Tag Archives: -Matthew 19:9

“Let Not Man Separate” Implies a Breakable Bond (JDR-7)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, where I examine Jesus’ words with a focus on this question: Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? Here are my posts so far:

Jesus on Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction (JDR-1)

Hyper-Literalism, Could vs. Should, and a Guiding Question (JDR-2)

“Cleave” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-3)

“One Flesh” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-4)

“God Has Joined Together” Does Not Imply an Unbreakable Bond (JDR-5)

Genesis 2:24 as God’s Creation Norm for Marriage (JDR-6)


Summary of this post: I ask whether Jesus meant “let not man separate” or “let not man try to separate,” as some propose. Based on clues from literary and historical contexts, I argue that Jesus’ first listeners understood him to be prohibiting the full dissolution of marriage—and that Jesus expected to be understood this way. I note that some proponents of marriage indissolubility acknowledge such a conclusion is reasonable, yet point ahead to Jesus’ statement about remarriage being “adultery” as proof that marriage is indissoluble. I promise to address this statement and acknowledge some complexities of this divorce discussion. 


Before I jump into today’s post, I feel I should clarify some potential misunderstandings about my goals in this series:

  • If you are confused about my purposes or beliefs, please read my post promoting radical faithfulness in marriage.
  • I’m trying to choose my post titles carefully. When I say a certain expression “does not imply an unbreakable bond,” I do not necessarily mean “implies a breakable bond.” Similarly, when I say “implies a breakable bond” in today’s post, I definitely do not mean “proves a breakable bond.” That said, after a while, enough non-implications plus implications do add up to a beyond-all-reasonable-doubt sort of proof. I’m definitely not there yet, though, in this series, so thank you for not saying I’ve claimed something I’ve not yet claimed!
  • I’m somewhat conflicted about naming and quoting people that I’m disagreeing with, especially when I know them personally. I’ve been on the receiving end of enough critique to know that public critique—even when it is respectful and perhaps especially from friends—can be uncomfortable and even potentially debilitating. I’m also aware it is easy to be misunderstood and that none of us still agrees with everything we’ve ever said or taught in public. That said, (a) it is standard, respectful academic procedure to sharpen thinking by quoting and evaluating the public teachings of others, (b) such public discussion of the public teachings of others seems consistent with the NT’s picture of the greater accountability expected of church leaders, and (c) for the purposes of my series it seems that direct quotations will help some readers better understand the significance, within the conservative Anabaptist context, of the questions I am discussing.
    Please know I have a lot of respect for many of the people I’m quoting and disagreeing with in this series! Many of them, to paraphrase Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:23), are bearing gospel fruit thirtyfold and sixtyfold, compared to my own tenfold (on a good day).
    If I quote you in this series and you think I’m misunderstanding you or quoting something you no longer affirm, please let me know. I will be happy to do my best to correct any misrepresentations. I hope we can learn from each other, and I sincerely wish you God-speed in your kingdom work and worship.

Thank you for reading these clarifications. And now… on to today’s post!


Introduction: Should Not or Cannot Separate?

“Let not man separate” is the command that Jesus gives after summarizing the union that God designed for husbands and wives (Matt. 19:6). Since it is God who has joined a husband and a wife, separating marriages is a sin against God, not merely against humans.

This clause “let not man separate” offers a classic illustration of how Bible readers can get confused between the “should” and “could” of Scripture. The most obvious way to Jesus’ command is that he is saying humans should not do something that they could do. As commentator R. T. France noted, “the argument here is expressed not in terms of what cannot happen, but of what must not happen: the verb is an imperative: “let not man separate.”[1]

Bible teachers who believe marriage is indissoluble are often discontent with that simple reading, however.

John Piper, for example, waffled in his comments on this verse. First, he gave this summary: “Jesus… says that none of us should try to undo the ‘one-flesh’ relationship which God has united.” But later, citing this same statement of Jesus, Piper said “only God, not man, can end this one-flesh relationship.”[2] So which is true? Man should not separate, or man cannot separate?

To be fair, Piper’s two statements are indeed consistent with each other—but only because Piper added “try to” to Jesus’ prohibition on separating husbands and wives. Is this fair? Did Jesus mean “let not man separate,” as his words are recorded? Or did he actually mean “let not man vainly try to separate” or perhaps “imagine they have separated”?

The sign reads “STAY BACK,” not “It is impossible to go beyond this point.” Photo by Danne.

How Did Jesus Expect to be Understood?

How would Jesus’ hearers have understood him? I see at least four reasons why Jesus’ hearers would have understood him to be implying that a marriage can, indeed, be dissolved.

First, nothing Jesus has said so far suggests that marriage is indissoluble. Remember, when Jesus says we are not to separate “what God has joined,” he is pointing back to what he just said—that God made humans “male and female” and therefore a man shall “hold fast” to his wife and they shall become “one flesh.” As noted in previous posts, none of this language implies that marriage involves an unbreakable bond. To the contrary, all this language was used elsewhere to refer to bonds that can be broken. This suggests that there is a real possibility that “what God has joined” could be “separated.”

