Marital Avoidance, a question in the practice of the ban, which has played an important and sad role in the history of the Anabaptist-Mennonite community, especially in Holland. As early as the conference of Emden in 1547 this question was raised, whether in the case of married couples, when one spouse has been placed under the ban by the church, all association between them must be avoided, a course that would closely resemble divorce. Adam Pastor and Frans de Kuiper answered the question in the negative, but the other elders present agreed with Menno Simons that marital avoidance was the proper method, but that instead of making rigid regulations, each case should be independently decided.
From then on the Mennonites were divided into two opposing camps in this matter. One party wanted to limit avoidance between spouses to spiritual matters (i.e., church affairs), and permit marital association on the same basis as before the banning. The stricter party, on the other hand, demanded complete separation from the person banned, which was to be observed also by married couples.
In 1550 Menno Simons replied affirmatively to an inquiry of the Groningen congregation in his appendix, "Answer to Several Questions" (Opera 1681, 474): "Whether married couples. shall avoid one another on account of the ban," because the ban was a regulation adopted by the church community, to which all members were bound without exception. But Menno cautioned against ruthless application of the regulation. The application should not burden the conscience of the persons concerned. Also the Wismar Resolutions of 1554 (Point 3) required marital avoidance, but added that no violence should be done the conscience in the matter. The predominant tone was still one of moderation.
But this spirit soon changed. Leenaert Bouwens, the most radical promoter of the ban, came to the fore. In 1556 he pronounced the ban on Swaentje Rutgers, who refused to consent to the avoidance of her husband on the ground that she did not want to forsake him in his spiritual need. but wanted rather to support him as much as possible. Menno Simons tried to mediate. He wrote to Emden in November 1556 when he was asked for advice, disapproving the excommunication of Swaentje Rutgers, pointing out the position of the Wismar Resolutions, and urging moderation and kindness. But in vain; nor did oral negotiations ease the situation. At the conference in Harlingen (1557) the influence of Leenaert Bouwens won. After first resisting, Menno finally consented to the severe interpretation. He is reported to have said, "I agree in everything; I accept your marital avoidance."
At a meeting in 1557 in Wüstenfelde Menno also sought to win Zylis and Lemke, the South German representatives, to favor marital avoidance. Zylis most vigorously opposed it. To him marital avoidance seemed an abomination, according to Matthew 19:5-6. Lemke, however, who remained with Menno for some time, adopted his position and offered to win his brethren in South Germany for it. But this did not happen, for Lemke became a pronounced opponent of marital avoidance. At the large conference held at Strasbourg in 1557 it was definitely repudiated. "It is still the sincere wish of those gathered here," they wrote to Menno Simons, "to the Dutch brethren, that they should not advise that a man and wife should separate on account of the ban, for it would result in more damage and offense than glory to God and the winning of souls, especially since the command of marriage is weightier than that of marital avoidance." Dirk Philips attacked the resolutions of Strasbourg in his booklet, Lieflijcke Vermaninghe of 1558.
Menno Simons replied to this letter on June 11, 1558, with A Thorough Instruction and Account of Excommunication, in which he holds to his requirement of marital avoidance: "The heavenly marriage between Christ and our souls must be maintained firmly and unbroken, and... we may therefore not yield or deviate in the slightest to father or mother or husband or wife in any disobedience to His Word, for God our Lord will, shall, and must alone be the God of our conscience and the only Lord of our souls and not our father or mother, husband or wife."
This writing evoked a storm of disappointment among the South Germans. Zylis and Lemke replied with warmth, and Menno Simons could not refrain from replying to their reproaches in än angry tone, It is his last writing: A Thorough Reply to Zylis and Lemke's Unmerited Malicious Calumniation (28 January 1559). In it he broke off fraternal relations with the South German brethren. In the same year Dirk Philips, Leenaert Bouwens, and other Dutch elders went to South Germany and banned their brethren who disagreed with them. Menno suffered from this strife. He is reported to have said shortly before his death, "How sorry I am to have consented to marital avoidance!"
