In 1905 the Mennonite Church in the United States and Canada officially resolved that no divorced and remarried person should be accepted as a church member. How did they arrive at this absolute position, given the strong consensus among early Anabaptists that divorce and remarriage were permitted in cases of adultery?
The reasons are complex and not fully clear. I have written several blog posts (here and here) discussing various historical factors that probably helped pave the way for the Mennonite Church to take a harder stance against divorce and remarriage. These factors include a separatist mindset that encouraged the Mennonite Church to adopt unusually stringent teachings, the historical accident of American Mennonites losing touch with the early Anabaptist confessions that most clearly affirmed divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery, and the transition from the German language to English.
The 20-page paper I’m sharing today discusses several more immediate factors that help explain how and why the Mennonite Church reached a newly strict consensus on divorce in 1905. These factors include the development of Mennonite periodicals, the practice of church conferences, the eventual development of a General Conference, and, perhaps most importantly, a growing concern about the “divorce evil” in America.
In my last blog post I described three contrasting perspectives on marriage permanence, labeling them radical freedom (no restrictions against any mutually-desired divorce), radical faithfulness (second-mile devotion in marriage but acknowledging marriage can be broken by adultery, abuse, or abandonment), and radical permanence (nothing but death can end a marriage). I also suggested that radical permanence tends to be “a reactionary stance.”
It seems to me that the historical evidence shows this to be true, to a significant degree, for the Mennonite Church. Simply put, the early Anabaptists affirmed forms of radical faithfulness, but the Mennonite Church in 1905 affirmed radical permanence as they witnessed the growth of radical freedom in American society around them.
In the following paper I share a lot of primary source evidence, mostly from Mennonite periodicals, that shows how Mennonites took an increasingly hardline stance against divorce as they became increasingly concerned about the “divorce evil” in society around them.
The challenge for us today is to avoid mistakes of the past and present without becoming merely reactionary ourselves. May God give us grace to teach and practice radical faithfulness—first to the heart and will of God as expressed in Scripture, and then to each other in our marriages.
At the turn of every year, as an act of thankfulness and accountability, I like to give a report on our house loans. This year I’ll try to keep it short!
(Background: As many of you know, we purchased our Atlanta house on March 25, 2016, paying the seller in full immediately, thanks to loans and gifts from nearly 90 individuals or families. Since this crowdfunding effort was the work of Christ’s church, we coined a new term: “churchfunding.” Here is the post that officially launched this adventure.)
At the beginning of 2021, we owed $28,782.50 in house loans. By the end of the year, we owed only $21,232.50.
Here is how that $7,550 difference breaks down:
We repaid $7,000 in loans, at more than the promised rate of $500 per month.
We were forgiven an additional $550 in principal and interest by a generous lender.
In total, our house debt declined by $1,550 more than we expected in 2021.
At the promised $500 per month, we should have all remaining lenders repaid within about 3-1/2 years—by about July of 2025. As promised, we are using a random number generator and prayer to select who is repaid each month. If you have a financial squeeze, let us know and we’ll see what we can do!
In Other Developments…
In many ways, 2021 was a pretty ordinary year for us (apart from you-know-what). We didn’t do any significant repairs or improvements to the house, getting distracted in part by vehicle needs. Our van passed 250,000 miles this summer! Repairing a leaky portion of the roof is apparently next, hopefully followed soon by that leaky shower.
Besides my work, most days our family stays busy with homeschooling, driving the girls to their weekly string classes, taking hikes with homeschool friends, hobbies like reading and music, and doing things with our church family. I’m still responsible to schedule church musicians, and I lead music about once a month, usually helped by our oldest daughter (now a teenager!). I’m also in the rotation to preach a sermon every several months.
In our local neighborhood we aim to be good neighbors for Christ’s sake. Lately this has included taking a neighbor a Christmas meal, having a neighbor boy come over to play basket ball, and helping another neighbor look for a missing family member. We’ve also been reminded recently of the crime that occurs around us, praying for those who have been touched by tragedy.
I’ll mention two trips. In July our family spent a day at Edisto Beach State Park in South Carolina. It was our first family trip to the ocean since moving to Georgia, and we really enjoyed it!
A highlight of the year was finally visiting my mother again, in Canada. It was our first time seeing her since the start of COVID–the first time since our trip to my dad’s funeral. The trip was an answer to many prayers. Family ties are so precious!
In Blogging (Lack of) News…
As you may have noticed, I haven’t done much blogging lately. I got stalled on reporting the history of Mennonites and divorce, and now I’m wrestling more deeply with my own understanding of the biblical teaching on the topic. Recently I read a long book chronicling a journalist’s attempt to solve a murder case. The web of leads he got sucked into, some helpful, some dead ends, reminded me of the many exegetical rabbit trails I’ve run down as I’ve waded through varied interpretations of all the relevant biblical passages.
I invite your prayers as I continue to study—that my heart will be open to God’s truth, that I will be granted insight, and that God will guide my desire to serve the church by writing more on this topic. Maybe, at some point, a book? Surveying Anabaptist history and also sharing my own biblical exegesis and pastoral reflections?
Meanwhile, here’s a quick completion of my answer as to why American Mennonites adopted a stricter no-divorce position. I’ve already suggested that a spirit of separatism lended itself to adopting increasingly rigid doctrinal positions, that American Mennonites had lost touch with early Anabaptist documents affirming remarriage in case of adultery, and that the switch from German to English may have affected their interpretation of Jesus’ divorce sayings.
To complete the picture, I’d want to discuss at least these additional points:
The topic of the “divorce evil” was in the air across the nation at the end of the 1800s (very much like “social justice” has been recently), troubling everyone from the President on down, so the Mennonites simply joined a larger political and ecclesial conversation, some of which was moving in a stricter direction.
New Mennonite periodicals, founded by John Funk, alerted them as never before to differences in their own ranks on the question of divorce and remarriage, leading to brisk debate.
In the periodicals there were calls for annual conferences, partly to resolve such matters of difference; it was at such a conference that a stricter position was officially adopted in 1905.
Before this conference some Mennonite leaders, especially some activist younger leaders like Daniel Kauffman, began to say that the only sufficient response to the “divorce evil” was to give no exception whatsoever. This stance seems to have been adopted for pragmatic reasons as much as for biblical ones, for it was only after the 1905 conference that more fully developed doctrinal explanations were published in support of the stricter position.
That’s a quick survey! Each of those points deserve a book chapter, and I’m sure I should add several more.
(And, to be clear, none of that history proves whether the adoption of a stricter position was good or bad; that would require a separate conversation about exegesis, theology, and pastoral care.)
Our family remains deeply grateful to everyone who helped us buy our Atlanta home, and to all who have supported us in so many other ways. Thank you!
God is faithful! Please pray we, too, will be faithful, and that we can bear fruit for him in 2022.
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.
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.