Tag Archives: Menno Simons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Article IV.

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

Article V.

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

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

In 1571, a Calvinist prince called a disputation at Frankenthal in the Palatinate (in southeastern Germany), hoping to unify his subjects. A diverse group of fifteen Anabaptist leaders came, representing not only the Palatinate, but also Switzerland, the Netherlands, Moravia, and the imperial cities of southern Germany.18 They were asked many questions, including whether the ban and unbelief separates a marriage. They responded, “We believe that nothing may part a marriage but adultery.”19

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

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” [Matthew 5:31-32] All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them. Therefore, adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.20

In 1577 five ministers of the Waterlander Dutch Mennonites drafted a confession in an attempt to unify their church. The Waterlanders “had arisen as a movement in large measure in protest against the rigor of church discipline among the Mennonites, particularly after the Wismar Articles had been drafted” by Simons, Philips, and others.21 The Waterlanders “were the first Dutch Mennonites to have a confession of faith.”22 In fact, their 1577 confession “is probably the oldest in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition” in the sense that (a), unlike Anabaptist confessions before it, it “was meant to be a statement for the church” rather than a personal statement and (b) it was designed as “a complete theological formulation” rather than a narrow statement “on specific doctrines.”23

This confession includes the following statement:

When a husband and wife have, in chastity, been united in the state of marriage, this marriage is so binding that it may not be separated or broken for any reason except adultery, according to the words of Christ, Matthew 18.24

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

Marriage is honorable when one man and one woman live virtuously together, being two souls but one body, one flesh, which may not be separated except for the cause of adultery, as Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 19, Hebrews 13, Genesis 2).25

Also in 1577, Peter Walpot (1521-78), “bishop of the Hutterian Brethren in Moravia during their Golden Age,”26 completed his magnum opus, commonly called the “Article Book.”27 The fourth article is titled “Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers.” Since this article apparently has not yet been published in English, it deserves a brief introduction.28

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

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

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

Marriage is [a] special picture and direction to the godly of the union and continuing obligation that they owe and have vowed to God’s Spirit and the Lord… Therefore Christ was moved to cut off all frivolous, unimportant and bad reasons [for divorce] arising from or originating in human loathing or displeasure (as was common, acceptable practice among the Jews) and rescind it among his people. Thereby the original institution [of marriage] was re-established in its first status and no one could break it off for his human wishes or will (except for adultery). 29

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

You force the verse in Matthew 5 and 19, that nothing but adultery and unchastity should break the marriage, no matter what attitude of [sic] the unbelieving one takes toward the believer. You don’t ask very much whether the unbeliever does so willingly, of which Paul speaks and to which he attaches everything else.30

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

We believe, acknowledge and confess that husband and wife, who through a providential bringing together in holy matrimony have become one flesh, cannot be separated by anything, neither by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarrels or hardness of heart, with the exception of adultery.31

(The remaining Anabaptist confessions I have found from the 1500s do not offer evidence that either agrees or disagrees with the documents I have shared in this post.32)

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

There was one clear point of disagreement; a minority of early Anabaptists argued for an additional ground: having an unbelieving spouse. The Hutterites certainly taught that when an unbelieving spouse was not pleased to live with a Christian convert, the Christian should separate. (See Peter Walpot above.) According to court records, the Swiss Brethren disagreed with how the Hutterites “separate marriages.”33 Some have said that “this kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites,”34 but it is possible that the teaching of Dirk Philips regarding Christians who married unbelievers after conversion may also have produced similar results.35 In Philips’ case, he clearly disallowed remarriage in such situations; in some sense the marriage was still seen to exist. In the case of the Hutterites, I am unaware whether remarriage was ever counseled; the sources I read affirmed only divorce.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you want to support more writing like this, please leave a gift:

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

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Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (6 of 6)

Do Christians today need to agree with the historical Jesus on the question of homosexual activity? In my last post I presented this conclusion: the total available historical evidence fits only with the hypothesis that Jesus—the historical Jesus of Nazareth—did not approve of homosexual behavior. Nearly all Christians everywhere have always believed this. But should Christians today feel bound to affirm the sexual teachings of rabbi Jesus who lived nearly 2000 years ago in ancient Judea?

Could Jesus have been mistaken about homosexuality? Hiding his true beliefs? Awaiting a time when further revelation would be possible?

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

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

William Witt offers an informative article about various “attempts to reconcile the endorsing of same-sex practices with the authority of Scripture.”1 Witt identifies three ways people try to do this:

  • The first approach (“selectivist”) argues that the Bible is mistaken on some matters that reflect ancient social values, and that the more “positive” themes in the Bible call us to embrace liberation and love.
  • A second approach (“revisionist”) argues that “Scripture does not condemn loving committed same-sex relations, and loving committed relationships are the only kind of sexual relationships the modern advocate is interested in endorsing.”2
  • A third approach (“ecclesial dispensation”) argues that “although the Scriptures prohibit same-sex activity, nonetheless, the Church is free not to be bound by these proscriptions in the same way that it has recognized that it is not bound by other prohibitions in the Bible.”3

Though I won’t follow Witt’s three categories, I will explore some of these ideas in this post.

