Tag Archives: Anthony C. Thiselton

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.


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  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.

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Is Jesus Okay With Homosexuality? (6 of 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Jesus Okay With Homosexual Activity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Must We Agree With Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What, Then, Is the Loving Thing To Do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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


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Appendix:
Witnesses From the Historic Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5)

This is the final post of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


He is blind and has been blind since birth. He can neither see nor speak, though occasionally he laughs. His head is large, and his hands are small. His legs are twisted, and his feet are as tiny as a five-year-old’s. He can’t learn. He can’t even lift his head. He has to be spoon-fed and sponge-bathed, and someone has to change his diapers. Sometimes he has convulsions, rattling not only the frame of his bed but the hearts of those who love him…

Who would think that in that bed was the power to move presidents? Who would think that muteness could be so eloquent? That blindness could open so many eyes? Who would think that so many lives would be uplifted by someone who couldn’t lift his own head?

You would. You would think those things. If you had been to Oliver’s room…

So writes Ken Gire, in his forward to Christopher de Vinck’s memoir about his brother, Oliver.  Few books have moved me as powerfully as this one.

Gire continues:

From the bed in Oliver’s room comes a glimmer of Bethlehem. If you will not look away, you will see something of what was revealed in the straw and swaddling clothes of the manger.

You will see the power of the powerless.

It is the way God works in a world that idolizes strength and worships the means of attaining it. “His strength is perfected in weakness,” is the way the Bible puts it. And weakness is what you find when you come to Oliver’s room.1

The book is called The Power of the Powerless. Henri J. M. Nouwen writes the introduction:

Chris… writes about… people who by many are considered misfits, vegetables, tragic flaws of nature, people about whom many feel that it would have been better if they had not been born. But for Chris these people are God’s messengers, they are the divine instruments of God’s healing presence, they are the ones who bring truth to a society full of lies, light into the darkness, and life into a death-oriented world.2

If the words of Gire and Nouwen resonate with you, read de Vinck’s book for yourself.   His brother Oliver illustrates the central point of this blog series: “weak” people are indispensable in Jesus’ church.

“In patristic thought the theme recurs that believers need those to whom they can show active care, protection, support, and love,” writes Thiselton. “Otherwise they cannot serve as Christ served ‘for others.’” 3 We need “weak” Christians, and God intentionally composed Christ’s church to include them.

“The church is a school for sinners, not a museum for saints.”4 This witticism, Thiselton notes, “underlines that a church made up only of self-styled ‘gifted’ elite would not be the church of Christ.”5

IS WEAKNESS ALWAYS GOOD?

Weakness and mutual suffering are not the sum total of God’s purposes for us, of course. His eternal design includes much more. That body you inhabit, which is the scene of so much dishonor and weakness? “It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power” (1 Cor. 15:43).

Even now, what was true of the blind man in John 9 is also sometimes true of us: He was born blind, not because he or his parents had sinned, true enough, but also not because God intended for him to remain blind his entire life. Rather, he was born blind “that the works of God might be displayed in him”—the works, that is, of God healing him and thus demonstrating that Jesus was sent from God (John 9:3).

If this blind man had resisted being healed by Jesus, his weakness would have missed its purpose. What about us?

And should we really lump all forms of weakness together as equal? Surely it is not only the “strong” who should seek to become skilled physicians of the soul who can distinguish between different soul diseases. Those who are “weak” must likewise seek to be honest about the mix of physical, emotional, and spiritual causes of their weaknesses, submitting to God’s grace for each.

It is also true that, though weaknesses need not destroy our usefulness in the church in general, they may limit our usefulness for specific missions. Well-meaning Christians won’t always agree when this is the case; recall Paul and Barnabas splitting ways over John Mark (Acts 15:37-40).

We do not know what sort of weakness (spiritual? emotional? physical?) caused Mark to “withdraw” from the “work” of Paul’s first missionary trip. Whatever the cause, Paul experienced Mark’s withdrawal as an indication that he could not be trusted to persevere in the hard work of traveling gospel ministry. Yet Mark’s life contains many lessons for both “weak” and “strong” Christians. Consider:

  • Barnabas took Mark with him on a mission trip to Cyprus; quite likely he proved useful there under his cousin Barnabas’s softer leadership.
  • Mark later proved to be “very useful” to Paul “for ministry” (2 Tim. 4:11).
  • Mark was humble enough that, despite having been rejected by Paul, he was willing to again be one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Phm. 1:24).
  • Paul was humble enough to call Mark “very useful,” to count him as a “fellow worker,” and to make a special point of insisting that others “welcome him” (Col. 4:10).
  • Mark’s great usefulness was revealed most powerfully when he wrote his Gospel.

