A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: The Marriage of Priests

This is part 24 of 30 in the series A Layman's Commentary on the Augsburg Confession

Article XXIII: Of the Marriage of Priests.

1] There has been common complaint concerning the examples of priests who were not chaste. 2] For that reason also Pope Pius is reported to have said that there were certain causes why marriage was taken away from priests, but that there were far weightier ones why it ought to be given back; for so Platina writes. 3] Since, therefore, our priests were desirous to avoid these open scandals, they married wives, and taught that it was lawful for them to contract matrimony. First, because 4] Paul says, 1 Cor. 7:2,9: To avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife. Also: It is better to marry than to burn. Secondly 5] Christ says, Matt. 19:11: All men cannot receive this saying, where He teaches that not all men are fit to lead a single life; for God created man for procreation, Gen. 1:28. 6] Nor is it in man’s power, without a singular gift and work of God, to alter this creation. [For it is manifest, and many have confessed that no good, honest, chaste life, no Christian, sincere, upright conduct has resulted (from the attempt), but a horrible, fearful unrest and torment of conscience has been felt by many until the end.] Therefore, 7] those who are not fit to lead a single life ought to 8] contract matrimony. For no man’s law, no vow, can annul the commandment and ordinance of God. For these reasons 9] the priests teach that it is lawful for them to marry wives.

The Roman Catholics forbid priests to marry.  This practice originated from the early church.  At the time the secular world thought that a celibate man was wiser and a better philosopher.  In order to portray their priests as being superior men, the church encouraged them to be celibate. Eventually, it became a mandatory practice. As we will see this practice is a human innovation and has no divine origin.

The impact of this practice today in the Roman Catholic church is incalculable.  All the scandals rocking the Roman Catholic church are just the tip of the iceberg. In Luther’s day, it was just as bad, if not worse. Priests and bishops would have mistresses on the side. Even the popes had children out of wedlock.

It was also thought that the calling of monks, nuns, and priests was higher than that of marriage.  They were more sanctified and better Christians.  This idea lead many men and women to seek out these so-called holy orders and thus imprison their consciences by a vow of chastity they could never keep.

The Reformers flatly reject this practice on several grounds.  The first reason to prevent sin and scandal (1 Corinthians 7:1-11).  Scripture is clear that not all people are given to be celibate. In fact, it is a rare special gift.  It should never be forced on anyone who does not have this gift (Matthew 19:1-12).

God created humans to desire the opposite sex and to procreate.  It is right and good. We should not forbid it.  Marriage precedes the Fall and the need for the priesthood. It is an intrinsic divine right of all humans to marry, and this supersedes all human traditions.  Thus we should not bind consciences on this for this right is built into our very flesh.  Even worse we should not act against the ordinance of God for marriage (Genesis 1:26-31).

10] It is also evident that in the ancient Church priests were married men. 11] For Paul says, 1 Tim. 3:2, that a bishop should be chosen who is the husband of one wife. 12] And in Germany, four hundred years ago for the first time, the priests were violently compelled to lead a single life, who indeed offered such resistance that the Archbishop of Mayence, when about to publish the Pope’s decree concerning this matter, was almost killed in the tumult raised by the enraged priests. 13] And so harsh was the dealing in the matter that not only were marriages forbidden for the future, but also existing marriages were torn asunder, contrary to all laws, divine and human, contrary even to the Canons themselves, made not only by the Popes, but by most celebrated Synods. [Moreover, many God-fearing and intelligent people in high station are known frequently to have expressed misgivings that such enforced celibacy and depriving men of marriage (which God Himself has instituted and left free to men) has never produced any good results, but has brought on many great and evil vices and much iniquity.]

Even more so in the ancient church priests were married (1 Timothy 3:1-7).  Forced celibacy instead is so abominable that people were forced into it.  Those imposing it even had the gall to break apart existing marriages.  In direct contradiction to God’s Word.