Adapted from an image belonging to Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, used with permission from Free Bible Images.

Is Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

What if Jesus was indeed okay with homosexual behavior, but could not say so because he lived in a homophobic society? Or, to suggest a similar possibility, what if Jesus knew that homosexual activity was not acceptable yet, under the Law of Moses, but would be after the new covenant was inaugurated by his death and resurrection?

Jesus did indeed remain secretive about some beliefs that he knew would be explosive for his Jewish hearers. A famous example that scholars talk about is his “Messianic secret”—how the Synoptic Gospels show that Jesus avoided publicly saying that he was the Messiah. This parallel falls flat, however, for several reasons. First, Jesus clearly told his inner circle that he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:16-17). Second, even in public he used “code language” that was later understood to mean much the same thing (“Son of Man”; cf. Dan. 7:13). Neither is true, however, of any supposed secret belief of Jesus that homosexual behavior was okay.

On ethical matters, in fact, we often see Jesus openly challenging the assumptions and practices of the Jewish religious leaders. On some points he indicated they were too strict (washings before meals, Matt. 15:1-20; Sabbath laws, Matt. 12:1-8). At other times he called for greater strictness (divorce, Matt. 19:1-9; use of the temple, Matt. 21:12-17). If Jesus had thought the Jewish leaders were too legalistic (cf. Matt 23:23-24), too oppressive (cf. Matt. 23:4), or too hypocritical (cf. John 8:7) regarding their stance against homosexual activity, he could have said so.

The same evidence weighs, too, against the idea that homosexual activity is now acceptable under Jesus’ new covenant—as if Jesus “is” okay with homosexual behavior now though he “was” not then. Though Jesus apparently lived faithfully under the Law of Moses (cf. Rom. 15:8), he left hints that its era was almost over. He challenged the Jewish animosity toward Gentiles (Luke 4:24-28) and foretold their full inclusion (John 10:16; Matt. 28:19). His teachings laid the groundwork for eliminating at least two of the primary boundary markers of ancient Jews—food laws and the Sabbath4—and his apostles soon understood that the third—circumcision—was also lifted, at least for Gentile converts.5 When it comes to sexual ethics, however, Jesus left no hints that they would loosen under his new covenant, and his apostles came to no such conclusions.

When we examine Scripture as a whole, there is no trajectory from rigidity toward laxity regarding sexual ethics. True, there is at least one OT sexual restriction that may not be in force under the new covenant—the prohibition on sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev. 20:18), which may have hinged on ceremonial blood taboos. And the maximum temporal penalty for sexual sin changed. Christians no longer inflict the death penalty but rather, in fulfilment of the death penalty, “hand over to Satan” those within the church who persist in unrepentant sin (1 Cor. 5:5; cf. esp. 1 Cor. 5:13 with Deut. 22:21-24).

Being handed over to Satan is arguably more serious than being put to death, however, and the general pattern of the NT is that sexual sin is taken even more seriously than in the OT. Jesus racheted up sexual standards regarding lust (Matt. 5:27-30) and returned the question of divorce to its creation pattern (Matt. 19:1-9). The OT pattern of God largely overlooking polygamy is challenged in the NT, so that being a “one-woman man” is now the standard for a godly man (1 Tim. 3:2).6

Jesus’ apostles repeatedly warned against all sorts of sexual activity outside of male-female monogamous marriage. DeYoung makes this point clearly:

It cannot be overstated how seriously the Bible treats the sin of sexual immorality. Sexual sin is never considered adiaphora, a matter of indifference, an agree-to-disagree issue like food laws or holy days (Rom. 14:1–15:7). To the contrary, sexual immorality is precisely the sort of sin that characterizes those who will not enter the kingdom of heaven. There are at least eight vice lists in the New Testament (Mark 7:21–22; Rom. 1:24–31; 13:13; 1Cor. 6:9–10; Gal. 5:19–21; Col. 3:5–9; 1Tim. 1:9–10; Rev. 21:8), and sexual immorality is included in every one of these. In fact, in seven of the eight lists there are multiple references to sexual immorality (e.g., impurity, sensuality, orgies, men who practice homosexuality), and in most of the passages some kind of sexual immorality heads the lists. 7

The pattern regarding homosexual activity in particular is similar. William Webb, in his influential book Slaves, Women & Homosexuals, suggests eighteen criteria for determining whether a given teaching of Scripture should be applied at “face value” or whether it needs to be reinterpreted through a “redemptive-movement framework” before we can apply it correctly in our own culture. He argues that, when it comes to slavery, there is a trajectory within the Bible toward greater redemption—a trajectory that should make “the abolition of slavery and its many related injustices… a passionate value of modern Christians.”8 Similarly, he argues that the biblical witness regarding women nudges us away from the “hard” forms of patriarchy seen at places in the OT toward a “complementary egalitarian” approach.9

Regarding homosexual activity, however, Webb sees no such trajectory. This is what he does see:

