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“Hardness of Heart” and Jesus’ Audience, Then and Now (JDR-10)

This post continues my series on Jesus, divorce, and remarriage, which starts with a walk through Matthew 19. Having considered the question Did Jesus believe that marriage is indissoluble? I am now considering a “should” question: Did Jesus believe divorce and remarriage are always wrong? 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)

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

“Moses Allowed You to Divorce” Suggests a Breakable Bond (JDR-8)

Why Did “Hardness of Heart” Cause God to Allow Divorce? (JDR-9)


Summary of this post:  Jesus accused a specific audience of “hardness of heart”: men who believed they had a right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason—something I’ve never heard any Christian teach. Nearly all Jewish men in Jesus’ day believed this; there is no historical evidence the divorce debate between the “liberal” Hillelites and “conservative” Shammaites had yet begun. Further, Jesus was responding to one particular proof text used by these men—Deuteronomy 24:1. It was the abuse of this text that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women. Given this context, we are not justified in saying that everyone who seeks divorce has a hard heart.


Whose Hearts Were Hard?

In my last post I began discussing Jesus’ explanation for why God allowed divorce under the law of Moses: “because of your hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). As Israel repeatedly showed hardness of heart, God gave them more laws, including ones about divorce. These laws were both a concession to human weakness and a protection for those with hard-hearted spouses.

In this post I want to be more precise: Whose hearts, specifically, were hard? Whom was Jesus accusing of hardness of heart?

Let me begin answering this question by sharing several bad “translations” of Jesus’ words.

Jesus did not say this: “Because of Israel’s hardness of heart, Moses allowed them to practice divorce.” No, Jesus directed his rebuke directly to the Pharisees in front of him: “Because of your hardness of heart…” Meier notes the force of Jesus’ rebuke:

By claiming that Moses wrote this commandment for “you” (i.e., the Pharisees) to expose “your” hardness of heart, …Jesus implicitly lumps the Pharisees together with the rebellious Israelites of the wilderness generation. The Mosaic Law they presume to cite as experts actually bears witness against them.[1]

Nor did Jesus say this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to practice divorce.” That is more general than Jesus’ words. And he certainly did not say this: “Because of the hardness of your wives’ hearts, Moses allowed you to divorce them.”

Rather, Jesus said this: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.” In sum, Jesus was addressing his rebuke directly to the persons before him: men who were wrongfully divorcing their wives.[2]

Roberts makes the same point:

The people with hard hearts were those divorcing their wives, which means the callous individuals in question must have been male… Jesus… does not say, “Moses, because of the hardness of their hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives.” Nor does he implicate Israelites in general by saying, “Moses, because of your hardness of heart, permitted those divorces.” As it stands, Jesus’ sentence specifically implicates hardhearted husbands.”[3]

Before we extend Jesus’ rebuke of hardness of heart to everyone considering divorce, we should ask why Jesus accused these husbands of hardness of heart. Why were they divorcing? What did they believe about divorce?

Image from Good News Productions International and College Press Publishing, distributed by FreeBibleimages.

What Did Jesus’ Audience Believe about Divorce?

Jesus’ teachings against divorce were given in a specific historical context. In all four records we have of Jesus teaching on divorce (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18) he was correcting the false teachings of the same group: men who were arguing that God’s law gave them the right to divorce their wives for virtually any reason they might mention.

Most modern writers say that two views on divorce were debated by Jews in Jesus’ day—the view of Rabbi Hillel, a “liberal” who said Deuteronomy 24 gives grounds for “any-cause” divorce (cf. Matt. 19:3) and the view of Rabbi Shammai, a “conservative” who said Deuteronomy permits divorce only on the grounds of adultery.[4] Wenham clarifies that “on the issue of divorce, it was the Hillelites who were upholding tradition, and the Shammaites who were challenging it.” In fact, “to limit the husband’s right to divorce whenever he chose and for any reason was for most Jews a shocking limitation on male freedom.”[5]

Wenham’s clarification is crucial but may not go far enough. It’s possible that the debate between the Hillelites and the Shammaites had not even yet begun in Jesus’ day. Luck observes that “Josephus does not mention the distinction [between Hillel and Shammai], merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.”[6] Meier surveys Jewish intertestamental writings on divorce at length and concludes that “the mainline tradition begun in the OT and witnessed in Philo, Josephus, and the School of Hillel” allowed divorce for “practically any reason.”[7] The only known possible exception (besides Jesus) is the Essenes, a mystic Jewish sect, but this is disputed; Meier concludes that “their position on divorce remains a question mark.”[8]

Given this evidence, some of the best-informed scholars warn against assuming Jesus was responding to the Hillel – Shammai divorce debate. Here, for example, is Meier (see footnote for more):

Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D.[9]

What does this all mean for our question about Jesus’ original audience? When Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for hardness of heart, he was addressing the sort of man who thought he had a right to divorce a wife if she had burned his supper or even simply if he wanted to replace her with a more beautiful one.

