The Biblical & the Early Christian Position on Divorce & Remarriage

By examining the Biblical & the early Christian historical evidence given below concerning divorce & remarriage, the reader will quickly discern that most professing churches in existence today are no longer teaching these precepts, if they ever did to begin with. If a person would seek to deny that the church has drifted away (Heb 2:1) from the truth on this issue, although they might choose to interpret the relevant Scripture passages a bit differently than how they are interpreted in this article, it is very difficult to ignore or deny what the historical evidence demonstrates.

From the very beginning, by a nearly[1] unanimous or universal consensus, the Church held to the position that Jesus forbade divorce & remarriage (as it is so commonly practiced today). The Church, on the whole, maintained this consensus for the first five centuries until the Eastern Greek Church conformed to the State (Government) standards on the issue in the first part of the sixth century and thereafter began to tolerate divorce in accordance with the civil legislation. But in the West (in the Roman/Latin Church)–although evidence can be found that, at times, some nominally Christian laity & lax clergy disregarded the Church’s ancient laws on divorce & remarriage–the ancient teaching on marriage permanency was upheld (for the most part, but not without difficulty or struggle) clear up until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.[2]

In assessing the current situation on this issue, we must keep in mind that although the norms of professing Christian society may have changed, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8). This is not an easy or a comfortable subject to deal with! But in light of what the Scriptures teach regarding the necessity of repentance (Lk 13:3, 5), and the dire, final condition of those who have not repented of adultery or fornication or any type of sexual immorality, this subject is an eternally important one (see 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:5-6; Heb 13:4; Rev 21:8; 22:15).[3] It should therefore be taken very seriously by all who claim to love God and are concerned for souls–especially their own. Please consider the evidence below, beginning with a couple difficult & often misunderstood passages from the Gospel according to Matthew (using the NKJV, unless noted otherwise).

Matthew’s Gospel, according to multiple ancient Christian writers, was originally written in the Hebrew language because it was targeted primarily to a Jewish audience–to Christian converts from Judaism. As the church became predominantly Gentile, Matthew’s Gospel was obviously translated into Greek so more people could benefit from its teachings, and this is the form in which we have inherited it. Understanding that Matthew’s original target audience were Jewish Christians (who were knowledgeable about Jewish Law) is a very significant factor in rightly interpreting the two main “divorce passages” found in his Gospel, the first of which is from Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount[4]:

Matthew 5:31-32—“Furthermore it has been said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except [parektos: i.e. apart from; Strong’s 3924[5]] sexual immorality [porneia: i.e., fornication] causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

[Note:  In Matthew 5:32, Jesus is speaking about accountability or guilt following divorce, not about the legal grounds for divorce. The so-called “exception clause” is more accurately viewed as an exemption clause (which goes with the verb “causes her to commit adultery” rather than with the verb “divorces/puts away”). The clause only exempts a husband from bearing responsibility for his wife’s unclean state if she defiled herself through fornication at some point before he divorced her. However, under the Mosaic Law, fornication/adultery should have resulted in the death penalty rather than divorce if she was caught in the act (Dt 22:20-22; Lev 20:10). Nevertheless, if she is guilty of any type of pre-divorce fornication (whether adultery or premarital fornication), then she is responsible for the loss of her “clean” status, not her husband. But if she is innocent of sinning against him in this way (or if he cannot prove it), and he divorces her for some non-sexual cause not punishable by death, then he will be guilty of causing (cf. Matt 18:6-7) her to commit adultery from that point forward, assuming she gets “remarried” to a different “husband.” How so? Because the divorcer has created the illusion that they are now free to remarry others. But the spiritual reality is that they are not free. Their marriage bond is still intact in God’s eyes! The last half of v. 32 makes it plain that even in cases where the wife was innocent of sexual immorality in her first marriage, she will still be committing adultery if she gets married to a different man after being put away, even though the divorcer will bear most of the guilt. The next man she marries will also be guilty of adultery due to marrying a divorced woman whose “one-flesh” (Gen 2:24) husband is still alive. Why? Because she is still married to her prior husband in the sight of God—the one-flesh, “covenant” (Mal 2:14) bond has not been dissolved by a legal divorce! Because the bond is still intact, if the divorcer marries another woman, that will also be adultery. Concerning the word “fornication” (Gk. porneia), it has, historically, usually been used to refer to sex between unmarried persons, but it can also be used in a figurative manner to refer to a married person who is behaving like a prostitute (engaging in illicit sex), which would make them guilty of adultery (Gk. moicheia), too!]

Now consider this second passage in Matthew where Jesus has an encounter with some Pharisees:

Matthew 19:3-9—“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason [more literally, ‘for every cause‘]?’ 4 ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning “made them male and female,” [Gen 1:27]  5 and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh“? [Gen 2:24] 6 So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’ 7 They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ 8 He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except [μὴ; mē; Strong’s 3361: “not”[6]] for sexual immorality [Gk. porneia; fornication], and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’”

[Note: V. 9 is the most controversial verse in this passage of Matthew 19 which, when rightly understood, strongly testifies to the traditional view of marriage, but v. 9 has been mistranslated & misinterpreted. Concerning the mistranslation, when working from either the Nestle-Aland edition or the Majority Text (rather than Erasmus’ Textus Receptus), the Greek word μὴ/mē (Strong’s 3361) that is usually translated “except” should actually be translated as “not” (to learn more about this, listen to audio recording @ https://eurekachurchofchrist.com/interview-with-dr-leslie-mcfall-on-matthew-199/). So, in the Greek, this makes it an exclusion clause rather than an exception clause. And, to understand what is being excluded, it helps to know that the Jews observed a distinction between capital (death penalty) offenses and non-capital offenses when it came to marriage issues. Therefore, when Jesus used the phrase “not for fornication,” He was using the legal negative, in contradistinction to the positive, to identify the causes/excuses (“for just any reason”–v. 3) that the Jewish husbands were using to obtain their divorces, while also banning divorce for all these non-fornication (non-death penalty) offenses, i.e., the causes/excuses that were for “just any reason”. But by using this simple division that was based on punishment, Jesus was also cleverly & implicitly reminding the Pharisees that under the Mosaic Law, fornication & adultery were designated by God to be punished by a death sentence, and NOT by divorce. Both Jesus & the Pharisees knew that under the Jewish/Mosaic Law, there was NO option to punish adultery & fornication with divorce. Therefore, because God did not allow divorce on the grounds of fornication & adultery (capital offenses), and Jesus did not allow divorce for non-fornication (non-capital) offenses, the phrase “not for fornication” effectively excluded all causes for divorce in a minimum of words. But when Gentiles read Matthew’s Gospel, not being from a Hebrew/Jewish culture, they often miss this important, Law-based distinction that Jesus is making in this verse. Now, concerning the misinterpretation of v. 9, people often understand it to be saying that Jesus Himself permits the innocent spouse to remarry if their wife/husband has been unfaithful to them. But the text itself does not say that, and once we understand what God’s view of divorce is, we will agree more closely with the early Christian view. The early Christians believed that only a “separation-divorce” was allowed in cases of a spouse’s unrepentant fornication (to prevent an unholy “ménage à trois” & the spread of STDs) with no permission to remarry a different person while the “one-flesh” (Gen 2:24) covenant (Mal 2:14) spouse was still physically alive. If either spouse remarried while the other was still alive, it would be adultery. This is how the early believers understood Jesus’ teachings on this subject when they were all harmonized—cf. 5:32.]

