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Why did Mennonites Abandon the Early Anabaptist View of Jesus’ Exception Clause? (Transition from German to English)

A third background factor that may have paved the way for a new Mennonite interpretation of Jesus’ exception clause was the transition from German to English. The transition from German Bibles to the King James Version, which most Mennonites adopted as they switched to English,1 may have directly shaped their biblical interpretation on the topic of divorce and remarriage. Less directly, the transition to English brought increased interaction with Christians in other denominations, which led to both increased imitation of these denominations and new expressions of the Mennonite separatist impulse.

This post is part of a rambling series investigating Anabaptist understandings of Jesus’ exception clause about divorce and remarriage, recorded in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Here, in order, are the most important posts so far 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”

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

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

Why did Mennonites Abandon the Early Anabaptist View of Jesus’ Exception Clause? (Separatism and Confessional Statements)

BENJAMIN EBY ON SEPARATISM AND CONFESSIONS

Before we continue, I want to summarize my last post in this series by sharing a quote from Benjamin Eby, an influential pioneer Mennonite farmer, bishop, school teacher, author, and printer. Several of his writings were republished in coming decades not only in his home province of Ontario, but also in other Mennonite centers such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania and Elkhart, Indiana. One such writing was his 1841 book on the history and doctrine of the Mennonites, Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte.2

In my last post I suggested two background factors that made it easier for Mennonites to lose their original teaching affirming that Jesus permitted divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery: (1) their separatist mindset, which sometimes encouraged increasingly rigid doctrines and practices, and (2) the historical accident that their most popular doctrinal statements did not preserve the historical Anabaptist position on Jesus’ exception clause. Both factors are evident in the following quote from Eby’s Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte, which explicitly mentions divorce:

Whoever examines the doctrine of the Mennonites in a consistent and impartial manner will soon see that it in no way conflicts with the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that the other Protestants’ teachings on war, swearing of an oath, and divorce, were allowed by the Lord because of the hardness of their hearts, so that some greater evil would not come of it, as was allowed with the Jews. But we will refrain from accusing them too harshly, because the Lord has dealt with them and us with much patience, and his mercy and longsuffering is shown daily, so let us withhold all harsh judgment against the thinking of others. We are, by the positive Hope and according to the Word of Promise, convinced that the time will come when all the Christians will know that going to war, swearing an oath, and divorce, are issues that are impossible to find a place in the kingdom of God; but that they are from the evil, and that furthermore all those in authority must be willing to remove these distortions, and remain steadfast in the teachings of Jesus.

We contend that it is proper and clear to present the complete foundation and teachings, which are explained in the attached Articles of Faith, so that every impartial person may judge for himself, and by this we from our heart desire and plead the light of the Holy Spirit to be upon each one.3

Several quick observations are in order:

  • It appears likely that Eby believed divorce was wrong without exception, as surely as he believed the same about going to war and swearing oaths. This suggests that some prominent Mennonite Church leaders taught this at least as early as 1841 (even while others did not).
  • Eby shows a separatist mindset—gracious but unapologetic—and names the rejection of divorce as a point of denominational distinction for Mennonites.
  • Eby ends this excerpt with a paragraph that leads directly to the next section of his book: a reprinting of the complete Dordrecht Confession. Significantly, he seems to believe this confession will show impartial readers that the Mennonite stance on divorce is correct. In other words, it is likely Eby read the Dordrecht’s silence about divorce and remarriage after adultery as prohibition; the confession didn’t mention an adultery exception, so therefore, he concluded, it does not exist.4

THE TRANSITION TO ENGLISH

The transition to the English language is another background factor that may have enabled the gradual Mennonite abandonment of early Anabaptist teaching on Jesus’ exception clause. (See this post for a discussion of how an earlier transition from Latin to German may have shaped early Anabaptist interpretation.)

Mennonites in Virginia led the transition to English preaching, beginning before the mid-1800s. In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, “the first Mennonite minister… who was able and willing to preach in the English language” was ordained in 1850.5 Western states such as Ohio and Indiana were slower to transition but soon followed. The English-language Herald of Truth was first published in 1864 and quickly gained a larger readership than its German counterpart. In 1880 John F. Funk also began publishing Sunday school helps in English, and “the Sunday school no doubt contributed greatly to the use of English.”6 By the last third of the 1800s, it was common for visiting speakers (such as revivalist John S. Coffman) to preach in English in Mennonite churches throughout North America. “In the transition period 1875-1900 preachers were often ordained specifically to preach English alongside of the regular German preaching of the older ministers.” 7

As the new century drew near, most of the young movers and shakers who increasingly shaped the Mennonite church “were a generation of youths who spoke and thought in English more than German,”8 and some preachers didn’t know German at all. “The real change to English came with authors who wrote only in that language, the first of these being Daniel Kauffman (Mennonite Church), with his first book in 1898, A Manual of Bible Doctrines.” 7 At the fall conference in Pennsylvania in 1900, “everything was now done in English,”10 and German was fast fading from the pulpits of the Mennonite Church across United States and Canada.

(Click here for an image of a 1793 KJV New Testament that was owned by a Mennonite couple in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.)

The Mennonite transition from German to English coincided with increased debate about divorce (more about the latter in a future post). And in 1905, as German was clearly on the wane, the Mennonite Church officially withheld membership from all remarried persons who had a former spouse still living, without exception.

