Interview: Katie von Bora
While the apostle Peter may have taken his wife along with him in his ministry, for the better part of church history, the church considered celibacy to be the acceptable state for a priest. The reality was quite different – many priests in the medieval world had women on the side and just paid a tax to the Pope every time they had an illegitimate child. The Protestant Reformation(s) changed that. The Protestants believed that marriage was OK for a priests and developed a new model of the ideal Christian life: the vicarage family, that is, Dad the pastor, Mum the pastor’s wife and their pious children. It was controversial, and at first, ‘pastor’s wives’ were seen as more flagrant versions of the priests’ concubines so they and their husbands had to defend their position and lifestyle. Rather than arguing that the ideal woman was a celibate nun in a convent, Martin Luther held up his own wife, Katie von Bora, as the ideal woman. She was not only the first ministry wife, she was the pioneer and model of it. I thought I’d use some of the reading I’ve been doing on Katie to ventriloquize an interview with her, In Tandem style.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself, your husband, your ministry, etc.?
Ja! I was born in January 1499 into a noble family near Leipzig in Germany and was sent to a convent when I was 9 to get an education. I became a novice at 16 and continued my studies: prayer, recitation of Scripture, reading, singing, learning Latin, leadership skills, theology, etc. When I heard about Martin Luther’s theology, it gripped me and with his help I escaped from my convent. My two options then were to return home or to marry but my father was dead which ruled out the first. I had a few marriage proposals: Hieronymous Baumgartner and I loved each other but being an ex-nun, I wasn’t acceptable to his family; Luther tried to matchmake me with his pastor friend Gaspar Glatz but he wasn’t my type. Eventually though, Martin and I developed an affection for each other and we were married in 1525.
I had six children in eight years though our second child, Elisabeth died in infancy. I still find that difficult to talk about. We also have six nieces and nephews who live with us and four orphans. Our household is big and full: we also have a boarding school for theology students, a hostel for visitors, and host various theologians. We also have a few hired hands who help us with our vegie patch, orchards, stables and, of course, the brewery! I have an interest in buying and selling land so sometimes I’m away from home doing that.
Martin’s ministry is a preaching and theological ministry while I look after the home. That means pastoring everyone who’s in it from our children to theology students and theologians who eat at my table by feeding, nursing, clothing, loving, teaching and disciplining them. I also take care of the finances (Martin always forgets to get people to give him the honorarium for his books!) and look after Martin’s health. When he and his theological friends are home, I participate in their theological and political discussions as well.
What have been some of the joys of being in ministry?
In the convent, there were opportunities for a few women to have leadership positions but in this ministry, I’m given real leadership and an opportunity to run my own household and do ministry with a wide variety of people. My personality is the kind that enjoys the practicalities of ministry too. Study’s all well and good but I’m interested in living out my theology and this gives me the opportunity to do it. Another joy is doing ministry with others. Some of the other reformers’ wives, like Katharina Melanchthon and Walburga Bugenhagen have been a great comfort to me.
What have been some of the challenges?
Doing something new brings the challenges from those who don’t like it. Our life and persons are open to public ridicule and vilification. Some of the caricatures of me have been difficult to take. Even from within Protestant circles, sometimes people don’t understand our life or its dynamics.
Suffering is difficult. People look to you as a leader but when we lost Elisabeth, I was so overcome with grief, I could barely function and I couldn’t see how even Christ’s death could bring good out of the situation. I became over-protective of my other children and neglected my other duties.
How does partnership in serving God with your husband work out in practice for you?
I’ve been described as Luther’s consort and also as the object lesson that complements his theology. We’re involved in quite different arenas, mine the domestic and his the public and intellectual. One of the best things about our partnership is that Martin never feels threatened by my ministry. He refers to me as theologian, preacher, brewer, gardener, doctor, lady of the house, his friendly beloved Lord, his loved one, his queen, the Morningstar of Wittenberg because he’s just delighted to see me using my energy and skills in a variety of different ways. He celebrates my leadership and autonomy. Our marriage is affectionate, solid, compassionate and fruitful but I think part of the reason for that is because we argue. We’re not just colleagues with different job descriptions: we share each other’s struggles, we encourage one another to grow spiritually and we advise one another. He tries to make suggestions about the household (even how to breastfeed the children, bless him!) and I bring my opinions to his theological and political matters.