Tag Archives: Timothy George

Why Did Early Anabaptists Believe Jesus Allowed Divorce and Remarriage in Cases of Adultery?

How did early Anabaptists synthesize the biblical teachings about divorce and remarriage? Why did they believe what they did? What hermeneutical principals and practices led them to believe divorce and remarriage are permitted in cases of adultery? How did they fit Jesus’ exception clauses together with other passages that can appear to leave no permission for either divorce or remarriage?

In this post I pause my historical survey of what Anabaptists have believed about Jesus’ exception clauses to consider these how and why questions. To learn what Anabaptists have believed, see my other posts in this series:

Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

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

Anabaptists Then (1600-1860s): “It Is Clearly to Be Seen”

If I find time and strength, I hope to write one more historical post explaining how and why North American Mennonites eventually adopted a much firmer stance than their Anabaptists forebears, a stance that forbade all divorce and remarriage without exception. That story is fascinating but complex, for suddenly, after centuries that offer only several dozen relevant documents, there is an explosion of evidence to sift through.

But first, it will be helpful to ask the how and why questions about early Anabaptists. Specifically, how did they fit Jesus’ exception clauses together with other Bible passages that make no mention of any exception for either divorce or remarriage?

I would be interested to hear how others might answer this question—particularly historians with a wider knowledge of medieval and Reformation views on divorce and remarriage. Here is a non-comprehensive list of seven intertwining factors that stand out to me:

  1. They started with Jesus’ words.
  2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.
  3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.
  4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.
  5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.
  6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.
  7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

This blog post will discuss these points. I’ll add some evaluative comments along the way, with the caution that I am not attempting a comprehensive analysis of either Anabaptist theology or biblical evidence on the topic. (I should also warn you that the theological deductive work gets a little dense near the end of this post, though I think the payoff is worth the effort–at least if you care deeply about not taking Bible verses out of context.)

How, then, did early Anabaptists approach the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses?

1. They started with Jesus’ words.

This fact is immediately obvious in most Anabaptist writings on the subject. The first Anabaptist writing on divorce (“Concerning Divorce,” c. 1527-33), begins with the words, “The Pharisees sought to catch Jesus,” and launches into a summary of Jesus’ teaching from Matthew 19.1 Later in the same document we read this:

When Christ in Matthew 5 often saith, “But I say unto you,” he thereby annuls the Law insofar as it is grasped legalistically and not spiritually, Ephesians 2, Romans 10. As He is also the perfection of the Law, therefore He is the Mediator of a better Testament which hath been established upon better promises, Hebrews 8.2

The c. 1600 confession included in the Martyrs Mirror has a similarly Christocentric perspective: “Christ as a perfect Lawgiver, rejected and abolished the writing of divorcement and permission of Moses, together with all abuses thereof.”3 Perhaps the strongest exaltation of Jesus’ words is found in a written Anabaptist response (pub. 1590) to the Frankenthal Disputation (1571):

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them.4

Walter Klaassen, in an essay called “The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture,” summarizes the Christocentric Anabaptist approach to biblical interpretation and notes how it affected their view of divorce (according to minutes from the Bern debate):

The Anabaptists seem to have been the only Protestants in the sixteenth century who took a historical view of the Bible. They viewed the drama of God’s redemption as a process, initiated by God in particular with Abraham, and moving forward to a climax in Jesus Christ, in whom God would conclude human history. The Old Testament with its Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants they viewed as preparatory, as paving the way, for the final and complete revelation of God in Jesus Christ…

It was not the New Testament as a book that provided the key to the Anabaptist understanding of the Old Testament, but the new Covenant or the new and final revelation of God in Christ. Christ was for them the center of Scripture. Any specific word in the Bible stands or falls depending upon whether it agrees with Jesus Christ or not… Certainly Christ’s words and life did not abrogate the whole of the Old Testament, but since in Old Testament times there was only a partial revelation the demand was not so high. There the rule of an eye for an eye was allowed because men were not able to rise higher; in Christ even such limited retaliation is forbidden. There men were allowed to divorce their wives; here it is forbidden except on one condition.5

2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.

This fact is as obvious as the first. Matthew 19 is the passage most commonly used by Anabaptists on the topic of divorce and remarriage. This passage records Jesus’ dialogue with the Pharisees and includes (a) references to several key OT passages (Gen. 1 and 2; Deut. 24) and also (b) the exception clause that featured so prominently in early Anabaptist teaching.

Matthew 5 is also frequently cited, as part of the Sermon on the Mount that was so central to Anabaptist life. In this sense, the emphasis on Matthew is closely tied to the Christocentric focus of the Anabaptists (point number one, above), as Murray has noted:

Anabaptists… insisted on the priority of the Gospels and Jesus’ teaching there, explaining other NT texts in the light of the Sermon on the Mount… The Sermon on the Mount seems to have acted as a further canon within an already Christocentric canon.6

Mark and Luke, by comparison, are rarely cited in Anabaptist discussions of divorce and remarriage. The idea that these Gospels are stricter or clearer than Matthew on this topic is never mentioned; no conflict was seen between the Gospel accounts. The reasons why Mark and Luke are rarely mentioned are probably very innocent: Why cite these Gospels when Matthew’s Gospel comes first in the NT canon, when it includes the theologically-rich Sermon on the Mount, when it has two passages recounting Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage instead of only one (Mark 10; Luke 16), and when the other Gospels add only minor details?

The Anabaptists may have drawn a newly Christocentric theology from Matthew (and the Sermon on the Mount), but the idea of prioritizing Matthew’s Gospel was certainly not original with them. In 1519, Ulrich Zwingli (under whose teaching the earliest Swiss Brethren developed their convictions7) initiated a new practice of preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter through Scripture. He began this radical program with a sermon series through Matthew, then skipped past Mark and Luke to preach through other NT books and then parts of the OT.8

This strong emphasis on Matthew was typical, in fact, for most of church history prior to the nineteenth century, and “is manifest already in Christian literature of the late first and early second centuries.”9 Given this pattern of church history, it would have been highly unusual for Anabaptists to have started anywhere besides with Matthew as they formulated their understandings of divorce and remarriage.

3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.

The early German-speaking Anabaptists used a Bible version (the “Froschauer Bible”) that was, for the most part, translated by Luther. Even the Dutch Bibles most commonly used by Anabaptists were based in large part on Luther’s translation.10

In fact, the first Swiss Brethren were influenced by Luther’s translation before they even broke with Zwingli. As students of Zwingli, they helped him with his work of translating the Bible. Zwingli completed a translation of the entire Bible (the “Froschauer Bible,” published c. 1530) before Luther did (1534), but he used whatever parts of Luther’s translation were already available, including Luther’s New Testament (published in 1522).

This is a 1531 Froschauer Bible that was used by many generations of Anabaptists. The Bible is located at the Ohio Amish Library at the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center (Behalt) in Millersburg, Ohio. The photo above is found on their webpage (https://ohioamishlibrary.org/), which also hosts the images in the PDF file below, along with an account of this Bible’s history: https://ohioamishlibrary.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Binder1.pdf.

Click to access Johannes-Holly.pdf

Prior to Luther’s translation, most Europeans encountered the Scriptures through the Latin Vulgate translation. Two differences in how these Latin and German Bibles translate Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 may help explain how Anabaptists (and other Reformers) diverged with Roman Catholic views on divorce and remarriage.11

One difference is found in the translation of Jesus’ exception clause. The Vulgate has excepta fornicationis causa (Matt. 5:32) and nisi ob fornicationem (Matt. 19:9). The key word in both passages, fornicationis, refers either (a) to fornication (unmarried sex) or (b) to prostitution or sexual promiscuity. For the same passages, Luther’s Bible and the “Froschauer Bible”12 have es sei denn um Ehebruch (Matt. 5:32) and es sei denn um der Hurerei willen (Matt. 19:9). The key words here are Ehebruch, which refers to adultery, and Hurerei, which refers to sexual promiscuity.

The German translations, in sum, retain the Vulgate suggestion that Jesus was referring to sexual promiscuity, drop the suggestion that he was referring to premarital sexual sin, and introduce the idea that he was referring to adultery. The original Greek word underlying all the above translations, πορνεία, was used in various contexts to refer to all of the above ideas and more, so both the Vulgate and Luther offer translations that are lexically possible, though different.

A second difference is in the terms used to refer to adultery, as found in the phrases “makes her commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32) and “commits adultery” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). The Vulgate has facit eam moechari and adulterat (Matt. 5:32) and moechatur (Matt. 19:9). Both terms here (moechor and adultero) equally refer to the act of committing adultery. Luther’s Bible and the “Froschauer Bible” translate the same phrases as die Ehe bricht (Matt. 5:32) and bricht die Ehe (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Both expressions could be translated literally as “breaks the marriage (covenant),” and both are transparently related to the German word for adultery, Ehebruch (see above), which itself could be translated literally as “breach of marriage.”13

The Vulgate terms for adultery are related either to the Greek family of words referring to adultery (moechor; cf. μοιχεύω and μοιχάομαι, which are used in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9), or else to our English word adultery (adultero). At first glance the German terms may seem more paraphrastic or even biased, but it is important to consider how the concept of adultery is actually used in the Bible.

Unfaithfulness is at the core of the biblical concept of adultery. Physical adultery is, after all, a sin that only married people can commit; it is not merely sexual sin but a breach of trust. This is why in the OT the Hebrew term na’aph (“adultery”) is often used as a picture of the spiritual adultery of turning to other gods14—that is, “breaking covenant” with God15 without any necessary reference to sexual sin. Both physical and spiritual adultery are described as “breaking faith.”16 Similar usage is found in the Greek NT.17 Spiritual adultery is breaking or turning from your covenant with God; sexual adultery is, as the German language recognizes, breaking or violating your marriage covenant. (Interestingly, Tyndale’s translation reflected a similar understanding.18)

On both of these points where German Bibles differed from the Vulgate, the Anabaptists clearly affirmed the German understanding of the text. They were not completely dependent on Luther’s translation, for “in the first generation of Anabaptists, the leaders who were educated could lead Bible studies from the biblical text itself, rather than from a translation; e.g., Felix Manz taught from the Hebrew text and Conrad Grebel from the Greek.”19 But, whether they consciously affirmed Luther’s translation of Jesus’ words in these passages or simply didn’t question it, they clearly agreed.20 They clearly taught that Jesus’ exception clause referred to adultery, and they also taught that adultery breaks a marriage:

He who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. (Concerning Divorce, Swiss Brethren, c. 1527-33)21

Where one committeth adultery in this way, the other should put him or her away… For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken until through repentance it is healed. (Peter Reidemann, Hutterite leader, 1540-41)22

If a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. (Wismar Articles, Dutch Mennonites, 1554)23

These excerpts show that, for the Anabaptists, to “break” a marriage was not merely to violate the marriage covenant, but to severe it. The switch from Latin to vernacular Bible translations reinforced this understanding.

