Tag Archives: Alvin J. Beachy

Why Did Early Anabaptists Believe Jesus Allowed Divorce and Remarriage in Cases of Adultery?

How did early Anabaptists synthesize the biblical teachings about divorce and remarriage? Why did they believe what they did? What hermeneutical principals and practices led them to believe divorce and remarriage are permitted in cases of adultery? How did they fit Jesus’ exception clauses together with other passages that can appear to leave no permission for either divorce or remarriage?

In this post I pause my historical survey of what Anabaptists have believed about Jesus’ exception clauses to consider these how and why questions. To learn what Anabaptists have believed, see my other posts in this series:

Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

Anabaptists Then (1500s): An “Unchangeable Plain Word of Christ”

Anabaptists Then (1600-1860s): “It Is Clearly to Be Seen”

If I find time and strength, I hope to write one more historical post explaining how and why North American Mennonites eventually adopted a much firmer stance than their Anabaptists forebears, a stance that forbade all divorce and remarriage without exception. That story is fascinating but complex, for suddenly, after centuries that offer only several dozen relevant documents, there is an explosion of evidence to sift through.

But first, it will be helpful to ask the how and why questions about early Anabaptists. Specifically, how did they fit Jesus’ exception clauses together with other Bible passages that make no mention of any exception for either divorce or remarriage?

I would be interested to hear how others might answer this question—particularly historians with a wider knowledge of medieval and Reformation views on divorce and remarriage. Here is a non-comprehensive list of seven intertwining factors that stand out to me:

  1. They started with Jesus’ words.
  2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.
  3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.
  4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.
  5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.
  6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.
  7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

This blog post will discuss these points. I’ll add some evaluative comments along the way, with the caution that I am not attempting a comprehensive analysis of either Anabaptist theology or biblical evidence on the topic. (I should also warn you that the theological deductive work gets a little dense near the end of this post, though I think the payoff is worth the effort–at least if you care deeply about not taking Bible verses out of context.)

How, then, did early Anabaptists approach the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses?

1. They started with Jesus’ words.

This fact is immediately obvious in most Anabaptist writings on the subject. The first Anabaptist writing on divorce (“Concerning Divorce,” c. 1527-33), begins with the words, “The Pharisees sought to catch Jesus,” and launches into a summary of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 19.1 Later in the same document we read this:

When Christ in Matthew 5 often saith, “But I say unto you,” he thereby annuls the Law insofar as it is grasped legalistically and not spiritually, Ephesians 2, Romans 10. As He is also the perfection of the Law, therefore He is the Mediator of a better Testament which hath been established upon better promises, Hebrews 8.2

The c. 1600 confession included in the Martyrs Mirror has a similarly Christocentric perspective: “Christ as a perfect Lawgiver, rejected and abolished the writing of divorcement and permission of Moses, together with all abuses thereof.”3 Perhaps the strongest exaltation of Jesus’ words is found in a written Anabaptist response (pub. 1590) to the Frankenthal Disputation (1571):

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them.4

Walter Klaassen, in an essay called “The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture,” summarizes the Christocentric Anabaptist approach to biblical interpretation and notes how it affected their view of divorce (according to minutes from the Bern debate):

The Anabaptists seem to have been the only Protestants in the sixteenth century who took a historical view of the Bible. They viewed the drama of God’s redemption as a process, initiated by God in particular with Abraham, and moving forward to a climax in Jesus Christ, in whom God would conclude human history. The Old Testament with its Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants they viewed as preparatory, as paving the way, for the final and complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ…

It was not the New Testament as a book that provided the key to the Anabaptist understanding of the Old Testament, but the new Covenant or the new and final revelation of God in Christ. Christ was for them the center of Scripture. Any specific word in the Bible stands or falls depending upon whether it agrees with Jesus Christ or not… Certainly Christ’s words and life did not abrogate the whole of the Old Testament, but since in Old Testament times there was only a partial revelation the demand was not so high. There the rule of an eye for an eye was allowed because men were not able to rise higher; in Christ even such limited retaliation is forbidden. There men were allowed to divorce their wives; here it is forbidden except on one condition.5

2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.

This fact is as obvious as the first. Matthew 19 is the passage most commonly used by Anabaptists on the topic of divorce and remarriage. This passage records Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees and includes (a) references to several key OT passages (Gen. 1 and 2; Deut. 24) and also (b) the exception clause that featured so prominently in early Anabaptist teaching.

Matthew 5 is also frequently cited, as part of the Sermon on the Mount that was so central to Anabaptist life. In this sense, the emphasis on Matthew is closely tied to the Christocentric focus of the Anabaptists (point number one, above), as Murray has noted:

Anabaptists… insisted on the priority of the Gospels and Jesus’ teaching there, explaining other NT texts in the light of the Sermon on the Mount… The Sermon on the Mount seems to have acted as a further canon within an already Christocentric canon.6

Mark and Luke, by comparison, are rarely cited in Anabaptist discussions of divorce and remarriage. The idea that these Gospels are stricter or clearer than Matthew on this topic is never mentioned; no conflict was seen between the Gospel accounts. The reasons why Mark and Luke are rarely mentioned are probably very innocent: Why cite these Gospels when Matthew’s Gospel comes first in the NT canon, when it includes the theologically-rich Sermon on the Mount, when it has two passages recounting Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage instead of only one (Mark 10; Luke 16), and when the other Gospels add only minor details?

The Anabaptists may have drawn a newly Christocentric theology from Matthew (and the Sermon on the Mount), but the idea of prioritizing Matthew’s Gospel was certainly not original with them. In 1519, Ulrich Zwingli (under whose teaching the earliest Swiss Brethren developed their convictions7) initiated a new practice of preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter through Scripture. He began this radical program with a sermon series through Matthew, then skipped past Mark and Luke to preach through other NT books and then parts of the OT.8

This strong emphasis on Matthew was typical, in fact, for most of church history prior to the nineteenth century, and “is manifest already in Christian literature of the late first and early second centuries.”9 Given this pattern of church history, it would have been highly unusual for Anabaptists to have started anywhere besides with Matthew as they formulated their understandings of divorce and remarriage.

3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.

The early German-speaking Anabaptists used a Bible version (the “Froschauer Bible”) that was, for the most part, translated by Luther. Even the Dutch Bibles most commonly used by Anabaptists were based in large part on Luther’s translation.10

In fact, the first Swiss Brethren were influenced by Luther’s translation before they even broke with Zwingli. As students of Zwingli, they helped him with his work of translating the Bible. Zwingli completed a translation of the entire Bible (the “Froschauer Bible,” published c. 1530) before Luther did (1534), but he used whatever parts of Luther’s translation were already available, including Luther’s New Testament (published in 1522).

This is a 1531 Froschauer Bible that was used by many generations of Anabaptists. The Bible is located at the Ohio Amish Library at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center (Behalt) in Millersburg, Ohio. The photo above is found on their webpage (https://ohioamishlibrary.org/), which also hosts the images in the PDF file below, along with an account of this Bible’s history: https://ohioamishlibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Binder1.pdf.

Click to access Johannes-Holly.pdf

Prior to Luther’s translation, most Europeans encountered the Scriptures through the Latin Vulgate translation. Two differences in how these Latin and German Bibles translate Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 may help explain how Anabaptists (and other Reformers) diverged with Roman Catholic views on divorce and remarriage.11

One difference is found in the translation of Jesus’ exception clause. The Vulgate has excepta fornicationis causa (Matt. 5:32) and nisi ob fornicationem (Matt. 19:9). The key word in both passages, fornicationis, refers either (a) to fornication (unmarried sex) or (b) to prostitution or sexual promiscuity. For the same passages, Luther’s Bible and the “Froschauer Bible”12 have es sei denn um Ehebruch (Matt. 5:32) and es sei denn um der Hurerei willen (Matt. 19:9). The key words here are Ehebruch, which refers to adultery, and Hurerei, which refers to sexual promiscuity.

The German translations, in sum, retain the Vulgate suggestion that Jesus was referring to sexual promiscuity, drop the suggestion that he was referring to premarital sexual sin, and introduce the idea that he was referring to adultery. The original Greek word underlying all the above translations, πορνεία, was used in various contexts to refer to all of the above ideas and more, so both the Vulgate and Luther offer translations that are lexically possible, though different.

A second difference is in the terms used to refer to adultery, as found in the phrases “makes her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32) and “commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). The Vulgate has facit eam moechari and adulterat (Matt. 5:32) and moechatur (Matt. 19:9). Both terms here (moechor and adultero) equally refer to the act of committing adultery. Luther’s Bible and the “Froschauer Bible” translate the same phrases as die Ehe bricht (Matt. 5:32) and bricht die Ehe (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Both expressions could be translated literally as “breaks the marriage (covenant),” and both are transparently related to the German word for adultery, Ehebruch (see above), which itself could be translated literally as “breach of marriage.”13

The Vulgate terms for adultery are related either to the Greek family of words referring to adultery (moechor; cf. μοιχεύω and μοιχάομαι, which are used in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9), or else to our English word adultery (adultero). At first glance the German terms may seem more paraphrastic or even biased, but it is important to consider how the concept of adultery is actually used in the Bible.