Biblical tradition moved the cultural norms on homosexuality from a significant amount of tolerance and acceptance to non-tolerance and non-acceptance within the covenant community… Scripture thus sets a clear direction… on the homosexual issue… When one comes to the New Testament, there is no softening of the Scripture’s negative assessment of homosexuality found in the Old Testament10

The women texts, like the slavery texts, are generally “less restrictive” or “softening” relative to the broader culture, while the homosexuality texts are “more restrictive” or “hardening” relative to the surrounding environment… 11

We have no biblical texts that suggest that “there is neither homosexual nor heterosexual in Christ.” Nor do we find any biblical text that suggests that homosexuality might be acceptable in some form or another12

Virtually all of the criteria applicable to the issue suggest to varying degrees that the biblical prohibitions regarding homosexuality, even within a covenant form, should be maintained today. There is no significant dissonance within the biblical data. 13

Webb’s explanation of why the biblical writers opposed homosexual behavior is also worth noting. Their basic reason does not permit any ethical change or development:

The issue that the biblical writers have with homosexuality is not really about covenant or the lack of it; it is not really about the equality or lack of equality between the two individuals. The deepest issue for the biblical authors was the breaking of sexual boundaries between male and female. Until God redesigns the physical/sexual construction of male and female, this distinction or boundary continues to influence our contemporary world. 14

Some claim that “sexual orientation is a new concept, one the Christian tradition hasn’t addressed,” and that Paul “doesn’t have long-term, loving same-sex relationships in view.”15 Therefore, it is argued, the Bible does not speak directly to our modern homosexual experience. But “Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males.”16 He also, like other ancient writers of the time, was familiar with what we today call homosexual orientation. Ancient explanations for the causes of sexual orientation were varied and debated, underscoring that the concept itself was well known.

Forston and Grams present abundant historical evidence for the following claim:

Scholars who contended several decades ago that only in modern times did people discover the concept of orientation have been proven wrong, as the evidence has accumulated over time… There are clear examples of adult males and females involved in homosexual relationships in antiquity. These people did not just perform homosexual acts. Their passionate love of one another, their long-term same-sex desire, and even, on occasion, their marriage or cohabitation with one another are discussed in the sources we have. There is, in short, nothing distinct about contemporary conversations concerning homosexual orientation.17

And again, even if sexual orientation were a new idea, the basic issue the biblical writers had with homosexual behavior (“the breaking of sexual boundaries between male and female”) does not allow for any such loopholes or future ethical development.

The pattern of biblical evidence is consistent and strong: Neither Jesus nor any biblical author imagined that any form of homosexual behavior is ever ethical. Nor did they leave any clues hinting that they imagined it would ever become acceptable in some future context. In short, it is contrary to the biblical witness to propose that Jesus is okay with homosexual behavior today.

Must We Agree With Jesus?

This, then, is the crucial question: Must Christians agree with Jesus about homosexual behavior? Amazingly, an increasing number of professing Christians are answering no.

A variety of explanations are offered. Many, such as Roman Catholic NT professor Luke Timothy Johnson, note that Christians have never followed Jesus perfectly in other matters—so why make such a fuss about not following what he said about homosexual behavior?

Christianity as actually practiced has never lived in precise accord with the Scriptures. War stands in tension with Jesus’ command of nonviolence, while divorce, even under another name (annulment), defies Jesus’ clear prohibition.18

Such an argument is embarrassingly fatalistic. Why not try to obey all of Jesus’ teachings (Matt. 28:20) instead?

Some argue that Jesus was just plain wrong—that he was “a product of his time and his culture” who was “conditioned to believe that Gentiles were dogs” (Matt. 15:22-26).19 The Gospels do indeed contain hints that there were limits on the earthly Jesus’ knowledge, such as Jesus’ statement that he didn’t know the time of his own coming (Matt. 24:36). But there are no hints that anyone—Jesus, his apostles, or the Gospel writers—believed that Jesus’ ethical teaching was fallible. On the contrary, the risen Jesus insisted that his apostles must teach “all nations… all that I have commanded”—and this because he possessed “all authority” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Once Jesus is seen as fallible on matters of ethics, then other authorities are given the deciding vote. Many appeal to experience—whether human experience or what they consider to be their experience of God’s Spirit speaking a new word. L.T. Johnson again:

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us…

If the letter of Scripture cannot find room for the activity of the living God in the transformation of human lives, then trust and obedience must be paid to the living God rather than to the words of Scripture.20

Such an approach pits “the living God” against Jesus. It is hard to square with the author of Hebrew’s foundational claim that “in these last days he [God] has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:2). Worse, it runs aground on Jesus’ own claim:

The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. (John 12:48-50)

It is Jesus’ own word (including his word on adultery, πορνεία, and ἀσέλγεια) that will judge us on the last day—the word he spoke by command of the eternal Father—not some subsequent word that someone professes hearing from the Spirit.

Richard Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, draws “implications for Christian ethics” from on the life and teachings of the historical Jesus:

If God really did raise Jesus from the dead, everything that Jesus taught and exemplified is vindicated by a God more powerful than death. He must therefore be seen as the bearer of the truth and the definitive paradigm for obedience to God.21

At this point I cannot help slipping briefly into preacher mode:

Know that if you reject the historical, biblical Jesus to create a Jesus of your own imagination, then you have also forfeited the historical, biblical salvation and must create one on your own.