4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.

Some Bible teachers popular among conservative Anabaptists today say we should start with the “clear” texts of Scripture and use them to interpret the “unclear” exception clauses in Matthew. Joseph Webb, for example, lists “the biblical portions that establish a clear doctrinal position concerning marriage and divorce, and by which all unclear texts should be compared”: Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39; Hebrews 13:4; Malachi 2:14.24 Daniel Kauffman similarly listed “seven plain, positive Bible declarations” (including most of Webb’s passages plus 1 Corinthians 7:10-11) to which the “two doubtful statements” of Jesus’ exception clauses must be harmonized. 25

Early Anabaptists, in contrast, did not suggest that Jesus’ exception clauses should be interpreted through other allegedly clearer texts. Yet, despite their prioritization of Matthew’s Gospel, they didn’t ignore these other texts, either. Rather, they simply laid all texts beside each other and accepted each as contributing valuable truths.

1 Corinthians 7:39 has been especially popular among Anabaptists from the earliest days to the present, receiving greater emphasis than Matthew in some documents. While conservative Anabaptists today usually point to this verse to teach that marriage must (or can) not be parted except by death, early Anabaptists focused on another emphasis of the verse: that marriage must be “only in the Lord.”26

Despite this focus, early Anabaptists sometimes quoted this verse in the context of affirming divorce or remarriage in cases of adultery. For example, immediately after emphasizing that a “marriage is broken” by adultery, the earliest Swiss Brethren tract on the topic (c. 1527-33) continues, “therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord, 1 Corinthians 7.”27 “Only in the Lord” was the truth that 1 Corinthians 7:39 added, and it’s statement that “a wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives” was not understood to cancel out the Matthew 19 exception that adultery permits divorce and remarriage.

Similarly, a 1627 confession from Amsterdam cites Romans 7:2 immediately after affirming that “nothing can separate” a husband and a wife “save adultery.”28 “Nothing can separate” was the truth communicated by Romans 7:2; “save adultery” was the truth added by Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19, which are also cited.29

Malachi 2 is the second biblical text cited by the earliest Swiss tract on divorce.30 It is the first text cited by Roosen’s catechism (1702), with the comment that “God also complains” about the state of matrimony, “that men acted in this manner contrary to his will.” Immediately after this, Roosen turns to a lengthy quotation and explanation of Matthew 19. There he includes a clear affirmation that Jesus’ exception clause means one is not bound “by the band of matrimony” in cases when a spouse has been sexually promiscuous. Then he ends his paragraph by quoting, without comment, 1 Corinthians 7:39.31

Hans de Ries (1578) cites Hebrews 13 alongside Matthew 19 and Genesis 2 after stating that marriage “may not be separated except for the cause of adultery.”32 A confession (c. 1600) included in the Martyrs Mirror similarly quotes Hebrews 13:4 after teaching that husbands and wives may “not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in case of adultery or death.”3

What about Jesus’ teaching against divorce in Mark and Luke, which includes no exception clause? These passages were not entirely ignored, either. Menno Simons (1552) cites both Mark 10 and Luke 16 alongside Matthew 5 and 19 immediately after saying that a husband and wife “can not be separated from each other to marry again otherwise than for adultery, as the Lord says.”34 For Menno Simons, “the Lord says” everything found in any of these Gospels.

But what should be done with the fact that Matthew includes a divorce exception but Mark and Luke do not? Conservative Anabaptists have been so trained to see a need to “harmonize” the “contradictory” Gospel accounts of Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage that it can be hard to understand how early Anabaptists could see things differently. Consider, though, how we already use the early Anabaptist approach to another “exception clause” that is included in Matthew but not in Mark.

Matthew 12:39 and Mark 8:12 record the same event, an interaction between Jesus and some Pharisees. In Matthew’s version, Jesus says this: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” But in Mark’s account he says this: “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Which is true? Did Jesus mean that no sign would be given (Mark), or did he mean that no sign except the sign of the prophet Jonah would be given (Matthew)? On a hyper-literal level, both cannot be true at the same time. Should we conclude that one Gospel writer is “clear” and the other “doubtful”? Should we appeal to other texts to determine which is true?35

Dutch Mennonite bishop Dirk Philips did not think so; he quoted this Matthew 12 “exception clause” from Jesus without qualification, even in a passage where Philips’ main point was that “to require signs and not permit oneself to be satisfied with words is a sign of unbelief.”36 For both Philips and Jesus, the main point was the same: that Jesus was not going to pander to the unbelieving Jewish leaders’ desire for a sign. Mark strongly emphasizes this point by making no mention of any exception. Matthew includes a secondary point: Jesus’ exception that he would give the mysterious Jonah-like sign of his own death and resurrection. Yet Philips saw no need to prioritize Mark over Matthew; both Gospels clearly communicated the same primary message, and Matthew’s inclusion of an exception did not reduce the value or trustworthiness of his account.

The early Anabaptists seem to have read Jesus’ statements about divorce and remarriage in the same way. Mark and Luke emphasized Jesus’ main point (that divorcing one’s spouse and marrying another is equivalent to adultery) without intending to deny any possible exception. Matthew’s main point was the same, even though he included an important secondary point (the exception that sexual promiscuity itself breaks a marriage and thus grants the offended spouse the right to divorce and marry another).

Again we see how early Anabaptists tended to approach the various biblical passages about divorce and remarriage: They laid all texts beside each other and accepted each as contributing valuable truths, without using the more general texts to override the more specific ones.

Of course synthesizing the biblical witness on this topic is not always that easy, a fact that will be evident as we discuss (in a separate point below) how Anabaptists interpreted 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 and following verses.

5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.

This is a brief point, but it is foundational for the next two points, which synthesize Paul’s writings with Jesus’ teaching. After quoting from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, the early Swiss tract Concerning Divorce (c. 1527-33) emphasizes Paul’s agreement with Christ:

[Paul’s teaching] cannot weaken the words of Christ, nor does it contradict Him, otherwise Paul would be speaking after Moses (if hardness of heart or unbelief could permit divorce) and he would be “scattering,” as Christ says in Matthew 12, “He who gathereth not with me scattereth abroad,” and that could not edify the body of Christ. The meaning of Paul’s words depends rather on what Paul has in mind in this chapter, just as he says in I Corinthians 2, “But we have the mind of Christ,” and I Corinthians 7, “I think that I also have the Spirit of God.”37

This means, first of all, that Christ’s words were given priority (see first point above); Paul was said to agree with Christ, not Christ with Paul. But it also means that—unlike with some conservative Anabaptists today—Paul was not seen to be at odds with Christ in any way. The reason Paul does not contradict Christ is because Paul has the mind of Christ and the Spirit of God within him.

Menno Simons likewise insisted that “Paul also holds the same doctrine” as Christ about the permanence of marriage38 and quotations from Jesus and Paul peacefully coexist throughout Anabaptist writings on the topic.

6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.

Early Anabaptists accepted Jesus’ word in Matthew that it was not adulterous to divorce and remarry when one’s spouse had already committed adultery, and they explained that word by pointing to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:

Do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” …Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. (1 Cor. 6:16, 18)

The link between Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 6 was the shared quotation from Genesis 2:24: “The two will become one flesh.” The early Swiss Brethren tract Concerning Divorce (c. 1527-33) makes this connection and draws a deduction:

He who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery, for Christ saith, “These two are one flesh.” But he who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord, 1 Corinthians 7.39

Marriage is a one-flesh union, Jesus affirmed; sex with a harlot also forms a one-flesh union, Paul noted. The author(s) of this tract believed a third point: when a married man become one flesh with a prostitute he is “separated from his own flesh,” an expression that appears to mean “separated from his wife.”

The written Anabaptist response (pub. 1590) to the Frankenthal Disputation (1571) is so similar to the tract above that it appears to be an adapted quotation. It shows that, at least among the Swiss Anabaptists, a consistent interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:16-18 lasted for several generations:

Adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.40

The Hutterite leader Peter Reidemann taught a similar perspective (1540-41), though without citing 1 Corinthians 6:

Where one committeth adultery…, the other should put him or her away and have no more in common with him or her before he or she hath shown real fruits of repentance. For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken.”41

This understanding of 1 Corinthians 6 raises an obvious question: Is it not possible to be one flesh with more than one person at once? Such a thought was clearly abhorrent to most Anabaptists, who repeatedly pointed back to the creation model and emphasized that marriage was to be between one man and one woman. Menno Simons, for example, considered polygamy (as practiced by the Anabaptist rebels in Münster) to be an “abomination” and was eager to clear himself and the Anabaptists with him from false accusations of practicing it.42

Adultery is arguably a breach of covenant in a way that polygamy is not, at least in societies where polygamy is expected. Therefore, it would be theoretically possible to accept polygamous marriage while still saying that adultery justifies divorce.

But it appears that for early Anabaptists the matter was more black and white: Jesus taught that it was not adulterous for a man to divorce and remarry after his one-flesh spouse had already committed adultery; Paul said that sex with a prostitute formed a one-flesh union. For early Anabaptists, the latter text explained the former. Only one one-flesh union was truly possible at once, and when a marriage one-flesh union was broken by a subsequent one-flesh union, divorce and remarriage where permitted—at least if the adulterer refused to repent after reasonable entreaty.