Unfaithfulness is at the core of the biblical concept of adultery. Physical adultery is, after all, a sin that only married people can commit; it is not merely sexual sin but a breach of trust. This is why in the OT the Hebrew term na’aph (“adultery”) is often used as a picture of the spiritual adultery of turning to other gods14—that is, “breaking covenant” with God15 without any necessary reference to sexual sin. Both physical and spiritual adultery are described as “breaking faith.”16 Similar usage is found in the Greek NT.17 Spiritual adultery is breaking or turning from your covenant with God; sexual adultery is, as the German language recognizes, breaking or violating your marriage covenant. (Interestingly, Tyndale’s translation reflected a similar understanding.18)

On both of these points where German Bibles differed from the Vulgate, the Anabaptists clearly affirmed the German understanding of the text. They were not completely dependent on Luther’s translation, for “in the first generation of Anabaptists, the leaders who were educated could lead Bible studies from the biblical text itself, rather than from a translation; e.g., Felix Manz taught from the Hebrew text and Conrad Grebel from the Greek.”19 But, whether they consciously affirmed Luther’s translation of Jesus’ words in these passages or simply didn’t question it, they clearly agreed.20 They clearly taught that Jesus’ exception clause referred to adultery, and they also taught that adultery breaks a marriage:

He who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. (Concerning Divorce, Swiss Brethren, c. 1527-33)21

Where one committeth adultery in this way, the other should put him or her away… For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken until through repentance it is healed. (Peter Reidemann, Hutterite leader, 1540-41)22

If a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. (Wismar Articles, Dutch Mennonites, 1554)23

These excerpts show that, for the Anabaptists, to “break” a marriage was not merely to violate the marriage covenant, but to severe it. The switch from Latin to vernacular Bible translations reinforced this understanding.

4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.

Some Bible teachers popular among conservative Anabaptists today say we should start with the “clear” texts of Scripture and use them to interpret the “unclear” exception clauses in Matthew. Joseph Webb, for example, lists “the biblical portions that establish a clear doctrinal position concerning marriage and divorce, and by which all unclear texts should be compared”: Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4; Malachi 2:14.24 Daniel Kauffman similarly listed “seven plain, positive Bible declarations” (including most of Webb’s passages plus 1 Corinthians 7:10-11) to which the “two doubtful statements” of Jesus’ exception clauses must be harmonized. 25

Early Anabaptists, in contrast, did not suggest that Jesus’ exception clauses should be interpreted through other allegedly clearer texts. Yet, despite their prioritization of Matthew’s Gospel, they didn’t ignore these other texts, either. Rather, they simply laid all texts beside each other and accepted each as contributing valuable truths.

1 Corinthians 7:39 has been especially popular among Anabaptists from the earliest days to the present, receiving greater emphasis than Matthew in some documents. While conservative Anabaptists today usually point to this verse to teach that marriage must (or can) not be parted except by death, early Anabaptists focused on another emphasis of the verse: that marriage must be “only in the Lord.”26

Despite this focus, early Anabaptists sometimes quoted this verse in the context of affirming divorce or remarriage in cases of adultery. For example, immediately after emphasizing that a “marriage is broken” by adultery, the earliest Swiss Brethren tract on the topic (c. 1527-33) continues, “therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord, 1 Corinthians 7.”27 “Only in the Lord” was the truth that 1 Corinthians 7:39 added, and it’s statement that “a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives” was not understood to cancel out the Matthew 19 exception that adultery permits divorce and remarriage.

Similarly, a 1627 confession from Amsterdam cites Romans 7:2 immediately after affirming that “nothing can separate” a husband and a wife “save adultery.”28 “Nothing can separate” was the truth communicated by Romans 7:2; “save adultery” was the truth added by Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19, which are also cited.29

Malachi 2 is the second biblical text cited by the earliest Swiss tract on divorce.30 It is the first text cited by Roosen’s catechism (1702), with the comment that “God also complains” about the state of matrimony, “that men acted in this manner contrary to his will.” Immediately after this, Roosen turns to a lengthy quotation and explanation of Matthew 19. There he includes a clear affirmation that Jesus’ exception clause means one is not bound “by the band of matrimony” in cases when a spouse has been sexually promiscuous. Then he ends his paragraph by quoting, without comment, 1 Corinthians 7:39.31

Hans de Ries (1578) cites Hebrews 13 alongside Matthew 19 and Genesis 2 after stating that marriage “may not be separated except for the cause of adultery.”32 A confession (c. 1600) included in the Martyrs Mirror similarly quotes Hebrews 13:4 after teaching that husbands and wives may “not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in case of adultery or death.”3

What about Jesus’ teaching against divorce in Mark and Luke, which includes no exception clause? These passages were not entirely ignored, either. Menno Simons (1552) cites both Mark 10 and Luke 16 alongside Matthew 5 and 19 immediately after saying that a husband and wife “can not be separated from each other to marry again otherwise than for adultery, as the Lord says.”34 For Menno Simons, “the Lord says” everything found in any of these Gospels.

But what should be done with the fact that Matthew includes a divorce exception but Mark and Luke do not? Conservative Anabaptists have been so trained to see a need to “harmonize” the “contradictory” Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage that it can be hard to understand how early Anabaptists could see things differently. Consider, though, how we already use the early Anabaptist approach to another “exception clause” that is included in Matthew but not in Mark.

Matthew 12:39 and Mark 8:12 record the same event, an interaction between Jesus and some Pharisees. In Matthew’s version, Jesus says this: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” But in Mark’s account he says this: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Which is true? Did Jesus mean that no sign would be given (Mark), or did he mean that no sign except the sign of the prophet Jonah would be given (Matthew)? On a hyper-literal level, both cannot be true at the same time. Should we conclude that one Gospel writer is “clear” and the other “doubtful”? Should we appeal to other texts to determine which is true?35

Dutch Mennonite bishop Dirk Philips did not think so; he quoted this Matthew 12 “exception clause” from Jesus without qualification, even in a passage where Philips’ main point was that “to require signs and not permit oneself to be satisfied with words is a sign of unbelief.”36 For both Philips and Jesus, the main point was the same: that Jesus was not going to pander to the unbelieving Jewish leaders’ desire for a sign. Mark strongly emphasizes this point by making no mention of any exception. Matthew includes a secondary point: Jesus’ exception that he would give the mysterious Jonah-like sign of his own death and resurrection. Yet Philips saw no need to prioritize Mark over Matthew; both Gospels clearly communicated the same primary message, and Matthew’s inclusion of an exception did not reduce the value or trustworthiness of his account.

The early Anabaptists seem to have read Jesus’ statements about divorce and remarriage in the same way. Mark and Luke emphasized Jesus’ main point (that divorcing one’s spouse and marrying another is equivalent to adultery) without intending to deny any possible exception. Matthew’s main point was the same, even though he included an important secondary point (the exception that sexual promiscuity itself breaks a marriage and thus grants the offended spouse the right to divorce and marry another).

Again we see how early Anabaptists tended to approach the various biblical passages about divorce and remarriage: They laid all texts beside each other and accepted each as contributing valuable truths, without using the more general texts to override the more specific ones.

Of course synthesizing the biblical witness on this topic is not always that easy, a fact that will be evident as we discuss (in a separate point below) how Anabaptists interpreted 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and following verses.

5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.

This is a brief point, but it is foundational for the next two points, which synthesize Paul’s writings with Jesus’ teaching. After quoting from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, the early Swiss tract Concerning Divorce (c. 1527-33) emphasizes Paul’s agreement with Christ:

[Paul’s teaching] cannot weaken the words of Christ, nor does it contradict Him, otherwise Paul would be speaking after Moses (if hardness of heart or unbelief could permit divorce) and he would be “scattering,” as Christ says in Matthew 12, “He who gathereth not with me scattereth abroad,” and that could not edify the body of Christ. The meaning of Paul’s words depends rather on what Paul has in mind in this chapter, just as he says in I Corinthians 2, “But we have the mind of Christ,” and I Corinthians 7, “I think that I also have the Spirit of God.”37

This means, first of all, that Christ’s words were given priority (see first point above); Paul was said to agree with Christ, not Christ with Paul. But it also means that—unlike with some conservative Anabaptists today—Paul was not seen to be at odds with Christ in any way. The reason Paul does not contradict Christ is because Paul has the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God within him.

Menno Simons likewise insisted that “Paul also holds the same doctrine” as Christ about the permanence of marriage38 and quotations from Jesus and Paul peacefully coexist throughout Anabaptist writings on the topic.

6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.

Early Anabaptists accepted Jesus’ word in Matthew that it was not adulterous to divorce and remarry when one’s spouse had already committed adultery, and they explained that word by pointing to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” …Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. (1 Cor. 6:16, 18)

The link between Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 6 was the shared quotation from Genesis 2:24: “The two will become one flesh.” The early Swiss Brethren tract Concerning Divorce (c. 1527-33) makes this connection and draws a deduction:

He who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery, for Christ saith, “These two are one flesh.” But he who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord, 1 Corinthians 7.39

Marriage is a one-flesh union, Jesus affirmed; sex with a harlot also forms a one-flesh union, Paul noted. The author(s) of this tract believed a third point: when a married man become one flesh with a prostitute he is “separated from his own flesh,” an expression that appears to mean “separated from his wife.”