But how can you be sure you have the real Jesus if you have adapted his portrait in the Gospels to suit the winds of the twenty-first century? And how can you be confident of real salvation unless you have submitted to the real Jesus?

Do not attempt to fashion your own Jesus unless you are confident you can also fashion your own salvation. Do not reject the terms for eternal life that the biblical Jesus laid out unless you are ready to forfeit the eternal life he offered. Do not imagine you can claim the love the historical Jesus offered unless you are willing to enter through the narrow gate he described. Do not imagine you can change his paradigms of love and truth and still enter his kingdom.

History matters. Who Jesus really was and what he really taught, as preserved the very best historical accounts we possess—the documents of the New Testament—is eternally crucial. On the last day, you will not stand before a Jesus of your own imagination. You will stand before the same Jesus who walked Judea and Galilee in the first century, and you will be judged by the word that he spoke then, not by some revision of that word that you now prefer.

If you think you are wiser than the ancient, historic, narrow-minded Jewish Jesus of the Gospels, then he will be too wise accept you into his kingdom. If you reject the ethics of the Jesus who rose from the dead, then don’t imagine he will grant you the privilege of sharing in his resurrection.

If you come to the historical, biblical Jesus only to deny who he really was before the world around you, then the historical, biblical Jesus will deny you before his Father on the last day.

But if you come to the real Jesus on his terms, submitting to his historical portrait in the Gospels, the you will find the real Jesus immeasurably meek and gentle of heart, with a welcome warmer than you could ever hope for, a love greater than any of us deserve.

Yes, we must agree with Jesus. If our Christianity is not rooted in history, then it has no future, either.

What, Then, Is the Loving Thing To Do?

It is clear to me that history and theology agree: we are building with straw if we argue that Christians today can rightly affirm homosexual activity. Historical evidence shows that Jesus did not affirm homosexual behavior and that the pattern of Scripture consistently contradicts it. And from a theological perspective, the words of Jesus (preserved in historical accounts) do not allow us to affirm what he denied. Jesus’ own theological understanding of his own authority forces any honest follower of his to stay true to the ethics he taught.

What, then, should a faithful follower of Jesus do? I suggest two responses.

First, we should hold fast to what followers of Jesus have always believed about homosexual behavior. Here the book Unchanging Witness by Fortson and Grams is incredibly helpful. They devote 137 pages to discussing what the church from start to present has taught about homosexuality. Nearly half those pages consist of lengthy quotes from primary sources. (To read excerpts from those quotes, see the appendix at the end of this post.)

Given the evidence from church history, Fortson and Grams are well able to make the following claims:

Both the teaching of the Bible and the teaching of Christian tradition have uniformly taught the same thing: homosexual practice is sinful. We agree with Saint Vincent of Lerins (AD 434) in his approach to determining heresy in the church. Heresy is that which is neither biblical nor universally taught… We believe the evidence is clear: both Scripture and the church universal (“everywhere, always, by all”) have taught that homosexual practice is sin. Those who teach otherwise are teaching heresy….

The issue is not, after all, whether the Bible addresses homosexual practice: it does. It is not whether diverse interpretations on this issue have existed in the history of the church: they have not…. Both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church’s teaching…. That is the point at which some in the church in the West are dividing from the rest of the church universal, from the teaching of the church in other centuries, and from what must indeed be considered the teaching of all Christians.22

“The teaching of all Christians?” From within the echo chamber of our own generation such a statement can sound jarring and unbelievable. Isolated individual congregations and church leaders have occasionally publicly affirmed homosexuality for over a century. Now non-denominational pro-gay organizations are multiplying within Western churches, even within evangelical ones. A growing list of self-professed or former evangelicals have come out in support of homosexual relationships as well—people such as Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Mark Achtemeier, Jim Wallis, David Gushee, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Danny Cortez, Jen Hatmaker, Rachel Held Evans, Joshua Harris, and more.

Yet the fact remains that only a tiny minority of today’s professing Christians belong to denominations that affirm homosexual behavior. According to the best evidence I can find, not until about the past fifty years did any denomination ever affirm homosexual behavior. The Metropolitan Community Church began in 1968 specifically around the cause of affirming homosexuality and “is comprised mostly of former Protestants and Catholics who could not find affirmation of their gay lifestyle in traditional Christian churches.”23

In the early 1970s, a growing number of leaders in many mainline Protestant denominations began bucking the official positions of their denominations by blessing gay ordination or same-sex unions. Not until 1978, however, did the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (today part of PCUSA) officially welcome practicing gays and lesbians into church membership, while still restricting them from ordination.24 Not until 1985 did the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopt an “Open and Affirming” resolution on homosexuality.25 As recently as 1991 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America “reaffirmed its historic position on gay ordination,” and not until 2005 was the denomination suspended from the larger Anglican Church because they persisted in including “sexually active homosexuals in all ministries of the church.”26 Only in 2007 did the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American “finally” encourage its leaders not to discipline ministers who were in a “mutual, chaste, and faithful committed same-gender relationship.”27 The United Methodist Church is currently badly torn over the issue of homosexual relationships, but still today their official denominational position is that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”28

German theologian Wolfhart Pannenburg warned in 1996 that any church that would cease “to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm… would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture.” It “would cease to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.”29

Panneburg’s claim is, on a quantitative level, simply true, whether measured by the church of the past or the present. The vast majority of Christians alive today, especially in places where Christianity is growing fastest, strongly affirm the Church’s historic position on homosexual behavior.

