Tag Archives: catechism

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

This is the second of several historical posts surveying how Anabaptists have interpreted Jesus’ exception clauses (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) regarding divorce and remarriage in cases of porneia (“sexual immorality”). The first post presented the views of the earliest Anabaptists, in the 1500s. This current post continues our survey up to the 1860s.

After this post, I’d like to pause my historical survey to attempt a summary of how Anabaptists approached the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. After that summary, a third historical survey post is in the works, examining how Anabaptist interpretations evolved in the late 1800s to result in an inflexible stance against all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions.

This series of historical posts springs from an earlier post summarizing how conservative Anabaptists today handle Jesus’ exception clauses.

Introductions aside, let’s resume our historical survey. I have found less evidence for the years 1600 through the 1860s than for the 1500s—probably in part because churches in these centuries sometimes relied on existing documents rather than producing new ones and also partly because historians have tended to focus on the first generations of Anabaptists. But the evidence I’ve found reveals the general pattern of belief quite clearly: Anabaptists in these centuries did not contradict the interpretation of the earliest Anabaptists. Rather, they repeatedly affirmed that Jesus’ exception clauses allow a believer to divorce a spouse who has committed adultery.

About the year 1600 a “Confession of Faith, According to the Holy Word of God” was written, which was later included by Thieleman J. van Braght in his 1660 compilation Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror. The original authors may have been “two Old Frisian preachers, Sijwaert Pietersz and Peter J. Twisck,” but it “is primarily composed of sentences borrowed from the works of Menno Simons.”1 Its inclusion in the Martyrs Mirror has made it influential. Article XXV of this confession, “Of Marriage,” includes the following excerpt:

Christ as a perfect Lawgiver, rejected and abolished the writing of divorcement and permission of Moses, together with all abuses thereof, referring all that heard and believed Him to the original ordinance of His heavenly Father, instituted with Adam and Eve in Paradise; and thus re-establishing marriage between one man and one woman, and so irreparably and firmly binding the bond of matrimony, that they might not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.2

The title page of my maternal grandfather Edwin Gingrich’s copy of the Martyr’s Mirror. Few other books have shaped Anabaptist self-identity so powerfully.

In 1618 the Dutch Mennonite Hans de Ries, who helped author a couple Waterlanderer confessions I quoted in my last post, wrote another short confession. This one was designed to forge unity with a non-Anabaptist group of Christians who had arrived in Amsterdam after being persecuted as Independents in England. This confession’s brief article on marriage opens with these lines:

We hold marriage to be an ordinance of God, instituted in such manner that every husband shall have his own wife and every wife her own husband. These may not be separated except for reasons of adultery.3

About 1625, Pieter Pietersz of the Waterlander branch of the Dutch Mennonites wrote The Way to the City of Peace, a treatise or allegory written in conversation form which became a sort of statement of faith for the Waterlanderers. In one passage Pietersz rebukes those who taught “that a wife must leave her husband if he has fallen into sin”:

Here they ban innocent women who have not overstepped the law of the Lord, God having commanded that they should not leave their husband, except for adultery, Matt. 19:9; 5:32.4

In 1627 in Amsterdam a confession called “Scriptural Instruction” was drawn up and sent as an “olive branch” to congregations in over half a dozen nearby provinces. This confession was designed to imitate and join the example of Hans de Ries, “who had given much thought and effort to reuniting the discordant and divided body of the Mennonite church in Holland.”5 Evidently the four preachers who drafted this confession thought the following statement on marriage could be affirmed by all Dutch Mennonites:

The marriage of the Children of God… must be… kept inviolate, so that each man shall have his own, only wife, and each wife her own husband; and nothing shall separate them, save adultery. Lev. 18; 20; 1 Cor. 5:1; Matt. 19; Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:2; Matt. 5:32; 1 Cor. 9:5.6

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith (1632) is the most famous and influential of the old Anabaptist confessions. It includes Article XII, “Of the State of Matrimony.” This article does not mention divorce or remarriage, saying only that “the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in.” 7 This language (“abuses,” etc.) mirrors the confession from c. 1600 printed in the Martyrs Mirror (which in turn mirrors earlier Anabaptist writings on the topic) and thus should not be misunderstood as a claim that Christ forbade all divorce.8

The Dordrecht Confession of Faith was included in the Martyrs Mirror (1660). Theileman J. van Braght, the compiler of that volume, shows by his editorial comments that he, too, affirms the historic Anabaptist understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After describing the martyr John Schut’s belief that a marriage “may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery,” van Braght comments that Schut was “following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.”9 His inclusion of the c. 1600 confession cited above is additional evidence of his beliefs.

In 1702 Gerhard Roosen, a minister in Hamburg, Germany, produced the first comprehensive Anabaptist catechism in the German language, called Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith. This became “one of the most popular catechisms among the Mennonites of Europe and America,” with at least twenty-two editions published by 1950.10 The article “On Matrimony” discusses Malachi 2:14-15, Matthew 19:4-9, and 1 Corinthians 7:39 in support of the following conclusion:

Concerning the state of matrimony, Christ made amends for the abuses and decline which had crept into it… Christ also again brought the first state of matrimony to its primitive order…  From this [Matt. 19:4-9] it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians [sic], that a man (except in case of fornication [Hureren; “whoring”11],) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives, and that the wife is also bound to her husband by the same tie as long as he lives.12

Roosen’s book also includes a document called “Brief Instruction: From Holy Scripture, in Questions and Answers, for the Young.” This is actually a reprint of the very first German Anabaptist catechism, which appeared in Danzig, Prussia, in 1690.13 This brief catechism became widely known in English as “The Shorter Catechism.” There the following is found:

Quest. 27. Can also a lawful marriage, for any cause, be divorced [getrennet; “separated”]? Ans. No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise separate [scheiden; “divorce”], except in case of “fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”].” Matt. 19, 9.14

Also in 1702, the Swiss Brethren published an adapted version of the Dordrecht Confession of Faith in their compilation Golden Apples in Silver Bowls. For this book they added the underlined clause below to the article on marriage:

The Lord Christ, too, renounced and swept away all the abuses within marriage which meanwhile had crept in, such as separation, divorce, and entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living. He referred everything back to the original precept and left it at that (Mt. 19:4-6).15

Does this represent a new, firmer line, rejecting divorce and remarriage even in cases of adultery? It is hard to know. On the one hand, the additional clause certainly strengthens this confession’s stance against the “abuses” of marriage by listing them explicitly. In particular, the rejection of “entering into another marriage while the original spouse is still living” a very clear warning. It is noteworthy that, when these Swiss Brethren chose to add to the original confession, they chose to strengthen the warnings against abuses rather than add a reference to Jesus’ exception clause.

On the other hand, previous confessions had already spoken explicitly against separation and divorce, so such language is not new. Warnings against wrongful remarriage were also previously given, including in the earliest Swiss document on divorce.16 The mere inclusion of these additional comments, then, does not prove the Swiss Brethren had abandoned their understanding of Jesus’ exception clause. After all, the original Dordrecht Confession likewise fails to mention Jesus’ exception clause, yet the historical context of its Dutch Mennonite authors makes it virtually certain that they nevertheless recognized an exception for adultery. For us to confidently state that this adapted confession represents a change in Swiss Brethren thinking, a clear alternative explanation of Jesus’ exception clause would need to be present.

