Tag Archives: Biblical Mennonite Alliance

Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

“I don’t know if what you are doing is right or not. I really don’t know. I feel I have to tell you that. But… yes, I will play piano at your wedding.”

That is what I told a friend, in words I can’t recall specifically now, roughly twenty years ago. I had met my friend through the Christian student club at Nipissing University, where I was pursuing an English degree. I’m not sure which year we had that conversation, but in one of our years together my friend, a Pentecostal, was the Bible study teacher for the club and I, a Mennonite, was the club president. (He also played an energetic guitar while singing “I’m Trading My Sorrows.”)

My friend had been married before. I never met his first wife, for she had left him some years previously. He didn’t want their marriage to end, but she made the decision for him. Despite her blatant unfaithfulness, he repeatedly sought to win her back. She refused, and eventually they divorced.

Now my friend had met a new friend, a smiling young lady who also attended the Christian student club and had a ready testimony. After their wedding, they moved overseas where they served as missionaries until she tragically died less than ten years later.

I have a terrible long-term memory, so I can’t tell you any details about their wedding; but I do remember I played piano. The main reason I remember even that basic fact is because of the conversation I had to have with my friend before I agreed to play.

I grew up in a congregation that was first part of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario (CMCO) and then, since my early teens, part of Midwest Fellowship. In that setting I clearly caught, however it was taught, that divorce was terribly wrong and that remarriage was even worse.1 Adultery was certainly no excuse for remarriage, for remarriage itself was adultery. I imagine I learned that through simple presentation of relevant Scripture texts and also through our congregational study of books by people like Daniel Kauffman and John Coblentz.

As I grew older and moved out of our congregational bubble, I naturally met people from other denominations with other understandings of what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage. I have never lost my belief that every time divorce happens a marriage has fallen short of God’s design; someone, somewhere, has sinned. And I’ve always remained convinced that there is far too much divorce and remarriage happening among people who claim to follow Jesus.

But I’ve also had persistent, unresolved questions throughout my adult life. What did Jesus mean by “except it be for fornication” (to use the KJV expression)? If divorce is ever justified, when is it? And is remarriage ever blessed by God? What about couples who have wrongly remarried; should they now separate?

A number of years ago I was asked to express my affirmation with a Mennonite denominational position statement on divorce and remarriage. The statement said that initiating divorce or remarrying while a spouse is still living is always wrong and that those who thus remarry must separate. In response, I summarized God’s creation design regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But also, being honest, I added more, including these words:

God’s ideal is crystal clear: marriage should be for life, a mirror of Christ’s loving relationship with the Church. God’s perspective on less-than-ideal situations is not always so clear. I notice that the NT texts about marriage (both Jesus’ words and Paul’s teachings) are presented as discussions of what a Christian should do. They are not directly presented to answer every question of the appropriate response of either a repentant Christian or the church after this ideal has been violated. Thus we rely on exegetical and theological deduction when we address questions like, “What about someone who has already divorced and remarried and now wants to faithfully honor Christ?” While such secondary questions are crucially important, I think it is honest and helpful to observe that no NT text appears to have been directly intended to answer that question. Most attempts to answer such questions either rely on the witness of church history or are based on important but slender and difficult exegetical data.

I am confident that my experience is not unusual among those of us who have grown up in the conservative Anabaptist world.2 Many of you, I’m sure, could tell similar stories. Others of you, who are more confident in your interpretations on this topic, could probably tell stories of when your beliefs bumped up against differing beliefs within our own conservative Anabaptist world.

The diversity and uncertainty of conservative Anabaptist beliefs about divorce and remarriage were driven home to me recently in an informal poll I conducted on Facebook.

I was curious how accurate my hunches were about how conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses. Here, to refresh our memories, are the two times Jesus mentioned some exception to his prohibition of divorce:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:32)

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matt. 19:9)

The two clauses are very similar and are usually understood to mean the same thing. But how do conservative Anabaptists handle them? I created a poll to find out.

I’ll share the results of that poll here and use it as a springboard for discussion. You are also welcome to add your own responses in the comments below.

Here is the poll I presented:

In your experience, what are the most common ways that conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses in the Matthew 5 and 19 passages about divorce and remarriage? Which of the following is most common in your experience?

A. The exception refers to fornication during the Jewish betrothal period. It allowed for “divorce” from a betrothed “wife” or “husband” and gave permission to marry another. It has no application for married couples today.

B. The exception refers to adultery after marriage. It allows for divorce (or separation) only, but no remarriage.

C. Either of the above are equally possible as a matter of biblical interpretation; what is clear is that Jesus is prohibiting remarriage in all cases.

D. Focusing on exception clauses is just looking for loopholes; let’s focus on Jesus’ and Paul’s clear teaching instead.

E. Some other approach?

I’m not asking what you believe, just trying to see if I’m discerning the most common approaches within the conservative Anabaptist world. Thanks in advance for your help!

A brief explanation is in order about options A and B above.

Option A is what I will call the “betrothal” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer only to the Jewish practice of betrothal, not to fully married persons. A Jewish person who entered a betrothal covenant was already called a husband or wife, even though the wedding might not happen for another year. They could have their marriage annulled (the term “divorce” was even used) if unfaithfulness was discovered in their partner. They were then completely free to marry another. This is what Joseph initially planned to do with Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (Matt. 1:18-19).

Option B is what I will call the “divorce-only” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer to fully married persons. According to this view, Jesus is giving permission for a married person to divorce their spouse if that spouse commits sexual immorality (usually defined as adultery). Jesus was not, however, giving permission to remarry.

Now to the results of the poll. Sixty-four people answered this poll, representing a fairly diverse range of conservative Anabaptist church influences in at least twenty American states, two Canadian provinces, and Mexico. It is not possible to tally the results with scientific accuracy, for some people gave multiple or qualified responses. But the general picture is clear enough.

First, here are the responses from respondents who offered only one answer to my poll, shown as a percentage of all respondents. (The raw vote total is included below each heading.) For example, about 17.2% of all 64 respondents (11 people) said they have heard only the betrothal view taught:

(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

Here is a record of all responses, showing how many times each answer was mentioned in any way. Many people gave answers like “Mostly A, but also sometimes D.” In such a case, this chard treats both A and D alike, without recognizing that A was prioritized over D. For example, about 54.7% of all 64 respondents (35 people) said they have heard the betrothal view taught, whether often or rarely:

Finally, here is another graph displaying all responses, also including (in orange) a rough attempt to represent the weight respondents intended for each answer when they gave more than one answer:

How can we summarize these results?

