Rules of Orthodox Christians on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage 

Marriage is a God-given union of a man and a woman. The commandments regarding marriage were given in both the Old and New Testaments. Later, rules about marriage and divorce were approved at Church Councils. In this article you will find out what the Bible and the Church canons say about understanding marriage and the rules associated with it. 

What the Bible Says About Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

After creating man and woman, God immediately established marriage and sanctified it (see Genesis 1:27-28). From the beginning, Scripture speaks of the inviolability of marriage, referring to husband and wife as one flesh (cf. Genesis 2:24).  

After the Fall, God established the subordination of wife to husband (cf. Gen. 3:16), which is repeated many times in Scripture (cf. Sirach 25:24, 33:19-23, 1 Tim. 2:11-12). At the same time, a husband should not dominate his wife, but rather love, cherish and care for her (see Colossians 3:18-19). 

If we look at verses in the bible about marriage and divorce, marriage is an ordinance and a gift from God, an unbreakable sacrament of love during earthly life, a symbol of Christ and the Church, a spiritual and physical union of two people that brings happiness and eases the burdens of earthly life. 

The idea that marriage is indissoluble and that spouses cannot be separated is a common thread running through all of Scripture: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:5-6; also see Mark 10:7; 1 Cor. 6:16, 19:6, 11:11-12)

Before Christ, Halakha (Jewish law) allowed divorce under certain conditions, but Jesus established the only acceptable condition for divorce with a living spouse to be a breach of marital fidelity. Divorce for other reasons is considered adultery; just as “he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (see Matt. 19:9).

During the marriage ceremony, spouses testify before God and the Church their voluntary will to marry. They are therefore obliged to be faithful to one another, to strive for unity at all times and to observe other rules laid down by God’s providence. The apostle Paul urges us, when problems arise that bring unity to the brink of a breakdown, to strive by all means to preserve the marriage and seek reconciliation. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). According to the Shepherd of Hermas, the ancient Christian literary monument, as long as the spouse is unaware of his other half’s adultery, there is no sin. If this becomes known, then the spouse must call the sinner to repentance. If there is no repentance, the innocent party must leave his or her spouse, so as not to become a partner in adultery. If the adulterer ever repents, it is a great sin not to restore the marriage.

In the event that one of the spouses dies, the other may remarry. This would not be an act of adultery and is not condemned. However, remarriage is still rather undesirable (see 1 Cor. 07:39-40).

The view of the Orthodox Church on Divorce and Remarriage. Russian Orthodox Marriage and Divorce Rules. Do Eastern Orthodox Allow Divorce?

As already stated, the ideal moral law of the New Testament names only one reason for divorce and that is adultery. However, in contemporary practice, a church marriage may be revoked if there are circumstances affecting it as destructively as adultery, or which may be likened to the death of one of the spouses. In the Russian Orthodox Church, such reasons are regulated by the “The Basis of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church” and the document of the 2017 Bishops’ Council of the ROC titled “On the Canonical Aspects of Church Marriage”.

According to the Basic Social Concept of the ROC, due to sinful imperfection, spouses are sometimes unable to “preserve the gift of grace received in the Sacrament of Marriage and maintain family unity”. If the separation of the marriage is a fait accompli (especially when the spouses are living separately) and the restoration of the family is not considered possible, as a matter of pastoral leniency a church divorce is allowed. Desiring the salvation of sinners, the Church gives them the opportunity of repentance, correction and returning to the Sacraments thus showing leniency in the matter of divorce and remarriage.

Possible reasons for divorce include entering by a spouse into a new civil partnership, inability to cohabit due to self-mutilation, an illness of one of the spouses endangering the life of the other spouse or children, an incurable mental illness that makes it impossible to lead a married life, refusal of treatment for chronic alcoholism or drug addiction, spouse missing for more than three years (two years in case of a war, natural disasters, or other emergencies), deliberate and ill-intentioned abandonment of the family by a spouse for more than a year, compelling the wife to perform an abortion or performing one without the consent of the husband, and an assault on life.

In such cases, the decision to declare a church marriage invalid is always made by the bishop or the diocesan court. Naturally, in all situations the clergy will seek to preserve the marriage, but if it is impossible, the marriage will be dissolved. 

A marriage may also be declared invalid if it has been entered into illegally. Among possible obstacles to church marriage  there are close family relationship, minor status, “sex change”, monastic status, clerical rank (subdeacons and above), absence of mutual intention of the spouses to perform the Sacrament etc. A marriage contracted in the presence of such obstacles must be declared invalid, regardless of whether the priest who performed it was aware of them. 

The practice of the ancient Church does not give blessing for remarriage: the Apostle commanded to remain celibate after divorce (see 1 Corinthians 7:10); the same is commanded by the rules of St Basil the Great (rule 48) and the Council of Carthage (rule 113). 

Is divorce and remarriage a sin? 

For ancient Orthodox Christians, divorce and remarriage was a sin, and the attitude towards them was unfavourable.

Both Christ (Mark 10:9), and the apostle (1 Cor. 7:10) command not to divorce, with the only exception of divorce due to adultery. Although in ancient times, remarriage was always considered a sin, today, with the mentioned reservations, one can say that if there is a blessing of the hierarchy, then there is no sin.

Although in modern practice the Church recognizes divorce as a sin and does not encourage second marriage, it still allows a person to enter into a new legal church marriage, even if the previous marriage was dissolved. For both parties, whether guilty (with a penance) or innocent of the breakdown of the previous marriage entering into a second or third marriage can be considered only after the case is carefully studied by the ruling bishop. 

Ideally, Christians should strive to maintain a single marriage throughout life.  “What God has joined together, that man shall not separate.” (Matt. 19:6) “Do not refer me to the laws decreed by outsiders that allow for absolution and divorce. It is not by these laws that God will judge you […] but by those that He Himself has decreed.” (St. John Chrysostom on Christian Marriage)

Can Divorced Orthodox Take Communion?

According to the 48th Apostolic Canon, the party guilty of divorce through committing adultery or otherwise destroying the family cannot receive communion. In this case, participation in the Eucharist requires repentance and the fulfilment of penance. 

The innocent party may receive communion unless it enters into extramarital relations after the divorce. 

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About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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