Category Archives: Repentance

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

For any questions or to be added to the newsletter list, please send an e-mail to kevin@kevinpendergrass.com.

REPENTANCE DOESN’T DEMAND DIVORCE

There are some who believe that if someone is in a subsequent marriage after a divorce, they must divorce again in order to repent. As we will see in this article, this belief is contrary to the Bible. If someone wants to affirm that repentance for subsequent marriages after unlawful divorces would necessitate another divorce, then they would be obligated to prove such.

There is no biblical evidence that a divorce was ever required in order to repent of a marriage entered into after an unlawful divorce. The fact that there is no instruction under the New Law for anyone to ever divorce in order to repent on the basis of being in a subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce becomes even stronger when considering the context.

Divorce (for any reason) and remarriage were extremely common during the first century and the surrounding centuries. In fact, it can be proven that many, if not the majority, of the Jews and Romans were divorcing and remarrying. Many Jewish and Roman males and females would have been unlawfully divorced by Jesus’ standards and remarried at least once (if not multiple times). This is not a debatable point, but a biblical and historical fact.

If indeed a subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce required further divorce, why is there no evidence of such? David Instone-Brewer, a Rabbinics scholar at Tyndale House in Cambridge, put it this way:

There is nothing to suggest that Jesus asked anyone to separate from the second husband or wife if one remarried after an invalid divorce” (Instone-Brewer, Divorce and Marriage in the Bible, pg. 152, 183). “…remarriage after divorce was a fundamental right in the first-century world, and it was often regarded as an obligation. Thus, the New Testament writers knew that they would have to enunciate their teaching extremely clearly and unambiguously if they wanted to teach the opposite of this universally held view” (ibid., p, 299).

There is not a single time that we read of anyone under the New Law being told to get out of their current marriage in order to repent on the basis of being in a subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce. This is absent from the Scriptures, absent from any Jewish writings, absent from any Roman writings, absent from any antagonistic writings and absent from any early church writings. Due to the cultural and societal circumstances, certainly there would be something written about this if the Christian movement was causing a score of divorces (or if they were teaching others that they had to divorce in order to repent). Yet, there is no evidence.

Aside from there being no evidence, several fundamental questions could be raised. For example, if it was the case that one had to divorce in order to repent of a subsequent marriage, would that mean that those who had remarried after an unlawful divorce under the Old Law have to divorce their spouse as soon as Jesus began correctly teaching on marriage and divorce? Could one, who had remarried before Jesus began teaching on marriage remain remarried when the New Covenant was established? Would every Jew on Pentecost in Acts 2 who had remarried after an unlawful divorce under the Old Law, have to divorce their spouse they had remarried in order to repent? The fact of the matter is that there is no historical or biblical evidence of anyone being told to leave their subsequent marriage in order to repent.

The reason Jesus gave the command on marriage and divorce was to put a stop to divorce, not propagate it. If repentance demanded further divorce in the case of a subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce, then this understanding has Jesus’ teaching resulting in the very opposite of what it was meant to do in the first place.

We should always look at Scripture as a whole. What did Paul tell those who were married? He told them not to divorce (1 Cor. 7:10). He didn’t say, “to those who are in their first marriage…” Keep in mind, Paul was writing to the epicenter of immorality. Both Paul and Jesus admonished and commanded that the married stay married and not divorce. The number of marriages one had at that time didn’t negate or null the fact that their current marriage was still a real marriage (e.g., Jn. 4:18).

God hates divorce (Mal. 2:16). Telling individuals that God wants them to divorce in order to repent of their divorce is like telling a murderer to murder more in order to repent of their murder or telling a man to steal in order to repent of stealing.

You don’t repent of doing something by doing more of it. You repent by ceasing the action. Jesus was trying to put a stop to divorce, not propagate further divorce in subsequent marriages.

– Kevin Pendergrass

For any questions or to be added to the newsletter list, please send an e-mail to kevin@kevinpendergrass.com.

OBTAINED IN SIN, CONTINUED IN RIGHTEOUSNESS

A relationship can be obtained in sin and continued in righteousness. Even though multiple examples can be given, I want to give a few examples to demonstrate this point. My first example will be a Christian marrying a non-Christian.  As a general rule, the Bible has always taught against marrying a non-Christian/non-believer (Deut. 7:1-5; Josh. 23:12; Mal. 2:11; Ex. 34:12-16; Neh. 13:25-27; 1 Cor. 9:5; 1 Cor. 7:39; etc.). There are quite a few people in Christendom who believe that it is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian or for a widow to marry a non-Christian.

For example, brother Wayne Jackson believes that it is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. Yet, he understands that one can repent of their decision without ceasing the relationship. Brother Jackson states:

“…what should one do when he realizes that, in marrying out of Christ, the primary interests of the Lord’s kingdom were not pursued? The answer is simple: repent of the disposition that led to that decision, and then set your mind toward the goal of making seek-the-kingdom-first choices henceforth in your life. There are many circumstances in our lives which are irreversible. Is it not possible that one could realize that he did not approach some of his earlier decisions with the highest of ideals?” (www.christiancourier.com/articles/313-should-a-christian-marry-outside-the-faith).

Just because someone may have sinned in marrying a non-Christian doesn’t mean they can’t be forgiven and remain married. Many religious intermarriages may be obtained in sin, but they can be continued in righteousness.