The written Anabaptist response (pub. 1590) to the Frankenthal Disputation (1571) is so similar to the tract above that it appears to be an adapted quotation. It shows that, at least among the Swiss Anabaptists, a consistent interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:16-18 lasted for several generations:

Adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.40

The Hutterite leader Peter Reidemann taught a similar perspective (1540-41), though without citing 1 Corinthians 6:

Where one committeth adultery…, the other should put him or her away and have no more in common with him or her before he or she hath shown real fruits of repentance. For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken.”41

This understanding of 1 Corinthians 6 raises an obvious question: Is it not possible to be one flesh with more than one person at once? Such a thought was clearly abhorrent to most Anabaptists, who repeatedly pointed back to the creation model and emphasized that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. Menno Simons, for example, considered polygamy (as practiced by the Anabaptist rebels in Münster) to be an “abomination” and was eager to clear himself and the Anabaptists with him from false accusations of practicing it.42

Adultery is arguably a breach of covenant in a way that polygamy is not, at least in societies where polygamy is expected. Therefore, it would be theoretically possible to accept polygamous marriage while still saying that adultery justifies divorce.

But it appears that for early Anabaptists the matter was more black and white: Jesus taught that it was not adulterous for a man to divorce and remarry after his one-flesh spouse had already committed adultery; Paul said that sex with a prostitute formed a one-flesh union. For early Anabaptists, the latter text explained the former. Only one one-flesh union was truly possible at once, and when a marriage one-flesh union was broken by a subsequent one-flesh union, divorce and remarriage where permitted—at least if the adulterer refused to repent after reasonable entreaty.

7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is sometimes seen as decisive evidence proving that Christians are never allowed to divorce and remarry:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

What makes this passage so powerful is that Paul says he received this teaching from the Lord. Most interpreters agree that Paul means he is summarizing teaching that was passed on to him from Jesus. Some make the more specific suggestion that this is Paul’s inspired commentary on the teachings of Jesus on divorce and remarriage that we find in the Gospels. It is sometimes argued, therefore, that Jesus did not intend to leave any exception for divorce or remarriage; Paul only reluctantly acknowledges that separation sometimes happens.

In addition, some interpreters draw a parallel between Jesus’ exception clause and Paul’s parenthetical statement (“but if she does…”) which tells a separated woman to “remain unmarried.” This reading strengthens the argument that Paul believed Jesus taught that divorce and remarriage are always wrong, even in cases of adultery.

The early Anabaptists did not agree with this argument. I have not found a direct explanation from early Anabaptists of why they disagreed, but they did leave several hints.

First, at least some early Anabaptists were certain that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 refers only to believers.  Dirk Philips (1568) was so certain of this that he used this paragraph to argue that Jesus, too, was referring to “two believing persons” when he said “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6)—a conclusion that carries a certain logic if Paul is here summarizing Jesus.43

Whether or not we agree with Philip’s reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew, there is good reason to agree with his reading of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. After all, in the very next paragraph Paul transitions to describe marriages between believers and unbelievers and he clarifies that he has no word from the Lord on such situations:

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him… But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. (1 Cor. 7:12-13, 15).

This abrupt transition suggests that Paul’s first paragraph (1 Cor. 7:10-11) is directed to couples where both spouses are believers. “Virtually all modern writers” agree on this,44 and Peter Walpot (1577) made the same argument:

He [Paul] means that where both are believers (as the thought in the following verses clearly shows) that it is “the Lord, and not I” that commands the wife not to be separated from her husband as was the common Jewish practice…45

This raises a question that leads us to a second hint about how early Anabaptists read 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: Is a person who commits adultery a believer or an unbeliever? Put differently, does a marriage where one spouse commits adultery best match Paul’s first paragraph (1 Cor. 7:10-11), his second (1 Cor. 7:12-16), or neither?

According to early Anabaptists, adultery radically undermined a person’s claim to belong to Christ. Adultery separated a person not only from their spouse but also from Christ, so that adulterers were “not members of the body of Christ” (Swiss Brethren tract, c. 1527-33).46 Menno Simons taught (1556) that it was “an abomination” for “true believers” to even “mention” adultery47 and he said (1552) that false preachers who “commit adultery… are not in the communion of Christ, but… are in the communion of” the devil.48

The Wismar Articles (1554) seem to assume that an adulterer is not a believer, even while acknowledging the possibility of having “fallen” into adultery and desiring to repent:

If a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair.49

If 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is about marriages of believers (first hint) and adulterers are not considered believers (second hint), then early Anabaptists can hardly have believed that Paul’s words in this passage applied to Jesus’ exceptional cases that involve adultery.

A third hint from Menno Simons complicates this picture a little but still affirms it. According to Simons (1550), Paul’s parenthetical statement (“but if she does [separate]…”) refers not to divorce but to shunning—separating from a spouse who is under church discipline:

There is no divorce but by reason of adultery… To shunning Paul has decidedly consented, 1 Cor. 7:10; although this is not always coupled with adultery; but not to divorce. For divorce is not allowed by the Scripture only by reason of adultery, Matt. 5:32; Luke 6:18; therefore we shall never consent to it for other reasons.50

How can we synthesize this perspective with our first two hints? Perhaps Simons thought a weak believer could fall into adultery, resulting in a situation where their status as a believer was in question while they were under church discipline. Or perhaps Simons (unlike Philips) did not believe 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 was only about marriages of two believers; it also included cases where a believer would shun a former believer.

Either way, the following is clear: Simons did not think 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 was the most important text for cases involving adultery. Rather, in cases of unrepentant adultery Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 5:32) superseded 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; unrepentant adultery was “reason” to “consent” to divorce, even if an adulterer might also face the shunning that Menno Simons believed Paul was permitting in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Similarly, the c. 1600 confession cites 1 Corinthians 7:10 in a way that groups it with other general verses prohibiting divorce (Matt. 19:4-6, 8), while elsewhere affirming that Jesus’ exception clause permits divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery.51

These clues show that early Anabaptists did not see Paul’s prohibition on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 as applying to cases of adultery. In their rigorous minds, when someone committed adultery—particularly when they refused to repent of it even when urged to do so by the church—it showed that they were not really a believer at all.52

Did early Anabaptists believe, then, that Paul’s instructions about mixed marriages between believers and unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 refer to cases of adultery? No, apparently not. Although the Wismar Articles clearly assume that cases of adultery involved marriages where “a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together,” both Menno Simons (co-author of the Wismar Articles) and the early Swiss Brethren tract (c. 1527-33) understand these verses to be about cases of abandonment, not adultery. Moreover, the Swiss tract emphasizes that while a believer is “not under bondage” when abandoned by their spouse, this does not free them to remarry; only adultery permits divorce and remarriage.53

In sum, early Anabaptists clearly did not believe that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 means Paul understood Jesus to forbid divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. Neither, apparently, did they believe that Paul’s next paragraph (1 Cor. 7:12-16) was intended to address such cases. Though adultery could perhaps involve couples where both spouses professed faith (vv. 10-11) and though adultery certainly normally involved unbelieving spouses (vv. 12-16), adultery was not on Paul’s mind when he wrote either paragraph.54 Therefore, in cases of adultery, we must look to Jesus instead, who explicitly addressed such situations in his exception clauses.

The evidence for how Anabaptists interpreted these paragraphs comes in the form of hints rather than in the full-fledged exposition we might wish for. (I can’t help wishing some early Anabaptist had written a comprehensive commentary on 1 Corinthians 7!) The evidence we do have, however, is clear enough to show that the early Anabaptists were capable of going beyond simple proof-texting to thoughtful, contextual Bible reading.

These seven factors, then, help to explain why early Anabaptists believed that Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery:

  1. They started with Jesus’ words.
  2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.
  3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.
  4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.
  5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.
  6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.
  7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

I find much that is compelling in this early Anabaptist approach, even though I have uncertainty about some details. I’ll spare you more commentary from me, though. It’s your turn.

What do you think? Were you already agreeing or disagreeing with the early Anabaptist reading of Jesus’ exception clause before reading this post? Does it change your mind in any way to know more about how and why they arrived at their understandings?

Which factors on my list appear most significant to you? Are there factors you’d like to add? Can you add nuance to my analysis? I’d be glad to read any thoughts you share in the comments below.


