When did Mennonites Discard the Early Anabaptist Interpretation of Jesus’ Exception Clause about Divorce?

How did American Mennonites end up abandoning the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce? When and why did they reject the position that remarriage was permissible after a spouse had committed adultery? Months ago, I left my readers hanging, promising to answer this question.

I am sorry I have not done so. Here is why: As I dug into the question, I discovered there was a wealth of historical evidence to examine. In my first posts on the historical views of Anabaptists about remarriage after sexual immorality, I included virtually all the primary source evidence I could find (as an amateur historian working from home). If I were to do the same for the period beginning in the mid-1800s, however, I would end up with a book. This would require months of study to ensure I was treating the evidence justly.

After weeks digging into the evidence, I became overwhelmed. So, I crawled out of my hole and did other things, like make music and spend time with my family.

Recently, however, I received an email from a reader in the Netherlands. It included these questions: “Could you explain to me what happened that the Anabaptists changed their view about remarriage? When did this happen and what was the cause that made them change their mind?”

This email prodded my conscience, so I will attempt an answer.

I want to be clear that what follows (in future blog posts) is a series of informed propositions, not a publishable thesis. I am quite sure all the factors I will summarize played a role in why American Anabaptists changed their minds about remarriage after sexual immorality, but I do not know which of these factors was most important, and I am sure I am missing some factors I should include.

I will also make little attempt to document my claims here, because doing so would double my writing time. If you want references on a specific point, feel free to let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.

That said, here is what I think I know so far. I’ll address the when question in this post, and hopefully follow it up with one or more posts discussing why.

When did American Mennonites abandon the early Anabaptist position on remarriage after adultery?

It seems clear that this change happened over the period of many decades—probably a century or more. It was finally officially resolved for the Mennonite Church on November 18, 1905, in a General Conference meeting held at Berlin (now Kitchener), Ontario. Here are the relevant lines from the meeting minutes:

Ques. 4. Is it scriptural to receive a person into church fellowship while he lives as husband with another woman before a divorced wife be dead?

Resolved, That in the light of the scriptures (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:3; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-17:39 [sic]), we hold that a separation between husband and wife is allowable only for the cause of fornication. 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. That we pledge ourselves to use all consistent efforts to convince humanity of the sin of divorcement and prevent further propagation of the evil.

This resolution may appear unclear on its own, but the historical context clarifies the intent. The Mennonite church had been publicly debating for decades now whether divorce and remarriage were ever permissible, and some of the most vigorous debate was over whether adultery was justification for remarriage. This resolution clearly stated the official position of the Mennonite Church: No one who was living in a second marriage while a first spouse was still alive could be part of the church. There were no exceptions.

Further, the language implied another conviction that was frequently taught at the time: in cases of sexual immorality (“fornication”), only “separation” was permitted, not divorce.

Here is the report in the Herald of Truth about the 1905 resolution that established the official position of the Mennonite Church against remarriage in cases of adultery (large red arrow). Of personal interest to me (small red arrow) is that one of the deacons present, Silas Bauman, was a brother to my great-great grandfather Martin Bauman (father of Henry Bauman, father of Verna Gingrich, mother of Elaine Gingrich, mother of me). Source: “Fourth General Conference,” Herald of Truth, (Elkhart, IN: Mennonite Publishing Company) November 30, 1905, Vol. XLII, No. 48, 382, https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth42unse/page/n193/mode/1up

1905, then, is our end point to the when question. The topic of remarriage after divorce would be debated by Mennonites again in the mid-20th century (as more churches experienced firsthand the difficulties of divorce among their membership and as the fundamentalism of the prior generation came under general review). But, for the more conservative streams of the American Mennonite church, this 1905 resolution staked a position that has been firmly held as gospel truth ever since.

A start point is not possible to pin down, but the September 1867 issue of the Herald of Truth (the quasi-official Mennonite periodical edited by John F. Funk) provides an important window. In this issue, John M. Brenneman, an important bishop from Ohio, raised a question:

[In] Matt 19:9, it is said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery.” Query:—What is forbidden here? putting away one’s wife; or marrying another? or, in case of fornication, is it permitted to do both? An answer is required.

An editorial assistant provided an answer:

“Neither a prohibition nor a permission is expressed here. Simply what constitutes the crime of adultery is here explained… I do not think it can be shown anywhere in the Bible that it is right for a follower of Christ to put away his wife for any cause whatever, be it fornication or faithlessness in any respect.”

Later the same month, Brenneman raised his question at the Virginia Conference, and received a very different answer—one that matched the historic Anabaptist understanding: “It was also decided that for the same reason that a man is allowed to put away his wife, he is allowed to marry again.”

