Tag Archives: Christocentric

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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Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (5 of 6)

In this post I want to summarize our findings about Jesus and homosexuality from my last three posts and evaluate three possible counter-arguments from the Gospels. Did Jesus say some people are born gay? Did he heal a centurion’s male lover? And what about Jesus and his “beloved disciple”?

I will finish answering the question “Was Jesus okay with homosexual behavior?” Then my final post will address the question “Is Jesus okay with homosexual behavior now?”

This is part of a six-part blog series on Jesus and homosexuality:

    1. Introduction, Explanations, and a Summary of this Series
    2. How Should We Interpret Jesus’ Silence About Homosexuality?
    3. Does “Love Your Neighbor” Mean Jesus Affirmed “Gay Love”?
    4. Why It’s Wrong to Say Jesus Said Nothing About Homosexuality
    5. Historical Conclusions: Was Jesus Okay With Homosexuality?
    6. Conclusions for Today: Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality Now?

In this series on homosexuality, I have focused on Jesus, discussing other biblical witnesses primarily in relation to him. There are at least two reasons for this focus.

First, I believe that being a Christian starts with following Jesus. It certainly does not end there (see my “Red Letter Reductionism” essay), but it is never less: “Whoever says he abides in him [Jesus] ought to walk in the same way in which he walked” (1 John 2:6). If we can learn directly from Jesus how we ought to think and act regarding homosexuality, let us do so.

Second, Jesus is often seen as the “weak link” in the Bible’s stance against homosexual behavior. If the idea that Jesus approved of “loving same-sex relationships” turns out to be historically unbelievable, then this illusion of a weak link is removed, and the witness of all of Scripture is seen to be consistent.

In discussing Jesus’ views of homosexual behavior, I have also presented much of the other biblical evidence on the topic. But I have not directly asked valuable questions like “Must Christians obey the Leviticus laws against homosexual behavior?” Nor have I attempted a detailed exegesis of Paul’s teachings against homosexual activity. Rather, I have placed these biblical passages alongside other ancient texts and looked for consistent patterns, with one guiding question: What light do these passages shine on what Jesus himself believed?

What, then, did we find?

Our Findings So Far

First, we examined Jesus’ apparent silence on homosexuality. Jewish teachers in Jesus’ day who mentioned homosexual behavior consistently condemned it, and it was nearly unknown among Jews at the time. It was something “out there” that non-Jews did, and no Jewish rabbi had to stake out his public position on the topic. If any rabbi had been suspected of disagreeing with this Jewish consensus, he would have been rapidly rejected by fishermen and Pharisee alike.

Given this historical evidence, there was little reason for Jesus to specifically mention homosexual behavior, and every reason to assume he agreed with the Jewish consensus.

Second, we asked if Jesus’ emphasis on love is proof that he approved of loving homosexual relationships. Does “love your neighbor” mean Jesus affirmed “gay love”? Ancient Jews saw no contradiction between commanding neighbor-love and condemning homosexual activity (see Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 19:18). Paul likewise paired these teachings in his letters to Rome and Corinth (e.g. Rom. 1:24-27; 13:9). Unlike our culture, the New Testament actually contrasts love and sexual indulgence (e.g. Eph. 5:2-3). In Jesus’ view, “Love your neighbor” is the “second” commandment, subordinate to the “most important” commandment, “Love the Lord your God” (Mark 12:28-31). Thus, it is not truly loving to help your neighbor violate God’s will.1

Given this ancient context, Jesus’ emphasis on love is not proof that he approved of “loving homosexual relationships.” If anything, it is the opposite.

Third, we considered three ways that Jesus’ original Jewish audience would have understood him to be addressing the topic of homosexual behavior, despite never explicitly naming it. Jesus taught “You shall not commit adultery” (Matt. 5:27; 19:18), a command that was understood by ancient Jews to also prohibit, by implication, all other unlawful sexual behaviors. Jesus taught against πορνεία (porneia, “sexual immorality,” Matt. 15:18-19), which “was universally understood in Judaism to include same-sex intercourse2 And Jesus warned against ἀσέλγεια (aselgeia, “debauchery,” Mark 7:21-22), “a word that Jesus… could easily turn to as a synonym for homosexual activity and other similarly shocking behavior forbidden by the Jewish law,”3  a word used in 2 Peter 2:7 to describe the “filthy conduct” (NKJV) of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.

What might Jesus’ Jewish listeners say if they heard the claim that Jesus said nothing about homosexual activity? “Of course he did! We clearly heard him mention adultery, πορνεία, and ἀσέλγεια!”