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  1. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  2. Ibid., emphasis added.
  3. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  4. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Emphasis added.
  5. Walter Klaassen, “The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture,” Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 110-111. Emphasis added. Available online. June 28, 2020.  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Bern_Debate_of_1538:_Christ_the_Center_of_Scripture
  6. Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press,2000), 75, 79.
  7. When Zwingli arrived in Zurich in 1519, Felix Manz “joined him enthusiastically and became a regular attendant at Zwingli’s Bible classes.” Conrad Grebel joined “the little group of returned students and humanists who gathered with Zwingli to study Greek and Hebrew” in late 1520. See Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Manz, Felix (ca. 1498-1527),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. July 31, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Manz,_Felix_(ca._1498-1527)&oldid=145842 and Haraold S. Bender and Leland D. Harder, “Grebel, Conrad (ca. 1498-1526),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. July 31, 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Grebel,_Conrad_(ca._1498-1526)&oldid=164020
  8. “When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” …For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.” Timothy George, “Reformational Preaching,” First Things, Jan 9, 2017, accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/01/reformational-preaching
  9. Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 1. More from Boxall: “The evidence of surviving manuscripts of the Gospels in Greek and other languages points to a general preference for Matthew’s version in the tendency among scribes to harmonize disagreements between the Gospels” (p. 2). “Reasons for Matthew’s popularity, religiously and culturally, are at least threefold. First, the Gospel is superbly and memorably ordered, suggesting an author who is master of his material” (p. 2); “Second, the widespread usage of Matthew in liturgy and catechesis has ensured the importance of this Gospel within the churches. It is the preferred Gospel in church lectionaries” (p. 3); “A third reason for Matthew’s popularity is the centuries-old belief that Matthew is the earliest of our four canonical Gospels, and one of only two (John being the other) attributed to an apostle and eyewitness of Jesus” (p. 4).
  10. John Hooper, “The Anabaptists and Holy Scripture,” Bible League Trust, Website. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/the-anabaptists-and-holy-scripture/. Hooper explains: “The translation used by German speaking Anabaptists would at first have been early but incomplete editions of Luther’s Bible, published by one of the most talented printers in Switzerland, Christoph Froschauer of Zurich… In 1529 Luther’s Bible was still lacking a translation of the Prophets so Froschauer inserted a separate rendering of these books, based on the work of two Anabaptists, Hans Denck and Ludwig Haetzer, which they had published in Worms a couple of years earlier. Thus the complete ‘Froschauer Bible’ was published in 1529, several years before Luther’s translation would be ready, and it became the favoured version of Anabaptists and their successors for many generations. Even earlier, in 1526, a complete Dutch Bible had been published by Jacob van Liesveldt, a printer in Antwerp. He based his translation partly on the Latin Vulgate and for the rest relied on what was available of Luther’s German Bible. In 1560 a Mennonite called Nicholas Biestkens published the whole of Luther’s Bible in Dutch, ‘with certain words reflecting Mennonite usage and experience.’ No doubt for this reason the Biestkens translation became very popular amongst the Mennonites and quickly ran to a hundred or so editions.” In the second-last sentence Hooper quotes from G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Truman State University Press, 2000) p. 1244. For more information on Anabaptist use of “Froschauer Bibles,” see these websites: https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Froschauer_Bibles_and_Testaments and http://www.reynolds-lake.ca/genealogy/documents/general/BachmanFroschauerBible.php.
  11. Here are both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, in full, in both the Vulgate and Luther’s Bible. Latin Vulgate: Ego autem dico vobis: quia omnis qui dimiserit uxorem suam, excepta fornicationis causa, facit eam moechari: et qui dimissam duxerit, adulterat. (Matt. 5:32). Dico autem vobis, quia quicumque dimiserit uxorem suam, nisi ob fornicationem, et aliam duxerit, moechatur: et qui dimissam duxerit, moechatur. (Matt. 19:9). Luther’s Bible: Ich aber sage euch: Wer sich von seinem Weibe scheidet (es sei denn um Ehebruch), der macht, daß sie die Ehe bricht; und wer eine Abgeschiedene freit, der bricht die Ehe. (Matt 5:32). Ich sage aber euch: Wer sich von seinem Weibe scheidet (es sei denn um der Hurerei willen) und freit eine andere, der bricht die Ehe; und wer die Abgeschiedene freit, der bricht auch die Ehe. (Matt. 19:9). See Biblia Sacra Vulgata (Vulgate), BibleGateway.com, Zondervan. Accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Biblia-Sacra-Vulgata-VULGATE/. (The Vulgate has been revised multiple times since Jerome’s initial translation in the late 4th century. The version quoted here is a text that has roots in a 1598 edition and is probably very similar to the text known in Luther’s day.). See also Luther Bibel 1545, BibleGateway.com, Zondervan. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matt%2019%3A9&version=LUTH1545.
  12. The “Froschauer Bible” of Zwingli matches Luther’s translation for the terms discussed in the following paragraphs. The only difference I can see between these translations in the verses discussed here is that the “Froschauer Bible” uses a different term to refer to divorce. This is based on my observation of a 1534 publication of Zwingli’s Bible (“Bibel Teütsch, der ursprünglichen Hebreischen und Griechischen warheit nach, auffs treüwlichest verdometschet ; Was über die nächst außgegangnen edition weyters hinzu kommen sye, wirt in nachvolgender Vorred gnugsam begriffenn, Zürich, 1534,” Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Digitale Bibliothek, accessed July 31, 2020, http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00024266/image_964 (Matt. 5:32) and http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00024266/image_978 (Matt. 19:9).
  13. This is the definition offered by John Howard Yoder (“One Flesh Until Death: Conversations on the Meaning and Permanence of Marriage,” unpublished, 1968-1984, available online, accessed July 31, 2020. https://chamberscreek.net/library/yoder/marriage.html. See 1. A. of this document for Yoder’s brief comment about Ehebruch. Andrew V. Ste. Marie makes the same point in a recent article: “Luther’s rendition of Matthew 19:9 says that the man who divorces his wife and remarries ‘der bricht die Ehe,’ ‘breaks the marriage,’ while the King James Version says he ‘committeth adultery.’ The German word for ‘adultery’ is Ehebruch, a compound word which literally means ‘marriage-break.’ (The verb form is ehebrechen, ‘to marriage-break.’) To a mind at home in German, Jesus could be easily understood, not as charging a remarried man with committing a sexual sin per se, but with breaking his first marriage.” Ste. Marie continues, drawing implications for Jesus’ exception clause: “If, however, the wife’s ‘fornication’ or adultery is itself understood to be an act of Ehebruch, then the marriage could be understood as ‘broken’ already, before the man has remarried.” See Andrew V. Ste. Marie, “Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal With Divorce and Remarriage,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 94 (April 2020), 248, n. 51.
  14. Jer. 3:8-9; Ez. 16:38; Hos. 3:1; etc.
  15. Lev. 26:15; Deut. 31:16; Ez. 16:59; etc.
  16. Num. 5:6, 12; Josh. 22:20; etc.
  17. Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38; James 4:4
  18. William Tyndale, who examined Luther’s translation alongside the Hebrew and Greek while producing his own translation, expressed a similar understanding of adultery. Instead of “causes her to commit adultery” Tyndale wrote “causeth her to breake matrimony” (Matt. 5:32), and instead of “commits adultery” he wrote “breaketh wedlocke (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) as well as “commyt advoutry” (Matt. 19:9). (See “Tyndale Bible,” Bible Study Tools, website, accessed July 31, 2020,  https://www.biblestudytools.com/tyn/matthew/5.html  and https://www.biblestudytools.com/tyn/matthew/19.html.) According to Merriam-Webster, “in Old English the suffix –lāc, from which the lock in wedlock was formed, was used to denote an activity. Wedlock has the distinction of being the only surviving example of the use of this suffix in English… Since the Old English wedd meant ‘pledge,’ the term wedlock means etymologically ‘the activity of giving a pledge.’ Its first known use, however, referred to a nuptial vow or marriage bond and was used in phrases like ‘to keep wedlock’ and ‘to break wedlock’—with reference to marital fidelity.” (See https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-origin-compound-words/wedlock.) Therefore, the expression “breaks wedlock” would mean either “breaks/violates his wedding vows” or “breaks/violates his marriage bond.” Tyndale’s “breaketh wedlocke” is an improvement over Wycliffe’s “doeth lechery,” for the latter focuses on sexual promiscuity without conveying the idea of unfaithfulness to a covenant. Similarly to Luther and Tyndale, “the Old English word” for adultery “was æwbryce ‘breach of law(ful marriage)’ (similar formation in German Ehebruch)” (Douglas Harper, “Adultery,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed August 1, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/adultery#etymonline_v_5152).
  19. Perry Yoder, “Bible Study,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. July 31, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bible_Study&oldid=166262.
  20. Luther’s own interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause can be found in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount: “But you ask: Is there then no reason for which there may be separation and divorce between man and wife? Answer: Christ states here and in Matthew 19:9, only this one, which is called adultery, and he quotes it from the law of Moses, which punishes adultery with death. Since now death alone dissolves marriages and releases from the obligation, an adulterer is already divorced not by man but by God himself, and not only cut loose from his spouse, but from this life. For by adultery he has divorced himself from his wife, and has dissolved the marriage, which he has no right to do; and he has thereby made himself worthy of death, in such a way that he is already dead before God, although the judge does not take his life. Because now God here divorces, the other party is fully released, so that he or she is not bound to keep the spouse that has proved unfaithful, however much he or she may desire it.