  • My hunches were probably right; only one person suggested an alternative conservative Anabaptist approach to Jesus’ exception clauses, which was really option D with some ugliness added.3
  • The most common approach is probably the betrothal view, mentioned by over half the respondents. My perception is that many Anabaptists today have encountered this view through popular-level Protestant teachers such as Bill Gothard and Joseph Webb (Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce). More professionally-published sources have also been influential, such a paper by John Piper (“Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper”) and a recent multi-authored book called Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View. I am not sure when this view entered Anabaptist circles, but already in 1950 John L. Stauffer was promoting it,4 and in about 1992 John Coblentz wrote that “this view has had wide acceptance among conservative people.”5 Note: This paragraph originally indicated that J. Carl Laney promotes this view, but I was mistaken.
  • The divorce-only view is also very popular among conservative Anabaptists, mentioned by nearly half of the respondents. This view appears to have somewhat longer roots within Anabaptism (more on that in another post), but Protestant scholars such as Gordon Wenham and William Heth (Jesus and Divorce) have also been influential within some Anabaptist groups. Anabaptist influencers David Bercot (“What the Early Christians Believed About Divorce and Remarriage”) and Finny Kuruvilla (“Divorce and Remarriage: What About the Exception Clause?”) are also promoting this view through their summaries of early church practices.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard both the betrothal and divorce-only views presented as being equally-valid interpretative options.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard warnings against looking for loopholes and encouragement to focus on clearer texts instead of the exception clauses.

What can we learn from this poll about how conservative Anabaptists approach Jesus’ exception clauses?

For most of the rest of this post I plan to discuss some weaknesses I perceive in some conservative Anabaptist approaches to these words of Jesus. I will cite specific examples to support my observations. Please know that when I name names, I have absolutely no desire to belittle anyone. People whom I highly respect and love as past mentors and teachers are among those who may feel challenged by some of my words. This is a difficult topic and many good Christians have not reached full agreement. Part of me does not want to name names, but I think citing some public documents can make this discussion more fruitful. My desire is simply that together we will learn to better hear and understand Jesus’ words. If you feel I am mishandling his words, you are welcome to let me know.

With those expressions of love in mind, here are four general observations about the poll results:

First, it appears that most conservative Anabaptists do not rely on or allow these exception clauses to determine their theology and ethics of divorce and remarriage. Rather, for these texts, their desired theological ends justify their uncertain interpretive means. Why are only these two specific interpretations (betrothal and divorce-only) currently popular among conservative Anabaptists—especially since these interpretations are very much the minority within Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church? It is surely because, rightly or wrongly, many conservative Anabaptists have their minds made up about what Jesus could not mean before even considering these texts.

An example of this is a tract available from the conservative publisher Rod and Staff. It rebukes those who use Jesus’ exception clause as a loophole but never offers a positive interpretation of what Jesus actually did mean:

Sometimes the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 is used to support divorce in cases of unfaithfulness. But such reasoning cannot be reconciled with the other New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage, which are very clear in their statement. The hardness of heart would grasp for a loophole here and fail to reckon faithfully with the clear statement of God’s Word in a number of other passages. This is hardly a safe approach to the Word.6

Second, it is clear that conservative Anabaptists have not reached a consensus about what Jesus did mean when he said “except it be for fornication.” They do not even agree on whether this clause has any direct relevance for Christians today or whether it was something spoken only for Jewish listeners.

Here I want to emphasize an important side point: If the betrothal view is correct, then we have zero verbal permission from Jesus not only for remarriage, but also for separating a marriage for any reason whatsoever. According to this view, Jesus’ words “Let not man separate” are given no qualification whatsoever for married couples—only for those who were betrothed. If we are going to allow for any separation of married persons (even when we don’t call it divorce), we have to assume that Jesus would have been okay with it and find possible justification elsewhere, such as from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:11. This assumption may indeed be valid; maybe we should consider the possibility that Jesus sometimes used typical Jewish hyperbole in his teaching. But if we adopt this interpretation, we must be honest: we are affirming that an unspoken qualification is attached to Jesus’ words, “Let not man separate.” We are saying, “Jesus said ‘Let not man separate,’ but we know that there are times when he would approve of separation anyway.”

Third, many conservative Anabaptists are deeply uncomfortable with these exception clauses. Truth be told, they would be happier if Jesus had not spoken them. These clauses throw a wrench into the otherwise clear teaching of Scripture. The term “exception clause” makes it feel too much like Jesus is “making an exception” for something that is intrinsically evil. If you’ll pardon another pun, many conservative Anabaptists “take exception” to Jesus’ exception clauses. This is evident in several of the examples I share in this post.

Fourth, when conservative Anabaptists do try to explain Jesus’ exception clauses, they are often quite happy to present mutually opposing interpretations as equally possible.  As long it can be shown that there are ways these exception clauses can possibly be harmonized with other biblical texts that appear to forbid divorce and remarriage, many conservative Anabaptists are content not to decide between contradictory interpretations.

I want to underscore that the two popular conservative Anabaptist interpretations of Jesus’ exception clauses indeed sharply disagree with each other on an exegetical level.

In pastoral practice, the two probably lead to similar results in conservative Anabaptist churches. The divorce-only view allows a believer to divorce from an adulterous spouse; but is rarely put into practice. The betrothal view technically does not give authorization for any sort of separation; but, as with the divorce-only view, sometimes separation is permitted for a variety of difficult circumstances without any direct authorization from these texts. Most importantly, both approaches strongly prohibit any remarriage, so the practical results are similar.

Despite the similar theological and practical results, on an exegetical level these two views are diametrically opposed. There are two key exegetical questions that must be solved to properly understand Jesus’ exception clauses:7

  1. What do the exception clauses themselves mean? Especially, what does porneia (πορνεία; the word translated “fornication” in the KJV) mean? This is a lexical question, a problem of word definitions.
  2. How do the exception clauses fit within Jesus’ complete sentences? In particular, in the Matthew 19:9 exception clause (which is where much of the debate is focused), does the exception clause modify only what comes before it, or does it modify Jesus’ entire statement? That is, does it identify an exception for divorce only, or also for marrying another? This is question of syntax, or sentence structure.

On these two key questions the betrothal and divorce-only views completely disagree. On the first question, the betrothal view says that porneia refers narrowly to premarital sin—fornication. But the divorce-only view says porneia is a more general word referring to a variety of sexual sins, including adultery.8

On the second question, the betrothal view says the exception clause modifies the entire subject-portion of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife and marries another”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for both divorce and marrying. What Jesus was really saying in Matthew 19:9 could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his betrothed wife commits sexual immorality; then he is free to divorce her and marry someone else.”

The divorce-only view, in contrast, says the exception clause modifies only the first half of the subject of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for divorce only. Jesus’ statement could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his wife commits sexual immorality; then he may divorce her, but remarriage would still be adultery.”

The exegetical disagreement between these two views can be summarized in chart form.

