Category Archives: Early Church

THE EARLY CHURCH ON MARRIAGE & DIVORCE

The early “Church Fathers” were a group of Christians who lived after the time of the apostles. Before considering the early “Church Fathers” conclusion on any subject, one must understand that their writings are not scripturally authoritative. It needs to be observed that the early “Church Fathers” had no more advantage to interpretation than we do today. None of their teachings were in direct association with Jesus or the disciples.

It is also important to note that none of these “fathers” were Jewish. Their ignorance of the Jewish context could certainly explain their misunderstanding on different subjects. A common teaching in the early church had to do with the way these “Church Fathers” understood Hebrews 6:4-8 and 10:26-21. Many took these passages to mean that “one could only repent once and any sin committed after baptism would be unforgivable” (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, p. 241). It would also be fair to say that some of their views were tainted through their Roman and Gentile upbringing and philosophies. Justin Martyr was a philosopher before he converted to Christianity and it can be easily understood how the positions of these “fathers” were tainted by Greek philosophical beliefs (such as Plato’s Symposium, etc.).

It regards to marriage during the first century, one needs to keep in mind that there was already a strong movement against any marriage (1 Tim. 4:3; Keener, C. S. 1997. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments. R. Martin, P. Davids, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity). These non-Jewish writers were heavily influenced by their Roman and Greek philosophies. They held to very strong views of asceticism. Some of the “fathers” even opposed the remarriage of widows and widowers (1 Tim. 5:14; Tertullian, Monogamy, Chap. 9.). Abstinence, even within marriage, was encouraged (Neander, Augustus. 1880. History of Planting and Training of the Christian Church. London, England: Bell & Sons).

We also have to be careful when saying what the early church did or didn’t believe, especially when we have limited texts on many subjects. One of the reasons so many texts of the early “Church Fathers” are debated is because it can be difficult and a bit subjective when trying to ascertain the exact meaning. Many of these writings could be argued either way because of the lack of context and clarity. When writing about the “Church Fathers” conclusions, Ferguson points out the following.

“The gathering of many texts with limited comments may leave a false impression of homogeneity. Sometimes even when texts seem to agree, the different contexts from which they come may show a diversity in doctrinal viewpoint” (Early Christians Speak, Ferguson. p. 10).

There are several texts from early church history that would favor that some in the early church believed that remarriage was possible and permissible after a divorce. The Epitome of the Divine Institutes taught that marriage is dissolved by unfaithfulness.

“But as a woman is bound by the bonds of chastity not to desire any other man, so let the husband be bound by the same law, since God has joined together the husband and wife in the union of one body. On this account, He has commanded that the wife shall not be put away unless convicted of adultery, and that the bond of conjugal compact shall never be dissolved, unless unfaithfulness have broken it” (Epitome of the Divine Institutes, 250-325 AD.).

Clement of Alexandra implied that not all have the gift to remain unmarried after divorce.

“After his words about divorce some asked him whether, if that is the position in relation to women, it is better not to marry; and it was then that the Lord said; ‘Not all can receive this saying, but those to whom it is granted.’ What the questioners wanted to know was whether, when a man’s wife has been condemned for fornication, it is allowable for him to marry another” (Stromata, iii. 6.60; Clement of Alexandria 150-215 AD.).

Origen taught that marriages could be dissolved through fornication. The implication would be that if a marriage is dissolved, then a remarriage could take place.

“The Savior does not at all permit the dissolution of marriages for any other sin than fornication alone” (Roberts and Donaldson 1995, 9:511; Origen, 245 AD.).

From the writings of Origen, we learn that he believed that marriage can be dissolved in the case of fornication. We also learn that there were those during this time who permitted divorce and remarriage for reasons other than fornication. There were enough churches and church leaders teaching multiple reasons for divorce to warrant Origen’s addressing of the situation. In his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Origen states the following.

“But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the church have permitted a woman to marry, even where her husband was living, doing contrary to what was written, where it is said, ‘A wife is bound for so long time as her husband lives’ and ‘So then if while her husband lives, she shall be joined to another man she shall be called and adulteress.’ Not indeed altogether without reason, for it is probable this concession was permitted in comparison with worse things, contrary to what was from the beginning ordained by law, and written” (Commentary on Matthew, Origen, 14, 23).

Origen is basing his conclusion based upon a misunderstanding of Paul’s writings, but the information here is important because it shows that church leaders were allowing divorce and remarriage for causes other than fornication. He speculates that perhaps it was permitted in comparison with “worse things.”

 “The references in patristic writings to divorce can be classified according to the attitude presented in them toward the doctrine of divorce and remarriage as reflected in the New Testament. Some passages would seem to indicate that divorce is impossible; others mention the exception clause found in Matthew’s Gospel; other statements make no mention of the exception clause and are not clear about the possibility of divorce and remarriage; and finally, one category seems to indicate that divorce and remarriage are possible on grounds other than the “adultery” of the exception clause (Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church, Pat E. Harrell, p. 174).

Even though the early church held to some very radical and unbiblical views of marriage and divorce, there is zero evidence that they ever demanded divorce as a means of repentance if one was remarried after a divorce. Consider the following from the Synod of Elvira (around the beginning of the 4th century):

“Women who without any precedent cause have left their husbands and joined themselves to others, may not have communion even at the last” (Canon 8 of Synod of Elvira).

“A Christian woman who has left an adulterous Christian husband and married another, must be forbidden to do so; but if she has married, she may not receive communion till he whom she has left be dead; unless some mortal sickness compels one to give it to her” (Canon 8 of Synod of Elvira).

“If a woman who has been divorced by a catechumen has been married to another husband, she may nevertheless be admitted to baptism. The same rule is to be followed as regards female catechumens” (ibid, Canon 10).

At best (or worst), the punishment was not being able to take communion. Nothing is said about divorcing. It is interesting to note that only the woman was not allowed to partake of the Lord’s Supper (nothing is said about the man). Also, they were not forbidden baptism. This is why Professor William Luck says the following.

The early traditions of the Church are not ‘nearly unanimous’ against all remarriage after divorce as some claim. It is more correct to present the evidence as a nearly unanimous prohibition of the remarriage of wives and guilty male spouses” (https://bible.org/article/divorce-teachings-early-church, William Luck).

When looking to early church history, it can hardly be argued that there was universal agreement on doctrine pertaining to marriage and divorce. In fact, one could almost argue that no two early “Church Fathers” completely agreed on every aspect of marriage and divorce based upon the writings we have from them. Based solely on the texts we have from the early “Church Fathers,” we could summarize the marital and divorce beliefs of the early church as follows: (1) Some were opposed to all marriage. (2) Some were opposed to the remarriage of wives and guilty male spouses. (3) Some believed fornication was a reason to dissolve marriage. (4) Some believed reasons in addition to fornication could dissolve marriage. (4) No writings indicate that anyone believed that one had to divorce their subsequent spouse in order to repent.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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