History of Christian Doctrine on Divorce

Jodee Redmond
Christian churches have different views on the subject of divorce.

The history of Christian doctrine on divorce is quite interesting. Like it or not, divorce is a reality in today's society. People of Christian religious faiths get divorced, just as those with no declared religious faith.

The History of Christian Doctrine on Divorce

In Matthew 19:1-10, Jesus acknowledged that Moses had said that a man could divorce his wife. He then went on to say that it was because of "the hardness of your hearts" that this policy was adopted. The familiar phrase from a Christian wedding, what "God hath joined together, let not man put asunder," comes from this passage.

Early Christians and Divorce

In the early days of the Christian church, divorce was permitted on the grounds of adultery. Only the "innocent" party could start a divorce action, however. Even after the divorce was granted, both partners were directed to remain celibate so long as their former spouse was alive.

According to the history of Christian doctrine on divorce, even if divorce were an option under civil law of the time, it was still forbidden under canon law.

Roman Catholic Church and Divorce

The Roman Catholic Church has not changed in its view of marriage over the centuries. Marriage is a sacrament and even if a person gets a divorce, they are still considered to be married by the Church. A Roman Catholic who is divorced is barred from remarrying while his or her spouse is alive.

Annulment of Marriage

A Roman Catholic may apply to have his or her marriage annulled. When a marriage is annulled, it is considered not to have been a valid marriage from the beginning. The marriage can be annulled if:

  • Either party didn't understand the vows or was forced to enter into the marriage
  • Either party lied while taking the marriage vows
  • The marriage was not consummated

If a couple's wedding is annulled, they are free to marry in the Church.

Anglican Church and Divorce

The Anglican Church, also known as the "Church of England", was established by Henry VIII. Henry was a Roman Catholic who wanted to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, because she could not produce a male heir. He attempted to get a special dispensation so that he could divorce Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn.

The dispensation was not granted and Henry demanded that the Archbishop of Canterbury grant him the divorce he so desperately wanted. The Archbishop granted the King his divorce, and he married Anne Boleyn. Anne gave birth to a daughter, who became Queen Elizabeth I in due course. Henry was made Supreme Head of the Church by a law passed in 1534.

Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn didn't last; Anne Boleyn was found guilty of treason and executed on May 19, 1536. Henry's fourth marriage, to Anne of Cleves, was annulled a few months after the wedding. Anne was given an annual income from Henry and had the use of a number of royal homes during her lifetime.

For Anglican churches, the attitude toward divorce is not so cut and dried. Divorced persons can remarry in the Church with the permission of the local bishop. The Church understands that despite a couple's efforts to keep their marriage together, marriages do break down. In an effort to offer support and help to separated and divorced members of the congregation, a number of parishes offer support groups to those who have been recently divorced.

The history of Christian doctrine on divorce is an interesting one. Official church policy supports the view that marriage should be for life. Certain denominations have tried to deal with the fact that divorce is not an uncommon occurrence in modern times, while the Roman Catholic view of divorce has remained constant through the ages.

History of Christian Doctrine on Divorce