Here is the exegesis that leads to the betrothal view:

And here is the exegesis that leads to the divorce-only view:

Given these distinct differences, a thoughtful reader needs to come to a confident conclusion on only one of these two questions to eliminate one of these views (betrothal or divorce-only) as a possible reading.

The betrothal interpretation of the second question (about syntax) demands further comment. I get the sense that few people take time to consider the implications of how the betrothal view interacts with the syntax of Jesus’ statement; most discussions of this view focus on the lexical question instead, along with possible supporting historical evidence.

The betrothal view, however, demands that we understand Jesus’ exception clause as modifying both the divorce and marriage parts of the subject of his sentence. If this were not so, then Jesus would have been saying this: A betrothed person who discovers that their husband or wife has been sexually unfaithful may be released from the betrothal covenant, but they may never marry anyone else. This proposal is self-evidently and historically unreasonable.

(It may be useful to point out that Jesus does not say “remarry” but “marry another.” Further, as I understand it, the Greek can be understood to say “marry an other”—referring not to a second woman but a different woman.)

The point I want to emphasize here is that, if the exception clause does not modify the marriage part of Jesus’ statement, the betrothal view is impossible.

This fact is sometimes missed. In a Christian Light Publications book, for example, Coblentz notes how the exception clause comes after Jesus’ mention of divorce and before his mention of adultery. Based on this sentence order, he concludes that “the exception refers to the putting away.”9 Despite establishing this firm conclusion, Coblentz later says, “Unfortunately, seeing the exception clause as referring to the ‘putting away’ does not resolve all the controversy.”10 After this statement, he proceeds to discuss the strengths of the betrothal view. In the end, he seems to prefer the divorce-only view, but he still affirms the betrothal view as possible.11

Clair Martin, in an official publication of the Biblical Mennonite Alliance, relies significantly on Coblentz. He agrees that the betrothal and divorce-only views are “both in line with scripture.”12 He examines only the lexical question of the definition of porneia and never addresses the syntactical question of how the exception clause modifies Jesus’ statement. He seems unaware that this factor also separates the betrothal and divorce-only views. His main concern seems to be to close “one of the most prominent loopholes that people use to get around this subject.”13

The inverse, of course, is also true: If you are going to say that the betrothal view is a valid interpretive option, then you must acknowledge that one of the most commonly-cited arguments in favor of the divorce-only view is not conclusive: The syntax of the sentence does not prove that Jesus is making an exception only for divorce. This means, if we are honest about our exegesis, that those who promote the betrothal view should acknowledge that the syntax of the sentence also permits Jesus to be making an exception for both divorce and (re)marriage.

What does it say about conservative Anabaptists that so many are content to hold mutually-contradictory interpretations as equally valid? Positively, it reflects a determination to honor the teaching of Scripture that is understood to be clear, without letting disputed texts prevent obedience. It could also reflect exegetical humility—an awareness that the Bible is not always as plain as our Anabaptist heritage likes to claim.

Negatively, it could reflect the fact that most conservative Anabaptist church leaders have never studied Jesus’ exception clauses carefully; indeed, that they are not equipped to do so. It could also reflect a proof-text approach to Bible interpretation and systematic theology that does not sufficiently consider the original literary and cultural contexts of the biblical texts. More positive and negative implications are surely involved, and not everyone who takes a both-and stance shares the same mix of positive or negative motivations.

One way to avoid such tension, of course, is to simply ignore Jesus’ exception clauses altogether (response D in the poll). Two particularly clear examples of this are provided by publications from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference and the Beachy Amish-Mennonites.

The former group adopted a “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” in 1983. This statement lists both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 among its proof texts, but never quotes them and never makes any mention of “fornication.” It does quote (with commentary) Mark 10:11, which is parallel to Matthew 19:9 except for the crucial difference that it lacks the exception clause: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth [or continues to commit] adultery against her.” Avoiding Jesus’ exception clauses altogether, this statement simply states, “The act of adultery does not dissolve the marriage bond.”14

A doctrinal position statement ratified by Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers in 2003 takes a similar approach. (In fact, though it presents itself as an original publication, it is obviously an adaptation of the former document, virtually identical in many sentences and following the same overall structure.) This statement cites seventeen different passages of Scripture, including some verses from Matthew 19. But it never once cites or alludes to either of Jesus’ exception clause statements (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Romans 7:1-3 (or a particular interpretation of that text) is cited in whole or part seven times in this brief document and clearly serves as the interpretive lens through which all other texts are read—or excluded.15

The approach exemplified by these two documents, while understandable on one level given the desire to uphold God’s creation design for marriage, is functionally dishonest in its handling of Jesus’ words. We do not honor Jesus when we avoid his “hard sayings” and quote Scripture selectively to support our theological positions. We do not serve God’s people well, either, when we do this. Unfortunately, this approach is a relatively common way that some conservative Anabaptists “solve” the topic of divorce and remarriage.

What is a better way to solve the interpretive dilemma of Jesus’ exception clauses?

Are there better options than either (a) promoting two mutually-contradictory interpretations of Jesus’ words or (b) pretending he never said what he did? What solution might conservative Anabaptists be likely to adopt?

Without professing prophetic ability, I suggest several possible outcomes. First, either the betrothal or the divorce-only view may be successfully championed by someone until it becomes the consensus view. This would significantly shore up the goal of preserving a rare-divorce, no-remarriage culture in conservative Anabaptist churches. And I must emphasize that nothing I have written in this post proves that either of these two views is wrong, even though I do see some weakness in both that are beyond the scope of this post.

Second, if a significant consensus is not reached, I suspect a growing number of people, observing the uncertainty, will question the current conservative Anabaptist approach to divorce and remarriage more broadly. We will continue to see people, either quietly or publicly, walk away from the unqualified no-divorce, no-remarriage teaching they have absorbed.

It must be acknowledged, after all, that there are not only two possible ways to deal with Jesus’ exception clauses. There are several views that are similar to the betrothal view, for example, which suggest that Jesus was referring to incestuous or otherwise unlawful marriages. Others have proposed, without any hard evidence, that Matthew added the exception clauses in an attempt to tone down Jesus’ rigid stance against divorce and remarriage (which is different from the proposal that Matthew added the clauses to accurately reflect Jesus’ unspoken assumptions). Still others argue that the exception clauses are not really exceptions at all, but rather Jesus’ way of saying that he was making no comment on the Deuteronomy 24 exception that the Pharisees asked him about (the “preteritive” view).

But apart from either adapting the betrothal view or finding a way to functionally remove any exception from Jesus’ lips, there is also the possibility of revisiting how our two key exegetical questions might fit together.