THE GERMAN JESUS VS. THE ENGLISH JESUS

Did the switch to English help trigger a change in divorce doctrine? If so, how? One possible answer is found in the switch from German Bibles to English Bibles.

In Greek, the same exception is cited by Jesus in both Matthew 5 and 19: “except for porneia (πορνεία).” This Greek word has multiple potential meanings, and German and English Bibles went in different directions with their translation choices. Further, in the German Bibles—both Luther’s Bible and the similar “Froschauer Bible” more popular with Anabaptists—Jesus’ exception clause is translated differently in Matthew 5 and 19.

In Matthew 5:32, the German Jesus says “except for Ehebruch.” Ehebruch is a standard German term referring to adultery, but it is more graphic than the English word adultery. Ehebruch is a compound word that more woodenly means “breach of marriage” or “marriage-break.” This word can suggest that adultery breaks a marriage, bringing it to an end. In this potential reading, if your spouse commits Ehebruch, your marriage is broken and you are free to remarry.

In Matthew 19:9, the German Jesus says “except for Hurerei.” This term refers to sexual promiscuity. Both German words express ideas which can be included within the broad range of meaning of the Greek term porneia.

In the KJV, in contrast, the English Jesus says “except for fornication” in both passages. This term carries different implications than the German ones. Unlike Ehebruch, it does not suggest that porneia breaks a marriage. And, while it can mean exactly the same thing as Hurerei, it is also often used more narrowly to refer only to pre-marital sin.

Both of these differences foreshadow the new ways that American Mennonites would interpret Jesus’ exception clause. First, they would deny that adultery ends a marriage, asserting that it is impossible for anything but death to end a marriage bond. Second, some Mennonites eventually (at least by 1950) began teaching that Jesus’ exception clause refers only to fornication during a Jewish betrothal period.

The transition to English affected the relationship of Mennonites not only to the Bible itself, but also to their own history of biblical interpretation. I have noticed, for example, that English translations of old German Anabaptist catechisms and statements of faith tend to use the KJV “fornication” when referring to Jesus’ exception clause, even when the original German documents used words such as Ehebruch (“adultery”). Similarly, they sometimes use the English term separate when the German original specified divorce (scheiden).

This excerpt from one of the most popular catechisms, “The Shorter Catechism” (first published in English in 1857, I believe), illustrates both translation problems:

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”].

Mennonites of the late 1800s did not maintain a clear distinction between the English separate and the German scheiden (“divorce”).11 But a distinction was certainly made between the English terms separate and divorce as the century ended, and already in the mid-1800s some were teaching that separation was permitted in cases of adultery, but never divorce.

Virtually no one in the Mennonite Church read NT Greek. (Were there any exceptions?) Unlike many biblical scholars today, their only access to Jesus’ words was through either German or English. Of these two, English was increasingly seen as the language of the educated. Quite literally, the terms of the debate were changing.

ASSESSING THE EVIDENCE

I want to be clear that I have not found explicit evidence in primary sources about how the move from German to English shaped the interpretation of Jesus’ words about divorce. The circumstantial evidence still appears compelling to me, however. I find it hard to imagine that these changes in terminology had no effect at all on Mennonite understandings, even if it is hard to weigh their likely influence.

I am not the only person to suggest such an influence. In a recent article in the Mennonite Quarterly Review, Andrew V. Ste. Marie reflected on some of the same differences between German and English terminology:

[A] fruitful avenue of research would be to investigate how the shift from German to English may have affected views on divorce and remarriage… We have ripe ground for understandings of divorce and remarriage to shift as the heart language of Mennonites shifted from German to English.12

Further, the transition to English did directly shape Mennonite theology and practice in other areas.13 One example is the newly-defined doctrine of “ordinances,” which developed during the time of John S. Coffman and was standardized under his convert, Daniel Kauffman.14 The key verse here is 1 Corinthians 11:2, which reads thus in the KJV: “Now I praise you, brethren, that ye remember me in all things, and keep the ordinances, as I delivered them to you.” The Greek word translated as ordinance (paradosis, παράδοσις) is used four other times by Paul. It is always translated elsewhere in the KJV as tradition(s), which captures the Greek sense much better.15

Coffman and Kauffman regularly cited 1 Corinthians 11:2 when they presented their new list of seven Mennonite ordinances. They brought their English-language definitions of ordinance to this verse—definitions cited from Webster or borrowed from systematic theologians rather than Greek scholars. Kauffman himself defined ordinance as “a religious ceremony with a heavenward meaning.” With these definitions in hand, Kauffman reflected on 1 Corinthians 11:2 in his book Manual of Bible Doctrines (1898): “This reference on the part of the apostle, to these things [‘the head-covering and the communion’] as ordinances, forever settles the question as to whether the subject under consideration is or is not an ordinance.” Kauffman, doubtless with the best of intentions, brought his own definitions of ordinance to the Bible, found the word ordinance in 1 Corinthians 11, and assumed it matched and buttressed his theology of ordinances.16

Did the change from German terms to English terms similarly help shape the new, more stringent teaching about divorce? I don’t know for sure. I can also think of several arguments why the change in language perhaps made little difference:

  • Only a minority of the English-speaking non-Mennonite denominations of the time adopted teachings as strict as those of the Mennonite Church.
  • Funk used German and English Bible quotations in parallel in the German and English versions of his periodicals, as if interchangeable.17
  • The Virginia Conference was perhaps the first Mennonite group to transition to English preaching, yet they came out most strongly in 1867 in favor of the historic Anabaptist position approving remarriage after adultery.
  • Many Anabaptists who retained the German language longer (Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite) nevertheless adopted very strict no-divorce policies.

