THE EARLY CHURCH ON MARRIAGE & DIVORCE

The early “Church Fathers” were a group of Christians spanning from the 2nd century to the 8th century, with a few of the “Apostolic Fathers” living during the lives of some of the apostles. Before considering the early “Church Father’s” conclusion on any subject, one must understand that their writings are not scripturally authoritative. They are not part of the New Testament cannon. They are not inspired by God. They are interpretations of men who came later.

None of their teachings were in direct association with Jesus, and only a few “Apostolic Fathers” were in association with some of the apostles. These early “Church Fathers” had no more “interpretative advantage” than we do today.

In fact, since countless historical discoveries have been made over the years, one could argue that we, today, have much more an of interpretative advantage than they did. It is also important to note that none of these “Church Fathers” were Jewish. Their ignorance of the Jewish context certainly explains their misunderstanding on different subjects at times. Outside the Bible, we do not have any writings from early “Church Fathers” in regards to marriage and divorce until almost a century after the death of Jesus. 

False homogeneity and differences in opinion.

Some have argued that the early “Church Fathers” were all in opposition to remarriage after any divorce. This is overstating a point which can’t be sustained. As we will find out in this study, the early “Church Fathers” were certainly not all in agreement in regards to their views on marriage and divorce. In fact, the early “Church Fathers” rarely spoke with one voice on many issues.

We have to be careful when saying what the early church did or didn’t believe, as not to misrepresent the point. Some have unintentionally put forth a false perceived united front of the early “Church Fathers” on any given topic. While many “Church Fathers” opposed remarriage after divorce, there were also “Church Fathers” who taught and implied that one could remarry after a divorce. Furthermore, due to the ascetic movement during this time, some “Church Fathers” were in opposition to remarriage even after one’s spouse died.

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 their exact understanding. Many of these writings could be argued either way because of the lack of context and clarity. When writing about the “Church Fathers” and how we interpret their conclusions on any subject, 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).

Let us now humbly enter the subject of studying the early “Church Fathers” and their views on marriage and divorce.

The rise of the ascetic movement.

It regards to marriage during the first century and following, there was already a strong movement against any marriage. Paul warned of those who would forbid marriage:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith…forbidding to marry” (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

This ascetic movement was already in it’s infant stage during the life of Paul (Keener, C. S. 1997. Dictionary of the Later New Testament & Its Developments. R. Martin, P. Davids, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity). In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addressed specific situations and questions that the church at Corinth had asked him. Some have wondered why such seemingly frivolous questions were asked. The answer is because there were already those influenced by the ascetic movement and they were wondering if they had a right to marry as a virgin, as a divorcee or as a widow. Paul, explicitly and in no uncertain terms, answered these questions with a resounding, “yes!”

“Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband” (1 Cor. 7:2)

“But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

“Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you” (1 Cor. 7:27-28).

Now that we understand a little more about the early “Church Fathers” and the historical context of marriage and divorce during this time, let’s begin looking at the differing views these “Fathers” had.

Athenagoras (ca. 177)

Athenagoras believed that Christians should avoid sexual relations, even in the marriage bed unless for the express purpose of childbearing. He also believed that one could only be married once. Even if your spouse died, he did not believe one had the right to remarry.

“A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. For whoever puts away his wife, say He, and marries another, commits adultery.; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to marry again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God…and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh” (Athenagoras, Plea for the Christians 33, Schaff).

Tertullian (ca. 193-220)

Tertullian, who was a very popular early “Church Father,” seems to imply that one could not remarry after their spouse died.

“If those whom God has conjoined man shall not separate by divorce, it is equally congruous that those whom God has separated by death man is not to conjoin by marriage; the joining of the separation will be just as contrary to God’s will as would have been the separation of the conjunction” (Tertullian, Monogamy 9, Schaff).

However, in a debate with Marcion in 207 ca., Tertullian appears to allow remarriage after a valid divorce.

