Divorce from Unbelievers

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Divorce from unbelievers among 16th-century Anabaptists presents a special historical case. In the first half of the 16th century at least, members of the church were allowed, and in some cases expected, to break marriages with spouses who refused to accept the Anabaptist faith, but whether this was only separation or a full divorce is not altogether clear from the records. Nor is it clear whether remarriage was allowed in such cases—probably not. The evidence, not fully collected as yet, includes the following items: (1) The tract of 1527, Concerning Divorce, states clearly that the union of a believer with Christ is more precious than an earthly marriage to an unbeliever; therefore if such conflicts arise, the obligation of the believer is to do the will of God and separate from the unbeliever. (2) A Thuringian Anabaptist, Heinz Kraut, on 6 December 1535, testified at a hearing under Melanchthon's chairmanship, that when a man is not in agreement with his wife regarding the Word of God "the marriage no longer exists between them" (Wappler, 142). As a result of this hearing Prince John of Saxony issued a mandate against the Anabaptists on 10 April 1536, prepared by Melanchthon, which listed among the prevalent beliefs of the Anabaptists that "an Anabaptist may leave his non-Anabaptist spouse." The full statement of the mandate is as follows: "If in a marriage the one person is orthodox in faith and the other married person is not orthodox, such a marriage is prostitution, and the orthodox person may forsake the other, solely because of his faith, and marry another." Melanchthon included similar charges in his Verlegung etlicher unchristlicher Artickle welche die Wiedertäufer vorgeben (Wittenberg, 1536?). The case of Melchior Rinck, who justified his separation from his non-Anabaptist spouse in 1531, is a complicated one (Wappler, 149-152), but no remarriage was considered.

(3) A more elaborate statement on divorcing non-Anabaptist spouses is found in the fifth of the Five Articles of the Hutterites of 1547 (see Article Book), written probably by Peter Walpot (Zieglschmid, Chronik 308-316, also in Beck, Geschichts-Bücher, 215 note). The Scriptural foundation is, as usual, 1 Corinthians 7. "Nothing can break the marriage bond but adultery. Where, however, a brother has an unbelieving wife, and she agrees to live with him, he may not divorce her (nor vice versa). But where she is endangered in her faith or is hindered by the unbelieving husband in the training of her children in the true faith, she may divorce her husband, but must remain unmarried as long as her husband lives. If the unbelieving one departs, let him depart. 'A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases,' says Paul, as if he would say: The union with God weighs a thousand times more than the union of marriage between men." (This sentence is often repeated in Hutterite documents.) . . . "We greatly dislike it that one part should forsake the other one, and we would advise nobody to do so without great earnestness; we would rather wish that the other (the unbelieving) part commit himself unto the Lord, so that both would follow Him in faith. Since, however, faith is not given to every man, so each part must do what he understands and what is given to him, and leave the other as he is" (see also Friedmann, 212 and footnote 3; see also Intermarriage).

The Wismar resolutions of 1554, which were adopted by a conference of Dutch and North German elders including Menno Simons, speak (in Point 5) concerning divorce of an unbeliever from a believer as follows: "If an unbelieving [spouse] desires to divorce on account of the faith [of the partner], the [believing spouse] shall remain honorable without marrying [again]. However, if the apostate partner remarries or enters into immorality, then [the believing spouse] may also remarry, but only with permission of the elder and the congregations. This does not grant permission to a church member to divorce an unbelieving spouse, but recognizes the divorce as valid."

Dirk Philips (Enchiridion, 358) argues from the Old Testament, i.e., the Law (Leviticus 19) and the case of Ezra (Ezra 10:11-12), who broke mixed marriages that had been contracted between Israelites and the heathen, that a mixed marriage between believers and unbelievers cannot stand, although he does not specifically authorize divorce on this ground. "In view of the fact that such unclean matrimonial alliances and mixed marriages between the children of God and unbelievers could not stand under the imperfect dispensation of the Law, how could it stand before God and His church under the perfect dispensation of the Christian age of the Gospel? Let everyone meditate upon and consider this matter." Philips' tract Christian Matrimony forbids marriage with unbelievers under penalty of excommunication, but does not authorize divorce if the one party becomes a believer, while the other one remains in unbelief.

By the 1570s the Anabaptist position in Germany was fully clear on the matter of not allowing divorce of non-Anabaptist spouses. In the Frankenthal disputation of 1571 the eighth question for discussion was "whether the ban and unbelief break marriage" (Ob der Bann und Unglaub die Ehe scheiden). Rauff, an Anabaptist leader, answered as follows: "We believe that nothing may divorce a marriage except adultery. But if the unbeliever wants to divorce because of the faith, I would let him divorce as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. But we believe that the cause of the divorce should not be found in the Christian" (Protocoll, 550). The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse of 1578 states an identical position in an article entitled "Concerning Divorce": "We believe and confess, that man and woman who have by the divine foreordination, destiny and joining in marriage become one flesh, may not be divorced by ban, belief or unbelief, anger, quarreling, hardness of heart, but only by adultery" (Sippel, 32). The somewhat different position of the Hutterite group remained unchanged, however, and is not affected by the above statements from middle and south Germany.


Cramer, Samuel and Fredrik Pijper. Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, 10 vols. The Hague: M. Nijhoff, 1903-1914: v. VII, 52.

Franz, Günther. Urkundliche Quellen zur hessischen Reformationsgeschichte. Vierter Band, Wiedertäuferakten 1527-1626. Marburg: N.G. Elwert, 1951.

Friedmann, Robert. "Eine dogmatische Hauptschrift der Hutteri-schen Täufergemeinschaften in Mähren," in Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. XXVIII. Leipzig : Verlag von M. Heinsius Nachf., Eger & Sievers, 1931-1932.

Hege, Christian and Christian Neff. Mennonitisches Lexikon, 4 vols. Frankfurt & Weierhof: Hege; Karlsruhe: Schneider, 1913-1967: v. I, 529 f.

Oyer, John S. "The Writings of Melanchthon Against the Anabaptists." Mennonite Quarterly Review 26 (1952): 259-279.

Philips, Dirk. Enchiridion. Elkhart: John F. Funk, 1910: 358.

Protocoll : Das ist, Alle handlung des Gesprechs zu Franckenthal inn der Churfürstlichen Pfaltz, mit denen so man Widertäuffer nennet, Auff den 28. Getruckt in der Churfürstlichen Statt Heidelberg: durch Joannem Meier, 1571.

Sippell, Theodor ed., "The Confession of the Swiss Brethren in Hesse, 1578." Mennonite Quarterly Review 23 (1949): 22-34.

Wappler, Paul. Die Täuferbewegung in Thüringen von 1526-15S4. Jena : G. Fischer, 1913.

Author(s) Robert Friedmann
Date Published 1956

Cite This Article

MLA style

Friedmann, Robert. "Divorce from Unbelievers." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 29 Nov 2022. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_from_Unbelievers&oldid=120170.

APA style

Friedmann, Robert. (1956). Divorce from Unbelievers. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 29 November 2022, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Divorce_from_Unbelievers&oldid=120170.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 75-76. All rights reserved.

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