In response to the last argument, it should be noted that even those Amish and Mennonite churches that retained the German language were influenced by trends in the English-speaking church.18 German-speaking and English-speaking Anabaptists were not sealed off from each other. It is very likely that the progressive leaders in the English-speaking Mennonite Church (who ran the publishing companies and eventually ushered in a new fundamentalist church culture) also influenced how the German-speaking Anabaptist churches taught about divorce.

But what shaped the beliefs of these activist English leaders? The English Bible, or something else?

RESPONSES TO ENGLISH PROTESTANT INFLUENCES

The example of ordinances reminds us that the transition to English could shape doctrinal beliefs both directly (from the English Bible) and indirectly (from exposure to other English-language sources). I’ll end this post by briefly discussing such indirect effects.

Increased exposure to English Protestants probably encouraged the growing tendency toward a stricter stance against all divorce in at least two contrasting ways: through separatism and imitation.

First, as Mennonites lost the German language, they looked for other factors that could mark them as a separate people. Some scholars think, for example, that this was one motivation behind the growing standardization of uniform attire and the prayer veiling.19 The Mennonite stance against divorce was another marker of separation—recall both the 1841 Benjamin Eby quote at the beginning of this post (which lumped divorce with war and oaths as three topics separating Mennonites from other Protestants) and also the 1895 testimony quoted in my last post of two men who joined the Mennonites in part because of their stance against divorce (which was lumped again with nonresistance as a marker). It is probable that the loss of German provided extra motivation to strengthen Mennonite teachings against divorce.

Second, Mennonites increasingly imitated Protestant doctrine and practice in the late nineteenth century. John Funk is only the most obvious example: he was converted in a Presbyterian church in Chicago, was a personal friend of D. L. Moody and a partner with him in Sunday school work in Chicago, and during his long “reign” as a Mennonite patriarch tried to graft some of the best of what he saw in the Protestant world to strong Anabaptist roots. During this time, Mennonites were certainly aware of what other denominations were teaching about divorce. I hope to discuss this more in a future post on Mennonite periodicals, but here I’ll give an example not mentioned (to my knowledge) in periodicals of the time.

Zeal for holy living was in the air during the revival era at the turning of the century. The “Mennonite Church, particularly in the western United States, began grappling with some of the holiness and sanctification debates” that were happening within the Methodist world.20 These debates birthed several new holiness denominations (such as the Church of the Nazarenes) which taught, among other things, “a holy living style that rejected worldly dress, divorce, musical instruments, and membership in secret societies.”21 In 1903, for example, a radical branch of the holiness movement in Chicago adopted some “new teachings” on divorce which were especially rigid.22 The next year, 1904, leaders from this Chicago holiness group made divorce the central topic of a Los Angeles revival effort. They sternly rebuked the Nazarenes there for “allowing the remarriage of the so-called ‘innocent party’ in a divorce” and for offering church membership for those who were divorced and remarried.23 These new, firmer teachings on divorce and remarriage then became “prominent features of the Azusa Street Revival” in 1906 which helped trigger the birth of the Pentecostal movement.24

Daniel Kauffman, from Missouri, and George R. Brunk, from Kansas, were among the new English-language Mennonite leaders who directly interacted with the topics raised by these new Methodist holiness debates.25 It is very likely that they were aware of the strict divorce teachings of the more separatist holiness groups and that they were favorably impressed. The dots are all there, even if I can’t quite connect them. At any rate, it was at precisely this time (1905) that the Mennonite Church officially adopted its own firm stance against remarriage in cases of adultery.

CONCLUSIONS

So then, did the transition to English help prompt the new Mennonite stance against divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery? In theory, it seems to me that it should have made a difference, both through the effect of English Bible translations and through increased exposure to English sources. I find it hard to imagine that the transition to English had no effect on the divorce debate.

I want to end on a cautious note, however, particularly regarding the direct effect of the KJV. I am not sure whether the adoption of English Bibles was indeed a supporting cause for the adoption of stricter teachings on Jesus’ exception clause, or whether the KJV just made it easier afterward for English-speaking Mennonites to justify and retain their new interpretation. The latter is almost certainly true. The former deserves more study.26


In my next post or two, I hope to move from background factors (separatist mindset, confessional documents, language transition) to factors more directly involved in the renewed Mennonite debate over divorce: (1) the growing social concern in America over rising divorce rates and (2) the birth of Mennonite periodicals which encouraged and enabled increased debate on a wide range of topics.

Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your responses in the comments below. Particularly, if you have any more puzzle pieces to add to this discussion about the transition from German to English and how it impacted divorce debates, I’m all ears. And someone who knows German needs to finish this puzzle so we can see the picture it makes!


