Tag Archives: loophole

Anabaptists Then (1500s): An “Unchangeable Plain Word of Christ”

The early Anabaptists earned an undeniable reputation for holding firmly to the teachings of Jesus as they understood them, no matter the cost. Though they shared many theological beliefs with the magisterial Reformers, the Anabaptists often accused the Reformers of “explaining away” the “hard sayings” of Jesus. ”1 The Anabaptists were committed to both (a) beginning their interpretation of Scripture with Jesus’ words and (b) obeying the hard teachings of Jesus. The topic of divorce and remarriage raises an interesting possible tension between these two commitments.

On the one hand, Jesus repeatedly gave uncompromising warnings against divorce and remarriage, even equating it with adultery. Yet he also gave the New Testament’s only words that explicitly suggest divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery may be permissible. How did the Anabaptists resolve this tension? Which words of Jesus did they consider to be “clear”?

The short answer is that the early Anabaptists displayed no anxiety over Jesus’ exception clauses about divorce and remarriage, unlike many conservative Anabaptists today. Rather than push these texts to the periphery of their discussions about divorce, they made them central pillars in their teaching. They did not seem to think that these exception clauses were “loopholes” that enabled people to avoid Jesus’ harder sayings. Rather, they appear to have seen them as reflecting the seriousness of adultery and the radical tension that exists between a true disciple of Christ and anyone who persists in sexual sin.2

Divorce and remarriage were topics that the Anabaptists engaged from their earliest years. If a single event can be pinpointed as the “official” birth of the Anabaptist movement (a debated question), it is probably a secret meeting on January 21, 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, where some radical students of Zwingli rebaptized each other. The earliest Anabaptist document discussing divorce and remarriage that I have found could have been written as early as within two years of that meeting and definitely no later than 1533. It has been attributed to Michael Sattler (1490-1527), but scholars are uncertain.3

Titled “Concerning Divorce,” this tract synthesizes Jesus’ exception clauses with other Scriptures with seeming ease. Here are some excerpts:

We, like Christ, do not permit a man to separate from his wife except for fornication; for when Christ in Matthew 5 often saith, “But I say unto you,” he thereby annuls the Law insofar as it is grasped legalistically and not spiritually… Therefore He does away with the old divorcing, no longer permitting hardness of heart to be a valid occasion for divorce but renewing the regulation of His Father, saying, “It hath not been so from the beginning, when God ordained that man and wife should be one; and what God hath joined together man shall not separate.” Therefore one may not separate for trifling reasons, or for wrath, that is, hardness of heart, nor for displeasure, aversion, faith or unbelief, but alone for fornication. 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, for Christ saith, “These two are one flesh.” But he who cleaves to a harlot, as Paul says, sinneth against his own body and is one flesh with the harlot, 1 Corinthians 6. Therefore he is separated from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the alien flesh of the harlot, and his marriage is broken for they are no more one flesh, but the fornicator has become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore the abandoned one [innocent companion] may marry whomsoever he wishes to, only it must be in the Lord…

Paul teaches in I Corinthians 7, If the unbelieving one doth not desire to dwell with the believer and departs, so let him depart; a sister or brother is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us in peace. This cannot weaken the words of Christ, nor does it contradict Him… There are many reasons for the unbeliever to separate, one this, the other that; yea, furthermore because unbelief hates and persecutes faith with its works, just as Christ testifies in Matthew 10, “They of thine household shall be thy foes.” And therefore from aversion and wrath the believer will be driven out and expelled. Nevertheless that is not a separation in God’s sight for they are still one flesh inasmuch as neither of them has attached his own flesh to the alien flesh of a harlot and become one flesh with the harlot. Therefore, it is only fornication which can effect a divorce.

Hardness of heart and unbelief may not occasion divorce, but only fornication, and as long as there is not a change to another flesh, 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 according to the words of Christ, Matthew 5, 19.

He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say. May God give us understanding from above in all things, to the knowledge of Himself and to His glory. Amen.”4

This tract appears even more fascinating when we consider its historical context. The first Swiss Anabaptists, long before their baptismal meeting, were Bible students. Under Zwingli’s teaching in Zurich, they boldly evaluated the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church in the light of the Bible and grew increasingly determined to live as true disciples of the Jesus they encountered in its pages. This stance is evident in the tract above; biblical quotations and references abound, but there is no hint of any dependence on the official teachings of the Catholic Church. Standing on Jesus’ words, the Anabaptists, like Luther and Zwingli before them, were not afraid to break with “the Church’s absolute prohibition of divorce.”5 From this perspective, “Concerning Divorce” could appear to be a radical, perhaps even libertarian, tract.

But there is another historical context that may be more important. In 1525—the same year that the Anabaptists broke from Zwingli—the city of Zurich, under Zwingli’s leadership, drafted what has been called “the first modern divorce law.”6 This law authorized divorce not only for adultery, but also for “greater reasons than adultery, as destroying life, endangering life, being mad or crazy, offending by whorishness, or leaving one’s spouse without permission, remaining abroad a long time, having leprosy, or such other reasons, of which no rule can be made on account of their dissimilarity.”7 The law also authorized divorce for those “who are not fitted for the partners they have chosen,” which was probably a reference to impotence.8 Zwingli was the first to turn Reformation views of marriage and divorce into law, and the revolutionary laws in Zurich became a model for surrounding cities—though most cities retained somewhat greater restrictions on divorce.9

In this context, “Concerning Divorce” is clearly a conservative tract, arguing strongly against permissive new laws that permitted divorce “for trifling reasons.”10 In addition, as the tract is directed to those who face persecution, it argues that being “driven out and expelled” by one’s own household is not grounds for divorce.

It is doubly striking, perhaps, in this context of arguing strongly against divorce, that the tract also argues that adultery is indeed grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Jesus’ exception clause was not considered a loophole; rather, for the Swiss Anabaptists it was one of the hard sayings of Jesus that he permitted divorce and remarriage only in cases of adultery.

The early Dutch Anabaptists clearly agreed, as multiple strands of evidence demonstrate. Menno Simons (1496-1561) is a good place to begin.

The following statements leave no doubt that Simons understood Jesus to permit both divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery:

These two, one husband and one wife, are one flesh and can not be separated from each other to marry again otherwise than for adultery, as the Lord says. Matt. 5; 19; Mark 10; Luke 16. This is our real position, doctrine, and practice concerning marriage, as we here confess with the holy Scriptures. By the grace of God it will ever remain the position of all pious souls, let them lie and slander as they like. We know and confess truly that it is the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ. (“Reply to False Accusation,” 1552)11

We acknowledge, teach, and assent to no other marriage than that which Christ and His apostles publicly and plainly taught in the New Testament, namely, of one man and one woman (Matt. 19:4), and that they may not be divorced except in case of adultery (Matt. 5:32); for the two are one flesh, but if the unbelieving one depart, a sister or brother is not under bondage in that case. 1 Cor. 7:15. (“Foundation of Christian Doctrine,” 1539-40; revised 1558)12

We know too that the bond of undefiled, honorable matrimony is so firm and fast in the kingdom and government of Christ, that no man may leave his wife, nor a wife her husband, and marry another (understand arightly what Christ says), except it be for adultery. Paul also holds the same doctrine that they shall be so bound to each other that the man has not power over his own body, nor the woman over hers. (“Instruction on Excommunication,” 1558)13

According to Menno Simons, the teaching that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again” is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage. This belief comes through clearly even though Simons, like the Swiss Brethren before him, was clearly intent on reducing divorces, not justifying them.