But Is There Counter-Evidence?

Despite this evidence, some still point to several events in Jesus’ ministry as proof that Jesus affirmed homosexual behavior, as long as it was loving and consensual. Here are three examples that are perhaps most often mentioned. It is my impression that relatively few scholars find the following arguments significant, but some do, so I will address them.

Counter-argument 1: Jesus said some people are born gay. (Matt. 19:12)

This argument uses Jesus’ words about eunuchs:

For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Matt. 19:12)

Rembrandt, The Baptism of the Eunuch, 1626. (From Wikimedia Commons.)

Clearly Jesus affirmed that some people are born as “eunuchs.” But what is a eunuch (ευνούχος)?

Here it is easy to get lost down a deep, dark hole, exploring all the ways that the word ευνούχος was used. The first thing I want to say is that, yes, the word ευνούχος (eunuch) may sometimes have been used to refer to someone who experienced same-sex desires (scholars do not all agree).4 However, ευνούχος was not a word that specifically referred to homosexuals, and most eunuchs were not homosexual.

BDAG, probably the most respected dictionary of New Testament Greek, lists three uses of the word ευνούχος, matching them to Jesus’ use in this passage:

1. a castrated male person, eunuch. Mt 19:12b…
2. a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children, impotent male… Mt 19:12a…
3. a human male who abstains fr. marriage, without being impotent, a celibate Mt 19:12c…

Here we need to remember that, in any given circumstance, a word means what it means in that specific context, not necessarily what it sometimes means in other contexts. Linguists warn of a word study fallacy called illegitimate totality transfer. Blomberg’s definition of this fallacy is on point, particularly the second half:

Assuming that a word carries several or all of its possible meanings in each of its appearances when in fact the most probable meaning of any word is that which contributes the least amount of new information to the overall context.5

So what does the context indicate Jesus meant by ευνούχος (eunuch) in Matthew 19:12?

Well, Jesus actually uses the word in three different-but-related ways. That is, each occurrence of ευνούχος has its own immediate context (“from birth,” “made… by men,” “made themselves”), yet they all share the same larger context within Jesus’ discussion. The immediate context for each use is relatively clear; but how does the larger context constrain and specify what Jesus means here (in all three uses) by ευνούχος?

In the larger context, Jesus is responding to a question of the Pharisees about divorce. Jesus responds by affirming the creation model of male-female marriage with its “one flesh” sexual union (Matt. 19:3-9). His disciples, dismayed at the strict limitations Jesus places on divorce, suggest a second option: “not to marry” (Matt. 19:10).

Jesus’ comments about eunuchs occur within his response to this second option, “not to marry.” Jesus and his disciples, as good Jews, do not imagine any third option; the two options are male-female marriage or “not to marry.”6 Eunuchs, in Jesus’ discussion, fall into the latter category—no marriage and therefore, in the Jewish worldview Jesus shared, no sexual union.

Thus, despite the differences between the three categories of eunuchs Jesus describes, the common ground for all three that makes Jesus’ illustration work is that they are people who are not engaging in sexual relationships.

Other issues like sexual orientation or even reproduction are not the subject of conversation in this passage.7 Rather, Jesus is saying that some people fall into the “not to marry” category for three possible reasons: they were born with conditions that leave them unsuited for marriage;8 they were castrated; or they voluntarily give up marriage “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”9

So, did Jesus say that some people are born gay? Not really, although his words do indicate that not every male is born suited for marriage. More importantly, however, his words indicate that for everyone, whatever their sexual desires, there are only two options: faithful male-female marriage until death or “not to marry.”

Gagnon’s summary is on point:

Jesus’ comparison of men who make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven with “born eunuchs” shows that Jesus categorized “born eunuchs” as persons not having any sex (Matt 19), for certainly Jesus was not giving the disciples permission to have sex outside of marriage and thereby avoid his newly enunciated standard for marriage. So, from that standpoint, any argument that is made about “born eunuchs” including homosexual persons (with which I would agree) leads to the view that Jesus did not give homosexually oriented persons the option of sex outside of marriage between a man and a woman. 10

Jesus’ words about eunuchs are not a blessing on same-sex relationships, but they are a clear reminder to the church to honor those who, whatever their condition as “eunuchs,” are faithfully celibate for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.11

Counter-argument 2: Jesus affirmed a gay couple—a centurion and his “boy.” (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10)

This argument is based primarily on a story, one historical fact, and two Greek words. The story is the account of Jesus healing a centurion’s servant. The historical fact is that, in ancient Greco-Roman culture, it was not uncommon for a master to have a servant who also functioned as his male lover. In addition, the term παῖς (pais), found in both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of this story, can mean “boy” and was sometimes used to refer to such a lover.12 Finally, Luke’s account describes the servant as being ἔντιμος (entimos) in the eyes of the centurion—a word that can mean “dear.”