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  1. The Revised Bible was also used. For example, I found a parallel KJV-RV Bible for sale online that the Mennonite Publishing Company published in 1891. Like the KJV, the RV uses the word “fornication” in Jesus’ exception clause.
  2. This book has been republished in English translation as recently as 1999 by the car-driving Old Order Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference of Ontario. See here.
  3. Benjamin Eby, Kurzgefasste Kirchen-Geschichte, English text adapted from rough translations provided by several of my friends (Berlin, ON: published by author’s son, Heinrich Eby, 1841), pp. 162-64. Emphasis added. German text: https://archive.org/details/cihm_35039/page/n169/mode/2up
  4. Another reading is possible: Eby, like the authors of the Dordrecht Confession, affirmed an adultery exception which permitted divorce and remarriage, but did not mention it. He may have been contrasting this narrow exception of the Mennonite Church with those Protestants who permitted divorce for multiple causes. This reading appears less likely to me, given how he groups divorce with going to war and swearing oaths, which were traditionally prohibited without exception by Mennonites.
  5. John Landis Ruth, The Earth Is the Lord’s: A Narrative History of the Lancaster Mennonite Conference (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2001), 529
  6. Harold S. Bender, “English language,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Accessed April 6, 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=English_language&oldid=129549
  7. Bender, Ibid.
  8. Theron F. Schlabach, Peace, Faith, Nation: Mennonites and Amish in Nineteenth-Century America (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1988), 299.
  9. Bender, Ibid.
  10. Ruth, Ibid., 761.
  11. See footnotes 14 and 35 in this post.
  12. Here is the full comment from Ste. Marie’s article about changing views on divorce: “Rather than attributing this shift to the influence of one or a few leaders, perhaps a more fruitful avenue of research would be to investigate how the shift from German to English may have affected views on divorce and remarriage. 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. 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. In English, with “adultery” being understood as the act of illicit extramarital sexual activity, with no necessary connotation of breaking the bonds of marriage, we have ripe ground for understandings of divorce and remarriage to shift as the heart language of Mennonites shifted from German to English. I’m grateful to Mike Atnip for this insight.” (Andrew V. Ste. Marie, “Research Note: Nineteenth-Century Mennonites Deal with Divorce and Remarriage,” MQR 94, April 2020, p. 248-49, n. 51.
  13. Here are several less significant examples: (1) While the German word Bischof was rarely used by eighteenth-century Mennonites and Amish, they did adopt the English word bishop in the nineteenth century, after they began to use more English (Richard K. MacMaster, Land, Piety, Peoplehood: The Establishment of Mennonite Communities in America 1683-1790 {Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1985}, 200). The practice of powerful church leaders, of course, long preceded the use of the English term. (2) Mennonite writings in English have tended to refer to devils rather than demons, “likely due to the influence of the King James Version” (Swartley, Willard M. “Exorcism.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Web. 3 Mar 2021. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Exorcism&oldid=162903).
  14. For a fuller discussion of this topic, see my essay draft “125 Years of Seven Ordinances: An Historical and Biblical Review,” available here: https://dwightgingrich.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/125-Years-of-Seven-Ordinances-DGO-Preview-2015.pdf.
  15. Cf. esp. 2 Thess. 2:15; 3:6 for close parallel usage. This KJV inconsistency in translating παράδοσις is paralleled by its indiscriminate use of the English word ordinance. In the KJV NT the term ordinance(s) is found nine times. These nine occurrences translate six different Greek words, and they reflect a wide variety of meanings. 1 Corinthians 11:2 is the only instance where the word ordinance refers to Christian teaching.
  16. Would the Mennonite Church have ended up with a similar focus on a list of seven ordinances even if they had never adopted the KJV? The impetus for a list of seven is hard to pin on the English language and may have been shaped more by the Roman Catholic list of seven sacraments or by the symbolic perfection of the number seven. On the other hand, the KJV use of ordinance in 1 Corinthians 11 helped the prayer veiling achieve the status of an ordinance and helped raise the whole topic of ordinances to a higher prominence in Mennonite thought. Perhaps this was reinforced by the fact that the preferred term of the Dutch Mennonite theologian Dirk Philips (1504-68) for sacraments was a Dutch word normally translated as “ordinances”? The “Froschauer Bible” of Zwingli, the most popular Bible for the early Anabaptists, used the word satzungen (“statutes” or “rules”) in 1 Corinthians 11:2 (see here), following Luther’s initial 1522 translation (see here). Luther’s final 1545 translation used the word Weise (“ways”; see here), which is probably closer to the sense of the Greek.
  17. Cf. the initial question about Matt. 19 in the September, 1867 issues of the Herald of Truth and its German counterpart, both of which quote the Matthew text (German text; English text) and also the parallel presentation of Matt 5:32 in Brenneman’s long article in February 1868 (German text; English text). In the May, 1877 issue of the Herald of Truth a letter mentions someone excommunicated for “fornication”; the German parallel used is hurerei (German text; English text). My impression is that the Herald of Truth uses “fornication” as a general, multi-purpose term, as the KJV does, without the implication that it is restricted to pre-marital sin.
  18. As early as the late 1700s many Amish were actively listening to (non-Mennonite) English revivalist preachers, and by the 1870s many Amish had subscribed to the Mennonite periodical Herald of Truth or its German counterpart. In fact, in the 1890s so many Amish were reading this paper that for a time it was billed as the “Organ of 14 Mennonite and Amish Conferences” (Steven M. Nolt, A History of the Amish {Intercourse, PA: Good Books, 1992}, 162). During the second half of the 1800s about two-thirds of the Amish transitioned to become “Amish-Mennonites” (Nolt, 188), and most of these eventually merged with the Mennonite Church.
  19. Examples: “Distinctive dress provided an acceptable alternate form of separation for these assimilated Mennonites at a time when they were losing the German language and the social isolation of small rural communities” (Samuel J. Steiner, In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario {Kitchener, ON: Herald Press, 2015}, 214). “The people of God were to be a separate people… Sometimes it was by maintaining a geographic isolation, sometimes by means of the German language, and then also by distinctive, simple clothing or by a combination of all of these… When the language barrier was surrendered and geographic isolation was lost, a final effort was made to strengthen the third separation device, that of simple dress” (Melvin Gingerich, Mennonite Attire through Four Centuries {Breinigsville, PA: The Pennsylvania German Society, 1970}, 148).
  20. Samuel J. Steiner, In Search of Promised Lands: A Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2015), 214.
  21. Ibid., 214.
  22. William Kostlevy, Holy Jumpers: Evangelicals and Radicals in Progressive Era America (United States: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010), 190.
  23. Ibid., 129.
  24. Ibid., 133.
  25. Steiner, Ibid., 214.
  26. The whole topic of how the transition from German to English has affected and continues to affect Amish and Mennonites in America is much debated, as this book review clearly demonstrates: https://dev.plainnews.org/2018/11/21/book-review-of-german-language-cradle-of-our-heritage/.