After the Virginia Conference decision was printed in the Herald of Truth, Funk reported, “We have received a large number of letters making inquiries and objections to the decision of the Virginia Conference.” Significantly, Funk himself declined to take a side in the debate. Instead, a flurry of exchanges occurred in the Herald, including a letter from Brenneman where he vigorously defended the Virginia Conference decision. Other writers disagreed, and the Ohio and Indiana Conferences adopted resolutions contrary to the Virginia Conference.

Finally, sensing he was losing the argument, Brenneman wrote a short and rather pitiful apology in the July, 1868 issue of the Herald:

It appears, I have given an occasion of offense to many beloved brethren by my awkward article on divorce and marrying again, according to Matt. 19:9… I am very sorry, that I have made known my thoughts on this subject through the Herald; but it is done now, and can not be undone… If the brethren do not esteem me altogether too unworthy, I would desire that they earnestly entreat the Lord to be merciful to me, and to give me understanding in that in which I am yet ignorant, and to enlighten me in that which is yet dark to me. Your humble, weak and unworthy brother, J. M. BRENNEMAN.

Clearly, as of 1867, there was strong disagreement within the Mennonite Church over divorce, including the more specific question of whether divorce and remarriage are permissible after sexual immorality. The strength of the opinions suggests that a variety of teachings may have existed in parallel in different conferences for some time, perhaps for decades or more. There were some church leaders who did not know how to interpret Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:9, some who believed remarriage was permissible after adultery, and others who were equally confident that remarriage was never permitted (and, according to some, not even divorce).

The more restrictive camp won out in this particular exchange, but it is important to note that intermittent discussion and a variety of views continued to be printed in the Herald in coming decades. Multiple examples could be cited. In an article written for the May 1, 1882 issue, we find this defense of the historic Anabaptist view:

Christ says in plain language that fornication is the only reason for which they could separate and marry another. These are not my words but the words of Christ, and the Old Mennonites so understand them. I refer you to the first part of the article on Matrimony in the Confession of Faith in the Martyrs Mirror…

A comment in the August 1, 1883 issue summarized the disagreement well:

“The Congregational ministers of Chicago have unanimously decided not to solemnize marriage where either party has procured a divorce on other than scriptural grounds.” Not only Congregational, but all ministers everywhere ought to occupy the same ground. In fact, the writer [probably editor Funk] doubts the propriety of the re-marriage of those who have been divorced on any grounds, but there is a difference of opinion upon this point. [Emphasis added.]

It was not until the 1905 General Conference that the question was officially settled for the entire Mennonite Church. Some disagreement undoubtedly remained, but official policy was–for the time–clear.

The why question is a little harder to pin down.

“What was the cause that made” American Mennonites “change their mind” and reject the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause? I don’t think there was a single cause, but rather a cluster of reasons. I will aim to summarize several of those causes in forthcoming blog posts.

Meanwhile, I invite your responses to this post in the comments below. Thanks for reading!


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Churchfunding: 2020 Year-End Report

It’s time again to give witness to God’s faithfulness in providing for our housing needs. As many of you know, we purchased our Atlanta house on March 25, 2016, paying the seller in full immediately, thanks to loans and gifts from nearly 90 individuals or families. Since this crowdfunding effort was the work of Christ’s church, we coined a new term: “churchfunding.” (Here is the post that officially launched this adventure.)

At the beginning of 2020, we owed $35,062.50 in house loans. By the end of the year, we owed only $28,782.50.

Here is how that $6,280 difference breaks down:

  • We repaid $5,180 in loans, at a little more than the promised rate of $500 per month.
  • We were forgiven $1,100 in principal and interest by several generous lenders.

In total, our house debt declined by $280 more than we expected in 2020.

At the promised $500 per month, we should have all remaining lenders repaid within five years—by about October of 2025. As promised, we are using a random number generator and prayer to select who is repaid each month. If you have a financial squeeze, however, let us know and we will consider prioritizing your repayment as possible.

Cash Flow and House Happenings

Ironically, given the coronavirus economy of 2020, our cash flow was slightly bigger than previous years. A temporary end to piano lessons and slowdown to my Choice Books work were both offset by government stimulus efforts, and after I transitioned to teaching piano online (mostly), my student pool has ballooned to 35 as I head into 2021.

A nearly-empty Concourse A at “the world’s busiest airport” during the height of the coronavirus scare in spring of 2019. I used to service Choice Books displays two days each week at the Atlanta airport. Currently I go there one day every two weeks, though more stores are gradually reopening.