Some who promote homosexual relationships among Christians go far beyond these facts (see here, here, and here). Jesuit priest John McNeill, for example, translates the centurion as talking about “my beloved boy” and proposes this interpretation:

Here we have the most direct encounter of Jesus with someone who would today be pronounced ‘gay,’ and Jesus’ reaction was acceptance of the person without judgment and even eagerness to be of assistance to restore the ‘pais‘ to health, and by implication to restore the loving relationship of the two, making possible the renewal of any sexual activity which they would have enjoyed together prior to the illness.13

The centurion with his sick servant. (Image copyright www.LumoProject.com. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

There are multiple problems with this interpretation. First, παῖς (pais) usually carries no sexual connotations whatsoever; only other contextual clues can provide this meaning. When used of human relationships in the New Testament and other early Christian literature, παῖς refers either to a boy, a son, or a servant/slave.14 There are no sexual connotations in any of the other places παῖς is used in the NT.

Later in Matthew, in a quote from Isaiah, Jesus is described as being God’s beloved παῖς: “My servant… my beloved” (ὁ παῖς μου… ὁ ἀγαπητός μου; Matt. 12:18). Clearly, a παῖς can even be described as “beloved” without there being any necessary sexual connotations, or else such language would not have been used by God about his own servant.

Second, in neither Matthew nor Luke do we find the centurion talking about “my beloved boy” (McNeill’s expression). What we have instead is the narrator Luke saying that the centurion’s δοῦλος (slave/servant) was ἔντιμος in the eyes of the centurion.

Much has been made of how the terms παῖς and δοῦλος are used in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, but no explanation is sure enough to strongly determine our interpretation of the passage.15 More clearly, ἔντιμος fails to support the case for a homosexual relationship. Though the term can be translated “dear,” the two main senses of the word in the NT are “honored, respected,” and “valuable, precious.”16 “Dear,” in fact, is related to the latter sense; it can imply an emotional attachment based on value, without the presence of sexual desire. Most English translations of this verse use a term such as “highly valued.” Similarly, Luke’s only other use of ἔντιμος is usually translated as “distinguished” or “honorable” (Luke 14:8).

Some argue that it is unreasonable to imagine a Roman centurion would plead for Jesus to heal a mere servant unless that servant were his lover. But are we willing to argue that sexual interest is the strongest possible motivation? If this centurion could possess a faith greater than Jesus had found in Israel (Matt. 8:10; Luke 7:9), why could he not also possess a great (non-sexual) concern for a  valued servant? If the centurion who called for Peter was “a devout man who feared God with all his household,” “gave alms generously,” and had “a devout soldier… among those who attended him,” (Acts 10:2, 7), why could this believing centurion not likewise sincerely care for “those who attended him”?

Third, if we take into account Luke’s assessment of how valuable (ἔντιμος) the servant was to the centurion, then we must also consider Luke’s report of how valuable the centurion was to the Jews. Luke reports that elders of the Jews “pleaded… earnestly” with Jesus on behalf of the centurion, saying, “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (Luke 7:4-5). If “a deeply observant God-fearer [Gentile proselyte] would not practise paederasty,”17 surely a pious Jew would avoid supporting it. Perhaps this centurion was not a God-fearer but only a benefactor; nevertheless, can we really imagine Jews in Jesus day offering such high praise for someone they know is practicing pederasty? Can we imagine them pleading with Jesus to heal a pederast’s “beloved boy”? Can we imagine the Jewish crowds standing quietly by as Jesus took an active pederast and “preached him into the kingdom” (Matt. 8:11-12)?

In contrast to such scenarios, Green’s assessment of the centurion’s possible motives is refreshingly reasonable:

His desire to see his slave returned to health need not imply an extraordinary humanitarian concern on his part, since care for sick slaves was advised in Roman antiquity as a way to prolong their usefulness. At the same time… Luke’s language suggests that the centurion not only regarded the slave as useful, but actually esteemed him. There is no socio-historical reason to doubt that, as an urban slave in the home of a wealthy master, this dying man might might have enjoyed friendship with the centurion.18

The hypothesis that Jesus affirmed a gay couple by healing the centurion’s “boy” creates far more problems than it solves.

