A Contextual Study of Matthew 19:1-9
With Harmonization From Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 5:32, Luke 16:18, and 1 Corinthians 7:1-16
[All Scripture references are from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.] 

By Steven C. Harper 

        Much teaching and commentary has already been published concerning the meaning and application of this text but, while I do not claim to have the ability or even the knowledge to say something that probably hasn’t already been said or written, I believe it is necessary to revisit this familiar text because of the many false ideas and teachings that are proceeding from erroneous interpretations and misunderstandings about what Jesus actually taught. Part of the latest error is based on the claim of some that we are not really teaching different doctrines, but simply making different applications of the same principle(s).

        This may sound like a reasonable plea, for if we are simply making different applications of the same teaching [when permitted to do so by God], then we should certainly not divide over such trivial matters. But, my friends, this is not the case at hand. What is actually happening is that men are making different interpretations of the same text, and the consequence is [as we might expect] entirely different doctrines being put forth — and all are claiming to be right. As in all matters of truth, when two or more people are teaching doctrines that are not in agreement, either one, some, or all are wrong, for all cannot be right. Truth is narrow and, no matter how we may plead our case, if the consequence of our doctrine causes us or others to travel a path that leads in the opposite direction of the word of God when that doctrine is applied or followed, the fact remains that we are in error.

        Part of the current dispute centers on a difference in understanding the individual(s) addressed in the text, but this is not a new controversy. Some have argued the “whoever” of Matthew 19:9a includes anyone, without exception. [This means anyone — even those who had been previously put away for fornication or those who had simply been divorced for no reason at all.] Some teach that Jesus was talking to anyone married, no matter what their past history [including some who may have had multiple marriages and divorces]. Some are now teaching that the “whosoever” includes those who may have already been put away by, but are still bound to, a spouse [because the divorce was not for fornication]. Some teach that Jesus was addressing only those who were Scripturally [and, in the context, currently] married. Can you see, from just these varied views, that this is not just a matter of differences in application?

        And these are not the only differences among brethren. Past disputes [some of which are still ongoing] even include differences over the meaning of words. For many years, brethren believed and accepted that the word adultery meant unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another. But in recent times, some have proclaimed that adultery doesn’t mean that, but only “covenant-breaking.” Others have argued over who exactly is bound by the words of Jesus; some argue that Jesus was making a new law [applicable only to Christians], while others say Jesus was clarifying the Old Law’s teaching on the topic. Just from this particular disagreement can one see that differences in application certainly do matter? If one is saying the words of Jesus only apply to Christians while the other says they only apply to the Jews, there could never be any unity or agreement on its true meaning or application.

        We could go on and on, but this would serve no purpose. What we need to do is get back to the text and see what it actually says. If we are honest in heart, we will not try to make these words try to fit with what we already believe, but instead make our own beliefs fit with what these words teach. Let's begin, shall we?

        Verse 3. The context begins with the Pharisees coming to ask Jesus a question, but not really to know the answer [they were “testing Him”]. Their question was this: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” Some have used the question of the Pharisees to somehow lessen the weight of Jesus’ teaching, but it does not necessarily follow that if a question is a “trick” question, the answer is any less meaningful. Yes, they came to “test” Jesus but, as we will see, He was not tricked.

        Now, what is the situation being raised here? Were the Pharisees asking about a man who had already divorced his wife [either lawfully or unlawfully]? Were they asking about a man who had already been put away but was still bound to his former wife [because the divorce was not for fornication]? Were they asking about a man who had been put away already for fornication? Or, were they asking about a man who was still married to his wife? We could come up with even more possibilities, but let us let the context tell us what the real situation was.