14] Seeing also that, as the world is aging, man’s nature is gradually growing weaker, it is well to guard that no more vices steal into Germany.

15] Furthermore, God ordained marriage to be a help against human infirmity. 16] The Canons themselves say that the old rigor ought now and then, in the latter times, to be relaxed because of the weakness of men; which it is to be wished were done also in this matter. 17] And it is to be expected that the churches shall at some time lack pastors if marriage is any longer forbidden.

Man is also growing weaker and weaker as the disease of sin corrupts our flesh.  Thus we should not prevent people from marriage which is explicitly given to aid us.  Also by preventing marriage, we are excluding men from the ministry who otherwise would be more than qualified to serve.  With the decline in the number of men in the ministry, we should not put up barriers contrary to the will of God.

18] But while the commandment of God is in force, while the custom of the Church is well known, while impure celibacy causes many scandals, adulteries, and other crimes deserving the punishments of just magistrates, yet it is a marvelous thing that in nothing is more cruelty exercised than against 19] the marriage of priests. God has given commandment to honor marriage. By the laws of all 20] well-ordered commonwealths, even among the heathen, marriage is most highly honored. 21] But now men, and that, priests, are cruelly put to death, contrary to the intent of the Canons, for no other cause than 22] marriage. Paul, in 1 Tim. 4:3, calls that a doctrine of devils which forbids marriage. 23] This may now be readily understood when the law against marriage is maintained by such penalties.

24] But as no law of man can annul the commandment of God, so neither can it be done by any vow. 25] Accordingly, Cyprian also advises that women who do not keep the chastity they have promised should marry. His words are these (Book I, Epistle XI): But if they be unwilling or unable to persevere, it is better for them to marry than to fall into the fire by their lusts; they should certainly give no offense to their brethren and sisters.

26] And even the Canons show some leniency toward those who have taken vows before the proper age, as heretofore has generally been the case.

Sexual desire and marriage are God’s command and ordinance we should not go against it.  We should highly honor marriage.  We should seek it and treasure it. It is a blessed institution left over from Eden.

Even all governments treasure marriage (though they pervert it), so why is the Church forbidding it?  In this day and age, we should be praising and honoring good Christian marriage in the face of all the fornication and debauchery we see around us.  We should seek it as a very good thing and fight to preserve it.  Human law cannot destroy God’s Law which is written in our very flesh.  Thus priests should be permitted and in fact encouraged to marry (1 Timothy 4:1-5).

The Confutation disagrees with this article.  The Apology responds thusly:

1] Despite the great infamy of their defiled celibacy, the adversaries have the presumption not only to defend the pontifical law by the wicked and false pretext of the divine name, but even to exhort the Emperor and princes, to the disgrace and infamy of the Roman Empire, not to tolerate the marriage of priests. For thus they speak. [Although the great, unheard-of lewdness, fornication, and adultery among priests, monks, etc., at the great abbeys, in other churches and cloisters, has become so notorious throughout the world that people sing and talk about it, still the adversaries who have presented the Confutation are so blind and without shame that they defend the law of the Pope by which marriage is prohibited, and that, with the specious claim that they are defending a spiritual state. Moreover, although it would be proper for them to be heartily ashamed of the exceedingly shameful, lewd, abandoned, loose life of the wretches in their abbeys and cloisters, although on this account alone they should not have the courage to show their face in broad daylight, although their evil, restless heart and conscience ought to cause them to tremble, to stand aghast, and to be afraid to lift their eyes to our excellent Emperor, who loves uprightness, still they have the courage of the hangman, they act like the very devil and like all reckless, wanton people, proceeding in blind defiance and forgetful of all honor and decency. And these pure, chaste gentlemen dare to admonish His Imperial Majesty, the Electors and Princes not to tolerate the marriage of priests ad infamiam et ignominiam imperii, that is, to ward off shame and disgrace from the Roman Empire. For these are their words, as if their shameful life were a great honor and glory to the Church.]