In short, the most we can say for sure is that the Swiss Brethren felt a need to specify what sort of abuses Christ renounced, rather than feeling a need to mention Jesus’ exception clause. Several possibilities could explain this choice, including (a) that they were growing less confident in their historic interpretation of the exception clause or (b) that their historic consensus affirmation of the exception clause was still strong enough that they felt no need to mention it. In support of option (b) is the fact that Roosen’s catechism book (see above) and the Elbing catechism (see below), which both clearly permit divorce in cases of adultery, became very popular from the later eighteenth century on among the Swiss Brethren and their descendants in American (the “Mennonite Church” or “Old Mennonite Church”).17 Given the lack of any similar supporting evidence for option (a), I think option (b) is the better reading of the Swiss Brethren adaptation of the Dordrecht Confession.18

In 1766 a Dutch Mennonite preacher named Cornelis Ris compiled several previous confessions into his own in an attempt to unify the congregations of his time on the “old foundation of the recognized confessions.” His confession, “like the Dordrecht Confession, had only temporary significance in the Netherlands, but attained a true and wide significance outside its home” and was published by the General Conference Mennonite Church as recently as 1906 as its recognized confession.19 The 1904 English printing contains the following excerpt:

The will of God concerning this state is clearly expressed, viz., that only two persons free from all others and not of too close blood relationship may enter into it, to be united and bound together without any reserve even unto death. Matthew 19:5; Ephesians 5:28. The separation of such is moreover, altogether prohibited except for the cause of fornication. Matthew 5:31, 32; 19:7-10; 1 Corinthians 7:10, 11.20

In 1778 a catechism was published at Elbing, Prussia. It is hard to overstate how popular this catechism became among diverse groups of Anabaptists in both Europe and North America, continuing to be used even as recently as the mid-twentieth century.21 It was first translated into English in 1848 and the General Conference authorized a revision of the English translation in 1896. The 1904 printing of this document includes the following question and answer:

May married persons be divorced? No: they shall not be divorced, save for the cause of fornication [Ehebruch; “adultery”]. – Matt. 19:3-9, Matt. 5:22.22

I have not been able to find any early North American Mennonite writings that discuss Jesus’ exception clauses. There is good reason, however, not to read this silence as a rejection of the historic Anabaptist position.  

In 1804 a small book was published in Pennsylvania by a bishop named Christian Burkholder. An enlarged reprint published later that year carried the signatures of twenty-seven ministers of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference and “was probably adopted as an official church edition.”23 The book went through at least eight German and five English editions during the nineteenth century. It was first translated into English in 1857, with title “Useful and Edifying Address to the Youth,” when it was included as Part IV in Roosen’s Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith.

This book includes a brief discussion of marriage. There is no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, but near the end of the discussion we read this: “Further I would recommend you to consider the 12th article in our small Confession of Faith, and the 25th in the large one.” The references are almost certainly to the Dordrecht Confession of Faith (“small”) and the confession from c. 1600 (“large”; see above).24 The Dordrecht Confession was “the first Mennonite book printed in America” (in 1727),25 and both of these confessions were included in the Martyrs Mirror, which was translated into German and published in the Ephrata Colony in 1748.

What is important for our discussion here is that Burkholder’s book demonstrates that American Mennonites in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century were directing their members to the large confession of c. 1600, which states that a husband and wife may “not, on any account, separate and marry another, except in the case of adultery or death.”

Even apart from this explicit comment in Burkholder’s book, we know from publication data that from early colonial times up through the nineteenth century and beyond North American Mennonites were actively publishing, translating, and using multiple European Mennonite documents that taught the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. For example, here are some North American republication dates for some relevant documents:26

  • Menno Simon’s Foundation of Christian Doctrine: In German: 1794, 1835, 1849, 1851, 1853, and 1876. In English: 1835, 1863, 1869.
  • Martyrs Mirror: In German: 1748, 1814; 1848-49; 1849; 1870; 1915. In English: 1748-49; 1837; 1886; 1938.
  • Roosen’s catechism, Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith: In German: 11 editions (1769-1950). In English: 5 editions (1857-1950).
  • Elbing catechism: In German: 1824, etc. In English: 1848, etc.
  • Confession of Cornelis Ris: In German, 1904, 1906. In English: 1850, 1895, 1902, 1904.

It is also true, of course, that Mennonite immigrants brought European copies of these documents to American and used them there long before they republished them. The fact that they republished them shows that these documents, and the teachings they contained, were important to early Mennonite generations in North America.

Our chronological journey takes us next to 1853 in South Russia, where the Church in Rudnerweide in Odessa published a “Confession or Short and Simple Statement of Faith of Those Who are Called the United Flemish, Frisian, and High German Anabaptist-Mennonite Church.” This confession quotes emphasizes the strength of the marriage covenant or “bond of matrimony”:

In matrimony man and wife are so bound together and mutually obligated that for no reason and for no cause whatever may they be parted from each other, except for fornication and adultery, even as we read concerning this in the evangelist Matthew, where the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Christ, tempted Him and said, “Is it right that a man should be divorced from His wife for any cause?” …He said to them, “…Whoever divorces his wife, except for causes of fornication, and marries another, he breaks the marriage bond and he who marries a person who has been divorced also breaks the marriage bond.” From this it may be clearly seen and understood that the bond of matrimony is a firm indissoluble bond which may not be broken nor may the parties be divorced from each other except for cause of fornication, even as the Lord Christ said.27

The previous confession raises the question of what Bible translations were used by early Anabaptists. Where our English versions quote Jesus as saying that the one who wrongfully divorces and remarries “commits adultery,” this confession says “breaks the marriage bond.” This phrase probably means “violates the marriage covenant,”28 which accurately expresses the central idea of what it means to “commit adultery.” This wording almost certainly is borrowed from Luther’s translation.29 I will return to this question of Bible translations later.

1864 marked the beginning of a new era for the Mennonite Church in North America.30 In January of that year, John F. Funk published the first issue of a new periodical that would track and shape the thinking of Mennonites for nearly half a century: the Herald of Truth. Funk was not the first Mennonite publisher in America,31 but his publishing efforts were so prolific and his influence so large that he has been called “more than any one leader the founder of the publication and mission work of the Mennonite Church” and “the most important figure in the life of the Mennonite Church in the nineteenth century.”32 Funk’s paper would document and enable many important conversations among Mennonites, including debates about divorce and remarriage.

The first clear evidence that I have found of Mennonites who disagreed with the historic Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause comes from an 1867 issue of Herald of Truth.33 I plan to begin my next historical survey post with that story.

I’ll end this post, however, with the earliest reference to divorce that I found in this periodical, from February, 1865:

I cannot find anywhere in the Scriptures that husband and wife are permitted to separate from [scheiden; “divorce”] each other, except in case of fornication [Hurerei; “whoring”]; and even then they are at liberty to do as they choose, to separate [scheiden; “divorce”], or not…34

The way that this author expresses his interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause is telling. His offhand manner suggests that he was confident his interpretation was shared by many of his readers; if a spouse was sexually promiscuous, their husband or wife was permitted to divorce.35

How should we summarize the evidence from 1600 to the 1860s? Did Anabaptists in these centuries continue to understand Jesus’ exception clauses as their forebears did?

In support of a Yes answer are the following facts:

  1. I have not found any Anabaptist writing from this period that explicitly contradicts the early Anabaptist interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. Some speak against divorce without mentioning Jesus’ exception clause at all, but none offers an alternative interpretation of Jesus’ words.
  2. Anabaptist writings from the 1500s that affirmed both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery or fornication continued to be republished without revision and used widely during this period.
  3. Multiple new writings from this period (at least ten quoted above) explicitly mention an exception for divorce in cases of adultery or fornication, including several catechisms which gained wide usage.