        The Greek word used for “divorce” [“put away”; KJV, ASV] in verse three is apolusai (ap-o-loo´-sahee), and is a verb in the infinitive mood, aorist tense, active voice. A verb in the infinitive mood expresses action without reference to person, number, or tense. Davis says of the aorist tense: “The aorist tense expresses action in its simplest form — undefined; it does not distinguish between complete or incomplete action. The aorist tense treats the action as a point [in time ---SH].”1 The active voice does, however, describe a verb whose subject is represented as performing or causing the action expressed by the verb. From this, we may know the question [as stated] specifies the man as the cause of the action [the divorce]. What all this means is, the Pharisees stated a “what if” [a question about a possible, therefore, future event]. Generically, the question is: “Can a man do this?” The question itself necessarily implies a future event. If we are to accept the first question of the Pharisees as instrumental in understanding who was addressed in this context, we would have to logically conclude that Jesus was speaking to the married, due to the fact the Pharisees asked about a man who was currently married, and whether or not it was lawful for him to do something [necessarily implied] in the future: divorce his wife for just any reason.

        Furthermore, because they asked if the man could divorce “his wife,” we may rightly conclude that the marriage of the man in question was lawful. [She was truly his wife (implying they were currently married), and she was not the wife of another.] This may also be implied by the question in that they were asking about the lawfulness of a possible action [one not yet executed]. It would be inconsistent, illogical, and fruitless to ask about the lawfulness of a future event while the current status was unlawful. [I am not unaware of the Pharisees’ habit of acting inconsistently, but this context does not imply such.]

        Verses 4-6. Jesus’ answer was this: “Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” [It should be noted that the beginning of verse four says, “And He answered and said to them,...” Jesus did not change the subject or the situation of the man in question.] The immediate answer of Jesus was this: A man should not divorce his wife at all.

        But let’s consider the answer of Jesus. Did His answer address a man who was still married or a man who had already divorced his wife [or had been divorced by her]? Remember, Jesus was asked about a man who was currently married. From the text, it should be clear that Jesus was speaking of marriage; that is why He said, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” If Jesus stated that man should not separate, the necessary implication is that the union was still intact, i.e., they were still married. Note well that Jesus was speaking of one man who had married one woman — not a man who had married a woman and then put her away and married another [not yet, anyway], and not a man who had been put away unlawfully [not for fornication] by his spouse.

        The answer of Jesus here is very important, too, when trying to determine who is accountable to these words. When the Pharisees came to test Jesus, they were using current law as the basis for their question. Some have concluded that the question was an effort to make Jesus proclaim which of the current schools of the day was right regarding the teaching of marriage and divorce, but such conclusions are based on mere speculation. The Bible simply says they came “testing” Jesus. We should not read into the text what is not there.

        And when Jesus answered, He confounded the Pharisees by not answering according to the Old Law, but by going back to the beginning. He did not answer by the Law of Moses, but by the law of God as it was from the beginning. What Jesus taught here was not a “clarification” of the Old Law or even the traditions they were following, but a clarification of what God intended in the beginning — before the Law of Moses existed. This was a law that superseded all other laws and is not confined to any covenant, new or old.

        And consider the answer: Jesus quoted Genesis 2:24 and then concluded, “Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (v. 6) I must admit that if Jesus had not said this, I may not have concluded from that text that marriage was intended to be a lifetime commitment, but He did say it and it must, then, be a necessary conclusion. From this text, we may know that God intended that one man be married to one woman for life. Let us also understand that when Jesus said, “let not man separate,” it did not mean man could not separate. [Consider other passages where “let not” is used, such as John 14:1 and Romans 14:3.] It is important to acknowledge that men may certainly do what God has prohibited, and even that God recognizes such actions as having been done. He will call it sin, of course, but it does not negate the fact the act has been completed.

        Suppose you watched a man being baptized, but you have been told it was not for the right reason [not Scriptural]. You would appear very foolish if, as he came up out of the water, you told the man — who stood before you dripping wet — that he wasn’t really baptized. In the same sense, God has determined who may and may not be divorced [or married], but man can and does disobey the laws of God. Does that mean they are not married? Not divorced? No, that is not what it means at all. But, just like that man who was not baptized for the Scriptural [God-authorized] reason, the act did not affect God's view of the man’s status. If a man is not baptized for the right reason, he is still a baptized man, but God did not work salvation in that man. [He is still unsaved.] If a man and woman are not divorced for the right reason, they are still divorced, but God does not loose the bond. [Neither is free to remarry.]

