The Theology of Gender – 11. St. Basil’s canons on the issue of divorce and remarriage

21 April 2017

The whole series can be read here: The Theology of Gender

St. Basil’s canons on the issue of divorce and remarriage seem at first sight to treat man and woman differently, making it difficult for modern women to accept them. Nevertheless, careful examination of his general approach reveals his profound appreciation of both genders and his respect for the role of women.


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St. Basil’s 9th canon states the following:

“The decision of the Lord with respect to the order of the sense applies equally to men and women so far as concerns the prohibition of divorce except on ground of fornication. Custom, however, will not have it thus, but in regard to women it insists upon exactitude and stringency, seeing that the Apostle says that he who cleaves to a harlot is one body with her, and that Jeremiah says that if a woman goes with another man, she shall not return to her husband, but shall surely be defiled, and again: whoever keeps an adulteress is foolish and impious. Custom, on the other hand, commands that men who are guilty of adultery or of acts of fornication must be kept by their wives; so that as regards a woman who is cohabiting with a man who has been left can be accounted an adulteress. For the fault here lies in the woman who divorced her husband, according to whatever reason she had for undoing the marriage. For whether it be that when beaten she could not bear the blows, but ought rather to have exercised patience, or to obtain a divorce from the man with whom she at the time was cohabiting, or whether it be that she could not afford to lose the money, neither is this any excuse worthy considering. But if it were on account of his living in a state of fornication, we have no such observance in ecclesiastical usage, but neither is the wife of a faithless husband commanded to separate from him, but, on the contrary, she has to stay with him owing to the fact that the issue of the matter is unknown.”For what do you know, O wife, whether you shall save your husband?”. So that a woman who deserts her husband becomes an adulteress in case she comes to another man. The man, on the other hand, whom she has left, is pardonable, and a woman who cohabits with him is not to be condemned. If, however, a man deserts his wife and comes to another woman, he too becomes an adulterer because he is making her be an adulteress; and the woman cohabiting with him is an adulteress, because she has taken another woman’s husband for herself.” [1]

In addition, his canon 21 addresses the same issue:

“… a wife must accept her husband when he returns from fornication but a husband must send a defiled wife away from his home. The reason for these inconsistencies is not easily to be found, but at any rate a custom to this effect has obtained prevalence.” [2]      

St. Nikodemos in his commentary stresses the fact that the aforementioned custom was inherited by the Romans and the reason for its prevalence is not easy to understand.[3] In his comment on the 48th canon of the Holy Apostles, he gives an extended report on the issue, giving the theological background from the Scripture and including examples from the writings of St. Gregory the Theologian and St. John Chrysostom, who support the equal treatment of men and women concerning divorce and remarriage. St. Nikodemos moves beyond the stereotypes of his traditionalist era and asserts not only that men and women are to be treated equally by the Church on the issue of adultery, but also that a man who accepts his wife back, although she is an adulteress, should be praised for two reasons: First, because by his love and compassion he imitates Christ, and second, because this corruption in the life of the couple is the result of other sins committed by them, which causes God to permit this greater failing to happen for the discipline of the spouses.[4] Interestingly enough the Hagiorite puts the blame of adultery equally on both spouses. As a great pastor and spiritual father, he also tries to explain the reason why Christ allows the separation of the couple to happen and gives a reason based on his knowledge of human psychology. The anger of the offended spouse could lead to murder, while, as St. Gregory the Theologian observes, the possible birth of an illegitimate child could cause even greater problems. Therefore, the suggested separation of the couple for one or two years is a reasonable sanction that could lead both to repentance and to the discouragement of others from this transgression.

[1] Canon 9 of St. Basil «Ἡ τοῦ Κυρίου ἀπόφασις κατά μέν τήν τῆς ἐννοίας ἀκολουθίαν ἐξίσου ἀνδράσι καί γυναιξίν ἁρμόζει, περί τοῦ μή ἐξεῖναι γάμου ἐξίστασθαι, παρεκτός λόγου πορνείας. Ἡ δέ συνήθεια οὐχ οὓτως ἒχει,ἀλλ’ ἐπί μέν τῶν γυναικῶν πολλήν εὑρίσκομεν τήν ἀκριβολογίαν, τοῦ Ἀποστόλου λέγοντος, ὃτι ὁ κολλώμενος τῇ πόρνη ἓν σῶμά ἐστι, τοῦ δέ Ἱερεμίου, ὃτι, ἐάν γένηται γυνή ἀνδρί ἑτέρω, οὐκ ἐπιστρέψει πρός τόν ἂνδρα αὐτῆς, ἀλλά μιαινομένη μιανθήσεται΄ καί πάλιν, ὁ ἒχων μοιχαλίδα, ἂφρων καί ἀσεβής, ἡ δέ συνήθεια καί μοιχεύοντας ἂνδρας καί ἐν πορνείαις ὂντας, κατέχεσθαι ὑπο τῶν γυναικῶν προστάσσει, ὣστε ἡ τῷ ἀφειμένω ἀνδρί συνοικοῦσα, οὐκ οἶδα, εἰ δύναται μοιχαλίς χρηματίσαι. Τό γάρ ἒγκλημα ἐνταῦθα, τῆς ἀπολυσάσης τόν ἂνδρα ἃπτεται, κατά ποίαν αἰτίαν ἀπέστη τοῦ γάμου. Εἲτε γάρ τυπτομένη μή φέρουσα τάς πληγάς, ὑπομένειν ἐχρῆν μᾶλλον, ἢ διαζευχθῆναι τοῦ συνοικοῦντος, εἲτε τήν εἰς τά χρήματα ζημίαν μή φέρουσα, οὐδέ αὓτη ἡ πρόφασις ἀξιόλογος. Εἰ δέ διά τό ἐν πορνεία αὐτόν ζῆν, οὐκ ἒχομεν τοῦτο ἐν συνηθεία τῇ ἐκκλησιαστικῇ τό παρατήρημα, ἀλλά καί ἀπίστου ἀνδρός χωρίζεσθαι οὐ προσετάχθη γυνή, ἀλλά παραμένειν δεῖ διά τό ἂδηλον τῆς ἐκβάσεως. Τί γάρ οἶδας, γύναι, εἰ τόν ἂνδρα σώσεις; ὣστε ἡ καταλιποῦσα μοιχαλίς, εἰ ἐπ’ ἂλλον ἦλθεν ἂνδρα. Ὁ δέ καταλειφθείς, συγγνωστός ἐστι, καί ἡ συνοικοῦσα τῷ τοιούτω οὐ κατακρίνεται. Εἰ μέντοι ὁ ἀνήρ ἀποστάς τῆς γυναικός ἐπ’ ἂλλην ἦλθε, καί αὐτός μοιχός, διότι ποιεῖ αὐτήν μοιχευθῆναι, καί ἡ συνοικοῦσα αὐτῷ   μοιχαλίς, διότι ἀλλότριον ἂνδρα πρός ἑαυτήν μετέστησεν».

[2] Canon 21 of St. Basil «…ἡ μέν γυνή ἐπανιόντα τόν ἂνδρα αὐτῆς ἀπό πορνείας παραδέξεται, ὁ δέ ἀνήρ τήν μιανθεῖσαν τῶν οἲκων ἑαυτοῦ ἀποπέμψει. Τούτων δέ ὁ λόγος οὐ ῥᾲδιος, ἡ δέ συνήθεια οὓτω κεκράτηκεν».

[3] Πηδάλιον, 582.

[4] Πηδάλιον, 73.

The whole series can be read here: The Theology of Gender