Three facts should be considered in support of a No answer, however:

  1. The latest document quoted above that explicitly affirms that remarriage is permitted in cases of adultery is the oldest one quoted in this post—the confession from c. 1600 that was included in the Martyrs Mirror. Probably many (all?) of the authors of these documents assumed that remarriage was permitted alongside divorce.36 But, except for the c. 1600 confession, the documents above explicitly mention only divorce when citing Jesus’ exception clause.
  2. The confession that was most widely used during this period, the Dordrecht Confession, makes no mention of Jesus’ exception clause, and thus did not reinforce the historic Anabaptist interpretation of his words for the generations of Anabaptists who used it.
  3. As I mentioned above, there is explicit evidence that in the 1860s some members of the Mennonite Church thought remarriage was wrong in cases of adultery and, further, that they affirmed separation but not actual divorce. Such views may have begun decades or more before Funk’s paper preserved them for our discovery.

Despite these important qualifications, the following reality remains highly significant:

From what I can discover, no extant Anabaptist writings from 1600 until the 1860s deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery. All documents either affirm this historic Anabaptist interpretation as part of what is “clearly to be seen” or do not address the question at all.37

This is very striking because, within fifty years, it would be commonplace for North American Mennonite writings to deny that Jesus’ exception clause permits either remarriage or divorce.

It often takes time for theological beliefs to change, and changes in official church positions take even longer. I hope to explore the contours and possible causes of these changes in a future post.

But first, I’d like to consider how early Anabaptists went about the task of interpreting Jesus’ exception clauses. Where did they begin? How did they synthesize these clauses with other biblical texts? Did they do this well? Did they make mistakes? Do they have things to teach us? I welcome your prayers as I ponder these questions.


What strikes you most about the evidence from the period 1600 through the 1860s? How should we assess both the continuity of belief and the subtle hints of change? Are you aware of historical evidence or dynamics that I should add to my evaluation? I welcome your comments below—and thanks for reading!


