Greetings, friends! After months of silence, I have finally prepared some blog posts for you. I hope you will find these thought-provoking and helpful, as their preparation has been for me.
My Study on Divorce in Anabaptist History
A major focus of my blogging in the past couple years has been on Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage in cases of sexual immorality (Matt. 19:9; cf. 5:32). The historical evidence (see here and here) clearly shows that early Anabaptists agreed Jesus’ exception permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. While their interpretations of the Bible’s divorce teachings were simplistic at points (and some also had erratic practices), I was impressed by their trust in the apparent clarity of Jesus’ teaching.
My historical study also convinced me that when American Mennonites officially abandoned this early Anabaptist belief and practice (in the late 1800s to early 1900s), they did so for social and pragmatic reasons more than because of any fresh or deeper study of Scripture. It appears they were primarily motivated by the widespread social concern about the “divorce evil” in America at the time, a concern that engaged churches of all denominations—and also political leaders, all the way up to the president. (Can you imagine a president today addressing Congress and warning that because “the divorce laws are dangerously lax” there is “a diminishing regard for the sanctity of the marriage relation”?)
Yes, Mennonites did develop new ways of explaining the Bible’s teachings on divorce. (They also suddenly began complaining about how confusing Jesus’ exception clauses are.) But it appears that their stricter position on divorce was adopted before their new biblical interpretations were comprehensively developed or published. In other words, doctrinal conclusions probably controlled the exegesis more than the other way around.
That history really deserves a book-length treatment. Maybe someday?
(In many ways this history reminds me of what is happening today as Christians react to broader cultural concerns, such as that over racial conflict. Christians of varied camps typically begin with their conclusions, often influenced by non-Christian sources, and then develop biblical paradigms for defending those conclusions. In neither case—divorce then or racial conflict now—do many Christians have the liberty of starting without bias from Scriptural evidence to form well-balanced doctrine. Back to my topic…)
My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Starting with Paul
Meanwhile, my historical study had another effect: It stirred and freed me to take a fresh look at the biblical evidence for myself. What does the Bible actually teach about divorce and remarriage? This, too, deserves a book—especially for fellow Anabaptists who, like me, share a church history that includes (1) sharply contradictory teachings from our most important historical leaders and documents and (2) a tendency to prioritize divorce teachings as a boundary-marking doctrine.
Are divorce and remarriage always forbidden? Is separation sometimes okay, but never divorce? Is divorce sometimes okay, but never remarriage? Is remarriage okay only in cases of sexual immorality (based on Jesus’ exception)? Is remarriage also possible in cases of abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (based on Paul’s teachings)? Are there other similar legitimate grounds for divorce and remarriage? Questions abound not only among biblical scholars but also—often unspoken, sometimes fiercely debated—among conservative Anabaptists.
Where, then, is the best place to begin a biblical study on divorce and remarriage? There are strong opinions about this! Some insist we begin with what Genesis 2 says about marriage. Others argue we should begin with the “clearest” of Jesus’ statements—defined as the ones with the least data, the ones with no mention of exceptions. A very good case can be made for beginning with Matthew’s Gospel, the Gospel that was the teaching manual of the early church—which includes Jesus’ exceptions. An equally strong case can be made for starting with Paul’s writings, which may have preceded the writing of the Gospels and which provide apostolic interpretation of Jesus’ words.
I’ve concluded there are pros and cons to any starting point. What matters most is that one considers all the relevant biblical material well.
My study first centered on Jesus’ words, and I gradually started gaining more light there. Then early this year I dove deep into Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, especially his statement in verse 15: “If the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved” (ESV). Does “not enslaved” mean free to remarry?
I carefully crafted a long series of blog posts (about 40 pages) digging into this question. I learned a lot from some of the best scholars and dug further into a few sub-questions on my own. I gained confidence about what Paul meant, confidence that remains with me today. Then I shared my conclusions with over fifteen respected friends and acquaintances, intentionally choosing some likely to agree and some likely to disagree.
Their response reinforced several things to me. First, this is a topic with entrenched opinions and social consequences, and people are slow to change their minds. Second, most people lack either interest or ability to dig into a highly technical discussion on the topic, no matter how clearly I try to write. And third, most Anabaptists will have a hard time listening well if one starts with Paul rather than Jesus, even if one presents biblical reasons for doing so.