“Put away, that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. For he who marries a woman who is unlawfully put away is as much of an adulterer as the man who marries one who is un-divorced. Permanent is the marriage which is not rightly dissolved; to marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery” (Tertullian, Marcion IV.34, Schaff).

The implication is that there is a right and wrong reason to dismiss a spouse. He speaks of a woman who is “unlawfully” put away and a marriage that is not “rightly” dissolved, implying marriages can be dissolved through divorce if done so “rightly.” Perhaps Tertullian changed his mind. Although the argument here would imply he allowed remarriage after a “valid” divorce, it is not clear that Tertullian permitted this in practice.

The Shepherd of Hermas (ca. 100-150)

The Shepherd of Hermas opposed the remarriage of divorcees. He doesn’t claim to get his information from the Bible, but rather through a special revelation. He is asking questions to a angel/messenger in his alleged vision. His writings are not inspired and, while the earliest we have outside of the Bible in regards to marriage and divorce, come almost a century after Jesus. Below is the discourse he records having with this messenger in his vision (The Shepherd of Hermas, Command 4. Chapter 1):

“Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her?” And he said to me, “As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery.” And I said to him, “What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices?” And he said, “The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.” And I said to him, “What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband?” And he said to me, “Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way. Moreover, adultery is committed not only by those who pollute their flesh, but by those who imitate the heathen in their actions.”

Hermas believed that one was obligated to divorce their spouse if they knew they were committing adultery. He also believed that one should remain unmarried in case their spouse repented. Interestingly enough, Hermas went on to later say that he believed that someone can repent only once after baptism.

“And therefore I say to you, that if any one is tempted by the devil, and sins after that great and holy calling in which the Lord has called His people to everlasting life, he has opportunity to repent but once. But if he should sin frequently after this, and then repent, to such a man his repentance will be of no avail” (The Shepherd of Hermas, Commandment 4. Chapter 3).

This teaching was a misapplication of Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26-31, but it brings up an interesting point. Some have concluded that Hermas may have believed one had the right to a remarriage if your spouse persists in fornication since the only reason he gives to remain unmarried is in the case of one’s spouse repenting. Since he believed they could only repent once —and if they have already been forgiven once—then what would the point be in remaining unmarried if their spouse could no longer repent?

Hermas believed, like most of the “Church Fathers,” that one could repent only once. Most people who use the “Fathers” to justify their interpretation of the divorce texts would reject the teaching on only “one repentance.” Yet, the “Fathers” would be far more likely to be aware of the original meaning of Hebrews than of the gospel accounts. Hebrews was written to Jews living outside Palestine in a largely Greco-Roman culture, while the Gospels are full of references to Jewish practices and vocabulary that would have been obscure to someone from outside Palestine. Keep in mind, none of the “Fathers” were Jewish.

If one were to argue that the Fathers knew the social and linguistic background of the divorce texts better than the modern scholars, then one would have to accept their interpretation of the passages in Hebrews for the same reasons. However, as explained above, the Gospel divorce texts at that time would have been obscure even to Jews in this period.  As some have pointed out, Hermas could not establish his belief from Scripture, therefore, he attributed his doctrine to an alleged vision he had. Clearly, Hermas’ conclusion is discredited for multiple reasons.

Justin Martyr (ca. 139)

Justin seemed to share a similar viewpoint to that of Hermas.

“Concerning chastity, He uttered such sentiments as these: “Whosoever looketh upon a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart before God.”…And, “Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced from another husband, committeth adultery.”…So that all who, by human law, are twiced married, are in the eye of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her” (Justin, Apol. 1.15.1-4, Schaff).

While it appears Justin is opposed to the remarriage of those divorced, it has been argued that he may have only opposed the remarriage of those who were not “rightly” divorced, thus implying exceptions. This is based on different interpretations of what Justin meant when he said, “human law.” For if Justin condemned any who were “twice married,” then he would fall under the camp of those condemning any remarriage. However, the fact he mentions “human law” indicates he may have allowed an exception for remarriage.

