Tag Archives: John Wyclif

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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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (2): Martin Luther

Martin Luther, by almost anyone’s estimation, was the single most influential figure of the Protestant Reformation. (Gutenberg, with his printing press, is a serious outlying contender.) If Luther was the single most influential figure of the Reformation, the single most influential idea of the Reformation was surely Luther’s understanding of justification.

Luther did not set out to start a new church, and most children of the Reformation today do not belong to the Lutheran Church. Yet Luther’s understanding of justification has shaped the churches of all the children of the Reformation, just as it shaped his own developing conception of the church. Luther’s ecclesiology, then–and the ecclesiologies of each branch of the Reformation–was a by-product of a deeper concern: the nature of the gospel itself.

This, of course, is how it should be; if we define the gospel based on our churches rather than defining our churches based on the gospel, our ecclesiology will inevitably go awry. But this historical observation also reminds us that Luther’s ecclesiology was a work in progress. He, like us, did not possess a fully-formed and clear conception of the true Church and its temporal manifestations at the moment of his new birth. So as we consider Luther’s ecclesiology, let’s consider him a fellow student–not a complete novice, to be sure, but not an all-wise master, either.

Here, then, are some quotes about Martin Luther and ecclesiology from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (For the introduction to this series, go here. For the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, or William Tyndale, stay tuned. And here is my concluding post in this series.)

From Timothy George:

Far from attempting to found a new sect, Luther always saw himself as a faithful and obedient servant of the church. Thus his deep chagrin that the first Protestants, in England and France no less than in Germany, were being called “Lutherans”: “The first thing I ask is that people should not make use of my name, and should not call themselves Lutherans but Christians.” (Kindle Locations 1142-1145)

Luther did not see himself as an agent of ecclesiastical revolution, a sixteenth-century Lenin or Robespierre out to shake the world and overturn kingdoms. That the papacy and empire were shaken, if not overthrown, by the words of a simple German monk was, he thought, merely a providential by-product of his prior vocation. “I have done nothing. I have let the Word act.” What Luther did do, what he was called to do, was to listen to the Word. “The nature of the Word is to be heard,” he remarked. (Kindle Locations 1158-1161)

Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone. For Luther this was not simply one doctrine among others but “the summary of all Christian doctrine,” “the article by which the church stands or falls.”(Kindle Locations 1292-1293)

The person who has… received the gift of faith Luther described as “at once righteous and a sinner” (simul iustus et peccator)… [As his theological understanding developed], Luther [used] simul iustus et peccator… in the sense of semper (always) iustus et peccator. The believer is not only both righteous and sinful at the same time but is also always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time. What does this mean? …Luther expressed the paradox thus: “We are in truth and totally sinners, with regard to ourselves and our first birth. Contrariwise, in so far as Christ has been given for us, we are holy and just totally. Hence from different aspects we are said to be just and sinners at one and the same time.” …Luther’s doctrine of justification fell like a bombshell on the theological landscape of medieval Catholicism. It shattered the entire theology of merits and indeed the sacramental-penitential basis of the church itself. (Kindle Locations 1459-1476)

The principle of sola scriptura was intended to safeguard the authority of Scripture from that servile dependence upon the church that in fact made Scripture inferior to the church… The church, far from having priority over Scripture, is really the creation of Scripture, born in the womb of Scripture. “For who begets his own parent?” Luther asked. “Who first brings forth his own maker?” Although the church approved the particular books included in the canon…, it was thereby merely bearing witness to the authenticity of Scripture, just as John the Baptist had pointed to Christ. (Kindle Locations 1640-1647).

At the same time Luther did not simply throw out the preceding 1,500 years of church history. In his treatise against the Anabaptists (1528), he said, “We do not act as fanatically as the Schwärmer. We do not reject everything that is under the dominion of the Pope. For in that event we should also reject the Christian church. Much Christian good is to be found in the papacy and from there it descended to us.” Sola scriptura was not nuda scriptura.
(Kindle Locations 1651-1655)

“Now if anyone of the saintly fathers can show that his interpretation is based on Scripture, and if Scripture proves that this is the way it should be interpreted, then the interpretation is right. If this is not the case, I must not believe him.” Thus Luther argued for the coinherence of Scripture and tradition , Holy Writ and Holy Church, while never wavering in his commitment to the priority of the former. (Kindle Locations 1662-1666)