On the other hand, our vehicles are now 15 and 18 years old (go, Toyota!) and we are still years away from having saved enough for a dreamed-of western trip as a family. But, as I often pray with thanksgiving, God is meeting all our needs, which he identifies as food and clothing/shelter, and much more besides. We are grateful.

Our main house improvements this year involved windows. First, I used my spring coronavirus “vacation” to finally strip and repaint the big original steel window in our living room.

We also got the windows replaced on the northern side of the house, in the piano studio and the laundry room.

The originals were single pane and one was broken.

Other projects included painting the front door and some exterior trim…

…building a cabinet in a bathroom…

…and painting the laundry room and installing coat racks for the girls.

Next projects? Well, a dishwasher is on order. Perhaps after that we’ll get the shower in the master bedroom working? Or build more closet shelves? Or make the basement entrance functional?

Meanwhile, we’re thankful for what we have–and that God protected our house in October, when we saw the worst flash flood in our backyard that we’ve seen yet.

Water pouring over our backyard bridge. The manhole in our side yard was spewing hundreds of gallons of dirty water down our driveway, too.

Other News

Our public and private lives continue much as last year. We continue to worship with Cellebration Fellowship, where I am now responsible for scheduling music leaders for each Sunday. I take my turn leading, too, sometimes with the help of my daughters. This year we have met variously in a building, online, and in a campground.

I am thankful for the devotion to Christ that is evident in the words and actions of so many in the “Cell Fell” group. Here’s a photo of most of us from a little over a year ago:

On our street we aim to be good neighbors in Jesus’ name. Sometimes that means sharing food (which Zonya often does) or tools (as I just did now). Over Thanksgiving we loved our neighborhood by spending several hours clearing a nearby hiking trail.

Often our service is through the ordinary means of faithfulness in raising children, loving students, selling Christian books, and writing the occasional blog post.

I’ll end with four 2020 happenings that were noteworthy for our family.

First (in every way), my father passed away in February. Though we have not traveled back to Canada since his funeral (thank you, coronavirus), I miss him. He left a legacy of gentle integrity, hard work, and dependence on God’s mercy. I especially think of him while working with my hands around the house, since he was a master craftsman.

Here is a photo of my family, taken at Dad’s funeral, which happened about two weeks before the Canada-USA border started shutting down.

Second, we finally managed to go camping somewhere besides our backyard. Here is an amazing sunrise we saw from our north Georgia campsite.

Third, we got our first pets! We raised chickens from eggs this spring and bought the girls a cat for Christmas. Having animals around complicates life, but is good for all four of my girls.

You could say our pets have been babied just a little.

Fourth, my wife’s brother got married in December, and my daughters and I provided the special music. Preparing for this occupied much of our time for a couple months.


We remain deeply grateful for all our churchfunding supporters.  We want to faithfully steward this house for Jesus in 2021. Please pray we will walk faithfully in the Spirit of Jesus. May God bless you and make you salt and light in your own community!

For Christ and his Church,
Dwight Gingrich


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“In the Sight of God”: Divine Perspective from 1 Peter

I enjoyed a slow read through 1 Peter this afternoon, sitting quietly in my backyard and giving myself time to meditate as I read. 1 Peter was a letter written to “elect exiles” (1:1), and it definitely offers a counter-cultural way of seeing life. I think its message is timely for today.

Three times in this letter Peter specifically describes how things look “in the sight of God” or “in God’s sight.” Do you see things as God sees them? Let’s find out. Here’s a quiz for you:

  1. Who is “chosen and precious” in God’s sight?
  2. What is “a gracious thing” in God’s sight?
  3. What is “very precious” in God’s sight?

These questions, obviously, have multiple correct answers. But the answers that Peter provides suggest a pattern–a pattern that can be summarized by the proverb Peter quotes near the end of his letter: “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:6).

The Rejected Jesus

Who is “chosen and precious” in God’s sight?

The Lord Jesus Christ, Peter says, is “a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious” (2:4). He is “the stone that the builders rejected” which “has become the cornerstone” (2:7).

In this letter Peter emphasizes how Jesus shed his blood (1:2); how the prophets predicted his sufferings (1:11); and how he suffered unjustly and patiently on the cross both as our substitute and our example (2:21-24; 3:18; 4:1, 13; 5:1).

God saw “the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1:19), and God chose Christ. Of course, Christ was already “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1:20). But there is a sense in which Christ was chosen all over again by God after the cross. The cross had displayed his true identity as a humble, suffering Lamb who had shed his blood to “sprinkle” (1:2) and “ransom” (1:18) a people for God.

