What do Lutherans Believe about Divorce?


The German monk Martin Luther (1483-1546) ignited the Protestant Reformation when he called on the Catholic church to acknowledge the Bible as authoritative, even over the Church. Historically, Lutheranism has reflected Luther’s view on many matters, including marriage and divorce.

Luther taught that divorce is permissible for three reasons: (1) divorce is allowed in the case of adultery; (2) divorce allowed when one spouse is guilty of desertion, which may involve a spouse not fulfilling their “conjugal duties”; (3) divorce is also allowed in the case of a physical inability to be intimate.

What exactly should a couple do if adultery has occurred? What are the parameters regarding “desertion”? And what is an example of a physical inability to be intimate? Keep reading to learn more.

divorce papers
“A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Genesis 2:4 (ESV)

Lutheran Views Concerning Divorce

The Lutheran denomination emerged from the Protestant Reformation. It’s been nearly 500 years since Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the doors of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, which is the moment many historians consider the starting point of the Reformation.

Luther not only challenged the Catholic church on matters related to the person and work of Jesus Christ, but on divorce as well.

In contrast to Catholic teaching, Luther’s teaching on divorce stands firm from a spiritual standpoint, while exhibiting a limited amount of leniency on specified biblical grounds or based on particular physical deficiencies.

The significance of marriage in Lutheranism

To better appreciate the stark contrast in viewpoints held by Luther and the Catholic church concerning the subject of divorce, it is necessary to mention the significance of marriage from a Lutheran perspective.

Jesus stated in Matthew 19:6, a married couple “are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (ESV) Marriage is sacred to Lutherans and to seek to dissolve this bond while both spouses are living is tantamount to a sin of the highest degree. [1] [2]

Luther, the Reformation’s vocal and charismatic leader, preached passionately against celibacy and on behalf of matrimony. He recognized the value of marriage for procreation, but also emphasized the importance of spouses serving as sexual partners.

divorced couple
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Ephesians 5:25 (ESV)

Luther’s Views Regarding Divorce

Although Luther was seen as a champion for matrimony and the family structure, he felt that there were certain circumstances under which divorce was justifiable and the proper course of action in both an ecclesiastical and social sense. Luther preached that divorce should be allowed under the following specific circumstances:

Adultery as Grounds for Divorce

According to Luther, there are two biblical grounds for divorce, and the first is on account of adultery. Looking to the Bible for guidance, Luther asserted that if one spouse was guilty of “unchastity,” then the innocent spouse may turn to divorce as proper recourse. The innocent spouse would be free in the eyes of God and the church to subsequently remarry.

Put another way, unless the spouse seeking divorce can establish that the other has been unchaste, then the act of remarrying will result in a finding of adultery. Furthermore, marrying a divorcee is an act of adultery.

Desertion as Grounds for Divorce

The other biblical basis for divorce is desertion committed by one spouse against the other, which according to Luther, specifically refers to one spouse: 

  • Avoiding the other
  • Physically distancing themselves from the other
  • Consciously refusing to “fulfill the conjugal duty” owed by each spouse to the other

In his written work, “The Estate of Marriage,” Luther goes so far as to lay out the procedures by which one spouse could invoke this biblical basis for divorce. In Luther’s eyes, it was paramount for the local community to be made aware of the act(s) constituting desertion so that the “stubbornness becomes a matter of common knowledge and is rebuked before the congregation.”

The offending spouse would also need to be admonished and warned “two to three times,” and if the behavior persisted, only then could the victim justifiably seek and be awarded a divorce.

Impotence as Grounds for Divorce

The third basis for divorce is physiological. A physical deficiency such as impotence, or other sexual performance-related issues, could be sufficient reason to seek a divorce. Unlike the first two grounds for divorce, which are rooted in the Bible, the third basis is purely physical and restricted to one spouse’s bodily limitations.

According to Luther, the performance of conjugal duties is vitally important to a happy and successful marriage as well as reproduction.

While recognizing the sanctity of marriage as an institution and as a vital building block of an ordered society, Luther had no qualms about dissolving a marriage via divorce should it be justified through any of the three grounds he described. [3] [4]

The Catholic Decree of Nullity

Historically, Lutheran views on divorce are compared and contrasted with those of Catholicism. The Catholic Church maintains very strict views on divorce.

While the Church cannot prevent Catholics from obtaining civil divorces (i.e., according to the laws of the state that has jurisdiction over their marriage) to settle matters of money, property, child custody, and similar issues, it can bar its divorced members from participating in certain rites that lie at the very core of the Catholic faith.

For example, a remarried Catholic may not receive the Eucharist, nor may they receive Holy Communion (they are permitted to attend Mass).

The only way a person may leave their marriage and enter another and still maintain full, good standing in the Catholic Church is by seeking and obtaining a Decree of Nullity, which essentially erases the union by determining that it never existed in the eyes of God.

Catholic Annulment of Marriage

A Decree of Nullity, more commonly known as an annulment, is a Catholic body’s determination that for one or more specified reasons, a marriage was never validly formed.

In other words, as far as the church is concerned, the union never existed. Thus, while the net result may be the same as a divorce, the two concepts are quite different and achieved in a vastly dissimilar fashion.

To request an annulment, the seeking party or parties must allege that:

  • There existed a significant psychological impairment that made understanding the required level of commitment to the marriage impossible for one or both of the spouses
  • One of the spouses hid from the other the existence of a condition such as infertility (inability to bear children) or impotence, or information regarding a previous marriage

Then, the request for annulment proceeds through four phases of review and adjudication. Depending on the location and particular jurisdiction, this process can take as long as two years. A typical annulment proceeding goes as follows:

  • Petition – the parties to the annulment, come before a member of the clergy and present their respective sides
  • Evidence – each party’s statement is then corroborated or refuted by taking evidence from family members, friends, and other pertinent parties
  • Discussion – arguments in favor of nullity and in favor of maintaining the marriage are presented and debated
  • Final judgment – the diocese and bishops confer and render their decision

In 2015, Pope Francis implemented reforms to streamline the annulment process and shorten the processing time for petitions to be heard and decided. Francis also advocated for the waiver of annulment fees and allowed certain cases to be handled by local bishops. 

These historic reforms will result in increased recognition of second marriages by the church and allow these Catholics to participate in all church activities and rites. [5] [6] [7]

Conclusion

Luther’s views on divorce were revolutionary during the Reformation and remain progressive today compared to the Catholic Church’s no-divorce stance.

References:
[1] Source
[2] Source
[3] Source
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[5] Source
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[7] Source

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel has been in Christian ministry for 25 years. He has been an Associate Pastor and a Senior Pastor. Currently in higher education, Daniel has taught more than 25 different undergraduate courses in Bible and theology-related topics.

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