Simons’ fellow bishop Dirk Philips (1504-1568) taught the same. In this excerpt, he indicates by his Scripture citations that he thought divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery was consistent with God’s one-flesh creation mandate for marriage:

Christ wanted… to forbid the separation and rejection which the Jews practiced with their wives because of all kinds of reasons which they thought good or preferred, and that in order to marry another… The Lord willed and commanded that one should do that [separate] no more except in the case of an act of adultery, which is the only and true reason for which a husband may leave or reject his wife and take another, Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:3[ff.]; Matt. 5:32. (“Omitted Writing About the Ban and Avoidance,” 1567?)14

According to Philips, adultery does not offer a loophole from Jesus’ teachings against divorce, but a “true… reason” for permitting one to both “leave” a spouse and “take another.” Philips had exegetical evidence for this belief; in the following excerpt he states that divorce and remarriage are “joined” in Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement, so that adultery is grounds for both:

Christ said in the Gospel: “Whoever repudiates his wife (except because of fornication) and marries another, he commits adultery,” Matt. 19:9… Jesus Christ (in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, Col. 2:3…)… named adultery as the only true ground for divorce… Christ does not mention only repudiation and dissolution of marriage, but also being married to one another. This proposition is joined, the one to the other. (“Evangelical Excommunication,” 1567?)15

This interpretation of Jesus’ words was official church policy among the Dutch Anabaptists. In 1554 a conference of bishops was held where Menno Simons was then living—at Wismar in Mecklenburg, Germany. Those present, besides Simons, included Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, Gillis van Aachen, Herman van Tielt, Hans Busschaert, and Hoyte Riencx. The conference produced a series of statements known as the Wismar Articles. These articles address difficult questions the Dutch Mennonite churches were facing on topics such as shunning, marriage, divorce, and bearing arms. The articles were printed that same year in Amsterdam and reprinted several times afterward.16

Several of the articles in this document address questions of marriages between believers and unbelievers. Two of these clearly permit remarriage in cases of adultery:

Article IV.

In the fourth place, if a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. And if it be one who complains that he has fallen in sin, and desires to mend his ways, then the brethren permit the believing mate to go to the unfaithful one to admonish him, if conscience allows it in view of the state of the affair. But if he be a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free—with the provision, however, that she shall consult with the congregation and remarry according to circumstances and decisions in the matter, be it well understood.

Article V.

In the fifth place, concerning a believer and a nonbeliever–if the nonbeliever wishes to separate for reasons of the faith, then the believer shall conduct himself honestly without contracting a marriage, for as long a time as the nonbeliever is not remarried. But if the nonbeliever marries or commits adultery, then the believing mate may also marry, subject to the advice of the elders and the congregation.17

It was not just Swiss and Dutch Anabaptists who held this interpretation of Jesus’ exception clauses. According to all the evidence I have found, early Anabaptists across Europe shared these beliefs.

In 1540-41, the Hutterite leader Peter Reidemann wrote his Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens (“Account of Our Religion, Doctrine, and Faith”), which “represents the official position of the Hutterites in matters both of doctrine and practice.”18 The section of his book titled “Concerning Adultery” includes the following:

If one or the other of the partners in marriage go to another man or woman… where one committeth adultery in this way, the other should put him or her away and have no more in common with him or her before he or she hath shown real fruits of repentance. For where one mixeth with the transgressor before he or she hath repented, one committeth adultery with the other even though they were husband or wife before. For it is no longer a marriage, because it is broken until through repentance it is healed, therefore this should be punished by separation.19

In 1558 a twenty-five year old Anabaptist leader named Thomas von Imbroich was beheaded as a martyr at Cologne, Germany. While in prison he wrote a lengthy confession. This confession and other writings by Imbroich had a wide-spread influence both within and beyond Anabaptist circles.20 Writing as a representative of the Anabaptists of the Lower Rhine, he stated the following:

We also confess and believe that no one should or may separate two persons who have come together in a Christian marriage (which is brought together by God with the consent of both parties, besides which there is no other) except in the case of fornication, according to Christ’s words…21

In 1561, a “valiant hero and soldier of Jesus Christ, named John Schut,” was executed for his faith in the city of Vreden in Westphalia (northwestern Germany). According to the account in the Martyrs Mirror, the lords who tried Schut questioned him about his beliefs, including “what he held in regard to marriage”:

He replied that a man and a woman are united together in marriage, and that such union may not be dissolved, save on account of adultery; following herein the teaching of Christ. Matt. 19.22

In 1571, a Calvinist prince called a disputation at Frankenthal in the Palatinate (in southwestern Germany), hoping to unify his subjects. A diverse group of fifteen Anabaptist leaders came, representing not only the Palatinate, but also Switzerland, the Netherlands, Moravia, and the imperial cities of southern Germany.23 They were asked many questions, including whether the ban and unbelief separates a marriage. They responded, “We believe that nothing may part a marriage but adultery.”24

An official government report (protocol) of this Frankenthal Disputation was published, to which the Anabaptists wrote a response. Their response was published several times in several versions, the most complete extant version being published in 1590. In this version, the ninth article titled “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce” opens with the following paragraph:

Christ our Lord and Savior, of whom Moses and the prophets, indeed even the great glory of God itself testify, says: “It has been said that whoever wants to divorce his wife shall give her a bill of divorcement; but I say unto you, whoever divorces his wife, except for adultery, forces her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” [Matthew 5:31-32] All God-fearing Christians will allow these words to suffice, nor will they add to or detract from them. Therefore, adultery alone is cause for divorce for Christ says: two will become one flesh. Whoever commits adultery sins against his own flesh, becoming one flesh with a whore, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6[:15-18]. Therefore he is now divided from his own flesh in that he has attached himself to the foreign flesh of a whore. Thus is the marriage ended, for they are no longer one flesh, for the adulterer has become one flesh with the whore. Thus the divorced party may now marry anyone he or she desires, as long as it takes place in the Lord.25

In 1577 five ministers of the Waterlander Dutch Mennonites drafted a confession in an attempt to unify their church. The Waterlanders “had arisen as a movement in large measure in protest against the rigor of church discipline among the Mennonites, particularly after the Wismar Articles had been drafted” by Simons, Philips, and others.26 The Waterlanders “were the first Dutch Mennonites to have a confession of faith.”27 In fact, their 1577 confession “is probably the oldest in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition” in the sense that (a), unlike Anabaptist confessions before it, it “was meant to be a statement for the church” rather than a personal statement and (b) it was designed as “a complete theological formulation” rather than a narrow statement “on specific doctrines.”28

This confession includes the following statement:

When a husband and wife have, in chastity, been united in the state of marriage, this marriage is so binding that it may not be separated or broken for any reason except adultery, according to the words of Christ, Matthew 18.29

The following year (1578) Hans de Ries, one of the authors of the Waterlander Confession, was imprisoned for his faith. While in prison he wrote another confession to explain to the town council of Middelburg what he and his fellow Mennonites believed. This confession contains one sentence about marriage:

Marriage is honorable when one man and one woman live virtuously together, being two souls but one body, one flesh, which may not be separated except for the cause of adultery, as Christ taught and commanded (Matthew 19, Hebrews 13, Genesis 2).30

Also in 1577, Peter Walpot (1521-78), “bishop of the Hutterian Brethren in Moravia during their Golden Age,”31 completed his magnum opus, commonly called the “Article Book.”32 The fourth article is titled “Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers.” Since this article apparently has not yet been published in English, it deserves a brief introduction.33

As with most early Anabaptist theological writings, this is clearly an occasional work; we are joining a conversation midstream, with specific names and current events being discussed. Apparently this article is addressed to some other Anabaptist-type group, for they are addressed as “dear friends” and reportedly “want to avoid infant baptism.” But the disagreement is fierce between the Hutterites and Walpot’s unknown audience, for he also calls them “negligent shepherds,” says they are “of little understanding and completely unenlightened,” and warns them, “You have completely departed from the mind and judgment of Christ.”