7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is sometimes seen as decisive evidence proving that Christians are never allowed to divorce and remarry:

To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

What makes this passage so powerful is that Paul says he received this teaching from the Lord. Most interpreters agree that Paul means he is summarizing teaching that was passed on to him from Jesus. Some make the more specific suggestion that this is Paul’s inspired commentary on the teachings of Jesus on divorce and remarriage that we find in the Gospels. It is sometimes argued, therefore, that Jesus did not intend to leave any exception for divorce or remarriage; Paul only reluctantly acknowledges that separation sometimes happens.

In addition, some interpreters draw a parallel between Jesus’ exception clause and Paul’s parenthetical statement (“but if she does…”) which tells a separated woman to “remain unmarried.” This reading strengthens the argument that Paul believed Jesus taught that divorce and remarriage are always wrong, even in cases of adultery.

The early Anabaptists did not agree with this argument. I have not found a direct explanation from early Anabaptists of why they disagreed, but they did leave several hints.

First, at least some early Anabaptists were certain that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 refers only to believers.  Dirk Philips (1568) was so certain of this that he used this paragraph to argue that Jesus, too, was referring to “two believing persons” when he said “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6)—a conclusion that carries a certain logic if Paul is here summarizing Jesus.43

Whether or not we agree with Philip’s reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew, there is good reason to agree with his reading of 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. After all, in the very next paragraph Paul transitions to describe marriages between believers and unbelievers and he clarifies that he has no word from the Lord on such situations:

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him… But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. (1 Cor. 7:12-13, 15).

This abrupt transition suggests that Paul’s first paragraph (1 Cor. 7:10-11) is directed to couples where both spouses are believers. “Virtually all modern writers” agree on this,44 and Peter Walpot (1577) made the same argument:

He [Paul] means that where both are believers (as the thought in the following verses clearly shows) that it is “the Lord, and not I” that commands the wife not to be separated from her husband as was the common Jewish practice…45

This raises a question that leads us to a second hint about how early Anabaptists read 1 Corinthians 7:10-11: Is a person who commits adultery a believer or an unbeliever? Put differently, does a marriage where one spouse commits adultery best match Paul’s first paragraph (1 Cor. 7:10-11), his second (1 Cor. 7:12-16), or neither?

According to early Anabaptists, adultery radically undermined a person’s claim to belong to Christ. Adultery separated a person not only from their spouse but also from Christ, so that adulterers were “not members of the body of Christ” (Swiss Brethren tract, c. 1527-33).46 Menno Simons taught (1556) that it was “an abomination” for “true believers” to even “mention” adultery47 and he said (1552) that false preachers who “commit adultery… are not in the communion of Christ, but… are in the communion of” the devil.48

The Wismar Articles (1554) seem to assume that an adulterer is not a believer, even while acknowledging the possibility of having “fallen” into adultery and desiring to repent:

If a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair.49

If 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 is about marriages of believers (first hint) and adulterers are not considered believers (second hint), then early Anabaptists can hardly have believed that Paul’s words in this passage applied to Jesus’ exceptional cases that involve adultery.

A third hint from Menno Simons complicates this picture a little but still affirms it. According to Simons (1550), Paul’s parenthetical statement (“but if she does [separate]…”) refers not to divorce but to shunning—separating from a spouse who is under church discipline:

There is no divorce but by reason of adultery… To shunning Paul has decidedly consented, 1 Cor. 7:10; although this is not always coupled with adultery; but not to divorce. For divorce is not allowed by the Scripture only by reason of adultery, Matt. 5:32; Luke 6:18; therefore we shall never consent to it for other reasons.50

How can we synthesize this perspective with our first two hints? Perhaps Simons thought a weak believer could fall into adultery, resulting in a situation where their status as a believer was in question while they were under church discipline. Or perhaps Simons (unlike Philips) did not believe 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 was only about marriages of two believers; it also included cases where a believer would shun a former believer.

Either way, the following is clear: Simons did not think 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 was the most important text for cases involving adultery. Rather, in cases of unrepentant adultery Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 5:32) superseded 1 Corinthians 7:10-11; unrepentant adultery was “reason” to “consent” to divorce, even if an adulterer might also face the shunning that Menno Simons believed Paul was permitting in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11. Similarly, the c. 1600 confession cites 1 Corinthians 7:10 in a way that groups it with other general verses prohibiting divorce (Matt. 19:4-6, 8), while elsewhere affirming that Jesus’ exception clause permits divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery.51

These clues show that early Anabaptists did not see Paul’s prohibition on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 as applying to cases of adultery. In their rigorous minds, when someone committed adultery—particularly when they refused to repent of it even when urged to do so by the church—it showed that they were not really a believer at all.52

Did early Anabaptists believe, then, that Paul’s instructions about mixed marriages between believers and unbelievers in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 refer to cases of adultery? No, apparently not. Although the Wismar Articles clearly assume that cases of adultery involved marriages where “a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together,” both Menno Simons (co-author of the Wismar Articles) and the early Swiss Brethren tract (c. 1527-33) understand these verses to be about cases of abandonment, not adultery. Moreover, the Swiss tract emphasizes that while a believer is “not under bondage” when abandoned by their spouse, this does not free them to remarry; only adultery permits divorce and remarriage.53

In sum, early Anabaptists clearly did not believe that 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 means Paul understood Jesus to forbid divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. Neither, apparently, did they believe that Paul’s next paragraph (1 Cor. 7:12-16) was intended to address such cases. Though adultery could perhaps involve couples where both spouses professed faith (vv. 10-11) and though adultery certainly normally involved unbelieving spouses (vv. 12-16), adultery was not on Paul’s mind when he wrote either paragraph.54 Therefore, in cases of adultery, we must look to Jesus instead, who explicitly addressed such situations in his exception clauses.

The evidence for how Anabaptists interpreted these paragraphs comes in the form of hints rather than in the full-fledged exposition we might wish for. (I can’t help wishing some early Anabaptist had written a comprehensive commentary on 1 Corinthians 7!) The evidence we do have, however, is clear enough to show that the early Anabaptists were capable of going beyond simple proof-texting to thoughtful, contextual Bible reading.

These seven factors, then, help to explain why early Anabaptists believed that Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery:

  1. They started with Jesus’ words.
  2. They started with Matthew’s Gospel.
  3. They used new German translations of the NT as they read Jesus’ words.
  4. They accepted Jesus’ exceptions at face value without letting other more general biblical statements override them.
  5. They insisted that Paul agrees with Christ.
  6. They pointed to 1 Corinthians 6 when explaining how adultery uniquely breaks a one-flesh marriage union.
  7. They believed that the prohibition of divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 did not apply to Jesus’ exceptional cases involving adultery.

I find much that is compelling in this early Anabaptist approach, even though I have uncertainty about some details. I’ll spare you more commentary from me, though. It’s your turn.

What do you think? Were you already agreeing or disagreeing with the early Anabaptist reading of Jesus’ exception clause before reading this post? Does it change your mind in any way to know more about how and why they arrived at their understandings?

Which factors on my list appear most significant to you? Are there factors you’d like to add? Can you add nuance to my analysis? I’d be glad to read any thoughts you share in the comments below.


