There is a lot of guilt-laden teaching on divorce and remarriage, mostly due to misunderstanding scripture, as a result of poor translation.
Our understanding of divorce and remarriage must be in harmony with all of scripture, including the fact that Moses permitted divorce, placing only a restraint on a particular sequence of remarriage.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) (emphasis mine)
Notice that divorce is permitted in this scripture and is described as a two-step process as underlined—providing a certificate of divorce and sending away or separation. When the process of divorce is properly carried out, remarriage too, is permitted.
He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives." (Matthew 19:8)
Jesus admitted that Old Testament Law permitted divorce1 and he also said, "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven"2 and that he had not come to "abolish the Law or the Prophets...but to fulfill."3
Annulling any commandment, including telling people they cannot divorce or be remarried, would incur the consequences of Jesus' warning.
Our understanding and interpretation of New Testament language and scriptures must concur with this Old Testament Law. On this point, the translators seem to have been inaccurate in the handling of the Greek words related to separation and divorce. Yes, God's original intention for marriage did not include divorce, but he did permit it, and in Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8, God admits to using the two-step process when he divorced Israel.
Thus says the LORD, "Where is the certificate of divorce By which I have sent your mother away?" (Isaiah 50:1) (emphasis mine)
I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce. (Jeremiah 3:8) (emphasis mine)
Again, these two steps are very important—the giving of a certificate of divorce followed by second, the sending away. With that in mind, we'll revisit some familiar verses looking at the literal interpretation of the words.
"For I hate"(send away), "says the LORD, the God of Israel..." Malachi 2:16 (bold font my addition)
The Hebrew word used in this verse is shalach which means to send.4
In Malachi's day, it was terribly cruel to send a woman away without also giving her a certificate of divorce since she would then not be permitted to remarry, and therefore be forced to live a life of poverty as a single woman (recall the single life in the story of Ruth and Naomi). God hates the cruelty of separation without the certificate of divorce, and Jesus has something to add to this practice.
Matthew (and similarly in Mark)
Now look at Jesus' words in Matthew when I insert the literal translation of the Greek words used there:
"It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS (apoluo) HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE (apostasion)'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces (apoluo) his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery (moicheuo); and whoever marries a divorced (apoluo) woman commits adultery (moicheuo). (Matthew 5:31-32 NASB) (I've added the Greek and put in bold the two step process)
Why would translators correctly use apoluo as sends the first time and then as divorce the last two times? The Greek word for divorce is apostasion. These verses should have been translated as follows:
"It was said, 'Whoever separates from his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who merely separates from his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries a woman who is merely separated commits adultery." (Matthew 5:31-32) (my translation)
Any woman who is sent away without a certificate of divorce is only separated and not divorced. Marriage to a woman who is only separated would represent adultery since she is not divorced.
The words 'marital unfaithfulness' in this verse represent the Greek word porneia the root for the word we know as pornography. Other versions translate porneia as fornication, unchastity, lewdness, or immorality. Interestingly, Jesus did not use the word moicheuo, which is the Greek word for adultery, as the only justified reason for divorce. Divorce was not necessary where adultery was confirmed, since those found guilty were stoned. Sexual intercourse then is not a necessary threshold to justify divorce, a pattern of suggestive, lewd, or indiscreet behaviour could be enough to reveal the intentions of the heart.
In the following verses from Matthew 19, I've inserted, in bold, the literal translation of the Greek words:
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to send away his wife for any reason at all?" . . .7 They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to send away your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever sends away his wife, except for immorality (porneia), and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19:3, 7-9)
The Pharisees' question shows that practice of that day seems to have been simplified to the one step of just sending the wife away. Jesus takes them back to what was scriptural—the two-step process that Moses originally prescribed. Jesus adds that if the man, who is only separated remarries, he commits adultery.
Paul too, gives some advice about marriage and again I've inserted in bold the literal translation:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not send away his wife. (1 Cor. 7:10-11) (emphasis mine)
Here he uses the Greek word aphiemi, which also means to send away, leave alone, and permit.5 For Paul to forbid divorce, as most modern translations read, would be to nullify what God permitted through Moses. That cannot be. The literal translation of these verses, again, gives warning to a separation-only scenario.
While meeting with a couple struggling with marriage difficulties, each began to list the faults of the other, so I stopped them and invited them to tell me what they knew to be their faults in these difficulties. I waited three or four minutes surrounded in total silence—neither apparently knew what to say.
We would do well to work on changing the only heart over which we have influence—our own.
A softening of our heart toward the other is by far a preferred solution to marriage difficulties, but where that is not a consideration, or if aggression or abuse is involved, a properly executed divorce is in harmony with scripture.
Separation is not a divorce, and as such even dating a separated individual is the same as dating a married individual, and this equates to marital unfaithfulness.
Divorce is permitted for reasons of marital unfaithfulness, and remarriage is permitted when the divorced process is properly followed. To teach that divorce is only permitted where adultery is confirmed violates Jesus' warning on changing or nullifying scripture.
Divorce is an emotionally damaging step to take and never to be taken lightly, and when children are involved, the damage goes on for generations. God is able to heal our relationships if we are willing to surrender our hearts to him for change. Please ensure that every other option is exhausted before turning to divorce.
1 Deuteronomy 24
2 Matthew 5:19
3 Matthew 5:17
4 per Strong's Concordance
©2009, Steve: Bydeley.
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Dr. Steve Bydeley is the author of Fathered by God and with his wife Dianne, co-author of Dream Dreams and Dreams the Heal and Counsel. He has been a guest on the Miracle Channel, Trinity Television, and Crossroads Communication, and have taught internationally on various topics.