Early Christian Understandings of Scripture on Divorce
A Simple Approach
If you want to know what the early Christians believed on nearly any subject, you can simply look at all the New Testament passages that deal with that subject, apply those passages very literally and very seriously, and the result will match what they believed on that subject. Divorce and remarriage is no exception to this rule.
Two Big Questions
Our investigation of the scriptures on divorce and remarriage has left us with two significant questions:
- What is the significance of the word porneia, (sexual immorality)?
- Why does Matthew record an exception, while Mark and Luke do not?
General Quotes on Divorce
Just as in modern Western society, divorce was common in Roman culture during the early church era. Tertullian wrote,
“Where is that happiness of married life, ever so desirable, which distinguished our earlier [Roman] manners, and as a result of which for about 600 years there was not among us [Romans] a single divorce? Now, women have every member of the body heavy laden with gold; . . . and as for divorce, they long for it as though it were the natural consequence of marriage.” 
This passage shows that the early Christians had to deal with this issue just as we do in modern Western culture.
In the following sections, we will look at some typical quotes that help us understand how the early Christians understood the Gospel passages we just read, and how they applied them to the subject of divorce.
Athenagorus, an apologist writing about the year 175, wrote:
“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 whosoever puts away his wife,’ says He [Jesus] ‘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.”
“Christ prohibits divorce, saying, ‘Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery; and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband, also committeth adultery.’ In order to forbid divorce, He makes it unlawful to marry a woman that has been put away.”
“As a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while the former husband is still living, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been put away, does not so much marry her as commit adultery with her according to the declaration of our Saviour.”
Finally, the Apostolic Constitutions:
“If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended [banned from communion].”
Early Christians and the Exception Clause
After hearing those quotes, you might be thinking, “What about the exception clause for porneia?” The early Christians, including some of the writers just quoted, addressed that question. Following are some quotes where they discuss this.[*]
In about the year 205, Tertullian wrote,
“The Lord holds it more pleasing that matrimony should not be contracted, than that it should at all be dissolved: in short, divorce He prohibits, except for the cause of [porneia].”
Again, around the year 207, Tertullian wrote,
“I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition that He now made of divorce; the case supposed being that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another. . . . ‘put away,’ that is, for the reason wherefore a woman ought not to be dismissed, that another wife may be obtained. . . . Permanent is the marriage that is not rightly dissolved. To marry, therefore, whilst matrimony is undissolved, is to commit adultery. Since, therefore, His prohibition of divorce was a conditional one, He did not prohibit absolutely; and what He did not absolutely forbid, that He permitted on some occasions, when there is an absence of the cause why He gave His prohibition.” [†]
In about the year 245, Origin wrote,
“After this our Saviour says, not at all permitting the dissolution of marriages for any other sin than [porneia] alone, when detected in the wife, ‘Whosever shall but away (sic) his own wife, saving for the cause of [porneia], maketh her an adulteress.’ But it might be a subject for inquiry if on this account He hinders any one putting away his wife, unless she be caught in [porneia], for any other reason, as for example poisoning, or for the destruction . . . of an infant born to them, or for . . . murder . . . . To endure sins . . . which seem to be worse than adultery or [porneia], will appear to be irrational; but again on the other hand to act contrary to the design of the teaching of the Saviour, every one would acknowledge to be impious.”
Novatius wrote in about the year 235,
“Christ . . . said that a wife must not be put away, save for the cause of adultery. . . . Laws are prescribed to matrons [married women], who are so bound that they cannot thence be separated.” 
Finally, sometime in the years 304–313, Lactantius wrote,
“He who marries a woman divorced from her husband is an adulterer. So is he who divorced a wife for any cause other than adultery, in order to marry another.” 
These passages show that the early Christians did recognize a limited exception for divorce, just as Jesus did in Matthew. That exception allowed a husband to divorce his wife for porneia, or sexual immorality.
Early Christian Understanding of Porneia
The quotes also make it clear that the early Christians, who spoke Biblical Greek as their everyday language, understood porneia as referring, not specifically to sexual relationships before marriage, but to any sexual immorality. This would include premarital sex, of course, but it would also include adultery by a married person, as well as any other sexual perversion.
A classic example of this is the following passage from Irenaeus. Referring to the Samaritan woman Jesus met at the well, he wrote,
“That erring Samaritan woman . . . did not remain with one husband, but committed [porneia] by many marriages.” 
In light of this evidence, Christians today who claim that porneia only means premarital sex are clearly mistaken. As these quotes illustrate, the people who lived soon after Christ, and spoke the same Greek language He did, used porneia as a broad term that included adultery.
Divorce as a Christian Obligation
Interestingly, the early Christians did not teach merely that a man was permitted to divorce his wife for adultery, but that he had an obligation to divorce her. This requirement did not apply to a wife who fell into adultery once and repented. Rather, it was applied to woman who was sleeping freely with multiple partners or carrying on a continued affair with another man. If the husband knew about such an ongoing situation and remained in the marriage, he was seen as essentially cooperating in wife-swapping
In about the year 150 or a bit earlier, Hermas wrote an allegory called The Shepherd. The following dialogue is carried on by some of the figures in the allegory:
“I said to him, ‘Sir, if anyone has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and 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 [porneia], 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.’” 
(That final sentence seems to refer to the previous one; just as a divorced wife cannot remarry, the husband who has divorced her should not remarry, leaving open the possibility for her to repent and return to him.
In a work refuting the followers of a heretic named Marcion, Tertullian writes,
“Well, then, what is a husband to do in your sect [the Marcionites], if his wife commit adultery? Shall he keep her? But your own apostle [Paul], you know, does not permit ‘the members of Christ to be joined to a harlot.’ Divorce, therefore, when justly deserved, has even in Christ a defender.”
These quotes show that their writers saw divorce as an obligation for a man whose wife is living in ongoing unrepentant adultery; in such a case the husband, as head of the household, is responsible to take action rather than overlooking the sin.
One passage from the Apostolic Constitutions, compiled in the 300’s, both forbids divorce when the woman is blameless and requires it when she is living in adultery.
“Nor let it be esteemed lawful after marriage to put her away who is without blame. For says He, ‘Thou shalt take care to thy spirit, and shalt not forsake the wife of thy youth; . . .’ For the Lord says: ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’ For the wife is the partner of life, united by God unto one body from two.
“But he that divides that again into two which is become one, is the enemy of the creation of God, and the adversary of His providence. In like manner, he that retains her that is corrupted [by adultery] is a transgressor of the law of nature; since “he that retains an adulteress is foolish and impious.’ For says He, ‘Cut her off from thy flesh;’ for she is not an help, but a snare, bending her mind from thee to another.”