To sum up the difference between the clauses of Matthew 5:32 & 19:9: In Leslie McFall’s book, The Biblical Teaching on Divorce & Remarriage (p. 208),[7] he explains the difference between the “exemption from blame clause” of Matthew 5:32 and the “exclusion to divorce” clause of Matthew 19:9 in the following way (bolding & bracketed content is mine):

“The difference between Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is that in the former [Matt 5:32] Jesus warns every man divorcing his wife, that if another man sleeps with his wife, he is guilty of making her commit adultery, unless…she commits fornication of her own accord while still married to him, then he is not guilty for her sin under those circumstances. But he is guilty if she remarries. In the case of Matthew 19:9, Jesus warns all Jewish men that divorce on the grounds of a non-sexual offence is against God’s will. There is no exception under Jesus’ content-identity phrase, ‘not [mē] over fornication,’ because the death penalty covered covered the sin of fornication and adultery.”

In this same book from Leslie McFall (on p. 278), he advocates that the following translations of Matthew 5:32 & 19:9 be adopted (bold emphasis is mine; words supplied in italics are his):

Matthew 5:32: “But I – I say to you, that who, say, may put away his wife makes her to commit adultery—apart from the matter of her own fornication—and who, say, may marry her who has been put away commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:9: “And I say to you that who, say, may put away his wife—not over fornication which is punished by death—and may marry another commits adultery; and he who did marry her that has been put away commits adultery.”

Admittedly, the passages concerning divorce & remarriage from Matthew’s gospel are a bit vague and difficult to understand, which is mostly due to a commonly perpetuated translation issue (which only increases the interpretation issues), and due to the failure to take into account that Matthew’s primary target audience was of the Jewish culture. For these reasons, Matthew’s “divorce passages” required a good deal of explaining–because not only are most readers unaware of the translation issues, but most readers are also Gentiles (as were most of the “Ante-Nicene Fathers”[8]) who are unaware of Jewish cultural issues. But when these vague & difficult passages from Matthew are interpreted & harmonized with the plain, more clear passages on this subject that are found in the New Testament, the truth on this matter is indeed discoverable for those who love the truth and who do not allow themselves to be blinded by their emotions. Let us examine one of those clear passages now. As we read in the Gospel of Mark:

Mark 10:2-12—The Pharisees came and asked Him, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” testing Him. 3 And He answered and said to them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her.”  5 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept. 6 But from the beginning of the creation, God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” 10 In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter. 11 So He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. 12 And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

[Note: In the Gospel according to Mark (written primarily to a Gentile audience), Jesus makes it very clear that if a man or woman divorces their spouse and marries another, he or she commits adultery. Why? Because a legal divorce, for any reason, does not separate what God has joined together.]. Another clear passage on the subject is found in Luke:

Luke 16:18: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.”

[Note: In the Gospel according to Luke (written primarily to a Gentile audience), we see that divorce & remarriage to a person other than the one-flesh spouse (who is still alive) is prohibited. Even when a legal divorce has taken place, in God’s eyes the original couple is still married—which is what makes it adultery to either be remarried to a different person, or for a person who has never been married before to marry a divorcee whose one-flesh spouse is still alive.].

To sum up why neither Mark nor Luke have ‘exception clauses’: the primary reason is because there are no exception clauses in Matthew (although there is an exemption clause in Matt 5:32 and an exclusion clause in Matt 19:9)! Another reason is that Mark & Luke were not primarily targeting a Jewish culture which had unique marriage & punishment regulations under the Mosaic Law concerning the two types of offenses which needed to be addressed. Unlike the Jews, the Gentiles were able to divorce their wives for sexual & nonsexual causes (Gentiles did not require the death penalty for fornication/adultery as was required by the Mosaic Law). But all three Synoptic Gospels agree that when a legal divorce takes place between a husband & wife (neither of whom have a prior spouse who is still physically alive), neither of them can remarry while the other yet lives without it being adultery. All three Gospels harmonize in concluding that legal divorces do not accomplish what people imagine they do. The marital bond remains! Let us now consider some passages from the apostle Paul:

Romans 7:1-3—1 “Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? 2 For the woman who has a husband is bound [Gk: deo; a legal term also used in 1 Cor 7:27, 39] by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. 3 So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.”

[Note: Here, in Romans, we see that the only scriptural authorization for remarriage is the physical death of a spouseNotice the Greek word (deo) used to speak of the marriage bond.]

1 Corinthians 7:10-16—10 “Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce [Gk: aphiémi; send/put away, leave alone] his wife. 12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce [Gk: aphiémi; send/put away, leave alone] her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce [Gk: aphiémi; send/put away, leave alone] him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage [Gk: douloo; in servitude or slavery] in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?”

[Note: In this passage to the Corinthians, we see that Christians have no obligation to make every effort to stay in a relationship with an unbeliever. If the unbeliever does not want to be married to someone who has become a Christian, and therefore departs, then the Christian has committed no sin. The Christian is not enslaved/under bondage. But notice that the Greek word (douloo) used in v. 15 speaks of servitude and is a different word than the Greek word (deo) used in Rom 7:2 & in 1 Cor 7:27, 39 which speaks of the marriage bond itself. So according to Paul, believers are not under any obligation to follow after their deserting, unbelieving spouse or to continue to serve them by giving them sex, cooking meals, washing clothes and cleaning house. However, being free from such obligations does not dissolve the marriage bond itself. By remaining ‘single’ & celibate and praying for reconciliation (v. 11), they may convert their spouse (v. 16). But there is no authorization to ‘move on’ by getting remarried to a different person.]

1 Cor 7:39—“A wife is bound [Gk: deo: a legal “tied” term; used also in Rom 7:2 & 1 Cor 7:27] by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wished, only in the Lord.”

[NoteHere we see again that it is only death that lawfully dissolves the marriage bond. If a second marriage takes place after the one-flesh/covenant spouse has physically died, then the  person who has been loosed (by death NOT divorce) from that bond is only to marry a Christian.]

