Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli
In the early church, many voices addressed the subjects of marriage, divorce, and remarriage, but their message, on the whole, was quite unified. Christian marriage, they said, is an indissoluble bond. Divorce, with the implicit right of remarriage, was not an option for Christian couples (though Origen admits some toleration existed), but permanent separation was. Remarriage after separation was considered punishable adultery or bigamy—sometimes more so for women than men. Even remarriage after the death of one's spouse was viewed by the church fathers and councils with suspicion, as "disguised adultery," in the words of Athenagoras.
In the case of religiously "mixed" marriages, church councils sometimes took a more lenient view, invoking the so-called Pauline privilege of permissible separation (1 Cor. 7) as legitimate grounds for allowing a convert to divorce a pagan spouse and then marry a Christian.
Marriage as a sacrament
Augustine was the first theologian to call Christian marriage a sacrament, or means of grace. He based his argument in part on the use of the Latin word sacramentum for the Greek word mysterion in Ephesians 5. He opposed those who wanted to allow marriage of the innocent party in cases of adultery and made the indissolubility of Christian marriage, even after adultery, the standard of the Western church.
The Eastern churches, under the influence of imperial legislation, were more lenient. They generally permitted divorce and remarriage for adultery and other serious offenses. For a while during the early Middle Ages, a few church councils in the West began allowing remarriage after adultery or lengthy separations.
Augustine's position, however, eventually carried the day in the West, and a medieval consensus on marital sacramentality and indissolubility developed, receiving Thomas Aquinas's stamp of approval in the thirteenth century. During the same period, a very limited alternative to divorce developed. This was the procedure of "annulment," the official pronouncement that a marriage bond never existed, despite outward appearances to the contrary.
The Protestant Reformers, claiming to return to biblical teaching, rejected both the sacramental nature and the absolute indissolubility of Christian marriage. According to the Bible, they said, marriage is certainly holy and is in principle indissoluble, but there are certain acts that break the marriage bond and hence permit divorce and remarriage. The Reformers could not agree, however, on the legitimate grounds—scriptural or otherwise—for divorce.
A strong advocate of faithfulness as a chief Christian virtue, Luther was not always sure that the Catholics were wrong about indissolubility, and he once said half seriously that bigamy might be preferable to divorce. He came to see divorce, however, as a permissible last resort in cases of infidelity, impotency, refusal of marital relations, and desertion. He strongly supported remarriage for the offended party. Melanchthon, Luther's colleague, limited the grounds to two, infidelity and desertion, on the basis of the "Matthean exception" and "Pauline privilege.
"Similarly, Reformers John Calvin and Theodore Beza allowed divorce only for adultery and, more hesitantly, for desertion on grounds of irreconcilable religious differences. In 1561, the Calvinist city of Geneva enacted a law permitting divorce, as a last resort, for these two reasons.
The Radical Reformers, such as the Anabaptists and Hutterites, recognized adultery as legitimate grounds for divorce on the basis of Matthew 5, but they were divided on the Pauline privilege. Unlike the Lutherans and Calvinists, the Radical Reformers generally forbade remarriage following divorce.