There are two primary options. One option makes little sense, as we noted above; there is no good reason to imagine Jesus was prohibiting betrothed persons from ever marrying if their first betrothal was ended by the discovery of sexual immorality:

The other option is that Jesus was recognizing that both divorce and marrying another are honorable options when a spouse (or betrothed person16) violates a marriage through sexual immorality:

For conservative Anabaptists, the problem with this last view is not only that it appears to directly contradict clear Scriptures that prohibit both divorce and remarriage; it also is the most common Protestant way of interpreting Matthew 19:9.17 This, to many conservative Anabaptists, makes it doubly suspect and likely to undermine their Anabaptist vision of obedience to Jesus.18

How, then, are we to resolve this dilemma that conservative Anabaptists have with Jesus’ exception clauses? One necessary solution, most certainly, is to engage Scripture more closely in search of more sure answers. In doing this crucial task, however, I suggest that we also take a closer look at our own Anabaptist heritage.

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that it is only in recent history that Anabaptists have taken exception to Jesus’ exception clauses. But that is a story for another post.


Thank you for reading. Please pray for me as I continue to study and write, and please share your insights in the comments below!


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  1. The congregational “Statement of Faith and Practice,” as of 2002, simply says, “Divorce and remarriage is contrary to God’s Word.” Constitution and Statement of Faith and Practice of the Otter Lake Mennonite Church, Revised Constitution 2002, pg. 14.
  2. I normally use that term as it is commonly used in my world, to refer to anyone from Amish or Mennonite churches that range from Old Order churches on one “end” to roughly the Biblical Mennonite Alliance on the other “end.” In this post I am referring mostly to the car-driving subset of that group, since I have almost no direct experience with Old Order groups.
  3. He described like this: “I grew up in Joe Wenger Mennonite church. My takeaway would be that they are teaching no divorce for any reason. Yet, if you leave or show any inclination to leave, they’ll gladly try to take your spouse aside and try to convince them you’re off in the head. My point being, in teaching not acceptable but in action there are plenty of divided marriages. The go-to verse would be, ‘In the beginning it was not so, but through the hardness of your hearts,’ etc.”
  4. John L. Stauffer, “Biblical Principles–Divorce and Remarriage,” The Christian Ministry, Scottdale, PA, III, 3 (July-September, 1950), 89-94; as mentioned in an annotated bibliography by J. C. Wenger, Separated Unto God (Harrisonburg, VA: Sword and Trumpet, 1990; orig. pub. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 182.
  5. John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 34. This booklet is available in full online: https://anabaptists.org/books/mdr/
  6. “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” 12-page tract (n.a., n.d.), Rod and Staff, 5-6. Accessed online, June 20, 2020. https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/
  7. Gordon Wenham says that interpretations of Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement “hinge on two main issues”: “the meaning of the Greek term porneia” and “the grammar of the exception clause” in relation to the rest of the sentence (Gordon Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 78). Both the nature of Jesus’ statement and my reading of other authors confirm Wenham’s claim.
  8. Some suggest it refers narrowly to adultery, but that position is harder to defend on lexical grounds and also unhelpfully excludes other forms of sexual immorality that married persons may commit, such as homosexual relations or bestiality.
  9. Coblentz, ibid., 29.
  10. Coblentz, ibid., 34.
  11. Coblentz, ibid., 38.
  12. Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, Biblical Perspectives on Present Day Issues, #2 (Publication Board of Biblical Mennonite Alliance, 2010), 6.
  13. Ibid., 6.
  14. “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html
  15. “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” (Sugarcreek, OH: Calvary Publications: 2003). Available online: http://www.beachyam.org/librarybooks/beliefs/marriage.pdf. A note at the beginning of this statement says this: “This doctrinal position statement was formulated by a five-man bishop committee and ratified by the Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers…” I presume the five bishops were Beachy, not Southeastern Mennonites.
  16. In this approach, Jesus’ exception clause explains Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary while also referring to sexual betrayal within marriage; sexual unfaithfulness is seen to permit divorce and marrying another at any stage of the relationship.
  17. It must be noted, however, that merely adopting this reading of Matthew 19:9 does not mean one agrees with most Protestants on the topic of divorce and remarriage in general. Most Protestants allow divorce and remarriage not only in cases of adultery, but also in cases of desertion, citing a “Pauline privilege” in 1 Corinthians 7:15. In addition, many Protestants say that “other actions that break the marriage covenant such as physical abuse” are also grounds for divorce and remarriage (Andrew David Naselli, “What the New Testament Teaches About Divorce and Remarriage,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019): 3–44, pg. 5. Available online: http://andynaselli.com/wp-content/uploads/2019_Divorce_and_Remarriage.pdf).
  18. I have learned that this wariness about Protestants surprises some of my friends who are not from Anabaptist roots. For such readers, here are a few excerpts from a twenty-page Rod and Staff Publishers tract titled “More than Protestantism: The Thrilling Story of a Church Founded upon Christ”: “Born-again Christians everywhere are being urged today to work toward the revival and unification of Protestantism. Before we rush to make common cause with this ecumenical movement, let us look at the record of history… At first Luther and Zwingli defended the principle of liberty of conscience and denounced all persecution, but, tragically, both leaders depended heavily upon the support of favorably inclined secular rulers… This eventually involved them in the use of persecution against religious dissenters… Many born-again Christians at this point began to break with Protestantism… A long and bloody persecution ensued in the next 50 years, in which from 20,000 to 50,000 of these New Testament Christians were martyred by the Roman Catholics and the Protestants… Thus these churches founded upon Jesus Christ and His Word had to break with the compromises and evils of Protestantism, just as the reformers ultimately broke with the Catholic organization… They were called ‘Anabaptists’ (rebaptizers) by their enemies because they practiced believer’s baptism… But the main difference between the Anabaptists and their opponents was not the question of baptism, but the question of the relation between the church and the rest of society…  It is a sad fact of history that all the prominent reformers approved of persecution and death for the Anabaptists. A certain Baptist scholar of our own time discovered through exhaustive research that more Anabaptists were put to death for their religion by the Protestants than were similarly put to death by the Roman Catholics!… ‘Why not Protestants?’ you may be asked. The record of history shows us the answer clearly: from the false teachings of Protestantism… come the hellish evils of the unholy alliance between State and Church, the persecution of religious dissenters, the ‘religious’ wars that killed millions, modern nationalism, racism, and dictatorship! Surely Protestantism is only another ‘lamb-like beast’ drunken with the blood of the martyrs!”

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Tradition in the NT (2): Good Examples

[For the first post in this series, see: “Tradition in the NT (1): Bad Examples.”]

“What you have done for my son and my family is beyond love.” The writer was a mother named Lisa, and she was writing to Bald Eagle Boys Camp. Her letter continued:

Perhaps you will never know how many years I prayed that Derek could find a mentor… I wanted and prayed for one mentor. God gave Derek all of you… All of you have separate gifts and talents that you share with the boys. You all have different insights and personal attributes to share… You very well may have saved his life, saved him from self-hatred, and saved him from not ever seeing what God’s love is. [Emphasis added.]