Counter-argument 3: Jesus had a homosexual relationship with his “beloved disciple.” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7, 20)

The disciple “whom Jesus loved” is first mentioned in John’s account of the Last Supper. There we read that “one of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side” (John 13:23). A more word-for-word translation could read “reclining on the chest of Jesus,” but “the position of the Beloved Disciple is not to be understood as resting ‘on top of’ Jesus.”19 We know this disciple was very close to Jesus, yet not actually on top of him, because later when he wanted to ask Jesus a question (John 13:25), “the easiest way for him to address Jesus was to lean back until his head literally rested”20 on Jesus’ “chest.”21

This physical proximity may make us uncomfortable. Scholars, however, point to abundant evidence that such practices were normal and non-sexual in Jesus’ day. For special meals like the Passover, people reclined next to each other on couches to eat.22 If this Last Supper meal followed standard banquet procedure, three people were reclining at the head table—including Jesus and beloved disciple, leaning on his left elbow, just to Jesus’ right.

In this image of the Last Supper, Peter (foreground) is addressing the beloved disciple (left), who is next to Jesus (center), with another disciple (Judas?) on Jesus’ left. If the beloved disciple wanted a private word with Jesus, he would lean back till his head was next to Jesus’ chest. (Image is property of Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing. Used with permission from Free Bible Images.)

The parable of the rich man and Lazarus similarly describes Lazarus lying “on the chest” of Abraham (Luke 16:23). “One might also lay one’s head on another’s bosom, which in that culture, far more tactile than our own, had no necessary sexual connotations.”23

Klink reminds us of our own cultural biases:

The Western reader must be immediately reminded that such physical closeness was (and is) quite different in an Eastern context. In many parts of the world today, men walk down the street holding hands as a sign of friendship, not as a sign of homosexuality. This is an especially common practice between two men operating together in a business relationship, reflecting mutual respect and trust. With this in view, the actions of the Beloved Disciple become wordless communication that shows mutual trust and respect.24

Some point to an event during Jesus’ crucifixion as more evidence that Jesus had an erotic relationship with “the disciple whom he loved”:25

When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. (John 19:26-27)

Keener, however, points to multiple ancient Greek texts in which people either promise to take a friend’s mother as their own if the friend dies or entrust their mother to the care of a friend.26 He also points to texts which “described a disciple’s virtue in terms of caring for the teacher’s family.”27 In this case, there was an additional motivation for Jesus’ choice:

Most important, because Jesus’ brothers did not believe (7:5), Jesus entrusted his believing mother to a disciple… This model suggests that the ties of the believing community must be stronger than natural familial bonds, a moral amply illustrated by the Jesus tradition (Mark 3:33-35; 13:12).28

How, then, do we explain this disciple’s special title as the one Jesus “loved”? First, the beloved disciple was probably the apostle John, who was indeed part of the “inner circle” of three disciples closest to Jesus. Second, he was probably also the author of the Gospel, and may have used this term as a form of authorial modesty and gratitude for receiving Jesus’ love.29 Third, his anonymity invites the reader to interact with him not just as an historical figure, but as an “ideal disciple” to be imitated.30

Whatever the reasons for this title, we should note that John also records Jesus as having special “love” for Lazarus (“he whom you love,” John 11:3, 36) and for his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:5).31 Further, “the verbs agapaō and phileō and their cognates”—the words used for “love” in all these passages—“nowhere in John’s Gospel have a sexual connotation.”32

As Keener writes, “given John’s Jewish context, any implied sexual relationship” between Jesus and the beloved disciple “would be impossible without the Gospel somewhere indicating a lifting of Jewish sexual taboos.”33 If John’s readers would have protested at the idea, so would have Jesus’ other disciples.34

The problem with all homosexual interpretations of Jesus and the beloved disciple is revealed clearly in this assertion by Anglican priest Paul Oestreicher: “It would be so interpreted in any person today.”35

But Jesus didn’t live “today,” and not in Oestreicher’s Western culture, either. When we read these texts within the historical context of Jesus’ own ancient Jewish culture, it becomes clear that no one then saw any reason to come to any such homosexual interpretation of Jesus’ actions. Why should we imagine we can understand their own culture better than they did?

