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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic

Marital Separation: Objections 4-6
and the Early Church

The Importance of Family Part 1: Marriage
The Importance of Family Part 2: The Family
Divorce and Remarriage: Introduction and Basics
Separation and Divorce in the Law of Moses
Marital Separation in the Gospels
Marital Separation after the Gospels and Conclusions
Marital Separation: Objections 1-3
Marital Separation: Objections 4-6 and the Early Church
Remarriage Addendum: Exception Clause Comparison
New Testament Protocols Regarding Men and Women (Part 1)
New Testament Protocols Regarding Men and Women (Part 2)
Comparative Peer Dynamics Chart

Objection 4: God Never Wills to Break-up A Family

Additionally, some might argue that it is never God's will to break apart a family, even if that family is created by a second marriage. In such an argument, the idea is that as a matter of principle, God has placed such a priority on the family unit that maintaining the family unit overrides all other considerations, including adultery. However, this is plainly not true. There are certainly exceptions in the Old Testament in which maintaining the family unit was made subordinate to other principles and moral standards.

Genesis 21:9 And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, which she had born unto Abraham, mocking. 10 Wherefore she said unto Abraham, Cast out this bondwoman and her son: for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, even with Isaac. 11 And the thing was very grievous in Abraham's sight because of his son. 12 And God said unto Abraham, Let it not be grievous in thy sight because of the lad, and because of thy bondwoman; in all that Sarah hath said unto thee, hearken unto her voice; for in Isaac shall thy seed be called. 13 And also of the son of the bondwoman will I make a nation, because he is thy seed. 14 And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread, and a bottle of water, and gave it unto Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away: and she departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Beersheba.

Notice here from this episode with Abraham that although it is Sarah who originally asks Abraham to send Hagar and her son Ishmael away, God himself tells Abraham to do as Sarah has asked. And God gives his own reason. God is not simply trying to please Sarah, but God clearly asserts that sending Hagar and Ishmael away is necessary in order to preserve the promise and intention of God to have Abraham's offspring reckoned solely through Isaac.

In verse 13 God acknowledges that Ishmael is Abraham's seed and in recognition of this fact, God will make Ishmael into a great nation. However, despite the fact that Ishmael is Abraham's son, God's primary concern here is not to keep the son with the father. Nor is God concerned with keeping the child's mother and father together and for both of them to raise him in the same household. Clearly, in this famous account, we cannot say that God's priority to preserve the family unit and keep father, mother, and child together in the same household. God had higher priorities that took precedent over maintaining the family unit.

And this is not the only example. We find another case in Ezra where families were broken up in order to obey God's required moral standard.

Ezra 9:1 Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 2 For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. 3 And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonied. 4 Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away; and I sat astonied until the evening sacrifice...9 For we were bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem. 10 And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments, 11 Which thou hast commanded by thy servants the prophets, saying, The land, unto which ye go to possess it, is an unclean land with the filthiness of the people of the lands, with their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their uncleanness. 12 Now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their wealth for ever: that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever. 13 And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great trespass, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such deliverance as this; 14 Should we again break thy commandments, and join in affinity with the people of these abominations? wouldest not thou be angry with us till thou hadst consumed us, so that there should be no remnant nor escaping? 15 O LORD God of Israel, thou art righteous: for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before thee in our trespasses: for we cannot stand before thee because of this.

Now, this is a rather lengthy quote from Ezra, but it is necessary. Notice the problem is given in the first two verses. The people of Israel had intermarried with the Gentile nations around them. Notice also that Ezra assembles with those who "tremble at the words of God." This shows us that Ezra and this particular assembly were mindful of the commandments given to Israel. Verses 10-12 are also crucial.

In verses 10-12, Ezra clearly states the problem. The problem is that God commanded his people not to intermarry with the Gentile nations around them, yet this is precisely what the people were doing. And what is Ezra's conclusion in verse 15? Ezra concludes that the result of their disobeying this command against intermarriage is that they "cannot stand before" God "because of this" sin. Ezra is serious about how much this sin will disrupt their relationship and favor with God. In fact, in verse 14, Ezra indicates that this sin endangers them of being "consumed" by God's anger until there is "no remnant" left of them.