Will this consensus hold? I do not know. But even if it doesn’t, we will always have the witness of nearly 2000 years of church history. Rightly or wrongly, the Church has argued for centuries over questions such as the authority of the Pope, infant baptism, whether Christians can use the sword, gender roles in the church, interpretations of biblical prophecy, and even the humanity and divinity of Jesus. But almost none of these same Christians ever had a moment’s difficulty understanding God’s will regarding homosexual behavior.

The historic rejection by Christians of homosexual activity has been consistent and uncompromising. The historic responses of professing Christians to homosexual behavior, however, have varied. They range from the utterly tragic—castration or even at times death—to the exemplary—such as some pastoral advice found in modern Roman Catholic and Orthodox sources.

As an example of the latter, consider these words from Orthodox theologican Thomas Hopko:

The homosexual Christian is called to a particularly rigorous battle. His or her struggle is an especially ferocious one. It is not made any easier by the mindless, truly demonic hatred of those who despise and ridicule those who carry this painful and burdensome cross; nor by the mindless, equally demonic affirmation of homosexual activity by its misguided advocates and enablers.30

Hopko’s words lead naturally to my second suggested response for those who want to follow Jesus.

Second, we should offer “truth in love” (Eph. 4:15) about homosexuality to our neighbor. Here is Webb again:

So the real question is, what is the loving thing to do? If a particular behavior incites God’s anger to the point where habitual participants are susceptible to banishment from his kingdom, then what is the loving thing to do? In this case, it should be obvious. The loving thing to do would be to rescue the individual from destruction (negatively) and to invite them into the glorious kingdom of Christ (positively). The continued practice of bestiality and adultery, as with sustained homosexual activity, places one’s participation in the kingdom at risk… If some action… has the potential for kingdom banishment, let alone divine displeasure, then loving my neighbor becomes a painful and tension-charged action. Silence is not love. A “live and let live” distancing is not love. Loving one’s neighbor in this instance means caring for their entire well being—temporal and beyond—even if such an act of interactive love has an extremely painful and straining side.31

In that vein, I want to end with a handful of pastoral comments followed by a list of additional resources.

Pastoral comment #1: If you experience same-sex desires and perhaps have even been acting on them, know this: Jesus loves you! He, too, battled the weakness of his own human flesh (Matt. 26:41; Luke 22:44). He knows your longing for intimate relationship. You are not alone. You are not less-than. Jesus wants you to experience his love. If this is a message you long to hear, please listen to the conversation my friend Asher Witmer recently had with his new friend Ken Brubacher, titled “Does Jesus Love Homosexuals?” Prepare to be encouraged as Ken tells his story of being transformed by Jesus’ love!

Pastoral comment #2: “Getting saved” from homosexuality is not the same as becoming heterosexual. Heterosexuals need saving just as surely as homosexuals do. The creation standard for ethical sex is not merely heterosexual orientation, nor even loving heterosexual relationships, but monogamous, loving, till-death-do-us-part heterosexual marriage—and almost every post-puberty person alive has fallen short. Further, “getting saved” from homosexuality does not necessarily or merely mean achieving a heterosexual orientation. Rather, as with people of all sexual experiences, it means living in line with Paul’s bracing and comforting words: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).

Pastoral comment #3: Each of us must settle this question in our minds: Who or what do I trust as my basis for determining truth? If I live by the “truth” of my body, I will sacrifice the Lord. If I live by the truth of the Lord, I will present my body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1). If I live by the “truth” of my body—that wondrous, insatiable, selfish, sickly sack of fickle, fading flesh—my actions will declare that I do not believe the Lord’s promise of eternally glorious resurrection bodies for his children. If I live by the truth of the Lord and his resurrection promise, I will plant my current dying body as a seed in the ground, confident it will spring up as a glorious, imperishable, powerful body when Jesus returns (1 Cor. 15:35-55). Which do you trust? Your body? Or the Lord? The wonderful Christian hope is that, if you trust the Lord, you will find that the Lord is indeed “for the body” (1 Cor. 6:13).

Pastoral comment #4: Church, if your evangelistic message is “God hates you,” then your message is not God’s message. If your opening salvo to people with same-sex desires is “God hates fags,”32 then please don’t claim Jesus’ blessing when you are “hated by all” (Matt. 10:22). We read of Jesus that “sinners were all drawing near to hear him” (Luke 15:1)—this even as he called them to repentance (Luke 5:32). Eventually most sinners rejected Jesus, but not before many of them had been drawn by his loving invitation. Similarly Paul warned clearly of wrath to come, but emphasized that God’s present stance toward sinners is one of “kindness” (Rom. 2:4-5).33 God’s children should be rich in kindness, too!