2] What greater impudence has ever been read of in any history than this of the adversaries? [Such shameless advocates before a Roman Emperor will not easily be found. If all the world did not know them, if many godly, upright people among them, their own canonical brethren, had not complained long ago of their shameful, lewd, indecent conduct, if their vile, abominable, ungodly, lewd, heathenish, Epicurean life, and the dregs of all filthiness at Rome were not quite manifest, one might think that their great purity and their inviolate virgin chastity were the reason why they could not bear to hear the word woman or marriage pronounced, and why they baptize holy matrimony, which the Pope himself calls a sacrament, infamiam imperii.] For the arguments which they use we shall afterwards review. Now let the wise reader consider this, namely, what shame these good-for-nothing men have who say that marriages [which the Holy Scriptures praise most highly and command] produce infamy and disgrace to the government, as though, indeed, this public infamy of flagitious and unnatural lusts which glow among these very holy fathers, who feign that they are Curii and live like bacchanals, were a great ornament to the Church! And most things which these men do with the greatest license cannot even be named without a breach of modesty. 3] And these their lusts they ask you to defend with your chaste right hand, Emperor Charles (whom even certain ancient predictions name as the king of modest face; for the saying appears concerning you: “One modest in face shall reign everywhere”). For they ask that, contrary to divine law, contrary to the law of nations, contrary to the canons of Councils, you sunder marriages, in order to impose merely for the sake of marriage atrocious punishments upon innocent men, to put to death priests, whom even barbarians reverently spare, to drive into exile banished women and fatherless children. Such laws they bring to you, most excellent and most chaste Emperor, to which no barbarity, however monstrous and 4]cruel, could lend its ear. But because the stain of no disgrace or cruelty falls upon your character, we hope that you will deal with us mildly in this matter, especially when you have learned that we have the weightiest reasons for our belief, derived from the Word of God, to which the adversaries oppose the most trifling and vain opinions.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXIII (XI) 1-4

Melancthon repeats many of the same arguments he made before.  In his expanded discussion, he has some wonderful things to say about marriage. Here are some highlights.

7] First, Gen. 1:28 teaches that men were created to be fruitful, and that one sex in a proper way should desire the other. For we are speaking not of concupiscence, which is sin, but of that appetite which was to have been in nature in its integrity [which would have existed in nature even if it had remained uncorrupted], which they call physical love. And this love of one sex for the other is truly a divine ordinance. But since this ordinance of God cannot be removed without an extraordinary work of God, it follows that the right to contract marriage cannot be removed by statutes or vows.

8] The adversaries cavil at these arguments; they say that in the beginning the commandment was given to replenish the earth, but that now since the earth has been replenished, marriage is not commanded. See how wisely they judge! The nature of men is so formed by the word of God that it is fruitful not only in the beginning of the creation, but as long as this nature of our bodies will exist; just as the earth becomes fruitful by the word Gen. 1:11: Let the earth bring forth grass, yielding seed. Because of this ordinance the earth not only commenced in the beginning to bring forth plants, but the fields are clothed every year as long as this natural order will exist. Therefore, just as by human laws the nature of the earth cannot be changed, so, without a special work of God, the nature of a human being can be changed neither by vows nor by human law [that a woman should not desire a man, nor a man a woman].

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXIII (XI) 7-8

 

33] These testimonies teach that marriage is a lawful [a holy and Christian] thing. If therefore purity signifies that which is allowed and approved before God, marriages are pure, because they have been approved by the Word of God. 34] And Paul says of lawful things, Titus 1:15: Unto the pure all things are pure, i.e., to those who believe in Christ and are righteous by faith. Therefore, as virginity is impure in the godless, so in the godly marriage is pure on account of the Word of God and faith.