My Study on Divorce in the Bible:
Jesus and Expectations about Simplicity
These observations made me hit pause on my plans to share my posts online starting in April. As I regrouped, I decided the best thing to do might be to start over, beginning this time with Jesus and aiming, if I can, to write a little more simply.
Simplicity, of course, has its own dangers. Readers from conservative backgrounds often have many valid concerns and questions about divorce and remarriage that are not sufficiently addressed by most writers. Many authors leap to conclusions too quickly, leaving cautious readers behind. On the other hand, many conservative Anabaptists are highly skeptical of anyone who uses a lot of words to argue their point. Anything that hard to prove probably isn’t true, right? Isn’t the Bible clear? Isn’t Satan the author of confusion?
This is a catch-22 situation of the worst sort and honestly can be quite discouraging for someone who is sincerely searching and teaching the Scriptures. I’m trying to come to peace with the fact that there is no way to please everyone, and I won’t try to do so in this series. (I also need to give up the goal of fully pleasing myself, a hurdle equally unattainable and equally able to keep me from sharing my words.)
So, here goes: I’ll start sharing my thoughts, imperfect as they are, and see what sort of a “series” we end up with.
In an ideal world, a short explanation about divorce and remarriage would be all we would need. Nearly twenty centuries of contradictory interpretations have spread layers of paint and grime over the Bible’s words, however, hiding its original artwork from clear view. Our job, then, is to be art restorers, patiently removing misinterpretations and misunderstandings while leaving the original undamaged. To do this well, we need to leave our preferences behind and invite the Spirit to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, even if this means seeing some things differently than we have before.
As I revisit Jesus’ words, I mean no disrespect to those Mennonite church leaders of a century or so ago, who adopted and articulated the strict no-divorce position that many of us inherited. Nor do I mean any disrespect to those of you who share the same view today. Rather, I ask for myself the freedom to evaluate inherited teachings by Scripture—the same freedom that was exercised both by the first Anabaptists and by those Mennonite leaders who adopted the more recent teachings we inherited.
I extend this freedom to you, too. Every generation is entrusted with this freedom and responsibility, which should be carried out humbly—under God’s word, submitted to the Spirit, and with an ear to fellow saints past and present.
Why Am I Writing?
Why, then, am I writing about divorce and remarriage? Three quick clarifications:
- No, thank God, I am not digging into this topic because of any difficulties either in my own marriage or of anyone close to me.
- No, I am not writing because I am a flaming liberal who is intent on deconstructing the clear teachings of Scripture. (For the record, I still fully affirm what I wrote in my series on Jesus and homosexuality, where I reached a decidedly orthodox and counter-cultural conclusion.)
- And yes, one reason for this study is simply that I enjoy puzzling over tough questions of biblical interpretation. This certainly qualifies. I’ve had unanswered questions about divorce for years. (See here for a bit of my story.)
More importantly, though, this is a topic with real-life implications, with people who urgently need what Paul called “sound doctrine”—teaching that is both true and healthy. If I can help even a few people hear Jesus better and experience his life more fully, I will have achieved my main goal.
I realize I may have raised a lot of questions in your mind with this opening post—questions about me, about your own beliefs, or about what the Bible says. I still have questions, too, and have no desire to pose as an expert who can answer all divorce and remarriage questions.
You are welcome to share your questions and insights in the comments below. I look forward to learning from you and probably even hearing good reasons to revisit a few of my conclusions.
Do comment, but please be patient about jumping to conclusions or demanding answers. First we must engage the task of carefully reading Jesus’ words. God is faithful, and by his Spirit he will guide us together into as much understanding as we need to please him.
I plan to share a blog post at least once a week, at least for the next six weeks or so. The next two posts will also be introductory, then we’ll start walking slowly through Matthew 19. Please be patient if it takes me a while to get to your favorite Bible verses. 🙂
Thank you for reading, and welcome back!
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 These are the words of Theodore Roosevelt, spoken to Congress on January 30, 1905. Evans Holbrook, “Divorce Laws and the Increase of Divorce,” Michigan Law Review 8, no. 5 (1910): p. 387, accessed 6/15/2022, https://doi.org/10.2307/1272577. The “divorce evil” was mentioned frequently in Mennonite periodicals that year, as they tracked the comments and decisions of public figures and church denominations. On November 18 of the same year the Mennonite Church officially adopted the position “That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church.”