I now want to go to an Old Testament passage for my second example to illustrate how a relationship can be obtained in sin, yet continued in righteousness. David had unlawful sexual relations with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11:1-4). Because of this, Bathsheba became pregnant (2 Sam. 11:5). David ended up having Bathsheba’s husband killed and took Bathsheba to be his wife (2 Sam. 11:10-27). This displeased God when David took Bathsheba in marriage (2 Sam. 11:27). The Bible says that David sinned because he:

“…killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife…” (2 Sam. 12:9). “…because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife” (2 Sam. 12:10).

There is no doubt that this marriage was obtained in sin. It was a sin for David to take Bathsheba in marriage. While it was clearly sinful in the way that the marriage of David and Bathsheba was obtained and while there were consequences and the rest of David’s life was very rough, it wasn’t sinful for David to continue his marriage to Bathsheba. Instead, repentance demanded that he confess his sin and move forward in His walk with God (2 Sam. 12:13-14; Psa. 51).

“So David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” (2 Sam. 12:13)

David’s marriage was obtained in sin, yet he was forgiven. God did not “overlook” his sin. He forgave him of his sin. David’s sin also was not one done in ignorance. It was extremely willful. Was the way in which the marriage of David and Bathsheba obtained sinful? Yes. Was continuing in the relationship with Bathsheba sinful? No.

My third illustration will be a practical one. My third illustration is unwed pregnancy. Unwed pregnancy is not a sin. Yes, you read that correctly. There is nothing sinful with unwed pregnancy. The sin was the process that led to the pregnancy and not the pregnancy itself. Consider an unmarried 16-year-old male and female who fornicate and have a child. This parent-child relationship was obtained in sin. Through their fornication, a child was born (Jn. 8:41).

Can the parents keep the child or must they end the relationship with the child in order to repent? Even though this relationship was obtained in sin (fornication), it can be continued in righteousness. The parents wouldn’t have to give up their relationship with their daughter just because the relationship with their daughter was obtained sinfully. Was making the baby a sin? Yes. Was it an intentional sin? Yes. Was keeping the baby a sin? No. Even though the way they obtained the baby was sinful, having the baby itself wasn’t sinful. This is a very simple and practical illustration of how a relationship can be obtained in sin, yet continued in righteousness.

Fourth, I want to address divorce. When one enters into a marital relationship, they enter into a union that God joins together (Mt. 19:6). God hates divorce and commands that unlawful divorce not take place (Mal. 2:16; Mt. 19:6, 9). But what happens if a man decides one day that he no longer wants to be married to his wife? She has not gone out and slept with another man. She hasn’t forsaken her duties. She hasn’t quit loving him. He just wants to divorce her because he has decided that he wants to live the single life. He now feels that being married is too much work for him. So, he decides to obtain a divorce unlawfully and remain single.

This man did what God hates (Mal. 2:16). He specifically violated the command of Jesus by separating what God joined together (Mt. 19:6). He sinned in obtaining this divorce and I do not know of any Christian who would argue that this man didn’t sin in the way in which his divorce was obtained. However, what must this man do in order to repent? Can this man be forgiven of his divorce while remaining divorced? Or, is he living in a perpetual state of sin as long as he remains divorced? This man did what God hates, but he can still repent and get forgiveness for his divorce while remaining divorced (1 Cor. 7:10-11). He is not required to get out of his divorce in order to repent.

The result of the divorce itself was not sinful, but the process that got him to that position was. In other words, getting divorced unlawfully is sinful, but being divorced is not. A man who unlawfully divorced his spouse can ask God to forgive Him while he remains divorced. He would need to confess his sin and seek to no longer unlawfully divorce anyone else in the future (1 Jn. 1:7-9).

What about a marriage after an unlawful divorce? I believe that if one can obtain a divorce unjustly, yet justly remain divorced without continuing in sin, then one can obtain a marriage after an unlawful divorce, yet justly remain married without continuing in sin because the sin is not in the new marriage itself, but how the new marriage was obtained (i.e., through an unlawful divorce). These above examples (and the many that can mirror it) prove that a relationship can be attained in sin, yet continued in righteousness.

Some attempt to parallel homosexuality with subsequent marriages obtained after an unlawful divorce. However, there is a stark difference between the two. Homosexuality is, in and of itself, a sin. The homosexual relationship itself is wrong and always has been (Romans 1:26-29). A subsequent marriage after an unlawful divorce, in and of itself, is not wrong and never has been. The sin takes place in the process, the unlawful breaking up of a marriage. However, the new marriage itself is not sinful.

A sinful relationship and a relationship obtained through sin are two completely different things. A marriage obtained after an unlawful divorce is a relationship obtained through unlawfully breaking up a marriage, but the relationship itself is not sinful. A homosexual relationship is intrinsically a sinful relationship.

So how does one repent? Simple: One quits unlawfully divorcing. The new marriage itself is not a sin, but the process that led to it. Therefore, one must repent by asking God to forgive them and seek to no longer unlawfully divorce in the future. Repentance wouldn’t demand a further divorce for such would be further sin.

  • It is a sin for a man to divorce his wife unlawfully, but not sinful for him to remain divorced after his unlawful divorce.

 

  • It was a sin for David to take Bathsheba, but not a sin for him to keep her in marriage.

 

  • It is a sin to make a child through fornication, but not a sin for the couple of keep the child.

 

  • It is a sin to divorce unlawfully in order to marry another, but not a sin to remain remarried.

In all of these instances the sin is not in the new relationship, but in the sinful process that led to the new relationship. The aforementioned information is sufficient to prove that a relationship can be obtained in sin, but continued in righteousness.

– Kevin Pendergrass

For any questions or to be added to the newsletter list, please send an e-mail to kevin@kevinpendergrass.com.