Was Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

I have discussed the big picture arguments regarding Jesus’ “silence” about homosexuality and his ethic of love. I have also evaluated three details from Jesus’ life and ministry that have been used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus. More importantly, we have examined all this evidence within the larger historical context of Jesus’ own time and place.

I believe the evidence points clearly in one direction: The total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus—the historical Jesus of Nazareth—did not approve of homosexual behavior.

This fact is not surprising, for it appears that Jesus built his sexual ethic on the Genesis 1-2 creation account, as is seen in Matthew 19:3-8. The structure of Jesus’ argument in this passage (drawing on God himself) is that because God made humans male and female they become one flesh in marriage. Jesus used this creation reality to forbid the separation of male-female one flesh unions. But it is equally relevant to the question of homosexual unions, for the basis given in the creation account for becoming “one flesh” is the same-yet-different duality of male and female.

According to Genesis, Eve was taken from Adam and made to be “a helper” who was “corresponding to him” (Gen. 2:20, CSB). Another male would not “help” Adam, nor was Eve designed to “correspond” to another female. Thus, male-male and female-female unions have no foundation in God’s creation design, but actually contradict it. The fact that Jesus drew on this “from the beginning” creation design (Matt. 19:8) as the foundation for his answer to divorce strongly indicates he would have done the same in his answer to homosexual behavior—just as other Jews in his day in fact did.

Conclusion

At this point some readers will be more than content, believing that it is clear what Christians today should believe about the ethics of homosexual behavior. Other readers, perhaps agreeing with much of my historical analysis, will nevertheless feel the question of Christian belief and practice is still open. For the latter readers, I have one more post addressing this question: Is it okay for Christians today to affirm homosexual behavior?

For now, however, we should pause to reaffirm what we already know: While individual pieces of evidence can be used to paint a pro-homosexual Jesus, the total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus did not approve of homosexual behavior.

Have you puzzled over the three details of Jesus’ life that we examined in this post? Have I missed other possible counter-evidence that seems strong to you? Are you finding this series helpful? Troubling? Am I scratching where it itches—without merely satisfying itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3)? If you have a comment, please leave it below. And thanks again for reading!