Mentoring is an important part of the therapeutic camping program at Bald Eagle, a camp for “troubled boys.” Listen to some more excerpts from their website:

The counselors, called “chiefs”, are responsible for direct care and provide the key to meeting the emotional needs of a camper. Because the chiefs live with the boys twenty-four hours a day and join them in all of their daily routines, they become keenly aware of the individual needs of each camper. Their dedication and care provide a secure atmosphere where healing relationships can occur…

Spiritual values are intrinsically woven into the fabric of daily Wilderness Camp living and are reinforced by our staff as they model the teachings of Jesus Christ. They are displayed in the simplest ways—the love and understanding of a counselor, the forgiveness of one boy to another, and the helpfulness of a friend….

We aim to maintain groups of four to five members who have stabilized and are able to provide accountability, cohesion, and a positive influence to the rest of the group…. [Emphasis added.]

As the letter from Lisa suggests, many boys and their parents are being powerfully shaped by the influence of loving mentors at Bald Eagle Boys Camp.


Story two: The need this time is not troubled boys but troubled communities—communities that lack the relational and economic networks needed for people to climb out of poverty.

Several decades ago Merle Burkholder and his family lived for a year in a small rural village in Haiti. The Burkholders imitated their neighbors by adopting their simple lifestyle and, in return,  they gave their neighbors something to imitate by modeling Christ to them. Deep friendships began that continue to this day. Merle has returned to Cadiac, Haiti once or twice a year ever since, speaking in church seminars and mentoring leaders.

More recently, Merle’s Haiti involvement merged with his service at Anabaptist Financial, leading to a new project called Open Hands. Here, from the Open Hands website, is a description of what they do:

Open Hands operates savings and credit associations in countries where Anabaptist missions are working with people who are experiencing the effects of poverty. We hire and train national Christian individuals to form and supervise savings groups in association with local churches. Our objective is to assist the local churches by helping people grow in Christ, and by teaching them to save funds in order to operate micro-businesses. The Open Hands program will increase their income and will result in stronger, more self-sufficient churches.

The Open Hands program involves many relationships and lots of training. These flow in multiple directions, as everyone listens and learns from each other. Open Hands has adopted some elements of a dialogue education approach, where facilitators ask questions and help learners discover answers using their prior knowledge. This helps build the dignity and confidence needed for responsible and successful living.

But Open Hands also knows that outside training, when welcomed, is a crucial element in giving a community new tools for growth. So a long, intentional flow of relationships and training exists within Open Hands. This is especially evident with the curriculum that Open Hands is producing for savings groups:

Board and administration has set a vision for producing family and small business training booklets.

green-arrow-down-1Writing teams turn this vision into instructor’s guides and student workbooks.

green-arrow-down-1Translation teams transmit the content into other languages.

green-arrow-down-1Program leaders living abroad teach the new curriculum to…

green-arrow-down-1National group facilitators and trainers, who train…

green-arrow-down-1Savings group leaders how to teach the curriculum to…

green-arrow-down-1Each savings group with its individual members.

Such a long chain does leave space for things to be lost in transmission. But so far this approach seems to be working well, helping to transform lives. And communication is certainly not all one-directional; everyone from administration through writers through translators has interacted directly with national leaders and group members to celebrate our partnership in the gospel.

Merle summarized this train of transmission another way recently in an email:

When we began with the savings group model we realized that this model follows a pattern that many Amish and Mennonite people here in the developed world have used. The model we use relies heavily on brotherhood accountability within the savings group. It demonstrates how faithfulness in small things leads to larger responsibilities. It helps a person to start a small family business with a little capital and grow that business into a business that will provide for the needs of the family.

When you think about the large number of Amish and Mennonite family businesses, you see that what we have done here is often replicated in the developing world through the savings group model. Often here, Amish and Mennonite families would pool their funds in order to purchase a farm or fund the start up of a small home based business. The savings group model follows the same pattern within a community.

In the Amish and Mennonite communities we have a strong work ethic and a belief that we should provide for our own families and not depend on social assistance programs. The savings group help people in the developing world move from dependency on an aid program, or charity in some other form, to providing for their own needs. There is great dignity in being able to internally produce the resources that are needed for the support of a family rather than depending on outside resources. [Emphasis added.]

So Open Hands is strengthening a transmission of influence from Amish and Mennonites to developing nations worldwide. Open Hands aims to transmit our “strong work ethic” and “belief that we should provide for our own.” The curriculum also emphasizes Jesus’ kingdom teachings about stewardship, eternal values, and neighbor love, and includes a gospel invitation in each booklet. In this way North American Anabaptists are helping to shape men, women, and children in Haiti, India, Kenya, and other nations worldwide.

(Disclosure and gratitude: Merle hired me as a writer for Open Hands and was a formative influence years ago during my time with Northern Youth Programs.)


Story three: The need this time is for leaders. Followers of Jesus Mennonite Church (FJMC) in Brooklyn, NY, has a practice of asking its members periodically to identify men in their midst who have leadership potential. Those identified by the congregation are invited to participate in a several-year training program called Servant Leadership Apprenticeship (SLA). Trainees study books on doctrinal and practical matters (such as Alexander Strauch’s Biblical Eldership), attend half the FJMC leadership team meetings (voice but no vote), and practice a wide variety of leadership activities from giving sermons to praying for church members. (See here for a longer summary.)

The SLA program has helped raise up leaders for FJMC and beyond. Richard Schwartz, the current FJMC lead pastor, was an SLA participant. And so—thanks be to God—was I, training under Allen Roth and alongside his son Arlin. (More disclosure and gratitude. My wife was also grateful for the opportunity to learn from the pastors’ wives.)

Allen Roth, FJMC’s founding pastor, was the human brainchild behind the SLA program. In 2009 Allen shared a talk subtitled “If I Were Starting a Church Again…” In this talk he described fifteen things he would do differently if he planted another church in the future. One thing he said was this:

I would start the Servant-Leader Apprenticeship earlier as a deliberate, planned approach to raise up more leaders, not only to pastor the new church but also to serve as missionaries and church planters.

Recently I asked Allen to describe what inspired him to begin the SLA program. Here is his answer:

Dwight, I cannot really remember any “aha” moment.  I’m sure prayer figures in.  I had had a very rich experience with a group of 20+ Nicaraguans living with us and helping with two church plants in Nicaragua.  Working with a team in NYC was also very influential in my thinking.  But even earlier than all these was the mentoring I received by Richard Showalter, my missions teacher, when I was a[t] Rosedale.  And of course, through the years, there have been books that imprinted me about Jesus’ work with the Twelve, mentoring books, disciple making books, etc.  Early in the formation of BMA, Walter Beachy and I worked together on assembling a mentoring guide for development of new ministers in BMA.  An entire Ministers’ Enrichment event in 2002 was devoted to the theme of developing tomorrow’s leaders.  This year Paul Emerson and I worked on a document entitled “Mentoring For Ministry” that is scheduled to be presented to the ministers next month for their review and hopefully for implementation within BMA.  Probably, though I cannot remember a specific incident, was the realization that to establish FJMC, plant new churches, and send out workers in missions we needed to develop more leaders.  Does that help? [Emphasis added.]