Note Concerning InterpretationAll the passages listed above are taken from the New Testament. But the Old Testament also touches on the issue of divorce [see Deuteronomy 24:1-4;[9] Jeremiah 3:8;[10] Malachi 2:10-16[11]]. One well-known Old Testament passage that touches on the issue of divorce is Malachi 2:16a, which reads:

“For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,”

This passage seems to make it pretty clear how God feels about divorce. When a divorce takes place in a God-joined (Mark 10:9/Matt 19:6), one-flesh (Gen 2:24), covenant (Mal 2:14) marriage, God hates it! Divorce is a violent thing; even if there is no physical violence involved, it is the emotional equivalent of setting off a hand grenade in the middle of the family dining table. But a woman who has already divorced her lawful husband and then entered into a sexual relationship with another man (whether this other man married her or not), might be tempted to use an Old Testament text (such as Deuteronomy 24:1-4) to justify her not leaving that other man and returning to her husband. She might be tempted to say that she cannot return to her husband because (as Deuteronomy 24:4 has it) she has now been “defiled.” However, we must remember that Christians are under the New Covenant, not the Old Covenant. Jesus taught his followers to have mercy on people and to forgive them. And so, in keeping with Jesus’ teachings, the early Christians universally believed that (even in cases of divorce because of adultery/fornication) the “innocent” spouse was not to remarry—just in case the guilty spouse was to repent. That way, the two could be reconciled more easily.[12] An example of this ancient teaching is given below—all emphasis and comments in brackets are mine:

Hermas [c.150 A.D.]: “‘What…is the [Christian] husband to do, if his [Christian] wife continues in [adultery]?’ And he said, ‘The husband should put her away, and remain by himselfBut if he put his wife away and marries 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 does 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 [this being a formal, public period of penance] to the servants of God [for sins such as adultery, murder, and idolatry–cf. Acts 15:20]. 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.’” (ANF, Vol. 2, p. 21)

In Conclusion

In the minds of the early Christians (and in the eyes of God), a “divorce” is not a complete severing or dissolution of the marriage bond that frees a person to get remarried to another person while the God-joined (Mark 10:9/Matt 19:6), one-flesh (Gen 2:24), covenant (Mal 2:14) spouse is still physically alive. Rather, a “divorce” is merely a separation that has taken place (perhaps due to unrepentant, continuous adultery/fornication) that is ultimately and ideally meant to bring about redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of the relationship between a husband & wife. According to the scriptures, it has never been God’s will that a man or a woman who has entered into a covenant one-flesh marriage should divorce for any reason. But neither has it ever been God’s will that we should knowingly participate in or even be complicit in the practice of ANY sort of sexual immorality. So, in cases where a spouse is guilty of ongoing, unrepentant adultery or prostitution, the innocent spouse should separate from the adulterous spouse. Neither party is to remarry. The innocent spouse is to wait for the guilty spouse to repent & forsake their unlawful sexual activity and then they should be reconciled. The reason for this is that although sin has been brought into the marriage and needs to be dealt with, the marriage bond is still intact in the eyes of God. The ONLY thing that can end the marriage bond is death. The God of the Bible is a relational, loving God. In John 3:16-17, we learn that “He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him [or pisteuo eis: “obeys unto Him”] should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” Brothers and sisters, we are called to be an example of Christ to our spouses.

Addendum

The Woman at the Well: Early Christian views on Subsequent Marriages Due to Divorce

John 4:16-18: Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband [Gk. aner–“man”], and come here.” 17 The woman answered and said, “I have no husband [Gk. aner].” Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband [Gk. aner],’ 18 for you have had five husbands [Gk. aner], and the one whom you now have is not your husband [Gk. aner]; in that you spoke truly.” (Note: in each occurrence of the word “husband” in this passage, the Greek word aner can also be translated as “man.”)

In revealing His supernatural knowledge while conversing with the Woman at the Well, Jesus put His finger on one of the biggest sin issues and social stigmas in this woman’s life. Had all 5 of this woman’s husbands died? Or were some of these due to divorce & remarriage? Or, were more than one of these “husbands” (Gk. aner) merely “men” to whom she was never legally married to? We are simply not told.

However, a very strong Biblical case can be made that the only thing that truly ends a person’s first marriage in the eyes of God is death. Amongst the early Christians, a separation was permitted in the case of ongoing, unrepentant adultery, but remarriage was not. For this reason, serial marriages were often looked upon as probably involving immorality of some sort (like adultery or a lack of self-control), and sex outside of the bounds of marriage, as in the case between the Woman at the Well and the sixth man of hers that is mentioned, is most definitely sexual immorality or fornication—no matter how old a person may be. And just because Jesus knew that she had been married five times does not mean that He acknowledged that all five of these marriages had been lawful marriages in the eyes of God. Man’s law does not override God’s law.

A quote from Hermas was given above to illustrate that the early Christians understood the New Testament to teach that divorce (even for adultery) did not end the bond of a marriage that God considered lawful. This was the orthodox position of the entire Church (by an overwhelming, nearly universal consensus) for the first 500 years, and this consensus was generally preserved in the West for another thousand years. By way of conclusion, please consider reading the following representative quotes from Christians who wrote within the first five centuries (more could be supplied, but these should be sufficient), and consider reading the end notes as well:

Irenaeus (c. 180 A.D.): “That erring Samaritan woman did not remain with one husband. Rather, she committed fornication [L. fornicata] by many marriages.” (ANF, Vol. 1, p. 445–note: “fornication” as seen here in the Latin translation of Irenaeus’ writing probably implies she was acting like a prostitute.)

Justin Martyr (c. 160 A.D.): “Concerning chastity, He [Jesus] uttered such sentiments as these [he quotes Matt 5:28, 29, 32; 19:12]. So that all who, by human law, are twice married, are in the eye of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her. For not only he who in act commits adultery is rejected by Him, but also he who desires to commit adultery…” (ANF, Vol. 1, p. 167)

Theophilus (fl. c. 170-190 A.D.): “‘And he that marries,’ says [the Gospel], ‘her that is divorced from her husband, commits adultery; and whoever puts away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery.’ Because Solomon says: ‘Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be burned? So he that goes in to a married woman [i.e. even though she has been divorced] shall not be innocent.’” (ANF, Vol. 2, To Autolycus, 3:13)

Athenagoras (c. 175 A.D.): “…a person should either remain as he was born [i.e. a virgin], or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. ‘For whosoever puts away his wife,’ says 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…These adulterers and pederasts defame the eunuchs [i.e. Christian virgins] and the once-married.” (ANF, Vol. 2, p. 146-147)

Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 A.D.): “Now that the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, is expressly contained in the law [given by Jesus], ‘Thou shalt not put away thy wife, except for the cause of fornication;’ and it regards as adultery [Gk. μοιχείαν; moicheian], 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 adultress,’ that is, compels her to commit adultery. And not only is 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.” (ANF Vol. 2, p. 379) [see explanatory footnote[13] below]

Tertullian (c. 217 A.D.) [while arguing for the ideal that a person should only be married once in their lifetime,[14] Tertullian writes]: “…to a man who had been loosed from a wife [by her death] prior to his believing, his [subsequent] wife will not be counted as a second wife. Because she is his first wife after his believing…. [the Apostle Paul] also demonstrates that such a subsequent wife is to be a Christian, and that if she also has been ‘loosed’ from a husband, the loosing is to have taken place through death, of course, not through divorce; inasmuch as to the divorced he would grant no permission to marry, in the teeth of the primary precept.” (ANF, Vol. 4, p. 68; comments on 1 Cor 7:27-28a, 39)

Origen (c. 245 A.D.): “A woman is an adulteress—even though she seems to be married to a man—if the former husband is still living. Likewise, also, the man who seems to marry the woman who has been put away, does not so much marry her as commit adultery with her—according to the declaration of our Savior.” (ANF, Vol. 9, p. 511)

Cyprian (c. 250 A.D.): “…a wife must not depart from her husband. Or, if she should depart, she must remain unmarried.” (ANF, Vol. 5, p. 553)