        Verse 7. The Pharisees’ second question was then: “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”

        First, let us remember that Jesus’ answer was not according to the Old Law, as they probably expected. They expected Jesus to appeal to the Old Law and then somehow catch Him in His words, but they were thwarted. This led to the second question, by which they again tried to get Jesus to answer according to the Old Law [Specifically, Deut. 24:1-4.] The way they presented this next question was done so as to effectively position Jesus against the Law of Moses. [Stated another way, “If you’re right, Jesus, then what about what Moses said?”]

        Now let’s consider their second question. First, the word used here for “put her away” is the same one in the same form as the one translated as “divorce” in verse 3, indicating a possible event, not one that had already been accomplished. Earlier, they had asked about what a man could do and they were asking a related question. They were not asking about a different man in a different situation. They were asking ‘part two’ of their question, based on the response of Jesus to the first part. Since Jesus said it should not be done at all, they were wondering why Moses had ‘commanded’ they give the woman a certificate of divorce and put her away. Keep in mind that the question posed was a hypothetical question. [A 'what if;' the act in question has not yet occurred.]

        Jesus’ second answer was this: “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (vv. 8, 9)

        [Here is where most of the problems arise with the various doctrines now taught, but let us stay with the context and see what these verses teach.]

        Verse 8. Though they sought to catch Him in His words, Jesus again appealed to the original law [as it was stated in Genesis] and said that what Moses stated in Deuteronomy 24 “permitted” divorce because of their hard hearts, “but from the beginning it was not so.” It is important to note the word of Jesus used here because this should clarify some erroneous doctrines regarding God's law of marriage. When Jesus answered, He said from the beginning” and not in the beginning.” Why is this significant? If Jesus had said “in” instead of “from,” then we might rightly conclude that it was the law in the beginning, but had changed in the interim. But He did not say “in.” When Jesus used “from,” this indicated that was God’s law in the beginning and had continued to that day unchanged [and does so even today]. The Law of Moses was a “permission,” but it was not what God originally intended. Jesus’ answer was an effort to try to get them to go back to the way God had always intended marriage to be, and to specify the one reason it could be ended [sexual immorality].

        Verse 9. Now here is the direct answer to the original question [“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (v. 3)] The simple answer of Jesus was “NO!” Though Moses had given a permission for divorce, it was not in God’s original plan for marriage that there would ever be such thing as divorce, and when it was permitted, they took it much farther than was ever intended. God allowed divorce — but for one reason only: sexual immorality. According to Jesus, a man may not divorce his wife “for just any reason.” If he does, and if he remarries another, he commits adultery. [It must be necessarily implied that the woman he marries is also guilty of adultery.] If anyone marries the woman he put away, that man is also guilty of adultery. [Therefore, the woman is also guilty of adultery.] In plain terms, if a divorce is not for the cause of fornication, and if either party remarries another, they are guilty of adultery; and whoever marries them is guilty of adultery. If the divorce was not for sexual immorality, the marriage has clearly ended, but the bond has not been loosed by God. There are no situations or scenarios mentioned in God’s word that make any kind of exception to this rule.

        Because of the various errors espoused today, and to keep this as clear as possible, we cannot sufficiently address all errors at one time. This particular article will deal exclusively with the erroneous doctrine that teaches a woman who has already been put away [not for fornication] may, at some point after she has already been divorced, put away the one who put her away. Those who teach this will specify that this is possible only if the one who put her away commits fornication after the divorce, and it is this act which now changes the eligibility of the woman who has already been put away. According to this false doctrine, she may now marry another without the consequence of adultery, contradicting the plain teaching of Jesus as stated in the latter part of this verse (Matt. 19:9b).