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  1. This is what someone like David Gushee misunderstands when he makes the following statement: “I now believe that the traditional interpretation of the most cited passages is questionable and that all that parsing of Greek verbs has distracted attention from the primary moral obligation taught by Jesus — to love our neighbors as ourselves, especially our most vulnerable neighbors” (David Gushee, “I’m an evangelical minister. I now support the LGBT community — and the church should, too,” Nov. 4, 2014, The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/11/04/im-an-evangelical-minister-i-now-support-the-lgbt-community-and-the-church-should-too/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. Gushee’s sentiment is also why I have placed little emphasis on “all that parsing of Greek verbs” in this series. I contend that the basic stance of the Scripture on homosexual activity is clear when simply placed within its overall historical context, without a lot of parsing of individual words. The individual words can only be understood correctly when this larger context is clear.
  2. Robert Gagnon, “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: An Overview of Some Issues,” 2003, online article based on an interview with Zenit News Agency, March 21 and 28, 2002, pub. by OrthodoxyToday.org, http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles2/GagnonHomosexuality.php, accessed August 28, 2019.
  3. G. Thomas Hobson, “ἀσέλγεια in Mark 7:22,” Filologia Neotestamentaria 21 (2008), 65, 67, 70, bold added. See here for the full article: https://www.academia.edu/31907497/ASELGEIA_IN_MARK_7_22, accessed September 2, 2019.
  4. For a positive conclusion, see Robert Gagnon and J., “Jesus, eunuchs, and the allegation of a ‘gay Jesus,'” email correspondence with links, dated 1/18/07, http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 28, 2019. However, much of the evidence shared in J.’s link refers to ancient concepts of eunuchs in cultures and languages far from Jesus’ context, and not specificially to the use of the word ευνούχος itself. For a contrasting opinion, see this article by A. Phillip Brown, III, which claims that “the Greek term eunouchos is never used to denote a person with intact sexual organs who is intersex, transgender, or engages in homosexual behavior.” If ευνούχος should indeed be understood to include people with same-sex attractions, it is still a matter of scholarly debate whether such persons were equivalent to what we today call a “homosexual.” I agree with Fortson and Grams (in Unchanging Witness) that the ancient world did have understandings of sexual desire effectively equivalent to our modern category of homosexual orientation. For a contrasting opinion, here is France’s commentary on what “born a eunuch” means: “In the context of modern discussions about homosexual orientation it might be suggested that it also includes those who are psychologically disinclined to heterosexual intercourse and thus debarred from fatherhood, but evidence for such an understanding of homosexuality in the ancient world is hard to find. Most references to homosexual behavior in the ancient world are to what we now call bisexuality, the choice of some who are capable of heterosexual intercourse to find sexual fulfillment also (or instead) with members of their own sex. Such a choice could hardly be described as being ‘born a eunuch,’ and the idea of an innate and irreversible homosexual orientation belongs to modern Western psychology rather than to the world in which Jesus lived.” R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724-25.
  5. Craig L. Blomberg with Jennifer Foutz Markley, A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 136.
  6. I am indebted to Hugenberger for this observation: “What is notable for our discussion is that as far as Jesus is concerned, there is no THIRD option! One must either be chaste (“a eunuch… for the sake of the kingdom”) or one must be faithful in a heterosexual marriage (“male and female” “united to his wife”). Surely if Jesus wanted to affirm life-long committed homosexual unions, here is where he needed to do it because his own disciples were astonished at the radical and difficult requirements he seemed to set before them. But Jesus did not allow that third option” (Gordon Hugenberger, “Homosexuality,” June 15, 2004, https://www.parkstreet.org/teaching-training/
    articles/homosexuality (now a dead link), quoted by Aubrey Spears in “The Great Exchange: Same-Sex Sex Attraction,” sermon,  https://clovermedia.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/7572d4795b/attachments/Great_Exchange__The__Incarnation__2018.pdf, accessed September 24, 2019).
  7. It is true that, just as a minority of males “born eunuchs” have homosexual desires, so a minority of males who are castrated experience a change in sexual orientation or desire (. 2016 Mar; 4(1): e51–e59. Published online March 2, 2016. doi: 10.1016/j.esxm.2015.11.001.). In both cases, however, homosexual orientation is not the experience of most eunuchs. Thus, given both physiological realities and the literary context of Jesus’ conversation, it makes little sense to interpret his words as meaning, “Some are born with homosexual orientation, some are made homosexual by others, and some choose for themselves to be homosexual for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Context similarly suggests that Jesus and his disciples are not narrowly concerned with ability to reproduce, either, as if Jesus were saying, “Some are born unable to reproduce, some are rendered unable by others, and some choose for themselves to not reproduce for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus is not discussing varied sexual experiences (fertility vs. sterility) within marriage; rather, he is discussing the option that does not include sexual union: “not to marry.”
