Divorce and Remarriage in the Church

There is a strong and growing voice against divorce and remarriage in the United States.

The case that Jesus, the apostles, and the early churches all forbad remarriage after a divorce is strong. I won’t bother making a case because earlychristianfellowship.org has done a superb job of making that case.

These people, and many others, argue that even though Jesus and the apostles allowed divorce in the case of adultery, they did not allow remarriage.

This is a strict rule, but it was definitely the practice of the early churches. Again, I’ll leave the proof for that to the earlychristianfellowship.org article.

This rule, however, has led to a practice that I would like to address. I would like to …

Stop the Madness

I have to admit that the case the Early Christian Fellowship makes is solid. Their application of it, however, leaves something to be desired. Despite all those early Christian quotes they provide, they left one out. I have a suspicion they left it out on purpose, since I have discussed the passage a couple of their members on Facebook.

I was mocked like I was on an elementary school playground for doing so.

Here’s the issue.

Twenty-two years ago I met a family with 10 children. The parents had been married 20 years. However, at the age of 17 or 18, the mother had been married for one week on a foolish lark.

They had a private conversation with the leaders of a church that was very strict about divorce and remarriage, asking them if they could stay married and be members of that church. Not only did the leaders turn them down, but their secret was somehow leaked to the congregation, and the family’s children found out for the first time about their mother’s one-week mistake.

I am not making this up. I met the family. I Know the church.

The passage that the earlychurchfellowship.org article left out is in a tract called On Monogamy. Tertullian, the author, is discussing a short passage is 1 Corinthians 7:28. Here is the context of that passage:

Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you have not sinned. (vv. 27-28)

Here is what Tertullian says that means:

“But if you have taken a wife, you have not sinned” because to one who, before believing, had been “loosed from a wife,” she will not be counted a second wife who, subsequently to believing, is the first. For it is from believing that our life itself dates its origin. (On Monogamy 11)

I don’t find this statement very hard to understand. If a wife is the first wife after believing, then she is not regarded by the church as a second wife. In fact, shortly thereafter, Tertullian adds:

And so, “a woman, if she shall have married, will not sin,” because he will not be reckoned a second husband who is, subsequently to her believing, the first … And so truly this is the case, that he adds “only in the Lord” because the question in agitation was about her who was married to a heathen and had believed subsequently to losing him. (ibid.)

The point is obvious, the statement clear: “It is from believing that our life itself dates its origin.” Previous marriages are not regarded as marriages.

Arguments by the Anti-Remarriage Movement

I understand the crusade against remarriage, though the people who are a part of it have been almost exclusively such distasteful Pharisees that it is hard to remain understanding. Nonetheless, I will be more fair than earlychristianfellowship.org chose to be.

In the midst of the playground scoffing, I did get one reasonable argument from them. The argument, however, is double-edged and unconvincing.

Tertullian had become a Montanist by the time he wrote On Monogamy. Montanists were a small sect of of believers in a “new prophecy,” which had come from Montanus and two women prophetesses. The churches rejected their prophecy because they claimed that the Holy Spirit was improving on what the apostles handed down.

Their “improvements” included permanently rejecting Christians guilty of major sins without possibility of repentance. Another improvement, they claimed, was that the Holy Spirit had removed the allowance for remarriage after being widowed. That allowance, which they acknowledged was given by the Holy Spirit through the apostles, was only because the church was young. Now that it was more grown up, more was expected of it, especially in the way of celibacy.

The argument given earlychristianfellowship.org, or at least the members I talked with on Facebook, was that Tertullian was only speaking of a widows and widowers. He was allowing widows and widowers, and only widows and widowers, to remarry if their spouses died before they were baptized.

My Response

If he was only giving liberty to remarry to widows and widowers, then his reason for allowing that liberty seems strange.

She shall not be counted a second wife, who, subsequent to believing, is the first, for it is from believing that our life dates its origin.

My other response is the argument from silence, which drew no response from the anti-remarriage guys except scoffing.

You can see from their article how easy it was to pull quotes concerning remarriage from the writings of the early Christians. Feel free to search all those quotes for a statement that is any way relevant to those who divorced or remarried before their baptism.

Not a word.

Let’s consider one more passage.

Hippolytus, an elder in Rome in the early 3rd century, wrote a church manual known as The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus. Very shortly after he wrote it, he rejected the election of Callistus and bishop and split the church at Rome, forming a congregation with himself as bishop.

