Scriptural and Early Christian Perspectives on Divorce and Remarriage


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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:

  1. What is the significance of the word porneia, (sexual immorality)?
  2. 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.” [1]

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.”[2]

Tertullian wrote,

“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.”[3]

Origin wrote,

“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.”[4]

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].”[5]

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].”[6]

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.” [7][†]

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.”[8]

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.” [9]

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.” [10]

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.” [11]

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.’” [12]

(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.”[13]

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.” [14]

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18 Comments

  1. Hello – my best friend is divorced for about 13 years now. Years ago before the Most High began teaching me HIS truth, in error I thought because she was the “innocent party” that there was an exception to all remarriage is adultery, and suggested that she should find a widower and not pursue a marital relationship with men who are also divorced. Ignorance is not bliss and my foolishness has caused so much confusion and chaos… She is currently involved with a man whose wife of 34 years recently passed, that in itself seems too odd for words. Nonetheless, I am concerned for the eternal welfare of my best friend, she says she is a believer but it seems that she does not have ears to hear or eyes to see… Not to mention that her home church pastor is a divorced man remarried with a former (wife of his youth) still living, and he thinks I the one who is in error here. Please if you could provide me with some scripturally sound reference in addition to this article, which is very thorough but quite long, I would appreciate that.
    I am sure that the resounding opinion is that I should probably just mind my business and be happy for my friend – but I just can’t… I am troubled in my spirit about all this and our friendship is suffering horribly also. Please help!

    • @Michelle. Thanks for sharing. Many churches today are caving in on this teaching. I like Eph 5:22 – 33 in this context. Marriage is to be a type of Christ and His bride, the church. Christ would never divorce his bride and look for another one. And when we do that, we break the type God intended marriage to be. Finally, marriage is not the ultimate goal for human beings. Serving God is. And we should be willing to give up marriage in order to obey God.

      • Thank you for replying… I spoke with my best friend and I am going to email this article to her. Please pray with me that she will have eyes to see and ears to hear. My only concern is how disregarding the truth may impact her eternal fate. I love her and I have been trying to keep quiet and “mind my own business”, and I have prayed that the Most High will release me from this burden. However, no matter how I try to study other things and steer clear of this subject – it seems to pop back up.
        Thank you again… Praying that you continue fearlessly in your pursuit to bring your readers to a better understanding of scripture.
        Shalom & Love,
        Michelle

  2. Ok
    Here is my question
    I was for the betrothed argument
    And i don’t know if I’ve really changed it.
    But
    My question is
    If they leave you, the unbeliever…you’re saying you can’t remarry.
    But wouldn’t they probably go start another relationship??
    Then what??
    Then could you remarry?
    Or no still

    Thank you
    And
    God Bless

    • @Fred: They may leave you. They may start another relationship. But that doesn’t change the vows that you made.

      • Thank you for answering.

        I have one more

        If the wife was committing adultery and you tried to work it out but she still decided to leave.
        Would there but a right to remarry then do you believe or should the husband not remarry?

        Thank you for your time

        God Bless
        And a Happy New Year

        • @Fred, I think Ephesians 5:22 – 33 helps to understand some of these questions, even though it doesn’t speak directly about divorce and remarriage. God uses marriage as a parallel of Christ and the Church. I believe that when a person turns their back on Christ, Jesus leaves the door open for them to return, even if they “marry” the world. You should do the same. Read the book of Hosea and meditate on the story of Gomer and the parallel that God drew there between Hosea’s marriage and the children of Israel. I know that these are tough questions and hard answers. But I do know several people who have separated and remained single because their spouses were unfaithful. It is important to find a believer’s fellowship and close Christian friends who will stand by you when the going gets tough (and it will). If you want help to find such people, or just someone to pray with you, feel free to call our toll-free number [855-367-8788]. Note that this only works in North America. If you can’t use the number, leave a note here and I’ll send you and email address.