  8. Here is a sample of explanations of this first category of “eunuch” in commentaries: “The impotent” (Hagner); “those born without sexual organs or impotent” (Osborne); those “born without the capacity for sexual relations, such as those born without properly developed genitalia” (Wilkins); “people without fully functioning sexual organs” (Blomberg); “those who are physiological incapable of procreation” (France); “those who were born without sexual organs” (Keener); “those who are naturally impotent” (Luz). See Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 33b (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1995), comment on Matt. 19:12; Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament, Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:12; Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan, Kindle Edition, 645; Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, The New American Commentary (B&H Publishing Group), Kindle Edition, 294; R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 724; Craig S. Keener. A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.(Eerdmans), Kindle Edition, comment on Matt. 19:10-12; Ulrich Luz, Matthew: A Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 2001), 501.
  9. Almost all English Bible translations that avoid the word “eunuch” (or the older equivalent “gelding”) in this passage are in essential agreement with my paraphrase here. Bible Gateway lists seventeen such translations (of sixty total in English). About seven of the seventeen mirror the NABRE: “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Another five differ mainly by focusing on reproductive ability, as with the NCV: “There are different reasons why some men cannot marry. Some men were born without the ability to become fathers. Others were made that way later in life by other people. And some men have given up marriage because of the kingdom of heaven.” Another four simply use “chaste” or “celibate” as in GW: “Some men are celibate because they were born that way. Others are celibate because they were castrated. Still others have decided to be celibate because of the kingdom of heaven.” The final one, The Message, is just plain wonky on this verse!
  10. Robert Gagnon, from email to “J,” January 16, 2007, shared at “Answers to Emails,” http://robgagnon.net/AnswersToEMails.htm, accessed September 26, 2019, emphasis added.
  11. The following comments by Wilkins are timely: “Those who have chosen to remain single as the expression of the way that they believe they can best serve God need us as their community of brothers and sisters. Jesus declares that celibacy is an acceptable lifestyle for those for whom it is given by God. Paul expands on Jesus’ statement to indicate that if one remains unmarried, one is in a position to be undistracted by the amount of work that goes into taking care of one’s family responsibilities, and the kingdom of God receives benefit (1 Cor. 7:27, 39–40). Unfortunately, many of our churches endorse marriage as a sign of maturity, and those who are married tend to get the more ‘responsible’ ministry opportunities in the church. Single people are seen as those who have not ‘settled down’ yet. We should reevaluate the way we view and value single people within our ministries.” Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, 658.
  12. Mader explains: “Within the institution of paederasty, pais had a rather specific reference to the younger, passive partner in a paederastic relationship” (Donald Mader, “The Entimos Pais of Matthew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10,” online article, Greek Love Through the Ages, https://www.greek-love.com/antiquity/matthew-luke-loved-boy-pederasty, accessed September 28, 2019). Mader’s entire article is worth consulting, though I question some of his critical assumptions and disagree with his final conclusion. One factor he fails to consider is how the Jewish elders implored Jesus on behalf of the centurion. See below for more on this.
  13. John J. McNeill, Sex as God Intended: A Reflection on Human Sexuality as Play Including Festschrift Essays Celebrating the Life and Work of John J. McNeill (Maple Shade, NJ: Lethe, 2008), 63, 65. As quoted in Fortson and Grams, p. 22.
  14. These are the three uses listed in BAGD, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., by Walter Bauer et al. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 604.
  15. In both accounts the centurion always refers to his sick slave as a παῖς but refers to another servant/slave as a δοῦλος. Matthew always calls the sick servant a παῖς, while Luke always call him a δοῦλος. It is hard to know what to make of these patterns. On the one hand, it shows that the two terms have considerable overlap in meaning. On the other hand, it may be significant that the centurion always refers to his sick servant by the term that can imply more emotional connection. Those who argue that a homosexual relationship was present make much of this fact, but παῖς could simply hint at a non-sexual closeness. What about the choices of the Gospel writers? It is possible that Matthew, as a Jew writing to a primarily Jewish audience, was able to use παῖς to suggest the feelings of a God-fearing centurion toward his servant without considering any possible connotations of pederasty. Luke, however, was probably a Gentile, as were many in his audience; they probably shared a greater familiarity with Greco-Roman practices of pederasty than Jews did. Thus Luke may have chosen δοῦλος to avoid any connotations of pederasty for his readers, then added ἔντιμος to retain a sense of how the centurion valued his servant. I am indebted to Mader (ibid.) for pointing me in this direction, though the conclusion is my own.
  16. These are the glosses provided in BAGD, ibid., 268-69.
  17. Mader, ibid. Mader states this despite arguing that the account “suggests an attitude of toleration toward a non-exploitive, caring paederastic relationship.” He tries to evade his own observation about God-fearers by arguing that either this God-fearer was not deeply observant or that the factors suggesting piety were added (invented) by Luke.
  18. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 286.
  19. Edward W. Klink III, John, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Zondervan), Kindle Edition, comment on John 13:23.
  20. D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  21. Here the ESV has “leaning back against Jesus,” which does not translate the Greek word στῆθος (“chest”), but does correctly convey that the beloved disciple was now actually touching (“against”) Jesus.
  22. “It is important to note that meals in the ancient world did not involve tables with chairs but involved reclining on couches, usually U-shaped (called a triclinium) around a low table. Participants would support themselves on their left elbows and eat with their right hands” (Klink, ibid.)