The main point of disagreement is over how to counsel Christian converts who have unbelieving spouses. Walpot accuses his audience of insisting that a converted wife must remain with her husband even if the husband is not “pleased” to live with her (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12-13)—for example, if he does not permit her to attend the Anabaptist preaching; if she “must watch her children get mixed among the heathen… and grow up completely like the world”; and “even if her husband strikes her and puts her out the door.” As a result, she “will finally come to the point of despair about you and melt into the world.” Without having heard the proverbial “other side of the story,” my best guess is that most of us would have some disagreement with both Walpot and his audience; one may have been too slow to counsel separation, the other too quick.

For our purposes, what is significant about this article is the agreement found in the midst of the vigorous debate. Clearly, it was axiomatic for both the Hutterites and their dialogue partners that, according to Jesus’ exception clauses, adultery “parts a marriage.” Here is Walpot’s explanation of his own understanding:

Marriage is [a] special picture and direction to the godly of the union and continuing obligation that they owe and have vowed to God’s Spirit and the Lord… Therefore Christ was moved to cut off all frivolous, unimportant and bad reasons [for divorce] arising from or originating in human loathing or displeasure (as was common, acceptable practice among the Jews) and rescind it among his people. Thereby the original institution [of marriage] was re-established in its first status and no one could break it off for his human wishes or will (except for adultery). 34

Later, Walpot indicates that his opponents use Jesus’ exception clauses to argue against allowing a believer to be separated from an unbelieving spouse:

You force the verse in Matthew 5 and 19, that nothing but adultery and unchastity should break the marriage, no matter what attitude of [sic] the unbelieving one takes toward the believer. You don’t ask very much whether the unbeliever does so willingly, of which Paul speaks and to which he attaches everything else.35

The last document I’ll quote in this post takes us back to where we started: the Swiss Brethren. In 1578—roughly fifty years after the tract “Concerning Divorce” from Sattler’s day—the Swiss Brethren at Hesse produced a confession that included an article by the same name: “Concerning Divorce.” It is a near-perfect summary not only of their own historic position regarding Jesus’ exception clauses, but of the position of most Anabaptists in the 1500s:

We believe, acknowledge and confess that husband and wife, who through a providential bringing together in holy matrimony have become one flesh, cannot be separated by anything, neither by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarrels or hardness of heart, with the exception of adultery.36

(The remaining Anabaptist confessions I have found from the 1500s do not offer evidence that either agrees or disagrees with the documents I have shared in this post.37)

In summary, the early Anabaptists were mostly unified on the question of grounds for divorce and remarriage; most said there was one and only one such ground: adultery. All agreed that Jesus’ exception clause did mean adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage.

There was one clear point of disagreement; a minority of early Anabaptists argued for an additional ground: having an unbelieving spouse. The Hutterites certainly taught that when an unbelieving spouse was not pleased to live with a Christian convert, the Christian should separate. (See Peter Walpot above.) According to court records, the Swiss Brethren disagreed with how the Hutterites “separate marriages.”38 Some have said that “this kind of divorce for the reason of unbelief was a phenomenon peculiar to Hutterites,”39 but it is possible that the teaching of Dirk Philips regarding Christians who married unbelievers after conversion may also have produced similar results.40 In Philips’ case, he clearly disallowed remarriage in such situations; in some sense the marriage was still seen to exist. In the case of the Hutterites, I am unaware whether remarriage was ever counseled; the sources I read affirmed only divorce.

It is telling that divorce of a spouse because of unbelief was a point of disagreement and contention among early Anabaptists. Going beyond Scripture is one sure cause for theological and pastoral conflict, in our time as surely as that of the early Anabaptists.

On the other hand, I have not found any hint of any dispute among early Anabaptists about whether adultery was grounds for both divorce and remarriage. Anabaptists repeatedly and firmly rebuked the easy divorce permitted by many Protestant leaders such as Zwingli. They eagerly began their teaching with Jesus’ “hard sayings” about divorce, emphasizing that he did away with “the old divorcing” of the Jews. Yet, Menno Simons speaks for all early Anabaptists when he says that a husband and wife who are joined as “one flesh” can later, by adultery, be “separated from each other to marry again.”

This, the early Anabaptists insisted, is part of “the express ordinance, command, intent, and unchangeable plain word of Christ” concerning marriage.

What strikes you most about how the early Anabaptists read Jesus’ divorce and remarriage exception clauses? What do you make of the contrast between their beliefs and the beliefs of most conservative Anabaptists today (see my last post)? Share your insights in the comments below!

I have at least three more goals for this historical survey. In my next post I hope to (1) share a handful of documents from the 1600s to 1900 and then (2) reflect on how the Anabaptists prior to 1900 seem to have synthesized other biblical texts with their understanding of Jesus’ exception clauses. Did they do this well? Where were they mistaken? What can they teach us? Then I’d like to (3) ask how conservative Anabaptists got “from there to here” in their understandings about divorce and remarriage.

Here are two ways you can help: (1) Please pray God will guide my understanding and writing about divorce and remarriage. I sincerely want to honor Christ. (2) If you have any relevant historical documents or insights, please share them. I am missing many pieces of the historical puzzle and would be happy to update even this current post if more relevant evidence is found. Thank you!

