The following was not written by me, but it has been helpful to me so I want to share it.
Divorce, the Law, and Jesus
by Walter L. Callison
Divorce and remarriage are topics of much debate. The purpose of the following article is to invite the reader to reassess the church’s attitude toward remarriage.
We welcome your comments and opinions on the content of this article.
For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Grace. Did grace come by Jesus Christ to those suffering marital tragedy, even as much grace as was provided by Old Testament law? Surely, we affirm, grace and truth did come by Jesus Christ. Then how does grace abound to those who have suffered the tragedy of a marriage failure and divorce?
Christ did more than teach with words. He also taught with his life. Christ brought new ideas to his followers, rejecting their ancient “eye for an eye” and “tooth for a tooth” doctrines, encouraging love for those not their own, lifting up women from the status of “things” to recognition as people. Yet he also taught respect for the old Jewish law.
When we study what he said about divorce, we must also study the life he lived among those of broken marriages, as well as what he taught about Jewish law, especially their divorce law.
But what about his words? If a divorced person is remarried, what about the words, “Whosoever putteth away his wife and marrieth another, committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18)? We could emulate the compassionate and forgiving nature of Christ, as he sent the woman at the well into Samaria to be his witness. But do his words deny his actions? Are people who are divorced and married to another living in adultery? Are they forbidden service to Christ?
We also must hear the words of the Apostle Paul, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). Does he speak of a person who has been divorced and remarried?
Luke records only one comment, and a very concise one, on this subject:
“And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one title of the law to fail. Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery”(Luke 16:17-18).
Concise. But Jesus did make it clear that the Old Testament had something significant to say.
There is a law! When asked by the Pharisees, in the Gospel of Mark, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?” (Mark 10:2), Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?” (Mark 10:3). “They said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement” (Mark 10:4). There is a law.
The law is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, and at the time Christ lived, Flavius Josephus, who also lived then, paraphrased it and referred to it as the “law of the Jews”:
“He that desires to be divorced from his wife for any cause whatsoever, (and many such causes happen among men), let him in writing give assurance that he will never use her as his wife any more; for by this means she may be at liberty to marry another husband, although before this bill of divorce be given, she is not to be permitted so to do…”
(Antiquities of the Jews – The Life and Work of Flavius Josephus, Book IV, Ch. VIII, Sec. 23, p. 134; tr. Wm. Whiston; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, NY).
Here is the law from Deuteronomy:
“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him 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” (Deut. 24:1-2).
The law was still around in the time of Christ. We must, therefore, deal with the “tittles” of the law.
The Bible only records one divorce. God said he did it. In Jeremiah 3, God reminded Judah that she was heading for trouble. Israel had already been taken captive. God told Jeremiah to warn Judah that she had witnessed her sister Israel’s infidelity and had seen God give her a bill of divorce and send her away; and yet she did not fear (Jer. 3:6-8).
There were other things men did with their wives. Many men of old married more than one wife, and without bothering about divorce. Some of these were God’s servants: Solomon, David, Abraham, and Esau, for example. Heroes of God’s revelation, but also products of their culture.
If he did not divorce her, what did a man of those days do with a wife when he took another? He put her away. There is a word for that in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word shalach. It is different than the Hebrew word for divorce, which is keriythuwth. Keriythuwth (Jer. 3:8 above) literally means excision, a cutting of the marital bonds; legal divorce was written, as commanded in Deuteronomy 24, and permitted subsequent marriage. Shalach is usually translated “to put away.” Women were “put away” when their men married others, put away to be available if needed or wanted again, put away to become mere property, as slaves, or put away in total dismissal; it was a cruel day for women. They were “put away” in favor of another, but not given a divorce and the right to marry again. This word described a cruel tradition, common, but contrary to Jewish law.
Some of the hardships and terror experienced by women who were “put away” can be seen as this Hebrew word shalach is described in the Langenscheid Pocket Hebrew Dictionary (McGraw-Hill, 1969)-“to let loose, roaming at large, to be scared, abandoned, forsaken.”
J. B. Phillips, in his book of meditations For This Day (Word, 1975) wrote:
“The Christian faith took root and flourished in an atmosphere almost entirely pagan, where cruelty and sexual immorality were taken for granted, where slavery and the inferiority of women were almost universal, while superstition and rival religions with all kinds of bogus claims, existed on every hand.”
God hated this “putting away.” Malachi, the prophet, broken-heartedly pleaded with God’s people to stop the practice. Hear Malachi plead with them. The word translated “putting away” in Mal. 2:16 is not the Hebrew word for divorce but it is shalach, put away. Hear Malachi respond to leaders, who asked how they had dealt treacherously, and committed abomination in Israel, and profaned the holiness of the Lord.
“Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of the covenant. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth. For the Lord, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth “putting away” (Mal. 2:14-16).
And Jesus came. And his words do not deny his actions! He spoke of this when he said, “Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18). Whosoever does this commits adultery! This practice was cruel and was adulterous, but it was not divorce.
This New Testament word, translated “put away” in the King James Version, is a form of the Greek word apoluo. It is the word in Greek, the language of the New Testament, which parallels the Hebrew word shalach (put away).
