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Marriage and Divorce: A Clear and Intelligible Exposition

by Robert Waters

It seems to be taken for granted by many that when Jesus condemned the practice of "putting away" a wife, he was talking about divorce as we understand it today. But, if that was the case, why have translators not consistently used the word divorce instead of put away where divorce is supposedly (according to many) the meaning? It is argued that put away and divorce mean the same thing, but is this true? Is it possible that the Jews were practicing “putting away” their wives and this practice was something different from a legal divorce, and which did not dissolve the marriage, regardless of the reason for the separation?

The Law under which Jesus lived (and was obligated to follow) made provisions for a marriage to be dissolved (Deut 24:1-2, ASV) because of the hardness of man’s heart (Mt 19:8).

When a man taketh a wife, and marrieth her, then it shall be, if she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some unseemly thing in her, that he shall write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man's wife.

We see, then, that God laid down the procedure for a man to dissolve a marriage. This command was a procedure consisting of three separate actions (see below). Previous to this, men were simply putting away or sending their wives out of the house (women did not have the same rights). At that time, men were permitted to have more than one wife and received a dowry also. But if a man divorced his wife then the dowry had to be returned. The dowry, however, did not have to be returned in a case where there was no formal divorce. We can see, then, that simply sending his wife out of the house was a way of avoiding any financial loss. However, the consequences were very serious for the wife: without a formal divorce, she was left without a home and a means of support; and, being still married, it was not lawful for her to remarry. For a married woman to have sexual relations with another man was considered an act of adultery that was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10). Husbands who dealt treacherously with their wives (by putting them away and marrying another, which was contrary to the teaching of Moses) were committing adultery against them–adultery meaning "covenant breaking" or "breaking wedlock." (See Mark 10:11 and Ez 16:38, ASV, BBE, and CEV.)

In Luke’s record of Jesus’ teaching on “MDR” he was talking to men who were lovers of money. He talked about the rich man and Lazarus and he brought in the issue of men putting away their wives. He was showing that it was their greed that kept them from giving the decree so they wouldn’t have to give back the dowry. Their actions were described as adultery. Mark’s account observes that their actions were “adultery against her,” i.e., the wife who was put away (Mark 10:11; Luke 16:14-20).

The wife that was put out of the house may well have been innocent of any wrongdoing, yet she could not marry another without a certificate of divorcement that proved her marriage was legally dissolved. Thus, husbands who refused to give a bill of divorcement to those whom they had put away were disobeying God. It is interesting that the same evil practice among the Jews is still going on to this day. (See the chapter “Jewish Women in Chains.”)

Nowadays, in most countries, wives too are permitted to divorce their husbands; consequently women are not so vulnerable to being left homeless and destitute the way Jewish wives often are due to their husbands' refusal to present them with divorce papers. Nevertheless, the same sort of thing is experienced by both women and men today! People who have been divorced are being told by church leaders that, being divorced, they are ineligible for marriage and must remain unmarried or face the loss of fellowship in their church.

During the Mosaic age, a husband would often send (put) his wife away (Heb. shalach, Gk. apoluo) without a certificate of divorce. In God's sight, though, the husband committed adultery against her. Furthermore, his wife would find herself homeless and destitute and unable to remarry; to do so would be to commit adultery, and any man who married her would commit adultery (see Mark 10:11; Matt. 5:31-32), a crime that was punishable by death (Lev. 20:10).

However, God laid down a procedure to prevent such evils and protect wives from such treachery. This procedure consisted of three actions: writing her a bill of divorcement, placing it in her hand, and sending her away (Deut 24:1-2).

Interestingly, nothing in Jesus' teaching even suggests that the man who initiates “divorce” commits adultery (Matt 5:31-32; Mark 10:11). Seeing this, some people, contending that the "put away person" has no right to marry, reason that a person needs only to ensure that he is the one filing for divorce. (This suggestion is imprudent as it tends to encourage divorce because people feel compelled to divorce when they have the "grounds" and before the other spouse divorces them, making them a "put away person" and "ineligible for marriage.") But the real significance to this observation is that the men would not commit adultery in the marriage with another because they were allowed to have more than one wife. We can find no evidence that the men discussed in the context (which goes back to Deuteronomy 24:1-4 for the specific passage of the Law) were divorcing their wives "for fornication" or because they had committed adultery. Since the Law called for the death penalty for adultery, this theory lacks credence (Lev 20:10).

Jesus, like all faithful Jews, was obedient to the Law. No one could accuse Jesus of changing the Law (before the cross) because He Himself promised, "Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled" (Matt 5:18). In view of this, we see a serious error with the traditional teaching, attributed to Jesus, that a divorced person commits adultery if he remarries. The problem, then, in understanding who has a right to marry, hinges on the meaning of divorce. Many of the newer Bible versions translate the Greek word apoluo as divorced but the older and more reliable versions consistently translate apoluo as "put away" (or something similar).

Let us now note a couple of definitions from Random House Dictionary and make some observations:


1. Law. a judicial declaration dissolving a marriage in whole or in part, esp. one that released the husband and wife from all matrimonial obligations.

2. any formal separation of man and wife according to established custom, as among uncivilized tribes.

3. total separation; disunion: a divorce between thought and action.

4. to separate by divorce: The judge divorced the couple.

5. to break the marriage contract between oneself and [one's spouse] by divorce: She divorced her husband.

Judicial Separation

Law. a decree of legal separation of husband and wife that does not dissolve the marriage bond. Also called limited divorce.