        Post-Divorce Repudiation. Some are now teaching that a woman who has been put away wrongfully [not for fornication] is found in the first part of this verse [the “whoever” of 19:9a.] Our question is simple: Does the context allow for such? Let’s look…

         Considering the prior verses, we must ask: What about the situation addressed here? Did Jesus all of a sudden change the context and the situation in question, or did He answer their question and situation presented to Him? According to some, Jesus has suddenly changed the whole situation being discussed and is now talking about a man who has already been divorced by his wife wrongfully [not for fornication], but that situation is not found anywhere in the context. Up to this point, the Pharisees have asked about — and Jesus has answered regarding — a man who was currently [and Scripturally] married to his wife. The original question was about a man currently married, and Jesus answered their question [though not as they expected]. To say that, at the beginning of verse nine, Jesus is now talking about a man [or woman] who has already been divorced would not agree with anything discussed so far in the context; we would have to make an abrupt and unexplainable change in scenarios for that to be true. What Jesus addresses is a man currently [and Scripturally] married, and Jesus said if that man divorces his wife for a reason other than sexual immorality [fornication; KJV, ASV] and marries another, he commits adultery. And, whoever marries the woman he put away [in this case, not for fornication] also commits adultery. It must be necessarily implied that if the men are guilty of adultery when they marry the women named, the women are also guilty of adultery. [One cannot commit adultery alone.]

        And, the idea that Jesus spoke of a man [or woman] already put away does not even fit should we ignore the previous context. When Jesus answered, He spoke of a man who “divorces” [apoluse; ap-o-loo´-say] his wife. The word, this time, is in the subjunctive mood, aorist tense, active voice. A subjunctive verb is one that designates ‘a mood typically used for subjective, doubtful, hypothetical, or grammatically subordinate statements or questions.’ [Webster’s American Family Dictionary] The mood of the word indicates Jesus was responding to their ‘hypothetical’ situation and, directly, to their question. Furthermore, since it is in the active voice, you should know that the active voice is ‘a voice, verb form, or construction having a subject represented as forming or causing an action expressed by the verb.’ [op. cit.] I added the bold letters to emphasize that, according to the form of the word used here, Jesus certainly did identify one having caused the action [here, divorce]. This is in contrast to the form of the same word used in the latter part of the verse when applied to the woman whom he put away. There the word translated as ‘divorced’ (19:9b) is apolelumenen (ap-o-le-loo-men´-nen), which is a participle, perfect tense, passive voice, accusative case, feminine gender.

        Let me see if I can simplify that a little. A participle basically is a verb used as an adjective. Perfect tense is used to identify actions already completed. The passive voice indicates the action named was taken against the subject in question [here, the woman]. Accusative case points to the subject as the recipient of the action. I don’t think I have to explain the feminine gender. Summed up, it means this: Jesus addresses a woman who has been divorced [or, as some brethren like to say, has been ‘repudiated’] by her husband. She was passive in the sense that she did not perform the action, but it was done to her.

        Consider the two individuals involved, as illustrated below:

19:9a    ~  “whoever divorces his wife” = [man à divorces à his wife]

19:9b    ~  “her who is divorced” = [woman ß divorced by ß her husband]

        Now, consider the two forms of the same word [apoluo] Jesus used in this one verse. One form [v. 9a] was used to describe a man who took action against his wife [to whom he was still married at the beginning of this verse, according to the context], and another form [v. 9b] was used to describe the woman who was the recipient of the same action. The forms of the word are not equal, but Jesus spoke of the same action: a man divorced his wife. [Ex. In the sentence John threw his ball and walked away; and the ball thrown by John bounced over the fence, the ball of “John threw his ball” is the same object as “the ball thrown by John”; though stated differently, it is the same ball.] In Matthew 19:9, he [the man] was the divorcer and she [the woman] was the divorced [meaning the action was taken against her; the end result is that they were both no longer married afterwards, though still bound by God]. They began married and ended unmarried. The woman who was put away “not for fornication” is not found in the beginning of verse nine [“whoever”], but in the “her who is divorced” of the latter part of the verse.

        Since that is true, what may we know about the eligibility of the original man and woman to remarry, from the context? Jesus said the man who put away his wife wrongfully [not for fornication] and marries another commits adultery. According to Jesus, this man has no right to remarry. Though they are divorced, they are not ‘loosed’ by God from that marriage bond. Subsequent marriage results in adultery. Jesus further stated that a man who married the woman who has been wrongfully divorced [not for fornication] also commits adultery. [We may necessarily imply that the woman is also guilty of adultery when she remarries, for one cannot commit adultery alone.]

