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Divorce and remarriage from the early church to John Wesley

Below was a useful summary of the church’s position on divorce and remarriage by the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  The full article can be found here.

The concluding summary was (emphasis added):

The views of church leaders and scholars have been guided by their interpretation of the biblical teachings on marriage and divorce. Not all have interpreted these passages in like manner. Indeed, some have come virtually to opposite conclusions. Because they were writing largely for men, most of their remarks and illustrations concern women at fault. Generally, however, either directly or by allusion, they agree that what applies to one sex applies equally to the other.

The Ante-Nicene Fathers generally permitted divorce on the ground of adultery. Some even required it. At the same time, remarriage was usually forbidden. Not only did it cut off any chance of marital reconciliation, but many in the church regarded marriage as an indissoluble bond which continued unbroken until the death of one spouse. Thus (prior to such an occurrence), remarriage was an adulterous act and the offender was liable to [p.141] excommunication. There was not, however, unanimity. Some, like Origen, allowed remarriage after a divorce on the ground of adultery. Others (e.g., the Council of Arles), while deploring remarriage, did not require excommunication as a penalty. The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers were stricter in their interpretations of Jesus’ sayings. No matter what a spouse had done, remarriage following divorce was out of the question.

Augustine’s position became the foundation of the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament. When contracted between two communicants, marriage is indissoluble. Where only one is a believer, spiritual adultery is involved and a divorce may be permitted (along with remarriage, under certain conditions). This position was challenged during the Renaissance by some of the humanists (e.g., More and Erasmus), but it was reaffirmed during the Counter-Reformation by the Council of Trent as official dogma. Numerous impediments to marriage were noted, however, whereby marriages might be annulled.

The Protestant Reformation brought a fresh examination of the biblical teachings. The Continental Reformers, while holding a high view of marriage, eschewed its sacramental nature. They permitted remarriage by an innocent party after a divorce because of adultery or desertion.

The Anglicans generally held positions close to those of Roman Catholicism. While scandalized by the notion of marriage as a sacrament, they nonetheless tended to regard remarriage after divorce as adultery (although there were those who diverged from that opinion).

The dissenting denominations tended to follow the views of the Reformers. Some, like Milton, were very flexible as to cause, but most followed the Westminster divines in pronounced restraint.

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