Lactantius (c. 304-313 A.D.): “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.” (ANF, Vol. 7, p. 190, translated from the Latin)

Council of Elvira (c. 305 A.D.): “A Christian woman who has left an adulterous Christian husband and is marrying another is to be forbidden to marry; if, however, she has already remarried, she is not to receive communion before the death of the man whom she has left, unless mortal sickness compels it.” (Council of Elvira, Canon 9)

Council of Arles (c. 314 A.D.): “Of those who discover their wives in adultery and are young Christians and are forbidden to remarry, it was determined that they be most strongly advised not to take other wives while their own live, though they be adulterous.” (Council of Arles, cannon 10)

Apostolic Constitutions (compiled c. 390 A.D.): “If a layman divorces his own wife, and takes another, or one divorced by another, let him be suspended [i.e. let him be excommunicated].” (ANF, Vol. 7, p. 503; Apostolic Canon 48)

Basil the Great (c. 375 A.D.) gives the following advice for suitable ecclesiastical discipline. NOTE: He is discussing the options of either prescribing the milder penance that was then assigned for non-adulterous fornication (4-7 years, depending on the case) vs. the more severe penance prescribed for adultery (15 years) at that point in time & church custom:

“Yet custom prescribes that even adulterous husbands who are living in fornication should be retained by their wives. Wherefore I do not know whether she who cohabits with a husband dismissed by his wife can be called an adulteress [i.e., whether the bishop can impose the penance for adultery]. In these cases the blame attaches to the woman who has left her husband, and in proportion to the nature of the cause which led her to depart. If it was that she would not put up with blows, it would have been better for her to bear them than to separate from her husband. If it was that she would not endure the wasting of her money, that again is no sufficient reason. But if it was that he lived in fornication, [even here] our ecclesiastical custom does not admit it. Indeed a woman is not bidden to depart even from a pagan husband, but to wait because none can say what may be the result: ‘How knowest thou, O wife, if thou shalt save thy husband?’ Wherefore she who leaves her husband is an adulteress if she goes to another man [i.e., she incurs the full penance for adultery]. But the man who is left by his wife is to be pardoned, and she who cohabits with him does not merit condemnation [under the canons for adultery]. But if the husband leaves his wife and goes to another woman he is himself an adulterer, ‘because he causes her to commit adultery’ (Mt. 5:32) [in this case he incurs the statutory penance because of this aggravation of the offences]: and she who cohabits with him is an adulteress, because she has carried off another woman’s husband.” [Amphilochius 188; paragraph 9; p. 323 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, 1933; see also: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202188.htm]

“If a man living with a wife is not satisfied with his marriage and falls into fornication, I account him a fornicator, and prolong his period of punishment. Nevertheless, we have no canon subjecting him to the charge of adultery, if the sin be committed against an unmarried woman. For the adulteress, it is said, being polluted ‘shall be polluted’ [Jer 3:1] and she shall not return to her husband: and ‘He that keeps an adulteress is a fool and impious’ [Prov18:22]. He, however, who has committed fornication is not to be cut off from the society of his own wife. So the wife will receive the husband on his return from fornication, but the husband will expel the polluted woman from his house. The argument here is not easy, but the custom has so obtained….The woman who lives with an adulterer is an adulteress the whole time…. The woman who has been abandoned by her husband, ought, in my judgment, to remain as she is. [Why? Because…] The Lord said, ‘If any one leave his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, he causes her to commit adultery;’ [Matt 5:32] thus, by calling her adulteress, He excludes [i.e. forbids] her from intercourse with another man. For how can the man being guilty, as having caused adultery, and the woman, go without blame, when she is called an adulteress by the Lord for having intercourse with another man?” [Amphilochius 199; para. 21, 39 & 48; this letter contains advice on ecclesiastical discipline; See also: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3202199.htm]

Epiphanius of Salamis (310-403) while refuting the Cathari who thought it was unlawful for people to get remarried after their first spouse had died, Epiphanius says: “But the man [i.e., a layman] who cannot rest satisfied with his first wife, now dead—from whom [it may be] he was separated on the score of fornication, or adultery, or some other disgraceful reason—should he take a second wife, or should a woman in like case take a second husband, the Scripture does not blame him, nor does it declare him cut off from the Church or eternal life, but puts up with him because of his frailty: not so that he should have two wives at the same time, while the first wife is still alive; but that being cut off from the first, he should lawfully marry another if he chooses.” [p. 325 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, 1933; Adversus Haereses, Haer. 59, c. 4 (P.G. 41.1024)]

Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428 A.D.): “He [Jesus, in Matthew 5:32] has mixed his statement about divorce with one concerning fornication, for men who turn away from their own spouses out of a desire for intercourse with other women have committed adultery. The same applies to women. Thus he does not allow the divorced women to remarry. The man she lives with must pay the penalties of an adultererFor even if, to all appearances, she is separated from her husband, in spiritual reality she remains his body. At the beginning, she was joined and fitted by God to her husband as ‘one flesh’ [Gen 2:24]. For the same reason, neither is the man able to marry another woman.” [Fragment 33; MKGK 107; ACCS N.T. Vol. 1a, p. 113]

Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390): “…divorce is utterly repugnant to our laws [i.e., of the Church], though the laws of the Romans judge otherwise.” [p. 326 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, 1933; Epistle 144; (P.G. 37.248)]

Ambrose (387 A.D.): “But what shall I say about chastity, when only one and no second union is allowed? As regards marriage, the law is, not to marry again, nor to seek union with another wife. It seems strange to many why impediment should be caused by a second marriage entered on before baptism, so as to prevent election to the clerical office, and to the reception of the gift of ordination; seeing that even crimes are not wont to stand in the way, if they have been put away in the sacrament of baptism. But we must learn, that in baptism sin can be forgiven, but law cannot be abolished. In the case of marriage there is no sin, but there is a law. Whatever sin there is can be put away, whatever law there is cannot be laid aside in marriage.” [On the duties of Clergy:1:257]

“And what else did John [the Baptist] have in mind but what is virtuous, so that he could not endure a wicked union even in the king’s case, saying: ‘It is not lawful for thee to have her to wife.’ He could have been silent, had he not thought it unseemly for himself not to speak the truth for fear of death, or to make the prophetic office yield to the king, or to indulge in flattery. He knew well that he would die as he was against the king, but he preferred virtue to safety. Yet what is more expedient than the suffering which brought glory to the saint.” [On the duties of Clergy, 3:89]

“No one is permitted to know a woman other than his wife. The marital right is given you for this reason: lest you fall in a snare and sin with a strange woman. ‘If you are bound to a wife do not seek a divorce,’ for you are not permitted, while your wife lives to marry another.” [Abraham 1:57:59]

“You dismiss your wife, therefore, as if by right and without being charged with wrongdoing [i.e. by the civil authorities]; and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids itbut divine law forbids it. Anyone who obeys men should stand in awe of God. Hear the Word of the Lord, which even they [i.e. the civil authorities] who propose our [civil] laws must obey: ‘What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.’” [Commentary on Luke, Sec. 8:5]

“Because it not being lawful for her in her husband’s lifetime to contract a new marriage, sinful desire may gradually prevail against her. Suppose her to marry. The blame of the constraint she lay under is upon you: and what you account to be marriage is adultery. For what does it matter whether one commits that crime with open avowal of it, or as one who is an adulterer under the mask of a husband. Only that it is more grievous to have contrived a law to warrant crime than a secret perpetration of it.” [Commentary on Luke 16:18]

Jerome (396 A.D.): “In explaining the testimony of the apostle, ‘The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband; and likewise, also, the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife,’ we have subjoined the following: The entire question relates to those who are living in wedlock, whether it is lawful for them to put away their wives, a thing which the Lord also has forbidden in the Gospel.