Furthermore, Justin mentions a woman who divorced her husband and gave him a repudium, a Latin divorce certificate which would allow her to marry another (Justin, Apol. 2.2.1-8, Schaff). However, we are not given any detail to this situation in regards to whether or not she actually remarried.

Theophilus (ca. 171-188)

Theophilus quoted Jesus’ words with the exception clause. He really doesn’t give any commentary in regards to his quotation. His main point is to deal with the importance of purity.

“And concerning chastity…Solomon….said: “Let thine eyes look right on, and let thine eyelids look straight before thee: make straight paths for your feet.” And the voice of the Gospel teaches still more urgently concerning chastity, saying: “whosoever looketh on a woman who is not his own wife to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” “And he that marrieth,” say The Gospel, “her that is divorced from her husband, committeth adultery; and whosoever putteth away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery…” (Theophilus, To Autolycus, III.13, Schaff).

It is difficult to know Therophilus position since he simply quotes the words of Jesus without any interpretation. He presumably allowed divorce on the grounds of fornication, but nothing specifically is said about how to apply these passages.

Origen (ca. 185-254)

Origen’s writings on this topic are highly debatable. Origen mentions the exception clause:

“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.).

Beyond this, Origen speaks of Christ as divorcing Israel and (re)marrying the Church, a clear case of disciplinary divorce followed by remarriage (Origen, 14:17,19). In those passages, Origen insists that Christ, in doing so, did not break the commandment not to sunder the “one-flesh” union, because he had the grounds of “fornication” ( ibid., 14:17), grounds that Origen identifies as “reasonable” for the “dissolution of marriage.” Yet, some argue that since Origen reasoned that Jesus is above the law, then that must mean He didn’t believe in remarriage after divorce.

Origen’s writings are also interesting because they inform us that other Christian leaders were allowing remarriage, even for reasons other than fornication. While Origen disagreed with what they were doing, it proves that enough church leaders held to this position that it warranted Origen’s addressing of such.

“But now contrary to what was written, some even of the rulers of the church have permitted a woman to marry, even when 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 liveth,” and “So then if while her husband liveth, she shall be joined to another man she shall be called an 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” (Origen, Matthew, II.14.23).

“But it might be a subject for inquiry if on this account He hinders any one putting away a wife….for any other reason [Than fornication}, as for example for poisoning, or for the destruction during the absence of her husband from home of an infant born to them, or for any form of murder whatsoever…for to endure sins of such heinousness which seem to be worse than adultery or fornication, will appear to be irrational; but again on the other hand to act contrary to the design of the teaching of the Savior, every one would acknowledge to be impious” (ibid, II.14.24).

Origen never completely answered his own questions, but was open to allowing others to come to their own conclusions, as he said, “…you will inquire carefully, and deliver your opinion also in regard to the difficult questions raised by us on the passage” (ibid).

The Epitome of the Divine Institutes (ca. 250-325)

The Epitome of the Divine Institutes taught that marriage is dissolved by unfaithfulness. If a marriage is dissolved, then the implication is that a new marriage can be formed.

“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 Alexandria (ca. 192).

Clement of Alexandria’s writings on the topic of marriage and divorce are debated. Some believe he implied divorce and remarriage for fornication, while others believe he was opposed to remarriage after divorce. 

“Thou shalt not put away thy wife, except for fornication; and it regards as fornication, the marriage of those separated while the other is alive…”He that taketh a woman that has been put away,” it is said, “committeth adultery; and if one puts away his wife, he makes her an adulteress, ” that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only if he who puts her away guilty of this, but he who takes her, by giving to the woman the opportunity of sinning; for did he not take her, she would return to her husband” (Clement, Miscellanies II.23, Schaff).