It is interesting that some contemporary writers use the phrase "put away person" when referring to a divorced person. This is misleading because "put away" is equal to being separated, not divorced—according to the Law of Moses. Even a judicial separation is not a divorce and does not end the marriage. While it is true that a divorce does separate a couple, it is also true that a couple can separate without divorcing. A married couple who separate might claim they are divorced but, in reality, they are still married. Those who teach that "putting away" a spouse (without a "bill of divorcement") constitutes a divorce are not only teaching error, but make Jesus a liar! If a "put away" person equals a "divorced" person then Jesus broke His promise that the Law would not change until all was fulfilled (Matt 5:18). When a woman who is "put away" (or separated) marries another she obviously commits adultery. But it is important to understand that God gave a procedure for divorcing that would allow the divorced woman to marry another. Jesus could not possibly have contradicted Moses on this because to do so would have been transgression and would have given the Jews just cause to condemn him. Interestingly, they did not charge Jesus with breaking the Law on this matter, yet people today (supposedly his friends!) contend that He did.

The apostle Paul spoke to the "unmarried" person in 1 Corinthians 7:8-9. The word unmarried means: single, unattached, free, not married. “Not joined to another by marriage" [Encarta Dictionary]. To anyone who might not understand His universal divorce law, which freed the divorced, God gave a direct command: "let them marry." Unfortunately, a misunderstanding of Jesus' teaching has led many to ignore or try to explain away this command.

Many believe the only time God recognizes a divorce is when fornication has been committed, which they insist has to be the cause of the divorce and it frees only the initiator of the divorce to marry. This is based on their conception of what Jesus was teaching in Matthew 19:9:

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

The misunderstanding centers around two things: 1) the phrase "put away" and, 2) the definition of fornication. We have already discussed the meaning of put away so we will focus on the meaning of fornication. The word fornication is often believed to be a general term for any type of illicit sex. But consider the following quote:

The Old Testament commandment that a bill of divorce be given to the woman assumes the legitimacy of divorce itself. It is this that Jesus denies. (Unless the marriage is unlawful): this ‘exceptive clause,’ as it is often called, occurs also in Matthew 19:9, where the Greek is slightly different. There are other sayings of Jesus about divorce that prohibit it absolutely (see Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18; cf 1 Cor 7:10, 11b), and most scholars agree that they represent the stand of Jesus. Matthew's ‘exceptive clauses’ are understood by some as a modification of the absolute prohibition. It seems, however, that the unlawfulness that Matthew gives as a reason why a marriage must be broken refers to a situation peculiar to his community: the violation of Mosaic Law forbidding marriage between persons of certain blood and/or legal relationship (Lev 18:6-18). Marriages of that sort were regarded as incest (porneia), but some rabbis allowed Gentile converts to Judaism who had contracted such marriages to remain in them. Matthew's ‘exceptive clause’ is against such permissive-ness for Gentile converts to Christianity; cf the similar prohibition of porneia in Acts 15:20, 29. In this interpretation, the clause constitutes no exception to the absolute prohibition of divorce when the marriage is lawful” (www.usccb.org/nab/bible/matthew/matthew5.htm).

The word fornication, then, is the violation of Mosaic Law forbidding marriage between persons of blood relationships. The only two examples we have recorded in the New Testament where a marriage was said to be unlawful, or fornication, were the man who "had his father's wife" (1 Cor 5:1) and Herod, who married his brother's wife (apparently after divorce) while he still lived (Mark 5:18; Lev 20:21).

With this in mind, we offer the following paraphrase of Matthew 19:9:

And I say unto you, whoever shall put away his wife without a certificate of divorcement, except for the cases of an illicit or illegal marriage, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her that is put away without a certificate of divorcement doth commit adultery.

(Two versions lend support to the accuracy of the above paraphrase: The New Jerusalem Bible and the New American with Apocrypha. These are quoted in another chapter.)

Therefore, the traditional teaching that divorced people are still married in the sight of God is without biblical support.

The idea that Jesus was giving the grounds for a “scriptural” divorce, and that only the one who initiated the divorce may marry another, is not in harmony with the Bible. Such a doctrine has God not only punishing innocent persons, contrary to his nature, but also has him contradicting himself. When the apostle Paul (by inspiration) dealt with questions pertaining to marriage, he said to let men and women have a spouse so they can avoid fornication (1 Cor 7:1, 2). By teaching men to "love their wives" (Col 3:19) and women to "be in subjection" to their husbands (Eph 5:22) he teaches against separation and divorce; but obviously it happens. Yet only during the "present distress" were those who were separated commanded to remain "unmarried" or in the state they were in—as no command, example or inference teaches that divorced persons must remain celibate. That idea is an assumption that is based on false premises.

In his answer to the brethren in Corinth, Paul makes it clear that people should marry, if necessary, to avoid fornication. He says to anyone who would object to the unmarried marrying: "let them marry" and "he sinneth not." We must accept that a legal divorce dissolves a marriage and that "unmarried" persons do not commit adultery when they marry. Paul's teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 8, 9, 27, 28, 36 should leave no doubt in our minds that divorced persons may scripturally marry another. For a church to refuse to accept a couple because one person in the marriage has been divorced is to place an unnecessary burden on the couple, and their children, which often results in their turning away from Christ. Thus, Paul's classifying "forbidding to marry" as "doctrines of devils" (1 Tim 4:1-3) surely condemns the traditional teaching and practice of forbidding legally divorced persons to marry or continue in a legal marriage already contracted. Furthermore, he said:

But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. (1 Cor 7:36).

The phrase “any man” is not limited to virgins or those who have never been married. Thus, persons who are “unmarried,” which includes those legally divorced, must be allowed to marry if the need is there, for they do not sin if they do. On the other hand, one who is guilty of "forbidding to marry" does indeed commit sin.

Recommended reading:

The Clear and Simple Truth on Divorce and Remarriage
Forbidding to Marry