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

  1. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  2. Ibid., emphasis added.
  3. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  4. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Emphasis added.
  5. Walter Klaassen, “The Bern Debate of 1538: Christ the Center of Scripture,” Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 110-111. Emphasis added. Available online. June 28, 2020.  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Bern_Debate_of_1538:_Christ_the_Center_of_Scripture
  6. Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press,2000), 75, 79.
  7. When Zwingli arrived in Zurich in 1519, Felix Manz “joined him enthusiastically and became a regular attendant at Zwingli’s Bible classes.” Conrad Grebel joined “the little group of returned students and humanists who gathered with Zwingli to study Greek and Hebrew” in late 1520. See Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Manz, Felix (ca. 1498-1527),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1957. Web. July 31, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Manz,_Felix_(ca._1498-1527)&oldid=145842 and Haraold S. Bender and Leland D. Harder, “Grebel, Conrad (ca. 1498-1526),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. July 31, 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Grebel,_Conrad_(ca._1498-1526)&oldid=164020
  8. “When one visits the Great Minster Church in Zurich today, the following inscription can be read over the portal: “The Reformation of Huldrych Zwingli began here on January 1, 1519.” …For on that first day of January, which happened to be Zwingli’s birthday, the new pastor began his pulpit ministry by announcing his intention to dispense with the prescribed texts of the traditional lectionary. He would follow a new paradigm: preaching expositional sermons, chapter by chapter, starting with the Gospel of Matthew. After completing Matthew, Zwingli resumed the same lectio continua method by taking up Acts, then the letters to Timothy, Galatians, 1 and 2 Peter, Hebrews, the Gospel of John, and the other Pauline letters. He then turned to the Old Testament, beginning with the Psalms, then the Pentateuch and the historical books.” Timothy George, “Reformational Preaching,” First Things, Jan 9, 2017, accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2017/01/reformational-preaching
  9. Ian Boxall, Discovering Matthew: Content, Interpretation, Reception, Discovering Biblical Texts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 1. More from Boxall: “The evidence of surviving manuscripts of the Gospels in Greek and other languages points to a general preference for Matthew’s version in the tendency among scribes to harmonize disagreements between the Gospels” (p. 2). “Reasons for Matthew’s popularity, religiously and culturally, are at least threefold. First, the Gospel is superbly and memorably ordered, suggesting an author who is master of his material” (p. 2); “Second, the widespread usage of Matthew in liturgy and catechesis has ensured the importance of this Gospel within the churches. It is the preferred Gospel in church lectionaries” (p. 3); “A third reason for Matthew’s popularity is the centuries-old belief that Matthew is the earliest of our four canonical Gospels, and one of only two (John being the other) attributed to an apostle and eyewitness of Jesus” (p. 4).
  10. John Hooper, “The Anabaptists and Holy Scripture,” Bible League Trust, Website. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/the-anabaptists-and-holy-scripture/. Hooper explains: “The translation used by German speaking Anabaptists would at first have been early but incomplete editions of Luther’s Bible, published by one of the most talented printers in Switzerland, Christoph Froschauer of Zurich… In 1529 Luther’s Bible was still lacking a translation of the Prophets so Froschauer inserted a separate rendering of these books, based on the work of two Anabaptists, Hans Denck and Ludwig Haetzer, which they had published in Worms a couple of years earlier. Thus the complete ‘Froschauer Bible’ was published in 1529, several years before Luther’s translation would be ready, and it became the favoured version of Anabaptists and their successors for many generations. Even earlier, in 1526, a complete Dutch Bible had been published by Jacob van Liesveldt, a printer in Antwerp. He based his translation partly on the Latin Vulgate and for the rest relied on what was available of Luther’s German Bible. In 1560 a Mennonite called Nicholas Biestkens published the whole of Luther’s Bible in Dutch, ‘with certain words reflecting Mennonite usage and experience.’ No doubt for this reason the Biestkens translation became very popular amongst the Mennonites and quickly ran to a hundred or so editions.” In the second-last sentence Hooper quotes from G. H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. (Ann Arbor, MI: Truman State University Press, 2000) p. 1244. For more information on Anabaptist use of “Froschauer Bibles,” see these websites: https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Froschauer_Bibles_and_Testaments and http://www.reynolds-lake.ca/genealogy/documents/general/BachmanFroschauerBible.php.
  11. Here are both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, in full, in both the Vulgate and Luther’s Bible. Latin Vulgate: Ego autem dico vobis: quia omnis qui dimiserit uxorem suam, excepta fornicationis causa, facit eam moechari: et qui dimissam duxerit, adulterat. (Matt. 5:32). Dico autem vobis, quia quicumque dimiserit uxorem suam, nisi ob fornicationem, et aliam duxerit, moechatur: et qui dimissam duxerit, moechatur. (Matt. 19:9). Luther’s Bible: Ich aber sage euch: Wer sich von seinem Weibe scheidet (es sei denn um Ehebruch), der macht, daß sie die Ehe bricht; und wer eine Abgeschiedene freit, der bricht die Ehe. (Matt 5:32). Ich sage aber euch: Wer sich von seinem Weibe scheidet (es sei denn um der Hurerei willen) und freit eine andere, der bricht die Ehe; und wer die Abgeschiedene freit, der bricht auch die Ehe. (Matt. 19:9). See Biblia Sacra Vulgata (Vulgate), BibleGateway.com, Zondervan. Accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Biblia-Sacra-Vulgata-VULGATE/. (The Vulgate has been revised multiple times since Jerome’s initial translation in the late 4th century. The version quoted here is a text that has roots in a 1598 edition and is probably very similar to the text known in Luther’s day.). See also Luther Bibel 1545, BibleGateway.com, Zondervan. Accessed July 2, 2020. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=matt%2019%3A9&version=LUTH1545.
  12. The “Froschauer Bible” of Zwingli matches Luther’s translation for the terms discussed in the following paragraphs. The only difference I can see between these translations in the verses discussed here is that the “Froschauer Bible” uses a different term to refer to divorce. This is based on my observation of a 1534 publication of Zwingli’s Bible (“Bibel Teütsch, der ursprünglichen Hebreischen und Griechischen warheit nach, auffs treüwlichest verdometschet ; Was über die nächst außgegangnen edition weyters hinzu kommen sye, wirt in nachvolgender Vorred gnugsam begriffenn, Zürich, 1534,” Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum, Digitale Bibliothek, accessed July 31, 2020, http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00024266/image_964 (Matt. 5:32) and http://daten.digitale-sammlungen.de/bsb00024266/image_978 (Matt. 19:9).
  13. This is the definition offered by John Howard Yoder (“One Flesh Until Death: Conversations on the Meaning and Permanence of Marriage,” unpublished, 1968-1984, available online, accessed July 31, 2020. https://chamberscreek.net/library/yoder/marriage.html. See 1. A. of this document for Yoder’s brief comment about Ehebruch. Andrew V. Ste. Marie makes the same point in a recent article: “Luther’s rendition of Matthew 19:9 says that the man who divorces his wife and remarries ‘der bricht die Ehe,’ ‘breaks the marriage,’ while the King James Version says he ‘committeth adultery.’ The German word for ‘adultery’ is Ehebruch, a compound word which literally means ‘marriage-break.’ (The verb form is ehebrechen, ‘to marriage-break.’) To a mind at home in German, Jesus could be easily understood, not as charging a remarried man with committing a sexual sin per se, but with breaking his first marriage.” Ste. Marie continues, drawing implications for Jesus’ exception clause: “If, however, the wife’s ‘fornication’ or adultery is itself understood to be an act of Ehebruch, then the marriage could be understood as ‘broken’ already, before the man has remarried.” See Andrew V. Ste. Marie, “Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal With Divorce and Remarriage,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 94 (April 2020), 248, n. 51.
  14. Jer. 3:8-9; Ez. 16:38; Hos. 3:1; etc.
  15. Lev. 26:15; Deut. 31:16; Ez. 16:59; etc.
  16. Num. 5:6, 12; Josh. 22:20; etc.
  17. Matt. 12:39; 16:4; Mark 8:38; James 4:4
  18. William Tyndale, who examined Luther’s translation alongside the Hebrew and Greek while producing his own translation, expressed a similar understanding of adultery. Instead of “causes her to commit adultery” Tyndale wrote “causeth her to breake matrimony” (Matt. 5:32), and instead of “commits adultery” he wrote “breaketh wedlocke (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) as well as “commyt advoutry” (Matt. 19:9). (See “Tyndale Bible,” Bible Study Tools, website, accessed July 31, 2020,  https://www.biblestudytools.com/tyn/matthew/5.html  and https://www.biblestudytools.com/tyn/matthew/19.html.) According to Merriam-Webster, “in Old English the suffix –lāc, from which the lock in wedlock was formed, was used to denote an activity. Wedlock has the distinction of being the only surviving example of the use of this suffix in English… Since the Old English wedd meant ‘pledge,’ the term wedlock means etymologically ‘the activity of giving a pledge.’ Its first known use, however, referred to a nuptial vow or marriage bond and was used in phrases like ‘to keep wedlock’ and ‘to break wedlock’—with reference to marital fidelity.” (See https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/word-origin-compound-words/wedlock.) Therefore, the expression “breaks wedlock” would mean either “breaks/violates his wedding vows” or “breaks/violates his marriage bond.” Tyndale’s “breaketh wedlocke” is an improvement over Wycliffe’s “doeth lechery,” for the latter focuses on sexual promiscuity without conveying the idea of unfaithfulness to a covenant. Similarly to Luther and Tyndale, “the Old English word” for adultery “was æwbryce ‘breach of law(ful marriage)’ (similar formation in German Ehebruch)” (Douglas Harper, “Adultery,” Online Etymology Dictionary, accessed August 1, 2020, https://www.etymonline.com/word/adultery#etymonline_v_5152).
  19. Perry Yoder, “Bible Study,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1988. Web. July 31, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Bible_Study&oldid=166262.
  20. Luther’s own interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause can be found in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount: “But you ask: Is there then no reason for which there may be separation and divorce between man and wife? Answer: Christ states here and in Matthew 19:9, only this one, which is called adultery, and he quotes it from the law of Moses, which punishes adultery with death. Since now death alone dissolves marriages and releases from the obligation, an adulterer is already divorced not by man but by God himself, and not only cut loose from his spouse, but from this life. For by adultery he has divorced himself from his wife, and has dissolved the marriage, which he has no right to do; and he has thereby made himself worthy of death, in such a way that he is already dead before God, although the judge does not take his life. Because now God here divorces, the other party is fully released, so that he or she is not bound to keep the spouse that has proved unfaithful, however much he or she may desire it.

    “For we do not order or forbid this divorcing, but we ask the government to act in this matter, and we submit to what the secular authorities ordain in regard to it. Yet, our advice would be to such as claim to be Christians, that it would be much better to exhort and urge both parties to remain together, and that the innocent party should become reconciled to the guilty (if humbled and reformed) and exercise forgiveness in Christian love; unless no improvement could be hoped for, or the guilty person who had been pardoned and restored to favor persisted in abusing this kindness, and still continued in leading a public, loose life, and took it for granted that one must continue to spare and forgive him. In such ease I would not advise or order that mercy should be shown, but would rather help to have such a person scourged or imprisoned. For to make a misstep once is still to be forgiven, but to sin presuming upon mercy and forgiveness is not to be endured. For, as before said, we know already that it is not right to compel one to take back again a public whore or adulterer, if he is unwilling to do it, or out of disgust cannot do it. For we read of Joseph, Matthew 1:18 sq., that although he was a pious man, yet he was not willing “to take unto him Mary his espoused wife” (when he saw that she was pregnant); and was praised because “he was minded to put her away privily,” and not lodge complaint against her and have her executed, as he might well have done.” See Martin Luther, “Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount,” trans. Charles A. Hay (1892). Available online. Step Bible, Tyndale House, Cambridge. Accessed July 31, 2020. https://www.stepbible.org/?q=version=Luther|reference=Mat.5.

