Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 7, 2011

Comments on Luther’s Marriage Rite

I’m currently reading through the Lutheran Confessions using the Kolb-Wengert translation.  This edition includes the rites for baptism and marriage that Luther prepared.  As I read through Luther’s comments on his marriage service, there were a number of comments that caught my attention — some for their thoughtfulness, some for their humor!  Here are some highlights from Luther (emphasis added) and a few “for what it’s worth” comments from me.

When people request of us to bless them in front of the church or in the church, to pray over them, or even to marry them, we are obligated to do this. Therefore I wanted to offer these words of advice and this order for those who do not know anything better, in case they are inclined to use this common order with us. Others, who can do better (that is, who can do nothing at all and who nevertheless think they know it all), do not need this service of mine, unless they might greatly improve on it and masterfully correct it. They certainly ought to take great care not to follow the same practice as others. A person might think that they had learned something from someone else! Wouldn’t that be a shame?

Luther’s sarcastic humor says essentially the same thing — with a little more “edge” — that he says in a pastoral manner in the introduction to his “German Mass” and in a short letter he wrote called “A Christian Exhortation to the Livonians” (both are found in Luther’s Works, volume 53).  Luther’s point in those writings is that there is great wisdom when congregations come to a general consensus about worship practices in a brotherly manner.  The tendency for every man (or church) to do his own thing is technically permissible but pastorally unwise, especially when we consider the confusion it causes among the laity and the tension it causes among pastors within the same fellowship.

(If you’d like to read the “Christian Exhortation,” it is an appendix included with this essay). 

Up to now people have made such a big display at the consecrations of monks and nuns (even though their estate and existence is an ungodly, human invention without any basis in the Bible), how much more should we honor this godly estate of marriage and bless it, pray for it, and adorn it in an even more glorious manner. For, although it is a worldly estate, nevertheless it has God’s Word on its side and is not a human invention or institution, like the estate of monks and nuns. Therefore it should easily be reckoned a hundred times more spiritual than the monastic estate, which certainly ought to be considered the most worldly and fleshly of all, because it was invented and instituted by flesh and blood and completely out of worldly understanding and reason.

A number of years ago, the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary‘s fall symposium was on the subject of vocation.  One of the essayists said that, after justification by faith alone, the subject Luther wrote about most was vocation.  I had never thought about that before, but the more I read Luther, the more I come across comments on vocation like the comments above.

The monastic life was not instituted by God, but marriage is.  That makes marriage a far more dignified vocation in God’s eyes, despite the outward appearance that the monastic movement had in Luther’s day.

Luther’s thoughts on vocation may lead us to ask some honest questions of congregational life today.  Do our church schedules fill up people’s time so much that family can be neglected?  While not neglecting the necessary and important tasks that our church councils and committees do, would we be wise to encourage our people to spend more time carrying out their God-given vocations of parent, child, employee/employer, citizen, etc.?  How would our churches’ evangelism efforts be enhanced if we helped people to understand that their various vocations are an excellent avenue for confessing their faith to others?  These are questions that every congregation will need to ask for itself, but the doctrine of vocation encourages us to ask those questions.

We must also do this in order that the young people may learn to take this estate seriously, to hold it in high esteem as a divine work and command, and not to ridicule it in such outrageous ways with laughing, jeering, and similar levity. This has been common until now, as if it were a joke or child’s play to get married or to have a wedding. Those who first instituted the custom of bringing a bride and bridegroom to church surely did not view it as a joke but as a very serious matter. For there is no doubt that they wanted to receive God’s blessing and the community’s prayers and not to put on a comedy or a pagan farce.

There is nothing new under the sun, is there?

The ceremony itself makes this clear. For all who desire prayer and blessing from the pastor or bishop indicate thereby—whether or not they say so expressly—to what danger and need they are exposing themselves and how much they need God’s blessing and the community’s prayers for the estate into which they are entering.

I constantly promote the idea that ceremony is all around us, and that ceremony is a much more valuable teaching tool that we realize.  Luther catches that thought with his opening sentence in this quote.  The marriage ceremony he designed was not only intended to make the marriage official, but it was intended to teach all who observe it — not just the bride and groom.  The bride and groom make their verbal promises to each other; the exchange of rings symbolize the promises they make to remain faithful to each other throughout their lives.  The verbal vows communicate cognitively, and the visual ceremony communicates the same message affectively.  Not only is it helpful when people understand how ceremony communicates, but it may also lead couples and churches to discard empty, showy ceremonies that aren’t meant to communicate anything in favor of ceremony that makes a statement about the value of marriage and its divine institution.

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