In the sight of God, this rejected Christ is “chosen and precious.” Therefore, the God who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble raised Jesus from the dead (1:3) and exalted him to share in his own glory (1:11; 3:21-22; 5:1).

A Servant Who Endures Unjust Suffering

What is “a gracious thing” in God’s sight?

Peter knew that it was a gracious gift to be “counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” of Jesus; persecution was reason for “rejoicing” (Acts 5:41). In this letter, Peter extends that reality to other suffering besides persecution. Any unjust suffering endured patiently in imitation of Christ has meaning or “credit,” Peter insists; “this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” (2:19, 20).

Peter applied this truth especially to servants whose masters were unjust (2:18): “If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God” (2:20). Why is this true? Peter continues:

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:21-23)

This is incredibly counter-cultural. Peter says that when a servant is “beaten” (2:20) by his or her master, this is a chance for them to fulfill their calling. I don’t think Peter is saying that suffering itself is the calling of Christians, but he is saying something very close to this: he is saying that patient endurance of suffering in the imitation of Christ is at the heart of the Christian’s calling.

On the one hand this is a hard saying. No reviling of unjust masters, Peter insists. No threatening. How unlike the methods of many today who seek social justice!

But it is also an incredibly empowering teaching. Any unjust suffering, Peter says, can have eternal meaning and purpose. Patient, Christ-like endurance of any injustice earns the credit of God’s favor, pleasure, or commendation. (See how the CSB, NLT, and NIV  translate the ESV phrase “a gracious thing in the sight of God.”)

Following in the steps of Jesus through unjust suffering leads to sharing in Christ’s glory, for the God who is watching opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

A Wife With a Gentle and Quiet Spirit

What is “very precious” in God’s sight?

After addressing servants whose masters were not “good” or “gentle” (2:18), Peter addresses wives whose husbands “do not obey the word” of the gospel (3:1). Such men were likely distant not only from the gospel, but also from their wives who had converted to Christ. By doing so, they had abandoned their husband’s religion, potentially damaging his social standing.

Peter advises such women not to try to entice their husbands by adding appealing hairstyles, jewelry, or attractive clothing (3:3). Instead, they should win their husbands (to the gospel and also to themselves) by the adornment of “respectful and pure conduct” (3:2) that was the overflow of “the hidden person of the heart” (3:4). In particular, Peter praised “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (3:4).

Peter tells wives to follow the example of “the holy women” of old “who hoped in God” and submitted to their husbands–even to husbands whose choices were sometimes frightening, as Abraham’s choices were at times for Sarah (3:6). This teaching does not forbid women from escaping from domestic violence, but it does mean Christian wives will choose to “subject themselves even to unjust treatment because of their faith in Christ.”1

Again, this is counter-cultural teaching. Who today praises the imperishable beauty of a wife’s gentle (humble) and quiet (peaceable) spirit? How much less when a wife is saddled with a husband who has withdrawn his heart from her, or who leaves her with cause for fear?

Who praises such a spirit? God does–the God who opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. Hope in me, he says; “do not fear” (3:5-6). Your beauty is very precious to me. I will give you grace.

Where Is Your Focus?

“Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ,” Peter urges his readers (1:13). This Jesus, the stone rejected by men but chosen by God, is the example for all of us–servants, wives, and everyone else. And his pattern of suffering followed by glory is the bedrock of our hope.

Don’t be a typical resident of a Western democracy, focused on demanding your own rights. Don’t focus on securing full justice here and now. Don’t focus on threatening others with justice until you get yours.

Don’t belittle the value of quietly living a peaceable life. Don’t miss the eternal credit of enduring suffering without reviling or threatening. Don’t miss the promise of God’s favor.

Do live as an “elect exile” (1:1), focused on the promises of your heavenly citizenship. Do focus on the grace that will be brought to you when Jesus appears. Do patiently endure suffering. And do entrust yourself to God.

What ultimately matters, remember, is how things truly stand “in the sight of God.” He opposes the proud, and he will indeed give grace to the humble.

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:6-7)


How do you think we need to improve our perspective to better see things as God sees them? Please share your insights in the comments below.


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

  1. Karen Jobes, 1 Peter, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), 206. More from Jobes: “Christian women married to unbelieving men are not to despise and reject their husbands, making the household climate one of hostility, but to subject themselves even to unjust treatment because of their faith in Christ, and in so doing accomplish God’s better way… The exhortation… immediately raises the question of whether women should stay in marriages where there is physical abuse. There is nothing in this passage of Scripture that would either sanction the abuse of wives or suggest that women should continue to submit themselves to that kind of treatment. The nature of the suffering that Peter is addressing here is primarily verbal abuse and loss of social standing.”

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