[This is long enough for at least two posts, but given its nature, I thought it would be more helpful to the readers to post this all at once and then skip a day. And I’m posting this from the hospital. I have had kidney stones once again — removed this morning by an unspeakable procedure using the only available orifice through which to one might remove such things. So any mistakes are the fault of the pills I’m on.]
It’s commonly stated that the early church fathers (ECFs) (generally, orthodox uninspired Christian writers from the late First Century until Augustine in the Fourth Century) support the traditional view of the Churches of Christ of divorce and remarriage. Let’s see whether that is so.
Unless otherwise noted, my source is On the Divorce Teachings of the Early Church. Obviously, the early church fathers have no canonical or other authority, especially in a community that lives by “We’re silent where the scriptures are silent.” Nonetheless, the argument is often made to buttress certain conclusions about the biblical text and wouldn’t be brought up at all unless early church teachings were considered by its proponents to carry some exegetical authority.
I am enough of a Campbellite to reject the notion that early church teaching carries any more authority than Calvin, Luther, Stone, Campbell, Wright, or Hauerwas, but I thought it would be a helpful exercise to see what truth there is behind the claim that the early church fathers support the Church of Christ interpretation.
Shepherd of Hermas (circa 125 AD)
The connections between Jesus and Hermas are anybody’s guess, but they cannot have been direct. In the “Mandate” section of his Shepherd, a work that bears striking similarity in language to Gospel material but is claimed by its author to have been given by direct revelation to him by his “heavenly guardian,” Hermas makes the following points:
1. Failure to divorce a recognized, adulterous wife is complicitous adultery (v. 5).
2. Failure of a disciplining husband to remain unmarried is adultery (v. 6).
3. Failure of a disciplining husband to forgive a repentant wife is a sin worse than adultery (v. 8).
4. The reason that remarriage is prohibited of the disciplining spouse is that remarriage blocks repentance (v. 10).
… The stated reason for the prohibition of remarriage is that it inhibits full repentance.
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Notice that there is no scriptural basis for the assertion that a husband must divorce an adulterous wife or that the sin in failure to divorce her is worse than the adultery itself.
On the other hand, point 4 is exactly consistent with my own understanding of the teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5 regarding divorce and remarriage. The reason Jesus does not want a divorced spouse to remarry is because it prevents reconciliation, that is, repentance and forgiveness in the form of a restored marriage. It has nothing at all to do with the triangle theory, that is, the idea that God is a party to the marriage contract and so marriage is generally incapable of dissolution. (This is a legal fiction created by the Council of Trent.)
We’ll soon find that other ECFs agree as to the reason Jesus says remarriage by an innocent spouse is “adultery.”
Justin Martyr (circa 150 AD)
It is then, far more reasonable to see Justin as condemning (1) lusting after a married woman and (2) marrying her subsequent to her being freed by divorce. Such a man should rather remain single than fulfill his lustful desires, and such a man should understand that whether he accomplishes his goal or only thinks about it, he is guilty of the same sin of adultery before God. Roman law might not hold a man guilty of offense for lusting after his neighbor’s wife or for marrying her were she to manage to free herself from her husband, but the Bible does. But Justin does not condemn the remarriage of a disciplining [sinned-against] spouse (nor does he in the Second Apology), nor does he condemn the remarriage of an innocently divorced spouse. His condemnations are always in the context of a woman’s legitimate marriage; that marriage should not be broken up in thought or by action by the man to whom Justin refers (and condemns).
Justin’s views are consistent with my own. I agree that Jesus condemns those who lust after another while married and so divorce in order to gain someone else. I think that’s clearly Jesus’ point — and I’m proud that a great mind such as Justin’s agrees with me.
And I’m hardly surprised to find that Justin does not condemn the second marriage, except when it results from adultery (in the form of actual adultery or that lust that is adultery) against the first marriage.
Athenagoras (circa A.D. 177)
Athenagoras is the next significant Father. His teachings on the subject are found in his Plea for the Christian:
A person should either remain as he was born, or be content with one marriage; for a second marriage is only a specious adultery. “For whosoever puts away his wife,” says He, “and marries another, commits adultery”; not permitting a man to send her away whose virginity he has brought to an end, nor to many again. For he who deprives himself of his first wife, even though she be dead, is a cloaked adulterer, resisting the hand of God, because in the beginning God made one man and one woman, and dissolving the strictest union of flesh with flesh, formed for the intercourse of the race.
Obviously, we’ve reached an age where Greek asceticism (resulting from Platonic thought) begins to creep into the discussion. Obviously, God does not prohibit a second marriage after a death. Romans 7:2-3 is quite clear. And Athenagoras was surely well enough informed by the scriptures to have known this. Rather, he allowed his ascetic worldview to override the plain teachings of scripture.