The last thing in the world Luther wanted to do was start a new church. He was not an innovator but a reformer. He never considered himself anything other than a true and faithful member of the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church…. [Luther’s acts] provoked a schism in Western Christendom that has not yet been healed. Luther, however, was no mere iconoclast . He revolted against the church for the sake of the church, against a corrupt church for the sake of the “true , ancient church, one body and one communion of saints with the holy, universal, Christian church.” (Kindle Locations 1735-1743)

He said, echoing Cyprian, that outside the church there was no salvation. (Kindle Location 1747)

But what exactly is the church? Luther once responded impatiently to this question: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” We have in this answer a major thrust of Luther’s ecclesiology: the essentially spiritual , noninstitutional character of the church. Luther disliked the German word Kirche (which , like church in English, or curia in Latin, derives from the Greek kuriakon, the Lord’s house) because it had come to mean the building or the institution. He preferred Gemeine, “community,” or Versammlung, “assembly.” For him the true church was the people of God, the fellowship of believers, or, as the Apostles’ Creed has it, the communion of saints. (Kindle Locations 1756-1762)

Against the Roman conception of the church, Luther stressed the priority of the gospel. Luther insisted that the gospel was constitutive for the church, not the church for the gospel: “The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”(Kindle Locations 1782-1784)

Like Augustine, Wyclif, and Hus before him, Luther talked about the invisible church whose membership comprised the whole company of the predestined… Its invisibility derives from the fact that faith itself is invisible, “the evidence of things not seen” (Heb 11: 1 KJV). If faith were a measurable quantity, we could identify the church by its outward characteristics. But because faith as the radical gift of God is not definable in external terms, the church, too, is not a physical assembly but “an assembly of hearts in one faith.” (Kindle Locations 1784-1790)

In addition to “invisible,” Luther also spoke of the church as “hidden.” This is a more complex concept and carries several connotations. It means first of all that the church, while manifest to God , is hidden from the world… The hiddenness of the church also extends to its holiness. Unlike the Anabaptists, Luther never espoused a pure church composed only of discernible saints. In this age the church is a corpus permixtum containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. The purity of the church is not subject to examination, nor does it depend on the moral qualifications of the members or the ministers. “Our holiness is in heaven, where Christ is; it is not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” (Kindle Locations 1791-1806)

It seemed to some that Luther’s emphasis on the hidden, invisible character of the church would undermine its tangible, historical reality. However, Luther intended neither to dissolve the church into a fairy castle in the clouds nor to reduce it to a loose-knit association of like-minded individuals. The gospel remained the sole, infallible mark of the church but the gospel in a particular sense, as it was manifested in the Word rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Wherever these two “notes” are evident, the true church exists, even if it is composed only of children in the cradle. (Kindle Locations 1815-1819)

Luther did not invent preaching, but he did elevate it to a new status in Christian worship.(Kindle Locations 1824-1825)

Luther’s greatest contribution to Protestant ecclesiology was his doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Yet no element in his teaching is more misunderstood. For some it means simply that no priests are in the church— the secularization of the clergy… More commonly people believe that the priesthood of all believers implies that every Christian is his or her own priest and hence possesses the “right of private judgment” in matters of faith and doctrine. Both of these are modern perversions of Luther’s original intention. The essence of his doctrine can be put in one sentence: Every Christian is someone else’s priest, and we are all priests to one another.
Luther broke decisively with the traditional division of the church into two classes, clergy and laity. Every Christian is a priest by virtue of his baptism… The priestly offices are the common property of all Christians, not the special prerogative of a select caste of holy men. Luther listed seven rights that belong to the whole church: to preach the Word of God, to baptize, to celebrate holy Communion, to bear “the keys,” to pray for others, to sacrifice, to judge doctrine. (Kindle Locations 1909-1920)

All of this means that no one can be a Christian alone. Just as we cannot give birth to ourselves, or baptize ourselves , so neither can we serve God alone. Here we touch on Luther’s other great definition of the church: communio sanctorum, a community of saints.(Kindle Locations 1926-1928)

How did Luther relate the priesthood of all believers to the office of the ministry? While all Christians have an equal share in the treasures of the church, including the sacraments, not everyone can be a preacher, teacher, or counselor…
Strictly speaking, Luther taught that every Christian is a minister and has the right to preach. This right may be freely exercised if one is in the midst of non-Christians, among the Turks, or stranded on a pagan island. However, in a Christian community one should not “draw attention to himself” by assuming this office on his own. Rather he should “let himself be called and chosen to preach and to teach in the place of and by the command of the others.” The call is issued through the congregation, and the minister remains accountable to the congregation. Luther went so far as to say: “What we give him today we can take away from him tomorrow.” (Kindle Locations 1935-1944)