“Following the decision of the Lord the apostle teaches that a wife must not be put away saving for fornication, and that, if she has been put away, she cannot during the lifetime of her husband marry another man, or, at any rate, that she ought, if possible, to be reconciled to her [first] husband. In another verse he speaks to the same effect: ‘The wife is bound …as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband; she is at liberty to be married to, whom she will; only in the Lord.’ [i.e. only to a Christian; Letter 48]

“I find joined to your letter of inquiries a short paper containing the following words: ‘ask him,(that is me,) whether a woman who has left her husband on the ground that he is an adulterer and sodomite and has found herself compelled to take another may in the lifetime of him whom she first left be in communion with the church without doing penance for her fault.’ As I read the case put I recall the verse ‘they make excuses for their sins.’

“We are all indulgent to our own faults; and what our own will leads us to do we attribute to a necessity of nature. It is as though a young man were to say, ‘I am over-borne by my body, the glow of nature kindles my passions, the structure of my frame and its reproductive organs call for sexual intercourse.’ Or again a murderer might say, ‘I was in want, I stood in need of food, I had nothing to cover me. If I shed the blood of another, it was to save myself from dying of cold and hunger.’

“Tell the sister, therefore, who thus enquires of me concerning her condition, not my sentence but that of the apostle. ‘Know ye not, brethren (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth? For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband, so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband. So then, if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress.’ And in another place: ‘the wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.’

“The apostle has thus cut away every plea and has clearly declared that, if a woman marries again while her husband is living, she is an adulteress. You must not speak to me of the violence of a ravisher, a mother’s pleading, a father’s bidding, the influence of relatives, the insolence and the intrigues of servants, household losses. A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another.

“The apostle does not promulgate this decree on his own authority but on that of Christ who speaks in him. For he has followed the words of Christ in the gospel: ‘whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced, committeth adultery.’ Mark what he says: ‘whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.’ Whether she has put away her husband or her husband her, the man who marries her is still an adulterer.

“I have not been able quite to determine what it is that she means by the words ‘has found herself compelled’ to marry again. What is this compulsion of which she speaks? Was she overborne by a crowd and ravished against her will? If so, why has she not, thus victimized, subsequently put away her ravisher [i.e. had the one who raped her put in jail]? Let her read the books of Moses and she will find that if violence is offered to a betrothed virgin in a city and she does not cry out, she is punished as an adulteress: but if she is forced in the field, she is innocent of sin and her ravisher alone is amenable to the laws.

“Therefore if your sister, who, as she says, has been forced into a second union, wishes to receive the body of Christ and not to be accounted an adulteress, let her do penance; so far at least as from the time she begins to repent to have no farther intercourse with that second husband who ought to be called not a husband but an adulterer. If this seems hard to her and if she cannot leave one whom she has once loved and will not prefer the Lord to sensual pleasure, let her hear the declaration of the apostle: ‘ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of devils,’ and in another place: ‘what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?’” [Letter 55]

Chromatius (fl. 400 A.D.): “In all things our Lord and Savior reforms for the better the justice of the ancient law [as seen in Jesus’ words in Matt 5:31-32]. Indeed, it seems that long ago a license for divorce was granted by Moses on tenuous grounds to the Jewish people who were living licentiously and serving their pleasures. This was due not to the system of law but to the unbridled pleasure of a carnal people unable to uphold the righteousness of the law according to rigorous standards.

“This concession was allowed, according to what the Lord himself said in another place in his reply to the inquiring Sadducees. For when they asked why Moses had allowed a bill of divorce to be given, the Lord answered, ‘Moses, by reason of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to put away your wives, but it was not so from the beginning’ [Matt 19:8]. And now, not without good reason does our Lord and Savior, with that license removed, restore the precepts of his former constitution [Gen 2:24]. For he orders that chaste wedlock be preserved by indissoluble law, showing that the law of marriage was first instituted by himself. For he said, ‘What therefore God has joined together, let no one put assunder’ [Matt 19:6; Mk 10:9].” [Tractate on Matthew 24.1. 1-3; CCL 9a:309; ACCS N.T. Vol. 1a, p. 112]

John Chrysostom (c. 347 – 407 A.D.): “Paul says to bear this bondage [i.e., of marriage] patiently, for you will be free only when he [i.e., your Scripturally lawful husband] dies; while he lives there are necessarily two choices: either take great pains and train him or, if this is impossible, endure nobly this unproclaimed war, this battle without a truce. He stated earlier [in 1 Cor 7:5]: ‘Do not deprive one another unless perhaps by mutual consent.’ Here [in 1 Cor 7:11] he bids a woman who has been separated to exercise self-control henceforth even against her will. ‘She must either remain single [i.e., celibate],’ he says, ‘or become reconciled to him.’ Do you see that she has been caught in the middle? She must either master the violence of her passion [i.e., be celibate] or, unwilling to do this, flatter her overbearing lord, and submit herself to whatever he wishes, whether he strikes her or bathes her in abuse or exposes her to the contempt of the household or the like. Many methods have been devised by husbands when they want to punish their wives. If the wife cannot endure it, she must practice an unprofitable self-control [i.e., practicing celibacy]. I say unprofitable in as much as she has not the proper purpose, for it [i.e., her celibacy] arises not out of a desire for holiness but out of anger at her husband. ‘She must either remain single or become reconciled to him’ [1 Cor 7:11]. What if he refuses reconciliation forever? You have a second solution and way out. What is it? Wait for him to die.”

“If, in fact, it were possible even while the first husband lived to flit from him to another, and again from the second to a third, what would the purpose of marriage be when men would have access to the wives of others indiscriminately, and there would simply be general promiscuity? Would not our attitude towards our companions be ruined, if today this man, tomorrow that, and then others live with the same woman? Therefore, the Lord has rightly called this adultery.” (On Virginity; Section 40; paragraphs 1-4; pp 60-61 of On virginity and Against remarriage, translation by Sally Rieger Shore, Edwin Mellen Press, 1983.)