Second, the words joined and separated are virtual opposites, and the way Jesus paired them reinforces the idea that they should be understood that way. For example, I could say, “I’m sleeping, so stop talking,” and we could debate whether talking has the potential to undo my sleeping or whether talking has some other possible effect that concerns me. But if I say, “I’m sleeping, so don’t wake me up,” then it is clear: waking me up will end my sleeping! (Let’s not get distracted about why I’m talking in my sleep.) Similarly, Jesus’ direct pairing of the opposite terms joined and separated puts the burden of proof on anyone who argues that the latter does not undo the former.

Third, in no other case, to my knowledge, does Jesus forbid humans from doing something that is actually impossible to do. I’ve actually looked, and I can’t find such an example. The closest, perhaps, might be this: “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt. 6:3). On a literal level, true, it is impossible for your left hand to know what your right hand is doing! But that statement uses obvious hyperbole and is thus very different from Jesus’ straightforward command against separating what God has joined. On a practical level, there is nothing hyperbolic whatsoever about the possibility of separating a husband and a wife. It is a possible, common event.

Fourth, Jesus was engaging Jews on a question about divorce, and virtually everyone at the time—Jews and Greco-Romans alike—understood that divorce completely dissolved a marriage, freeing one for remarriage. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” was the question. “What God has joined together, let not man separate” was Jesus’ answer. Significantly, Jesus’ term “separate” (χωρίζω) was frequently used in both informal and legal contexts at the time to refer to divorce. True, it can have a more general meaning, and it probably does carry broader implications here. But Jesus’ hearers would certainly have heard it as referring most directly to divorce—thus, in their understanding, obviously referring to the full dissolution of a marriage.

Judging by these four reasons, Jesus’ command to not separate strongly implies that marriage is not an unbreakable bond. His listeners heard him clearly imply that marriage can indeed be dissolved by humans. What is more, Jesus, as a fellow Jew and a master teacher, knew that his listeners would understand him this way. In short, Jesus was using ordinary words in ordinary ways to forbid an ordinary occurrence: the full breakup, destruction, and dissolution of a marriage.

Cornes’ Concession

That much is relatively clear. And it is important to pause here and emphasize that, up until this point in Matthew 19 (verse 6), all Jesus’ words are consistent with one conclusion: Marriage can, indeed, be dissolved by humans.

On this point Andrew Cornes is admirably clear and honest. Even though he ultimately argues for “the impossibility of true divorce or remarriage,” at this stage in his analysis of Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees, Cornes pauses to make the following statement:

Jesus has not (yet) said that husband and wife cannot be separated, that this is an impossibility. He has only said that they must not be separated. He has spoken only of the moral obligation not to divorce and stated that it would be a sin against God to divorce one’s partner or to cause the break-up of a marriage. In the next verses, however, he goes considerably further.[3]

(In fact, Cornes wrote this comment right after his discussion of Mark 10:9. Since Mark’s account varies slightly from Matthew’s, Corne’s comment covers not only all Jesus’ statements we’ve discussed so far but also his comments about Moses, which Matthew includes in verses 7 to 8.)

Was Jesus Prohibiting Only the External Separation of Marriage?

Those who don’t think Jesus meant humans can truly separate what God has joined, then, come to that conclusion either based on alternate readings of terms like one flesh or because of what Jesus says later in the passage. For example, here is the assessment offered in Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View, a multi-author book that some conservative Anabaptists recommend:

Jesus’ prohibition of divorce in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9 is sometimes thought to refute the above point [that a marriage “union is permanent until death”]. Since He commands us not to separate what God has joined together, it is reasoned that it is possible to separate what God has joined together. After all, why would He prohibit us from doing something that is impossible? But by looking at the matter in its fuller biblical context (as is the intent of this book), we will see that Jesus must have been prohibiting the external separation of marriage. The vows spoken at a wedding can certainly be disregarded, and a marriage certainly can be separated in civil and legal ways, but these external disruptions of marriage do not and cannot destroy the morally binding one-flesh union created by God. Otherwise, no reason would exist for Jesus to call remarriage after divorce “adultery.”[4]

This paragraph is so full that I can’t offer a comprehensive response here. The authors wrote a book to try to prove their argument and it could take a book to respond. That said, I want to make several quick observations.

First, yes, it is theoretically possible that Jesus could have meant don’t legally or physically separate a union that it is impossible to truly separate. It is possible, and it can appear almost certain, if you bring particular assumptions to the text. The four reasons I presented above, however, strongly indicate that Jesus knew his first listeners would not understand him this way. I see no reason to abandon the most natural reading unless forced to do so.

Second, notice how these authors, right at the climax of their argument, described marriage as “the morally binding one-flesh union created by God.” This pile-on of emotion-laden terms is a non-argument obviously intended to help convince the reader. I say “non-argument” because “morally binding” merely shows one should not separate a marriage, not that one cannot. And the only term in that clause that could perhaps indicate that marriage is indissoluble—“one-flesh”—actually does not, as we have seen.

