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. ” 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.
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.
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.”
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.” 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.” 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.” The law also authorized divorce for those “who are not fitted for the partners they have chosen,” which was probably a reference to impotence. 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.
In this context, “Concerning Divorce” is clearly a conservative tract, arguing strongly against permissive new laws that permitted divorce “for trifling reasons.” 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)
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)
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)
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?)
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?)
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.
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:
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.
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.
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. 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.”
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.
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. The Waterlanders “were the first Dutch Mennonites to have a confession of faith.” 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.”
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.
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).
Also in 1577, Peter Walpot (1521-78), “bishop of the Hutterian Brethren in Moravia during their Golden Age,” completed his magnum opus, commonly called the “Article Book.” 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.
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).
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.
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.
(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.)
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.” Some have said that “this kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites,” but it is possible that the teaching of Dirk Philips regarding Christians who married unbelievers after conversion may also have produced similar results. In Philips’ case, he clearly disallowed remarriage in such situations; in some sense the marriage was still seen to exist. In the case of the Hutterites, I am unaware whether remarriage was ever counseled; the sources I read affirmed only divorce.
It is telling that divorce of a spouse because of unbelief was a point of disagreement and contention among early Anabaptists. Going beyond Scripture is one sure cause for theological and pastoral conflict, in our time as surely as that of the early Anabaptists.
On the other hand, I have not found any hint of any dispute among early Anabaptists about whether adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Anabaptists repeatedly and firmly rebuked the easy divorce permitted by many Protestant leaders such as Zwingli. They eagerly began their teaching with Jesus’ “hard sayings” about divorce, emphasizing that he did away with “the old divorcing” of the Jews. Yet, Menno Simons speaks for all early Anabaptists when he says that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again.”
This, the early Anabaptists insisted, is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage.
What strikes you most about how the early Anabaptists read Jesus’ divorce and remarriage exception clauses? What do you make of the contrast between their beliefs and the beliefs of most conservative Anabaptists today (see my last post)? Share your insights in the comments below!
I have at least three more goals for this historical survey. In my next post I hope to (1) share a handful of documents from the 1600s to 1900 and then (2) reflect on how the Anabaptists prior to 1900 seem to have synthesized other biblical texts with their understanding of Jesus’ exception clauses. Did they do this well? Where were they mistaken? What can they teach us? Then I’d like to (3) ask how conservative Anabaptists got “from there to here” in their understandings about divorce and remarriage.
Here are two ways you can help: (1) Please pray God will guide my understanding and writing about divorce and remarriage. I sincerely want to honor Christ. (2) If you have any relevant historical documents or insights, please share them. I am missing many pieces of the historical puzzle and would be happy to update even this current post if more relevant evidence is found. Thank you!
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