Eleventh Council of Carthage (407 A.D.; Canon 8): “We decree that, according to evangelical and apostolical discipline, it is lawful neither for a man divorced by his wife, nor a wife divorced by her husband, to marry another, but that such an one must remain single; or they must be reconciled to one another: and that if they set this law at nought, they must do penance: and, further, that the Emperors be besought to issue a law to this effect.” (See: p. 319 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, 1933; see also: https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf214/npnf214.xv.iv.iv.ciii.html and http://www.clerus.org/bibliaclerusonline/de/b25.htm)

Innocent I (417 A.D.): “It is manifest that when persons who have been divorced marry again both parties are adulterers. And moreover, although the former marriage is supposed to be broken, yet if they marry again they themselves are adulterers, but the parties whom they marry are equally with them guilty of adultery; as we read in the gospel: ‘He who puts away his wife and marries another commits adultery;’ and likewise, ‘He who marries her that is put away from her husband commits adultery.’ Therefore all such are to be repelled from communion.” [Innocent I, Letter to Exsuperius, Bishop of Toulouse, Ch. 6]

Augustine (419 A.D.): “This we now say, that, according to this condition of being born and dying, which we know, and in which we have been created, the marriage of male and female is some good, the compact whereof divine Scripture so commends, as that neither is it allowed one [i.e. a woman] put away by her husband to marry, so long as her husband lives; nor is it allowed one [i.e. a man] put away by his wife to marry another, unless she who have separated from him be dead.

“Our Lord, therefore, in order to confirm that principle, that a wife should not lightly be put away, made the single exception of fornication; but enjoins that all other annoyances, if any such should happen to spring up, be borne with fortitude for the sake of conjugal fidelity and for the sake of chastity; and he also calls that man an adulterer who should marry her that has been divorced by her husband. And the Apostle Paul shows the limit of this state of affairs, for he says it is to be observed as long as her husband liveth; but on the husband’s death he gives permission to marry.

“For he himself also held by this rule, and therein brings forward not his own advice, as in the case of some of his admonitions, but a command by the Lord when he says: ‘And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: but and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.’ I believe that, according to a similar rule, if he shall put her away, he is to remain unmarried, or be reconciled to his wife.” [Commentaries on the Sermon on the Mount, Harmony of the Gospels, Homilies on the Gospels]

“For whosoever putteth away his wife except for the cause of fornication, maketh her to commit adultery. To such a degree is that marriage compact entered upon be a holy Sacrament, that it is not made void even by separation itself, since so long as her husband lives, even by whom she hath been left, she commits adultery in the case where she marries another, and he who hath left her is the cause of this evil.

“For holy Scripture makes a hard knot in this matter in that the apostle says, that, by commandment of the Lord, the wife ought not to depart from her husband, but, in case she shall have departed to remain unmarried, or to be reconciled to her husband…I can not see how the man can have permission to marry another, in the case where he left an adulteress, when a woman can not be married to another when she left an adulterer.

“Seeing that the compact of marriage is not done away with by an intervening divorce, so that they continue as wedded persons one to another, even after separation, and commit adultery with those with whom they be joinedeven after their own divorce, either the woman with the man, or the man with a woman.

Neither can it rightly be held that a husband who dismisses his wife because of fornication and marries another does not commit adultery. For there is also adultery on the part of those who, after the repudiation of their former wives because of fornication, marry others

“No one is so unreasonable to say that a man who marries a woman whose husband has dismissed her because of fornication is not an adulterer, while maintaining that a man who marries a woman dismissed without the ground of fornication isan adultererBoth of these men are guilty of adultery.” [Adulterous Marriages 1:9:9]

“A spouse, therefore, is lawfully dismissed for cause of adulterybut the laws of chastity remains. That is why a man is guilty of adultery if he marries a woman who has been dismissed even for this very reason of adultery.” [ibid., 2:4:4]

“A woman begins to be the wife of no later husband unless she has ceased to be the wife of a former one. She will cease to be the wife of a former one, however, if that husband should dienot if he commit adultery.” [ibid, 2:4:3]

“Therefore to serve two or more (men), so to pass over from a living husband into marriage with another, was neither lawful then (in the Old Testament), nor is it lawful now, nor will it ever be lawful. To apostatize from the One God, and to go into adulteress superstitions of another, is ever an evil.” [On the Holy Spirit; Doctrinal Treatises; Moral Treatises]

“It is certainly not fecundity only, the fruit of which consists of offspring, nor chastity only, whose bond is fidelity, but also a certain sacramental bond in marriage which is recommended to believers in wedlock. Accordingly it is enjoined by the apostle: ‘Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church’ (Eph 5:25). Of this bond the substance undoubtedly is this, that the man & the woman who are joined together in matrimony should remain inseparable as long as they live; and that it should be unlawful for one consort to be parted from the other, ‘except for the cause of fornication’ (Matt 5:32). For this is preserved in the case of Christ and the Church; so that, as a living one with a living one, there is no divorce, no separation forever. And so complete is the observance of this bond in the city of our God, in His holy mountain — that is to say, in the Church of Christ— by all married believers, who are undoubtedly members of Christ, that, although women marry, and men take wives, for the purpose of procreating children, it is never permitted one to put away even an unfruitful wife for the sake of having another to bear children. And whosoever does this is held to be guilty of adultery by the law of the gospel; though not by this world’s rule, which allows a divorce between the parties, without even the allegation of guilt, and the contraction of other nuptial engagements — a concession which, the Lord tells us, even the holy Moses extended to the people of Israel, because of the hardness of their hearts (Matt 19:8). The same condemnation applies to the woman, if she is married to another man. So enduring, indeed, are the rights of marriage between those who have contracted them, as long as they both live, that even they are looked on as man and wife still, who have separated from one another, rather than they between whom a new connection has been formed. For by this new connection they would not be guilty of adulteryif the previous matrimonial relation did not still continue. If the husband die, with whom a true marriage was made, a true marriage is now possible by a connection which would before have been adultery. Thus between the conjugal pair, as long as they live, the nuptial bond has a permanent obligation, and can be cancelled neither by separation nor by union with another.” (On Marriage & Concupiscence; Bk 1; Chap 11 [X]: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/15071.htm)

“Therefore the good of marriage throughout all nations and all men stands in the occasion of begetting, and faith of chastity: but, so far as pertains unto the People of God, also in the sanctity of the Sacrament, by reason of which it is unlawful for one who leaves her husband, even when she has been put away, to be married to another, so long as her husband lives, no not even for the sake of bearing children: and, whereas this is the alone cause, wherefore marriage takes place, not even where that very thing, wherefore it takes place, follows not [i.e., in cases where the couple do not have children], is the marriage bond loosed, save by the death of the husband or wife.” (On the Good of Marriage; chap 32: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1309.htm)

You must not have wives whose former husbands are living; nor may you, women, have husbands whose former wives are living. Such marriages are adulterous, not by the law of the courts, but by the law of Heaven. Nor may a woman who by divorce has withdrawn from her husband become your wife while her husband livesOnly because of fornication may one dismiss an adulterous wife; but in her lifetime you may not marry another. Neither to you, O women, is it granted to find husbands in those men whose wives have quitted them by divorce: such are adulterous, not marriages.” (Sermon 392; c. 2.)