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

  1. “The Confession of Faith (P.J. Twisck, 1617),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  2. “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. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Confession_of_Faith_(P.J._Twisck,_1617)
  3. Hans de Ries, “Short Confession of Faith and the Essential Elements of Christian Doctrine,” 1618; “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries (1618),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=A_Short_Confession_of_Faith_by_Hans_de_Ries_(1618). Emphasis added. From Cornelius J. Dyck, “A Short Confession of Faith by Hans de Ries,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 38 (January 1964): 5-19.
  4. Pieter Pietersz, The Way to the City of Peace, Spiritual Life in Anabaptism, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1995), 267. Emphasis added.
  5. Christian Neff and Nanne van der Zijpp, “Olive Branch Confession (1627),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  6. “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. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Olive_Branch_Confession_(1627)
  7. Here is the entire Article XII: “We confess that there is in the church of God an honorable state of matrimony, of two free, believing persons, in accordance with the manner after which God originally ordained the same in Paradise, and instituted it Himself with Adam and Eve, and that the Lord Christ did away and set aside all the abuses of marriage which had meanwhile crept in, and referred all to the original order, and thus left it. Genesis 1:27; Mark 10:4. In this manner the Apostle Paul also taught and permitted matrimony in the church, and left it free for every one to be married, according to the original order, in the Lord, to whomsoever one may get to consent. By these words, in the Lord, there is to be understood, we think, that even as the patriarchs had to marry among their kindred or generation, so the believers of the New Testament have likewise no other liberty than to marry among the chosen generation and spiritual kindred of Christ, namely, such, and no others, who have previously become united with the church as one heart and soul, have received one baptism, and stand in one communion, faith, doctrine and practice, before they may unite with one another by marriage. Such are then joined by God in His church according to the original order; and this is called, marrying in the Lord. 2 Corinthians 7:2; 1 Corinthians 9:5; Genesis 24:4; Genesis 28:2; 1 Corinthians 7:39.” “Dordrecht Confession of Faith (Mennonite, 1632),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1632. Accessed June 17, 2020.  https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Dordrecht_Confession_of_Faith_(Mennonite,_1632)#XII._Of_the_State_of_Matrimony
  8. Over two-thirds of this brief article focuses on a primary concern of early Anabaptists, that an “honorable state of matrimony” consists of “two free, believing persons” (emphasis added) and that Christians must marry only “in the Lord.” Another confession from 1630 that is included in Martyrs Mirror likewise devotes over half of the space of its marriage article to the importance of marrying only a believer, without any mention of divorce. In addition, it contains another lengthy portion (about three times the length of its marriage article) that discusses church discipline in cases when a believer marries an unbeliever (“Confession of Faith,” 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), 36-37). The 1627 confession cited above also devotes nearly its marriage article to marrying “only in the Lord.” Such evidence illustrates how, for early Anabaptists, marriage between a believer and an unbeliever was a much more urgent point of debate and concern than the topic of divorce after adultery.
  9. “John Schut, A.D. 1651,” 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), 654.
  10. Robert Friedmann, “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=155562
  11. The English translations of some of these documents appear to be rather loose. I will add alternative translations in brackets for some key words, also providing the original German word. (I used this online dictionary to help me understand the German terms and also ran phrases through Google Translate.) In this case, I am not certain of the part of speech of Hureren, but the family of words clearly refers to “whoring,” not premarital sex. The German original for this passage can be found on page 124 of this scanned book: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1
  12. 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. Emphasis added. Available online: https://archive.org/details/christianspiritu01menn/page/108/mode/2up
  13. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July, 2 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  14. Roosen, ibid., 147. Emphasis added. Bontrager says that “a rigid view” of divorce and remarriage “was taken from 1690 to 1800” (G. Edwin Bontrager, Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), 104). He gives no evidence or additional comment for this assertion, but it seems likely that his starting date is an allusion to this “Shorter Catechism.” Does this catechism present a “rigid view”? The English translation could suggest so; after all, the question is about whether “divorce” is permitted, the answer is “no,” and the follow-up statement only offers permission to “separate.” However, the original German question asks about whether a marriage can wiederum getrennet werden, and the answer uses the word scheiden. While both terms can mean “separate,” it appears that the former term is a more general reference to separation (or “splitting up”), while the latter term is more often explicitly a reference to divorce. Further, the word translated “fornication” above is Ehebruch, which is more accurately translated “adultery” (or, in a translation that reflects etymology, “marriage-breaking”).  In summary, it appears to me that a more careful translation of the original German would read like this: “Can also a lawful marriage, for all sorts of reasons, be separated? Ans. No. For the persons united by such marriage are so closely bound to each other, that they can in no wise divorce, except in case of adultery.” This reading hardly indicates a more “rigid view” than that of the early Anabaptists. (Note: I found the original German catechism question here: https://www.google.com/books/edition/_/397qR_AMjOQC?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=eine%20ordentliche.
  15. “Christian Confession of Faith Of the Peace-Loving And Distinguished Christians Who are called Mennonites,” trans. Elizabeth Bender and Leonard Gross, Golden Apples in Silver Bowls, ed. Gross (Lancaster, Pa.: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), 252.
  16. “And he who separates or permits to separate except for the one cause of fornication, and changes {companions}, commits adultery. And he who marries the one divorced causeth her to commit adultery… We declare that when a man or woman separates except for fornication (that is, adultery), and takes another wife or husband, we consider this as adultery and the participants as not members of the body of Christ, yea, he who marries the separated one we consider a fornicator” (“Concerning Divorce,” c. 1525-1533). This document explicitly mentions all three abuses listed in the 1702 expanded confession: separation, divorce, and marrying another.
  17. Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 10, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939
  18. In a recent article, Andrew V. Ste. Marie cites this adapted confession as evidence that a firm stance against all divorce and remarriage (no exceptions) was not a new idea in the time of Daniel Kauffman: “Among the Mennonites whose origins could be traced to the Swiss Brethren Anabaptist tradition, the roots of the diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to the sixteenth century. A tract from the first generation of Swiss Brethren titled On Divorce argues that adultery is grounds for divorce and the innocent party may remarry. The Swiss Anabaptist Short Simple Confession from 1572 argues for the same position. However, even in Europe, there is evidence of another view. The modified version of the Dordrecht Confession printed in the Swiss Brethren devotional book Golden Apples in Silver Bowls in 1702 teaches… {The same quote I provided above.} Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death.’ Thus, the roots of the multiple views on divorce and remarriage go all the way back to Europe in the Swiss Brethren experience.” (“Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal With Divorce and Remarriage,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 94 (April 2020), 249.) It seems to me that Ste. Marie overstates his evidence here in two ways. First, he does not consider other possible ways to understand the Swiss Brethren additions to the Dordrecht Confession, as I have done above. (In fact, he is somewhat misleading in failing to clarify that most of quotation he provides was actually part of the original document.) Second, even if this adapted confession should be understood to outlaw all divorce and remarriage, with no exceptions, this still provides evidence of “diversity in the discussion on divorce and remarriage” only as early as the eighteenth century, not “the sixteenth century.” Despite my disagreements on these points, I found much of the rest of Ste. Marie’s article helpful and am grateful he mentioned it to me.
  19. “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)
  20. Cornelis Ris, Mennonite Articles of Faith as Set Forth in Public Confession of the Church: a Translation (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Mennonite_Articles_of_Faith_by_Cornelis_Ris_(1766)#XXXI._Of_Marriage
  21. “This catechism… became not only the catechism of the Amish in America, but also of the Mennonite Church (MC), the General Conference Mennonite Church, the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren (now Fellowship of Evangelical Bible Churches), and the Kleine Gemeinde (now called Evangelical Mennonites). It is nothing short of astounding to discover that the Elbing-Waldeck catechism became the standard source of doctrinal, prebaptismal instruction for such widespread groups as the American groups just listed, the Mennonites of Russia (except the Mennonite Brethren group 1860ff.), those of West Prussia, and those of France; further that it is still in widespread use in North America wherever catechisms are used, in both English and German; and finally, that no other catechism, except the much larger and somewhat different Gemüthsgespräch — and that only among the Mennonite Church (MC) of Eastern Pennsylvania — has ever successfully competed with it in any language in these countries” (Christian Neff and Harold S. Bender, “Catechism,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Accessed June 17, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Catechism&oldid=162939).
  22. The Catechism or Simple Instruction From the Sacred Scriptures, as Taught by the Mennonite Church (Berne, IN: Mennonite Book Concern, 1904). Emphasis added. Available online with an introduction: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Elbing_Catechism_(Mennonite,_1778). German version available here: https://archive.org/details/katechismusoderk00elbi_7/page/48/mode/2up
  23. Ira D. Landis, and Robert Friedmann, “Burkholder, Christian (1746-1809),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. July 12, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Burkholder,_Christian_(1746-1809)&oldid=143506
  24. I did not find any other confession that has a 25th article on marriage, and the only other one I found having a 12th article on marriage is the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)), a document with far less historical importance.
  25. John A. Hostetler, God Uses Ink: The Heritage and Mission of the Mennonite Publishing House After Fifty Years (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1958), 9.
  26. I have made no attempt to be exhaustive. Documentation for these dates can be found on GAMEO.com or in God Uses Ink (Hostetler, ibid.).
  27. “Confession, or Short and Simple Statement of Faith (Rudnerweide, Russia, 1853),” trans. Peter J. Klassen, Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016. https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Confession,_or_Short_and_Simple_Statement_of_Faith_(Rudnerweide,_Russia,_1853). Emphasis added. Quotation marks and spelling of “Sadducees” corrected for clarity. This confession was adopted by a congregation in Oregon in 1878 and also reprinted a couple times in the late 1800s in Elkhard, Indiana–once for use by a church in Turner County, South Dakota and once by an elder of the Evangelical Mennonite Brethren.
  28. It may be incorrect to interpret the phrase as “ends the marriage” although violating the marriage covenant certainly puts the marriage itself in question.
  29. It is probable that the other confessions I have quoted in my historical survey likewise used Bible versions shaped by Luther’s translation. It is common for English translators of historical documents to simply use a common English translation such as the KJV whenever Bible quotations occur, rather than directly translating from the historical document. This can make it difficult to trace how the authors of historical documents were influenced by the translations they used. In this case of this confession, it appears Klassen translated biblical quotations directly from the German text of the confession, rather than substituting any existing English translation.
  30. For an historical overview of this largest of the American Mennonite groups, see: Harold S. Bender and Beulah Stauffer Hostetler, “Mennonite Church (MC),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. January 2013. Web. July 13, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Church_(MC)&oldid=167350
  31. Henry Funk in Pennsylvania (d. 1760), Joseph Funk in Virginia (1778-1862), and Benjamin Eby in Ontario (1785-1853) were important predecessors—two of them being relatives! None of these, to my limited knowledge, published anything on divorce that I have not mentioned in this post.
  32. Cornelius J. Dyck, An Introduction to Mennonite History, 2nd ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 220, 217.
  33. Andrew V. Ste. Marie writes that “Jacob Stauffer, founder of the “Stauffer” or Pike Mennonites, also expressed a stricter view, writing c. 1850 that ‘the covenant of marriage cannot and dare not be broken to marry another except through natural death’” (Ste. Marie, Ibid., 249, quoting from A Chronicle or History Booklet About the So-Called Mennonite Church, trans. Amos Hoover (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1992), 186). Ste. Marie may be correct that Jacob Stauffer did not understand Jesus’ exception clause to provide any permission for divorce or remarriage; I have not been able to check the context of this quote to get a clearer sense of what Stauffer may have meant. At any rate, Stauffer’s statement is less than twenty years older than the 1867 Herald of Truth article, so the historical picture is similar either way.
  34. “Answer to ‘A Brother’s Question,’” Herald of Truth, Vol. 2, No. 2, 11, https://archive.org/details/heraldoftruth02unse/page/n6/mode/1up  This sentence occurs in the context of the writer arguing against a husband and wife shunning each other in cases of church discipline.
  35. In coming decades Mennonites would increasingly draw a distinction between divorce and mere separation, but I don’t think such a distinction is intended here. In this sentence the word translated “separate” (twice) appears in the German (in Der Herold der Wahrheit, the German twin publication to Herald of Truth; see here) as scheiden, which is a word that is regularly used to refer to divorce, not merely informal separation. (See footnote to “Shorter Catechism” above for more discussion of this word.) In place of the word “fornication,” the German text has Hurerei; “whoring,” thus referring not to premarital sex but to sexual promiscuity.
  36. Some arguably imply as much, given the way they cite or quote Jesus’ exception clauses and given the prior Anabaptist interpretation of those clauses. For example, Roosen’s 1702 catechism quotes Jesus’ words about both divorce and remarriage (Matt. 19:9) immediately before offering the following commentary: “From this it is clearly to be seen, that Christ teaches all christians, that a man (except in case of fornication,) is bound to his wife by the band of matrimony, as long as she lives…” This suggests that “bound to his wife” means “not free to divorce and remarry,” which suggests that “in case of fornication” a man would be free to do both.
  37. Of course, it is possible I have missed important evidence, for (a) I am not formally trained in Anabaptist historical study, (b) I do not have physical access to any Mennonite archives, and (c) I do not read German. If I have missed evidence, I am eager to update my post and adjust my conclusions as needed. That said, I have seen nothing in primary or secondary literature to suggest that my conclusions here are inaccurate. It appears to me that, even if contradictory evidence were found, it would only offer an exception to the rule, which would still stand.