The Abuse of Deuteronomy 24:1 as a Proof Text

Further, in at least three of the four passages where Jesus teaches on divorce,[10] he was directly responding to a badly-distorted interpretation of one particular proof text that men were using to justify their divorces—Deuteronomy 24:1, the only text in the law of Moses to mention a “certificate of divorce.” This is evident, for example, in Matthew 5:31, where Jesus quotes a misinterpretation of that passage: “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.”

The same is true in Matthew 19 and in the parallel account in Mark 10. When Jesus said, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Matt. 19:8), he was referring most directly to Deuteronomy 24:1, the text just cited by the Pharisees (“Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” Matt. 19:7).

If Jesus meant to comment also on OT laws that directly commanded divorce (Ex. 21:10-11 and Deut. 21:14), then his statement makes best sense as an explanation of why these laws were necessary: Abused wives needed release from hardhearted husbands. Significantly, we have no record of Jesus rebuking wives who asked for divorce certificates to escape abusive or criminally negligent husbands.

In short, it was the abuse of Deuteronomy as a proof text justifying any-cause divorce that drew Jesus’ ire, not the proper use of other OT divorce laws designed to protect women.

Context is King!
Context is king! (Image by svklimkin from Pixabay.)

Applying Jesus’ Warning about “Hardness of Heart” Today

These observations about Jesus’ original audience are rarely considered, but are crucial. If we don’t recognize the original target of Jesus’ warning about hard hearts, then we are likely to misapply his words today.

When Jesus spoke against divorce, he was most certainly not speaking to, say, wives or husbands who were wondering what they should do after their spouses had abused or abandoned them. Nor was he speaking to Mennonites who were arguing over whether only separation is permitted or if sometimes divorce (but never remarriage) might also be okay. He was not speaking even to evangelical scholars who were teaching that there are two clear biblical grounds for both divorce and remarriage (adultery and abandonment)—or perhaps three (adding abuse).

No, every time Jesus rebuked divorce, he was responding to people promoting a teaching that is so egregious that I have never heard it argued today from any Christian leader—not even from those who argue that divorce is okay at will upon mutual consent. Jesus was rebuking the idea that a man has a God-given, biblical right to divorce his wife for anything at all that he might find unsatisfactory about her; all that really matters is that he goes through the correct legal hoops to provide a valid “certificate of divorce.”

Can you imagine any Christian leader making that argument today? No wonder Jesus spoke so harshly! And no wonder we, in very different circumstances, are often confused when we read his words without considering their original context.

What might Jesus say if he spoke directly to conservative Anabaptists today—particularly, say, to those hurting from adulterous or abusive spouses? Yes, I am certain he would still direct us to God’s creation intent for marriage, a beautiful and timeless standard of loving permanence. But I am also certain he would word his message very differently, meeting the very different needs of a very different audience.[11] Is it even possible, perhaps, that Jesus would have some words of warning for those who take his rebuke of hardhearted husbands in the Gospels and use them to judge victims of marital betrayal today, denying them release from abusive marriages?

We must be very careful not to go beyond Jesus’ words, making him say things he never said. For example, consider the following statement from a Rod and Staff tract:

Jesus said, “For the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.” All who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.[12]

Really? Does every person who seeks divorce have a hard, unbelieving heart? What about a wife who is seeking divorce to protect her children from an abusive father and husband? What about God in the OT, who divorced his “wife” Israel for her adulterous idolatry (Jer. 3:1, 8)? No, it is not true that “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

The cover of the Rod and Staff tract that says “all who seek divorce have hard, unbelieving hearts.”

