Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli

I am posting this for two reasons – one, because of an ongoing conversation about the Catholic practice of annulment and the ongoing story of Rick Joyner’s decision to formulate a doctrine on divorce.

In the early church, many voices addressed the subjects of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but their message, on the whole, was quite unified. Christian marriage, they said, is an indissoluble bond. Divorce, with the implicit right of remarriage, was not an option for Christian couples (though Origen admits some toleration existed), but permanent separation was. Remarriage after separation was considered punishable adultery or bigamy—sometimes more so for women than men. Even remarriage after the death of one’s spouse was viewed by the church fathers and councils with suspicion, as “disguised adultery,” in the words of Athenagoras.

In the case of religiously “mixed” marriages, church councils sometimes took a more lenient view, invoking the so-called Pauline privilege of permissible separation (1 Cor. 7) as legitimate grounds for allowing a convert to divorce a pagan spouse and then marry a Christian.

Marriage as a sacrament

Augustine was the first theologian to call Christian marriage a sacrament, or means of grace. He based his argument in part on the use of the Latin word sacramentum for the Greek word mysterion in Ephesians 5. He opposed those who wanted to allow marriage of the innocent party in cases of adultery and made the indissolubility of Christian marriage, even after adultery, the standard of the Western church.

The Eastern churches, under the influence of imperial legislation, were more lenient. They generally permitted divorce and remarriage for adultery and other serious offenses. For a while during the early Middle Ages, a few church councils in the West began allowing remarriage after adultery or lengthy separations.

Augustine’s position, however, eventually carried the day in the West, and a medieval consensus on marital sacramentality and indissolubility developed, receiving Thomas Aquinas’s stamp of approval in the thirteenth century. During the same period, a very limited alternative to divorce developed. This was the procedure of “annulment,” the official pronouncement that a marriage bond never existed, despite outward appearances to the contrary.

The Reformers

The Protestant Reformers, claiming to return to biblical teaching, rejected both the sacramental nature and the absolute indissolubility of Christian marriage. According to the Bible, they said, marriage is certainly holy and is in principle indissoluble, but there are certain acts that break the marriage bond and hence permit divorce and remarriage. The Reformers could not agree, however, on the legitimate grounds—scriptural or otherwise—for divorce.

A strong advocate of faithfulness as a chief Christian virtue, Luther was not always sure that the Catholics were wrong about indissolubility, and he once said half seriously that bigamy might be preferable to divorce. He came to see divorce, however, as a permissible last resort in cases of infidelity, impotency, refusal of marital relations, and desertion. He strongly supported remarriage for the offended party. Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague, limited the grounds to two, infidelity and desertion, on the basis of the “Matthean exception” and “Pauline privilege.”

Similarly, Reformers John Calvin and Theodore Beza allowed divorce only for adultery and, more hesitantly, for desertion on grounds of irreconcilable religious differences. In 1561, the Calvinist city of Geneva enacted a law permitting divorce, as a last resort, for these two reasons.

The Radical Reformers, such as the Anabaptists and Hutterites, recognized adultery as legitimate grounds for divorce on the basis of Matthew 5, but they were divided on the Pauline privilege. Unlike the Lutherans and Calvinists, the Radical Reformers generally forbade remarriage following divorce.

More liberal attitudes to divorce came from Zwingli in Zurich and Martin Bucer in Strasbourg. Zwingli believed that the cause of adultery in Matthew 5 was intended only as one example (and not the most serious one), to which could be added other legitimate causes, such as abandonment, endangerment of life, and insanity. Bucer went further still, becoming the first Christian leader to permit divorce by mutual consent.

Largely in reaction to Protestant leniency, in 1563 the Roman Catholic Church, at the Council of Trent, made the indissolubility of consummated Christian marriage a matter of canon law. Divorce and remarriage were thus officially banned even in cases of adultery, though long-term separations were permitted.

Repercussions of the Reformation

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Reformation attitude was the inadvertent secularization of marriage and divorce that resulted within Protestant churches. Luther, for example, believed that marriage—though holy—was primarily a civil event. As both “Lutheran” and “Calvinist” countries established marriage and divorce laws based on their religious preferences, the Protestant churches as churches no longer regulated divorce and remarriage. As these countries, and the West in general, grew more and more secular over the succeeding centuries, marriage was understood primarily to be a civil contract, and divorce and remarriage laws became increasingly liberal.

This process culminated in the second half of this century, leaving most Protestant churches where they are today: with almost no binding internal policies on divorce and remarriage for church members, and often not even for leaders. Civil law functionally regulates Protestant Christian marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

It is perhaps ironic that the Reformers’ attempt to return to biblical teachings on marriage and divorce has led to this quite secular situation—the continued existence of church ceremonies notwithstanding. It would not be surprising if a renewed Christian community found it necessary to be more selective than the civil courts, both in whom it marries and in what it recognizes as legitimate grounds for divorce.

This article originally appeared in the December 14, 1992 issue of Christianity Today.

Michael Gorman is dean of the Ecumenical Institute of Theology and professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He is the author of Abortion and the Early Church (reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 1998) and The Elements of Exegesis (Hendrickson, forthcoming) and is completing a study of Paul’s spirituality.

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5 Replies to “Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli”

  1. Pastor Sam in Waterloo, ON, Canada said:

    “There is no doubt that there are people who divorce, but I find that there is no argument for remarriage within the texts of the New Testament. Divorce was granted for the hardness of hearts. Remarriage is not an option, for marriage is a picture of the relationship the Bride of Christ (the church) has with Christ. If anything the Old Testament and the New Testament call upon believers to forgive and restore those who have injured their marriages through unfaithfulness and adultery.”

    “All this (with Todd Bentley) is a cop-out and the shaming of the institution of marriage and a dishonoring of the scriptures and the truths they reveal about God and His holiness.”

    “I have gone from a no remarriage position to a more liberal position in regards to remarriage then back again to a conservative reading and application of these same texts. Ironically all the marriages I officiated as an ordained minister were for divorced people, other than one marriage, which was for a widow and widower. I regret that I ever performed these divorced peoples’ marriages, but I cannot undo them. So, now I no longer support such a view, as I do not believe it to be biblical.”

    I totally agree with Sam’s view. Remarriage after a divorce is unbiblical. The Bible is very clear about this subject, if people would only study it.

    Divorce + Remarriage = Adultery



  2. John the Baptist confronted Herod and Herodias after a divorce and remarriage.

    John the Baptist called their remarriage unlawful. Herodias was full of rage because of his rebuke and plotted his death. Today when the biblical truth is presented about divorce and remarriage people react the same way.

    It was unlawful for Herod to have Herodias while her husband Phillip was still alive, just like it is unlawful for Todd to have Jessa while his wife is still alive. Herodias was divorced by Roman law, then remarried to Herod, but God did not recognize this marriage as lawful.

    “Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people, because they considered him a prophet.” Matthew 14:3-5 (NIV)

    “Herod had arrested John, put him in chains, and sent him to prison to placate Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife. John had provoked Herod by naming his relationship with Herodias “adultery.” Herod wanted to kill him, but he was afraid because so many people revered John as a prophet of God.” Matthew 14:3-5 (The Message)

    AFTER a divorce and remarriage John the Baptist was saying that God did not recognize their marriage as legal.

    Watch the scene below:


    Divorce + Remarriage = Adultery


  3. Polycarp,

    Have you seen the new resources posted at Calvin500.com? Among other things, you’ll find links to a 97-volume collection of material written by or about Calvin, including all of his commentaries, the Institutes, 10 biographies, and 20 volumes on the history of Calvinism, among other things. I thought you might be interested: http://www.calvin500.com

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