by Rev. Matthew Zickler
In our time it’s clear that the state of the family is under attack. As we look around we see the definition of marriage being destroyed. The number of children born out of wedlock is skyrocketing. Cohabiting before marriage is the norm, even the expectation. And this is not even taking into account divorce, which results in homes broken from our Lord’s original intent that no one rend asunder what He has joined together (Matt. 19:6). In conjunction with this, we see the continuing decline of church membership and attendance. The family is under attack and it seems hopeless. So what are we to do?
Well, taking a look at the Reformation, we see that Luther actually had a lot to say about the family. In fact, he not only had a lot to say about the family, he ended up having a huge influence on the state of the family in relation to society. It could be said that at that time the family was in a crisis as well, albeit a very different one. At that time the singleness of the monastery was lauded by the Roman Catholic Church as the epitome of faithfulness to God. Priests and monks who pursued this life of chastity often strayed into utter lust and debauchery. Additionally, many regarded sex with the attitude that it was something less than Christian and should only be utilized in its function for procreation.
Luther however was responsible for changing this a great deal. By expositing the Scriptures that spoke about marriage Luther showed that God cared about it – a fact expounded upon in the Large Catechism’s discussion on the Sixth Commandment (you shall not commit adultery). In that discussion Luther says, “Inasmuch as this commandment is concerned specifically with the estate of marriage and gives occasion to speak of it, let us carefully note, first, how highly God honors and glorifies the married life, sanctioning and protecting it by his commandment. He sanctioned it above in the fourth commandment, ‘You shall honor father and mother’; but here, as I said, he has secured it and protected it…Therefore he also wishes us to honor, maintain, and cherish it as a divine and blessed estate. Significantly he established it as the first of all institutions, and he created man and woman differently (as is evident) not for lewdness but to be true to each other, be fruitful, beget children, and support and bring them up to the glory of God… God has therefore most richly blessed this estate above all others and, in addition, has supplied and endowed it with everything in the world in order that this estate might be provided for richly and adequately. Married life is no matter for jest or idle curiosity, but it is a glorious institution and an object of God’s serious concern.” (LC I.VI.206-208)
Clearly Luther saw marriage and the estate of the family as important, but what does this mean for us? Seeing how important this was for Luther first of all gives us an insight as to how we should encourage people to view marriage and the family in our time. We should confess to this world how blessed this estate of the family is, and how society is best served when this is upheld. However, something else we should note is how this relates to the Christian faith. The Reformation was about the confession of the Christian faith and Luther didn’t exclude the family on this front. So what did he say?
Take a look at the Small Catechism. At the beginning of each chief part, Luther makes an extremely insightful statement. He gives the name of the chief part and then says, “In the Plain Form in Which the Head of the Family Shall Teach Them to His Household.” The expectation was that the head of the family would be teaching these things at home. This is kind of a shock in our time, isn’t it? We often think of children learning the faith at church, but Luther expected it to be taught at home. Now to be clear, this didn’t mean that church was ignored. After all, the head of the household himself has to learn the faith from somewhere. He himself should also know the Third Commandment he was teaching to his family, which told him not to despise preaching and the Word, but to gladly hear it and learn it. But what it meant is that the faith learned in church was reiterated and reinforced at home. And this was done by the head of the household. Notice this doesn’t say “the man of the house.” Of course, Luther’s expectation was that in a normal situation, the father should be teaching the household, but he also knew that there were many circumstances that might lead to the father’s absence, be it death, war, or even desertion. In light of this he called the head of the household to this crucial work–no matter who it was–to do the teaching.
So what do we have to learn then? Teach the faith at home to our children. We have broken households and only the light of Christ can bring healing to them. Only the Gospel of Jesus can bring the promise of the perfect Father who loves us with an eternal love. Only the Word of God can bring the wisdom to deal with the challenges of this life. Only God Himself can restore sinners who have shunned His desires for them.
To be clear, we don’t expect that this will happen overnight. We don’t expect that people will immediately cease sinful activity if we tell them about this need. But we trust that as God’s word is confessed, and as we teach that word in our own homes, the Holy Spirit will create the faith needed to trust in our God’s goodness and mercy. And that will bring much needed hope to a cause that can seem hopeless in our time.
The Rev. Matthew Zickler is Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, Western Springs, IL.