  23. Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Vol. II (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 915, n. 184; cf. 915-16, also 900-901. Other scholars agree. Gagnon: “A text in Pliny’s Epistles refers to a senator named Veiento who ‘was reclining… on the chest’ of the emperor Nerva, again without any sexual connotation (4.22.4)… I wrote Dr. Katherine Dunbabin, professor of classics at McMaster University (Hamilton, Ontario) and author of The Roman Banquet: Images of Conviviality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), and asked her whether the paragraph above reflected her own understanding of the matter. She responded (reproduced with permission): ‘I think the Pliny passage shows incontrovertibly that there is no necessary sexual connotation involved in a diner reclining “on the chest” of another; there is no suggestion whatsoever that Fabricius Veiento had any sort of sexual relationship with the emperor Nerva! What the passage does imply is intimacy; here in the sense that Veiento (whose past history was extremely shady) was being received as a favoured associate of the emperor/host'” (Robert A. J. Gagnon, “Was Jesus in a Sexual Relationship with the Beloved Disciple?” essay, Feb. 10, 2008, http://robgagnon.net/articles/HomosexBelovedDisciple.pdf, 5, accessed Sept. 30, 2019).
  24. Klink, ibid., comment on John 13:25, emphasis added. Carson: “Westerners may recoil at the physical proximity of two men. In many parts of the world, of course (e.g. the Philippines, the Arab world), men walk down the street holding hands. This is a sign of friendship, not homosexuality. Men and women in such cultures may not hold hands in public: that would be a sign of licentiousness.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 474.
  25. Jennings asserts, “The plain sense of this episode is to buttress our hypothesis that Jesus is to be understood as having a lover…. The relationship is depicted by the text as a homoerotic one, which is here acknowledged as entailing a loyalty that has consequences even beyond the death of Jesus. … This scene should be read as underlining not Jesus’ love for his mother (which is suggested nowhere in this or any other Gospel) but Jesus’ love for his beloved.” Oestreicher similarly misreads this text as indicating that “John becomes unmistakably part of Jesus’s family.” But the text actually says that Jesus’ mother went to live in the beloved disciple’s home, not that the beloved disciple joined Jesus’ family. See Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Man Jesus Loved: Homoerotic Narratives from the New Testament (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2003), 26-27, quoted at https://www.skepticsannotatedbible.com/SF/jesus.html, accessed Sept. 29, 2019; Paul Oestreicher, “Was Jesus Gay? Probably,” online article, The Guardian, Apr. 20, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2012/apr/20/was-jesus-gay-probably, accessed Sept. 29, 2019.
  26. Keener, ibid., 1144.
  27. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  28. Keener, ibid., 1145.
  29. “If we wonder why the beloved disciple chooses this form of anonymity, two answers are suggested by the emphases of the Fourth Gospel. Just as ‘the beloved disciple,’ if a self-designation, implies not arrogance (as if to say ‘I am more loved than others’) but a profound sense of indebtedness to grace (‘What a wonder—that I should be loved by the incarnate Word!’…), so the silence as to the identity of the beloved disciple may be a quite way of refusing to give even the impression of sharing a platform with Jesus… At the same time, the author thus serves as a model for his readers: becoming a Christian means a transforming relationship with Jesus Christ, such that he receives the glory.” Carson, ibid., 473.
  30. “The anonymity functions as a literary device that forces the reader to engage with the Beloved Disciple primarily by his narrativized identity. For the reader then, the identity of the Beloved Disciple is not simply who he is (behind the narrative) but what he is (within the narrative). The anonymity of the Beloved Disciple depicts the “ideal disciple,” one having special access and intimate relationship with Jesus… This in no way minimizes the historical reality of the Beloved Disciple, but creates alongside his historical identity a narrativized identity and role that is significant to the message of the Gospel.” Klink, ibid., comment on 13:23.
  31. Gagnon: “It is interesting that Mary and Martha tell Jesus about their brother Lazarus’s serious illness in these terms: ‘Lord, see, the one whom you love (phileis) is sick’ (11:3). Two verses later we read that Jesus ‘loved (ēgapa) Martha and her sister and Lazarus.’ He loves all three but nevertheless Lazarus can be referred to simply as ‘the one whom you love’ (hon phileis). This sounds a great deal like the reference in 20:2 to the disciple ‘whom Jesus loved’ (hon ephilei ho Iēsous), which singles out a specific disciple even though the broader context makes clear that Jesus loves all his disciples (13:1, 34; 14:21-23; 15:9-13). If Jesus’ special love for Lazarus is not understood in a sexual sense—otherwise, Jesus would be having sex with more than one person, contrary to his own teaching about monogamy in Mark 10 and Matthew 19—how can his special love for one disciple be understood in a sexual sense? When ‘Jews’ saw how Jesus wept for Lazarus and said, ‘See, how he loved (ephilei),’ they obviously were not drawing the conclusion that Jesus was in a sexual relationship with Lazarus. Rather, Jesus loved Lazarus as
    though he (Lazarus) were his own brother. The same applies to the references to the beloved disciple.” Ibid., 4.
  32. Gagnon, ibid., 3.
  33. Keener, ibid., 917.
  34. Gagnon: “In the context of early Judaism, where homosexual practice of any sort would incur a capital sentence, how likely is it that Jesus would have had sexual intercourse with a male disciple and have done so without apparently raising an eyebrow among any of his other disciples?” Gagnon, ibid., 5-6.
  35. Oestreicher, ibid.

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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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