Finally, here are some additional resources on homosexuality that Christians (or those exploring Christianity) may find helpful. Some deal mostly with biblical exegesis, some more with pastoral issues, and some with both.

  • A Christian Perspective on Homosexuality,” an article by William Lane Craig. This is a good addition to this list for two reasons: (a) it includes a philosophical discussion of finding the basis of right and wrong, and (b) it surveys recent medical evidence of the damaging effects of homosexual lifestyles.
  • A Gospel for Failures,” an article by Matt Moore, written after he left his gay lifestyle and just before he married John Piper’s daughter last month. “Humility requires that I not seek to make myself look better than Jonathan Merritt described me in the Washington Post, because the truth is that the public doesn’t know the half of how sinful I am….I will, however, defend the truth of the gospel. “
  • The Powerful Witness of Same-Sex Attracted Christians,” an article by Emily Hallock. “People with same-sex attraction who want to follow Jesus may be among the most important witnesses of our time. They are taking a brave, uncompromising stand for the gospel that requires great personal sacrifice…. The church needs to be there for people like my dad.”

I’m sure I’ve skipped some of your favorite resources, but I wanted to keep this list short and mostly limited to resources I’ve personally used.


My main goal in writing these posts has been simple but crucial: to convince readers that agreeing with Jesus and affirming homosexual behavior are incompatible. I believe it is intellectually inconsistent and disastrous to the church of Jesus to try to combine the two.

I think you need to make a choice, and I hope with all my heart that you choose Jesus.

The burden that drove me to write this series has been delivered. Where my words have been imperfect, I ask for grace from you and from God. If you have something to add, please share it in the comments below.

May the grace of God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ be with each of you. And may our churches become places where those with homosexual desires find a feast of love and truth!

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Witnesses From the Historic Church

The following quotes are an extremely small representation of the evidence shared by Fortson and Grams in their book Unchanging Witness. They also provide counter-evidence to claims that medieval vows of spiritual friendship effectively sanctioned homosexual unions.34

Neither fornicators nor male prostitutes nor homosexuals will inherit the kingdom of God. (Polycarp, Letter to the Philippians 5, ca. 155, quoting Paul)

I should suppose the coupling of two males to be a very shameful thing. (Tertullian, Against the Valentinians 11, ca. 200)

Offenses which be contrary to nature are everywhere and at all times to be held in detestation and punished; such were those of the Sodomites…. Divine law… hath not so made men that they should in that way abuse one another. (Augustine, Confessions 3.8, 397)

If any ordained person has been defiled with the crime of sodomy… let him do penance for ten years, according to the ancient rule. (Pope Gregory III, Penitential Regulation, ca. 731-41)

If blasphemy is the worst [crime], I do not know in what way sodomy is better…. While the sons of Israel were led into captivity for blaspheming God and worshipping idols, the Sodomites perished in heavenly fire and sulphur. (Peter Damian, Book of Gomorrah, ca. 1048-54)

A man who sins with another man as if with a woman sins bitterly against God and against the union with which God united male and female… And a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed. (Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias 2.6, 1179)

They [Sodom and Gomorrah] departed from the natural passion and longing of the male for the female, which is implanted into nature by God, and desired what is altogether contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversity? Undoubtedly from Satan… (Martin Luther, “Lecture on Genesis,” ca. 1535-45)

Thus it is written by Paul: …Adulterers, whoremongers, perverts, effeminate… will not inherit the kingdom of God unless they repent. (Menno Simons, The New Birth, 1537)

He [Paul] brings as the first example, the dreadful crime of unnatural lust… they not only abandoned themselves to beastly lusts, but became degraded beyond the beast, since they reversed the whole order of nature…. Paul… calls those disgraceful passions, which… redound to the dishonouring of God. (John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, 1540)

Divine law… excludes from the kingdom of God not only unbelieving, but the faithful also (who are) fornicators, adulterers, effeminate, liers with mankind… and all others who commit deadly sins. (Council of Trent, 6th Session, XV, 1545-63)

The seventh commandment forbids: adultery, fornication, rape, incest, sodomy and all unnatural desires. (Westminster Larger Catechism, 1648)

In Sacred Scripture they [homosexual relations] are… presented as the sad consequence of rejecting God… This judgment of Scripture does not of course permit us to conclude that all those who suffer from this anomaly are personally responsible for it, but it does attest to the fact that homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered and can in no case be approved. (Persona Humana, 1975, approved by Pope Paul VI)

The position of the Orthodox Church toward homosexuality has been expressed… beginning with the very first centuries of Orthodox ecclesiastical life…. The Orthodox Church believes that homosexuality should be treated by society as an immoral and dangerous perversion and by religion as a sinful failure. (Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, 1976)

The moral prohibitions against homosexual behavior in the Old Testament are pointedly repeated in the New Testament… We must hold no malice toward, nor fear of, homosexuals—such attitudes are not of Christ. At the same time we must not condone sexual behavior that God has defined as sinful. (Assemblies of God, 2001)