There is an Old Testament Hebrew word for divorce, keriythuwth, and a New Testament Greek word, apostasion. The Arndt-Gingrich Lexicon of the New Testament cites usage of the word apostasion as the technical term for a bill or writing of divorce as far back as 258 B.C.
Apoluo, the Greek word for putting away, was not technically divorce, though often used synonomously. In that age of total male domination, men often took additional wives, and did not provide written release when they forsook wives and married others. The Jewish law demanding written divorce (Deut. 24:1-2) was largely ignored. If a man married another woman, so what? If a man “put away” (apoluo) his wife without bothering with a written divorce, who was going to object? The woman?
Jesus had some objections. Jesus even loved mistreated women! He told them that this earth would go up in smoke before the law requiring a written bill of divorce should fail (Lk. 16:17). And he said, when you put away a wife (without written divorce), and marry another (while still married), you are guilty of adultery (Lk. 16:17). Moreover, she who is put away is in real trouble. She has no divorce paper. She is abandoned, but still married. She would commit adultery if she married again (Lk. 16:18).
The distinction between “put away” and “divorce,” between the Greek apoluo and apostasion is critical. Apoluo indicated that women were enslaved, put away, with no rights, no recourse; deprived of the basic right to monogamous marriage. Apostasion ended marriage and permitted a legal subsequent marriage. The paper makes a difference. “Let him 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” (Deut. 24:2). That was the law.
There are passages, other than Luke 16:17-18 (above) where Jesus spoke on this matter. They include Matt. 19:9, Mark 10:10-12 (where Mark records that Jesus laid down the same law for women as for men), and Matt. 5:32. Jesus used a form of the word apoluo eleven times in these passages. In every passage he forbade apoluo, putting away. He never forbade giving apostasion, written divorce, required by Jewish law.
Should the Greek word apoluo be translated divorce? Kenneth S. Wuest in The New Testament, an Expanded Translation always translated it “dismissed” or “put away,” never “divorced.” The old, and very literal American Standard Version always translated it “put away.” The King James Version translated it “put away” ten out of the eleven times Jesus used it. That eleventh instance seems to be the source of the problem. In 1611, in ONE place the King James translators wrote “divorced” instead of “put away.” In Matt. 5:32, they wrote, “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” The word is not the Greek word apostasion (divorce), but is a form of that same Greek word apoluo which did not include a writing of divorce for the woman. She, technically, would still be married.
Matt. 19:3-10 records the Pharisees taunting Jesus about this matter, asking him, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?” He responded that marriage is a permanent relationship, and said, “Whatsoever God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).
They then asked, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement (apostasion), and to put her away?” (Matt. 19:7). Jesus answered, “because of the hardness of your hearts!” (Matt. 19:8). The first basic human right God gave us was the right to be married. No other companionship was adequate. Hard-hearted men unilaterally put away women and married others, considering themselves divorced, but leaving the women without recourse and deprived of that first basic human right. Human rights were for men only in those days. Jesus changed that! He demanded obedience to the law; he demanded equal marriage rights for women. Grace does abound in Jesus Christ!
Jesus told those men that to put away a wife and to marry another was adultery! Adultery! The law (Deut. 22:22) called for the death penalty for adultery, for both the woman and the man! That was bitter medicine for men who did as they pleased with women. Matt. 19:10 records their shock: “If the case of a man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry.” They did not live in a culture wherein a man was expected to live with only one woman for life, much less, give her equal rights if marriage failed.
How did we ever begin to read “whosoever divorces his wife” into those places where Jesus literally said “whosoever puts away, or abandons, his wife”?
It may be that the one place where apoluo was mis-translated “divorce” in 1611 started the whole process. The American Standard Version corrected the error in 1901. It never became popular enough to make much difference. Wuest was careful to avoid such mistakes, as noted earlier. But almost everything that has ever come off a printing press has been influenced by the King James Version of the Bible, even Greek-English lexicons, and most modern translators seem to be influenced by that one occurrence in it and translate apoluo “divorce,” even though the meaning of the word does not include a writing of divorce (apostasion). Now, tradition has taught us to record “divorced” in our minds though our eyes actually read “put away” in the King James Version.
Is written divorce, as commanded in Deuteronomy, the solution to the cruel practice of “putting away”? The twenty-fourth chapter of Deuteronomy is evidence that, even as God heard the groaning of his people in Egypt and provided deliverance from slavery, he also heard the groans of enslaved women and provided deliverance from abuse by means of that tragic necessity, divorce; tragic because it ends that which should never end, marriage; necessary to protect the victims of those who do not obey the rules of our creator, all-mighty God. Necessary, originally, because men “put away” women, trapping them in illegal and adulterous multiple marriages.
Divorce is a privilege, provided as a corrective for an intolerable situation. It is a privilege which can be, and often is, abused. Divorce is not a pretty picture in most cases. Loneliness, rejection, a deep sense of failure, loss of self-esteem, critical relatives, child care problems, property settlements-these concerns, and more confront the divorced.
