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?
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 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?