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

  1. “The Reformers were more inclined than the Anabaptists to view the Bible as a flat book and to concentrate on the more immediate context, or to interpret all texts in light of certain doctrines seen as central to the whole of Scripture. Indeed, rather than interpreting other texts in relation to the example and teachings of Jesus, some of the ‘hard sayings’ of Jesus were interpreted (Anabaptists would say ‘explained away’) in light of other passages thought to be clearer. This was a major point of dispute between Reformers and Anabaptists and led to considerable divergence in ethical and ecclesiological conclusions. How does one decide which passages are clear and which obscure?” (Stuart Murray, Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition, Studies in the Believers Church Tradition (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2000), 62.
  2. Disclaimer: I am not a historian, so am not equipped to assess all the nuances of early Anabaptist understandings on this topic. I am sure I am missing some valuable evidence (despite some Facebook friends graciously sending me images of several important documents). I am also focusing my attention on a narrow question—How did the early Anabaptists understand Jesus’ exception clauses?—so am not trying to present a complete picture of their views on divorce and remarriage. But disclaimers aside, I am confident that the quotes in this post accurately represent what early Anabaptists normally taught about Jesus’ exception clauses. I have not found any statement from early Anabaptists that contradicts the evidence presented here.
  3. “P. J. Twisck (1565-1636), who was married to Menno Simons’ granddaughter, assigned it to Sattler” (J. C. Wenger, Even Unto Death: The Heroic Witness of The Sixteenth-Century Anabaptist (John Knox Press, 1961). Available online: http://www.bibleviews.com/evenuntodeath.html ), but “is signed by the initials ML, which argues against Sattler’s authorship” (The Legacy of Michael Sattler, John Howard Yoder, ed. (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), vii.). This tract was found published in a 1533 collection that included influential Schleitheim Confession (1527), also thought to have been written by Sattler (Ernest A. Payne, “Michael Sattler and the Schleitheim Confession,” Baptist Quarterly 14.8 (October 1952): 337-344. Available online: https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bq/14-8_337.pdf).
  4. Concerning Divorce, trans. J.C. Wenger, Mennonite Quarterly Review (April 1947):114-119. Available online: https://forum.mennonet.com/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=195&sid=757d9d661ee2fb957171da3e40019591&start=10#p4873. Emphasis added. Another translation of the end of the first paragraph uses female pronouns: “The one who finds herself thereby divorced may now marry, whom she will, only let it be in the Lord.” Source unknown. Available online: https://coveredbaptists.proboards.com/post/5466/thread
  5. Judith C. Areen, “Uncovering the Reformation Roots of American Marriage and Divorce Law,” 26 Yale J.L. & Feminism 29-89 (2014), 42. Georgetown Law Faculty Publications and Other Works. 1642. https://scholarship.law.georgetown.edu/facpub/1642
  6. Ibid., 44.
  7. Zurich Ordinance, quoted in Areen, 46.
  8. Areen, 46-47.
  9. Ibid., 44, 48.
  10. I am tempted to see a veiled reference to Zwingli in the final paragraph of this tract: “He who further divorces and will not hearken to Christ, scatters abroad and knows nothing, and him we will avoid as faithless, as one who damns himself, Titus 3. To the wise I am speaking; judge ye what I say.”
  11. Menno Simons, The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J. C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 561. Emphasis added.
  12. Ibid., 200. Emphasis added. C.f. also: “Again, under this kingdom, and under this King, no other wedlock must be tolerated, except between one man and one woman, as God had in the beginning established in the union of Adam and Eve; and Christ has further said, that these two are one flesh, and that they shall not separate, save for the cause of fornication, Matt. 5:32” (Menno Simons, “Appeal to Corrupt Sects,” A Foundation and Plain Instruction of the Saving Doctrine of Our Lord Jesus Christ, pub. in The Complete Works of Menno Simons (Elkhart, IN: John F. Funk & Brother, 1871). Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/ft019-corruptsects.html).
  13. Ibid., p.970. Emphasis added.
  14. Dirk Philips, The Writings of Dirk Philips, trans. and ed. by Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, Classics of the Radical Reformation (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 586). Emphasis added.
  15. Ibid., 605-606. Emphasis added. In context, Philips is contrasting shunning one’s spouse in cases of church discipline with divorcing them in cases of adultery. A Christian who avoids his spouse for the sake of church discipline is different from a Christian who divorces his spouse for adultery. In shunning, unlike a case of adultery, a believer does not remarry, but instead must be “waiting patiently on the spouse” and praying to “be reconciled” to them. The fact that Jesus joins (re)marriage to divorce in Matthew 19:9 shows that Jesus is talking about a kind of separation (divorce) that is more than just shunning, Philips argues. Therefore Jesus’ words against divorce in Matthew 19:9 cannot be used to argue against asking a Christian to shun their spouse who is under church discipline.
  16. “Wismar Articles (Dutch Anabaptist, 1554),” Global Anabaptist Wiki, “initiated by the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College,” last modified March 24, 2016,  https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Wismar_Articles_(Dutch_Anabaptist,_1554)#Article_IV. There are some problems with parts of the text we now possess of the Wismar Articles. According to John Horsch,“These Wismar Decisions have been preserved, but evidently not in their original form. The articles, in the form in which they have been handed down to us, are of doubtful authority; the text is in part clearly corrupt and unreliable” (John Horsch, Menno Simons. His Life, Labors, and Teachings (Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1916), chap. VIII. Available online: http://www.mennosimons.net/horsch08.html). Likewise, Harold Bender stated that “unfortunately the text in which these resolutions have been persevered is so corrupt that it is impossible to be sure of the original meaning” (Harold S. Bender, Brief Biography of Menno Simons, “V. Labors in Holstein, 1546-1561,” The Complete Writings of Menno Simon, trans. Leonard Verduin, ed. J.C. Wenger (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1984), 43). It is unlikely, however, that these concerns threaten the authenticity of the statements on divorce and remarriage quoted above, for, despite the fact that these textual questions were raised in Herald Press publications, the same publisher later printed a book by G. Edwin Bontrager that quotes Article IV of the Wismar Articles without qualification as part of a survey of historical Anabaptist beliefs on divorce and remarriage (Divorce and the Faithful Church (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1978), pg. 104). Goering likewise quotes Article IV in his 1956 article on divorce and remarriage on GAMEO (Goering, Jacob D.  and Leo Driedger, “Divorce and Remarriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1989. Accessed Feb. 15, 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_and_Remarriage&oldid=173115). To my knowledge, no one has suggested that Articles IV and V as we know them misrepresent the early Dutch Anabaptist position on divorce and remarriage. To the contrary, they fit perfectly with other available evidence.
  17. “Wismar Articles,” Global Anabaptist Wiki. Emphasis added.
  18. Robert Friedmann, “Rechenschafft unserer Religion, Leer und Glaubens,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. July 21, 2020, https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Rechenschafft_unserer_Religion,_Leer_und_Glaubens&oldid=149028
  19. Peter Rideman, Confession of Faith (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1970), 97-102. This translation was made from the 1565 published German edition. Emphasis added. This excerpt clearly extends hope for repentance and reconciliation. Yet, when read alongside (a) the response to the Frankenthal disputation and (b) Walpot’s Article Book (see both below), it also appears to affirm divorce in cases of adultery. It makes no statement about the possibility of remarriage.
  20. Leonard Gross, Golden Apples in Silver Bowls, trans. by Elizabeth Bender and Leonard Gross, ed. by Leonard Gross (Lancaster, PA: Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, 1999), p. 308, n. 104.
  21. “A Confession of Faith and Epistle of Thomas von Imbroich,” Golden Apples, p. 83. Emphasis added. Leonard Gross speculates that “this passage probably is an intended answer to those critics who assumed that all Anabaptists were like the Münsterites {who} accepted… polygamy and other excesses.” Gross again: “This passage may well also speak to the fact that Hutterite missioners, during these very years, were drawing away some Swiss Brethren into the Hutterian fold, sometimes, taking one spouse but leaving the other one behind” (Ibid., p. 310, n. 116).
  22. “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), 654-55. Emphasis added.
  23. Christian Hege, “Frankenthal Disputation (1571),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Frankenthal_Disputation_(1571)&oldid=145061
  24. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender, and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage.” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 18, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  25. “Concerning divorce: Whether the ban and unbelief are reasons for divorce,” A Short, Simple Confession, 1590, trans. Abraham Friesen, Leonard Gross, Sydney Penner, Walter Klaassen, and C. Arnold Snyder, Later Writings of the Swiss Anabaptists: 1529-1592 , ed. C. A. Snyder (Kitchener, ON: Pandora Press, 2017), 322. Emphasis added.
  26. Cornelius J. Dyck, “The First Waterlandian Confession of Faith,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (January 1962): 5-13. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Waterlander_Confession_of_Faith_(1577)
  27. Nanne van der Zijpp, “Waterlanders,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 28, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Waterlanders&oldid=134967
  28. Dyck, ibid.
  29. Hans de Ries, Albert Verspeck, Jacob Jansz, Simon Michielszoon, and Simon Jacobszoon, “Waterlander Confession of Faith (1577),” trans. by Dyck, quoted by Dyck, ibid. Emphasis added. It is curious why this statement cites Matthew 18 rather than 19. Evidently there was an error either in writing, translating, or publishing.
  30. Hans de Ries, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries (1578),” trans. Cornelius J. Dyck, published with commentary in Dyck, “The Middelburg Confession of Hans de Ries, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 36 (April 1962): 147-154, 161. Emphasis added. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=The_Middelburg_Confession_of_Hans_de_Ries_(1578)
  31. Robert Friedmann, “Walpot, Peter (1521-1578),” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1959. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Walpot,_Peter_(1521-1578)&oldid=146324
  32. Robert Friedmann, “Hutterite Article Book,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Hutterite_Article_Book&oldid=121143
  33. I was given a copy of a mostly-complete English translation on June 25, 2020 by Kenny Woolman of the Hutterian Brethren Book Centre (https://www.hbbookcentre.com/), who told me, “I believe I got it from the Archives in Goshen, now Elkhart.” Jason Kauffman, Director of Archives and Records at Mennonite Church USA Archives, gave me permission to post this document, and I have done so here.
  34. Peter Walpot, “Article Four: Concerning Divorce Between Believers and Unbelievers,” A Beautiful and Pleasant Little Book Concerning the Main Articles of our Faith or The Five Articles of the Greatest Conflict Between Us and the World, trans. Elizabeth Bender (wife of Harold S. Bender), unpublished manuscript, pg. 7. Available online: http://dwightgingrich.com/concerning-divorce-between-believers-unbelievers-hutterite-document/. Emphasis and bracketed portions added. This translation leaves a few blanks for untranslated words (none affecting passages quoted here) and shows other evidence of being a rough draft. After the above excerpt, Walpot continues by asserting that when the “Word causes such disharmony and disunity in the unbeliever that he becomes hostile to the believing spouse,” then “it is more needful for the believer to keep his eyes on what is godly to keep his heart in peace and not make too many concessions… be it for fear or love of the spouse.” In short, in such cases, despite Jesus limiting divorce to cases of adultery, a Christian spouse must separate.
  35. Ibid., 13. Emphasis added. Cf. page 10, where Walpot argues that when an unbeliever is not pleased to live with a believer, “a sister or brother is in such a case as if unmarried and not bound.” Walpot asks, referring to Paul, “Where does he give the verse and cause of adultery, that besides it nothing parts a marriage?” Walpot is arguing, against his opponents, that Jesus’ solitary exception does preclude separation from an unbelieving spouse who is not pleased to live together in a way that honors the believer’s conscience. Walpot’s argument, again, is based on shared ground; both he and his opponents agree on Jesus’ exception.
  36. “Swiss Brethren Confession of Hess” (1578), trans. Werner O. Packull, Confessions of Faith in the Anabaptist Tradition, ed. Karl Koop, Classics of the Radical Reformation II (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing House, 2019), 79. Emphasis added. An older translation is available online: “We believe and confess, that man and woman who have by the divine foreordination, destiny and joining in marriage become one flesh, may not be divorced by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarreling, hardness of heart, but only by adultery” (Theodor Sippell, ed., “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 22-34, p. 32). Quoted in Robert Friedmann, “Divorce from Unbelievers,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. July 30, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_from_Unbelievers&oldid=143540.
  37. One document, Pilgram Marpeck’s “Confession of Faith,” does not appear to discuss divorce or marriage at all (available in German here: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/1/15/Confession_of_Faith_by_Pilgram_Marpeck.pdf). Two others discuss marriage but focus on the problem of marriages between believers and unbelievers. See the Strasbourg Discipline from 1568 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Strasbourg_Discipline_(South_German_Anabaptist,_1568)) and the Concept of Cologne from 1591 (https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/index.php?title=Concept_of_Cologne_(Anabaptists,_1591)).
  38. Hans Pauly, TäuferAkten (i.e., court records of trials of Anabaptists, sentences pronounced upon them, etc.) of Hesse, ed. Theodor Sippell, “The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578,” Mennonite Quarterly Review, 23 (1949), 22-34, 22. Available online: https://anabaptistwiki.org/mediawiki/images/a/ac/SwissBrethrenConfession1578.pdf
  39. Ernst H. Correll, Harold S. Bender and J. Howard Kauffman, “Marriage,” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1987. Web. June 27, 2020. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Marriage&oldid=143645
  40. Cornelius J. Dyck, William E. Keeney, and Alvin J. Beachy, trans. and eds. of The Writings of Dirk Philips (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), 553, 577 (n. 5). This possibility is raised in the editors’ introduction and endnotes to Philips treatise “About the Marriage of Christians,” Ibid., 552-577.