Looking Ahead: Jesus’ Words and the New Covenant

But didn’t Jesus inaugurate a new covenant standard of marriage permanence that left no room for either hard hearts or separation of marriages? Coblentz expressed this view eloquently:

Divorce was never sanctioned, but under the Old Covenant God permitted it because of the hard hearts of the people of Israel. God permitted it in anticipation of the New Testament era in which He would require a higher standard of righteousness through the grace and light of His Son… Under the New Covenant, hardhearted husbands and wives can be given new hearts by the transforming power of the Spirit. Jesus the heart-changer has come, and God’s standards for marriage can be restored to His intention “from the beginning.” …In the age of the Spirit, therefore, God commands, “Let not man put asunder.”[13]

There is much to commend in Coblentz’s words, but they may also leave us with some questions. Moses allowed divorce, but “from the beginning it was not so,” Jesus said. What did Jesus mean by this? Was he intending to revoke everything Moses had written permitting divorce? Was he inaugurating new divorce restrictions under a new covenant? Answering these and similar questions will require at least a couple more posts.

Thank you for reading! Please share your insights or questions in the comments below.


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[1] John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Vol. IV, Law and Love (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 177, n. 141.

[2] Yes, Jesus’ words definitely carry implications for women, too. See, for example, Mark’s record of Jesus’ warning to wives: “if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk. 10:12), a text that may reflect a Greco-Roman audience for Mark’s Gospel, where wives had more freedom to divorce. Yet it remains true that when Jesus explained why the Mosaic divorce allowance was given, he specifically rebuked men, not women.

[3] Barbara Roberts, Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion (Ballarat, Victoria, Australia: Maschil Press, 2008), 66.

[4] An accurate description of the views of these two rabbis and their disciples would require several paragraphs correcting common misrepresentations. That is beyond the scope of this post.

[5] Gordon J. Wenham, Jesus, Divorce, and Remarriage: In Their Historical Setting (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019), 44.

[6] “Josephus does not mention the distinction, merely stating the position of Hillel as if it were the only position in vogue.” William F. Luck, Divorce and Re-Marriage: Recovering the Biblical View, 2nd ed. (Richardson, TX: Biblical Studies Press, 2008), 152.

[7] Meier, ibid., 95.

[8] Meier, ibid., 93.

[9] Full quote from Meier (ibid., 95): “Only when we get to the Mishna do we have, for the first time in Palestinian Judaism, clear documentation of a scholarly dispute over what precisely constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce. As far as datable documents are concerned, this is something startlingly new in Judaism… Nowhere in pre-70 Judaism is there any clear attestation of a detailed discussion or debate on which grounds for divorce are deemed sufficient. Therefore, despite the almost universal tendency on the part of NT exegetes to explain Jesus’ prohibition of divorce against the “background” of the debate between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel, this tendency may actually be a prime example of the anachronistic use of later texts to explain earlier ones. That is, a text written down for the first time at the beginning of the 3d century A.D. (the Mishna) is called upon to elucidate a teaching of Jesus reaching back to the early part of the 1st century A.D., with written attestation in the 50s by Paul and ca. 70 by Mark. Considering the dearth of any clear attestation of the dispute over the grounds of divorce between the Houses in the pre-70 period, we would do well, at least initially, to explain Jesus’ teaching on divorce solely in light of what is truly prior to and contemporary with the Palestinian Judaism of the early 1st century A.D.”
Similarly, Collins: “Many New Testament scholars capitalize on the disagreement between the school of Shammai and that of Hillel to affirm that the Matthean Jesus sided with the school of Shammai in interpreting Deut 24:1 in a narrow sense, but there is no certainty that the tradition reflected in the Mishnah actually reflects the real halakhic situation before the destruction of the temple… One cannot simply assume that Matthew’s exception clause was formulated within the context of the difference of opinion between the schools of Shammai and Hillel. One cannot, moreover, and without further discussion, simply assume that the tradition in the Mishnah regarding the interpretation of Deut 24:1 reflects the real halakhic situation at the time of Jesus or at the time of the composition of Matthew’s gospel, although this is often presumed to be the case.” Raymond F. Collins, Divorce in the New Testament, Good News Studies, Vol. 38 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 193, 198-99.

[10] Luke 16:18 is unclear. However, given that his teaching in this passage virtually “quotes” his teaching elsewhere, he was probably addressing the same misinterpretation.

[11] Consider how Paul nuanced his message to different audiences in 1 Cor. 7:10-16.

[12] This comes from an anonymous 12-page tract: “Divorce—Is It Lawful?” (Crockett, KY: Rod and Staff, n.d.), 4. Available online: https://www.milestonebooks.com/item/1-3104/

[13] John Coblentz, What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage (Harrisonburg, VA: Christian Light Publications, 1992), 21-23.


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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!


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  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!”

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