Notice that his worldview is hidden by being very selective regarding the verses he deals with. He ignores the Gospels and finds the rule he expects in Genesis 2 as though Genesis 2 might somehow overrule Jesus. We make the same error when we suppose that Jesus might overrule Paul or that one Gospel might overrule another. The true interpretation fits all the texts and the sound exegete wrestles with them all.
Theophilus of Antioch (circa A.D. 180)
The relevant chapter in Theophilus’ work is entirely in the context of coveting another man’s wife. It begins with a reference to lustful looks at another’s wife, moves through a quote of Proverbs 4:25 (condemning lustful looks), through a quote of Matthew 5:28, to the inverted quote of Matthew 5:32, and ends with a quote from Proverbs (6:27-29) that once more condemns taking another man’s wife. What seems obvious is that Theophilus is condemning remarriage when it is to a woman who has been wrongfully taken from another man. The lustful look takes heart in the fact that the object of desire has been freed by divorce (probably instigated by the woman and the coveting man). Theophilus condemns such “legal adultery.” And he condemns the man who unjustly divorces his wife as well!
Theophilus of Antioch is similar to Justin Martyr.
Irenaeus (circa 185)
In Against Heresies, Irenaeus, a crucial Eastern Father (also influenced by Justin) depreciates divorce since it was given because of the hard hearts of men. He seems to say that it is incompatible with the original intent of God in Genesis 2:24.
Although Irenaeus wrote extensively on Christian topics, he never directly addresses divorce and remarriage except to reference principles that both I and the traditional view agree on.
Clement of Alexandria (circa 153-217)
In his Stromata (11.23), he discusses the matter of divorce. The progression of topics is as follows:
1. Affirmation of pure marriage, as a necessity for some.
2. Statement that the Scriptures “allow no release from the union.”
3. A quote giving the gist of the Matthew 19:9 prohibition of divorce, ending with the “except clause.”
4. Statement that Scripture regards the remarriage of those separated during the lifetime of their spouse as “fornication.”
5. Statement of the need for the wife to avoid activities that suggest fornication.
6. A quote giving the gist of Matthew 5:32 (reversing the sayings). 7. The interpretation that the putting away sets the woman up for adultery in remarriage—the second marriage inhibiting a restoration.
8. A comparison of these Gospel ideas to the execution of adulteresses in the Law–harmonizing the two by calling the (divorced?) adulteress “dead to the commandments,” while the repentant one is born again. …
It seems best, therefore, to interpret Clement as believing that adultery in the marriage severs it and “kills” the adulterer. The “dead” may be put away without the fear that their remarriage would bring the charge of complicity in adultery against the disciplining [innocent] divorcer, and such a divorcer who does not have the gift of celibacy may remarry.
Again, following Justin Martyr, Jesus is interpreted as disapproving remarriage following a divorce obtained in order to marry another. Moreover, the innocent party may remarry. Clement doesn’t speak to the guilty party who is, in his mind, dead to Christ anyway. (Grace for sexual sin was becoming hard to find by this time.)
And so this isn’t really the traditional Church of Christ perspective, as we’ve never taught that adultery is unforgivable. We have a split of opinion as to whether the innocent spouse may remarry and as to whether the guilty spouse may remarry, but most hold that the guilty spouse may not remarry until the innocent spouse dies or remarries — although even this view is not unanimously held.
Because Clement considers the innocent spouse to be unable to remarry, he and I disagree. But he also disagrees with the vast majority of Church of Christ interpreters.
Tertullian (circa 155-220)
The first great theologian of the West, Tertullian, was an outstanding spokesman for the permanence of marriage. In his famous On Monogamy, written during his Montanist period, he makes soundings, like Athenagoras, that marriage lasts past the grave. In that vein, and in the same book, the marriage of widows is prohibited on grounds … that such remarriage is incestuous.
To my knowledge, no one in the Churches of Christ takes the view that a widow or widower may not remarry. Clearly, Athanagoras and Tertullian are inconsistent with any viewpoint from within the Churches of Christ, my own included.
Origen (circa 185-254)
[Origen] speaks of Christ as divorcing Israel and (re)marrying the Church, a clear case of disciplinary divorce followed by remarriage. And, in those passages, Origen insists that Christ, in doing so, did not break the commandment not to sunder the “one-flesh” union, because he had the grounds of “fornication,” grounds that Origen identifies as “reasonable” for the “dissolution of marriage.” We have in Origen, then, a Father who did not believe in the indissolubility of marriage, who did believe that one could and should divorce (not merely “separate”) if one had the grounds of fornication, and who believed that one who divorced as a discipline could morally remarry.
These are all positions as to which the traditional view and I agree, except that some traditionalists deny the innocent party to remarry. Origen does not.