Save page

“The Holy Scriptures Must Be Our Ruling Standard”

A couple weeks ago I posted a quote from David Bercot that received quite a bit of interest. Bercot asked us to acknowledge that Mennonite customs and traditions—“things that are added to us that are not biblical requirements”—can “add up and become quite a hurdle” for genuine spiritual seekers.

What Bercot said was not unusual. It is very easy to find other people saying the same sort of thing. And, to be honest, it is also easy enough to find people who say pretty much the opposite—who believe that prescribed Mennonite traditions aren’t much of a barrier if someone is really serious about following Christ.

A testimony alone is not proof of the truth of a claim. What makes Bercot’s words compelling, however, is the life behind his words. Bercot has a pretty solid track record of both preaching and living radical “kingdom Christianity.” His words about cultural barriers have credibility because his life testifies that he is willing to make hard choices for the sake of following Christ. Do I agree with him at every turn? No. Do I listen when he talks? Yes. He has earned our ear.

When words are backed up not only by a life but also—and this is even more important—by the weight of Scripture, then we should listen carefully. Such is the case with the words of a man I’d like to introduce in this post.

Gerhard Roosen was a name I didn’t recognize until I encountered him in my studies this past month. But for generations of Mennonites and Amish his name was familiar indeed, perhaps nearly as widely recognized as (though less important than) the name Menno Simons.

Gerhard (or Gerrit) Roosen (1612-1711) was a Mennonite bishop in northern Germany. He  is famous today mostly for the catechism he published when he was 90 years old, the Christliches Gemütsgespräch or “Christian Spiritual Conversation on Saving Faith and the Acknowledging of the Truth Which Is After Godliness in Hope of Eternal Life (Titus 1:1, 2), in Questions and Answers for the Rising Youth, by Which They May Be Incited and Encouraged to a Wholesome Practice of Life.” The common English title is simply Roosen’s Catechism.

Published in Germany in 1702, Roosen’s catechism is “the first complete German Mennonite catechism in existence.”1 It was reprinted in German or English at least fifteen times from 1769 through 1892 in various North American communities, as well as more recently.2 Robert Friedmann observed that “few books have met with such general approval among Mennonites everywhere as the Gemütsgespräch, the outstanding catechism of the church as a whole.”3 This catechism is one helpful window into Mennonite theology in the pre-revivalist, pre-Daniel Kauffman era. You can read an English translation here.

According to Melvin Gingerich writing in 1970, this catechism “is still being read by the Amish.”4 This use of Roosen’s catechism by the Amish is somewhat curious to me, given that Roosen was not Amish and, what is more, that he strongly critiqued some practices of the Amish.

It is this critique by Roosen of some Amish rules that I’d like to share here. I want to talk about Roosen’s letter rather than Roosen’s catechism. But I also want us to remember that behind Roosen’s letter is the trusted leader who wrote Roosen’s catechism. As with Bercot and his words, the life behind the words makes the words more compelling. And more importantly, we should consider Roosen’s appeal to Scripture.

Here is Melvin Gingerich’s introduction to Roosen’s letter and to Roosen, whom he calls a “man of deep piety and moderate views”:

For the time before Jacob Ammann, leader of the conservative schism which appeared in Switzerland in 1693, no [Anabaptist] documents have been found prescribing a definite form of dress, although a degree of uniformity of style was achieved in some groups by forbidding certain styles and colors of costume. In 1697 a deeply respected and very influential leader and an elder of the North German Mennonites, Gerhard Roosen, wrote a letter to the Alsatian brethren protesting against the strict rules on clothing that had been made by Jacob Ammann.5

And here is Roosen’s letter, written when he was 85 years old:

I am sincerely grieved that you have been so disturbed by those who think highly of themselves, and make laws of things which are not upheld in the Gospel. Had it been specified in the apostolic letters how or wherewith a believer should be clothed, or whether he should go in this or that country and this were disobeyed, then these had something of which to speak; but it is more contrary to the Gospel to affix one’s conscience to a pattern of the hats, clothes, stockings, shoes, or the hair of the head (Colossians 2:14-18), or make a distinction in which country one lives; and then, for one to undertake the enforcement of such regulations by punishing with the ban, all who will not accept them, and to expel from the church, as a leaven; those who do not wish to avoid those thus punished, though neither the Lord Jesus in His Gospel or His holy apostles have bound us to external things, nor have deemed it expedient to provide such regulations and laws. I agree with what the Apostle Paul says in Colossians 2 (verse 16), that the kingdom of heaven, or the kingdom of God, is not obtained “in meat or in drink,” nor in this or that, in the form or pattern of clothing; to which external things our dear Saviour does not oblige use.

Wherefore then does our friend, Jacob Ammann, undertake to make laws of such things for the people, and to expel from the church those who will not obey him? If he considers himself a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and advocates a literal administration of the law, then he must not wear two coats, nor carry money in his purse, or shoes on his feet. [Matthew 10:10.] If he does not adhere to the letter of his Lord, how dare he insist on obedience form his fellow men, in regulations he has not received from his lawmaker? Oh, that he might do as the Apostle Paul has done, in the fear of the Lord; showing meekness to all men. [Titus 3:2.] The apostle’s advice is: that the “strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak” [Romans 15:1-7].

In all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have, but in all things he instructed them to “condescend to men of low estate” [Romans 12:16] according to all decency and modesty. [See 1 Timothy 2:9.] I hold that it is becoming to adapt the manner of dress to the current customs of one’s environments; but it is reasonable that we abstain from luxuries, pride, and carnal worldly lusts [1 John 2:16-17], not immediately adopting the latest styles of fashionable clothing; which is certainly something to be reproved, but when it has come into common usage then it is honorable to follow in such common apparel, and to walk in humility. But, thanks be to God, I do not want showy array or worldly lusts, and have always continued wearing nearly the same pattern of clothes; but if I had dressed in modern fashion, should I then, for this reason, be excommunicated? This would be an injustice, and contrary to the Scriptures. The Lord has, indeed, made regulations in the church of God, for punishment of the contentious, and those conducting themselves contrary to the ordinances of God, as set forth in the Gospel. Herein it must be determined whether the things we wish to bind are also bound there, or are commanded to be bound.

The Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard; to this we must yield, not running before it, but following, and that not untimely, but with care, fear, and regret; for it is a dangerous venture to step into the judgment of God and bind that which is not bound in heaven.

So much written in love and truth for your service and instruction in things worth while. I can hardly leave off writing to you. The beloved heavenly Father and God of consolation sustain and strengthen you in all oppressions, and bless you in body and soul, to His honor and to your salvation. Amen. From me, your brother, Gerhart Roosen of Hamburg.6

I think Roosen overstates his case just a little. It is perhaps not strictly true that “in all of Paul’s letters we do not find one word in which he has given believers regulations concerning the forms of clothing they should have.” Roosen would have done well to acknowledge Paul’s prohibitions in 1 Timothy 2:8-10:

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works.

He could also have mentioned 1 Peter 3:3-5:

Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands…

These apostolic exhortations match what we generally find in the earliest Anabaptist writings—general admonitions to a humble modesty of dress, a few specific examples of the kinds of adornment to avoid, and a focus on developing a Christ-like spirit and character, but an absence of regulation attire or long lists of clothing rules.

Roosen’s letter could have been strengthened by mentioning these passages, for their emphasis matches his very well. But, to be fair, we should acknowledge that when Roosen claimed Paul gave no “regulations concerning the forms of clothing,” by forms Roosen quite likely meant specific clothing designs or styles (cut of coat, etc.), not merely clothing adornments. If that is what he meant, then Roosen was fully correct in his claim.

