The Accidental Reformation: How Luther and Calvin Reformed the Family

Article
12.10.2019

The recent cover of Washingtonian magazine caught my eye. The cover text trumpeted “powerful women” and featured photos of many gifted ladies. But as I scanned the cover, I noticed one “job” missing from the list of Senators, CEOs, and small-business owners: homemaker.

This omission reminded me of the distinction between a Christian theology of womanhood and a secular vision of womanhood. Our culture esteems “power” but does not esteem servanthood. Yet the Christian theology of womanhood—just like the biblical image of manhood, marriage, and the family—upends our expectations. In the kingdom of Christ, servanthood is exalted, selfless cultivation of one’s children is God-honoring, and self-sacrifice is nothing less than divine.

Not so in the world, and in our world. The family is for many an afterthought in today’s hyper-paced, brand-building, careerist age. But in Scripture, the family is the first institution. Created in Genesis 2, it is the stage on which God’s beautiful design of men and women is lived out, a drama that flows mellifluously as men and women play their parts.

Thankfully, ours is not the first generation to know these despised truths. Martin Luther and John Calvin represent two theologians of the Reformation, that Bible-driven movement so long ago, who promoted God’s vision for the family and led many to do the same. In this short essay, we will look at their outstanding theological contributions on these matters, exploring them as a summons to embrace all that Scripture teaches.

“GOLDEN AND NOBLE WORKS”: MARTIN LUTHER ON VOCATION

The modern understanding of work functions like this: we figure out first what we most want, and then we rank vocations accordingly. In their own distinct ways, secular, neo-Marxist, and feminist thought tell us to esteem power, political influence, and money. Therefore, jobs that offer power and political influence and money rate the best, and those that don’t have little to no value.

This is the precise opposite of how Luther (1483–1546) saw work. As a mature Protestant theologian—the very first one!—he reframed work as a calling or vocation. In Catholic theology, spiritual work rated, not more mundane realities. The priest was closest to God, and so the priest’s labors mattered most. But in Scripture, Luther found the glistening doctrinal truth that all of life should be lived coram deo, unto God (1 Cor. 10:31). Accordingly, Luther said of Christian men and women that “even their seemingly secular works are a worship of God and an obedience well pleasing to God.” This is true of domestic work, which may have “no appearance of sanctity . . . and yet these very works in connection with the household are more desirable than all the works of all the monks and nuns, be they ever so laborious and impressive.” [1]

Theology has rarely featured a greater recovery of the truth than this. Luther’s insight, a biblical one, enchants all the Christian life. Can you imagine a more freeing thought than this? Think about a peasant man who had long labored in a thankless field, or a low-born woman in the sixteenth-century who had birthed nine children with little praise or reward. His body ached, as did hers; they took up their tasks daily, but with little sense of joy in them; they toiled in anonymity, uncertainty, and at times humiliation.

But here came upstart Luther from Wittenberg. Here came a word of release and invigoration and excitement. All that mucking about in muddy fields? All that painful household management? All the challenges and trials and difficulties of raising children? In Luther’s theology, such effort brimmed with beauty and glowed with glory. It all mattered—it mattered to God. God saw it. God loved it. God would reward it on the last day.

From such a foundation, Luther trained his eye carefully on childraising:

A wife too should regard her duties in the same light, as she suckles the child, rocks and bathes it, and cares for it in other ways; and as she busies herself with other duties and renders help and obedience to her husband. These are truly golden and noble works. . . . Now you tell me, when a father goes ahead and washes diapers or performs some other mean task for his child, and someone ridicules him as an effeminate fool, though that father is acting in the spirit just described and in Christian faith, my dear fellow you tell me, which of the two is most keenly ridiculing the other? God, with all his angels and creatures, is smiling, not because that father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith. [2]

Mothers had the ability to birth and nurture children, and this signaled a key part of their life calling. All a woman’s domestic work—including “help and obedience” to her husband per 1 Peter 3:1—honored the Lord in a profound way. Luther used a characteristically colorful word to sum up such investment: “golden,” he called it. What a lovely word to describe a truly otherworldly calling, the calling of a Christian wife and mother. Every minute of her childraising counted before the Lord. Such seemingly lowly moments shone with eternal honor.

There is much to chew on in this formulation of womanhood. First, Luther knew as we do that a mother’s life involved more than this work. Second, we gladly confess that there are many ways a godly woman can glorify the Lord (whether married or single). Nonetheless Luther saw great value in motherhood, a role that is more than a temporary calling during the little years, for it is truly a way of life, just as fatherhood is. Third, we note that Luther features both father and mother helping the children. In point of fact, Luther taught that the father should provide for his family, but he clearly believed that a father should bless his wife by raising his children well (in fulfillment of 1 Timothy 3:1–7).