But is this actually a command from God, or is Ezra just going above and beyond what is required? Certainly, Ezra believes this is the command of God given by the prophets, for he says so in verse 11. But we can also look back in the scriptural record before Ezra to find out where Ezra is getting this command. And we find the command in Deuteronomy.

Deuteronomy 7:2 And when the LORD thy God shall deliver them before thee; thou shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them: 3 Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. 4 For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.

Amazingly, Ezra's words are a very precise parallel of this command from Moses. Not only is Ezra clearly quoting verses 2-3 in Ezra 9:11-12, but his conclusion that for this sin God may indeed destroy the people is also taken directly from verse 4. Ezra is certainly not raising the standard or going beyond what God required. He is simply keeping the commandments of God as it was written and delivered through Moses.

So, what does Ezra require to be done in order to rectify this disobedience, keep the Israelites from being destroyed, and restore them to proper fellowship and favor before God? Ezra 10 continues the story.

Ezra 10:1 Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore. 2 And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have taken strange wives of the people of the land: yet now there is hope in Israel concerning this thing. 3 Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. 4 Arise; for this matter belongeth unto thee: we also will be with thee: be of good courage, and do it. 5 Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware...10 And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them, Ye have transgressed, and have taken strange wives, to increase the trespass of Israel. 11 Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives. 12 Then all the congregation answered and said with a loud voice, As thou hast said, so must we do.

Notice from verses 2-3 that the guilty persons acknowledged that they had to put away their wives and the children born by them. However, these guilty persons also state that putting away these wives and children was done according to the counsel of Ezra and the leaders and according to the law, which is the Law of Moses. Then in verse 5, Ezra makes the guilty swear to put away their wives and children. And even more clearly in verse 11, Ezra states that to please God, the guilty persons must separate themselves from their strange wives and children. So, it is quite evident that not only did the Law of Moses prohibit the Israelites from intermarrying, but according to Ezra the Law also required them to put away their wives and children in order to appease God's wrath in this matter and comply with the Law.

Therefore, this is a very blatant example where God's moral standards for his people supercede the notion of keeping fathers, mothers, and children together in an intact family unit. Instead, the opposite was necessary. In order to keep God's moral requirements and avoid being cast out and even destroyed by God, the Israelites were required to break up their family units and separate from their spouses and children.

Now, we do not mean to imply that the Law of Moses is still binding on Christians today or that Christians should dissolve their second marriages because of the Law of Moses. Our point is simply this. These examples from the Old Testament books of Genesis and Ezra demonstrate that we, as Christians, cannot justify maintaining second marriages by appealing to an assumption that God never wants to break up any family unit. God does indeed sometimes require a family unit to be broken in order for his will to be done or his moral standard to be kept. (For more on this topic please see our articles on the Importance of Marriage and the Family in the Church Ethic section.)

And for anyone who might think that God wouldn't actually ban Christians of second marriages from the kingdom of his Son, let them consider again the words of Moses and Ezra. Both of these men understood that those among God's people who failed to remove themselves from the spouses and children they obtained by transgressing God's law would certainly and ultimately be cut off and destroyed from God's people. The moral standard might be different between then and now. They obtained spouses and families by transgressing God's prohibition of intermarriage. Many today have obtained spouses and families by violating Jesus' teaching concerning marital separation and remarriage. Nevertheless, we can see from those Old Testament examples that God does indeed hold accountable and even promises to punish those who fail to separate themselves from the spouses and families they obtain by violating his commands. We may no longer be under the commands given through Moses. But we are most certainly under the commands given through Christ Jesus.

Objection 5: This Teaching is Impractical and Unreasonable

Now, at this point, some might object to our conclusions because they lead to a moral standard that is "too hard" or "unreasonable." But there are some glaring problems with such objections.