Anabaptists Now: Taking Exception to Jesus’ Exception Clause

“I don’t know if what you are doing is right or not. I really don’t know. I feel I have to tell you that. But… yes, I will play piano at your wedding.”

That is what I told a friend, in words I can’t recall specifically now, roughly twenty years ago. I had met my friend through the Christian student club at Nipissing University, where I was pursuing an English degree. I’m not sure which year we had that conversation, but in one of our years together my friend, a Pentecostal, was the Bible study teacher for the club and I, a Mennonite, was the club president. (He also played an energetic guitar while singing “I’m Trading My Sorrows.”)

My friend had been married before. I never met his first wife, for she had left him some years previously. He didn’t want their marriage to end, but she made the decision for him. Despite her blatant unfaithfulness, he repeatedly sought to win her back. She refused, and eventually they divorced.

Now my friend had met a new friend, a smiling young lady who also attended the Christian student club and had a ready testimony. After their wedding, they moved overseas where they served as missionaries until she tragically died less than ten years later.

I have a terrible long-term memory, so I can’t tell you any details about their wedding; but I do remember I played piano. The main reason I remember even that basic fact is because of the conversation I had to have with my friend before I agreed to play.

I grew up in a congregation that was first part of the Conservative Mennonite Church of Ontario (CMCO) and then, since my early teens, part of Midwest Fellowship. In that setting I clearly caught, however it was taught, that divorce was terribly wrong and that remarriage was even worse.1 Adultery was certainly no excuse for remarriage, for remarriage itself was adultery. I imagine I learned that through simple presentation of relevant Scripture texts and also through our congregational study of books by people like Daniel Kauffman and John Coblentz.

As I grew older and moved out of our congregational bubble, I naturally met people from other denominations with other understandings of what the Bible teaches about divorce and remarriage. I have never lost my belief that every time divorce happens a marriage has fallen short of God’s design; someone, somewhere, has sinned. And I’ve always remained convinced that there is far too much divorce and remarriage happening among people who claim to follow Jesus.

But I’ve also had persistent, unresolved questions throughout my adult life. What did Jesus mean by “except it be for fornication” (to use the KJV expression)? If divorce is ever justified, when is it? And is remarriage ever blessed by God? What about couples who have wrongly remarried; should they now separate?

A number of years ago I was asked to express my affirmation with a Mennonite denominational position statement on divorce and remarriage. The statement said that initiating divorce or remarrying while a spouse is still living is always wrong and that those who thus remarry must separate. In response, I summarized God’s creation design regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage. But also, being honest, I added more, including these words:

God’s ideal is crystal clear: marriage should be for life, a mirror of Christ’s loving relationship with the Church. God’s perspective on less-than-ideal situations is not always so clear. I notice that the NT texts about marriage (both Jesus’ words and Paul’s teachings) are presented as discussions of what a Christian should do. They are not directly presented to answer every question of the appropriate response of either a repentant Christian or the church after this ideal has been violated. Thus we rely on exegetical and theological deduction when we address questions like, “What about someone who has already divorced and remarried and now wants to faithfully honor Christ?” While such secondary questions are crucially important, I think it is honest and helpful to observe that no NT text appears to have been directly intended to answer that question. Most attempts to answer such questions either rely on the witness of church history or are based on important but slender and difficult exegetical data.

I am confident that my experience is not unusual among those of us who have grown up in the conservative Anabaptist world.2 Many of you, I’m sure, could tell similar stories. Others of you, who are more confident in your interpretations on this topic, could probably tell stories of when your beliefs bumped up against differing beliefs within our own conservative Anabaptist world.

The diversity and uncertainty of conservative Anabaptist beliefs about divorce and remarriage were driven home to me recently in an informal poll I conducted on Facebook.

I was curious how accurate my hunches were about how conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses. Here, to refresh our memories, are the two times Jesus mentioned some exception to his prohibition of divorce:

But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matt. 5:32)

And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (Matt. 19:9)

The two clauses are very similar and are usually understood to mean the same thing. But how do conservative Anabaptists handle them? I created a poll to find out.

I’ll share the results of that poll here and use it as a springboard for discussion. You are also welcome to add your own responses in the comments below.

Here is the poll I presented:

In your experience, what are the most common ways that conservative Anabaptists handle Jesus’ exception clauses in the Matthew 5 and 19 passages about divorce and remarriage? Which of the following is most common in your experience?