After Menno's death Leenaert Bouwens and Dirk Philips with their followers carried the question of the ban and marital avoidance to the extreme. It is said to have occurred more than once that members of the severe party came into a house at night to take away from a banned husband a wife who was still questioning whether she should leave him or stay with him. There was no thought of yielding: "And although the banned husband pleaded and requested with tears, with his poor innocent children, with great pathetic and pitiful cries and weeping, that the unbanned mother might be permitted to stay with her poor little children, this did no good and they would not be moved to pity by such a sad situation." Many men could not discover for a long time, and some all their lives, what happened to their wives (Buruma, 42).
When the division between the Flemish and Frisian Mennonites occurred (1566-67), it sometimes happened that the husband adhered to the Frisians, while the wife belonged to the Flemish, with the result that married couples divided their money and children, went their separate ways and never reunited.
Several years later a division occurred among the Frisians on the matter of marital avoidance. Hoyte Renix, Lubbert Gerritsz, Jan Heyndrixz, and Pieter Willemsz opposed marital avoidance. Lubbert Gerritsz put his opinion into writing in his Short, Simple Explanations. Marital avoidance, he said, had been handed down by Leenaert Bouwens and Dirk Philips, but "if we read the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation we find no case of its application. We will no longer do violence to the Scriptures and strive against God and God's Word."
When Lubbert was thereupon banned, he founded the party of Young Frisians. The strict party of Frisians also underwent a division on the matter of marital avoidance. The Jan Jacobsgezinden founded a party of their own in order to carry out their extreme interpretation of marital avoidance.
It was inevitable that this extreme interpretation of avoidance in marriage would lead to all sorts of disorder and offense. The author of Vriendelijcke Aenspraeck aen alle Doopsghesinde over het Stuck ofte Puynct der Echt mijdinghe (1613) lamented: "How many families have been destroyed by marital avoidance! How many men and women have been disgraced! How many have lost their livelihood and their daily bread because the husband or wife had been punished and was unable to be at one with the congregation." "I must weep and with sad heart write this. But the Lord knows that I am telling the truth."
Hence it is not surprising that on several occasions the government intervened with legal regulations. The States of Friesland on April 8, 1597, strictly for bade the exercise of the ban which would lead to a complete separation and bring in its train other avoidance of civil and domestic life and living.
The quarrels over the question of marital avoidance resulted in a number of Dutch Mennonites, especially of the strictest branches, leaving the Mennonite Church in the 17th century and joining the Reformed Church. After 1700 marital avoidance was no longer practiced. The practice had been most strictly maintained by the Janjacobsz group even after all other branches had dropped it. The Waterlanders never practiced it, and the Flemish only rarely.
The Frankenthal disputation of 1571 inclouded a topic (No. 8) on the subject, "Whether Ban or Unbelief Separates a Marriage." The South German Anabaptists took a clear position contrary to the Dutch Mennonites, answering "No." The confession known as the Concept of Cologne (1591) dealt with this topic also.
In the Hutterite literature there is an interesting hint regarding a possible Hutterite practice of marital avoidance in the renowned Church Regulations (Gemeinde-Ordnung) of Andreas Ehrenpreis of 1640. Here Item III reads as follows: "It also happened that several excommunicated and shunned men lie with their wives in their beds. This [the discipline of marital avoidance] has been too little watched and heeded" (Beck, Geschichts-Bücher, 464). We may assume that most likely the principle had never been strictly observed among the Hutterites, and in later times was given up altogether. The ban, it was felt, cannot actually break the bonds of marital relations.
The Old Order Amish of North America still practice marital avoidance, although the strictness of the practice varies with the local traditions and the severity of the bishop. Marital avoidance was not one of the issues, however, that caused the original Amish division of 1693-97, although the general question of avoidance of banned persons was the major cause of the schism.
Bruma, Y. Het huwelijk der Doopsgezinden in de zestiende eeuw. 1911.
Kühler, W. J. Geschiedenis der Nederlandsche Doopsgezinden in de Zestiende Eeuw. Haarlem, 1932.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 3, pp. 486-487. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Bender, Harold S. and Christian Neff. "Marital Avoidance." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1953. Web. 20 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M37315.html.
APA style: Bender, Harold S. and Christian Neff. (1953). Marital Avoidance. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 20 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/M37315.html.