Indeed, it does!

And hopefully by now you can see some common themes emerging in my three stories. Many similar stories could be added. But these are enough for me to make an observation: sometimes conservative Anabaptists, whether they realize it or not, demonstrate a very Scriptural practice of tradition.

“Of tradition?” you say. Yes, of tradition. In my last post I described how conservative Anabaptist often listen rather poorly to what the NT says about tradition. I also summarized the NT’s critique of tradition-gone-bad. But the NT also has positive things to say about tradition. And if we only exorcize the demons of bad tradition without filling the house with the Holy Spirit’s positive tradition, then the last state of our churches will be worse than the first (image lifted from Matthew 12:43-45).


Word Studies: Challenges and Procedures

There are three times that the ESV NT uses the word tradition in a positive sense. We will explore these three passages and see what we can learn.

But first, please bear with some technical notes for Bible students. With the one exception noted in my previous post, the ESV’s use of the word tradition perfectly matches the Greek text’s use of the word παράδοσις (paradosis, a word referring to a teaching or tradition that is handed over). This means that, despite using an English translation, we are matching the results we would get if working from the Greek.

On the one hand it can actually be better to work from English for a topical study like this, for translators sometimes identify multiple Greek (or Hebrew) words that are used in a way best expressed by a single English word. (For example, ἀγαπᾷς and φιλῶ in John 21 probably both mean “love,” as in most English translations, with no distinctions intended in this passage between agape and philia kinds of love.) On the other hand, we should not assume that the range of meaning for paradosis perfectly matches the range of meaning for our English word tradition. Even in this case where the ESV matches the two words nearly perfectly, I cannot assume that paradosis means exactly the same thing in every NT passage, or that in any passage it means what I most commonly mean when I use the English word tradition. The best approach for word studies is to use dictionaries to determine the range of possible meanings for a given word (Greek or English), and then study the context in which a word is used in order to select which of the possible meanings best matches the particular passage which we are examining.

In this study of tradition, context revealed that Jesus often used the word paradosis to refer specifically to the Jewish “tradition of the elders”—the oral law that Jews believed (including some today!) that Moses received from God during his 40 days on Mount Sinai. But when Paul used the word paradosis he sometimes meant something very different, as we shall soon see. And when we use the English word tradition, what do we mean? Scanning dictionary entries, I see definitions as varied as these:

  • The passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication
  • “A long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting
  • “A doctrine or body of doctrines regarded as having been established by Christ or the apostles though not contained in Scripture
  • “A piece of folklore
  • “A style or method of an activity or practice, especially of artistic expression, that is recognized and sometimes imitated

None of the above definitions fully captures what we mean when we talk about Anabaptist or Mennonite traditions, and none perfectly matches how either Jesus or Paul used the word paradosis. Bottom line: We need to listen closely to Scripture to let it shape our definitions and understandings.


What the NT Says Positively about Tradition

Back to the positive NT use of tradition. Let’s examine our three passages individually, making observations. Then we’ll summarize our observations and suggest some implications for how we should think about tradition in our churches.

1. 1 Corinthians 11:2. Here Paul affirms the Corinthian church: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Here we can clearly see the root concept of paradosis: It is something that is “delivered” from one to another. The word “delivered” suggests intentionality. Paul did not simply live quietly in the land, assuming others would learn from him if they wished.

The thing delivered was old to Paul, but new to the Corinthians. Thus, the transmission of tradition produced radical changes. On the other hand, once the Corinthian believers had received what Paul delivered to them, the proper thing to do with these traditions was to “maintain” them. Thus paradosis in this passage implies both intentional change and intentional preservation.

Notice that Paul wanted the Corinthians to remember more than just the traditions he had delivered. He also wanted them to “remember [him] in everything.” Thus, tradition was not to be received as an impersonal body of practices or “ordinances” (the KJV’s unfortunate translation of paradosis in this passage). Rather, tradition was a personal matter, rooted in intimate relationship.

If we zoom out to the wider context, we see that Paul did not merely want the Corinthians to “remember” him; he wanted them to imitate him: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” This suggests that Paul believed that personal example and imitation was an important way of “delivering” tradition. In other words, mentoring.

The mention of Christ shows the ultimate source of the tradition that Paul delivered to the Corinthians. Paul is the channel of these traditions, not the source. Thus, we can see three “generations” of tradition in this passage: Christ, Paul, and the Corinthian church.

What were these traditions that Paul received from Christ and passed on to the Corinthian church? In the context of this letter to Corinth, these traditions definitely include several things:

  • The account of Christ instituting the Lord’s Supper: “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” Paul writes (1 Cor. 11:23-26).
  • The gospel as a whole, including the historical facts and theological significance of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection: “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received” (1 Cor. 15:1-11).

These traditions may have also included Paul’s teaching about headship. Most likely Paul uses paradosis here to refers to any and all of his teachings, both doctrine about Christ and instruction about how to live in response to Christ. Clearly, Christ is central—both as the source of Paul’s tradition and as the center of its content.

2. 2 Thessalonians 2:15. Here Paul appeals to the church at Thessalonica: “So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter.” This passage, though similar to our Corinthian one, offers additional insights into the traditions that Paul affirmed.

Here the traditions were “taught,” a word that again suggests intentionality. But different modes of transmission are specified: “spoken word” and “letter.” Tradition, then, is something that you not only do, but also teach verbally.

The word “taught” implies that the Thessalonians did not originally know and practice Paul’s traditions. His traditions challenged and changed their former ways of thinking and living. On the other hand, having learned Paul’s traditions, they were to “hold” to them, a word that suggests preservation. Thus tradition again involves both change and continuity.

