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.
In this post I want to summarize the basic position I’ve come to in my understanding about marriage permanence. This post will be concise, even simplistic at times. I will use generalizations about what some Christians believe, generalizations that veer into caricature. And I won’t try to prove my own assertions from Scripture, either—that must wait for later.
This post is not really part of my series on Jesus and divorce, but I thought it would be helpful to summarize up front the basic perspective I’ve reached, emphasizing especially my desire for faithfulness in marriage. Perhaps it will prevent a little confusion about my goals as I proceed through future posts that deal with exegetical details.
Here, then, is my basic thesis: God calls us to radical faithfulness in our marriage relationships—not radical freedom nor radical permanence.
Radical Freedom and Radical Permanence
Radical freedom is the perspective on marriage that is dominant in Western culture today, including among many Christians. This perspective disregards the clear and strong teaching of Scripture that marriage is designed to be life-long, stressing instead a more general and genial message that God wants us to be fulfilled in our relationships. Radical freedom says a marriage should exist only as long as there is mutual agreement that it is wanted.
Radical freedom talks much about love but, in a perverse inversion of the second great commandment, love is defined as attraction rather than loyalty. Marriage often lasts only as long as love (attraction) does, rather than love (loyalty) being what preserves a marriage through the fickleness of feelings. Love for God (the first great commandment) is demoted to second place at best, as shown by the disregard of his commands about marriage. Radical freedom multiplies excuses for ending marriages and belittles the treachery and damage of divorce.
Radical permanence rightly rejects radical freedom, but shrivels into a reactionary stance. It uses an incomplete selection of biblical prooftexts, interpreting them with simplistic literalism and applying them, too often, without mercy. It stresses the permanence of marriage but is in danger of forgetting that God designed marriage for our good (“it is not good that man should be alone,” Gen. 2:18). Love for God (defined as obeying his marriage laws) is stressed, but often in such a way that love of neighbor is constrained.
Radical permanence means believing a marriage union is unconditionally permanent—“once married, always married”—with no exceptions ever possible. In a sort of fatalism, one’s actions within marriage are understood to have no effect whatsoever on the true duration of one’s marriage. Marriage is understood to persist even if a marriage partner persists in adultery—even if they leave and become married to someone else. If divorce is ever permitted, it is divorce redefined as separation only, with no possibility of remarriage. By claiming that marriage can never be truly ended except by death, rigid fatalism belittles the damage of sins such as adultery, abandonment, and abuse.
Radical faithfulness springs from the full witness of Scripture and seeks to reflect the heart of God. It takes seriously God’s creation intent for marriage to last until death, insisting that human love be understood within the parameters of the greatest commandment, to love God. It also remembers that “marriage was made for man, not man for marriage” and that “the Son of Man is lord even of marriage” (Mark 2:27-28, adapted). This means that, just as he did with Sabbath laws, Jesus has authority to recognize exceptions to the biblical laws surrounding marriage.
Radical faithfulness recognizes the seriousness of anything that ends a marriage; it belittles neither treacherous divorce (divorce without due cause) nor the treachery that precedes many divorces (such as adultery, abandonment, or abuse). Imitating God’s example, it recognizes that true faithfulness can include judging those who are unfaithful (Rom. 3:3-6). It emphasizes that marriage permanence begins in the heart, by cultivating contentment rather than covetousness and a wandering, adulterous eye (Matt. 5:27-30). Stated positively, radical faithfulness means living in such a way that people looking on can clearly see one has “gone the second mile” to preserve and nurture marriage relationships.
What does “going the second mile” look like? It means offering a level of commitment to a marriage that exceeds what the other marriage partner reasonably expects or deserves. It means offering to carry more than your fair share of the burden of marriage, and for longer than looks reasonable to those looking on.
Going the second mile doesn’t mean carrying your enemy’s load with zero help from them for the rest of your life, but it does mean you aren’t parsing the log book to ensure the load-bearing is shared fairly. It doesn’t mean ignoring all offenses, but it does mean inviting repentance. It doesn’t mean the original relationship can or must always be fully restored after betrayal, not even always after repentance, but it does mean you pray for the grace to always offer forgiveness.
Going the second mile doesn’t mean you believe there are no valid grounds for recognizing that a marriage has been broken. It doesn’t mean believing there are never any biblical grounds for divorce and remarriage. It does mean that, when your marriage starts to get difficult, you diligently seek to bring it to life rather than looking for loopholes to escape it.