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“Let Him” Or “If He”? Translating Divorce in Deuteronomy

I learned today that the King James Version has a misleading translation of an important OT passage about divorce. The translation is not only misleading, but misleading in a direction that will concern you if you are concerned about today’s easy divorce culture.

The poor translation is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, in a law addressing a sticky question about a particular kind of remarriage. Here is the relevant passage, as translated in the KJV, with a few key terms in BOLD ALL CAPS:

1 When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then LET HIM write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 2 And when she is departed out of his house, she MAY go and be another man’s wife. 3 And IF the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; 4 Her former husband, which sent her away, MAY NOT take her again to be his wife, after that she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord…” (KJV, emphasis added)

First, notice that the KJV divides this passage into three sentences. Second, notice that the first sentence reads as if it is a command all by itself: if a husband finds certain conditions in his wife, then “let him write her a bill of divorcement.” “Let him” could be understood as either a “must” or a “may,” but either way, the syntax turns the clause into a command. According to the KJV, it would, at minimum, be wrong to discourage a man in this situation from divorcing his wife. And depending on how you read “let him,” you might even be responsible to insist that he follows through with divorce.

The English Standard Version, in contrast, clarifies (1) that the passage is one single flow of thought, and (2) that there is only one command, which comes at the end:

1 When a man takes a wife and marries her, IF then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and s her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and IF she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, MAY NOT take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord.” (ESV, emphasis added)

Both translations correctly convey that divorce was permitted. And both correctly convey the prohibition against remarrying a spouse whom you had formerly divorced, if they had been married to someone else meantime.

But you have to read a translation besides the KJV to realize that divorce was never commanded, or even directly affirmed, under the Law of Moses. (The NKJV gets it right, and even the NIV has a long run-on sentence to guide readers to the solitary command at the end.)

I learned of this translation problem from Andrew Cornes, since I am currently reading his helpful book Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice.  He says “the Authorized Translation [KJV] is seriously misleading here” (p. 131). [Edit: It appears we can thank Jerome in AD 383 for this translation error. See here.]

And when we clear up this mistranslation, what can we observe?  Cornes again:

Nowhere, in all the legal material, is there any law which directly makes provision for divorce. Nowhere in the first five books, or indeed the whole Old Testament, do we find anything approaching the formula: ‘If a woman does… then a man may send her away.’ Divorce law as such simply does not exist… This is not to say that no laws deal with divorce. But significantly all the laws which touch on this area (and there are not very many) are formulated either to restrict divorce or to restrict remarriage. (p. 130, bold added)

Divorce and remarriage are not easy topics to handle, whether as translators, Bible interpreters, or counselors. This brief post is certainly not intended to provide a final word on the topic, especially for those for whom divorce is no theoretical matter. I invite your prayers as I read this book, and hopefully others on the same topic, this year.

Do you have a response that will help us learn together? Share it in the comments below!


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Ecclesiology of the Reformers (6): William Tyndale

The idea of Tyndale having an ecclesiology is new for me. Tyndale is famous for being the father of the English Bible, not for having founded any church. Yet Tyndale did have an ecclesiology, and he did help to found a new church. Just as Tyndale’s translation work lies hidden in plain site within the King James Version Bible–about 80% of the KJV NT matches Tyndale’s–so his influence on ecclesiology lies hidden in plain sight in the many branches of the English Protestant church.

Tyndale’s ecclesiology was hammered out in the context of his experience, a scholar on the run, a theologian in exile… Even Menno Simons, who faced harassment and persecution, seems to have had a respected leadership role among the scattered Anabaptist communities in the Low Countries. He was able to get married and have a family. Not so William Tyndale. He lived hand to mouth, so to speak, depending on the generosity of a few friends, never knowing when the creak on the stairs or the turn of the lock would be his summons from the authorities. And yet he thought and wrote a great deal about the church, which he frequently referred to as God’s “little flock”: “The Kingdom of heaven is the preaching of the Gospel, unto which come both good and bad . But the good are few. Christ calleth them therefore a ‘little flock’ (Luke 12:32).” (Kindle Locations 7737-7744, emphasis added)

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 , Calvin, and Simons. See also the introduction to this series, and stay tuned for, hopefully, some wrap-up thoughts.)

