Divorce is a pretty thorny issue for Christians, to say the least. I see that on my Christian dating site, which has a lot of divorced members. I wonder how they justify seeking another mate, when the New Testament has strong words against divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12). They usually respond to that question in one of two ways (sometimes both):
1. Their spouse cheated on them, and Jesus allows divorce in cases of sexual immorality (see Matthew 19:9).
2. Their spouse was an unbeliever who did not want to live with them. In that case, the Christian marriage partner is “unbound” (I Corinthians 7:15).
For many Christians, the dissolution of the marriage means that the parties are free to marry someone else.
II Hermas 4 (second century C.E.) appears to comment on this issue. Hermes asks a divine messenger if a Christian man sins by living with a loose wife. The messenger responds that the man is not guilty if he’s unaware that his wife’s playing around. If he does know about it, however, and the wife chooses not to repent, then he participates in adultery by staying married to her, so he must put her away. At the same time, if he marries another woman, then he commits adultery. If his ex-wife repents of her adulterous behavior, the husband has to take her back, but he can’t do so again and again. If a woman worships idols, the man is to put her away, especially if she’s not repentant. But the man cannot remarry because there’s always the chance that the woman might repent. And this law applies to both men and women, meaning that men can’t cheat on their wives.
Here are some thoughts:
1. It’s amazing that this law requires the man to put away his adulterous wife, or to take her back. I remember hearing Garner Ted Armstrong comment on Jesus’ commands, and he said that the man had a choice: if he found his wife in bed with another man, he could either forgive her, or he could put her away. The ball was in his court. The Shepherd of Hermas, however, says that the man doesn’t have a choice: there are rules about what he should do.
2. As far as I can see, Shepherd of Hermas doesn’t allow remarriage to someone else after a divorce. After all, the offending spouse may change, so the offended should always be ready to take him or her back. Should this influence our interpretation of the New Testament? I think it’s relevant, since it’s how early Christians understood the divorce command, and they were closer to the historical context of Jesus than we are. At the same time, I don’t know if this is the only view on divorce and remarriage in early Christianity.
3. A man couldn’t take his wife back more than once. After all, if he has to do that, then she’s probably not repentant, since she keeps doing the same sin over and over. I have problems with this, since how will a man know that a woman won’t sin against him in the future? He’s not a fortune teller! Also, didn’t Jesus tell us to forgive seventy-times-seven (Matthew 18:21-22)?
But I can somewhat see the Shepherd’s point. I can envision a wife beater or adulterer continually telling his wife that he’s so sorry and it won’t happen again, but it does–over and over. Is she supposed to put up with that? Shouldn’t there be proof in the pudding that repentance has occurred?
4. On adultery, Christianity is more egalitarian than Judaism. The Hebrew religion allowed men to have multiple wives, while women could only sleep with their one husband. Judaism allowed a man to divorce his wife, but not vice versa (even though some rules enabled a woman to compel her husband to divorce her). In this arrangement, adultery was a one way street: the woman committed adultery by sleeping around, but the man didn’t. But Jesus gives a different command: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11). For Jesus, a man had to be faithful to his wife. And that’s the rule the Shepherd of Hermas takes up.