    “For we do not order or forbid this divorcing, but we ask the government to act in this matter, and we submit to what the secular authorities ordain in regard to it. Yet, our advice would be to such as claim to be Christians, that it would be much better to exhort and urge both parties to remain together, and that the innocent party should become reconciled to the guilty (if humbled and reformed) and exercise forgiveness in Christian love; unless no improvement could be hoped for, or the guilty person who had been pardoned and restored to favor persisted in abusing this kindness, and still continued in leading a public, loose life, and took it for granted that one must continue to spare and forgive him. In such ease I would not advise or order that mercy should be shown, but would rather help to have such a person scourged or imprisoned. For to make a misstep once is still to be forgiven, but to sin presuming upon mercy and forgiveness is not to be endured. For, as before said, we know already that it is not right to compel one to take back again a public whore or adulterer, if he is unwilling to do it, or out of disgust cannot do it. For we read of Joseph, Matthew 1:18 sq., that although he was a pious man, yet he was not willing “to take unto him Mary his espoused wife” (when he saw that she was pregnant); and was praised because “he was minded to put her away privily,” and not lodge complaint against her and have her executed, as he might well have done.” See Martin Luther, “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount,” trans. Charles A. Hay (1892). Available online. Step Bible, Tyndale House, Cambridge. Accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.stepbible.org/?q=version=Luther|reference=Mat.5.

  21. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. Emphasis added.
  22. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 97-102. Emphasis added. This translation was made from the 1565 published German edition.
  23. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV. Emphasis added. See also the 1853 confession from the Church in Rudnerweide in Odessa in South Russia, which I discussed in my last post.
  24. Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), 57.
  25. Here is Kauffman’s list of “plain” Scriptures: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9); “The wife is bound by the law as long as the husband liveth” (1 Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:2, 3); “Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11); “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18); “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18; Mark 10:11); “If a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:12); “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9). See Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 450-451. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC.
  26. This point, in fact, was probably the primary concern about marriage that is evident among Anabaptists for the first 350 years of their history.
  27. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  28. “Scriptural Instruction,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 32; also 27. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  29. Menno Simons similarly alludes to either 1 Corinthians 7:39 or Romans 7:2 (both talk about a wife being “bound” to her husband) in a passage where he affirms divorce and remarriage are permissible in cases of adultery: “No man may leave his wife, nor a wife her husband, and marry another (understand arightly what Christ says), except it be for adultery. Paul also holds the same doctrine that they shall be so bound to each other that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers” (“Instruction on Excommunication,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simon, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), p.970).
  30. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  31. Gerhard Roosen, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith, for the Young, in Questions and Answers, and a Confession of Faith of the Mennonites (Lancaster, PA: John Baer and Sons, 1857), 108-109. Available online: https://archive.org/details/christianspiritu01menn/page/108/mode/2up
  32. Hans de Ries, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, published with commentary in Dyck, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Middelburg_Confession_of_Hans_de_Ries_(1578)
  33. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  34. Menno Simons, “Reply to False Accusation,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 561.
  35. Both Matthew 16:4 and Luke 11:29 record Jesus saying, “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
  36. Dirk Philips, “The Enchiridion or Handbook of Christian Doctrine and Religion,” The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 222-23).
  37. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Emphasis added. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  38. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 970.
  39. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. A paragraph later in the same document repeats some of the same assertions and adds the suggestion that 1 Corinthians 6 implies believers are married to Christ: “From aversion and wrath the believer will be driven out and expelled. Nevertheless that is not a separation in God’s sight for they are still one flesh inasmuch as neither of them has attached his own flesh to the alien flesh of a harlot and become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore, it is only fornication which can effect a divorce. He who cleaveth to the Lord is one spirit with Him, 1 Corinthians 6, flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone, Ephesians 5.”
  40. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Commentators have often debated what Paul meant when he said a sexually immoral person “sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). It appears some Anabaptists may have thought he meant “sins against his wife,” for both the previous documents draw a link between (a) sinning against one’s own body/flesh and (b) being separated/divided from one’s own flesh, that is from one’s own wife. This is an intriguing interpretation, but it faces strong competition, for the terms “flesh” and “body” are also used explicitly to refer to both physical flesh and Christ’s body in the same passage.
  41. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 102.
  42. Here is one example of many from Simon’s writings: “We are falsely accused, by our opponents, of following the teachings of Munster, concerning the king, the sword, rebellion, retaliation, polygamy and other abominations. But my kind readers, know ye that I, never in my life, accepted any of the foregoing doctrines; but on the contrary, I have opposed them for more than seventeen years, and to the best of my abilities, have warned all mankind against this abominable error.” Menno Simons, “The Conversion of Menno Simons,” 1554, The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft002-renunciation.html.
  43. Philips was discussing the problem of believers wanting to marry unbelievers, not the problem of believers who had a spouse who later fell into sin such as adultery. But the basic point still appears relevant: Philips thought these verses addressed believers, not unbelievers. In Philip’s mind “there is no uniting by God” when a believer marries an unbeliever. After quoting 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Philips writes, “From this it is easy to understand that the Lord spoke of two believing persons” in Matthew 19:6. “To allege on this basis and thereby compare thus that these words of the Lord also apply when a believer takes an unbeliever is not further spoken to, but only about two believers. To apply these words to an apostate and unbeliever, that is a great misunderstanding.” Almost certainly, given what he wrote elsewhere about divorce and remarriage being permissible in cases of adultery, Philips felt it was equally wrong “to apply these words” to someone married to an adulterer (Dirk Philips, “About the Marriage of Christians,” 1568, The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 568).
  44. “Virtually all modern writers regard vv. 10-11 as concerning marriages between Christians,” writes Thiselton, and he agrees (Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 523, 526). Conservative Mennonite commentator Sanford G. Shetler also agrees: “He is presumably speaking here of those marriages where both partners are Christians” (Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 55 A.D., Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1971, 47). Other commentators who agree include Kenneth E. Bailey (Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 206); Craig L. Blomberg (1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary, 134); Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the NT, 323); David Garland (1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT, 278-83); Richard B. Hays (First Corinthians, Interpretation, 119); Leon Morris (1 Corinthians, Tyndale NT Commentaries, 105); Mark Taylor (1 Corinthians, The New American Commentary, 172); and Ben Witherington (Conflict and Community in Corinth, 173).
  45. Peter Walpot, “Article Four: Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers,” A Beautiful and Pleasant Little Book Concerning the Main Articles of our Faith or The Five Articles of the Greatest Conflict Between Us and the World, trans. Elizabeth Bender (wife of Harold S. Bender), unpublished manuscript, pg. 7. Emphasis added. Available online: http://dwightgingrich.com/concerning-divorce-between-believers-unbelievers-hutterite-document/
  46. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873.
  47. Menno Simons, The True Christian Faith, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft035-sinfulwoman.html.
  48. Menno Simons, A Fundamental and Clear Confession of the Poor and Distressed Christians, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft108-supperofthepreachers.html.
  49. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV
  50. Menno Simons, “On the Ban: Questions and Answers,” 1550, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1957), 265. Emphasis added. It is curious why Simons cited verse 10 rather than verse 11; it is the latter verse that recognizes the possibility of a wife separating from her husband. The probable explanation is that he cited the verse that begins Paul’s sentence, intending thereby to refer to both verses 10 and 11. That practice is found in some other citations of the time.
  51. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” Martyrs Mirror, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617). Cornelis Ris, in contrast, lumps 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 in with Jesus’ exception statements, summarizing both by saying that separation of married couples is “altogether prohibited except for the cause of fornication.” Both approaches show that Anabaptists did not see Paul’s summary of the charge he received from the Lord as contradicting or overruling Jesus’ exception clauses. See “Mennonite Articles of Faith by Cornelis Ris (1766),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766).
  52. Jesus’ words about a lustful look being adulterous gives good grounds for such a conclusion. After all, one does not normally go from being completely faithful to one’s spouse in one moment and lying in bed with another in the next. Between those two states is found the person “who looks at a woman with lustful intent,” who “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and is already in danger of being “thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:28-29). Paul, likewise, states categorically that adulterers (likely thinking primarily of those who have physically committed adultery) “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). If this is the case, then cases of physical adultery surely involve an unbeliever.
  53. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 200; Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119, available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873.
  54. In this view, in Paul’s first paragraph he was doing as Mark and Luke did in their Gospels: summarizing the main point of Jesus’ teaching (divorce and remarriage are contrary to God’s design) without intending to discuss the exceptional case of adulterous spouses. Paul’s second paragraph (about mixed marriages) was not about adultery, either, for when Paul introduces this paragraph, he clarifies that he has no word from the Lord (1 Cor. 7:12). This means that Paul cannot be discussing scenarios that match Jesus’ exception clause in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, or else he could not have said he lacked a word from the Lord on the matter. Thus, when Paul discusses occasions when unbelievers leave their Christian spouses, he must be thinking of cases of abandonment, but not cases of adultery.

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Anabaptists Then (1500s): An “Unchangeable Plain Word of Christ”

The early Anabaptists earned an undeniable reputation for holding firmly to the teachings of Jesus as they understood them, no matter the cost. Though they shared many theological beliefs with the magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists often accused the Reformers of “explaining away” the “hard sayings” of Jesus. ”1 The Anabaptists were committed to both (a) beginning their interpretation of Scripture with Jesus’ words and (b) obeying the hard teachings of Jesus. The topic of divorce and remarriage raises an interesting possible tension between these two commitments.

On the one hand, Jesus repeatedly gave uncompromising warnings against divorce and remarriage, even equating it with adultery. Yet he also gave the New Testament’s only words that explicitly suggest divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery may be permissible. How did the Anabaptists resolve this tension? Which words of Jesus did they consider to be “clear”?