In the church manual is a list of questions to be asked of those that wish to be taught and prepared for baptism. The list is extensive; very extensive. “They shall be questioned
concerning their life and occupation, marriage status, and whether they are slave or free” (par. 3).

The questions don’t stop there. They are asked about whether they are a pimp or prostitute. If they are a slave, they need a reference from their masters that they are a good servant. Sculptors, actors, charioteers, those who have a role in the gladiator games, those who are castrated, governors, military men, and several others are questioned about their occupation, and required instructions are given. Military men can’t kill, governors must resign, those involved with the games must quit, sculptors must not make idols, etc.

All of this careful inquiry. What about those who are divorced and remarried? Tertullian tells us this was so common in Rome that “women long for it as though it were the natural consequence of marriage.” Three or four marriages in a lifetime were not uncommon.

Yet where are the questions about whether a married person is previously divorced. Candidates for baptism were asked about whether they were married.

If a man has a wife, or a woman has a husband, let them be taught to be content, the husband with his wife, and the wife with her husband. If there is a man who does not live with a woman, let him be taught not to fornicate, but to either take a wife according to the law, or to remain as is. (par. 15)

There is even instruction about concubines.

If someone’s concubine is a slave, as long as she has raised her children and has clung only to him, let her hear. Otherwise, she shall be rejected. The man who has a concubine must cease and take a wife according to the law. If he will not, he shall be rejected. (par. 16)

If a remarried person, coming to the church for salvation, was considered an adulterer or adulteress, why are there no questions about remarriage in this extensive list? Why is there not a parenthetical comment that being content with your spouse is not an option for those once divorced?

The reason is apparent. To the church, it is from believing that our life has its origin.

The anti-remarriage movement has scoured the writings of the early church for justification for their position. They have done well in that search by obtaining solid evidence that the churches from the very beginning did not allow remarriage for Christians, at least not while the divorced spouse was living.

Yet in all their scouring they have found nothing at all suggesting that the early churches asked the remarried to count themselves adulterers and divorce when they came to the church.

The silence is deafening.

The Ancient Church and the Modern Church

There is another issue that is not being taken into account.

The love of the Christians for each other in the early churches is legend. Even the Romans cried out, “Behold, how they love one another” (Tertullian, Apology 39, c. AD 210). The Christians of the early churches were family. They shared their lives and they shared their possessions (ref).

I know from experience that in real church life, divorce can be avoided with the intervention of the church. In real church life, the saints seek out the faces of the saints every day for exhortation and encouragement (Heb. 3:12-13; Didache 4). In real church life, the saints are shepherded and watched over, not just preached to in a weekly meeting. In real church life, there is openness for the shepherds and other mature saints to enter the home of those in a struggling marriage to train the individuals and save the marriage.

While there are always tares that look like wheat and hypocrites that don’t stealing their way into the church, the churches the apostles left us were filled primarily with disciples. Disciples know that they could not and must not divorce, and they know that marriages are worth working at. Disciples know that when there are relationship problems, the first place to look is at onesself. Disciples know that they must please their King and Master, and they know that the husband is to love his wife and the wife is to respect her husband.

Disciples are determined to be good students. They receive help. They believe that the advice, the correction, and even the rebuke of the righteous bring life.

In that environment, men and women do not have to divorce.

Very few have had that environment since the church gladly received “Constantine’s flock” some 1700 years ago.

Does that mean we should show a bit more mercy to Christians who have been offered nothing more than a chance to listen to a speech on Christian ethics every Sunday morning, along with some additional speeches, seminars, and teachings over the internet or on CD’s and tapes?

I think it does. I don’t know how far that mercy ought to extend because the Scriptures make no real provision for the sort of Christianity that exists today. It is hard to find your way into such a deep Christian life that you know how important it is to obey Jesus in everything. It is hard to find your way into such a deep Christian life that you have the help of others who know how to overcome the tactics of the devil and help save your marriage.

There are teachings, which if we are to obey them across the board and in every case, real churches will be required; real hospitals for sinners.

Weekly lectures, or even daily lectures won’t do it. Weekly or daily shovelfuls of law and condemnation won’t do it, either. Only daily intervention of the saints will do it. We need not only the King’s head, but his entire body.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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