Q & A: Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Churches

The early churches formed by the apostles had very strict views concerning divorce and remarriage. How do we apply those today?

The Question

I was divorced and remarried, but I came to believe this was wrong and returned to my first wife. I am currently attending a home fellowship that opposes divorce and remarriage. An elder has become convinced that according to a law in Deuteronomy, which forbids a divorced and remarried woman from returning to her first husband if the second divorces here as well. The brother has decided that this applies to me, and has been adamant that I must now dismantle my current marriage to my first wife.

My Answer

My initial reaction is to tell you I am so sorry that you are part of a fellowship that could be that consumed by a spirit of Pharisaism. If this elder had been in Jerusalem, he would have disagreed with Jesus when he stopped the stoning of the adulteress woman. He is a Pharisee.

Jesus is angry with people like him.

It is clear from the Scriptures and the writings of the early churches that Jesus and the apostles opposed divorce and remarriage ... in the church.

There are some things that are true in the church that are not true outside the church.

  • In the church, married couples have the assistance of brothers and sisters who know them deeply and interact with them daily or almost daily.
  • In the church, married couple have the guidance of elders whose character and wisdom has been established and proven over years of church life. These elders are the husband of one wife and have raised godly children.

That may not sound like any church you've heard of. For most in the modern world, at least in the western world, churches like I just described are even rarer than honest politicians.

In the earliest centuries of the church, though, they were the norm.

I think it is important to put Jesus' commands in context. Jesus did.

In Matthew 19 Jesus taught his disciples that if anyone divorces his wife, he causes her to commit adultery. The context makes it clear that this adultery occurs when she remarries because Jesus adds that anyone who marries her is also committing adultery.

The disciples are stunned by this teaching, and they tell Jesus that if it is true, then it woud be better not to marry at all. Jesus responds by telling them not everyone can receive what he said, but only those "to whom it has been given."

Earlier he had told the Pharisees that Moses had allowed divorce because of the hardness of the hearts of Israelites. Now that Jesus had come along, everything was stricter (cf. Matt. 5:17ff). Jesus explains that this is because new wine can only be put in wineskins that have been made fresh by the application of oil (Matt. 9:16-17). There are only certain people to whom the law of our new King and Priest can be applied (Heb. 7:12).

Our King's command is that we should not divorce, and if divorce is unavoidable, then we should remain unmarried. That command, however, was given to those who were actually—that is, experientially— in a church.

Is everything the same in a world where almost no one experiences the church in the same way the disciples of the apostles experienced it?

We will get back to that question below. First it is important to establish one important point that was true even in the apostles' churches.

Divorce and Remarriage in the Church and Before the Church

Tertullian, a Christian from around AD 200, said that a woman shall not be called a second wife who is a husband's first wife in the Lord. He says the opposite is true, too. A second husband is not a second husband if he is the wife's first husband in the Lord. The reason he gives for this is that our life begins with our baptism into King Jesus. (On Monogamy 11. See Divorce and Remarriage Quotes.)

Tertullian is not Scripture. Tertullian does not necessarily speak for all Christians of his time . However, Tertullian's opinion on this matter is important because it is obvious that he wrote On Monogamy while he was a Montanist, a sect that began in the late second century. Montanists had stricter marriage rules than the church, not looser ones. They forbad remarriage even for widows.

Nonetheless, even the Montanists did not pay attention to a marriage, divorce, or remarriage that occurred before coming to Jesus.

It is apparent that the apostolic churches, those that clung to the faith of the apostles (unlike the Montanists who believed in new revelation), were the same as the Montanists in this regard.

Hippolytus, very close to a contemporary of Tertullian's, describes questions that were asked of converts to baptism. Despite the fact that divorce was so rampant in the Roman empire that Tertullian said "women long for divorce as though it were the natural consequence of marriage," there are no questions about divorce and remarriage in those baptism questions. Potential converts are asked about adultery and acting (which in those days involved raising boys to be homosexuals so they could play women). They are asked about lying and stealing. They are not, however, asked about divorce and remarriage.

Divorce and remarriage were forbidden in the early churches. Everything that happened prior to baptism, however, was forgotten. The spouse that was brought into the church was regarded as the first. As the apostle Paul put it, "Let everyone, in whatever state he is called, there remain with God" (1 Cor. 7:24).

Divorce and Remarriage in the Modern World

If we are going to be faithful to the Lord and to Scripture, we are going to have to admit that Jesus not only forbids divorce, but he forbids remarriage if divorce becomes necessary because of adultery (Matt. 19:9; 1 Cor. 7:11).

There is something that needs to be added to this, however. If we are going to be faithful to Scripture, then we have to exhort one another daily (Heb. 3:13). If we are going to be faithful to Scripture, then elders should be our shepherds (Acts 20:17,28; 1 Pet. 5:1-4), and they should be godly men of proven character who grew up in the congregation (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9). As Tertullian put it:

The tried men of our elders preside over us, obtaining that honor not by purchase, but by established character. (Apology 39)

It is only within this kind of lifestyle that such stringent teachings as the forbidding of divorce and remarriage can really be carried out. It is a fact of life, a reality that we can deny but not change, that many marriages become rocky, even unbearable, without the intervention of wise counselors.

Marriages in the world are never going to be devoid of adultery and divorce. In the church, however, we have elders to shepherd us, and we "consider" how to provoke one another to love and good works (Heb. 10:24). As a result, a disciple's character continues to grow. Both husband and wife learn to live a life of love, service, and self-denial. When problems arise, there are brothers, sisters, and godly leaders to consult.

So what am I saying to do?

Before we go running around trying to correct the rampant problem of divorce and remarriage both in the world and among Christians, we must first correct the much more major problem. We have lost the environment, the daily, loving, family care of the church, that produces renewed wineskins that can contain the new wine of God.

Let us first forsake the idea that the church is an institution or organization that is to be visited once or twice a week and that shepherds are professionally trained orators that expound the Scriptures to us when we visit. Let us return to daily fellowship and exhortation, where the work of the saints is to consider how to provoke one another to love and good works on a daily basis, and we will have an environment where the teachings of Jesus can be lived out.

Until then, we are pouring new wine into old wineskins, and in doing so we are not going to see life, but the destruction of the wineskins that we have not properly prepared to follow the King of God's new kingdom.

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