Victor of Antioch (c. 430-450 A.D.): “The Lord calls by the name of adultery cohabitation with her who is not a man’s wife; she is not, however, a wife, whom a man has taken to him, after quitting the first; and for this reason he commits adultery upon her, that is, upon the second, whom he brings in. And the same thing is true in the case of the woman; wherefore it goes on, ‘And if a woman shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery’ [Mk 10:12]; for she cannot be joined to another as her own husband, if she leave him who is really her own husband. The Law indeed forbade what was plainly adultery; but the Saviour forbids this, which was neither plain, nor known to all, though it was contrary to nature.” [See: Catena in Marcum, exposition on Mark 10:10; Also found in Catena Aurea – Gospel of Mark (St. Thomas Aquinas Catena Aurea (Golden Chain) Volume II. J.G.F. & J. Rivington London, 1842) @ http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/catena2.html and http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/1225-1274,_Thomas_Aquinas,_Biblica._Catena_Aurea_in_Marcum_[1],_EN.pdf]

Council of Angers (453 A.D.; 6th Canon): “Those who under the name of marriage live in adultery with other men’s wives, while their husbands are still living are to be held excommunicate.” (p. 320 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, published in 1933 by Sheed & Ward)


END NOTES:

[1] The qualifying word of “nearly” is used here because of two or three known examples that occur within the first five centuries which would indicate that at least some Christians (a very small minority) had departed from the original teaching on this issue and had compromised with or conformed to the standards of the non-Christian world (whether Jews or pagans). The first & earliest example of such a compromise is mentioned by Origen, who wrote:

“But NOW [i.e., at the time Origen was writing, c. 246-248 A.D.], 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,’ [Rom 7:3] 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.” (ANF Vol. 9, p. 510; Commentary on Matthew, book 14, end of para. 23).

In the quote above, Origen is pointing to a local case he knew of as an example of how the church had begun to grow lax, falling away from its original position—he is not condoning it. He repeatedly says that it is contrary to the Scriptures. It is not clear what Origen means when he speculates about the reason these wayward bishops (‘rulers’) allowed this concession, or what he means when he speaks of “worse things.” Once a person understands that remarriage adultery (unless a person repents of it, forsakes it & is forgiven by God) will bar a person from heaven, then it becomes very difficult to understand what those “worse things” could possibly be (unless he is thinking of the different levels/degrees of punishment in hell)! But then at the end of the very next paragraph (#24, p. 511), Origen writes clearly about the standard position of the church, saying:

“But 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.”

The second known example of a departure from the original teaching on this issue comes from an anonymous writer whom for many years was erroneously thought to be Ambrose. Once it was discovered that this writer could not be Ambrose, scholars (such as Erasmus of Rotterdam) began calling this anonymous writer “Ambrosiaster,” whose writings are dated at approximately 366-384 A.D. In Ambrosiaster’s comments on 1 Cor 7:11, he comes to conclusions that are plainly contrary to Christian principles, but which are in line with the pagan Roman customs & practices regarding divorce & remarriage. Here again, this likely indicates some local laxity of practice. Ambrosiaster apparently believed in a doctrine of “gender specific” divorce & remarriage. He reveals his aberrant views in that he writes:

Let not the husband put away his wife. We must supply the words ‘save for the cause of fornication.’ And therefore the Apostle does not add, as in the case of the woman: ‘but if he depart let him remain unmarried’: for a man may [re]marry, if he has put away his offending wife; since the law does not bind him as it does the woman: for ‘the head of the woman is the man.’” (quoted from p. 318-319 of Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, by George Hayward Joyce, published in 1933)

Ambrosiaster had more to say in his commentary on this subject. Besides allowing a man (but not a woman) to remarry another person after divorcing an adulterous spouse (who is still alive), Ambrosiaster also forbade a Christian wife (who left her unrepentant, unbelieving, adulterous or perverted husband) from returning to her husband. To see more of Ambrosiaster’s comments, see: Commentary on Paul’s Epistles; CSEL 81.3:74-76; Ancient Christian Commentary Series N.T. Vol. 7, p. 62-63; Patrologia Latina 17; Commentaries on Romans and 1-2 Corinthians (InterVarsity Press, 2009): 150-151.

Besides Ambrosiaster’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 7, and Origen’s comments about some local laxity in his day, Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) corresponded with a Christian man named Pollentius who was using Scripture to challenge some of the traditional interpretations on the issue. Pollentius suggested that the adulterous spouse should be considered as dead and then, using 1 Cor 7:39, he argued that the innocent partner should be allowed to remarry [see: Augustine, Adulterous Marriages 2. 1-4 (FC 27: 101-105)]. But other than these cases, I know of no other evidence from church history within the first five centuries where a spiritual leader either advocated or allowed for the possibility that remarriage to another (following divorce) could lawfully take place without it being adulterous even though the God-joined (Mark 10:9/Matt 19:6), one-flesh (Gen 2:24), covenant (Mal 2:14) spouse was still physically alive.

[2] The various reform movements that arose in the church throughout its history came about in reaction to the times where the church had admittedly become lax & corrupt in certain areas. In his book Christian Marriage: An Historical and Doctrinal Study, George Hayward Joyce discusses the historical fact that “divorce was tolerated in the Frankish Church during the eighth century” (p. 334). He makes the case that “this was an innovation connected with the introduction of the Penitentials…” By “Penitentials,” he means unofficial penitential books that the priests had begun to use for guidance in church discipline. One such penitential book that was very influential was introduced by a man named Theodore of Tarsus (602-690 A.D.). In 668 A.D., Theodore ended up being appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury, but he still followed the system of the Greek Church, which “admitted indissolubility as the ideal, but in practice accepted the legislation of Justinian, and permitted the severance of the tie for a variety of causes” (p. 337). By the beginning of the eighth century (the 700s), these penitential books came into common use, and the Paenitentiale Theodori show that Theodore “allowed of divorce and remarriage very much as they were permitted in the Greek Church” (p. 338). But this corruption (which is also seen in the councils of Verberies and Compiegne) that had come into the Western church regarding divorce & remarriage was eventually corrected by repeated efforts, acts, and movements of reform, even though it took about four centuries to fully uproot it. And by using the word “fully,” this is meant generally, and it is not meant to deny the incidents of faithlessness in this matter that took place under evil popes during the Middle Ages, such as Alexander VI, who was pope from 1492 – 1503. Also, there were a few other Catholic writers who lived during the beginnings of the Protestant Reformation who came to believe that the Catholic Church had made the teachings on the permanence of marriage stricter than Jesus’ words demanded—these writers being men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam (d. 1536 A.D.), Cardinal Cajetan (d. 1534 A.D.), and Ambrosius Catharinus (d. 1553 A.D.). It is interesting that the latter two writers followed Ambrosiaster’s ideas on divorce & remarriage, but they mistakenly believed that Ambrosiaster was Ambrose. The Protestant Reformers’ views on divorce & remarriage were then strongly influenced by their acceptance of Erasmus’ “Textus Receptus” and his addition of the Greek word ei in front of the word /“not” (μὴ) in Matt 19:9 which created the so-called “exception clause” of ei epi porneia (‘except for fornication’), which greatly contributed to the Protestants apostasy/heresy regarding the acceptance of divorce & remarriage in their churches.

[3] Concerning the so-called exception clauses of Matt 5:32 & 19:9, various interpretations have been proposed. But any interpretation that would cause Jesus’ (& Paul’s) teachings on this subject to be toothless & virtually meaningless is to be rejected. The early church knew that Jesus & Paul forbade divorce & remarriage, and they understood that adultery (unless it was forsaken) would cause people to miss heaven. Therefore, any interpretation that makes it sound like Jesus (or Paul) is listing the grounds upon which it is allowable for people who are in a one-flesh (Gen 2:24), covenant (Mal 2:14) marriage to divorce & “move on” to another partner ought to be rejected out of a concern for people’s eternal souls. There is no such list. A God-joined (Matt 19:6/Mk 10:9) marriage bond is only ended by death, not by a legal/civil divorce, regardless of the grounds for which it was obtained.