The question of clothing rules is more complex than two or three testimonies or letters. (If you want to read more of this history, I recommend Melvin Gingerich’s book Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries as one very helpful place to continue.) History is littered with countless numbers who have affirmed words such as Roosen’s and then abused grace as a license for vain and sensual living. And the cultural pressures we face today regarding clothing are not the same as the ones the Anabaptists faced in Roosen’s day.

That said, the Scriptures have not changed, and the gospel has not changed. True regeneration of heart and lifestyle happens the same way today as it did in Roosen’s day, which is the same way it happened in the time of Jesus and his apostles: by grace. J.S. Coffman realized this as well as Roosen did, and he said similar things near the end of his life.

If Jacob Ammann did not get the idea of uniform clothing rules from Scripture, where did he get it? He certainly didn’t get it from the first generation of Anabaptists, for historical records indicate that while they were being persecuted they were indistinguishable from their neighbors based on their clothing.

I’m sure there were many influences on Ammann’s thinking, but here is one important one: the world around him. Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that in northern Europe, and in Switzerland in particular, the Reformation era was a time of multiple civil laws about clothing. Gingerich explains:

These laws attempted not only to freeze the social classes but also to keep the lower classes from spending too much money on luxury items. As illustrations of this kind of ordinances, one can cite the Zurich Ordinance of 1628, the Basel Ordinance of 1637, the Zurich Ordinance of 1650, and the Nuremberg Ordinance, which named what each class was expected to wear and what was forbidden them.7

“In cities of Switzerland,” writes Gingerich, “this kind of legislation… became increasingly strict so that city councils ‘even went so far as to prescribe the length of certain garments, length of shoe points or height of bonnets.'”8

Jacob Ammann was very familiar with these laws, for he was a tailor. As a tailor, he was responsible to tell his customers what kind of clothes they were permitted to wear. If he failed to do this, he and his customers could be fined. It seems that when Ammann became an Amish bishop, he advocated a similar rules-based approach within his church. In fact, he went beyond the civil laws which prohibited lower classes from wearing ornamentation reserved for the upper classes, and beyond what some previous Anabaptists had done in forbidding certain specific excesses for all their members (such as crimson linen or high-heeled shoes). His regulations were so specific and extensive that they resulted in a regulated uniform attire.

This is what I mean when I say that Ammann’s clothing rules were a worldly idea. In trying to avoid conformity to the worldliness of upper class clothing, Ammann conformed to a very worldly method: detailed clothing regulations. Perhaps now we can better understand why Roosen so strongly objected, and why he kept pointing to the gospel and emphasizing that “the Holy Scriptures must be our ruling standard.”

It is not easy to discuss such topics well. In writing this, I am taking risks. Some may agree with me so strongly that they show no patience for anyone who wants to nuance things differently. (If you’re a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.) Others may disagree strongly, thinking I am undermining our ability to preserve a godly lifestyle. (If you’re a nail, then every solution feels like a hammer.) Others, whether they agree or not, may sigh when they see me getting on my hobby horse again!

I readily admit that each of us tends to have our pet topics, and that one of my central concerns is the question of how our Anabaptist churches can do a better job of rooting both holiness and loving unity—at the same time—in the gospel of grace. To the extent that the gospel is my pet topic, I do not apologize. Where I have undeniable gaps and imbalances, I remind you that this blog is intentionally focused and not designed as a one-stop-meets-all-needs source of spiritual nourishment. I also invite your responses to help balance my thinking.

Let us be patient with each other as we seek to understand our Anabaptist history and—more importantly—the Scriptures better. Let us give each other time to grow in our understanding and in living lives made holy by grace. But in our patience, let’s keep prodding each other back to the apostolic testimony, back to the gospel, and back to Christ.

I invite your responses in the comments below. May you be clothed in the grace of Christ—and may it show in the clothes you wear!

  1. Robert Friedmann. “Christliches Gemütsgespräch (Monograph).” GAMEO (1953); available from < http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Christliches_Gem%C3%BCtsgespr%C3%A4ch_(Monograph)&oldid=106756>; accessed 18 April 2015.
  2. John C. Wenger. The Doctrines of the Mennonites (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 111.
  3. Robert Friedmann. Mennonite Piety Through the Centuries (Goshen, IN: Goshen College, 1929), 144. Quoted in Wenger, Doctrines, 111.
  4. Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire Through Four Centuries (Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970, dist. by Herald Press), 18.
  5. Ibid., 18.
  6. Ibid., 19-20.
  7. Ibid., 15.
  8. Ibid., 11; quoting J.M. Vincent, “Sumptuary Legislation,” Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York: Macmillan, 1931), Vol. 14, pp. 464-66.

Save page

Ecclesiology of the Reformers (5): Menno Simons

Menno Simons, had he foreseen it, would have been dumbfounded: today there are about 1.7 million people who belong to churches that bear his name. (He would have been doubly disoriented by the discovery that over 96% of them do not live in Europe!) As one of these Mennonites,  I have good reason to be curious about what Menno Simons believed about the Church.

This post continues our series on the ecclesiology of the Reformers, quoting from Timothy George’s excellent book, Theology of the Reformers. (See past posts about the ecclesiologies of Luther, Zwingli , and Calvin. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for William Tyndale and my conclusions and questions.)

Perhaps because I have personal stake in the quest, I have found this the hardest post yet to prepare for this series. I’ve had to cut out so much intriguing information! To manage length somewhat, I will focus on one theme in Menno Simon’s ecclesiology: the purity of the Church. Along the way, I’ll note other themes also worth exploring.

First, I’ll let Timothy George introduce the Radical Reformation:

The Radical Reformation…, was not merely a “wing,” a side effect that revealed a more extreme form of the Reformation; it was instead a movement that gave birth to a new form of Christian faith and life. As one scholar put it, it was a “reformation of the Reformation” or “a correction of the correction of Catholicism.”1 Precisely this, together with the fact that for the most part the radicals were forced to develop their model of the Christian life outside the confines of the official churches, gave their spirituality and church life a distinctive cast. (Kindle Locations 5827-5831)

George identifies three branches of the Radical Reformation–the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists, and the Evangelical Rationalists.

Each branch of the Radical Reformation attached itself to a distinctive “root.” For the Anabaptists it was the Bible, especially the New Testament. They desired not merely to reform the church but to restore it to its pristine, apostolic purity. (Kindle Locations 5820-5822, emphasis added)

Menno’s early life and education were formative, but let’s leap ahead: What drove Menno Simons from being a Roman Catholic priest to becoming “the most outstanding leader” (George) of the Anabaptists?