The short answer is that the early Anabaptists displayed no anxiety over Jesus’ exception clauses about divorce and remarriage, unlike many conservative Anabaptists today. Rather than push these texts to the periphery of their discussions about divorce, they made them central pillars in their teaching. They did not seem to think that these exception clauses were “loopholes” that enabled people to avoid Jesus’ harder sayings. Rather, they appear to have seen them as reflecting the seriousness of adultery and the radical tension that exists between a true disciple of Christ and anyone who persists in sexual sin.2

Divorce and remarriage were topics that the Anabaptists engaged from their earliest years. If a single event can be pinpointed as the “official” birth of the Anabaptist movement (a debated question), it is probably a secret meeting on January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, where some radical students of Zwingli rebaptized each other. The earliest Anabaptist document discussing divorce and remarriage that I have found could have been written as early as within two years of that meeting and definitely no later than 1533. It has been attributed to Michael Sattler (1490-1527), but scholars are uncertain.3

Titled “Concerning Divorce,” this tract synthesizes Jesus’ exception clauses with other Scriptures with seeming ease. Here are some excerpts:

We, like Christ, do not permit a man to separate from his wife except for fornication; for when Christ in Matthew 5 often saith, “But I say unto you,” he thereby annuls the Law insofar as it is grasped legalistically and not spiritually… Therefore He does away with the old divorcing, no longer permitting hardness of heart to be a valid occasion for divorce but renewing the regulation of His Father, saying, “It hath not been so from the beginning, when God ordained that man and wife should be one; and what God hath joined together man shall not separate.” Therefore one may not separate for trifling reasons, or for wrath, that is, hardness of heart, nor for displeasure, aversion, faith or unbelief, but alone for fornication. And he who separates or permits to separate except for the one cause of fornication, and changes [companions], commits adultery. And he who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery, for Christ saith, “These two are one flesh.” But he who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord…

Paul teaches in I Corinthians 7, If the unbelieving one doth not desire to dwell with the believer and departs, so let him depart; a sister or brother is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace. This cannot weaken the words of Christ, nor does it contradict Him… There are many reasons for the unbeliever to separate, one this, the other that; yea, furthermore because unbelief hates and persecutes faith with its works, just as Christ testifies in Matthew 10, “They of thine household shall be thy foes.” And therefore from aversion and wrath the believer will be driven out and expelled. Nevertheless that is not a separation in God’s sight for they are still one flesh inasmuch as neither of them has attached his own flesh to the alien flesh of a harlot and become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore, it is only fornication which can effect a divorce.

Hardness of heart and unbelief may not occasion divorce, but only fornication, and as long as there is not a change to another flesh, we declare that when a man or woman separates except for fornication (that is, adultery), and takes another wife or husband, we consider this as adultery and the participants as not members of the body of Christ, yea, he who marries the separated one we consider a fornicator according to the words of Christ, Matthew 5, 19.

He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say. May God give us understanding from above in all things, to the knowledge of Himself and to His glory. Amen.”4

This tract appears even more fascinating when we consider its historical context. The first Swiss Anabaptists, long before their baptismal meeting, were Bible students. Under Zwingli’s teaching in Zurich, they boldly evaluated the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the light of the Bible and grew increasingly determined to live as true disciples of the Jesus they encountered in its pages. This stance is evident in the tract above; biblical quotations and references abound, but there is no hint of any dependence on the official teachings of the Catholic Church. Standing on Jesus’ words, the Anabaptists, like Luther and Zwingli before them, were not afraid to break with “the Church’s absolute prohibition of divorce.”5 From this perspective, “Concerning Divorce” could appear to be a radical, perhaps even libertarian, tract.

But there is another historical context that may be more important. In 1525—the same year that the Anabaptists broke from Zwingli—the city of Zurich, under Zwingli’s leadership, drafted what has been called “the first modern divorce law.”6 This law authorized divorce not only for adultery, but also for “greater reasons than adultery, as destroying life, endangering life, being mad or crazy, offending by whorishness, or leaving one’s spouse without permission, remaining abroad a long time, having leprosy, or such other reasons, of which no rule can be made on account of their dissimilarity.”7 The law also authorized divorce for those “who are not fitted for the partners they have chosen,” which was probably a reference to impotence.8 Zwingli was the first to turn Reformation views of marriage and divorce into law, and the revolutionary laws in Zurich became a model for surrounding cities—though most cities retained somewhat greater restrictions on divorce.9

In this context, “Concerning Divorce” is clearly a conservative tract, arguing strongly against permissive new laws that permitted divorce “for trifling reasons.”10 In addition, as the tract is directed to those who face persecution, it argues that being “driven out and expelled” by one’s own household is not grounds for divorce.

It is doubly striking, perhaps, in this context of arguing strongly against divorce, that the tract also argues that adultery is indeed grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ exception clause was not considered a loophole; rather, for the Swiss Anabaptists it was one of the hard sayings of Jesus that he permitted divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery.

The early Dutch Anabaptists clearly agreed, as multiple strands of evidence demonstrate. Menno Simons (1496-1561) is a good place to begin.

The following statements leave no doubt that Simons understood Jesus to permit both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery:

These two, one husband and one wife, are one flesh and can not be separated from each other to marry again otherwise than for adultery, as the Lord says. Matt. 5; 19; Mark 10; Luke 16. This is our real position, doctrine, and practice concerning marriage, as we here confess with the holy Scriptures. By the grace of God it will ever remain the position of all pious souls, let them lie and slander as they like. We know and confess truly that it is the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ. (“Reply to False Accusation,” 1552)11

We acknowledge, teach, and assent to no other marriage than that which Christ and His apostles publicly and plainly taught in the New Testament, namely, of one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4), and that they may not be divorced except in case of adultery (Matt. 5:32); for the two are one flesh, but if the unbelieving one depart, a sister or brother is not under bondage in that case. 1 Cor. 7:15. (“Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” 1539-40; revised 1558)12

We know too that the bond of undefiled, honorable matrimony is so firm and fast in the kingdom and government of Christ, that no man may leave his wife, nor a wife her husband, and marry another (understand arightly what Christ says), except it be for adultery. Paul also holds the same doctrine that they shall be so bound to each other that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers. (“Instruction on Excommunication,” 1558)13

According to Menno Simons, the teaching that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again” is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage. This belief comes through clearly even though Simons, like the Swiss Brethren before him, was clearly intent on reducing divorces, not justifying them.

Simons’ fellow bishop Dirk Philips (1504-1568) taught the same. In this excerpt, he indicates by his Scripture citations that he thought divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery was consistent with God’s one-flesh creation mandate for marriage:

Christ wanted… to forbid the separation and rejection which the Jews practiced with their wives because of all kinds of reasons which they thought good or preferred, and that in order to marry another… The Lord willed and commanded that one should do that [separate] no more except in the case of an act of adultery, which is the only and true reason for which a husband may leave or reject his wife and take another, Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:3[ff.]; Matt. 5:32. (“Omitted Writing About the Ban and Avoidance,” 1567?)14

According to Philips, adultery does not offer a loophole from Jesus’ teachings against divorce, but a “true… reason” for permitting one to both “leave” a spouse and “take another.” Philips had exegetical evidence for this belief; in the following excerpt he states that divorce and remarriage are “joined” in Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement, so that adultery is grounds for both:

Christ said in the Gospel: “Whoever repudiates his wife (except because of fornication) and marries another, he commits adultery,” Matt. 19:9… Jesus Christ (in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, Col. 2:3…)… named adultery as the only true ground for divorce… Christ does not mention only repudiation and dissolution of marriage, but also being married to one another. This proposition is joined, the one to the other. (“Evangelical Excommunication,” 1567?)15

This interpretation of Jesus’ words was official church policy among the Dutch Anabaptists. In 1554 a conference of bishops was held where Menno Simons was then living—at Wismar in Mecklenburg, Germany. Those present, besides Simons, included Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, Gillis van Aachen, Herman van Tielt, Hans Busschaert, and Hoyte Riencx. The conference produced a series of statements known as the Wismar Articles. These articles address difficult questions the Dutch Mennonite churches were facing on topics such as shunning, marriage, divorce, and bearing arms. The articles were printed that same year in Amsterdam and reprinted several times afterward.16

Several of the articles in this document address questions of marriages between believers and unbelievers. Two of these clearly permit remarriage in cases of adultery:

Article IV.

In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free—with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood.

Article V.

In the fifth place, concerning a believer and a nonbeliever–if the nonbeliever wishes to separate for reasons of the faith, then the believer shall conduct himself honestly without contracting a marriage, for as long a time as the nonbeliever is not remarried. But if the nonbeliever marries or commits adultery, then the believing mate may also marry, subject to the advice of the elders and the congregation.17

It was not just Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists who held this interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. According to all the evidence I have found, early Anabaptists across Europe shared these beliefs.

