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Lessons in the Lutheran Confessions
Concerning the Marriage of Priests

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Genesis 2:18, 21-24

From the Confessions: The Augsburg Confession

Article 23: Concerning the Marriage of Priests

There has been common complaint concerning the examples of priests who were not virtuous. This is why Pope Pius is reported to have said that there were certain causes why marriage was taken away from priests, but that there were far weightier ones why it ought to be given back, as Platina writes. Since our priests wished to avoid these open scandals, they married and taught that it was lawful for them to do so. Paul says that to avoid fornication, every man should have his own wife, and that it is better to marry than to burn. (1Cor 7:2, 9) Christ says that all men cannot receive this saying, where he teaches that not all men are fit to lead a single life (Matt. 19:11), for God created man for procreation. (Gen 1:28) It is not in a man's power, without an uncommon gift and work of God, to alter this intent of creation. Many have confessed that no good, honest, chaste life, no Christian, sincere, upright conduct has resulted in the attempt; but instead, alarming, fearful unrest and torment of conscience has been felt by many until the end. Therefore, those who are not fit to lead a single life ought to marry. For no man's law, no vow, can annul the commandment and ordinance of God. For these reasons, our clergy teach that it is lawful for them to marry.

Priests were married men in the ancient Church. Paul says that a bishop should be the husband of one wife. (1Tim 3:2) In Germany, four hundred years ago for the first time, priests were forcefully compelled to lead a celibate life. These priests put up such resistance that the Archbishop of Mainz, when about to publish the Pope's decree concerning this matter, was almost killed in the uproar raised by those enraged priests. Not only were marriages forbidden for the future, but also existing marriages were forcibly ended, contrary to all divine and human laws, contrary even to the Canons themselves, made not only by Popes, but by notable Synods. God-fearing and intelligent people in high station are also known to have frequently expressed misgivings that enforced celibacy and social control of marriage (which God himself has instituted) has never produced good results, but has brought on many great and evil vices and much iniquity. Seeing that, as the world is aging and man's nature is gradually growing weaker, it is well to ensure that no more vices steal into Germany.

God ordained marriage to be a correction of human infirmity. The Canons themselves say that the old disciplines ought to sometimes be relaxed in latter times because of the weakness of men. We wish it were relaxed also in this matter. It should be expected that the churches will one day lack pastors if marriage continues to be forbidden.

While the commandment of God is in force, and since the custom of the Church is well known, and because impure celibacy causes many scandals, adulteries, and other crimes deserving the punishments of just magistrates, it is incredible that in nothing is more cruelty exercised than in the forbidding of marriage to priests. God has given his commandment to honor marriage. By the laws of all well-ordered commonwealths—even among the heathen—marriage is most highly honored. But now, priests are cruelly put to death, contrary to the intent of the Canons, for no other reason than marriage. Paul calls it a doctrine of devils that forbids marriage (1Tim 4:3). This is easily understood when the law against marriage is enforced with such penalties. But as no law of man can annul the commandment of God, so neither can it be accomplished by vows. Therefore, Cyprian counsels that women who are not able keep the chastity that they have promised, should marry. “But if they be unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better for them to marry than to fall into the fire by their lusts. They should certainly give no offense to their brethren and sisters.” (Book I, Epistle XI) Even the Canons show some leniency toward those who have taken vows before the proper age, as has generally been the case.

Pulling It Together

Desiring to be free of the scandal of unchaste priests, Melancthon and the other Lutherans took wives. Luther held out until his brothers had all married. Then, he too took a wife, a former nun by the name of Katherine. She became everything God intended in marriage. She was in all ways Luther's helpmate and better half (Gen 2:18, 24).

The Lutherans knew that legislating celibacy as a cure for impropriety did not address the real nature of the transgressions of impious priests, nor had it been shown to yield the expected results. More importantly, enforced celibacy is man's answer, not God's. The Lord's intention and institution is marriage. If one wishes to remain unmarried so that the focus of hours and energies is ministry, one may certainly do so, but not under compulsion and not by vow. Later, if it is discerned that one is not fit for single life, one may marry with God's blessing.

Prayer: Lord of love, thank you for your gift of marriage. Amen. 

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