The exigencies of the Reformation did not conform to Luther’s early Congregationalism. If the church were to be reformed, the governing authorities had to play a role. Luther referred to the prince as a Notbischof, an emergency bishop. Through the institution of the visitation, the territorial prince assumed a larger role in the affairs of the church. Eventually a network of state churches emerged in Germany. (Kindle Locations 1948-1951. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

Timothy George goes on to survey Luther’s understanding of the state and its relationship to the church. It is here that I have some of my strongest disagreements with Luther. Time does not permit me to discuss Luther’s conception of church and state, but I do want to note one point: Luther taught a doctrine of two kingdoms–the spiritual government of the Church and the worldly government of the state. This may surprise some of us Anabaptists. We emphasize our “two-kingdom theology,” and rightly so. But I don’t think we always remember that Luther, too, had a  two-kingdom theology (as did many other Reformers). In fact, it was a quite nuanced two-kingdom theology, well-versed both in historical and systematic theology, and based in part on biblical passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:13–14. To repeat, I disagree strongly with important aspects of Luther’s understanding of the two kingdoms. But my point here is that I think we owe it to Luther and to ourselves to remember that we Anabaptists are not the only ones to have wrestled with such ideas.

Back to the quotes above. What do I like or dislike about Luther’s ecclesiology? First, some affirmations:

  • I like his humility and his desire to be a servant of the Church.
  • I think he was exactly right to stress the priority of the gospel in defining and creating the Church, and to insist that the Church was and is born in the womb of Scripture, not vice versa.
  • I like his preference of assembly over church, and his understanding that the Church is essentially a communion of saints, not a building or even primarily an institution.
  • I like his identification with the catholic Church across time and space.
  • I like his rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers.
  • I think he was right to say that there is no salvation outside the Church. (Of course, this statement hinges on your definition of the Church!)

What are some points where I might disagree with Luther’s conception of the Church? I’ll answer this question paragraph-style:

My biggest point of disagreement with Luther begins at my biggest point of agreement: I think he was exactly right to define the Church based on the gospel, but I don’t think his understanding of the gospel was perfect. Luther deserves great credit for helping to trigger a vast European discussion about the nature of the gospel, and I am eager to give him credit for this. His writings were very helpful to thousands of seeking souls, including many early Anabaptists such as Menno Simons. But this does not mean his understanding of the gospel was perfect in all respects.

For example, I think that Luther’s understanding of semper iustus et peccator (always or completely both righteous and sinful at the same time) weakened the biblical link between faith and works in ways damaged his ecclesiology. While faith may be invisible, as Luther insisted, it does not exist without visible manifestation. Luther based his conception of an invisible church on his understanding of invisible faith. While I agree with the concept of an invisible church in the sense of how the true Church extends across time and denominational lines without respect to either, I do not think that this true Church is invisible in the sense that it is impossible to recognize a member of this Church when you see one. Our human discernment on such matters will always be imperfect. Yet “by their fruits you shall know them” applies, I think, not only to false prophets but also to true Church members.

This leads me to also disagree somewhat with Luther on the concept of a corpus permixtum–a Church containing at once sinners and saints, hypocrites and devout believers, tares and wheat. After Jesus told the Parable of the Weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), he explained that the field that contained both wheat and weeds was “the world” (Matt. 13:38). This understanding of the parable matches Paul’s understanding of the church’s role in judging sinners (1 Cor. 5:12-13): “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Purge the evil person from among you.'” Thus, I think those Reformers were correct who added to Luther’s two “notes” of the church (right preaching and right sacraments) the mark of the proper exercise of church discipline. Luther was certainly right to root our holiness in Christ, but he was misleading to say that our holiness was “not in the world, before the eyes of men, like a commodity on the market.” Our holiness is not a commodity on the world’s market, for sure; we are not justified of damned based on the assessment of unregenerate observers. But the world around should indeed be able to “see [our] good works and give glory to [our] Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). (I will also add that I think some Anabaptists have fallen into the opposite ditch on the question of a pure church, but that is a topic for another post.)

I’ll end by repeating one of my favorite quotes from Luther, followed by one of my favorite statements of Jesus about the Church:

Luther: “Why, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is, namely, holy believers and sheep who hear the voice of their Shepherd.”

Jesus: “There will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16).

(Next up: the ecclesiology of Huldrych Zwingli.)

What did you learn reading these excerpts from Timothy George about Martin Luther’s ecclesiology? Where do you agree with Luther? Where do you disagree, and why? What do you think our churches today should learn as we ponder Luther’s example and influence? Share your insights in the comments below!