  21. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. Emphasis added.
  22. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 97-102. Emphasis added. This translation was made from the 1565 published German edition.
  23. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV. Emphasis added. See also the 1853 confession from the Church in Rudnerweide in Odessa in South Russia, which I discussed in my last post.
  24. Joseph A. Webb, Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce (Longwood, FL: Webb Ministries, 2003), 57.
  25. Here is Kauffman’s list of “plain” Scriptures: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6; Mark 10:9); “The wife is bound by the law as long as the husband liveth” (1 Cor. 7:39; Rom. 7:2, 3); “Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11); “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18); “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18; Mark 10:11); “If a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:12); “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9). See Daniel Kauffman, Bible Doctrine, (Scottsdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1914), 450-451. Available online: https://books.google.com/books/about/Bible_Doctrine.html?id=NmkCQ0br9OUC.
  26. This point, in fact, was probably the primary concern about marriage that is evident among Anabaptists for the first 350 years of their history.
  27. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  28. “Scriptural Instruction,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 32; also 27. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  29. Menno Simons similarly alludes to either 1 Corinthians 7:39 or Romans 7:2 (both talk about a wife being “bound” to her husband) in a passage where he affirms divorce and remarriage are permissible in cases of adultery: “No man may leave his wife, nor a wife her husband, and marry another (understand arightly what Christ says), except it be for adultery. Paul also holds the same doctrine that they shall be so bound to each other that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers” (“Instruction on Excommunication,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simon, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), p.970).
  30. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  31. Gerhard Roosen, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith, for the Young, in Questions and Answers, and a Confession of Faith of the Mennonites (Lancaster, PA: John Baer and Sons, 1857), 108-109. Available online: https://archive.org/details/christianspiritu01menn/page/108/mode/2up
  32. Hans de Ries, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, published with commentary in Dyck, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Middelburg_Confession_of_Hans_de_Ries_(1578)
  33. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” The Bloody Theater of Martyrs Mirror of the Defenseless Christians, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  34. Menno Simons, “Reply to False Accusation,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 561.
  35. Both Matthew 16:4 and Luke 11:29 record Jesus saying, “No sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”
  36. Dirk Philips, “The Enchiridion or Handbook of Christian Doctrine and Religion,” The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 222-23).
  37. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Emphasis added. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873
  38. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 970.
  39. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. A paragraph later in the same document repeats some of the same assertions and adds the suggestion that 1 Corinthians 6 implies believers are married to Christ: “From aversion and wrath the believer will be driven out and expelled. Nevertheless that is not a separation in God’s sight for they are still one flesh inasmuch as neither of them has attached his own flesh to the alien flesh of a harlot and become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore, it is only fornication which can effect a divorce. He who cleaveth to the Lord is one spirit with Him, 1 Corinthians 6, flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone, Ephesians 5.”
  40. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Commentators have often debated what Paul meant when he said a sexually immoral person “sins against his own body” (1 Cor. 6:18). It appears some Anabaptists may have thought he meant “sins against his wife,” for both the previous documents draw a link between (a) sinning against one’s own body/flesh and (b) being separated/divided from one’s own flesh, that is from one’s own wife. This is an intriguing interpretation, but it faces strong competition, for the terms “flesh” and “body” are also used explicitly to refer to both physical flesh and Christ’s body in the same passage.
  41. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 102.
  42. Here is one example of many from Simon’s writings: “We are falsely accused, by our opponents, of following the teachings of Munster, concerning the king, the sword, rebellion, retaliation, polygamy and other abominations. But my kind readers, know ye that I, never in my life, accepted any of the foregoing doctrines; but on the contrary, I have opposed them for more than seventeen years, and to the best of my abilities, have warned all mankind against this abominable error.” Menno Simons, “The Conversion of Menno Simons,” 1554, The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft002-renunciation.html.
  43. Philips was discussing the problem of believers wanting to marry unbelievers, not the problem of believers who had a spouse who later fell into sin such as adultery. But the basic point still appears relevant: Philips thought these verses addressed believers, not unbelievers. In Philip’s mind “there is no uniting by God” when a believer marries an unbeliever. After quoting 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, Philips writes, “From this it is easy to understand that the Lord spoke of two believing persons” in Matthew 19:6. “To allege on this basis and thereby compare thus that these words of the Lord also apply when a believer takes an unbeliever is not further spoken to, but only about two believers. To apply these words to an apostate and unbeliever, that is a great misunderstanding.” Almost certainly, given what he wrote elsewhere about divorce and remarriage being permissible in cases of adultery, Philips felt it was equally wrong “to apply these words” to someone married to an adulterer (Dirk Philips, “About the Marriage of Christians,” 1568, The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 568).
  44. “Virtually all modern writers regard vv. 10-11 as concerning marriages between Christians,” writes Thiselton, and he agrees (Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 523, 526). Conservative Mennonite commentator Sanford G. Shetler also agrees: “He is presumably speaking here of those marriages where both partners are Christians” (Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians 55 A.D., Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1971, 47). Other commentators who agree include Kenneth E. Bailey (Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, 206); Craig L. Blomberg (1 Corinthians, NIV Application Commentary, 134); Gordon Fee (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, rev. ed., New International Commentary on the NT, 323); David Garland (1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the NT, 278-83); Richard B. Hays (First Corinthians, Interpretation, 119); Leon Morris (1 Corinthians, Tyndale NT Commentaries, 105); Mark Taylor (1 Corinthians, The New American Commentary, 172); and Ben Witherington (Conflict and Community in Corinth, 173).
  45. Peter Walpot, “Article Four: Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers,” A Beautiful and Pleasant Little Book Concerning the Main Articles of our Faith or The Five Articles of the Greatest Conflict Between Us and the World, trans. Elizabeth Bender (wife of Harold S. Bender), unpublished manuscript, pg. 7. Emphasis added. Available online: http://dwightgingrich.com/concerning-divorce-between-believers-unbelievers-hutterite-document/
  46. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873.
  47. Menno Simons, The True Christian Faith, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft035-sinfulwoman.html.
  48. Menno Simons, A Fundamental and Clear Confession of the Poor and Distressed Christians, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft108-supperofthepreachers.html.
  49. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV
  50. Menno Simons, “On the Ban: Questions and Answers,” 1550, Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, ed. George H. Williams and Angel M. Mergal, The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1957), 265. Emphasis added. It is curious why Simons cited verse 10 rather than verse 11; it is the latter verse that recognizes the possibility of a wife separating from her husband. The probable explanation is that he cited the verse that begins Paul’s sentence, intending thereby to refer to both verses 10 and 11. That practice is found in some other citations of the time.
  51. “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God,” Martyrs Mirror, ed. Theileman J. van Braght, trans. Joseph. F. Sohm (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1951), 401, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617). Cornelis Ris, in contrast, lumps 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 in with Jesus’ exception statements, summarizing both by saying that separation of married couples is “altogether prohibited except for the cause of fornication.” Both approaches show that Anabaptists did not see Paul’s summary of the charge he received from the Lord as contradicting or overruling Jesus’ exception clauses. See “Mennonite Articles of Faith by Cornelis Ris (1766),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016, https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766).
  52. Jesus’ words about a lustful look being adulterous gives good grounds for such a conclusion. After all, one does not normally go from being completely faithful to one’s spouse in one moment and lying in bed with another in the next. Between those two states is found the person “who looks at a woman with lustful intent,” who “has already committed adultery with her in his heart” and is already in danger of being “thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:28-29). Paul, likewise, states categorically that adulterers (likely thinking primarily of those who have physically committed adultery) “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9). If this is the case, then cases of physical adultery surely involve an unbeliever.
  53. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 200; Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119, available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873.
  54. In this view, in Paul’s first paragraph he was doing as Mark and Luke did in their Gospels: summarizing the main point of Jesus’ teaching (divorce and remarriage are contrary to God’s design) without intending to discuss the exceptional case of adulterous spouses. Paul’s second paragraph (about mixed marriages) was not about adultery, either, for when Paul introduces this paragraph, he clarifies that he has no word from the Lord (1 Cor. 7:12). This means that Paul cannot be discussing scenarios that match Jesus’ exception clause in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, or else he could not have said he lacked a word from the Lord on the matter. Thus, when Paul discusses occasions when unbelievers leave their Christian spouses, he must be thinking of cases of abandonment, but not cases of adultery.

Save page

Arminians, Calvinists, and Two Theological Terms Worth Chucking

There are real theological differences, and then there are ways we just talk past each other. In this post I’d like to share two of my pet peeves with how Arminians and Calvinists sometimes define the terms of their debates. The differences are certainly real, and I don’t pretend to understand them in depth. But I’ve heard enough by now to be quite sure that the way we are using some terms probably isn’t helping anyone.

So, in the interests of pugnacity and peace (or at least the latter), let’s get started!

Since I’m more of an Arminian than a Calvinist—though I’ve benefited from listening to both and though I wish I had time to also explore molinism (such as in this book)—I’ll start closer to home and take Arminians to task first.

(1) Arminians, stop saying Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved”!

If you ask any well-trained Calvinist whether they believe this, they will certainly say “no.” As Craig Keener (an Arminian NT scholar) says, “‘Once-saved-always-saved’ as it is commonly taught in many churches is neither Calvinism nor Arminianism.” Similarly, I recall hearing Bill Mounce, a self-proclaimed 4-point Calvinist (I recall he doubts “irresistible grace”), strongly deny that he believes in “once saved, always saved.” He speaks passionately against the kind of gospel invitation that he heard as a boy—the kind where you are invited to come down the “sawdust trail” to the “altar” and “believe” and—in Mounce’s words—“have a moment of positive volition.” No repentance needed, and not even any clear specificity about what you are supposed to believe. And, if you respond, you are assured that you are eternally saved—no matter how grossly or freely you sin thereafter.

That, my friends, is “once saved, always saved.” And unfortunately, it is what some people promote (both some self-professed Calvinists as well as all true Free Grace advocates, etc.). And some who use the term do seem to use it to promote apparently orthodox Calvinist positions that do not match the scenario above. (For example, this is the first link that pops up on a Google search for the term.)

So what is the problem with using the term? The term “once saved, always saved” normally implies that there is no need for a Christian to live a holy life in order to be assured of salvation. But John Calvin didn’t believe this. Listen to Timothy George’s analysis:

In his commentary on John 10:28, Calvin declared:

…This is a remarkable passage, teaching us that the salvation of all the elect is as certain as God’s power is invincible… He who keeps what we have committed unto him is greater and more powerful than all; and so we have nothing to be afraid of, as if our life were in danger.

This is a rich and nuanced doctrine and cannot be reduced to the shorthand formula “once saved, always saved.” Calvin did not minimize the sin of apostasy, that is, a complete falling away and utter renunciation of the gospel. However, this sin could be committed only by one who had not received the “incorruptible seed” of the Spirit in the new birth. Such unbelievers might show evidence of the Christian life, and might even possess what Calvin called “temporary faith,” but in the end they would prove to be false saints… On the other hand, true believers might fall into sin, even gross sin, but, sustained by the Spirit, they would not totally or finally be lost. Those who took this teaching as an occasion for laxity were presuming on the grace of God and stood in jeopardy of divine judgment. (Theology of the Reformers, Kindle location 4941, bold added)

I am not convinced Calvin is right in every point (as summarized here by George), but clearly we are not doing him justice to claim he believed “once saved, always saved.”

So, what should we say Calvinists believe? Timothy George uses the term “indefectibility of faith” and the Dictionary of the Christian Church uses the term “indefectibility of grace” (pg. 268)—both implying that Christians will not defect (turn away from) from faith or grace. A more common term was made popular through the “Five Points of Calvinism” (TULIP) that attempt to summarize the conclusions of the Synod of Dort half a century after Calvin’s death (these are a summary of disagreements with Arminianism, not a summary of Calvin’s whole theology). This term is “perseverance of the saints,” and it is probably the best term to use if you want to describe what Calvinists actually believe.