“HE IS WELL PLEASED WITH IT”: CALVIN ON THE FAMILY

John Calvin (1509–1564) concurred with Luther. He did so amidst disagreement. Long before the various waves of feminism broke across the West, Calvin noted from his Genevan pulpit that some despised womanly vocation. They were “fools” for doing so. He wrote:

Indeed there are a number of fools that when they speak of women’s distaffs [duties], of seeing to their children, will make a scorn of it and despise it. But what then? What says the heavenly Judge? That he is well pleased with it, and accepts it and puts it in his reckoning. So then let women learn to rejoice when they do their duty, and though the world despise it, let this comfort sweeten all respect they might have that way, and say, “God sees me here and his Angels who are sufficient witnesses of my doings, although the world does not approve of them.” [3]

How striking. We sometimes think of contexts like Calvin’s (16th -century Europe) in monolithic terms. Of course everyone back then mindlessly supported gender roles, we mutter. Now we’re enlightened. Not so. Clearly, many spoke against biblical womanhood. Many disliked the counter-cultural vision of a mother and homemaker, a woman lasered in on the good of her family, just as much then as they do now. They did not hide their “scorn” of such women, and they certainly did not hide their scorn of Calvin, the pastor-theologian who preached unflinchingly about such “duties.” Despite opposition, Calvin did not waver. Like Luther, he cast the vindication of such vocational labor in theocentric terms. Though “the world does not approve” of such duties, “God sees me,” he pictured a godly woman saying to herself.

Calvin did not speak only to biblical womanhood. He called men to a very high standard in the home. Men served by God’s call as the “head” of the home (see Ephesians 5:22­–33). To honor God in this role, they needed instruction:

So what is to be noted here is that heads of family must go to the trouble of being instructed in God’s Word if they are to do their duty. If they are stupid, if they do not know the basic principles of religion or of their faith and do not know God’s commandments or how prayer is to be offered to Him or what the road to salvation is, how will they instruct their families? All the more, then, must those who are husbands and have a family, a household to govern, think, “I must establish my lesson in His Word so that I will not only try to govern myself in accordance with His will, but that I will also bring to it at the same time those who are under my authority and guidance.” [4]

The godly head of the home had to first lead himself spiritually before he could lead a wife and children. Calvin did not set an impossible standard for Christian men. Instead, he called them to “know the basic principles of religion” so that they could pray faithfully and teach truthfully. The husband and father was not isolated from his loved ones. He had “a household to govern,” in Calvin’s thought. He had a wife to shepherd. He had children to train. He had a Word to learn and study and love and obey.

Like Luther, Calvin esteemed children. He called men in particular to invest in them:

Unless men regard their children as the gift of God, they are careless and reluctant in providing for their support, just as on the other hand this knowledge contributes in a very eminent degree to encourage them in bringing up their offspring. Farther, he who thus reflects upon the goodness of God in giving him children, will readily and with a settled mind look for the continuance of God’s grace; and although he may have but a small inheritance to leave them, he will not be unduly careful on that account.[5]

Calvin knew all about the temptations men face. He understood that fathers had to battle the flesh in order to prioritize their offspring. He knew they would struggle to find the will to provide for their family at times. He knew that men would feel concern over finances and thus tend at times to stinginess. While never commending foolish spending, Calvin urged the men under his pastoral care to exercise generosity. This disposition stemmed from a God-centered vision of fatherhood. God the father showed much “goodness” and “grace” to his people; so earthly fathers should show the same to their little ones.

A REFORMATION OF THE FAMILY

Luther and Calvin wrote roughly 500 years ago. They can seem to us like relics of a distant past. But in truth, we see in their theologies of the family that they faced much the same challenges we do. People all around them bucked against the biblical conception of manhood, womanhood, marriage, and the family. People despised God’s enchanted design of the Christian home. Though they should have worshipped God for the doxological order of the sexes and the family, they opted out. They did the opposite, just as they do today.

There will never be a time prior to the coming of Christ when the natural man will love the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14). In our natural state, we all reject God and his wisdom. We do not innately esteem the counsel of God, nor in our flesh hungrily embrace his order. Further, no unregenerate sinner gladly adopts the mind of a servant, the very mind of Christ Jesus, who came not to be served but to serve (Matt. 10:28; Phil. 2:5–11). None of us conforms naturally to the image of Christ. Instead, we crave what the world craves: we want power. We want man’s praise. We want money. We do not want to look weird or strange. We want to be Christian, yes, but we face the internal temptation to be cultural. Being cultural, after all, takes the scandal out of the gospel and removes the sting from our witness.

But this is not our theology. Our theology, as Luther eloquently said, is Christ-shaped. Crux sola est nostra theologia, he wrote; “The cross alone is our theology.” We do not only remember this biblical truth when pondering the atonement, or meditating on high-level soteriology, or discussing doctrine in a PhD seminar. We remember the cross when for the thousandth time—the ten thousandth time—we change another diaper, or wash another dish, or dry another tear, or lead another family devotion, or wake up another time in the middle of the night to sustain life, or graciously talk through another marital conflict, or drive in the morning dark in order to provide, or wake up early to feed our soul so that we can feed others.

In all this labor, in all this costly effort, in all this self-sacrificial anonymity, God is pleased. The Lord smiles. The Lord is honored; the devil is mocked. The cross alone is our theology, and our family’s shared life glows with glory, brims with honor, and offers up living praise to our Lord.


[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, vol. 2, Lectures on Genesis, Chapters 6–14 , ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1960), 349.

[2] Martin Luther, “The Estate of Marriage, 1522,” in Luther’s Works, ed. Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 45, Christian in Society II, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1962), 39–40.

[3] John Calvin, Sermon on 1 Timothy 2, accessible at http://www.truecovenanter.com/calvin/calvin_19_on_Timothy.html .

[4] John Calvin, Sermon on Genesis 18, accessible at https://www.monergism.com/father%E2%80%99s-main-responsibility-genesis-1819 . (See the Sermons on Genesis volume from Banner of Truth.)

[5] John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1845-49), 111.

By:
Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Reenchanting Humanity: A Theology of Mankind. You can find him on Twitter at @ostrachan.