PS: If you are enjoying this series, be sure to buy Timothy George’s book! He has so much more to say than what I am sharing here. (Disclosure: The link above is an Amazon affiliate link, so I’ll make pennies if you buy the book.)


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (1): Late Middle Ages

I recently finished an excellent book: Theology of the Reformers, by Timothy George (republished in 2013 in an expanded 25th-anniversary edition).  This book summarizes the theology of the Reformation by focusing on five key characters: Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simons, and William Tyndale. (Click on the names above for my posts on each, and click here for my final post in this series.)

Among the many topics surveyed in George’s book is the topic of ecclesiology (the theology of the Church). Since ecclesiology is one of the primary themes of this website, I want to post here some key excerpts from George’s book on the topic.

This won’t be a book review, nor will I attempt to systematically summarize everything George writes about the ecclesiology of the Reformers. Rather, look for about six or seven blog posts containing a semi-random collection of quotes–anything about the Church that seems especially interesting or significant to me as I look to sharpen my own ecclesiological vision.

History is important! If we want to understand ourselves and our churches well, we will need to learn at least a little about our roots. In fact, we should look beyond our own roots to examine the branches that grow beside us on the great tree of the Church. No, we do not look to history for the last word about what the Church is or how church should “be done.” We look to Scripture and the Word-wielding Spirit for that. But the study of history can equip us to see ourselves and our churches more clearly in the mirror of the Word.

To that end, let me begin in this post by sharing some excerpts from Timothy George about the church of the late Middle Ages–the church that gave birth to each of the Reformers, the church against which they hammered out their own ecclesiological conclusions.

Timothy George:

We have said little about the notorious abuses of the pre-Reformation church: simony, nepotism, the misuse of benefices, clerical concubinage, and so forth. All of the reformers— Catholic, Protestant, and radical alike—strenuously opposed such practices. However, some among them also realized that something more than a general housecleaning was demanded. It would do no good to sweep out the cobwebs if the foundation itself was rotten. What was needed was a new definition of the church based on a fresh understanding of the gospel.(Kindle Locations 577-581, emphasis added.)

Unlike the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology, which were subjects of official conciliar definitions in the early church, the doctrine of the church had never received such dogmatic status. Neither Peter Lombard in his Four Books of Sentences nor Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica has a separate locus for the church in his systematic theology. However, from the fourteenth century onward, numerous treatises bear the title De ecclesia. This explosion of interest in ecclesiology coincided with extensive institutional changes within the church… (Kindle Locations 582-587, emphasis added.)

The Reformation is often portrayed as having shattered the unity of the medieval church , bequeathing to the modern world the legacy of a divided Christendom. When we look closer at the centuries preceding the Reformation, however, we discover a plurality of ecclesial forms and doctrines… The Reformation of the sixteenth century was thus a continuation of the quest for the true church that had begun long before Luther, Calvin, or the fathers of Trent entered the lists.(Kindle Locations 587-591, emphasis added.)

Timothy George describes “five competing models of the church in the late Middle Ages.” Here a few excerpts for each:

1. Curialism

In medieval times the Curia Romana referred to the papal court, including all of the officials and functionaries who assisted the pope in the governance of the church. Curialism thus was a theory of church government that invested supreme authority , both temporal and spiritual, in the hands of the papacy. (Kindle Locations 593-595, emphasis added.)

Building on the work of his predecessors, Pope Boniface VIII set forth the most extravagant claims for papal sovereignty in his bull Unam Sanctam ( 1302 )… “We declare, state, define and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”(Kindle Locations 615-619, emphasis added.)

[The Italian poet] Dante, who placed Boniface in one of the lowest circles of hell with two other simoniac [buying or selling church privileges] popes, described the consequences of the curialist position: “Since the Church has sought to be two governments at once [temporal and spiritual swords], she sinks in much, befouling both her power and ministry.”(Kindle Locations 623-625)

2. Conciliarism

The specter of the body of Christ divided into three papal obediences, each hurling anathemas and interdicts at the other two, gave urgency to the call for reform. Out of this crisis emerged the conciliar view of the church, which affirmed the superiority of ecumenical councils over the pope in the governance and reform of the church. At the heart of the conciliar theory was the fundamental distinction between the universal church (representatively embodied in a general council) and the Roman Church (consisting of pope and cardinals). (Kindle Locations 630-634, emphasis added.)