First, doctrines and interpretations of scriptural teaching must be based upon the scriptural text itself, not our independent notions of what is "too hard" or "unreasonable."

Second, it would be a mistake to assume or believe that God determines what to consider right and what to consider wrong entirely depending on whether or not it will be "sufficiently easy" or "reasonable" for humans to go along with that standard.

Third, it is Jesus' teaching that the standard in the Law of Moses regarding divorce was determined by what man would reasonably be able to go along with and live with. For this reason, in the Law of Moses, it was permitted for men to divorce their wives for any reason. However, the clear reality of Jesus' comments in Matthew 19:3-12 demonstrate the strict contrast between the Law of Moses on the one hand, which was made in light of the hardness of men's hearts and on the other hand, the teaching of Jesus and the standard of God, which transcended considerations for the hardness of men's hearts.

In other words, according to Jesus, consideration for what men's hearts could accept and follow resulted in the Law of Moses' teaching regarding divorce, but God's standard requires what man's hearts find extremely difficult to accept. Thus, according to Matthew 19, with regard to divorce, the teaching of Christ differs from the Law of Moses precisely because Christ's teaching was NOT determined by what man would find reasonably acceptable to live with (while the Law of Moses was).

Fourth, there can be little doubt that God's standard concerning divorce is for our own benefit. This is not to say that God's standard is what philosophy calls "utilitarian." It would be irresponsible to depict God's standards of right and wrong as though they are arbitrarily determined by what will be good for us or what will be bad for us. God's standards are instead based upon his own unchanging, divine, righteousness character.

Nevertheless, God's standards do benefit us greatly if we follow them. For what better way to do things could there be than the way assigned by God in his perfect wisdom according to his perfect righteousness? As such, the teaching of Christ concerning divorce is for our benefit as well. And no doubt part of the difficulty that God wants us to avoid is the difficulty that comes along with broken marriages, one-parent households, and awkward relationships with stepparents, etc. Not only that, but ultimately, God is trying to keep us from the temptations that will keep us out the kingdom of his Son. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Galatians 5:19-21, Paul is quite clear that those who commit adultery will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Therefore, God's standard on divorce is designed to keep us from falling into this dilemma in which our hearts fall into either love or lust for someone who is adulterous for us as we try to pursue God. Therefore, since God's standard in part will protect and keep us from such difficulties, it is absurd to argue that God wants us to stay in second marriages because leaving them would be difficult. We are in such difficulty precisely because we ignored the standard of God, which would have kept us from those difficulties. Would we now use those very difficulties, which that God's standard intended to keep us from, to justify not keeping the standard?

Through our sinful behavior, we have come to the temptation God had sought for us to avoid, will we then ask to continue because it's too difficult to stop now? Of course not. The difficulty we bring on ourselves as a result of our sins in no way makes allowances for us to continue in those same behaviors. There are many circumstances in which it is easier and less disruptive to our lifestyle and the lifestyle of those around us to remain in sin. But the difficulties and often uprooting aspects of repentance do not justify continuation in the sin, which may be much more convenient.

And fifth, to those who would argue that our interpretation of Jesus teaching is incorrect because it results in a standard that is "too hard" or "unreasonable," let them consider that this is precisely how the apostles themselves responded to his teaching. Their reaction to Jesus' teaching with regard to divorce and remarriage can only be explained if the standard he was raising was exceedingly difficult and hard to accept. Consider their words.

Matthew 19:8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.

Here in verses 8-9, Jesus asserts that the discrepancy between his teaching and the Law of Moses is caused by the fact that Moses made an allowance out of recognition of what the people would be willing to accept and live with. Then, Jesus reinforces what God requires is higher and more restrictive than what was permitted by the Law of Moses.

The key to our current point is verse 10, where the apostles respond to Jesus' teaching prohibiting marital separation and condemning second marriages as adultery. Their response clearly indicates that they think Jesus is lifting up a standard that will be extremely hard for men to keep or even accept. With the idea in mind that marital separation is forbidden and second marriages are adulterous, the apostles quickly respond that it would be better never to marry.