In 1540-41, the Hutterite leader Peter Reidemann wrote his Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens (“Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith”), which “represents the official position of the Hutterites in matters both of doctrine and practice.”18 The section of his book titled “Concerning Adultery” includes the following:

If one or the other of the partners in marriage go to another man or woman… where one committeth adultery in this way, the other should put him or her away and have no more in common with him or her before he or she hath shown real fruits of repentance. For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken until through repentance it is healed, therefore this should be punished by separation.19

In 1561, a “valiant hero and soldier of Jesus Christ, named John Schut,” was executed for his faith in the city of Vreden in Westphalia (northwestern Germany). According to the account in the Martyrs Mirror, the lords who tried Schut questioned him about his beliefs, including “what he held in regard to marriage”:

He replied that a man and a woman are united together in marriage, and that such union may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery; following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.20

In 1571, a Calvinist prince called a disputation at Frankenthal in the Palatinate (in southwestern Germany), hoping to unify his subjects. A diverse group of fifteen Anabaptist leaders came, representing not only the Palatinate, but also Switzerland, the Netherlands, Moravia, and the imperial cities of southern Germany.21 They were asked many questions, including whether the ban and unbelief separates a marriage. They responded, “We believe that nothing may part a marriage but adultery.”22

An official government report (protocol) of this Frankenthal Disputation was published, to which the Anabaptists wrote a response. Their response was published several times in several versions, the most complete extant version being published in 1590. In this version, the ninth article titled “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce” opens with the following paragraph:

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” [Matthew 5:31-32] All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them. Therefore, adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.23

In 1577 five ministers of the Waterlander Dutch Mennonites drafted a confession in an attempt to unify their church. The Waterlanders “had arisen as a movement in large measure in protest against the rigor of church discipline among the Mennonites, particularly after the Wismar Articles had been drafted” by Simons, Philips, and others.24 The Waterlanders “were the first Dutch Mennonites to have a confession of faith.”25 In fact, their 1577 confession “is probably the oldest in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition” in the sense that (a), unlike Anabaptist confessions before it, it “was meant to be a statement for the church” rather than a personal statement and (b) it was designed as “a complete theological formulation” rather than a narrow statement “on specific doctrines.”26

This confession includes the following statement:

When a husband and wife have, in chastity, been united in the state of marriage, this marriage is so binding that it may not be separated or broken for any reason except adultery, according to the words of Christ, Matthew 18.27

The following year (1578) Hans de Ries, one of the authors of the Waterlander Confession, was imprisoned for his faith. While in prison he wrote another confession to explain to the town council of Middelburg what he and his fellow Mennonites believed. This confession contains one sentence about marriage:

Marriage is honorable when one man and one woman live virtuously together, being two souls but one body, one flesh, which may not be separated except for the cause of adultery, as Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 19, Hebrews 13, Genesis 2).28

Also in 1577, Peter Walpot (1521-78), “bishop of the Hutterian Brethren in Moravia during their Golden Age,”29 completed his magnum opus, commonly called the “Article Book.”30 The fourth article is titled “Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers.” Since this article apparently has not yet been published in English, it deserves a brief introduction.31

As with most early Anabaptist theological writings, this is clearly an occasional work; we are joining a conversation midstream, with specific names and current events being discussed. Apparently this article is addressed to some other Anabaptist-type group, for they are addressed as “dear friends” and reportedly “want to avoid infant baptism.” But the disagreement is fierce between the Hutterites and Walpot’s unknown audience, for he also calls them “negligent shepherds,” says they are “of little understanding and completely unenlightened,” and warns them, “You have completely departed from the mind and judgment of Christ.”

The main point of disagreement is over how to counsel Christian converts who have unbelieving spouses. Walpot accuses his audience of insisting that a converted wife must remain with her husband even if the husband is not “pleased” to live with her (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12-13)—for example, if he does not permit her to attend the Anabaptist preaching; if she “must watch her children get mixed among the heathen… and grow up completely like the world”; and “even if her husband strikes her and puts her out the door.” As a result, she “will finally come to the point of despair about you and melt into the world.” Without having heard the proverbial “other side of the story,” my best guess is that most of us would have some disagreement with both Walpot and his audience; one may have been too slow to counsel separation, the other too quick.

For our purposes, what is significant about this article is the agreement found in the midst of the vigorous debate. Clearly, it was axiomatic for both the Hutterites and their dialogue partners that, according to Jesus’ exception clauses, adultery “parts a marriage.” Here is Walpot’s explanation of his own understanding:

Marriage is [a] special picture and direction to the godly of the union and continuing obligation that they owe and have vowed to God’s Spirit and the Lord… Therefore Christ was moved to cut off all frivolous, unimportant and bad reasons [for divorce] arising from or originating in human loathing or displeasure (as was common, acceptable practice among the Jews) and rescind it among his people. Thereby the original institution [of marriage] was re-established in its first status and no one could break it off for his human wishes or will (except for adultery). 32

Later, Walpot indicates that his opponents use Jesus’ exception clauses to argue against allowing a believer to be separated from an unbelieving spouse:

You force the verse in Matthew 5 and 19, that nothing but adultery and unchastity should break the marriage, no matter what attitude of [sic] the unbelieving one takes toward the believer. You don’t ask very much whether the unbeliever does so willingly, of which Paul speaks and to which he attaches everything else.33

The last document I’ll quote in this post takes us back to where we started: the Swiss Brethren. In 1578—roughly fifty years after the tract “Concerning Divorce” from Sattler’s day—the Swiss Brethren at Hesse produced a confession that included an article by the same name: “Concerning Divorce.” It is a near-perfect summary not only of their own historic position regarding Jesus’ exception clauses, but of the position of most Anabaptists in the 1500s:

We believe, acknowledge and confess that husband and wife, who through a providential bringing together in holy matrimony have become one flesh, cannot be separated by anything, neither by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarrels or hardness of heart, with the exception of adultery.34

(The remaining Anabaptist confessions I have found from the 1500s do not offer evidence that either agrees or disagrees with the documents I have shared in this post.35)

In summary, the early Anabaptists were mostly unified on the question of grounds for divorce and remarriage; most said there was one and only one such ground: adultery. All agreed that Jesus’ exception clause did mean adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage.

There was one clear point of disagreement; a minority of early Anabaptists argued for an additional ground: having an unbelieving spouse. The Hutterites certainly taught that when an unbelieving spouse was not pleased to live with a Christian convert, the Christian should separate. (See Peter Walpot above.) According to court records, the Swiss Brethren disagreed with how the Hutterites “separate marriages.”36 Some have said that “this kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites,”37 but it is possible that the teaching of Dirk Philips regarding Christians who married unbelievers after conversion may also have produced similar results.38 In Philips’ case, he clearly disallowed remarriage in such situations; in some sense the marriage was still seen to exist. In the case of the Hutterites, I am unaware whether remarriage was ever counseled; the sources I read affirmed only divorce.

It is telling that divorce of a spouse because of unbelief was a point of disagreement and contention among early Anabaptists. Going beyond Scripture is one sure cause for theological and pastoral conflict, in our time as surely as that of the early Anabaptists.

On the other hand, I have not found any hint of any dispute among early Anabaptists about whether adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Anabaptists repeatedly and firmly rebuked the easy divorce permitted by many Protestant leaders such as Zwingli. They eagerly began their teaching with Jesus’ “hard sayings” about divorce, emphasizing that he did away with “the old divorcing” of the Jews. Yet, Menno Simons speaks for all early Anabaptists when he says that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again.”

This, the early Anabaptists insisted, is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage.


What strikes you most about how the early Anabaptists read Jesus’ divorce and remarriage exception clauses? What do you make of the contrast between their beliefs and the beliefs of most conservative Anabaptists today (see my last post)? Share your insights in the comments below!

I have at least three more goals for this historical survey. In my next post I hope to (1) share a handful of documents from the 1600s to 1900 and then (2) reflect on how the Anabaptists prior to 1900 seem to have synthesized other biblical texts with their understanding of Jesus’ exception clauses. Did they do this well? Where were they mistaken? What can they teach us? Then I’d like to (3) ask how conservative Anabaptists got “from there to here” in their understandings about divorce and remarriage.

Here are two ways you can help: (1) Please pray God will guide my understanding and writing about divorce and remarriage. I sincerely want to honor Christ. (2) If you have any relevant historical documents or insights, please share them. I am missing many pieces of the historical puzzle and would be happy to update even this current post if more relevant evidence is found. Thank you!