A. The exception refers to fornication during the Jewish betrothal period. It allowed for “divorce” from a betrothed “wife” or “husband” and gave permission to marry another. It has no application for married couples today.

B. The exception refers to adultery after marriage. It allows for divorce (or separation) only, but no remarriage.

C. Either of the above are equally possible as a matter of biblical interpretation; what is clear is that Jesus is prohibiting remarriage in all cases.

D. Focusing on exception clauses is just looking for loopholes; let’s focus on Jesus’ and Paul’s clear teaching instead.

E. Some other approach?

I’m not asking what you believe, just trying to see if I’m discerning the most common approaches within the conservative Anabaptist world. Thanks in advance for your help!

A brief explanation is in order about options A and B above.

Option A is what I will call the “betrothal” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer only to the Jewish practice of betrothal, not to fully married persons. A Jewish person who entered a betrothal covenant was already called a husband or wife, even though the wedding might not happen for another year. They could have their marriage annulled (the term “divorce” was even used) if unfaithfulness was discovered in their partner. They were then completely free to marry another. This is what Joseph initially planned to do with Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (Matt. 1:18-19).

Option B is what I will call the “divorce-only” view. This view says that Jesus’ exception clauses refer to fully married persons. According to this view, Jesus is giving permission for a married person to divorce their spouse if that spouse commits sexual immorality (usually defined as adultery). Jesus was not, however, giving permission to remarry.

Now to the results of the poll. Sixty-four people answered this poll, representing a fairly diverse range of conservative Anabaptist church influences in at least twenty American states, two Canadian provinces, and Mexico. It is not possible to tally the results with scientific accuracy, for some people gave multiple or qualified responses. But the general picture is clear enough.

First, here are the responses from respondents who offered only one answer to my poll, shown as a percentage of all respondents. (The raw vote total is included below each heading.) For example, about 17.2% of all 64 respondents (11 people) said they have heard only the betrothal view taught:

(You can enlarge the images by clicking on them.)

Here is a record of all responses, showing how many times each answer was mentioned in any way. Many people gave answers like “Mostly A, but also sometimes D.” In such a case, this chard treats both A and D alike, without recognizing that A was prioritized over D. For example, about 54.7% of all 64 respondents (35 people) said they have heard the betrothal view taught, whether often or rarely:

Finally, here is another graph displaying all responses, also including (in orange) a rough attempt to represent the weight respondents intended for each answer when they gave more than one answer:

How can we summarize these results?

  • My hunches were probably right; only one person suggested an alternative conservative Anabaptist approach to Jesus’ exception clauses, which was really option D with some ugliness added.3
  • The most common approach is probably the betrothal view, mentioned by over half the respondents. My perception is that many Anabaptists today have encountered this view through popular-level Protestant teachers such as Bill Gothard and Joseph Webb (Till Death Do Us Part? What the Bible Really Says About Marriage and Divorce). More professionally-published sources have also been influential, such a paper by John Piper (“Divorce and Remarriage: A Position Paper”) and a recent multi-authored book called Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View. I am not sure when this view entered Anabaptist circles, but already in 1950 John L. Stauffer was promoting it,4 and in about 1992 John Coblentz wrote that “this view has had wide acceptance among conservative people.”5 Note: This paragraph originally indicated that J. Carl Laney promotes this view, but I was mistaken.
  • The divorce-only view is also very popular among conservative Anabaptists, mentioned by nearly half of the respondents. This view appears to have somewhat longer roots within Anabaptism (more on that in another post), but Protestant scholars such as Gordon Wenham and William Heth (Jesus and Divorce) have also been influential within some Anabaptist groups. Anabaptist influencers David Bercot (“What the Early Christians Believed About Divorce and Remarriage”) and Finny Kuruvilla (“Divorce and Remarriage: What About the Exception Clause?”) are also promoting this view through their summaries of early church practices.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard both the betrothal and divorce-only views presented as being equally-valid interpretative options.
  • Over a third of respondents have heard warnings against looking for loopholes and encouragement to focus on clearer texts instead of the exception clauses.

What can we learn from this poll about how conservative Anabaptists approach Jesus’ exception clauses?

For most of the rest of this post I plan to discuss some weaknesses I perceive in some conservative Anabaptist approaches to these words of Jesus. I will cite specific examples to support my observations. Please know that when I name names, I have absolutely no desire to belittle anyone. People whom I highly respect and love as past mentors and teachers are among those who may feel challenged by some of my words. This is a difficult topic and many good Christians have not reached full agreement. Part of me does not want to name names, but I think citing some public documents can make this discussion more fruitful. My desire is simply that together we will learn to better hear and understand Jesus’ words. If you feel I am mishandling his words, you are welcome to let me know.

With those expressions of love in mind, here are four general observations about the poll results:

First, it appears that most conservative Anabaptists do not rely on or allow these exception clauses to determine their theology and ethics of divorce and remarriage. Rather, for these texts, their desired theological ends justify their uncertain interpretive means. Why are only these two specific interpretations (betrothal and divorce-only) currently popular among conservative Anabaptists—especially since these interpretations are very much the minority within Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and the Orthodox Church? It is surely because, rightly or wrongly, many conservative Anabaptists have their minds made up about what Jesus could not mean before even considering these texts.

An example of this is a tract available from the conservative publisher Rod and Staff. It rebukes those who use Jesus’ exception clause as a loophole but never offers a positive interpretation of what Jesus actually did mean:

Sometimes the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 is used to support divorce in cases of unfaithfulness. But such reasoning cannot be reconciled with the other New Testament passages on divorce and remarriage, which are very clear in their statement. The hardness of heart would grasp for a loophole here and fail to reckon faithfully with the clear statement of God’s Word in a number of other passages. This is hardly a safe approach to the Word.6

Second, it is clear that conservative Anabaptists have not reached a consensus about what Jesus did mean when he said “except it be for fornication.” They do not even agree on whether this clause has any direct relevance for Christians today or whether it was something spoken only for Jewish listeners.

Here I want to emphasize an important side point: If the betrothal view is correct, then we have zero verbal permission from Jesus not only for remarriage, but also for separating a marriage for any reason whatsoever. According to this view, Jesus’ words “Let not man separate” are given no qualification whatsoever for married couples—only for those who were betrothed. If we are going to allow for any separation of married persons (even when we don’t call it divorce), we have to assume that Jesus would have been okay with it and find possible justification elsewhere, such as from Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:11. This assumption may indeed be valid; maybe we should consider the possibility that Jesus sometimes used typical Jewish hyperbole in his teaching. But if we adopt this interpretation, we must be honest: we are affirming that an unspoken qualification is attached to Jesus’ words, “Let not man separate.” We are saying, “Jesus said ‘Let not man separate,’ but we know that there are times when he would approve of separation anyway.”

Third, many conservative Anabaptists are deeply uncomfortable with these exception clauses. Truth be told, they would be happier if Jesus had not spoken them. These clauses throw a wrench into the otherwise clear teaching of Scripture. The term “exception clause” makes it feel too much like Jesus is “making an exception” for something that is intrinsically evil. If you’ll pardon another pun, many conservative Anabaptists “take exception” to Jesus’ exception clauses. This is evident in several of the examples I share in this post.

Fourth, when conservative Anabaptists do try to explain Jesus’ exception clauses, they are often quite happy to present mutually opposing interpretations as equally possible.  As long it can be shown that there are ways these exception clauses can possibly be harmonized with other biblical texts that appear to forbid divorce and remarriage, many conservative Anabaptists are content not to decide between contradictory interpretations.

I want to underscore that the two popular conservative Anabaptist interpretations of Jesus’ exception clauses indeed sharply disagree with each other on an exegetical level.