Three important clusters of events and ideas are in Menno’s developing consciousness of the true church and his role in it… In 1525, the year that Grebel and Mantz were organizing the first Anabaptist congregations in Switzerland, Menno began to entertain doubts about the dogma of transubstantiation. “It occurred to me, as often as I handled the bread and wine in the mass, that they were not the flesh and blood of the Lord.” (Kindle Locations 5887-5894, emphasis added)

Menno might have quietly remained within the Roman fold had he not come to question another pillar of the established tradition, infant baptism… On March 20, 1531…, an itinerant tailor named Sicke Freerks was beheaded because he had been baptized a second time. Menno later commented, “It sounded very strange in my ears that one spoke of a second baptism.” …He began to investigate the basis for infant baptism. He examined the arguments of Luther, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger but found them all lacking… Finally, he “searched the Scriptures diligently and considered the question seriously but could find nothing about infant baptism.” (Kindle Locations 5908-5917, emphasis added)

Possessed of new convictions on the Lord’s Supper and baptism, Menno nonetheless did not break with the Roman Church until he was deeply stirred by events surrounding the… violent, revolutionary kingdom of the two Jans at Münster… On March 30, 1535, a group of some three hundred violent Anabaptists captured the Old Cloister near Bolsward… On April 7 the cloister was retaken and the radicals savagely slain. Among them was Menno’s brother…

After this had transpired the blood of these people, although misled, fell so hot on my heart that I could not stand it, nor find rest in my soul… I saw that these zealous children, although in error, willingly gave their lives and their estates for their doctrine and faith. And I was one of those who disclosed to some of them the abominations of the papal system… I thought to myself—I, miserable man, what am I doing? If I continue in this way, and do not live agreeably to the Word of the Lord, according to the knowledge of the truth which I have obtained; if I do not censure to the best of my little talent the hypocrisy, the impenitent, carnal life, the erroneous baptism, the Lord’s Supper in the false service of God which the learned ones teach; if I through bodily fear do not lay bare the foundations of the truth, nor use all my powers to direct the wandering flock who would gladly do their duty if they knew it, to the true pastures of Christ—oh, how shall their shed blood, shed in the midst of transgression rise against me at the judgment of the Almighty and pronounce sentence against my poor, miserable soul! (Kindle Locations 5920-5936, emphasis added)

Let me draw two observations from this description. First, note the centrality of the Scriptures for Menno. They are, he realized, the ultimate guide both for discerning truth and for living rightly. Second, note Menno’s self-identity as a teacher. He was a teacher before he became an Anabaptist, and when he finally decided to become one, his decision was sealed by his sense that the Anabaptists needed a pastor-teacher “to direct the wandering flock… to the true pastures of Christ.”

Menno… felt a special compassion for the “poor misguided sheep” who wandered about without a shepherd. About a year after he had left the comfortable parish at Witmarsum to become an itinerant underground evangelist, …Anabaptist brethren near Groningen entreated him to accept the office of elder or chief shepherd of the brotherhood. After a time of struggling with this decision , he consented and so began “to teach and to baptize, to labor with my limited talents in the harvest field of the Lord, to assist in building up his holy city and temple and to repair the dilapidated walls.” Having been baptized earlier, Menno was now duly ordained… (Kindle Locations 5950-5956)

Menno Simons is reported to have said, …that nothing on earth was as precious to him as the church. For twenty-five years he labored throughout the Netherlands and northern Germany to establish fellowships of believers into organized congregations committed to one another and to their mission in the world. (Kindle Locations 6385-6387)

Most of those years were spent on the run for his life. And somehow, while on the run with his family, Menno wrote.

…Menno’s theology was situational; it emerged in the context of his active involvement in the life of the church… Menno never had the leisure to produce learned tomes or to develop a systematic theology. Yet he wrote with vigor and insight, drawing both on the earlier Anabaptist heritage and the wider Christian tradition but primarily on his own intensive engagement with the Scriptures. (Kindle Locations 5981-5984)

In Menno’s writing, as in his speaking, he was a teacher of the Church:

In 1540 Menno published what was to become his most influential writing…The Foundation of Christian Doctrine. In some ways this treatise is comparable to the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, published only four years earlier. It was at once a tract for the times and a sort of catechetical instruction for new believers. (Kindle Locations 5986-5989)

The Foundation was an apology for those Anabaptists who chose the way of the cross over that of the sword… Menno’s book had little if any impact on the rulers, who continued their unabated assault against all Anabaptists. Its real influence was on the believers, who found in it a succinct summary of Anabaptist theology and churchmanship. (Kindle Locations 5998-6002)

Menno’s beliefs about the purity of the true Church were shaped by his understanding of conversion:

As long ago as 1848, the historian Max Göbel recognized that “the essential and distinguishing characteristic of this [Anabaptist] church is its great emphasis upon the actual personal conversion and regeneration of every Christian through the Holy Spirit.”2 Although Luther described himself as “born again,” and both Zwingli and Calvin commented on Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, Menno placed the greatest emphasis on the necessity for the new birth: “If now you desire to have your wicked nature cleared up, and desire to be free from eternal death and damnation . . . then you must be born again.” (Kindle Locations 6029-6034)

Conversion involved both faith and repentance:

Faith was the inward appropriation of the gospel, which Menno defined as “the blessed announcement of the favor and grace of God to us, and of forgiveness of sins through Christ Jesus.” (Kindle Locations 6034-6036)

God radically transforms such a believing heart! But faith

was incomplete without the prior act of repentance… It will not “help a fig,” he averred, to be called Christians or boast of the Lord’s blood, death, merits, grace, and gospel, as long as believers were not genuinely converted from their wicked, sinful lives. (Kindle Locations 6044-6048)

If believers had the faith of penitent Zacchaeus , Menno claimed, then… “There would soon be a different and better situation because, it cannot fail, the righteous must live his faith.” (Kindle Locations 6059-6062, emphasis added)

Much could be said here about how Menno’s understanding of Scripture shaped his theology and ecclesiology. For example, his “severe pruning of the liturgical tradition of the church was based on a strict application of the principle that what the Bible does not expressly enjoin should not be permitted” (Kindle Locations 6169-6171).

It is significant that Menno quoted more from the New Testament than the Old at a ratio of 3:1… The thrust of the whole Scripture is to direct us to Christ… According to Menno, Jesus Christ really did bring something new. (Kindle Locations 6210-6213)

Thus Menno rejected the mainline reformer’s use of the Old Testament to justify infant baptism and church-state relationships.

Such topics are familiar to most amateur students of Anabaptism. But fewer people are aware of another theological topic that shaped Menno’s understanding of the church:

Menno obviously felt that his doctrine of the incarnation was worth defending in large treatises as he devoted more attention to it than to any other doctrinal concern… Menno could not allow that Christ received his human nature from Mary, else he would have been tainted with the Adamic sin that is common to all his descendants. (Kindle Locations 6325-6330, emphasis added)

More could be said here about Menno’s understanding of Adamic sin (he did not actually believe we are held guilty because of it) or of Roman Catholic and Reformed explanations for Christ’s sinlessness.

Menno set aside both of these explanations: The former elevated Mary to the status of a divine goddess, the latter split Christ into two parts, destroying the unity of his person. Menno sought to resolve the problem by pointing to the celestial origin of Christ’s entire being: “The entire Christ Jesus, both God and man, man and God, has his origin in heaven and not on earth.” (Kindle Locations 6335-6340, emphasis added)

[Menno’s] opponents… accused him of teaching a docetic Christology, the ancient heresy that Christ only appeared or seemed to be human… However…, Menno had no intention of denying the true humanity of Christ… He asserted that Christ “was truly human and not a mere phantasm… He was afflicted, hungry, thirsty, subject to suffering and death, according to the flesh.” Menno’s concern was to show how Christ remained unsullied from original sin, able to offer a perfect sacrifice on the cross for the sins of the world. (Kindle Locations 6355-6364, emphasis added)

Many Anabaptists in Menno’s own time, and most since, have rejected Menno’s understanding of the incarnation. So why is it worth mentioning in this post about ecclesiology?