Third, and most important, the one actual argument the authors offered is based on what Jesus will say later in this account, when he calls remarriage after divorce “adultery.” If it is possible to separate a one-flesh union created by God, then how could Jesus call a post-divorce marriage “adultery”? This is a good question. In response, I’ll plant two small seeds now, with plans to develop them in future posts:

(1) Yes, Jesus calls remarriage after (some) divorce “adultery,” but what is the biblical picture of what adultery does to a marriage?

(2) What about the exception Jesus gave to the statement that remarriage is adultery? Would not even one exception show that marriage is not truly indissoluble?[5]

For reasons such as these, I find the arguments that Jesus was merely prohibiting the external separation of marriage unconvincing. Certainly he did forbid that, but I believe he was prohibiting complete separation, too.[6]

As Mrs. Reagan learned in her campaign against drug use, something remains possible to do even after you’ve been told to “just say no” to it. (Yes, I know the comparison with Jesus’ divorce command is imprecise.) Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Complexities and a Conclusion: “Let Not Man Separate” Implies Marriage is Dissoluble

Before I finish this post, I want to observe that there is inevitable complexity about talking about marriages that have been ended. For example, when Jesus says one who “marries” another “commits adultery,” he affirms that a remarriage is indeed a marriage even as he condemns it (Matt. 19:9, etc.). Similarly, Paul says a divorced Christian wife “should remain unmarried or else be reconciled” to her Christian husband (1 Cor. 7:11). His words show that it is possible in one breath to talk about marriage having ended (“unmarried”) but about obligations still remaining.[7]

Both examples underscore again the necessity of distinguishing between the “could” and “should” of Scripture. It must also be noted that neither Jesus nor Paul apply the above statements to all divorce and remarriage situations; Jesus did not say all divorces and remarriages are adultery, nor did Paul say obligations remain after every kind of divorce.

Given these complexities, I acknowledge I puzzled long and hard over how to express myself in this post. I encourage both “sides” (those arguing for marriage indissolubility and those arguing against) to be kind to each other as we try to discuss a question of some philosophical complexity. Almost certainly, no matter which position we take, we will say some things that appear superficially contradictory (like Jesus and Paul did!). We must be gracious with each other while pushing for greater accuracy and clarity.

This post has uncovered points that will require further consideration. That said, I want to end by underscoring my main point in this post: Everything Jesus has said thus far in his conversation with the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-6) suggests we should take Jesus’ command in its most natural, comprehensive sense: Humans can indeed dissolve the union that God creates in marriage, but they must not do so.


Will further evidence override this conclusion? In my next posts I plan to continue walking through Matthew 19, looking for more clues to what Jesus believed about marriage permanence.

I invite your prayers for my continued study and writing. Thank you for reading my words here, and feel free to add your insights in the comments below.


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[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 718.

[2] John Piper, “Divorce & Remarriage: A Position Paper,” Desiring God Foundation, 7/1/1986, accessed 6/14/2022, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-and-remarriage-a-position-paper

[3] Andrew Cornes, Divorce and Remarriage: Biblical Principle and Pastoral Practice (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), p. 192. I have much respect for Cornes even though ultimately I have come to disagree with him on the point of whether marriage is dissoluble. Cornes’ book includes exceptionally helpful reflections on singleness in the Bible and the church.

[4] Steve Burchett, Jim Chrisman, Jim Elliff, and Daryl Wingerd, Divorce and Remarriage: A Permanence View (Kansas City, MO: Christian Communicators Worldwide, 2009), p. 17.

[5] Yes, I know I haven’t proven this point yet, but I’m tipping my hand to the reading of Jesus’ exception clause that I find most convincing.

[6] It might be worth mentioning in passing that in Mark’s account of Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about divorce, they never hear him call divorce and remarriage adultery; only the disciples hear Jesus give this teaching after they question him privately “in the house” (Mk. 10:10-11). This eliminates the possibility, at least according to Mark’s version of events, that the Pharisees would have deduced from Jesus’ adultery statement that marriage was—contrary to all their understandings as Jews—indissoluble.

[7] A helpful chapter on this topic (“Are Divorced People Still Married in God’s Eyes?”) is included in the following wide-ranging, yet accessible, book by Jim Newheiser: Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Critical Questions and Answers (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2017), 230ff.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resolved, That in the light of the scriptures (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:3; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-17:39 [sic]), we hold that a separation between husband and wife is allowable only for the cause of fornication. That a person holding a divorce obtained for the sake of re-marriage, or being married a second time, and continuing to live with a second companion while the first companion is living should not be received into the church. That we pledge ourselves to use all consistent efforts to convince humanity of the sin of divorcement and prevent further propagation of the evil.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An editorial assistant provided an answer:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The why question is a little harder to pin down.

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

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


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