One of the first things I noticed while reviewing George’s survey of Tyndale’s theology was that Tyndale’s Bible translation had ecclesiological effects. Even if Tyndale would have had no conscious theology of the church himself, he still would have shaped the ecclesiology of the English world simply through his translation. This happened in at least two ways: (1) through the gatherings that were formed by readers of his translation and (2) through the vocabulary choices he made as he translated.

Tyndale didn’t aim to produce a new church through his translation work:

At first Tyndale tried to accomplish his mission by working through official channels of the established church… The decree of 1408 forbidding English Bible translations provided only one loophole: Such a project could be undertaken with the permission and supervision of a bishop. (Kindle Locations 7176-7179)

Though the established church denied him support, Tyndale refused to deny the common plowman the chance to read “God’s Word.” Tyndale’s declared goal was to work for spiritual renewal of both individuals and the English nation at large:

Tyndale believed that the translation of the Bible and its dissemination into the hands of ordinary people were the means God had appointed to bring about genuine reformation and spiritual renewal in his time. In his brief epistle “To the Reader,” Tyndale commended his translation of the New Testament in this way: “Give diligence dear reader (I exhort thee) that thou come with a pure mind and as the Scripture saith with a single eye unto words of help and eternal life: by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh, and enjoy the fruits of the love of Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7225-7233)

Tyndale longed for God to use his translation to create new creatures in Christ Jesus. It did more than that; it also created new gatherings of believers.

Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament entered England as contraband and began to circulate in this way. Literacy was on the rise but still not common. Those who did not know how to read gathered eagerly around others who did to hear for the first time the words of the New Testament read aloud in English. Here and there, in the dark corners of the land, common folk gathered for such secret readings of Tyndale’s New Testament. Imagine being in such a group and hearing for the first time these words from the Gospel of John: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son for the intent, that none that believe in him should perish: But should have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world, to condemn the world: But that the world through him, might be saved” (John 3:16–17 Tyndale).(Kindle Locations 7215-7221, emphasis added)

King Henry VIII banned Tyndale’s translation; it was burned in St. Paul’s churchyard; and Tyndale remained on the run throughout the continental Europe. Yet his translation continued to find readers and to gather these readers into groups.

The case of William Malden illustrates the impact of Tyndale’s New Testament as it began to circulate throughout England in the late 1520s. Malden was a teenager, fifteen years of age, who lived with his family in the town of Chelmsford. At that time all of the services in the parish church there were still conducted in Latin. But, as Malden later recalled, “Divers poor men in the town of Chelmsford . . . bought the New Testament of Jesus Christ and on Sundays did sit reading in the lower end of the church and many would flock to hear their reading.” When Malden’s father found out about his son’s attendance at these Bible-reading sessions, he forbad him to participate anymore, insisting that he could get all the Bible he needed by going to Latin matins. Contrary to his father’s wishes, young William learned to read so that he could have access to the Scriptures for himself and not depend on its being read to him by others. (Kindle Locations 7259-7266, emphasis added)

Given this result of Tyndale’s efforts, it is interesting how he has been compared to the Paul the apostle and church planter:

Tyndale had enemies in high places, but he also had his champions, among whom there was none greater than John Foxe. In his Acts and Monuments, Foxe referred to Tyndale as one “who for his notable pains and travails may well be called the Apostle of England in this our later age.” Foxe invited one to think of Tyndale as a kind of apostle for his time, like Paul. The parallels between the two are, in fact, striking. Both were unmarried celibates who had no family of their own. Both Tyndale and Paul skirted danger in the fulfillment of their mission. Both were betrayed by untrustworthy companions, both spent time in prison and produced letters in their confinement, both were shipwrecked and finally put to death at the hands of imperial power . What Paul said about himself in his “catalog of sufferings” could be echoed by apostle Tyndale in the sixteenth century… (Kindle Locations 7241-7248)

A second way that Tyndale’s translation had ecclesiological effects was through the vocabulary choices that Tyndale made as he translated.

Tyndale’s desire to put the Scriptures into “plain plowman’s English” led him to introduce a new biblical vocabulary. As we have seen, charity became love. He turned penance into repentance and rendered confess as acknowledge. And, just as Luther preferred Gemeinde (community) to the German word Kirche (church), so Tyndale translated the Greek ekklesia as congregation. (Kindle Locations 7748-7752, emphasis added)

According to George, Tyndale recognized that there were four ways that the terms church and congregation were used. Tyndale didn’t approve of all these uses:

…Fourth, in Tyndale’s day the word church was used in a technical and exclusive sense to refer to all the clergy, who were also known as “the spirituality.” Tyndale called them “a multitude of shaven, shorn, and oiled.” Tyndale pointed out that this use of the word is found nowhere in the Scriptures; it represents a false institutionalization of the people of God.

So, what did Tyndale mean by congregation?