Divorce can be more traumatic than the death of a mate. Grief following the death of a spouse is hard to bear, as is the grief of divorce. But a dead spouse does not keep coming back. The divorced one often does, thus prolonging and often renewing grief. Divorce is still only what it was in Jesus’ day, a partial solution to a serious and cruel situation; and maybe the only reasonable solution. It may be necessary, but it is always a tragedy!
We might be able to prevent some divorces by tightening our divorce laws or by religious prohibitions against divorce, but such actions would not prevent broken marriages. When couples stay together only because of fear of the notoriety required by divorce laws, or because of church prohibitions, or “for the sake of the children,” tragedy can result. Disastrous marital triangles, domestic cruelty, child abuse, murder, and suicide are some of the documented consequences of marriage which had failed but was not terminated. What a fearful choice! A broken home is a tragedy, but I will never forget a young man who put a gun barrel in his mouth and ended his marriage, his alternative to divorce. His church had forbidden divorce.
Our high divorce rate is not the real problem. Marriage failure comes first, and then divorce. The divorce rate is only an indicator of our high bad marriage rate. To correct this, we must do more than preach against divorce! It will be more difficult. It is easy to preach against divorce, but difficult for a church to be constructive in providing preparation for marriage and strengthening of marriages. Our challenge lies here!
Can a divorced person be ordained as a deacon or a preacher? The Apostle Paul, an educated man, knew the Greek word for divorce (apostasion) and knew his culture. He also knew Christ would accept anyone, even him, the “chiefest of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15). Unquestionably some early converts had multiple wives, slave wives, and concubines. Each of these relationships, though given the nicer title, polygamy, was adultery. Paul rejected the heads of such households as leaders in the church. The command to give a writing of divorcement in Deuteronomy 24 limited a man to only one wife and thus prohibited polygamy and the adultery inherent in it. Paul seemed to concur fully when he said, “A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). He rejected polygamy, not divorce.
Despite serious abuse, the divorce law (Deuteronomy 24) still has validity. Divorce is a radical solution to insurmountable marital problems. It ends all hope that the marriage might be saved, and declares publicly that the marriage has failed. This moment of truth can be shattering. Sin, related to this failure, must be confessed if there is to be any forgiveness, any peace with God. “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This includes forgiveness for marital failure.
As opposed to putting away, written divorce, commanded by the law, provided a degree of human dignity for women subjected to cruel abuse, adulterous polygamy, and the whims of hardhearted men. Nothing so flimsy as an oral “I divorce you” would do. Divorce declared the legal end of a marriage, thereby precluding any charge of adultery or bigamy should either party ever marry again. Divorce severed all marital ties and all control by the former spouse. Divorce demanded strict monogamy. Divorce prevented unilateral dismissal and preserved the basic right to be married. Divorce does the same today. Abandonment, desertion, putting away, or whatever one calls that hard-hearted forsaking of a wife for another, without divorce, was and is forbidden by the Lord Jesus himself (Mt. 19:9, Mt. 5:32, Mk. 10:11-12, Lk. 16:18).
For centuries much of the Christian community has interpreted these teachings of Jesus to say: 1) Divorce is absolutely not permitted, or at best, is permitted only in the case of admitted or proven adultery. 2) A divorced person is not allowed to marry again. 3) A divorced person who does marry again lives in adultery. 4) A person who is divorced cannot be ordained as a deacon or a minister. Every one of these beliefs could be wrong. The first three are contrary to Mosaic Law and are based on scripture in which Jesus did not even use the Greek word for divorce (apostasion); the fourth is based on scripture in which Paul did not use it. The word Jesus used was apoluo, to put away. This was the problem with which he dealt, not divorce.
A divorced person must have great grace and determination to serve in a church which holds to the four positions listed above. How can this be, when the church is the body of Christ on earth, to function and to serve as he did, in person?
Christ, who once wept over Jerusalem, must look down from heaven and weep over us. He came and called Simon the Zealot, a radical anti-Roman, and Matthew, a hated lackey of Rome, a pair as incompatible as any you could find in America today; but he put them to work, together, in his kingdom. Then he went to Samaria, revealed himself to a woman with a shameful background of marital failures, and sent her out to share the revelation of God in Christ as if she were as good as anyone else. He must weep when he sees us wasting our time trying to figure out whom we can disbar from serving him in his church.
Jesus openly ministered to all who came to him. Yet many of our divorced friends are afraid of our churches. They know what we say the Bible teaches about divorce. Can we be right and so unlike Christ? Do our traditional interpretations separate us from people whom Christ would have received? If so, we must be wrong. He came to save sinners. The only people he ever rejected were the self-righteously religious. Is our understanding of his words correct if it does not square with his life? Divorced people are real people! For centuries churches have excluded these people from fellowship and usefulness, from joy and equality, even from salvation; people for whom Christ died. Whether or not divorce is sin, this certainly is! May God grant us the grace to mediate that grace which did come in Jesus Christ to the divorced.
(This article appeared in the May/June 1986 edition of Your Church. Walter L. Callison is a Baptist minister from Iowa City, IA. He is a graduate of Park College and the Midwestern Baptist Theology Seminary. He served previously as director of missions for the Bethel Baptist Association.