Divorce And Remarriage From The Early Church To John Wesley -- By: David L. Snuth

Journal: Trinity Journal
Volume: TRINJ 11:2 (Fall 1990)
Article: Divorce And Remarriage From The Early Church To John Wesley
Author: David L. Snuth

Divorce And Remarriage
From The Early Church To John Wesley

David L. Snuth


The problem of divorce and remarriage is by no means a recent one for the church. From its inception, it has found this problem an irritant. Throughout the centuries, Christian leaders have grappled with the pros and cons of the matter.

I. The Attitudes Of The Early Church

All peoples in the Roman Empire, regardless of their religious affiliation, had the right to divorce their spouses. Marriage was considered a private contract which, like all other contracts, might be dissolved. Divorce was easily attained and, because the state placed heavy financial burdens upon single people, remarriage was encouraged.1

One of the earliest writings (and a book regarded by many in the early church as almost on a par with the NT writings), The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 140), deals with whether a husband sins if he continues to live with an adulterous wife. Hermas gives no option: he must divorce her. At the same time, “for the sake of her repentance,” a second marriage was forbidden. Should an erring wife repent, her spouse must take her back in wedlock. Remarriage, other than to the repentant former wife, was regarded as adultery (Book 2, Comm. 4:4–8).2

In his A Plea for the Christians (c. 177), Athenagoras showed that the typical resistance to remarriage was based on the church’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching on the matter. “Second marriage is only a specious adultery,” he declared. “‘For whosoever puts away his wife,’ says He [meaning Jesus], ‘and marries another, commits adultery.”3 Indeed, the marriage bond for many of the Ante-Nicene Fathers was so indissoluble that it continued beyond the grave. A

virtually eternal relationship was established between the spouses, living or dead .4

Tertullian (c. 200), like his contemporaries, held that the marital bond is indissoluble. In his Treatises on Marriage and Remarriage, he strongly objected to a woman’s remarrying even after her husband’s death, because then she would have “one husband in the flesh and another in the spirit. This would be adultery-joint knowledge of one woman by two men.”5 In regard to divorce, he claimed that the new law of Christ had abrogated the OT law permitting divorce; that same new law thereby outl...

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