        It is here that many complain and appeal to the ‘unfairness’ of the fact this woman has been put away wrongfully — she is “innocent.” If “innocent” means she has not committed fornication prior to this, I would agree. But, friends, if she remarries she is no longer “innocent” — she is an adulteress! That is what Jesus said.

        Some also want to throw in a change of scenario in the middle of this and say, “Once her husband commits fornication — even after the initial divorce that was NOT for fornication — she may now put him away and now has the right to remarry.” There is no such scenario in this passage whatsoever, and those who plead for the “repudiation rights of the innocent” are pleading argumentum ad misericordiam. [The ‘Argument Of Last Resort’ in which a plea is made to the reader to show mercy and compassion on those in such situations, and is without a logical or rational basis.] Jesus plainly identified the woman who was put away NOT for fornication as “her who is divorced” (part ‘b’), and said whoever married her commits adultery. [If he is guilty of adultery, so is she.] There are no ‘provisos’ stated by Jesus [such as ‘unless her husband who put her away commits fornication first’]. If she remarries, she commits adultery. Period. Why can we not simply accept this plain teaching?

        Let us consider what Jesus said in this verse again. First, the situation in this context addressed a man and woman currently [and Scripturally] married. Next, we find this man put away his wife for some other reason than sexual immorality [or, fornication]. Here is the result:

        Man divorces his wife [not for fornication] + marries another = commits adultery

        Woman divorced by her husband [not for fornication] + marries another = commits adultery

        In this context, NEITHER party was ‘guilty’ at the time of the divorce [not guilty of fornication, anyway]. But, because the man divorced her against God’s will [not for fornication] he sinned [sin is transgression of the law, 1 John 3:4] and he caused her to sin when she remarried [cf. Matt. 5:32a]. Furthermore, when and if this man remarries [another woman, not the original spouse], he commits adultery. Now, what about the original wife? Since he has remarried and committed adultery [fornication], is she now free to remarry? What does the text say? The text says, “whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” [There are no ‘provisos’ found.] Some brethren would have me believe it says “whoever marries her who is divorced does not commit adultery, since her husband has now committed fornication.” I urge you to look at the text of Matthew 19:9 and see what Jesus said. That is what we should believe.

        Those who say the woman put away not for fornication may remarry once her husband commits fornication [after she has already been divorced] are relying on the silence of the Scriptures for their defense, for there is not a single verse in the entire Bible that addresses the scenario they are trying to justify. In times past, some of these same men used to preach that when God is silent, we need to be silent. I wonder why this is not now being practiced. The end result will be adultery, if this doctrine is followed, and those teaching it will have to answer for the souls condemned to eternal destruction. This is not something to be taken lightly and it certainly should cause brethren to draw a line of fellowship. [Just as surely as we would draw lines of fellowship over any other doctrine that led souls to eternal condemnation.]

        Some are arguing that this is not a subject over which we should divide. Some say it is just “a difference in application” and not worthy of rebuke. Friends, if I hired a man to paint my house and left to go to the office, what would you expect me to do when I came back and found the man tossing paint straight from the bucket onto my house? You and I both would probably have expected him to use brushes, rollers, and maybe even one of those air-powered sprayers. That is how we define “painting.” But what if he said, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a ‘difference in application’?” Would you accept that? I would not, and neither will I accept this misapplication of Scripture — a misapplication that leads to condemnation.

        The Question of Civil Procedure. Some who teach the ‘post-divorce repudiation’ are making a lot of hay out of labeling those who oppose it as ‘civil procedurists.’ The implication is that any who disagree are hinging the lawfulness [and for some, even the reality] of divorce on the laws of the land in which we live. One man has boldly said the civil government has absolutely no part whatsoever in the determination of a divorce — or even a marriage! [I wonder if he would allow his teenage daughter to go to a motel with a young man based only on their statement that they had decided they were married, and without having gone through any kind of ‘procedure.’] Such argumentation only confuses the real issue, which is: Can one who has already been put away then put away the one who put them away? But let us consider this:

        When Jesus spoke about divorce in this passage [or any other], He did not specify the procedure. If anyone claims otherwise, let him show from the text where He does so. Now, if Jesus did not specify a procedure, what may we know about what constitutes a ‘real’ divorce? Is it merely a mental repudiation? Is it merely ‘spatial separation’? Does one have to put ‘X’ number of miles or distance between the two parties? Is it confined to the civil procedures of our government?

