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 tradition. Historically, Lutheranism has reflected Luther’s view on many matters, including marriage and divorce.
Luther taught that divorce is permissible for three reasons:
- Divorce is allowed in the case of adultery.
- Divorce is allowed when one spouse is guilty of desertion, which may involve a spouse not fulfilling their “conjugal duties.”
- 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.
Also, see Lutheran vs. Evangelical: What’s the Difference? to learn more.
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 challenged the Catholic church not only on matters related to the person and work of Jesus Christ but also on divorce. (Also see What Is the Lutheran View on Marriage and Clergy?)
In contrast to Catholic teaching, Luther’s teaching on divorce stands firm spiritually while exhibiting limited 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 of Luther and the Catholic church concerning divorce, it is necessary to mention the significance of marriage from a Lutheran perspective. (Also see Can Lutherans Drink Alcohol?)
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 seeking to dissolve this bond while both spouses live is equivalent to a sin of the highest degree.  
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. (Also see Can Lutherans Marry Non-Lutherans?)
Martin Luther’s Views Regarding Divorce
Although some people see Luther 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 a pastoral 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,” 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. (Also see Do Lutherans Believe You Can Lose Your Salvation?)
Put another way, unless the spouse seeking divorce can establish that the other has been unchaste, remarrying will result in a finding of adultery. Furthermore, marrying a divorcee is an act of adultery. (Also see Lutheran vs. Baptist: What’s the Difference?)
Desertion As Grounds For Divorce
The other biblical basis for divorce is desertion committed by one spouse against the other, which according to Luther, refers explicitly 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” 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, rooted in the Bible, the third basis is purely physical and restricted to one spouse’s bodily limitations.
According to Luther, performing conjugal duties is essential to a happy and successful marriage and 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.   (Also see Do Lutherans Speak In Tongues?)
The Catholic Decree of Nullity
Historically, Lutheran views on divorce are compared and contrasted with those of Catholicism. The Catholic Church maintains stringent positions 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 or Holy Communion (they are permitted to attend Mass). (Also see Why Do Lutherans Make the Sign of the Cross?)
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. (Also see Do Lutherans Celebrate Lent?)
Catholic Annulment of Marriage
A Decree of Nullity, more commonly known as an annulment, is a Catholic body’s determination that a marriage was never validly formed for one or more specified reasons.
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 different and achieved in a vastly dissimilar fashion.
To request an annulment, the seeking party or parties must allege that:
- A significant psychological impairment made understanding the required level of commitment to the marriage impossible for one or both 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. This process can take two years, depending on the location and particular jurisdiction. A typical annulment proceeding goes as follows:
- Petition – The parties to the annulment come before a clergy member 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 waiving annulment fees and allowed local bishops to handle certain cases.
These historic reforms will increase the church’s recognition of second marriages and allow these Catholics to participate in all church activities and rites.   
Luther’s views on divorce were revolutionary during the Reformation and remain progressive today compared to the Catholic Church’s no-divorce stance.
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