As black preachers, we are progressive in our social consciousness, and in our political ideology as an oppressed people we will often be against the status quo, but our first call is to hear the voice of God in our Scriptures, and where an issue clearly contradicts our understanding of Scripture, we have to apply that understanding. (Gregory G. Groover Sr., African Methodist Episcopal pastor in Boston, explaining why AME preachers had just voted at the AME national convention in 2004 to forbid ministers from performing marriage or civil union ceremonies for same-sex couples)

Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and other passages throughout the Bible specifically identify homosexual behavior as sinful… In this area of our lives [moral purity] as in all others, God call[s] us to be obedient to his revealed moral rules, in no small part because these moral laws are given for our own good. (National Association of Evangelicals, 2012, still current)

The sacrament of marriage consists in the union of a man and a woman…. Acting upon any sexual attraction outside of sacramental marriage, whether the attraction is heterosexual or homosexual, alienates us from God. (Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States, 2013)

Homosexuality is not a “valid alternative lifestyle.” The Bible condemns it as sin. It is not, however, unforgivable sin. The same redemption available to all sinners is available to homosexuals. They, too, may become new creations in Christ. (Southern Baptist Convention, current undated)

  1. William G. Witt, “The Hermeneutics of Same-Sex Practice: A Summary and Evaluation,” online article, Mar. 4, 2012, http://willgwitt.org/hermeneutics_of_same-sex_practice/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019.
  2. Witt, ibid.
  3. Witt, ibid.
  4. Jesus’ teaching about what does and does not defile a person effectively eliminated the Jewish category of unclean foods (Mark 7:19), and he proclaimed himself lord of the Sabbath, thus establishing a basis for understanding it as fulfilled in himself rather than in a weekly day of rest (Mark 2:27-28).
  5. A few people argue that Jesus himself made a subtle hint that circumcision was ending.  Carson: “Jesus’ healing of the whole man… becomes a fulfilment of Old Testament circumcision” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991, 316). Glass argues this point more forcefully (and questionably): “John’s Gospel attacks circumcision in three ways. It contrasts Jesus’ healing, which makes a man every bit whole, with circumcision, which chops a bit off. It downgrades circumcision from a command of God to a practice of the ancestors. It does so in the Greek language and therefore in a cultural setting that saw circumcision as an obscene mutilation” (Michael Glass, “The New Testament and Circumcision,” Oct. 2001, Circumcision Information and Resources Page, http://cirp.org/pages/cultural/glass1/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019). What is clear is that Jesus’ apostles soon came to understand that mandating circumcision for Gentiles was contrary to Jesus’ new covenant (Acts 15; Gal. 5:2-12; 1Cor. 7:18; cf. Rom. 2:29; 4:11-12).
  6. I doubt this requirement was aimed in a limited way against polygamy, but it almost certainly was assumed to include it.
  7. Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway),74, emphasis added. DeYoung’s book is an excellent popular-level book, readable and based on good scholarship.
  8. William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuality: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 247.
  9. Ibid., 250. While I question some of Webb’s assessments and conclusions, especially regarding the “women” part of his topic, his book is a stimulating and valuable read.
  10. Ibid., 82, emphasis added. Note: I wish Webb would have distinguished here between (a) people who experience homosexual desire and (b) homosexual activity in these statements. Elsewhere he clearly discusses how Christians must have “compassion for those who struggle with homosexual feelings and behavior” (Ibid., 252).
  11. Ibid., 83
  12. Ibid., 88, n. 36, emphasis added.
  13. Ibid., 250, emphasis added. Webb says other things also worth noting: “While the garden” of Eden “presents sexuality (monogamous heterosexuality) as normative, no one would use this pattern to condemn sexual abstinence… But to argue for homosexuality from these abstinence cases (as some do) produces a considerable leap in logic. It is one thing to abstain from heterosexual relationships; it is quite another to find sexual fulfillment through means outside of heterosexual relationships. Abstinence cases break from creation pattern, but they do so by limiting one’s sexual fulfillment. Homosexual cases break from the creation pattern by broadening the scope of one’s sexual fulfillment (as bestiality would broaden one’s sexual fulfillment options beyond the creation pattern),” p. 132. “Alternative options” to monogamous heterosexual marriage “existed in the surrounding cultures, and a negative assessment of the practice” of homosexuality “by biblical authors sets up dissonance with the acceptance of the practice by many in other cultures. This increases the possibility that the author of Genesis understood the creation story as a statement about normative sexual patterns being heterosexual,” p. 133. “The concern with homosexuality was much broader than simply a violation of covenant or simply an issue of the participant’s passive/active status… With bestiality, as with homosexuality, one is breaking the ‘boundaries’ of biological design and sexual order. Reproduction of species does not take place between and animal and a human; nor does it take place between two humans of the same sex. With bestiality one crosses the boundary between human and animal; in the act of homosexuality one breaks the structural boundaries between male and female. It is also these boundary lines, not covenant, which were important in the incest laws,” pp. 177-78. “At most, homosexuality advocates have demonstrated that some features of biblical sexuality are cultural,” such as semen-emission and menstrual intercourse laws. “Their case would have been much stronger if they had demonstrated through ‘closely related issues’ that certain components of a biblical development of ‘homosexuality’ (not just ‘sexuality’) were cultural. Thus the one-category-removed approach makes the homosexual case extremely weak. Ultimately, it is not persuasive,” p. 171. “The continued survival of a species depends upon heterosexual activity. This is why homosexuality remains an anomaly within any species where survival is viewed as a good value,” p. 217. ”