On the other hand, Origen is quite wrong to imagine that Jesus divorced Israel. The Gentiles were granted into Israel (Rom 11). Here we see an element of anti-Semitism creeping in after the Bar Kokhba rebellion. All of Gentile Rome, Christian and non-Christian, sought to distance themselves from the Jews after that bloody war.
Ambrosiaster (circa 366-383)
[C]ommenting on 1 Corinthians 7, he goes beyond the disciplinary divorce theme to affirm the right of the innocent husband to remarry. He does not permit this for the innocent wife, however. His rationale centers upon the headship role of the male in marriage. He also allows for a deserted Christian spouse (male or female) to remarry. This is the first clear instance of a Father teaching the so-called Pauline privilege.
His making a distinction between husband and wife plainly runs contrary to the theology of 1 Corinthians 7. And I’d be very surprised if a single Church of Christ commentator agreed with Ambrosiaster on this point.
The Council of Aries (314)
The tenth canon of the Council of Aries states:
As regards those who find their wives to be guilty of adultery, and who being Christian are, though young men, forbidden to marry, we decree that, so far as may be, counsel be given them not to take other wives, while their own, though guilty of adultery, are yet living.
Here we have a plain denunciation of remarriage of the innocent spouse — contrary to my own views and to most Church of Christ teaching.
It is probably from this Father that we find the first clear teaching of marriage as a sacramental bond of indissoluble strength and permanent duration. Making his points in discussions of the three “goods” of marriage, he says (only) of Christian marriages that, based upon the analogy of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:32), we should see marriage as a living union, in which there is “no divorce, no separation for ever.”Augustine thought that marriage was a sacrament because the Vulgate translated “mystery” as sacramentum, and it is Augustine himself who is credited with giving this term its present Church meaning, “an outward and temporal sign of an inward and enduring grace.” Marriage was a moral obligation and a sacred sign of the union between Christ and the Church. Because of this bonding, the marriage partners were placed under moral obligation to keep their marriage inviolate. … It is also clear, however, that Augustine is opposed to the remarriage of the innocent spouse in the case of disciplinary divorce. In Adulterous Marriages, he insists that the synoptic writers must agree that all who divorce and remarry are guilty of adultery. And, in the same work, we read of his negative response to the more liberal Pollentius, who advocated the remarriage of disciplinary divorcers.
In short, Augustine denies the right of the guilty or innocent party to remarry. The marriage continues, in the eyes of God, despite the supposed divorce, just as Christ’s marriage to the church cannot be dissolved.
In short, the ECFs disagree with every commonly held Church of Christ position as well as with me. However, they are closer, on the whole, to my views than the traditional views of the Churches of Christ. It is clearly untrue to claim that the ECFs support traditional Church of Christ teaching.
 In the Churches of Christ, we loudly denounce the use of the ECF’s when debating infant baptism or the monarchial bishop (a single bishop over a plurality of elders), and yet we gleefully argue from the ECF’s to persuade our members regarding the supposed sinfulness of instrumental music — and more recently, a conservative position as to divorce and remarriage. In both cases, we often make the arguments without bothering to actually study the ECFs in any depth, since “any port in a storm will do.”
 It’s popular among certain Church of Christ preachers to hold that there never is an “innocent” party, but this is far from true. First, the standard for innocence isn’t being the ideal spouse or sinless. Rather, Jesus is speaking specifically of adultery and implicitly of such major breaches of the marriage covenant as a failure to provide “food, clothing, or her marital rights” (Exo 21:10 ESV) (to be fairly interpreted in light of modern circumstances). See my But If You Do Marry … and David Instone-Brewer’s Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context. Second, I’ve been an elder for over 10 years, and I know. Sometimes just one spouse is culpable — so much so that it would be cruel, even heartless, to treat a truly innocent spouse as guilty of breaking the marriage just to suit a theological position. We may not alter the facts to suit our theories.
 In fairness, I need to say that my view is that the prohibition on remarriage by the guilty party only applies to relationships or lust that was adulterous, that is, which arose during the first marriage. A spouse should not divorce in order to marry another. But once the divorce has become a settled state, if a new romance is kindled, which involves no violation of the first marriage, which is now over, if repentance has occurred, and if reconciliation is not possible practically (not legally), then I find no sin in the remarriage based on my reading of the Scriptures. “Repentance” means repentance from the sin of breaking covenants with one’s spouse. And so a penitent ex-spouse is forgiven and prepared to have a successful second marriage, assuming reconciliation is practically impossible as to the first.
Whether Justin Martyr agrees with me is not clear in his writings as he only addresses the specific case of a marriage ended in order to marry another. Later ECFs allow the guilty husband to remarry but not the guilty wife.