What were the traditions that Paul taught the Thessalonian believers? Context suggest at least two things:

  • The phrases “stand firm and hold” and “either by our spoken word or by our letter” echo phrases from earlier in the chapter: “We ask you, brothers, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come” (2 Thess. 2:1-2, emphasis added). In this chapter Paul is instructing the Thessalonians “concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him” (2 Thess. 2:1). This topic, of course, was an important theme in Paul’s previous letter to Thessalonica (1 Thess. 4:13-5:11). And here Paul says, “Do you not remember that when I was still with you I told you these things?” (2 Thess. 2:5). So Paul had previously instructed the Thessalonians previously both by “spoken word” and by “letter” (2 Thess. 2:15) about these matters. These teachings about the coming of Christ were part of the “traditions” that Paul had taught to the Thessalonian church.
  • Another contextual clue is suggested by the words “so then” at the beginning of our verse. These words link back to the the previous verses (2 Thess. 2:13-14), where Paul recalls with gratitude how God first chose the Thessalonians to be saved: “To this he called you through our gospel, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 14). This context reveals several important truths.  First, the reason why Paul thought the Thessalonians should hold to the traditions was because they were essential for salvation. Unless the Thessalonians held fast to the traditions Paul had taught them, they had no assurance they would “obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They had begun well; now Paul wanted them to finish well. Clearly, “traditions” here does not refer to merely human customs or rules. Second, a close relationship is suggested between “gospel” and “traditions.” God had initially called the Thessalonians “through our [Paul’s] gospel” (2 Thess. 2:14; see also 1 Thessalonians 2, where Paul recalls how he originally “proclaimed… the gospel of God” to the Thessalonians, who had “accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God.”). Now they needed to hold fast to “the traditions.” This suggests that the traditions were either the gospel itself (the message about being saved “through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth”; 2 Thess. 2:13), or other teachings integrally springing from the gospel message.

In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 2 to refer to the core gospel message and to all the associated truths (such as teaching about Christ’s appearing and the man of lawlessness) that the Thessalonians needed to hold in order to persevere to final salvation without being “shaken.”

3. 2 Thessalonians 3:6. Here Paul gives a command concerning tradition: “Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. The usage of paradosis here is clearly parallel to our other two passages. For example, there is again a very strong emphasis on imitation and an appeal to the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ. But several new emphases can be noticed.

In context, the tradition that Paul is talking about is the tradition of working quietly and earning one’s own living (2 Thess. 3:6-12). Here behavior is clearly included as part of tradition. Tradition is not merely about how we think; it is also about how we act.

Tradition here serves as a boundary for the church, or at least as a measure for good standing within the church. The Thessalonians are to “keep away from” anyone who does not follow the tradition of working diligently. They must not even share food with such people.

Notice how Paul describes this tradition in clear but general terms: The Thessalonians are to work diligently and quietly, earning their own living. They are not to be disorderly, burden others by eating food without paying for it, or be busybodies. Paul does not say how often one could eat free as a guest before one should start paying (the Didache limited traveling Christians to two or three free nights). He does not say how many hours per week one must work in order to be considered diligent. He seems to expect that his instructions are clear enough that they can be applied on a case-by-case basis without detailed universal rules.

In summary, Paul uses paradosis in 2 Thessalonians 3 to refer to godly behaviors learned by imitation from Christian leaders—behaviors which are necessary for good standing in the church of Christ.

If we summarize all three passages where Paul speaks positively about tradition (paradosis), we find that the content of this good NT tradition includes the gospel message about Christ and his work past, present, and future, all the associated truths that we need in order to persevere to final salvation, and all sorts of Christlike behaviors.


For Further Study

A proper study of the positive use of tradition in the NT would also examine a host of other passages related to the theme of the apostles passing things on to the first churches. For example, here are a few key concepts and references to review (based on a concordance search of the ESV):

  • deliver“: Luke 1:2; Acts 15:30; 16:4; 2Cor. 3:3; 2Pet. 2:21; Jude 1:3
  • proclaim“: Matt. 4:23; 9:35; 10:7; 24:14; Acts 4:2; 8:5; 9:20; 13:5, 38; 15:36; 17:3, 13, 23; 20:25; 26:23; 28:31; Rom. 10:8; 1Cor. 2:1; 9:14; 11:26; 15:12; 2Cor. 1:19; 4:5; 11:4; Gal. 2:2; Eph. 6:19; Phil. 1:17-18; Col. 1:23, 28; 1Tim. 3:16; 2Tim. 4:17; 1Pet. 2:9; 1John 1:2-5
  • receive“: John 3:11, 32-33; 12:48; 13:20; 14:17; 17:8; Acts 2:41; 8:14; 11:1; 17:11; 1Cor. 4:7; 2Cor. 6:1; Gal. 1:9, 12; Phil. 4:9; Col. 2:6; 1Thess. 1:6; 2:13; 4:1; Heb. 4:6; 10:26; James 1:21; Rev. 3:3
  • example“: John 13:15; Phil. 3:17; 1Thess. 1:7; 1Tim. 4:12; 1Pet. 2:21; 5:3
  • imitate“: 1Cor. 4:16; Eph. 5:1; 1Thess. 2:14; Heb. 6:12; 13:7
  • entrust/deposit“: Luke 12:48; 1Cor. 9:17; 2Cor. 5:19; Gal. 2:7; 1Thess. 2:4; 1Tim. 1:11, 18; 6:20; 2Tim. 1:12, 14; 2:2; Tit. 1:3

(I have listed verses only once, not repeating them if they were discussed above or if they use multiple key terms.)

In addition to the above passages, one should examine the entire theme of discipleship in the NT!


Conclusion: Summarizing the Evidence and Exhorting the Anabaptists

As I end this brief study of tradition in the NT (good and bad examples), my heart is full. I feel I must speak clearly and honestly to my fellow conservative Anabaptists. Scripture is speaking, and we must listen. In short, I think we are in urgent need of having a radical renewal in our concept of tradition.

I ask you: When we talk about “tradition” in the context of church life as conservative Anabaptists, what kind of traditions usually come to mind? Man-made customs and rules that we have added to God’s word (as with the “tradition” of the Pharisees)? Or the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ and basic principles of Christlike behavior (as with the “tradition” of Paul)?

I ask you another question: Do you see any suggestion in the NT that tradition in the first sense (man-made customs or rules, however good or natural) is ever emphasized as a useful means for either bringing anyone to salvation, producing holy behavior, or preserving the gospel?

(Here I must make a brief aside, prompted by a question from my wise wife. I presented the Bald Eagle Boys Camp above as a positive example of tradition. But the Bald Eagle program is full of man-made rules! Am I contradicting myself? I hope not. Remember that Bald Eagle is designed to serve boys—in fact, “troubled” boys. Man-made rules are essential for raising children, especially unregenerate ones. And the more immature the children, the more there will be a need for regulated structure. Bald Eagle uses Pauline mentoring relationships combined with good methods of child management to produce children who will be better prepared to respond to the “tradition” of the gospel. We should learn from Bald Eagle’s emphasis on intentional mentoring. But do we really want to run our churches in a highly-regulated fashion, as if they are full of unregenerate “troubled boys”? Procedural expectations will always be needed in any group setting—times for meeting, etc. And cultural norms and group habits are fine—ways of singing, etc.  And some of our habits, though not commanded in the NT, are drawn from its pages—praying before meals, etc. But those who are filled with the Spirit surely do not need an abundance of rules to produce holy behavior.)