  14. , Ibid., 200, emphasis added.
  15. “A Brief Biblical Case for LGBTQ Inclusion,” online article, The Reformation Project, founded by Matthew Vines, https://www.reformationproject.org/biblical-case, accessed Oct. 6, 2019.
  16.   Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 452. Here is a fuller quote: “Many also argue that abusive pederasty was the standard form in which Paul encountered male intimacy. But Wolff shows that this is far from the case. Paul witnessed around him both abusive relationships of power or money and examples of ‘genuine love’ between males.”
  17. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 304, 312, bold added.
  18. Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality & The Church: Scripture & Experience,” online article, Commonweal Magazine, June 11, 2007, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. Johnson’s later comparison of homosexuality with slavery also falls flat given the observations of Webb summarized above; there is a trajectory in Scripture away from the heartless forms of slavery accepted in the cultures around God’s people toward an ethic that commands masters to treat slaves as they would want to be treated themselves, but there is no such trajectory in Scripture toward affirming homosexual activity in any form.
  19. Sarah Bessey, “Penny in the Air: My Story of Becoming Affirming,” blog post, June 5, 2019, https://sarahbessey.com/penny-in-the-air-my-story-of-becoming-affirming/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019. A much better explanation of this account in Matthew 15 is offered by Derek DeMars: “As interpreters have long pointed out, Jesus’ words to the woman are tinged with irony. He was speaking (as wisdom-teachers of the time often did) with a challenge or riddle intended to draw wisdom out of the other person. That’s why his final response to the woman is, ‘Because you have answered this way…’ (Mark 7:29). He was testing her.” Derek DeMars, “Was Jesus a Bigot? A Response to Sarah Bessey on Affirming Homosexuality,” blog post, Aug. 13, 2019, https://derekdemars.com/2019/08/13/was-jesus-a-bigot-prejudice-and-homosexuality/, accessed Oct. 5, 2019.
  20. Luke Timothy Johnson, ibid. Bessey gives a similar role to experience in her narrative of how she came to affirm homosexuality. She tells of her relationship with a woman who prayed for her, comparing her own change of understanding to that of Peter with Cornelius: “Eventually I learned that in addition to being a powerful and mighty woman of God, in addition to being an anointed pastor, in addition to being a devoted follower of Jesus, in addition to being kind and bold, faithful and content, funny and compassionate and godly, she was also a lesbian. And just like that, the penny dropped. All the study, all the footnotes, all the scholars, went from being a jumble of intellectual opinions to a lived experience in one encounter with the Holy Spirit alongside a beloved sister in Christ” (Sarah Bessey, ibid., emphasis in original).
  21. Richard B. Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation; A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996), Kindle Edition, location 4692.
  22. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 3-5. Bold added.
  23. Fortson and Grams, ibid., 11.
  24. Ibid., 156.
  25. Ibid., 144.
  26. Ibid., 149-51.
  27. Ibid., 154.
  28. “2016 Book of Discipline,” United Methodist Church, shared on the official denominational website, http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/what-is-the-denominations-position-on-homosexuality, accessed Oct. 13, 2019.
  29. “What Wolfhart Pannenburg Says About This Debate in the Church,” Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, 37, emphasis added. Quoted by Fortson and Grams, ibid., 162-63.
  30. Thomas Hopko, “The Homosexual Christian,” Orthodox Church in America, https://www.oca.org/reflections/misc-authors/the-homosexual-christian, accessed Oct. 7, 2019. Here is another helpful example, this time Roman Catholic, shared by Fortson and Grams: “While the church teaches that homosexual acts are immoral, she does distinguish between engaging in homosexual acts and having a homosexual inclination. While the former is always objectively sinful, the latter is not” (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination: Guidelines for Pastoral Care, 2006).
  31. Webb, ibid., 183, bold added.
  32. This, of course, is the message that Westboro Baptist Church famously declares, and even the URL for their church website: https://godhatesfags.com/. A (former) insider’s view of this church is available through the recent book Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper. You can read an excerpt here. I have not read the whole book.
  33. It is true, properly understood, that God hates not only sin but also people who persist in sin (Ps. 5:4-6; 7:11-12; etc.). But nowhere in Scripture do we see this message proclaimed in evangelism. The evangelistic message of the early church was not that God hates sinners, but that God desires “to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:26). “The Lord… is patient… not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).
  34. All but two of the following quotes come from S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 27-163. The exceptions are the AME quote (which Fortson and Grams summarize) and the SBC quote (not included in their three pages of SBC quotes).

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