laboring together in other respects for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom.” Bainton says, “Marriage in the Calvinist-Anabaptist tradition has been refined not through a cult of love but by focusing interest upon a common religious vocation.”
I don’t pretend to have enough information or specifics to know how all the particulars should be evaluated biblically, but one thing to point out is that the Reformation happened against the backdrop of a society full of sinful men and women where fornication and adultery were rampant. If we know that many in ecclesial and civil leadership were known for scandalous affairs (and we do), how much more so would the common man have felt leave to follow his/her own passions. Bainton points out that a fierce Romanticism was on the rise during these decades, as a sort of pagan interpretation of the medieval chivalric code, which Bainton refers to as the “cult of adultery.” Free love and free sex was the gospel of these Romantics as much as it is in our world with the likes of Lady Gaga and Bill Clinton.
In that milieu, the Reformers sought a better way. While the Church continued to be involved in the blessing of marriage and guarding the sanctity of the marriage bed, rejecting the sacramental quality of the union insisted that the blessing of marriage depended on each spouse personally owning the roles and responsibilities assigned to them by God through Christ and by His Spirit. Thus, while marriage was rightly seen as symbolic of God’s everlasting covenant, a picture of Christ’s perfect, unbreakable love for His Bride (the Church), it was not a sacrament and therefore not unbreakable. But far from ceding any ground to the licentious blasphemers playing musical beds, the Reformers insisted that the kind of love that marriage was for was grounded on Jesus and His mission to make disciples of all the nations. This vision for marriage saw the possibility of a true union, a holy covenantal partnership aimed at raising children and building God’s Kingdom in the world together.