35] Again, if purity is properly opposed to concupiscence, it signifies purity of heart, i.e., mortified concupiscence, because the Law does not prohibit marriage, but concupiscence, adultery, fornication. Therefore celibacy is not purity. For there may be greater purity of heart in a married man, as in Abraham or Jacob, than in most of those who are even truly continent [who even, according to bodily purity, really maintain their chastity].

36] Lastly, if they understand that celibacy is purity in the sense that it merits justification more than does marriage, we most emphatically contradict it. For we are justified neither on account of virginity nor on account of marriage, but freely for Christ’s sake, when we believe that for His sake 37] God is propitious to us. Here perhaps they will exclaim that, according to the manner of Jovinian, marriage is made equal to virginity. But, on account of such clamors we shall not reject the truth concerning the righteousness 38] of faith, which we have explained above. Nevertheless we do not make virginity and marriage equal. For just as one gift surpasses another, as prophecy surpasses eloquence, the science of military affairs surpasses agriculture, and eloquence surpasses architecture, so virginity is a more excellent gift than 39] marriage. And nevertheless, just as an orator is not more righteous before God because of his eloquence than an architect because of his skill in architecture, so a virgin does not merit justification by virginity more than a married person merits it by conjugal duties, but each one ought faithfully to serve in his own gift, and to believe that for Christ’s sake he receives the remission of sins and by faith is accounted righteous before God.

40] Neither does Christ or Paul praise virginity because it justifies, but because it is freer and less distracted with domestic occupations, in praying, teaching, [writing,] serving. For this reason Paul says, 1 Cor. 7:32: He that is unmarried careth for the things which belong to the Lord. Virginity, therefore, is praised on account of meditation and study. Thus Christ does not simply praise those who make themselves eunuchs, but adds, for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, i.e., that they may have leisure to learn or teach the Gospel; for He does not say that virginity merits the remission of sins or salvation.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article XXIII (XI) 33-40

The entire article is a stirring defense of marriage and condemnation of forced marriage or forced celibacy.  Let us rightly treasure marriage and not set up laws to forbid it.  Let us encourage and help those who are not given the special gift of celibacy to marry.

1 The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ, her Lord;
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heav’n He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her,
And for her life He died.

2 Elect from ev’ry nation,
Yet one o’er all the earth;
Her charter of salvation:
One Lord, one faith, one birth.
One holy name she blesses,
Partakes one holy food,
And to one hope she presses
With ev’ry grace endued.

3 Though with a scornful wonder
The world sees her oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed,
Yet saints their watch are keeping;
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.

4 Through toil and tribulation
And tumult of her war
She waits the consummation
Of peace forevermore
Till with the vision glorious
Her longing eyes are blest,
And the great church victorious
Shall be the church at rest.

5 Yet she on earth has union
With God, the Three in One,
And mystic sweet communion
With those whose rest is won.
O blessed heav’nly chorus!
Lord, save us by Your grace
That we, like saints before us,
May see You face to face.

(LSB 644)

About Dr. Paul Edmon

Dr. Paul Edmon is from Seattle, Washington and now resides in Boston, Massachusetts. He has his B.S. in Physics from the University of Washington in 2004 and Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the University of Minnesota in 2010. He is professional staff at Harvard University and acts as liaison between Center for Astrophysics and Research Computing. A life long Lutheran, he is formerly a member of Messiah Lutheran Church in Seattle and University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis. He now attends First Lutheran Church (FLC) of Boston where he teaches Lutheran Essentials. He sings bass in the FLC choir and Canto Armonico. He was elected to the Concordia Seminary St. Louis Board of Regents in 2016. He is single and among his manifold interests are scotch, football, anime, board games, mythology, history, philosophy, and general nerdiness. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent Harvard University or Concordia Seminary. Twitter: @pauledmon

Comments

A Laymen’s Commentary on the Augsburg Confession: The Marriage of Priests — 1 Comment

  1. Well and good, but let us not assume (as one on another list does) that all pastors MUST be married. We should allow for the chosen single life, even as Christ did.

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