Let’s be honest: If all Christians practiced this kind of second-mile, radical faithfulness in marriage, divorce rates would plummet and marital joy would skyrocket! In addition—though this may be harder for some of you to imagine—I believe that a move toward this kind of radical faithfulness would make our churches safer and healthier for those whose marriages have been destroyed by spouses who have been radically unfaithful.
For radical unfaithfulness is a problem we dare not ignore or minimize. The best book I have read for understanding the real-life dynamics of abusive marriages is Gretchen Baskerville’s 2020 book The Life-Saving Divorce. Baskerville has been a “Christian divorce recovery leader” since 1998. Based on her experience and studies she has examined, she estimates that in America “at least 42% of divorces, and probably about half of divorces, are for very serious problems, the kind of problems that make the marriage miserable: unfaithfulness [sexual infidelity], physical or mental abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, refusing to support the family, or simply walking out the door.”
What does this tell me? First, it tells me that at least half of divorces were almost certainly unjustified. They are the tragic fruit of, among other things, the perspective on marriage permanence that I’ve called radical freedom. This perspective encourages people to run from marriage as soon as it hits the sort of minor or moderate challenges that most marriages eventually face. Clearly, radical freedom is not serving marriages well.
But this research also tells me that nearly half of divorces are for “very serious” causes, namely adultery, abandonment, and various forms of abuse. Nearly half. That is, frankly, more than I would have guessed—more than what I have been led to believe by those who look at all divorces through a “God hates divorce” lens. And here I need to ask: Which perspective on marriage best serves those suffering from these broken marriages: radical freedom, radical permanence, or radical faithfulness? Consider, for example, Baskerville’s summary of research showing that, in marriages with the kind of series problems named above, divorce is actually better for children than attempting to preserve the toxic marriage.
Asking which perspective on marriage best serves broken marriages might not sound like a good question. After all, it smacks of pragmatism (What works best?), a concern which must never override the wisdom of God as revealed in the words of Jesus and the Scriptures. Pragmatism that relies on human wisdom can quickly lead us astray. I’ve come to believe, however, that the perspective that not only serves all sorts of marriages best, but also best reflects the heart of God and the witness of Scripture, is radical faithfulness. In other words, I believe radical faithfulness is sound doctrine—teaching that is both true and healthy.
This, then, is what I see in the Scriptures and what I mean to promote: radical faithfulness, not radical freedom nor radical permanence. No, I have not proven here that this is the most biblical perspective on marriage permanence, but as I share from Scripture in future posts you’ll start to see why I believe that it is.
If this post doesn’t feel helpful for you, just set it aside. Hopefully we can learn something helpful together as we dig into the Scriptures in future posts.
See you again soon, and thanks for reading!
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 Please don’t get hung up on the terms. They aren’t perfect but they give me something to hang my thoughts on. I debated long and hard for a couple of them, trying to be memorable and accurate without being needlessly offensive. It was to avoid offense that I ultimately rejected rootless freedom and rigid fatalism as alternatives to radical faithfulness. The trade-off is that you are subjected yet more often to what has become a buzzword: radical.
 Note: I added this clarifying sentence on 6/27/2022, after several readers had already commented on the post. I added it not because I changed my mind, but because one reader noted I did not express my position as clearly as I could have on the question of whether remarriage is ever biblically justified.
 Gretchen Baskerville, The Life-Saving Divorce: Hope for People Leaving Destructive Relationships (Torrance, CA: Life Saving Press, 2020), pp. 28-29. Baskerville’s book spends too little time on biblical interpretation to satisfy readers who have significant questions about divorce and remarriage, but it is the best book I have found for understanding the real-life dynamics of abusive marriages. I highly recommend it for pastors in particular, who should find it valuable no matter their own perspective on marriage permanence.
 “God hates divorce” is found in some translations of Malachi 2:16. The Hebrew of this verse is notoriously difficult to translate, and many scholars agree that “God hates divorce” is a very unlikely translation, despite the popularity that the KJV provided for this reading. The Christian Standard Bible gives a more likely reading: “If he hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.” The Coverdale Bible (1535) provides a pre-KJV reading that some scholars think is even more likely: “If thou hatest her, put her away, sayeth the Lord God of Israel and give her a clothing for the scorn…”