MDR: The argument from history

Given the difficulty of interpreting the New Testament’s passages on divorce and remarriage, it would be useful to consider the views of the early church on this matter.

Many Christians don’t realize that we have many letters written by early Christian leaders, beginning in the late First Century, that express the views of the early church on a great many issues.

These uninspired materials are very useful, but must be studied with great caution. It would be very easy to assume that we are commanded to do or not do something because the early church so taught. But the early church’s views on many issues changed from the New Testament views over the years, and some heresies developed quite early. We should only take our doctrine from inspired writings, realizing that early Christians were just as capable as modern Christians of messing up.

Pat Harrell wrote the definitive work on this subject in Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church.[1] The following quotations summarize some of his conclusions:

Under Roman law, as has been previously indicated, marriage was viewed as a private contract, and like other contracts, could be dissolved. … Even when Roman law came under the control of Christian influence, as in the time of Constantine, no sweeping revisions were made in the matter of divorce.[2]

There is considerable evidence that many of the Ante-Nicene[3] Church considered divorce, regardless of grounds, as unacceptable for a Christian.

[According to the Synod of Elvira] if a woman who has been divorced by a catechumen has been married to another husband, she may nevertheless be admitted to baptism.[4]

[N]on-Christians were not held responsible for the Christian doctrine of marriage and divorce.[5]

The Ante-Nicene Church did not sit in judgment on the pre-Christian morals of the catechumens. … There is nothing to indicate in the literature of the period that a divorced and remarried catechumen was required to make any change in his marital status before being accepted for baptism. The silence on this matter in the Church Fathers is all the more significant since the church for a portion of this period was so influenced by rigorist tendencies that adultery, which consecutive marriage would amount to by the contemporary Christian standards, was so severely judged that it was deemed beyond the prerogative of the church to forgive.[6]

The one important point to note is that the early church, to the extent we have literature, did not allow a second marriage after divorce. This would certainly seem to support the traditional view. However, the same early Christian writers often also denied the right to remarry after a death of a spouse — plainly contrary to a number of passages of scripture.

Additionally, for a considerable time the early church denied that any forgiveness of sin was possible after baptism. The “liberals” allowed one forgiveness after baptism. This is also flatly contrary to scripture. Moreover, some in the early church considered marriage or even sex within marriage wrong — the very attitude that led to celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church.

Therefore, the narrow attitude of the early church toward remarriage reflects not so much their interpretation of scripture as a cultural attitude opposing marriage in general and denying any forgiveness of sin. These views of the early church fathers cannot hold much sway.

But the fact that the church fathers allowed divorced and remarried couples to be baptized without having to put away their spouses or live in sexless marriages shows very strongly that — contrary to a very strict, unforgiving culture — the early church felt compelled not to impose its standards on those outside the church.

Is this the final answer? No. Does it help us see how unsupportable it is to deny baptism to the divorced and remarried? Unquestionably.

And I remind you, that if baptism cleanses a second marriage, those already in grace will be cleansed “much more” (Rom. 5:9-10).

[1] (R. B. Sweet Co., Inc., 1967).

[2] p. 173.

[3] “Ante-Nicene” refers to Christians before the Council of Nicea, which took place during the reign of Constantine in the early 4th century.

[4] Ibid., p. 194. Early 4th century. “Catechumen” is a candidate for baptism.

[5] Ibid., p. 225.

[6] Ibid.


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