Now, if the apostles perceived that second marriages could be made acceptable simply by acknowledging it was wrong and saying "sorry" for it, would they have responded so strongly as to conclude that it is better never to marry? What is so difficult about that? You admit you did wrong. You say you are sorry. You keep your second spouse. Your kids from the second marriage get to stay with both their parents. What is so hard about this that would make remaining unmarried an easier choice?

The only reason the apostles would have concluded that it was better to remain unmarried was if they understood Jesus' teaching to make married life exceedingly difficult by way of not allowing spouses to separate and categorizing second marriages to more favorable spouses as forbidden.

One cannot object to our interpretation of Jesus' teaching on divorce on the grounds that our conclusions create a standard that is "too hard," "unreasonable," or "impractical." The apostles themselves thought that Jesus' teaching on this subject was so hard that remaining single was preferable to getting married and having to abide by Jesus' teaching on marital separation and remarriage. Given the fact that the apostles themselves thought that Jesus' teaching on divorce was hard for men to live with, one cannot object to our conclusions on the basis that they are "too hard."

Objection 6: Only For Those Who Can Accept It

Lastly, some might take Jesus comments in Matthew 19:11 as an indication that his teaching regarding divorce and remarriage was only for those who could accept it.

Matthew 19:9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it.

A clear examination of Matthew 19:9-12 indicates that such an opposing argument is clearly in error. Jesus is not saying that his teaching about divorce and adultery only applies to those who are willing to accept it. Rather, Jesus makes this statement in verse 11 in response to the disciples comment in verse 10. In verse 10, the disciples state that it is good for a man not to marry. And it is this idea, the idea that it is better to remain single, that Jesus is saying in verse 11, only applies to those whom it is given.

The fact that Jesus goes on immediately in verse 11 to discuss this idea of those who remain unmarried demonstrates thoroughly that his comments in verse 11 are meant only to apply to the idea of remaining single. Jesus was in no way indicating that his teaching regarding divorce and remarriage was only for those who could accept it. Instead, he was simply stating that the idea of remaining single was only for those who could accept it. In this way, his teaching is identical to that of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40. To assert that second marriages are adultery only for those who can accept such teaching but not for those who reject it is a patently absurd interpretation of Jesus' instructions here. It reduces sexual morality to a matter of person opinion.

Survey of Early Church Teaching
We will now move on to our survey of orthodox early church writers on this issue of marital separation and remarriage. If we find no comments made on this matter in their writings, then our interpretation of scripture stands on its own, unchallenged by their words. If we find comments on this topic, which contradict our own findings, then we will need to explain the difference. But, if we find a sufficient amount of comments in their works, which support our findings, then we will have even further confirmation that our interpretations of scripture on this topic are the teachings of the apostles.

Concerning chastity, He uttered such sentiments as these:...And, "Whosoever shall marry her that is divorced from another husband, committeth adultery."...(5) So that all who, by human law, are twice married, (6) are in the eye of our Master sinners, and those who look upon a woman to lust after her. [Justin Martyr (c. 160 AD.)]