In pastoral practice, the two probably lead to similar results in conservative Anabaptist churches. The divorce-only view allows a believer to divorce from an adulterous spouse; but is rarely put into practice. The betrothal view technically does not give authorization for any sort of separation; but, as with the divorce-only view, sometimes separation is permitted for a variety of difficult circumstances without any direct authorization from these texts. Most importantly, both approaches strongly prohibit any remarriage, so the practical results are similar.

Despite the similar theological and practical results, on an exegetical level these two views are diametrically opposed. There are two key exegetical questions that must be solved to properly understand Jesus’ exception clauses:7

  1. What do the exception clauses themselves mean? Especially, what does porneia (πορνεία; the word translated “fornication” in the KJV) mean? This is a lexical question, a problem of word definitions.
  2. How do the exception clauses fit within Jesus’ complete sentences? In particular, in the Matthew 19:9 exception clause (which is where much of the debate is focused), does the exception clause modify only what comes before it, or does it modify Jesus’ entire statement? That is, does it identify an exception for divorce only, or also for marrying another? This is question of syntax, or sentence structure.

On these two key questions the betrothal and divorce-only views completely disagree. On the first question, the betrothal view says that porneia refers narrowly to premarital sin—fornication. But the divorce-only view says porneia is a more general word referring to a variety of sexual sins, including adultery.8

On the second question, the betrothal view says the exception clause modifies the entire subject-portion of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife and marries another”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for both divorce and marrying. What Jesus was really saying in Matthew 19:9 could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his betrothed wife commits sexual immorality; then he is free to divorce her and marry someone else.”

The divorce-only view, in contrast, says the exception clause modifies only the first half of the subject of Jesus’ sentence (“whoever divorces his wife”). Thus, Jesus was recognizing an exception for divorce only. Jesus’ statement could be paraphrased like this: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, except if his wife commits sexual immorality; then he may divorce her, but remarriage would still be adultery.”

The exegetical disagreement between these two views can be summarized in chart form.

Here is the exegesis that leads to the betrothal view:

And here is the exegesis that leads to the divorce-only view:

Given these distinct differences, a thoughtful reader needs to come to a confident conclusion on only one of these two questions to eliminate one of these views (betrothal or divorce-only) as a possible reading.

The betrothal interpretation of the second question (about syntax) demands further comment. I get the sense that few people take time to consider the implications of how the betrothal view interacts with the syntax of Jesus’ statement; most discussions of this view focus on the lexical question instead, along with possible supporting historical evidence.

The betrothal view, however, demands that we understand Jesus’ exception clause as modifying both the divorce and marriage parts of the subject of his sentence. If this were not so, then Jesus would have been saying this: A betrothed person who discovers that their husband or wife has been sexually unfaithful may be released from the betrothal covenant, but they may never marry anyone else. This proposal is self-evidently and historically unreasonable.

(It may be useful to point out that Jesus does not say “remarry” but “marry another.” Further, as I understand it, the Greek can be understood to say “marry an other”—referring not to a second woman but a different woman.)

The point I want to emphasize here is that, if the exception clause does not modify the marriage part of Jesus’ statement, the betrothal view is impossible.

This fact is sometimes missed. In a Christian Light Publications book, for example, Coblentz notes how the exception clause comes after Jesus’ mention of divorce and before his mention of adultery. Based on this sentence order, he concludes that “the exception refers to the putting away.”9 Despite establishing this firm conclusion, Coblentz later says, “Unfortunately, seeing the exception clause as referring to the ‘putting away’ does not resolve all the controversy.”10 After this statement, he proceeds to discuss the strengths of the betrothal view. In the end, he seems to prefer the divorce-only view, but he still affirms the betrothal view as possible.11

Clair Martin, in an official publication of the Biblical Mennonite Alliance, relies significantly on Coblentz. He agrees that the betrothal and divorce-only views are “both in line with scripture.”12 He examines only the lexical question of the definition of porneia and never addresses the syntactical question of how the exception clause modifies Jesus’ statement. He seems unaware that this factor also separates the betrothal and divorce-only views. His main concern seems to be to close “one of the most prominent loopholes that people use to get around this subject.”13

The inverse, of course, is also true: If you are going to say that the betrothal view is a valid interpretive option, then you must acknowledge that one of the most commonly-cited arguments in favor of the divorce-only view is not conclusive: The syntax of the sentence does not prove that Jesus is making an exception only for divorce. This means, if we are honest about our exegesis, that those who promote the betrothal view should acknowledge that the syntax of the sentence also permits Jesus to be making an exception for both divorce and (re)marriage.

What does it say about conservative Anabaptists that so many are content to hold mutually-contradictory interpretations as equally valid? Positively, it reflects a determination to honor the teaching of Scripture that is understood to be clear, without letting disputed texts prevent obedience. It could also reflect exegetical humility—an awareness that the Bible is not always as plain as our Anabaptist heritage likes to claim.

Negatively, it could reflect the fact that most conservative Anabaptist church leaders have never studied Jesus’ exception clauses carefully; indeed, that they are not equipped to do so. It could also reflect a proof-text approach to Bible interpretation and systematic theology that does not sufficiently consider the original literary and cultural contexts of the biblical texts. More positive and negative implications are surely involved, and not everyone who takes a both-and stance shares the same mix of positive or negative motivations.

One way to avoid such tension, of course, is to simply ignore Jesus’ exception clauses altogether (response D in the poll). Two particularly clear examples of this are provided by publications from the Southeastern Mennonite Conference and the Beachy Amish-Mennonites.

The former group adopted a “Statement of Position on Divorce and Remarriage” in 1983. This statement lists both Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 among its proof texts, but never quotes them and never makes any mention of “fornication.” It does quote (with commentary) Mark 10:11, which is parallel to Matthew 19:9 except for the crucial difference that it lacks the exception clause: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth [or continues to commit] adultery against her.” Avoiding Jesus’ exception clauses altogether, this statement simply states, “The act of adultery does not dissolve the marriage bond.”14

A doctrinal position statement ratified by Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers in 2003 takes a similar approach. (In fact, though it presents itself as an original publication, it is obviously an adaptation of the former document, virtually identical in many sentences and following the same overall structure.) This statement cites seventeen different passages of Scripture, including some verses from Matthew 19. But it never once cites or alludes to either of Jesus’ exception clause statements (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). Romans 7:1-3 (or a particular interpretation of that text) is cited in whole or part seven times in this brief document and clearly serves as the interpretive lens through which all other texts are read—or excluded.15

The approach exemplified by these two documents, while understandable on one level given the desire to uphold God’s creation design for marriage, is functionally dishonest in its handling of Jesus’ words. We do not honor Jesus when we avoid his “hard sayings” and quote Scripture selectively to support our theological positions. We do not serve God’s people well, either, when we do this. Unfortunately, this approach is a relatively common way that some conservative Anabaptists “solve” the topic of divorce and remarriage.

What is a better way to solve the interpretive dilemma of Jesus’ exception clauses?

Are there better options than either (a) promoting two mutually-contradictory interpretations of Jesus’ words or (b) pretending he never said what he did? What solution might conservative Anabaptists be likely to adopt?

Without professing prophetic ability, I suggest several possible outcomes. First, either the betrothal or the divorce-only view may be successfully championed by someone until it becomes the consensus view. This would significantly shore up the goal of preserving a rare-divorce, no-remarriage culture in conservative Anabaptist churches. And I must emphasize that nothing I have written in this post proves that either of these two views is wrong, even though I do see some weakness in both that are beyond the scope of this post.

Second, if a significant consensus is not reached, I suspect a growing number of people, observing the uncertainty, will question the current conservative Anabaptist approach to divorce and remarriage more broadly. We will continue to see people, either quietly or publicly, walk away from the unqualified no-divorce, no-remarriage teaching they have absorbed.