Let me summarize with eight overlapping observations from our study.

This is what good tradition looks like in the NT. Ask yourself: Is this what tradition looks like in my church?

  1. Tradition involves personal relationships. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it usually depicts intimate relationships between an apostle or missionary and those in his care. Seeing tradition as merely involving beliefs and practices is not enough. If tradition is experienced as an impersonal force, then we have fallen short of the NT pattern.
  2. Tradition involves personal imitation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is not merely conformity to a social norm. Rather, there is direct imitation of a worthy individual. This means that those of us who want to promote tradition must focus on being persons worth imitating. It is not enough to merely point to a body of beliefs or practices. Good tradition requires good people—people who consciously aspire to be Christlike role models.
  3. Tradition involves imitation of Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, in passage after passage the flow of tradition is clear: The fountainhead is Christ, and all worthy tradition flows downhill from him—down through his apostles, down through faithful Christians of all time, down through those who proclaimed the gospel to us, and down through us to others. As we drink from the stream of those who have taught and modeled Christ to us, we walk up through this stream, ever closer to Christ himself, our only perfect Model.
  4. Tradition involves a group cohesion found in Christ. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it indicates that the church finds its cohesion in Christ. Group cohesion is found not merely in each individual conforming to the group, but in each individual helping the other conform to Christ. As the gospel tradition draws us closer to Christ, we are held together in him. Tradition involves a community being transformed into the image of a p/Person (a Christ-imitator and Christ himself), and not merely a person being transformed into the image of a community.
  5. Tradition involves intentional choice. When the NT talks about tradition positively, there is no suggestion of subconscious immersion in a religious culture or thoughtless conformity to social norms. Rather, we see people proactively proclaiming, mentoring, and following. Those of us who want to affirm and hold onto tradition should intentionally look for mentors worth imitating, not merely conform to peer pressure.
  6. Tradition involves explanation. When the NT talks about tradition positively, we see both the what and the why being taught. Last fall I read the fascinating book Runaway Amish Girl, written by Emma Gingerich, a brave young lady who used to belong to a Swartzentruber Amish group not far from my home here in Leon, IA. I expected that by reading the book I would gain a better understanding of why Amish live the way they do. I did learn much about the Swartzentruber Amish, including some details of their ordnung (church ordinances or rules). But I was surprised to discover as I ended the book that I really hadn’t learned much about why they live as they do. The reason I didn’t learn much about the why is because the author, despite having grown up Amish, was never taught the why, either. This failure of these Amish to explain the why became for me one of the most important lessons of the book. This Swartzentruber Amish group had plenty of traditions, but they had little understanding of tradition in the positive NT sense.Ordnung without explanation is empty. Teaching and training are essential elements of the apostolic approach to tradition. The apostles never merely commanded what to do; they rooted the what firmly in a gospel why—in a theological explanation of some aspect of the work of Christ. In fact, they often taught the why first, then deduced the what from the why afterward. And they even sometimes flexed the what from situation to situation, aiming to best promote the why of the gospel in each unique context.
  7. Tradition involves change. When the NT talks about tradition positively, it describes something that comes into our lives from the outside and turns our world upside down. The kingdom of God brings a new world, a new age, and new ways of thinking. Yes, we hold onto this tradition fiercely once we have received it. But its revolutionary work in our hearts will not be finished until Christ returns. Our thoughts and behaviors will continue to evolve as we are ever more conformed to the gospel. Not all change is life or growth. But to be alive is to grow, and to grow is to change. Thus, tradition is not merely “doing things as we’ve always done them.” It radically changes both individuals and entire communities.
  8. Tradition involves biblicism. The word biblicism has received a bad rap, for at its worst it signifies a legalistic adherence to the letter of the Bible. But in its best sense it signifies something good: a strong focus on the Bible as divine revelation that leads us to Christ and guides us as we follow him. And when the NT talks about tradition positively, it ties this tradition very tightly to Scripture—hence, tradition involves biblicism. This is surprise. One of our dictionary definitions for tradition above, remember, went like this: “A doctrine or body of doctrines regarded as having been established by Christ or the apostles though not contained in Scripture” (emphasis added). This definition sounds a lot like the Jewish concept of the tradition of the elders or “oral law,” which they believed was given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. (Here is an Orthodox believer struggling helpfully but imperfectly with the question of “Holy Tradition.”) But Paul’s use of tradition is different. Remember that when Paul mentioned tradition in 2 Thessalonians 2, he mentioned both “spoken word” and “letter.” Paul taught tradition through both. Significantly, there is no indication here (or elsewhere in the NT) that the content of Paul’s verbal teaching was conceptually different from the content of his written communication. There is no indication, for example, that Paul taught “principles” through his letters and then gave more specific “applications” of those principles in his verbal instructions to churches. This means that we today can access Paul’s traditions by reading his letters. To study Paul’s letters is to learn his traditions; to follow tradition is to be a biblicist. If we faithfully adhere to the tradition of the apostles, we will neither add to their writings nor take away from them.

Let me summarize our observations more concisely.

Tradition, when it is described positively in the NT, is always tied to discipleship. Therefore, in order for tradition to be life-giving for us today, it must always be tied to discipleship. More specifically, it must involve relationships where disciples are trained by those who are imitating others who have imitated Christ. Ultimately, authentic NT tradition involves imitating Christ by means of imitating his apostles and their imitators. Thus authentic NT tradition is a concept that pushes us back to Scripture and on to Christ himself.

Conversely, tradition smothers and kills to the extent that it is devoid of meaningful mentoring relationships and unhinged from the biblical witness of Christ and his apostles.

So here is my appeal to my fellow conservative Anabaptists: Do you think tradition is important? Then become a disciple of Christ who makes more disciples of Christ!

Find the most Christlike people you know! Spend time with them, imitating them as they imitate Christ. Find someone else who wants to follow Christ, and model Christ to them! Share your heart along with the doctrines and behaviors of Christ. And as you do this, submit all your human traditions (Phil. 3) and personal and cultural preferences (1 Cor. 9) to the cause of the only tradition that really matters: the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 9:23).


This has been a long post, but it has been brewing in my heart for a long time. I sense it may be one of the most important posts I’ve shared so far, with its call for us to recapture a NT vision of tradition and disciple-making. Please pray for me that I will not only teach these things but also understand and live them more fully. (I am a disciple who is a slow learner.) May God give you grace to do the same.

Now it’s your turn. What did you learn in this study of tradition in the NT? How would you add to or change what I have written? Am I missing something? How can we live out this call to NT “traditionalism”? What methods or means can we use in our churches to better pass on the faith once for all delivered to the saints? Please share your insights in the comments below.


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