A classic explanation of this term is found in the seventeenth chapter of the Westminster Confession of faith:

They, whom God hath accepted in His Beloved, effectually called, and sanctified by His Spirit, can neither totally nor finally fall away from the state of grace, but shall certainly persevere therein to the end, and be eternally saved… Nevertheless, they may, through the temptations of Satan and of the world, the prevalency of corruption remaining in them, and the neglect of the means of their preservation, fall into grievous sins; and, for a time, continue therein… (bold added)

This conundrum naturally raises the question of assurance of salvation—how can one really know whether they are saved or not? The Westminster Confession addresses this topic in the next chapter:

…Such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus, and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed… Therefore it is the duty of everyone to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness. (bold added)

This is not Arminianism, to be sure. But neither is it a flippant “once saved, always saved.” This more nuanced theological understanding explains why I have repeatedly heard multiple Calvinist pastors, theologians, and seminary teachers insist that a Christian has no right to be sure of their salvation unless there is evident fruit of holiness in their lives. Not perfection, certainly, and maybe not even the level of holiness expected in some Arminian or many Anabaptist churches. But definite evidence of the fruit of regeneration, nonetheless. Otherwise there is no assurance of salvation.

In summary, only bad Calvinists believe in “once saved, always saved,” just as only bad Arminians believe that they earn their salvation by their good works rather than relying on grace. If you don’t want to be accused of the latter, don’t accuse Calvinists of the former!

Which brings me to my pet peeve for Calvinists…

(2) Calvinists, stop implying that Arminians don’t believe in “Doctrines of Grace”!

“The Doctrines of Grace” is a term Calvinists often use to summarize their classic five points (see above). A quick survey on Amazon shows that this term is currently a favorite phrase among Calvinists choosing titles for their books. A Google search of the term leads to a host of more Calvinist resources, headed by a link to the website of John MacArthur, a staunch Calvinist publicist if ever there was one.

The problem with this term—I am speaking with some authority now as a non-Calvinist listener—is that it implies (to at least some listeners) that those who disagree with the “Five Points of Calvinism” do not believe in, rely on, or teach the grace of God. Arminians deny such a charge wholeheartedly!

To be certain, I don’t think most Calvinist intend to imply quite that, despite their belief that Arminians misunderstand how grace works. But, intentional or not, their ownership of the term “doctrines of grace” can tend to leave that impression. (I see some others agree with me that the term feels offensive and misleading. See, for example, here and here. Note: I do not intend to affirm all other aspects of these links.)

The problem here is that grace is a much more slippery subject than is often imagined—by most people, not just Calvinists. What exactly is grace? Who gets to define it? Can grace come with any conditions and still be grace? Can it be resisted and still be grace? Can it be potentially withdrawn and still be grace? How is God’s grace different from the grace that humans show? How is it the same? And is our modern conception of grace the same as how ancient Jews—including the apostles–thought of it?

Some of my thoughts here are triggered by an interview with the author of an important new book on grace. I am referring to John Barclay and his 2015 book Paul and the Gift, which has been described as “must reading for all interested in Paul, and in particular in his concept of grace.” That endorsement comes from Ben Witherington—a prominent Arminian NT scholar—and he has interviewed Barclay at length on his blog.

Here are some extended interview excerpts that underscore (a) the complexity of defining grace and (b) the fact that Calvinists most certainly aren’t alone in affirming grace:

JOHN: …Paul is not just a covenantal theologian with an eschatological or a radical social twist. He has a radical, even dangerous, view of God’s grace, but I was struggling to see how to articulate that. I realized that to understand what Paul means by ‘grace’ I had to understand how gifts worked in the ancient world, and the deeper I got into that (which is a fascinating subject in itself) the more I began to see that there are different kinds of ‘grace’ in the ancient world, including the ancient Jewish world…

I have tried to trace… how we have acquired the modern notion of a ‘pure gift’ with ‘no strings attached’, but I think it is increasingly recognized now that this is a very modern (indeed, modern Western) notion and not one that is shared in antiquity (or in most non-Western cultures)…

Paul radicalizes the incongruity of grace (grace given without regard to worth), and his understanding of the Christ-gift as an incongruous gift lies at the heart of his Gentile mission (and his own self-understanding). But this does not mean that God gives expecting nothing in return (what I call non-circular or unilateral grace): in fact Romans 6-8 expressly refutes that notion (of ‘cheap grace’) by saying that believers are ‘under grace’ (Rom 6.14). And on a human level, Paul does not think that gifts carry no obligations: see Romans 15.27 (on the Jerusalem collection as an obliged return gift), for example!…

I discuss Luther and Calvin at some length (after discussion of Augustine, on whom they both draw). I think Luther and Calvin were both absolutely right in emphasizing the incongruity of divine grace (given without regard for our merit or worth), but they also radicalized other aspects of Paul’s theology of gift (in Luther’s case, a clear move towards the gift as a unilateral, one-way movement) that go significantly beyond Paul. I also think that their (in their context necessary) emphasis on grace as the cure for sin, guilt and anxiety, left out another and very important social dimension of Paul’s theology of grace. Since God’s grace has no regard for human criteria of worth, it enables the construction of innovative, counter-cultural communities that sit loose to dominant cultural values… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

JOHN: I think are two questions here: i) should the gift be given without regard to the worth of the recipient and ii) should a gift elicit a return of some sort? The two can run together (a worthy recipient might be one more likely to express gratitude), but they are also seperable [sic]…. We have created notions of ‘altruism’ and ‘disinterest’ that are distinctly modern (making disinterest and interest mutually exclusive). It feels like that is Christian, and there are certainly Christian reasons for risky forms of giving that may not elicit a response, but the core Christian tradition is that even God’s giving wants a response from humans, even if it does not and cannot require it. Does God give to us ‘with no thought of return’? Does not God give to us, without regard to our worth, but lovingly wanting the return that fulfils our human potential, that is the return of thanksgiving (see Romans 1) and faith (see Romans 4)?

Gift [grace] is a phenomenon that has at least these three facets. The six I have identified are: superabundance (the size of character of the gift); singularity (God’s character as giver and nothing-but-giver); priority (the timing of the gift before any initiative from the other side); incongruity (the mismatch between the gift and the worth of the recipient; efficacy (the ability of the gift to achieve the giver’s intentions); and non-circularity (gifts that escape any system of exchange or reciprocity)… The point of this analysis will become clear as the book proceeds. It helps to clarify the differences in the highly influential history of reception of Paul (e.g. the differences between Augustine and Pelagius, or between Luther and Calvin: they all believed in grace, but in significantly different ways)… (Source for above quotes, bold added)

BEN: On p. 575 you define ‘gift’ as follows: “Gift denotes the sphere of voluntary, personal relations, characterized by goodwill in the giving of benefit or favor, and eliciting some form of reciprocal return that is both voluntary and necessary for the continuation of the relationship.” I like this definition a lot, and I notice that the word ‘voluntary’ shows up twice in the definition. I would imagine however, that a uber-Calvinistic theologian (e.g. John Piper) would not be happy about that word in a definition of grace, if by voluntary you mean ‘the recipient of the gift could have done otherwise than respond positively’. In other words, a certain kind of theology of predestination, would say that the ‘gift’ and the relationship were predetermined from before the foundation of the universe…

JOHN: First, note that my definition is a definition of gift (the domain of human relations as analysed by anthropology and traced in human history) not a definition of grace, if by the latter we mean ‘the divine gift of grace, given ultimately and definitively in Christ’. However, it would be problematic for Paul, as for us, if our response to grace could not be considered in any sense ‘voluntary’ (i.e. truly willed). Note how much he emphasises in 2 Corinthians 8-9 that the Corinthians’ gift (‘charis’) to Jerusalem should be voluntary and not an extraction (2 Corinthians 9.5); otherwise in his eyes it would not be a gift. Now, ‘voluntary’ in Paul’s eyes does not mean ‘free of any external influence’ (see how much effort he puts into persuading them to make this voluntary gift!): he does not labour under our illusion that we can and should act as completely autonomous individuals. But he does expect that God’s work in us generates our own willing (Phil 2.12-13), as freed agents who could do otherwise (it is possible, in Paul’s eyes, to fall out of grace).

What you are touching on here is the tendency, in a line of interpretation from Augustine, through Calvin, to Jonathan Edwards, to ‘perfect’ (radicalise or absolutise) the efficacy of grace, to the point where it causes, constrains, or compels our own wills. This is to turn God’s agency/will and our agency/will into a zero sum game: the more of one, the less of the other. But God’s will is not on the same level as ours, working in the same causal nexus… To perfect the efficacy of grace in the way you describe is certainly not necessary, even if it is understandably attractive to some. (Source for above quotes, bold added)

Back to the “uber-Calvinistic theologian” John Piper. (Please understand I am using him only because he is a prominent Calvinist proponent, and I hasten to add that I have been greatly blessed by much of his teaching.) Here is Piper’s explanation of the term “doctrines of grace”:

Probably the most crucial kind of knowledge is the knowledge of what God is like in salvation. That is what the five points of Calvinism are about. Not the power and sovereignty of God in general, but his power and sovereignty in the way he saves people. That is why these points are sometimes called the doctrines of grace. To experience God fully, we need to know not just how he acts in general, but specifically how he saves us — how did he save me? (“What We Believe About the Five Points of Calvinism“, bold added)

Given this explanation, we can see that the “doctrines of grace” are really the “doctrines of how God saves people.” More accurately, they are the “Calvinist doctrines of how God saves people.”

That phrase is not nearly as snappy for book titles, I know, but it is much more accurate! After all, when we probe the finer points of exactly how God saves people, there are many complexities and mysteries, and there have been many different balances of understanding throughout church history. All orthodox Christian understandings, however, have centered on the reality that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. This is an understanding shared by Arminians as much as by Calvinists.

To deny our need for grace is to deny our need for Christ! Thus withholding the term “doctrines of grace” from Arminians is tantamount to denying that they are Christians at all.