Was it wise for Paul to refuse to take Mark along on his return missionary trip? We really don’t have enough data to answer that question well. What we do know is that “weak” Mark proved indispensable to the Church for all ages.

Mark’s story also suggests that “weak” Christians may grow in strength and usefulness. Similarly, right after our key passage about God honoring the weak, Paul urges us to “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). We should not assume that God intends for us to remain lacking in new gifts that could equip us for new forms of service.

LOVE, WEAKNESS, AND THE GOSPEL

But something is even more important than “the higher gifts.” Something is better even than if all of us possessed all the gifts, better than if we all appeared strong and bursting with honor. “I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31).

That more excellent way is the way of love (1 Cor. 13). And in this broken world, love blossoms most fragrantly in Christ’s body when we do not each possess all the gifts that are most honored among us. Love blooms most fully when some of us appear weak.

And so we rest in God’s design. “God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose” (1 Cor. 12:18).

If simply getting out of bed in the morning to feed your family requires every ounce of your of faith, then perhaps God says of you as Jesus said of the widow who put two small coins into the temple offering box:

Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on. (Luke 21:3-4)

Perhaps this widow overheard Jesus’ words. If so, imagine how honored she felt!

Witherington reminds us that the same sort of honor must be given to the seemingly weak within the church:

Paul’s word about giving more honor to the weaker members of the body of Christ, the less “presentable” ones, needs to be heeded. He believes that even these folk have essential gifts and functions to exercise. It is a mistake to bring the world’s evaluative system into the ekklēsia and to set up an honor roll that favors the more presentable and dignified, or those with the more outwardly showy or dramatic gifts. Paul believes that the body of Christ is only truly strong when it gives special honor and attention to its weakest members. The more presentable members do not need such attention.6

In offering honor to its weakest members, the church displays something that is essential to the gospel message itself. Listen to Paul’s description of those whom God has gathered around the “folly” of cross:

God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:27-29)

Paul was speaking, in part, about himself. Later he contrasts himself and the other authentic apostles with the arrogant Corinthians:

I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless… We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things. (1 Cor. 4:9-13, emphasis added)

Again, this “weakness” was not a distraction from Paul’s ministry. Nor was it a mere happenstance, a set of circumstances that was neither here nor there. Rather, this “weakness” was essential to the nature of the gospel Paul was preaching. It was essential for the display of God’s grace.

Jesus’ weakness in the manger was an essential element of the gospel story. His weakness on the cross was crucial for our salvation. Just so, our weakness today remains an indispensable part of the good news of God’s mighty kingdom.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the Lord assured Paul (2 Cor. 12:9).

The Lord’s assurance is for us, too. Therefore we, like Paul, can respond with courage: “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

Are you weak? Do others consider you weak?

Do not despair. Your weakness is exactly what God needs to complete his composition.

He chose you. He placed you. His design is that “the power of Christ” will “rest upon” you.

You may appear weak, dishonorable, and even unpresentable. But you are indispensable.

God needs you. Your weakness is God’s gift to his church.

(Dare I preach this even to myself? “God needs me. My weakness is God’s gift to his church.” I believe. Help thou my unbelief!)

Trust the Artist. Someday we will see that every shadow has enhanced his glory and our joy.


Thank you for reading this blog series. I would love to hear your feedback. What is your experience of strengths and weaknesses in the church? Where have you seen Christians do well or poorly in how we honor the “weak” among us? What have I missed in my exposition? Please share your insights in the comments below. Thank you!

  1. Ken Gire, foreword to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 9-10. Bold print added.
  2. Henri J. M. Nouwen, introduction to The Power of the Powerless, by Christopher de Vinck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 18.
  3. Thiselton, ibid., 1008.
  4. On page 287 of The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), Thiselton credits this quote to “J.C. Wand.” Though I have not been able to find the original source, my research confirms that this Wand is otherwise known as John William Charles Wand, Anglican bishop of London after World War II.
  5. Thiselton, First Epistle, 1008.
  6. Witherington, ibid., 263.

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