This is an attempt to outline where the various churches are at on this subject, having started with a biblical overview.
The Torah allows divorce and remarriage. However God’s view of the matter seems clear: ‘I hate divorce’ (Mal 2:16 RSV) – and the prophets frequently challenge the men who’ve traded in the bride of their youth for a younger model
The NIV translation of Malachi 2 is worth reading in full:
13 Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.
It’s in this context that we need to start any discussion of divorce.
The early record of Jesus’ words on divorce are in 1 Cor 7:
10 To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11 But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
This was almost certainly written significantly earlier than the gospels, and is a quite unusual passage. It is one of very few times that Paul offers a direct command that is applicable to Christians, and it is even more unusual that Paul ascribes the command to Jesus. And note that it is a COMMAND. That we struggle to take the topic seriously is partly because we don’t hear this: it’s what Jesus explicitly tells us to do
What is significant about this is that it is written to gentiles living in a culture of easy divorce. A bit like ours… It’s also worth noting is that Paul doesn’t offer any loopholes. When writing to Christian disciples, he tells them not to do divorce. There’s no suggestion of adultery being an option; if it was an option then if Paul was being honest with those Christians, he should have mentioned it; this was before there was any other basis for knowing what the church taught except what the person who evangelised you said. So Paul was being unfaithful to his task of teaching them properly if he left the adultery reason out. This is significant when we come to interpret the passages in the gospel.
Showing the gospel teaching in full:
Mark – the earliest gospel; chapter 10:
5 “It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. 6 “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ 7 ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, 8 and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
10 When they were in the house again, the disciples asked Jesus about this. 11 He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Luke – the gospel for the Gentiles cpt 16:
Matthew, the gospel for the Jews, offers two bites at the topic cpt 5:
31 “It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32 But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
It is very interesting to note the differences between Mark and this passage. They would appear to be the same story – but Matthew has added some ‘bells and whistles’.
1) The ‘adultery’ exception. Much ink is spilled on this. There are two ways to interpret this. One is what is being followed by the NIV – it refers to adultery, so that the innocent party can legitimately remarry if the other party commits adultery. The alternative is to note that this is a passage is only included in the gospel primarily addressed to Jews. This may be significant because the Greek word used for ‘adultery’ is one that covers a wider range of sexual offences – but may be specifically relevant to this passage in Deuteronomy 22:
13 If a man takes a wife and, after sleeping with her, dislikes her 14 and slanders her and gives her a bad name, saying, “I married this woman, but when I approached her, I did not find proof of her virginity,” 15 then the young woman’s father and mother shall bring to the town elders at the gate proof that she was a virgin. 16 Her father will say to the elders, “I gave my daughter in marriage to this man, but he dislikes her. 17 Now he has slandered her and said, ‘I did not find your daughter to be a virgin.’ But here is the proof of my daughter’s virginity.” Then her parents shall display the cloth before the elders of the town, 18 and the elders shall take the man and punish him. 19 They shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, because this man has given an Israelite virgin a bad name. She shall continue to be his wife; he must not divorce her as long as he lives.
20 If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, 21 she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you.”
The point here is that if the man is expecting a virgin and finds this not to be the case, he has a right to reject her. So if Jesus is respecting the law, He is likely to say that a Jewish Christian man still has the right to do likewise, but no such issue arises for Gentiles – which is an explanation for why Paul doesn’t include the point in his report of Jesus’ command about divorce.
2) The “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given… The one who can accept this should accept it” exception. This provides some sort of justification for the Eastern Orthodox legitimation of divorce and remarriage.
The early church – pre Constantine – seems to have been strongly opposed to divorce. The Christian emperors defined various grounds and legal conditions under which divorce and remarriage were permissible – though given that they were legislating for an empire that was still significantly pagan, this raises hard questions about when and how the state should be used to impose Christian morality, especially given Jesus’ warning about these words only being for those to whom it has been given. They were less permissive about homosexual relationships, interestingly.