To call one theological system but not the other “the doctrines of grace” is begging the question—assuming the answer before the discussion has begun. Instead, we should be debating this: What are the differences between the Arminian and Calvinist doctrines of grace? And which matches Scripture best?

In sum, it would be helpful if Calvinists would stop insinuating that Arminians are denying our dependence upon grace. Denial of grace is not a classic Arminian stance, just as universal human salvation by grace apart from any human response—at the other end of the spectrum—is not a classic Calvinist belief.


So there you have it: two pet peeves from me, one for Arminians and one for Calvinists. As my dad used to tell me and my brothers, let’s fight nice!

Please add your peaceable thoughts in the comments below. Thank you!


Save page

Ecclesiology of the Reformers (7): Conclusions and Questions

How should we live today, as children of the Reformation? Should we celebrate the Reformation, looking to its heroes as a foundation for our churches? Should we continue debating and dividing among ourselves in our search for truth, emphasizing our post-Reformation denominational distinctives? Should Anabaptists read the Christian world primarily through an “Anabaptists are not X (especially Protestant)” lens?

Should we see the Reformation primarily as a tragedy, dividing the seamless robe of Christ, cutting his Bride in two? Should we focus our efforts on reuniting the broken Church, looking for common ground? Should we set aside secondary theological matters as we join arms with all who name Christ’s name, trying to undo the damage triggered by Luther?

Should we—as some today seem to be doing—try to do church as if the Reformation never happened? Is it ancient history that we are wisest to ignore, acting instead as if our parents or grandparents lived among the apostles? It has been almost 500 years since the Reformation; may we safely forget it as most of us have forgotten other momentous events in church history (such as the division of Eastern and Western churches, the decline of Christianity in the Middle East, the writings of Thomas Aquinas, or the tragedy and glory of European colonization)? After all, we who are Anabaptists are just biased in thinking that the historical period of our birth was exceptionally important, right?

While some of these questions are deliberately off-balance, I don’t think a simple yes or no answer will suffice for any of them. History abounds with reactionary responses to history.

This post is a (very belated) final installment in our series surveying the ecclesiology of the reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See the introduction to this series and posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , Calvin, Simons, and Tyndale.)

In this post I want to do two things: (1) Quote some of George’s summary reflections on Reformation ecclesiology and (2) add a random and non-representative sample of some of my own questions and conclusions.

Summary Reflections from Timothy George

The abiding validity of Reformation theology is that, despite the many varied emphases it contains within itself, it challenges the church to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ. How the church will respond to this challenge is not a matter of academic speculation or ecclesiastical gamesmanship. It is a question of life or death. It is the decision of whether the church will serve the true and living God of Jesus Christ, the God of the Old and the New Testaments, or else succumb to the worship of Baal. (Kindle Locations 8173-8177, emphasis added)

I agree: The Reformation helped to refocus the church of Christ upon Christ himself, not only in its soteriology (theology of salvation) but also in its understandings of the definition of the true church. This lesson must not be forgotten. This next quote underscores the same theme:

The different Christological nuances among the reformers were substantial and significant, but Menno’s favorite text (1 Cor 3:11) could serve as the basic theme for each of them: the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is the only foundation, the only compelling and exclusive criterion, for Christian life and Christian theology. (Kindle Locations 8253-8255)

A second essential lesson of the Reformation is that Scripture—the Scripture that in its entirety gives witness to Christ—must be given primacy over both church tradition and personal experience:

In the sixteenth century the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture was not a matter of dispute between Catholics and Protestants. All of the reformers, including the radicals, accepted the divine origin and infallible character of the Bible. The issue which emerged at the Reformation was how the divinely attested authority of Holy Scripture was related to the authority of the church and ecclesiastical tradition (Roman Catholics) on the one hand and the power of personal experience (Spiritualists) on the other. The sola in sola scriptura was not intended to discount completely the value of church tradition but rather to subordinate it to the primacy of Holy Scripture. Whereas the Roman Church appealed to the witness of the church to validate the authority of the canonical Scriptures, the Protestant reformers insisted that the Bible was self-authenticating, that is, deemed trustworthy on the basis of its own perspicuity [clarity]… evidenced by the internal testimony [i.e., witness in our hearts] of the Holy Spirit. (Kindle Locations 8278-8286, emphasis added)

This emphasis on Scripture carried practical results for church life, resulting in a biblicism that has been both incredibly freeing but also—given (a) human interpretive fallibility and (b) pragmatic retreats to other sources of authority—a trigger point for much unfortunate division:

The reformers… were convinced that the proclamation of the Christian church could not be derived from any philosophy or any self-wrought worldview. It could be nothing less than an interpretation of the Scriptures. No other proclamation has either right or promise in the church. (Kindle Locations 8300-8302, emphasis added)

The second of the “Ten Conclusions of Berne” (1528) [Reformed] expresses this positive biblicism that governed, albeit with different results, both Reformed and Anabaptist ecclesiology: “The Church of Christ makes no laws or commandments apart from the Word of God; hence all human traditions are not binding upon us except so far as they are grounded upon or prescribed in the Word of God.” (Kindle Locations 8292-8294, emphasis added)

To the above I say a hearty “Amen,” while affirming with Paul and others (Acts 16:6-10, etc.) that the belief in the still-speaking Spirit is also “grounded upon… the Word of God.” (The Bible provides guidance for the church of all time; the Spirit continues to give more specific, limited guidance that is in full agreement with the new covenant gospel Word found in the Scriptures.) Let us press on to ever more faithful biblical interpretation and living, while also extending gracious patience toward those who disagree on what should be identified as “human traditions.”

The following excerpt gives George’s summary of the Reformation definition of the church, followed by a lesson he draws for us today:

In the perspective of the Reformation, then, the church of Jesus Christ is that communion of saints and congregation of the faithful that has heard the Word of God in Holy Scripture and that, through obedient service to its Lord, bears witness to that Word in the world. We should remember that the church did not begin with the Reformation. The reformers intended to return to the New Testament conception of the church, to purge and purify the church of their day in accordance with the norm of Holy Scripture. Even the Anabaptists, who felt that an absolutely new beginning was called for, retained–even as they transmuted–more of the tradition and theology of the church of the Fathers and the creeds than they imagined. While we must not forfeit the hard-won victories of the reformers in the interest of a facile ecumenism, we celebrate and participate in the quest for Christian unity precisely because we take seriously the Reformation concept of the church–ecclesia semper reformanda, not merely a church once and for all reformed but rather a church always to be reformed, a church ever in need of further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. (Kindle Locations 8294-8300, emphasis added)

George also summarizes some Reformation church practices—changes, especially in worship practices, that resulted from changes in their theology:

As a part of their protest against clerical domination of the church, the reformers aimed at full participation in worship. Their reintroduction of the vernacular was itself revolutionary because it required that divine worship be offered to almighty God in the language used by businessmen in the marketplace and by husbands and wives in the privacy of their bedchambers. The intent of the reformers was not so much to secularize worship as to sanctify common life. (Kindle Locations 8315-8318, emphasis added)

In discussing these worship practices, George acknowledges differences among the reformers but seeks common ground:

We have seen how the reformers pared down the medieval sacraments from seven to two. We have also noted how, with regard to these two, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, differences among the reformers became a major obstacle to unity among them. The Anabaptists insisted that baptism be consequent to faith and further denied that infants could be the proper recipients of faith whether presumed (Luther), parental (Zwingli), or partial (Calvin). Thus they returned to the early church practices of baptism as an adult rite of initiation signifying a committed participation in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The ecumenical significance of the Anabaptist doctrine of baptism is recognized in the Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry statement of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. While admitting the validity of both infant and believer’s baptism, it is stated that “baptism upon personal confession of faith is the most clearly attested pattern in the New Testament documents.”1 (Kindle Locations 8320-8327, emphasis added)

George discusses lessons we can learn about baptism from the reformers:

As a corrective to the casual role assigned to baptism in much of contemporary church life, we can appropriate two central concerns from the Reformation doctrines of baptism: From the Anabaptists we can learn the intrinsic connection between baptism and repentance and faith; from the mainline reformers (though more from Luther than from the others) we can learn that in baptism not only do we say something to God and to the Christian community but God also says and does something for us, for baptism is both God’s gift and our human response to that gift. (Kindle Locations 8330-8335, emphasis added)

…and laments that baptismal differences still divide the church:

Even for many churches that are able mutually to recognize their various practices of baptism, full participation in the Eucharist can only be hoped for as a goal not yet achieved. There is no easy side-stepping of this serious ecumenical problem, nor is it possible to ignore the scars that remain from the sixteenth-century disputes over the meaning of “hoc est corpus meum [this is my body].” (Kindle Locations 8340-8343, emphasis added)

George also draws lessons from the Reformation about the Lord’s Supper. Again, a desire for unity helps shape George’s discussion:

What can we learn from the Reformation debates on the Lord’s Supper? First, we need to reclaim a theology of presence The Lord’s Supper is not “merely” a symbol. To be sure, it is a symbol, but it is a symbol that conveys that which it signifies…
Second, we need to return to the practice of more frequent Communion. The earliest Christians may have celebrated the Lord’s Supper daily (Acts 2:42, 46), and they certainly did so weekly… If the Lord’s supper is given to us for “daily food and sustenance to refresh and strengthen us” (Luther); if it “supports and augments faith” (Zwingli); if it is a “spiritual banquet” (Calvin); the “Christian marriage feast at which Jesus Christ is present with his grace, Spirit and promise” (Menno); and if it is the “spiritual food and meat of our souls” (Tyndale), then to neglect its frequent sharing in the context of worship is to spurn the external sign of God’s grace to our spiritual impoverishment.
Third, we need to restore the balance between Word and sacrament in Christian worship. The reformers did not invent the sermon, but they elevated preaching to a central role in the divine service… [Since] Vatican Council II (1963)… many Roman Catholic congregations have emphasized the decisive importance of the Liturgy of the Word in Christian worship. At the same time many Protestant congregations have regained a new appreciation for the central role of the Eucharist in Christian worship. Each of these trends is an encouraging sign. (Kindle Locations 8345-8375, emphasis added)

I find myself agreeing with most of George’s comments here about church worship practices. For example, I wish our churches weren’t so lackadaisical (or fearful?) about observing the Lord’s Supper more often.

