Women in the Protestant Reform

As Hans Kung and his team continued their study of Christian women through the centuries, they asked the question:

Did the Protestant Reformation improve the lot of women?
If so, in what ways?

Martin Luther Bainton  Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) 

In the 16th century Martin Luther gave voice to a movement which had been building for more than a hundred years: he launched his call to reform the Church.

Luther’s foundational ideas were Sola Scriptura (Christian belief is based on Scripture alone, not on traditions established by the Church); Sola Fide (Christians are justified – brought into a right relationship with God – by  their faith, not their good works); and the priesthood of all believers (every Christian – lay and clergy – has a vocation to holiness and to ministry).

In the Protestant churches preaching became central to worship; the whole community was to participate in the Eucharist (not just priest alone); all work (lay and clerical) was to be seen as of equal value; and reading the Scriptures was the way to understand Jesus and learn how to follow God’s Way.

The changed situation of women: Luther taught that God had created men and women to be equal, and that the Holy Spirit came to men and women equally through baptism. Women were to read the Bible – and their self-esteem gradually was lifted through their knowledge of Scripture – and education was now emphasized for girls as well as for boys.

Luther and other reformers rejected celibacy and believed that marriage was good for pastors. As each of the Protestant leaders married, their wives became models for other wives in the faith community. The ideal of the pastoral home became a model for society and gradually changed the culture of Protestant Europe. (It has been argued that the modern concept of marriage – based on mutual love rather than property – and the breakdown of parentally-arranged unions came about as a result of the Reformation).

But the social structure was still patriarchal: The spiritual equality of men and women went along with accepted social inequality. All of the Reformers accepted this social inequality, and in practice their churches would also put women’s ministries on a lower level than men’s.  Mary Malone writes about women in the 16th century:

Early in the Protestant Reformation, a window of equality existed for women. Even though these women were married, they had a say in their own religious life, and status in their religious community. (Previously, only the single virgin would have been seen as a prophet.) In this period there was a new desire to educate women – so they would be able to pass on Scripture to their children and families. Unfortunately, this relatively equal status did not last; women would be required to marry, and to be under the subjugation of their husbands.

A look at Martin Luther’s own marriage:

Katharine von Bora againKatharine von Bora  1499 – 1552

Katharine von Bora  was one of several nuns who early accepted Protestant ideas, and then escaped from their convent. Martin Luther, who found husbands for a number of these former nuns, tried several times to find a husband for Katharine before he married her himself.  They were married for 21 years and had 6 children. Katie managed his home (which was actually his former monastery and full of his student;) she tended a large garden, fished, farmed and tended livestock; she ran a brewery and managed their money, as well as taking care of their extended household. (Martin frequently called her ‘my Lord Katie’.)

In his biography of Martin Luther, Here I Stand, the scholar Roland Bainton writes,

The Luther who got married in order to testify to his faith actually founded a home and did more than any other person to determine the tone of German domestic relations for the next four centuries… [But]  His position with regard to marriage was tinctured throughout by patriarchalism. According to Luther the man is the head of the wife because he was created first. She is to give him not only love but also honor and obedience. He is to rule her with gentleness, but he is to rule. She has her sphere, and she can do more with the children with one finger than he with two firsts. But she is to confine herself to her sphere….

But Bainton also comments, Luther’s early writings on marriage create the impression that ‘the sole object of marriage is to serve as a remedy for sin’. But after his own wedding his emphasis shifted, and he began to portray marriage as a ‘school for character.’ In this sense marriage displaces the monastery, which had been regarded by the Church as the training ground of virtue and the surest way to heaven…. Nor should it be for a moment supposed that he excluded love from marriage. Of course the Christian should love his wife, said Luther. He is bound to love his neighbor as himself. His wife is his nearest neighbor. Therefore she should be his dearest friend.

What do you think?

In what ways did the Protestant Reformation improve the lives of women?

In what ways did women’s lives stay the same?

Do you see any parallels between the lives of European women in the Protestant Reformation and the lives (for instance) of Muslim women in Afghanistan or Africa today?

9 thoughts on “Women in the Protestant Reform

  1. Sounds sweet. Also exactly the way this handsome Iranian Dr Described their relationship to his women. It felt like Ugh!

      • These marriages do look better from a far distance – whether the distance is years (16th century) or space (even our closest friends at times).

        However, we are also judging these marriages with 21st century eyes (think of what Katie could have done if she had been empowered to preach, etc!) But if we look at these marriages from the points of view of the women’s grandmothers (in the 15th century), what might we see?

        For a thousand years, women had been valued for their virginity; marriage and child-bearing were (at best) second best. Now women are honored as mothers and home-makers.

        For the 21st century, it’s not enough. But in the 16th century, it led to an enormous rise in most women’s self-esteem – and with the new focus on girls’ education, women’s self-esteem (and influence) was going to continue to rise.

  2. Now how could Luther teach that men and women are equal and yet run such a patriarcial household? It doesn’t fit!

    • Human beings think they are intellectually consistent, but obviously they are not…. especially when they forget to consider how much of their culture’s ‘mind-set’ they themselves have accepted! Like a fish with water all around him, Luther didn’t even see his culture’s attitude toward women. So we also walk through our lives imagining that we think one way, while not seeing how inconsistent we are. How many centuries will it take for St. Paul’s ‘neither male nor female’ to sink into our culture? To eventually think of Katie as his ‘friend’ was a big step for Luther. At that point, he probably thought he’d taken all the steps he needed to take!

  3. Sounds like Luther got darn lucky marrying someone as resourceful and talented as Katie. It could be speculated that she served as a role model for their community, demonstrating how marriage could be more of a partnership, in spite of church rhetoric asserting husband superiority. Not much different than many contemporary marriages, unfortunately. And, we don’t have to go to the other side of the world to find examples of wives seriously repressed in their marriage relationships.

  4. Unfortunately, I experienced one of these marriages for many, many years. I now have the privilege of sharing my life with someone who respects me and appreciates my brain as well as other body parts…

    • My point in looking at Martin and Katie’s marriage is that — unlike so many marriages – it looks like she actually changed Martin’s mind!

  5. Change comes slowly, as we know. In my lifetime women have made gains in the face of ridicule and irritation, often from other women! Even in the face of legislation to the contrary, women still make less than men for the same work. In the fields of education, nursing and “support staff” (secretaries, clerks, etc.), women still dominate. On the TV game show, Jeopardy, the current 12-day female winner is still compared to other women who have won, not just to other overall winners. Children’s toys are still remarkably marketed according to sex (McDonald’s restaurants distribute children’s prizes or toys after asking when the child is a boy or girl). Philosophical mind-sets are slow to change, even with legislation and philosophical support. It is the experience of change that makes change acceptable, ironically, and 5 centuries later we are still struggling. There has been improvement, but will we ever reach “equality”, even in Western countries? Will the “weaker sex” remain so in the backs of our “lizard brains”? How do I see other women, and what are my expectations as a female? It is all so uneven!

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