With the collapse of the Empire in the West, the Eastern and Western churches went separate ways on this matter. In the East, under pressure from Emperors who wanted to trade in their wife for a more recent model, the church succumbed to legitimating divorce – though drew the line at three spouses total for any individual, including as those who had died.
In the West the church adopted a more hard line policy – no doubt enhanced by its growing disdain for sexual relationships, strongly articulated in Augustine’s attitude on the matter, which pretty much rejected sex’s legitimacy at all. In practice the church found ways around this; in the medieval period packing the unwanted wife off to a convent was often a successful strategy. Declaring an annulment was also common; this was what Henry VIII was seeking on the grounds that he shouldn’t have been allowed the exception that had been granted to him to marry Catherine of Aragon in the first place. These days Rome offers a number of grounds for annulments, and there’s good reason to question how generous they are being in handing them out.
With the Reformation, the bible was re-examined and many of Rome’s traditions were rejected. Instead a lot of protestants took the ‘adultery is a ground for divorce and remarriage’ route. Until the 19th century, divorce was only available by a private Act of Parliament. This was relaxed with the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857 which allowed divorce for adultery – with a rapid growth in the provision of disreputable co-respondents to found in bed with the respondent by appointment with a private detective. In more recent years the Protestant church has fractured on the topic, with a few holding the line strictly, some allowing it very occasionally, many ‘blessing’ the second marriage though not actually doing a wedding, whilst some will remarry on request. Parliament gave that option to Anglican Parish Priests in 1928 – over the strong objections of the bishops, the last example of state overruling the church directly in English history.
A final well aimed rant on the topic from another blogger
“The Church admits that it handled the sexual abuse of minors without sufficient regard for the victims. The same pattern is repeating itself here. Has anyone even mentioned the victims? Is anyone talking about the woman whose husband has abandoned her and their four children? She might be willing to take him back, if only to ensure that the children are provided for, but he has a new family and has no intention of returning.
“Meanwhile, time passes. The adulterer would like to receive communion again. He is ready to confess his guilt, but he is not willing to pay the price—namely, a life of continence. The abandoned woman is forced to watch while the Church accepts and blesses the new union. As if to add insult to injury, her abandonment receives an ecclesiastical stamp of approval. It would be more honest to replace “until death do you part” with “until the love of one of you grows cold”—a formula that is already being seriously recommended. To speak here of a “liturgy of blessing” rather than of a remarriage before the altar is a deceptive sleight of hand that merely throws dust in the eyes of the people.”
Some online articles on the topic
From a relatively conservative Protestant perspective
For the Orthodox – with a discussion of Rome’s position
“In the Christian Empire under Constantine, Theodosius, Justinian and others, laws defined the various legal grounds and conditions on which divorce and remarriage were permissible. It is sufficient to say that they were relatively lenient. However, no Father of the Church ever denounced these imperial laws as contrary to Christianity. St. Epiphanius of Cyprus (d403) says, “He who cannot keep continence after the death of his first wife, or who has separated from his wife for a valid motive, as fornication, adultery, or another misdeed, if he takes another wife, or if the wife takes another husband, the divine word does not condemn him nor exclude him from the Church or the life; but she tolerates it rather on account of his weakness” (Against Heresies).”
For an official Catholic view
For a conservative Catholic critique of easy annulments – coming from a group that rejects Vatican II for this and other reasons
For a liberal point scoring exercise
That its comments includes: “Really, there are still opponents of divorce remaining?” tells us most of what you want to know.
A brief history of divorce in England
Addendum: I was very interested to see the comments in the ‘Shepherd of Hermas’ on this topic. The Shepherd is a 1st or 2nd century book that was almost made the cut for scripture, appearing in a number of lists of canonicial books before finally being rejected, and being treated as scripture by some early writers. It teaches that a man should remain single in the event of his wife’s adultery, though if she persists in it, then he should separate from her. The starting point is whether it is mandatory to put her away if she has committed adultery, but this is rejected if she is repentant. It is clearly stated that if he remarries, he will be committing adultery.