[4] Matthew 1:18-19 is not usually considered to be a “divorce passage,” although proponents of the Betrothal Solution make MUCH of this passage to support their interpretation of Matthew’s so-called “exception clauses.” To see a thorough critique of the “Betrothal View,” consider reading Leslie McFall’s 40-page unpublished article on the subject, found at: https://lmf12.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/critique-betrothalmcfall.pdf  

[5] This word is best translated as “apart from” or “besides” or “not counting.” It is not meant as an exception to permit divorce (and especially not to permit divorce followed by remarriage), but as an exemption from blame. The husband is exempt from blame for his wife’s sexual sin that she committed prior to the legal divorce.

[6] The term “except” wasn’t even used by Jesus in Matt 19:9! Most English translations of the Biblethat are made from either the Nestle-Aland edition or the Majority Text (rather than Erasmus’ Textus Receptus), translate this word Greek word (μὴ; mē; Stong’s 3361) wrongly! The Greek word used in Matt 19:9 that so often wrongly translated as “except” should be translated as “not.” Therefore, it is an exclusion clause rather than an exemption clause. Check it out for yourself in this list of Greek editions found @ Matthew 19:9 Parallel Greek Texts (biblehub.com)! Notice that only the Greek manuscripts in the Textus Receptus tradition have “ei” at Matt 19:9, such as Stephanus Textus Receptus 1550; Beza Greek New Testament 1598; and Scrivener’s Textus Receptus 1894. The only editions in the Textus Receptus tradition to reject Erasmus’s addition were J. J. Griesbach (1777) and C. F. Matthaei (1788), which are not included in the list shown at the link provided.

[7] McFall’s book can be downloaded for free at: https://lmf12.wordpress.com/unpublished-articles/ Just follow the link and look under the heading of UNPUBLISHED ARTICLES ON DIVORCE, and the 1st item listed is: (1) Biblical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage – L. McFall (587pp. e-book). If you click on the listing, the PDF will download to your computer.

[8] Very early in church tradition, Gentile Christians were understanding Matthew’s so-called “exception clause” to allow for divorce a mensa et thoro, which is Latin for allowing a “separation-divorce” in which only a separation of “table & bed” (i.e., bed & board) takes place due to a case of adultery. But adultery was NOT understood to allow for divorce a vinculo, which means that the divorce did NOT bring the marriage bond itself to an end. Hence, it was more like a separation than a full divorce. According to traditional Christian teaching, such “divorces” did not provide the right for either of the divorced spouses to remarry another while the other divorced spouse was still alive without it being an adulterous union.

[9] After having read more than a handful of different interpretations of this O.T. passage (Deut 24:1-4), I have concluded that, regardless of what the correct interpretation truly is, the regulation concerning the writ of divorce itself (described by God in Dt 24:1-3) was a legal concession (an allowance, a permission) that was originally given by MOSES to the hard-hearted Israelite men prior to the writing of Deuteronomy. God merely described the practice by way of giving an imaginary scenario in Dt 24:1-3 for teaching purposes, but He did not prescribe the practice or sanction it. In other words, although Israelite men had been sending away their wives since before Moses was even born, Moses made a legal concession to mitigate some of the evil effects of the violent practice of divorce (which God hates, but which Moses was unable to completely stop). Deuteronomy 24:4 appears to be a punishment clause instituted by God Himself to show His disapproval of divorce. As for why God tolerated the practice at all, we must consider that this was not the only sin or evil practice that God showed patience toward rather than utterly destroying the people. Deut 24:1-4 records a temporary accommodation made to the Israelites who had just come out of Egypt, but which by no means shows God’s approval of divorce & remarriage to another while the one-flesh (Gen 2:24), covenant (Mal 2:14) spouse is still alive. In the final analysis, in light of the teachings of the New Testament, Deut 24:1-4 is now completely irrelevant to all followers of Christ because Jesus brushed it aside in Matthew 19:8 and pointed back to God’s original intent in Genesis 2:24. But even in the O.T., when we look beyond Deuteronomy, we do see glimpses of the truth that God does allow and desire reconciliation even after a spouse has committed adultery or entered into a sexual relationship with another person. Consider that David took back Michal; consider God’s relationship with unfaithful Israel in Jeremiah 3:1-4:1; and consider the book of Hosea (he takes back Gomer). We who now live under the New Covenant can rest assured that even after adultery has taken place (and even in cases of “remarriage adultery”), it is NOT an abomination to God for repentance, forgiveness & reconciliation to take place between a one-flesh couple that may have been separated by a legal divorce and an intervening civil marriage. Adultery is itself a “defiling abomination,” but repentance, forgiveness & reconciliation are pleasing to God! Under the New Covenant, there is no defilement of sin that God is unwilling to forgive if we are willing to confess it, forsake it and consecrate ourselves to following Jesus & His words.

[10] Jer 3:8— “Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also.”

[11] Mal 2:10-16— 10 “Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers? 11 Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, For Judah has profaned The Lord’s holy institution which He loves: He has married the daughter of a foreign god. 12 May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this, being awake and aware, yet who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts! 13 And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and crying; So He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with goodwill from your hands. 14 Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant. 15 But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. 16 ‘For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence,’ Says the Lord of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

[12] In researching the meaning of the word “divorce”, it can be seen that even up to the early 1900’s, a valid definition of the word is: The separation of a married woman from the bed and board of her husband (Webster’s revised unabridged dictionary of both the 1828 and 1913 editions). Does this definition not better reflect the scriptural understanding of divorce? Isn’t the message of the N.T. one of redemption, reconciliation, restoration, and relationship? Are not we called to be longsuffering? Even the Hebrew and Greek do not give the sense of dissolution or a breaking of the marriage bond, but only a separating of the individuals.

[13] Notice that the N.T. passage used by Clement to support his statement that the Bible allows no release from the marriage bond is the same passage containing the words of Jesus that is so often quoted by modern Christians in their effort to prove that the Bible DOES allow a release from the marriage bond! As you continue to read these citations by early Christians, notice that the very same thing is seen being done other writers. Even when they quote or mention the so-called “exception clauses” found in Matthew, they will also almost immediately say that the marriage bond remains intact until the physical death of either of the partners. And even when these early writers say that a separation is allowed or even called for in cases of ongoing (unrepentant) fornication/adultery, they STILL maintain & attest to the Scriptural fact that the bond remains intact until the physical death of either of the partners (even though they may be separated). They do not believe that adultery (or desertion, etc.) destroys the marriage bond in such a way that either partner can remarry someone else while the other is still alive without it being adultery.

[14] 1 Timothy 3:2 (NRSV): “Now a bishop must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,”

1 Timothy 3:12 (NRSV): “Let deacons be married only once, and let them manage their children and their households well;”

1 Timothy 5:9 (NRSV): “Let a widow be put on the list if she is not less than sixty years old and has been married only once;”

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