“What then, is the law? In order to check the impetuosity of the passions, it commands the adulteress to be put to death, on being convicted of this; and if of priestly family, to be committed to the flames…” (ibid).

“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.).

It would seem Clement believed in divorce for fornication since he mentioned the exception clause. Clement believed the adulterous partner should be regarded as dead. Is it not clear if he believed in a remarriage from this passage, but it is certainly not out of the question. Furthermore, when asked about his view of remaining single after divorce, he said that not all could receive the saying, also implying remarriage.

The Tenth Canon of the Council of Aries (ca. 314):

The Tenth Canon of the Council of Aries clearly opposed remarriage after divorce. It states:

As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christian are, though young men, forbidden to marry, we decree that, so far as may be, counsel be given them not to take other wives, while their own, though guilty of adultery, are yet living.

Ambrosiaster (ca. 366-383)

Ambrosiaster taught a male or female could remarry if deserted by an unbelieving spouse.

“For if Ezra brought about the divorce of believing husbands or wives in order that God might become propitious, and not angered, should they take other wives from their own race — for they were not instructed that, having divorced these wives, they absolutely must not marry others —how much more, if an unbeliever has deserted her, will a woman have the free option to marry, if she wishes, a husband of her own law; for what has been done outside the law of God ought not to be considered matrimony” (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, on 1 Corinthians 7:15).

Interestingly enough, he believed only a man (and not a woman) could divorce their spouse for fornication and marry another (ibid). He did not believe that a woman had the same rights as a man did in this specific matter. Although he did clearly believed that both a man and woman had a right to a remarriage if their unbelieving spouse left them.

Augustine (ca. 419)

Augustine was uncertain about the sinfulness of the innocent divorcee who remarried. He said that in so doing, he didn’t think it was a grave sin.

“The man who leaves his wife because of adultery and marries another is not, it seems, as blameworthy as the man who for no reason leaves his wife and marries another. Nor is it clear from Scripture whether a man who has left his wife because of adultery, which he is certainly permitted to do, is himself an adulterer, if he marries again. And if he should I do not think that he would commit a grave sin” (Augustine, On Faith and Works, as cited in Deasley, Marriage and Divorce in the Bible, p. 205).

Epiphanius Bishop of Cyprus (ca. 410)

Epiphanius allowed remarriage after divorce for fornication and other reasons, though he made it clear it was not ideal.

“He who cannot keep continence after the death of his first wife, or who has separated from his wife for a valid motive, as fornication, or some other misdeed, if he takes another wife, of the wife takes another husband, the divine word does not condemn him nor exclude him from the Church or the life; but she tolerates it rather on account of his weakness” (Epiphanius, Against Heresies, 69).

Divorce is never a means of repentance for those in subsequent marriages.

Even though the early church held to some very radical and unbiblical views of marriage and divorce, there is no evidence that they ever demanded divorce as a means of repentance if one was remarried after a divorce. This becomes very powerful evidence since this situation was addressed by the early church. In other words, this isn’t an argument just from silence, it is an argument based upon the fact that divorce was never given or required as a means of repentance to anyone in subsequent marriages when addressed. Consider the following:

“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, ca. 300).

“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” (ibid).

“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).

“He that divorces his wife, and marries another, is an adulterer, and according to the canons of the Fathers, he shall be a mourner one year, a hearer two years, a prostrator three years, a co-stander one year, if they repent with tears.” (Cannons of Basil – Epistle III, Canon LXXXVII states; After c.a. 370):

While there were certain “requirements” laid forth, nothing is ever said about divorcing in order to repent. Requiring divorce or separation for repentance of a subsequent marriage is never mentioned in any of the writings throughout all early church history.

Conclusion.

Depending upon whose perspective you are gleaning from, different people have come to different conclusions regarding the early “Church Fathers” and what their beliefs were in reference to marriage and divorce. Professor William Luck said:

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. As Pat E. Harrell stated:

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).

– Kevin Pendergrass

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