Congregation, as Tyndale often used it, refers to the true remnant, the “little flock,” Christ’s elect church, which is

The whole multitude of all repenting sinners that believe in Christ, and put all their trust and confidence of God; feeling in their hearts that God for Christ’s sake loveth them, and will be, or rather is, merciful unto them, and forgiveth them their sins of which they repent; and that he forgiveth them also all the motions unto sin, of which they fear less they should thereby be drawn into sin again.

Upon the rock of the faith that Peter confessed in Matthew 16, Jesus said that he would build his congregation. “And against the rock of this faith can no sin, no hell, no devil , no lies, nor error prevail,” Tyndale declared. It is this knowledge and faith that “maketh a man of the church.” Furthermore: “And the church is Christ’s Body (Col. 1); and every person of the church is a member of Christ (Eph. 5). Now it is no member of Christ that hath not Christ’s Spirit within it (Rom. 8); as it is no part of me, or members of my Body, wherein my soul is not present and quickeneth it. And then, if a man be none of Christ’s, he is not of his church.” (Kindle Locations 7753-7772, emphasis added)

Given this emphasis on knowledge and faith, we can see that Tyndale’s translation work was urgent and essential. He rested his hopes for individual salvation and for church renewal on the power of the written Word. To put it another way, Tyndale’s beliefs about the Word and about salvation shaped his understanding of the true Church. The Word awakens faith in the individual, and the gathering of the faithful is the Church:

“In as much as the Word is before the faith, and faith maketh the congregation, therefore is the Word or Gospel before the congregation.” (Kindle Locations 7777-7778)

Once again, as we’ve seen before in this series, ecclesiology rests on soteriology–that is, what we believe about the church is based on what we believe about the gospel and how it saves us. Differences in soteriology (doctrine of salvation) inevitably led to division between Tyndale and the Roman Catholic Church:

Both Thomas More [Catholic English statesman] and William Tyndale, like all Catholics and Protestants engaged in sixteenth-century salvation debates, believed in both faith and works. But how these two dimensions of the Christian life are related, which came first, whether either involves the accrual of merit, and what role each plays in the economy of grace—these were church-dividing matters that could not be resolved. (Kindle Locations 7607-7610, emphasis)

So what did Tyndale believe about salvation? In summary, according to George: Tyndale “was the first English-speaking theologian to give” justification by faith “due attention” (Kindle Locations 7495-7496). He emphasized the covenants God made with humanity, God’s work of electing and granting faith to his chosen ones, and how God grants sinners “totus Christus, the whole Christ: ‘His blood, his death, all that he ever did, is ours. And Christ himself, with all that he is or can do, is ours.’” (Kindle Locations 7581-7582)

At some points Tyndale sounds very Anabaptist:

None of this happens apart from the Holy Spirit. Tyndale’s emphasis on regeneration, the new birth, resonates more with Menno Simons and the Anabaptist vision than with the other reformers studied in this book. (Kindle Locations 7581-7584)

Unlike Luther, Tyndale placed a high value on the letter of James and quoted from it often. Tyndale saw no real contradiction between Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law and James’s statement that one is justified by works and not by faith only (Jas 2:14–24). James was not opposing works to true faith, Tyndale said, but rather works to a false conception of faith. (Kindle Locations 7682-7684)

And at other times not so much:

In his prologue to Romans, Tyndale declared that “predestination, our justifying and salvation are clean taken out of our hands, and put in the hands of God only, which thing is most necessary of all. For we are so weak and so uncertain, that if it stood in us, there would be of a truth no man be saved, the devil no doubt would deceive us.” (Kindle Locations 7538-7540)

Now may not we ask why God chooseth one and not another; either think that God is unjust to damn us before we do any actual deed; seeing that God hath power over all his creatures of right, to do with them what he list, or to make of every one of them as he listeth. (Kindle Locations 7545-7547)

Tyndale’s soteriology–with its ecclesiological ramifications–was not just communicated subtly through vocabulary choices in his translation:

Tyndale was not only a translator of the Bible, but he was also a teacher of the church.

In the preface to his commentary on 1 John, he gave this as the reason for writing that book and everything else he produced : “to edify the layman, and to teach him how to read the Scriptures, and what to seek therein.” In addition to translating most of the Bible into English from Hebrew and Greek—a formidable task no one had ever done before or has been required to do since—Tyndale produced an amazing theological corpus: prologues, introductions, expositions, and commentaries on the Bible as well as polemical and doctrinal treatises, not to mention sermons , letters, and liturgical writings, only a small portion of which have survived. (Kindle Locations 7334-7338, emphasis added)

Nor was Tyndale afraid to directly criticize the established church:

Among many complaints registered by Tyndale against leaders of the church, two stand out as especially offensive. The first was their avarice, greed, and exploitation of the flock over which they had been placed as shepherds… Every priest took his cut, as Tyndale wrote with sarcasm: “The parson sheareth, the vicar shaveth, the parish priest polleth, the frier scrapeth, and the pardoner pareth; we lack but a butcher to pull off the skin.” (Kindle Locations 7788-7794, emphasis added)