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  1. “The Reformers were more inclined than the Anabaptists to view the Bible as a flat book and to concentrate on the more immediate context, or to interpret all texts in light of certain doctrines seen as central to the whole of Scripture. Indeed, rather than interpreting other texts in relation to the example and teachings of Jesus, some of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus were interpreted (Anabaptists would say ‘explained away’) in light of other passages thought to be clearer. This was a major point of dispute between Reformers and Anabaptists and led to considerable divergence in ethical and ecclesiological conclusions. How does one decide which passages are clear and which obscure?” (Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, Studies in the Believers Church Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 62.
  2. Disclaimer: I am not a historian, so am not equipped to assess all the nuances of early Anabaptist understandings on this topic. I am sure I am missing some valuable evidence (despite some Facebook friends graciously sending me images of several important documents). I am also focusing my attention on a narrow question—How did the early Anabaptists understand Jesus’ exception clauses?—so am not trying to present a complete picture of their views on divorce and remarriage. But disclaimers aside, I am confident that the quotes in this post accurately represent what early Anabaptists normally taught about Jesus’ exception clauses. I have not found any statement from early Anabaptists that contradicts the evidence presented here.
  3. “P. J. Twisck (1565-1636), who was married to Menno Simons’ granddaughter, assigned it to Sattler” (J. C. Wenger, Even Unto Death: The Heroic Witness of The Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist (John Knox Press, 1961). Available online: http://www.bibleviews.com/evenuntodeath.html ), but “is signed by the initials ML, which argues against Sattler’s authorship” (The Legacy of Michael Sattler, John Howard Yoder, ed. (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), vii.). This tract was found published in a 1533 collection that included influential Schleitheim Confession (1527), also thought to have been written by Sattler (Ernest A. Payne, “Michael Sattler and the Schleitheim Confession,” Baptist Quarterly 14.8 (October 1952): 337-344. Available online: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/14-8_337.pdf).
  4. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. Emphasis added. Another translation of the end of the first paragraph uses female pronouns: “The one who finds herself thereby divorced may now marry, whom she will, only let it be in the Lord.” Source unknown. Available online: https://coveredbaptists.proboards.com/post/5466/thread
  5. Judith C. Areen, “Uncovering the Reformation Roots of American Marriage and Divorce Law,” 26 Yale J.L. & Feminism 29-89 (2014), 42. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1642. https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1642
  6. Ibid., 44.
  7. Zurich Ordinance, quoted in Areen, 46.
  8. Areen, 46-47.
  9. Ibid., 44, 48.
  10. I am tempted to see a veiled reference to Zwingli in the final paragraph of this tract: “He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say.”
  11. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 561. Emphasis added.
  12. Ibid., 200. Emphasis added. C.f. also: “Again, under this kingdom, and under this King, no other wedlock must be tolerated, except between one man and one woman, as God had in the beginning established in the union of Adam and Eve; and Christ has further said, that these two are one flesh, and that they shall not separate, save for the cause of fornication, Matt. 5:32” (Menno Simons, “Appeal to Corrupt Sects,” A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft019-corruptsects.html).
  13. Ibid., p.970. Emphasis added.
  14. Dirk Philips, The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 586). Emphasis added.
  15. Ibid., 605-606. Emphasis added. In context, Philips is contrasting shunning one’s spouse in cases of church discipline with divorcing them in cases of adultery. A Christian who avoids his spouse for the sake of church discipline is different from a Christian who divorces his spouse for adultery. In shunning, unlike a case of adultery, a believer does not remarry, but instead must be “waiting patiently on the spouse” and praying to “be reconciled” to them. The fact that Jesus joins (re)marriage to divorce in Matthew 19:9 shows that Jesus is talking about a kind of separation (divorce) that is more than just shunning, Philips argues. Therefore Jesus’ words against divorce in Matthew 19:9 cannot be used to argue against asking a Christian to shun their spouse who is under church discipline.
  16. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV. There are some problems with parts of the text we now possess of the Wismar Articles. According to John Horsch,“These Wismar Decisions have been preserved, but evidently not in their original form. The articles, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, are of doubtful authority; the text is in part clearly corrupt and unreliable” (John Horsch, Menno Simons. His Life, Labors, and Teachings (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1916), chap. VIII. Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/horsch08.html). Likewise, Harold Bender stated that “unfortunately the text in which these resolutions have been persevered is so corrupt that it is impossible to be sure of the original meaning” (Harold S. Bender, Brief Biography of Menno Simons, “V. Labors in Holstein, 1546-1561,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simon, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 43). It is unlikely, however, that these concerns threaten the authenticity of the statements on divorce and remarriage quoted above, for, despite the fact that these textual questions were raised in Herald Press publications, the same publisher later printed a book by G. Edwin Bontrager that quotes Article IV of the Wismar Articles without qualification as part of a survey of historical Anabaptist beliefs on divorce and remarriage (Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), pg. 104). Graber likewise quotes Article IV in his 1956 article on divorce and remarriage on GAMEO (J. D. Graber and Leo Driedger, “Divorce and Remarriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Accessed Jun 17, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_and_Remarriage&oldid=161405). To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Articles IV and V as we know them misrepresent the early Dutch Anabaptist position on divorce and remarriage. To the contrary, they fit perfectly with other available evidence.
  17. “Wismar Articles,” Global Anabaptist Wiki. Emphasis added.
  18. Robert Friedmann, “Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. July 21, 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rechenschafft_unserer_Religion,_Leer_und_Glaubens&oldid=149028
  19. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 97-102. This translation was made from the 1565 published German edition. Emphasis added. This excerpt clearly extends hope for repentance and reconciliation. Yet, when read alongside (a) the response to the Frankenthal disputation and (b) Walpot’s Article Book (see both below), it also appears to affirm divorce in cases of adultery. It makes no statement about the possibility of remarriage.
  20. “John Schut, A.D. 1651,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 654-55. Emphasis added.
  21. Christian Hege, “Frankenthal Disputation (1571),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Frankenthal_Disputation_(1571)&oldid=145061
  22. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender, and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 18, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  23. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Emphasis added.
  24. Cornelius J. Dyck, “The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (January 1962): 5-13. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Waterlander_Confession_of_Faith_(1577)
  25. Nanne van der Zijpp, “Waterlanders,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 28, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Waterlanders&oldid=134967
  26. Dyck, ibid.
  27. Hans de Ries, Albert Verspeck, Jacob Jansz, Simon Michielszoon, and Simon Jacobszoon, “Waterlander Confession of Faith (1577),” trans. by Dyck, quoted by Dyck, ibid. Emphasis added. It is curious why this statement cites Matthew 18 rather than 19. Evidently there was an error either in writing, translating, or publishing.
  28. Hans de Ries, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, published with commentary in Dyck, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Middelburg_Confession_of_Hans_de_Ries_(1578)
  29. Robert Friedmann, “Walpot, Peter (1521-1578),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Walpot,_Peter_(1521-1578)&oldid=146324
  30. Robert Friedmann, “Hutterite Article Book,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hutterite_Article_Book&oldid=121143
  31. I was given a copy of a mostly-complete English translation on June 25, 2020 by Kenny Woolman of the Hutterian Brethren Book Centre (https://www.hbbookcentre.com/), who told me, “I believe I got it from the Archives in Goshen, now Elkhart.” Jason Kauffman, Director of Archives and Records at Mennonite Church USA Archives, gave me permission to post this document, and I have done so here.
  32. Peter Walpot, “Article Four: Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers,” A Beautiful and Pleasant Little Book Concerning the Main Articles of our Faith or The Five Articles of the Greatest Conflict Between Us and the World, trans. Elizabeth Bender (wife of Harold S. Bender), unpublished manuscript, pg. 7. Available online: http://dwightgingrich.com/concerning-divorce-between-believers-unbelievers-hutterite-document/. Emphasis and bracketed portions added. This translation leaves a few blanks for untranslated words (none affecting passages quoted here) and shows other evidence of being a rough draft. After the above excerpt, Walpot continues by asserting that when the “Word causes such disharmony and disunity in the unbeliever that he becomes hostile to the believing spouse,” then “it is more needful for the believer to keep his eyes on what is godly to keep his heart in peace and not make too many concessions… be it for fear or love of the spouse.” In short, in such cases, despite Jesus limiting divorce to cases of adultery, a Christian spouse must separate.
  33. Ibid., 13. Emphasis added. Cf. page 10, where Walpot argues that when an unbeliever is not pleased to live with a believer, “a sister or brother is in such a case as if unmarried and not bound.” Walpot asks, referring to Paul, “Where does he give the verse and cause of adultery, that besides it nothing parts a marriage?” Walpot is arguing, against his opponents, that Jesus’ solitary exception does preclude separation from an unbelieving spouse who is not pleased to live together in a way that honors the believer’s conscience. Walpot’s argument, again, is based on shared ground; both he and his opponents agree on Jesus’ exception.
  34. “Swiss Brethren Confession of Hess” (1578), trans. Werner O. Packull, Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, ed. Karl Koop, Classics of the Radical Reformation II (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), 79. Emphasis added. An older translation is available online: “We believe and confess, that man and woman who have by the divine foreordination, destiny and joining in marriage become one flesh, may not be divorced by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarreling, hardness of heart, but only by adultery” (Theodor Sippell, ed., “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 22-34, p. 32). Quoted in Robert Friedmann, “Divorce from Unbelievers,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. July 30, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_from_Unbelievers&oldid=143540.
  35. One document, Pilgram Marpeck’s “Confession of Faith,” does not appear to discuss divorce or marriage at all (available in German here: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/1/15/Confession_of_Faith_by_Pilgram_Marpeck.pdf). Two others discuss marriage but focus on the problem of marriages between believers and unbelievers. See the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)) and the Concept of Cologne from 1591 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Concept_of_Cologne_(Anabaptists,_1591)).
  36. Hans Pauly, TäuferAkten (i.e., court records of trials of Anabaptists, sentences pronounced upon them, etc.) of Hesse, ed. Theodor Sippell, “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 23 (1949), 22-34, 22. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/a/ac/SwissBrethrenConfession1578.pdf
  37. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  38. Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, trans. and eds. of The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 553, 577 (n. 5). This possibility is raised in the editors’ introduction and endnotes to Philips treatise “About the Marriage of Christians,” Ibid., 552-577.

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