        • Thank you for your quick response and your insight.
          I have read them
          And understand the seriousness of marriage 100%

          From reading the article
          To be ok with remarriage at all the husband would have had to put away the wife for sexual immorality before she left to be able to remarry?

          Last question I promise

          I’m just trying to make sense of it

          Thank you for your time

        • @Fred. Throughout church history, there have been various interpretations. Edersheim, a converted Jewish scholar, promoted the viewpoint that Jesus was speaking about a betrothal agreement when he gave the exception clause. According to that, there would be no way out for a married person. Other leaders, even conservative ones like Menno Simons, did leave room for a man to put away his wife because of adultery. These leaders tended to leave more room for a man to put away his wife than the other way around, even though men tend to be unfaithful more than women do. I feel that when we start opening doors for divorce and remarriage, we start down a slippery slope that has no end. Like I said in my last post, marriage is a figure of Christ and his bride, the church. Divorce and remarriage destroys this picture. I feel that we are better off to take the “no remarriage” position rather than take chances. I feel that for me to break my vows to my wife, even if she breaks her vows to me, would be wrong for me. That also is the position of most of the groups sponsoring this site and the church I am part of. I realize that this isn’t what you were hoping to hear from me, probably. But I think it is the only safe position. Thanks again for your comments and questions, and God bless you in 2019.

  3. I am currently separated from my husband due to his continued use of prostitutes. We attempted counseling, but he did not repent and he continued to seek out prostitutes. He says he wants to reconcile, yet does not provide me access to this email and text messages. Nor does he adequately financially provide for our children and for me, even the minimum Mount the state would require for child support. We are currently entangled I’m the legal process.

    I want to be obedient to Christ, above all things. And I believe that God led me to as much information as I needed to leave in good conscience. I have no desire to remarry, or even to consider remarriage. Much of my church leadership encourages me to consider reconciliation, since God hates divorce. They do not condone his use of prostitutes, and they encourage him to repent. However, nothing in his provision or behavior leads me to believe there is true repentance.

    I am continuing to search scripture for my answers, but I am left confused by my leadership as to how to move forward. What does Scripture teach about living in continual sin and whether I should initiate reconciliation under those circumstances?

    • Hi Tammy. Have you read this whole article? I think it answers some of your questions. I know its long and perhaps a bit tedious, but its worth reading all the way through (all seven pages!) For more discussion, call the toll free number at the beginning of this comments section.

  4. My husband was killed. We have 2 small children. 7 and 8. A few weeks later after my husbands death, I’m with his older brother. We’ve fallen in love. He wants to marry me and raise his brothers children. He has left his wife, they neither have any children. He is divorcing her. Neither one of us understand this because before my husbands passing, his brother and I could not stand each other. Are we to question this? Is this Gods plan? Are we wrong to have fallen in love? I must say after 3 months we are still together. His wife and him were having problems way before my husbands death. She had an affair and he never forgot it. She “was” also my friend for years.

    • Do you think it is safer to go by your feelings than by God’s word? The Bible is clear that someone who divorces their partner and marries another is committing adultery. I can see that your husband’s death left you very vulnerable, but that still doesn’t change what the Bible states about such a situation.

      • Are you sure that someone should value the lord above their own feelings? Because I feel that if this were true, then He would tell us who to love in the first place, and not wait until we’ve made a wrong decision to tell us what to do. I believe that we are living our own lives with god simply watching over us, not disapproving of our every action.

        • @Shannon, The problem too often is that we don’t pay any attention when God tries to warn us of a wrong choice. And of course, there are situations where the other person makes bad choices after the fact.

  5. kimberley taylor

    i remarried before coming to this knowledge can i return to my first spouse with Gods approval or must i LEAVE?

    • Hi Kimberly. This is a tough question and better answered by your local church if you have one. Feel free to call our toll free number at 855.367.8788 for more discussion or reply here if you want to continue the discussion off line by e-mail.

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