George’s reflections about the ethics of the reformers are also relevant:

There is a kind of adulation of the reformers of the sixteenth century that divorces their theology from their ethics. This perspective rightly recognizes the reformers as great heroes of the faith but fails to discern their prophetic role and their revolutionary impact on society.  However, Reformation faith was concerned with the whole of life, not merely with the religious or spiritual sphere. (Kindle Locations 8388-8391)

I am tempted to launch a very Anabaptist-style critique of George at this point. I notice that in his subsequent discussion of Reformation ethics (four lengthy paragraphs, one each for Luther, Zwingli/Calvin, Menno, and Tyndale) he focuses to a large extent on what each man said about ethics, not what he actually did. This is natural in a book about theology, yet it is also a potential weakness, one we Anabaptists are keen to point out as we contrast the Luther of the Peasants’ Revolt with the Anabaptists who refused to bear the sword. In fact, George’s paragraph on Anabaptist ethics does indeed focus on deeds as much as on words, and he observes that “the Anabaptist vision is a corrective to the ethics of the mainline reformers. It reminds us that to sanctify the secular must never mean simply to sprinkle holy water on the status quo but always to confront the culture with the radical demands of Jesus Christ” (Kindle Locations 8417-8419, emphasis added). So I’ll end my brief critique and acknowledge that George shares my concern.

After summarizing the ethical emphases of various reformers, George continues:

Which of these ethical directions is right for the church today? No one of them is sufficient alone, for each is susceptible to its own distortion. The Lutheran emphasis on the priority of faith to works can degenerate into mere formalism because pure doctrine without holy living always results in dead orthodoxy. The Reformed emphasis on involvement in the world can turn the church into little more than a political action committee or a social service organization, while the Anabaptist critique of culture can lapse into a sterile separatism that has forgotten its sense of mission. We have much to learn from each of these traditions, but we are bound to none of them. We are bound only to Jesus Christ. The church is communio sanctorum, a communion of saved sinners, founded on the gospel of the free grace of God in Jesus Christ, sent into the world for which Christ died, ever to confront that world in witness and service with the absolute demands of Christ. (Kindle Locations 8427-8433, emphasis added)

Several things are noteworthy to me in the above excerpt. First, we see again George’s admirable desire to learn from everyone and to seek common ground in Christ. George’s ecumenical friendliness, though rooted strongly in devotion to Christ, probably makes some of us at least slightly uncomfortable at times. (George not only “chairs the Doctrine and Christian Unity Commission of the Baptist World Alliance,” but he also “is active in Evangelical-Roman Catholic Church dialogue.” See here.) But I think George’s keen sense of the unity of all true believers is sorely needed in our conservative Anabaptist churches. His account of the Reformation provides healthy balance to the narrower Anabaptists-focused story we usually hear.

Second, the above excerpt provides George’s own definition of the church. It is a remarkably good definition. I might quibble with his use of the word “sinners” to describe Christians (it depends in part on what you mean by “sinner”). But I like how George’s definition (a) is structured around repeated references to Christ, (b) is rooted in the gospel of grace while also affirming good works, (c) distinguishes the church from the world based on the “absolute demands” of Christ, and (d) emphasizes both word and deed as part of the church’s responsibility to the world.

Random Conclusions and Questions

One reason why it took me so long to write this final post in this series is because I feel utterly unqualified to properly “wrap up” this subject. I am only a student, and a very part-time and forgetful one! So, at the risk of repeating a redundant redundancy, let me remind you that what follows is only random thoughts that have popped into my head that I managed to write down before they flew.

First, some of my own conclusions:

  • It is inaccurate and unfair to describe American evangelicals today by quoting Luther. Some conservative Anabaptists regularly lament that we are so different from the first Anabaptists. Yet some of these same people regularly summarize Luther on church-state relationships or Calvin on predestination and imply that evangelicals today believe essentially the same thing, unchanged across 500 years. The truth is, some do and most don’t. One example: most American evangelicals today are roughly half way between Luther and the early Swiss Brethren (Grebel and Mantz, etc.) on the relationship between church and state. They have inherited ideas on this topic indirectly from both and also from a host of other sources. In fact, Luther might not even consider most evangelicals today to actually be true Christians! (Calvin would have his concerns about many American Christians, too.)
  • Our assumptions about church are powerfully shaped by our historical and ecclesiological contexts. The obvious lesson here is that we should be humble. We should intentionally allow our assumptions to be tested by others from different times and church traditions. This means that I, as a 21st-century Anabaptist living in the microcosm that is my local church—a very tiny slice of Christ’s church across time and space—this means that I must hold onto Christ and the Scriptures tightly but hold onto my particular ways of doing church lightly. It also means that I would be wise to listen regularly to voices from outside my own church heritage.
  • I am thankful for my Anabaptist heritage. Everyone grows up somewhere, and denying our roots does not make them disappear.  I think my various Anabaptist predecessors were wrong on multiple points: Conrad Grebel should not have forbade singing in church, Melchior Hoffman was wrong to predict the date of Christ’s return, Dirk Philips was too rigid in his application of the ban, and Menno Simons was confused about the incarnation. Anabaptists since have added other errors, some of which remain entrenched to this day. But I am deeply grateful to have been born into a stream of Christ’s church that clearly teaches believer’s baptism and a believers’ church, suffering love and nonviolence, and brotherly love and accountability. I want to humbly rejoice in such blessings while identifying with all of the people of Christ.
  • Christ must be central in everything, including all efforts to unify the church. Any true unity, any true theology, any true understandings of the church, any true brothers and sisters—all will be found in increasing measure only as we draw ever nearer to Christ. Ephesians 4:1-16 is so helpful here, with its description of two aspects of church unity: First, we must eagerly “maintain the unity” that the Spirit has already created between all who are in Christ, nurturing the bond of peace between us (v. 3). It is already an established fact that there is only “one body” (v. 4); we don’t have to create that reality! Second, we must also harness all the Spirit-given gifts (vv. 11-12), each member working properly (v. 16) and speaking theological truth in love (v. 15), all with the goal of “building up” the one “body of Christ” (v. 12) until we all “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” Maintain unity… attain unity. Both tasks are essential. And both truth and love are essential for both tasks. And both tasks occur with Christ as initiator and Christ as goal (vv. 5, 7, 13, 15).

 Finally, here are some questions that I think we should be asking—some rhetorical, some open-ended:

  • What can I do to imitate the reformers in testing all my received understandings and practices by Scripture? (I have heard that the first self-identity of the Swiss Brethren was “Bible students.” That is an Anabaptist identity that I eagerly embrace.)
  • What intentional steps can I take to both “maintain” and “attain” unity among all of Christ’s disciples who live in my local town or community, regardless of denominational affiliation?
  • How can I help other people groups worldwide enjoy the biggest single blessing of the Reformation–the Bible in their own language?
  • Am I wise and bold enough to know the right times to confront error within my own church, ready to “stand alone on the… B-I-B-L-E” when necessary?
  • Am I wise and humble enough to learn from my brothers and sisters, expecting Christ to teach me through them?
  • How can we restore greater room for the priesthood of all believers, giving more trust and voice to individual members during times of gathered worship and decision-making?
  • Given our Anabaptist emphasis on believer’s baptism, how can we do a better job of teaching our children to believe and welcoming them into our churches? Does our theology equip us to understand the needs of children, or only of adult converts?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, then should we change our baptismal practices so that not only all who are baptized believe, but also all who believe are baptized? Do we have a biblical basis for withholding baptism from those who believe? If the church is the school of Christ (to borrow Calvin’s term), is baptism the entrance ticket or the graduation certificate?
  • If believer’s baptism is so important, replacing infant baptism as the entrance into the true church, then should we change our church membership practices so that not only all who are members are baptized, but also all who are baptized are members? Or is baptism not that significant after all?
  • How can we capitalize on the blessings of freedom of religion that the early Anabaptists lacked (open doors for evangelism and extended biblical study, to name only two) while also regaining the fiery zeal that marked the words and deeds of the martyrs?

My last question is more complicated, so I’ll present it in paragraphs:

Is it possible to divide Christ’s church by treating “marks of a healthy church” as if they are essential “marks of the true church”? The magisterial reformers identified a handful of key marks of the true church; typically correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are cited, although Luther mentioned as many as seven. Calvin’s heirs added church discipline, which the Anabaptist also affirmed. Menno Simons listed “six marks by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word” (George, Kindle Locations 6431-6436).

More recently the 9Marks ministry has identified “nine marks of a healthy church,” citing preaching, biblical theology, the gospel, conversion, evangelism, membership, discipline, discipleship, and leadership. On the website these nine marks are called “the nine marks,” but I know I’ve heard founder Mark Dever explain that he actually prefers to leave the “the” off, for this list was not intended to be exclusive. In other words, there are additional things that a healthy church will also focus on, besides these nine marks. And I am certain Dever does not intend for this list to be marks of the true church; rather, he knows that many churches are weak in some of these areas. They may be weak churches, but they are still expressions of Christ’s church. (See here and here for more on marks of the church, past and present.)

I’m saying all this to return to my initial question. Clearly, there is a difference between a list of marks of the true church and a list of marks of a healthy church. After all, in Revelation we see a list of churches that were still part of the true church, but not currently healthy! This means, therefore, that any list of marks of the true church should be shorter than any list of marks of a healthy church. Thus, some questions: Which kind of list was Menno’s list? How “unadulterated” and “pure” must a church’s “doctrine” be for that church to be part of the true church? How full an “obedience” must her members demonstrate? How much “oppression and tribulation” must they endure? And what about our lists, written or unwritten, of the true church today? Are we confusing the two kinds of lists? And does our confusion ever cause us to reject as “untrue” any part of Christ’s church that might be merely “unhealthy” and in need of nurture rather than isolation?

I think I’ve written enough to tip my hand: I’m a child of the reformers, and I pray that we will be continually reforming our churches to better follow Christ and honor his written Word.

I’d love to hear from some of you. What questions do you think we should be asking ourselves, in light of our Reformation heritage? Maybe we could compile a longer list! What conclusions for today do you draw from your reflection on our history, Anabaptist or otherwise? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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

  1. Leith, John H., Creeds of the Churches, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982), 610.

Save page