Tyndale also excoriated religious leaders for their moral laxity and sexual sins. Although he did not regard marriage as a sacrament—only baptism and the Lord’s Supper were New Testament institutions with a “promise”—he held a high view of married life… He strongly opposed the imposition of enforced clerical celibacy. This practice, Tyndale believed, invariably led to two extreme responses: On the one hand, the shunning and despising of all women—an attitude he detected in Jerome among others—and, on the other hand, a “false feigned chastity” that resulted in lust, lechery, and sexual abuse. (Kindle Locations 7801-7807, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s criticism of the established church clarifies that his vocabulary choices as a translator were very intentional, loaded with theological significance:

In criticizing late medieval religious practices, Tyndale made the priesthood of all believers the basis of his own ecclesiology. William S. Stafford has pointed to the significant change signaled by Tyndale’s choice of the term congregation over church. It amounted to “the re-evaluation of the laity, a religious, social and political relocation of the multitude who were baptized but untonsured.”1 (Kindle Locations 7816-7819, emphasis added)

Tyndale’s emphasis on the priesthood of all believers reminds me of Luther. The similarities between the two men go beyond the fact that both permanently shaped their respective national languages through their exceptional linguistic and translational skills. Tyndale was strongly influenced by Luther’s theological writings and may have even studied directly under him for a time. The following, though written of Tyndale, equally accurately describes Luther:

He believed that everyone in the congregation, informed by the Scriptures, had the right to admonish teachers and pastors when they went astray. All walks of life are holy callings. (Kindle Locations 7827-7829)

However, we should not imagine that Tyndale had no concept of an ordered ministry. Certain persons, mostly men, Tyndale thought, but also women (in case of emergency) were charged with preaching openly to the entire congregation. Tyndale opposed the idea that “the wagging of the bishop’s hand over us” had some supernatural power to make a preacher where there was none before. What mattered most was neither the ceremony of induction nor degrees earned at a college or university and certainly not the social status or rank of the preacher. Rather, what mattered most was the integrity of the message and the endowment of the Spirit. “When a true preacher preacheth,” wrote Tyndale, “the Spirit interrupts the hearts of the elect…” (Kindle Locations 7831-7837, emphasis added)

I want to end this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology where I began–by observing how fellowship around the Bible was central to his ecclesiology. Yet this fellowship, for Tyndale the “true preacher,” was not a self-centered withdrawal from the world, but one more way of sharing the love of God with all he met.

For nine months before his arrest, Tyndale lived in the English Merchants House in Antwerp… On Sundays he could be found in one of the largest rooms in the house reading a portion of the Scriptures, no doubt from his own translation. These readings would have included expositions of the text and pastoral applications as well. He repeated this exercise after dinner, “so fruitfully, sweetly, and gently” that he brought heavenly comfort to his listeners. On Mondays he would visit the English refugees who had come to Antwerp. On Saturdays he would walk around the city, looking into “every corner and hole” for those especially destitute—the elderly, women, children, the outcast. He gave liberally from the means he had to help those in need. He maintained a study in Merchants House and on all other days gave himself “wholly to his book.” In this brief sketch we see something of the pastoral calling at the heart of Tyndale’s work. (Kindle Locations 7850-7860, emphasis added)


Postscript

Although the theme of this series is ecclesiology, I am so impressed by Tyndale’s words about loving our neighbors that I cannot help sharing them also. And where better to begin loving our neighbors than right in our own churches? Listen and live:

“For as a man feeleth God in himself,” Tyndale wrote, “so is he to his neighbor.” Behind this principle is a view of Christian sociality that denies private ownership of one’s possessions in any absolute sense. This is how Tyndale put it: “For if my neighbor need and I give him not , neither depart liberally with him of that which I have, then withhold I from him unrighteously that which is his own.” And again: “Among Christian men love maketh all things common: every man is other’s debtor, and every man is bound to minister to his neighbor, and to supply his neighbor’s lack, of that wherewith God hath endowed him.”

But who is my neighbor? Tyndale answered that our neighbors are, in the first place, the members of our own family and household. Second, our neighbors include all those who live in proximity to us, “them of thine own parish,” as Tyndale put it, or, as we might say, the folks in our neighborhood. But our indebtedness to our neighbors extends far beyond this close circle, even to “the brethren a thousand miles off,” and, beyond that, “to the very infidels.” All these “have as good right in thy goods as thou thyself: and if thou withdraw mercy from them, and has wherewith to help them, then art thou a thief”! …“Neighbor is a love word,” he wrote. Loving our neighbors means that we pray for them, extend help and mercy to them in their need, and also share with them the message of Christ’s gospel. “Them that are good I love, because they are in Christ; and the evil, to bring them to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7710-7724)

Tyndale extended the scope of Christian witness to include those outside the bounds of Christendom: “I am bound to love the Turk with all my might and power; yea, and above my power, even from the ground of my heart, after the example that Christ loved me; neither to spare goods, body, or life, to win him to Christ.” (Kindle Locations 7726-7728)


(Next up: some of my conclusions and questions as I reflect on the ecclesiology of the reformers.)

What did you learn from this survey of Tyndale’s ecclesiology? What should we learn from Tyndale yet today? Do we need to relearn the importance of choosing sound vocabulary when talking about the Church or our congregations? How does our ecclesiology line up with our soteriology? Are our churches gathered around the reading of the Scriptures? Share your insights and questions in the comments below!


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.  William S. Stafford, “Tyndale’s Voice to the Laity,” in Day, Lund, and O’Donnell, Word, Church, and State, 106.

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