"'I charge you,' said he, 'to guard your chastity, and let no thought enter your heart of another man's wife, or of fornication, or of similar iniquities; for by doing this you commit a great sin. But if you always remember your own wife, you will never sin. For if this thought enter your heart, then you will sin; and if, in like manner, you think other wicked thoughts, you commit sin. For this thought is great sin in a servant of God. But if any one commit this wicked deed, he works death for himself. Attend, therefore, and refrain from this thought; for where purity dwells, there iniquity ought not to enter the heart of a righteous man.' I said to him, 'Sir, permit me to ask you a few questions.' 'Say on,' said he. And I said to him, 'Sir, if any one has a wife who trusts in the Lord, and if he detect her in adultery, does the man sin if he continue to live with her? 'And he said to me, 'As long as he remains ignorant of her sin, the husband commits no transgression in living with her. But if the husband know that his wife has gone astray, and if the woman does not repent, but persists in her fornication, and yet the husband continues to live with her, he also is guilty of her crime, and a sharer in her adultery.' And I said to him, 'What then, sir, is the husband to do, if his wife continue in her vicious practices? 'And he said, 'The husband should put her away, and remain by himself. But if he put his wife away and marry another, he also commits adultery.' And I said to him, 'What if the woman put away should repent, and wish to return to her husband: shall she not be taken back by her husband? 'And he said to me, 'Assuredly. If the husband do not take her back, he sins, and brings a great sin upon himself; for he ought to take back the sinner who has repented. But not frequently. For there is but one repentance to the servants of God. In case, therefore, that the divorced wife may repent, the husband ought not to marry another, when his wife has been put away. In this matter man and woman are to be treated exactly in the same way.'"- Pastor of Hermas (A.D. 139-A.D. 155), Book Second-Commandments, Commandment Fourth, On Putting One's Wife Away for Adultery, Chapter I

That the Scripture counsels marriage and allows no release from the union is expressly contained in the law, "You will not put away your wife, except for the cause of fornication." And it regards as fornication the marriage of those separated while the other is alive... "He who takes a woman who has been put away commits adultery." [Clement of Alexandria (c. 195 AD.)]

The Lord holds it more pleasing that marriage should never be contracted, than that it should at all be dissolved. In short, He prohibits divorce except for the cause of fornication. [Tertullian (c. 197 AD.)]

Christ prohibits divorce, saying, "Whoever puts away his wife and marries another, commits adultery. And whoever marries her who is put away from her husband also commits adultery." In order to forbid divorce, He makes it unlawful to marry a woman who has been put away. [Tertullian (c. 207 AD.)]

I maintain, then, that there was a condition in the prohibition that He now made of divorce, the case at hand was that a man put away his wife for the express purpose of marrying another...That is, [she was put away] for the reason for which a woman should not be dismissed-to obtain another wife...Permanent is the marriage that is not rightly dissolved. Therefore, to marry while marriage is undissolved is to commit adultery. Since, therefore, His prohibition of divorce was a conditional one, He did not prohibit it absolutely. And what He did not absolutely forbid, He permitted on some occasions-when there is an absence of the cause why He gave His prohibition. [Tertullian (c. 207 AD.)]

Christ plainly forbids divorce; Moses unquestionably permits...Even Christ, however, when He commands "the wife not to depart from her husband, or if she departs, to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband," both permitted divorce (which indeed is he never absolutely prohibited) and confirmed marriage (by first prohibiting its dissolution). If separation had taken place, He wished the marriage bond to be resumed by reconciliation. [Tertullian (c. 207 AD.)]

The reason why He abolished divorce, which "was not from the beginning," was in order to strengthen that thing which "was from the beginning"-the permanent joinder of two into one flesh...So He permits divorce for no cause, except one...To us, even if we do divorce them [i.e., adulterous spouses], marriage will not be lawful. [Tertullian, (c. 217 AD.)]

She must necessarily persevere in that peace with him whom she will no longer have the power to divorce. Not that she would have been marriageable-even if she had been able to divorce him. [Tertullian (c. 217 AD.)]

He who marries a woman divorced from her husband is an adulterer. So is he who divorced a wife for any cause other than adultery, in order to marry another. [Lactantius (c. 304-313 AD.)]

As we can see from the above quotes, our conclusions certainly have quite prominent representation among the writings of the early Christians. Our views are shared by Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and even the Pastor of Hermas, Clement of Alexandria, and Lactantius. Thus, not only does the scriptural evidence support our views but the earliest Christians support our interpretation of scripture on this matter, which provides additional evidence beyond the scriptural analysis, that the conclusions presented in this study are the original Christian teaching of the apostles of Jesus Christ, which they received from Jesus Christ and which is therefore binding on all Christians to this very day.