It must be acknowledged, after all, that there are not only two possible ways to deal with Jesus’ exception clauses. There are several views that are similar to the betrothal view, for example, which suggest that Jesus was referring to incestuous or otherwise unlawful marriages. Others have proposed, without any hard evidence, that Matthew added the exception clauses in an attempt to tone down Jesus’ rigid stance against divorce and remarriage (which is different from the proposal that Matthew added the clauses to accurately reflect Jesus’ unspoken assumptions). Still others argue that the exception clauses are not really exceptions at all, but rather Jesus’ way of saying that he was making no comment on the Deuteronomy 24 exception that the Pharisees asked him about (the “preteritive” view).

But apart from either adapting the betrothal view or finding a way to functionally remove any exception from Jesus’ lips, there is also the possibility of revisiting how our two key exegetical questions might fit together.

There are two primary options. One option makes little sense, as we noted above; there is no good reason to imagine Jesus was prohibiting betrothed persons from ever marrying if their first betrothal was ended by the discovery of sexual immorality:

The other option is that Jesus was recognizing that both divorce and marrying another are honorable options when a spouse (or betrothed person16) violates a marriage through sexual immorality:

For conservative Anabaptists, the problem with this last view is not only that it appears to directly contradict clear Scriptures that prohibit both divorce and remarriage; it also is the most common Protestant way of interpreting Matthew 19:9.17 This, to many conservative Anabaptists, makes it doubly suspect and likely to undermine their Anabaptist vision of obedience to Jesus.18

How, then, are we to resolve this dilemma that conservative Anabaptists have with Jesus’ exception clauses? One necessary solution, most certainly, is to engage Scripture more closely in search of more sure answers. In doing this crucial task, however, I suggest that we also take a closer look at our own Anabaptist heritage.

You may be surprised, as I was, to learn that it is only in recent history that Anabaptists have taken exception to Jesus’ exception clauses. But that is a story for another post.

Thank you for reading. Please pray for me as I continue to study and write, and please share your insights in the comments below!

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

  1. The congregational “Statement of Faith and Practice,” as of 2002, simply says, “Divorce and remarriage is contrary to God’s Word.” Constitution and Statement of Faith and Practice of the Otter Lake Mennonite Church, Revised Constitution 2002, pg. 14.
  2. I normally use that term as it is commonly used in my world, to refer to anyone from Amish or Mennonite churches that range from Old Order churches on one “end” to roughly the Biblical Mennonite Alliance on the other “end.” In this post I am referring mostly to the car-driving subset of that group, since I have almost no direct experience with Old Order groups.
  3. He described like this: “I grew up in Joe Wenger Mennonite church. My takeaway would be that they are teaching no divorce for any reason. Yet, if you leave or show any inclination to leave, they’ll gladly try to take your spouse aside and try to convince them you’re off in the head. My point being, in teaching not acceptable but in action there are plenty of divided marriages. The go-to verse would be, ‘In the beginning it was not so, but through the hardness of your hearts,’ etc.”
  4. John L. Stauffer, “Biblical Principles–Divorce and Remarriage,” The Christian Ministry, Scottdale, PA, III, 3 (July-September, 1950), 89-94; as mentioned in an annotated bibliography by J. C. Wenger, Separated Unto God (Harrisonburg, VA: Sword and Trumpet, 1990; orig. pub. Scottdale, PA: Mennonite Publishing House, 1950), 182.
  5. John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 34. This booklet is available in full online: https://anabaptists.org/books/mdr/
  6. “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” 12-page tract (n.a., n.d.), Rod and Staff, 5-6. Accessed online, June 20, 2020. https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/
  7. Gordon Wenham says that interpretations of Jesus’ Matthew 19:9 statement “hinge on two main issues”: “the meaning of the Greek term porneia” and “the grammar of the exception clause” in relation to the rest of the sentence (Gordon Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 78). Both the nature of Jesus’ statement and my reading of other authors confirm Wenham’s claim.
  8. Some suggest it refers narrowly to adultery, but that position is harder to defend on lexical grounds and also unhelpfully excludes other forms of sexual immorality that married persons may commit, such as homosexual relations or bestiality.
  9. Coblentz, ibid., 29.
  10. Coblentz, ibid., 34.
  11. Coblentz, ibid., 38.
  12. Clair Martin, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: A Biblical Perspective, Biblical Perspectives on Present Day Issues, #2 (Publication Board of Biblical Mennonite Alliance, 2010), 6.
  13. Ibid., 6.
  14. “Statement on Divorce and Remarriage,” (Southeastern Mennonite Conference, 1983). Available online, as copied by a student of Mark Roth: https://www.anabaptists.org/tracts/divorce2.html
  15. “Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage” (Sugarcreek, OH: Calvary Publications: 2003). Available online: http://www.beachyam.org/librarybooks/beliefs/marriage.pdf. A note at the beginning of this statement says this: “This doctrinal position statement was formulated by a five-man bishop committee and ratified by the Amish Mennonite (Beachy) ministers…” I presume the five bishops were Beachy, not Southeastern Mennonites.
  16. In this approach, Jesus’ exception clause explains Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary while also referring to sexual betrayal within marriage; sexual unfaithfulness is seen to permit divorce and marrying another at any stage of the relationship.
  17. It must be noted, however, that merely adopting this reading of Matthew 19:9 does not mean one agrees with most Protestants on the topic of divorce and remarriage in general. Most Protestants allow divorce and remarriage not only in cases of adultery, but also in cases of desertion, citing a “Pauline privilege” in 1 Corinthians 7:15. In addition, many Protestants say that “other actions that break the marriage covenant such as physical abuse” are also grounds for divorce and remarriage (Andrew David Naselli, “What the New Testament Teaches About Divorce and Remarriage,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 24 (2019): 3–44, pg. 5. Available online: http://andynaselli.com/wp-content/uploads/2019_Divorce_and_Remarriage.pdf).
  18. I have learned that this wariness about Protestants surprises some of my friends who are not from Anabaptist roots. For such readers, here are a few excerpts from a twenty-page Rod and Staff Publishers tract titled “More than Protestantism: The Thrilling Story of a Church Founded upon Christ”: “Born-again Christians everywhere are being urged today to work toward the revival and unification of Protestantism. Before we rush to make common cause with this ecumenical movement, let us look at the record of history… At first Luther and Zwingli defended the principle of liberty of conscience and denounced all persecution, but, tragically, both leaders depended heavily upon the support of favorably inclined secular rulers… This eventually involved them in the use of persecution against religious dissenters… Many born-again Christians at this point began to break with Protestantism… A long and bloody persecution ensued in the next 50 years, in which from 20,000 to 50,000 of these New Testament Christians were martyred by the Roman Catholics and the Protestants… Thus these churches founded upon Jesus Christ and His Word had to break with the compromises and evils of Protestantism, just as the reformers ultimately broke with the Catholic organization… They were called ‘Anabaptists’ (rebaptizers) by their enemies because they practiced believer’s baptism… But the main difference between the Anabaptists and their opponents was not the question of baptism, but the question of the relation between the church and the rest of society…  It is a sad fact of history that all the prominent reformers approved of persecution and death for the Anabaptists. A certain Baptist scholar of our own time discovered through exhaustive research that more Anabaptists were put to death for their religion by the Protestants than were similarly put to death by the Roman Catholics!… ‘Why not Protestants?’ you may be asked. The record of history shows us the answer clearly: from the false teachings of Protestantism… come the hellish evils of the unholy alliance between State and Church, the persecution of religious dissenters, the ‘religious’ wars that killed millions, modern nationalism, racism, and dictatorship! Surely Protestantism is only another ‘lamb-like beast’ drunken with the blood of the martyrs!”