…During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Menno’s doctrine had important soteriological and ecclesiological implications for Dutch Anabaptism. The crucial importance of the new birth depends on the incarnation through which believers are made partakers of the divine nature. Menno’s concept of the church as a community without spot or wrinkle, feasting at Communion on the heavenly “manna” that Jesus identified with his body (John 6:51), is also related to the miracle of the incarnation. (Kindle Locations 6374-6381, emphasis added)

If true believers share in Christ’s pure divine nature, then purity, surely, is a distinguishing mark of the true Church. Menno’s words:

They verily are not the true congregation of Christ who merely boast of his name. But they are the true congregation of Christ who are truly converted, who are born from above of God, who are of a regenerate mind by the operation of the Holy Spirit through the hearing of the divine Word, and have become the children of God, have entered into obedience to him, and live unblamably in his holy commandments, and according to his holy will with all their days, or from the moment of their call. (Kindle Locations 6390-6394, emphasis added)

Thus, with the other Anabaptists, Menno wanted to restore the Church, not merely reform it:

Unlike Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, who wanted to reform the church on the basis of the Word of God, the radical reformers were more concerned to restore the primitive church, which they believed had “fallen” or apostatized… New wine could not be stored in old wineskins. Rather the New Testament church had to be restored “according to the true apostolic rule and criterion.” (Kindle Locations 6418-6422)

Doctrinal and ethical purity marked the truth Church:

Menno’s favorite word for the church was Gemeente (cf. Gemeinde), by which he designated the living fellowship or community of believers, the true communion of saints. In his Reply to Gellius Faber Menno listed the following six characteristics by which the church is known: (1) an unadulterated, pure doctrine; (2) scriptural use of the sacramental signs; (3) obedience to the Word; (4) unfeigned, brotherly love; (5) a bold confession of God and Christ; (6) oppression and tribulation for the sake of the Lord’s Word. It is significant that four of these six marks of the church are concerned with the ethical and moral dimensions of the Christian life. (Kindle Locations 6431-6436, emphasis added)

Menno’s understandings of baptism and the Lord’s Supper also featured this focus on purity. George summarizes Menno’s doctrine of baptism in three affirmations. Here is the third:

Baptism is the public initiation of the believer into a life of radical discipleship... For Menno baptism signaled a response of obedience to the gospel, a literal imitation and initiation taken by a novice upon his entrance to the monastic order. In the monastic tradition, such a vow implied a radical break with one’s past life and the assumption of a new identity within the community, symbolized by the receiving of a new name and investiture in new garments. Baptism among the Anabaptists was symbolic of a similar radical change in identity and lifestyle. (Kindle Locations 6475-6485)

In his Foundation Menno discusses four affirmations about the Lord’s Supper. Here is George’s description of the fourth:

…The Supper was the Communion of the body and blood of Christ… With connotations of the heavenly flesh of Christ, Menno declared that in Communion Christians were made “flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone.” (Kindle Locations 6545-6550)

Menno’s emphasis on the purity of the church was related directly to his “celestial flesh” Christology and to his view of the Supper as a marriage feast or fellowship meal with the sinless Christ. As Adam had but one Eve, and Isaac but one Rebecca, and even as Christ had but one body

which was heavenly and from heaven, and was righteous and holy in all its members, so also he has but one Eve in the Spirit, but one new Rebecca, who is his spiritual body, spouse, church, bride, namely, those who are believers, the regenerate, the meek, merciful, mortified, righteous, peaceable, lovely, and obedient children in the kingdom and house of his peace; pure, chaste virgins in the spirit, holy souls, who are of his divine family and holy flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone. (Kindle Locations 6585-6591, emphasis added)

If–as all the Reformers agreed–the sacraments form the boundaries of the Church, and if it is also true–as Menno emphasized–that personal and corporate purity are intrinsic to the sacraments, then the true Church must practice church discipline.

Despite the differences among themselves, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed on two essential marks or characteristics (notae) of the true church: the correct preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments… The Anabaptists, on the other hand, insisted that discipline, carried out in accordance with the instruction of Jesus in Matt 18:15–18, was an indispensable mark of the true church… (Kindle Locations 6568-6573)

Menno wrote three treatises on the subject of church discipline.

So prominent did the role of excommunication become in the Dutch Anabaptist tradition that one historian has dubbed the entire movement as “Anabanism.”3 …In his later years Menno regarded the strict practice of discipline as one of the features that distinguished the peaceful Anabaptists from their violence-prone rivals: “It is more than evident that if we had not been zealous in this matter these days, we would be considered and called by every man the companions of the sect of Münster and all perverted sects.” (Kindle Locations 6579-6584)

Church discipline was essential, especially for a church without the governing “help” of magistrates. But it was also a point of great controversy among the Anabaptists. For example, should a wife sleep with her husband if he was under church discipline? Answers varied.

…The formal ban was, at least in theory, only a social confirmation of a severance from Christ that had already occurred in the heart of the unrepentant member:

No one is excommunicated or expelled by us from the communion of the brethren but those who have already separated and expelled themselves from Christ’s communion either by false doctrine or improper conduct. For we do not want to expel any, but rather to receive; not to amputate, but rather to heal; not to discard, but rather to win back; not to grieve, but rather to comfort; not to condemn, but rather to save.

The pastoral tone of this statement, which comes from Menno’s Admonition on Church Discipline (1541), was in fact often betrayed by the vindictive and harsh recriminations often involved in the shunning of expelled members. (Kindle Locations 6600-6607)

I don’t have time or space to reflect deeply here on this issue of the purity of the Church. It was a burning issue in Menno’s day, and it remains a burning one today. On the one hand, I resonate deeply with the Anabaptist insistence that Christ’s grace transforms individuals! I also heartily affirm their rejection of corpus christianum and their insistence on a believers’ Church.

That said, it is no secret that even Menno was distressed in his latter days by harsh applications of church discipline and the resulting church divisions. (Listen here to a fascinating talk by Chester Weaver which contrasts this Dutch Anabaptist experience with the Swiss Brethren emphasis on brotherly love.) Perhaps the strongest warning I would sound today is that it is deadly to retain the Anabaptist emphasis on the purity of the church while also forgetting Menno’s clear teaching about the gospel of grace and the regenerating power of the Spirit.

Let me end with three more quotes from George–one summarizing what we’ve already discussed, and two introducing more of Menno’s marks of the church:

Faced with persecution and hostility from without, the Anabaptist churches were especially on guard against corruption or laxity from within. Membership in an Anabaptist church was neither casual nor assumed; participation was perforce hearty and vigorous. A true, visible church was at once a rebaptized company of gathered saints, separated from the world in its autonomous polity and eschewal of all violent connections, and a squad of spiritual shock troops separating back to the world through congregational discipline those members whose lives betrayed their profession. (Kindle Locations 6622-6626)

Another mark of the Church:

Perhaps more so than with most other Christian groups, it is difficult to separate the ecclesiology of the Anabaptists from their ethics. Menno felt that genuine compassion for the poor was one of the marks that distinguished his movement from that of the mainline reformers. He criticized the “easygoing gospel and barren bread-breaking” of the established clergy who lived in luxury while their poor members begged for food, and the old, lame, blind, and suffering ones were shunted. (Kindle Locations 6780-6783, emphasis added)

And one final mark of the true Church:

Menno… believed the true church of Christ was characterized by the fact that it suffers and endures persecution but does not inflict persecution upon anyone. The gospel was to be preached to everyone, but no one was to be compelled by force to accept it. These principles are accepted as axiomatic by large segments of modern society. Yet we should not forget that they were first enunciated at great risk by the early Anabaptists. (Kindle Locations 6794-6797. B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. Emphasis added)

(Next up: the ecclesiology of William Tyndale.)

What did you learn from these excerpts of Timothy George’s survey of Menno’s ecclesiology? What do you think we should learn from Menno today? What are the strengths and weaknesses of our early Mennonite ecclesiological DNA? Share your insights and questions in the comments below. Thank you!


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

  1. J. A. Oosterbaan, “The Reformation of the Reformation: Fundamentals of Anabaptist Theology,” MQR 51 (1977): 176.
  2. Max Göbel, Geschichte des Christlichen Leben (Coblenz, 1848), 37.
  3. George H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, (Kirksville, MO: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992), 485.

Save page