In the case of multiple schisms, who was qualified to hold the popes accountable? William of Ockham had declared that any Christian , even a woman, could call together a general council in a time of emergency. (Kindle Locations 638-639)

The death knell of conciliarism can be heard in the papal bull Execrabilis, promulgated by Pope Pius II in 1460.

A horrible abuse, unheard-of in earlier times, has sprung up in our period. Some men, imbued with a spirit of rebellion . . . suppose that they can appeal from the Pope, Vicar of Jesus Christ . . . to a future council . . . . Desirous, therefore, of banishing this deadly poison from the Church of Christ , . . . we condemn appeals of this kind, reject them as erroneous and abominable, and declare them to be completely null and void.(Kindle Locations 650-654)

3. Wyclif and Hus

Both Wyclif, “The Morning Star of the Reformation,” and Hus are often referred to as forerunners of the Reformation. Indeed, Hus’s treatise, De Ecclesia, played an important role in Luther’s eventual break with the papacy. At one point Luther was forced to confess: “We are all Hussites now.” 35 He later realized that his affinity with Wyclif and Hus was only provisional; neither of them approached his radical understanding of justification by faith alone . Nonetheless their own radical ecclesiologies contributed significantly to Luther’s developing doctrine of the church.(Kindle Locations 661-666, emphasis added.)

Wyclif’s strident anticlericalism issued from his definition of the church as the predestined body of the elect. Hus later echoed Wyclif’s idea: “The unity of the Catholic Church consists in the bond of predestination, since her individual members are united by predestination, and in the goal of blessedness, since all her sons are ultimately united in blessedness .” (Kindle Locations 670-672, emphasis added.)

Wyclif divided the church into three parts: the Church Triumphant (including the angels) in heaven, the Church Militant on earth, and the Church Dormient in purgatory. As the Church Militant contained both wheat and tares, and as no one could know for sure in this life which of those one was, neither affiliation with the institutional church nor the holding of clerical office guaranteed membership in the invisible church, whose “chief abbot” was Christ. It was thus possible to be in the church without being of the church.(Kindle Locations 676-680, emphasis added.)

4. Spiritual Franciscans

The power of their appeal sprang from two sources: Francis’s ideal of poverty, which the Spirituals understood from reading his Rule to be absolute, and the philosophy of history set forth by Joachim of Fiore (d. 1202), which they applied to their own order and to their own times. In combination these elements provided an explosive critique of the contemporary church. Joachim divided history into three ages associated respectively with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The dawn of the Third Age would be heralded by the coming of a new order of barefooted spiritual men who would oppose the false hierarchy of the church and prepare the way for a millennium of peace that would continue until the last judgment. (Kindle Locations 696-701)

As Wyclif and Hus opposed the empirical church of their day with the concept of the invisible church of the elect, so the Spiritual Franciscans held out the ideal of the church of the future, the church of the soon-coming Third Age of the Spirit, of which they were forerunners. In the later Middle Ages, the intensity of eschatological expectations and calculations increased. This “pursuit of the millennium” carried into the Reformation, especially among the radical reformers…(Kindle Locations 714-717, emphasis added.)

5. Waldensians

Whereas the Spirituals looked forward to the church of the coming new age, the Waldensians, devoid of apocalyptic fervor, harked back to the ecclesia primitiva, modeling their congregations on the simplicity of the early church.(Kindle Locations 718-720, emphasis added.)

The Waldensian view of the church was characterized by a strong perfectionist tendency and an antisacerdotal bias. They believed that the Roman Church had lost all of its spiritual authority when Pope Sylvester I received a gift of property and worldly power from Emperor Constantine in the fourth century.(Kindle Locations 726-728)

The Waldensians were able to survive frequent persecutions because of their separatist model of the church and their practice of clandestine worship. Their obvious affinities with the Protestant movement made them prime candidates for conversion. Indeed, at the Reformation many of the Waldensians merged with the Reformed Church without giving up their own identity.(Kindle Locations 733-736)

After surveying these “five competing models of the church,” George concludes:

From the foregoing survey of late medieval piety and ecclesiology, it should be clear that the church on the eve of the Reformation was beset by diverse models of spirituality and Christian community. The old idea that the Reformation burst asunder the undisturbed unity of an undivided Christendom must be set aside in the light of what one historian has called the “pregnant plurality” of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. (Kindle Locations 738-740, emphasis added. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

And that’s all for this post! Next up: the ecclesiology of Martin Luther.

What did you learn in this post? What did you see that still impacts the way we think about the Church today? What do you have to add to (or balance) Timothy George’s observations? Share your insights in the comments below!


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