        One rule of interpretation we have used for many years in our Bible studies [regarding the establishment of authority] is that a specific command excludes everything else. [For example: We have argued, and still do, that there is no authority for instrumental music in worship because God specified singing. We also argue that Noah was restricted to gopher wood because God specified it.] But another rule regarding the establishment of authority has to do with generic commands. This rule states that when a generic command is given, this would include all means and/or methods, people, places, or things. [For example: Jesus commanded the apostles to “Go” teach all nations. He did not specify how they were to go, so we may reasonably conclude that we can go by boat, train, plane, car, or on foot.] To bind one method, to the exclusion of all others that might be used in the fulfillment of this command, is erroneous because God has not limited us in that way. If someone started teaching that we could only ‘go’ by using automobiles, we would rightfully protest and show him the error of his ways.

        But some are doing exactly that when it comes to the ‘procedure’ that defines divorce. Some have boldly stated that civil procedure has absolutely no part in the determination of when one is actually divorced. How so? Did Jesus exclude it? Again, the text clearly shows Jesus did not mention any procedure, so this is a generic statement, meaning we cannot exclude any procedure, nor can we bind any one procedure. Both are wrong! If someone says only civil procedure determines divorce, he is wrong; if anyone says civil procedure can never have a part in determining divorce, he is also wrong. Since Jesus did not specify any procedure, we do not have the right to exclude or bind any procedure. By the fact that this is a generic statement, all types [approved of God or not] must necessarily be included. In the example Jesus used in Matthew 19:9, the man who divorces his wife without the cause of sexual immorality is still identified as having been divorced, though God did not approve. By implication [from the same passage], if the man divorces his wife for sexual immorality, he would be identified as a divorced man. How it was done had no bearing on whether or not the divorced was “real.”

        But, again, this is really a distraction from the real issue. Let us say that civil procedure was not involved whatsoever. Let’s reread the passage in question with that idea completely removed from the mind: “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” Did that change anything? No. No matter how the man divorced his wife, when he remarried another woman, he still was guilty of adultery. No matter how the man put his wife away, when another man marries her, it is still adultery. Even with the civil procedure completely removed from the mind, you will not find any hint in the text of some ability of the woman [who has already been put away not for fornication] to put away [repudiate] her original husband should he commit fornication at some point after he already put her away. The verse still says “whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery,” without any further qualifications or ‘provisos.’

        Some further protest that the ungodly actions of a man can never take away the God-given rights of the innocent. Some will strongly declare that if one teaches the “innocent spouse” [a woman put away not for fornication] is prohibited from remarrying when her former husband remarries another, God’s laws have been superseded by man’s. That certainly sounds fair and reasonable, but is it Scriptural?

        Let us ask, “Does God forbid murder?” The Scriptural answer is, “Yes.” Early on, God said, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed; for in the image of God He made man.” (Gen. 9:6) Under the Old Law, God plainly said, “You shall not murder.” (Exod. 20:13) The punishment for such sin was death (Deut. 19:11-13). Now, the command of God prohibited murder, but did it prevent men from murdering other men? Of course not. Cain murdered Abel before God’s law was stated in written form, and many other men have been murdered since then. Were the rights of the “innocent ones” [the ones murdered] taken away by these ungodly acts of ungodly men? Yes, they were. They were prevented from enjoying the “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” we are all so quick to defend in this country. But was God’s law superseded by such acts? No. God’s law still stands! Murder is still murder! The man who murders another is still called, by God, a murderer. That man will still have to answer for his deeds done in the body in the final judgment (2 Cor. 5:10).

        Let us now ask, “Does God forbid divorce if it is not for sexual immorality [fornication]?” The Scriptural answer is, “Yes.” (Matt. 19:9; 5:32; Mark 10:11, 12; Luke 16:18) Does the prohibition stop men from divorcing against God's will? Of course not. Men have been marrying, divorcing, and remarrying almost since the beginning of the marriage union’s establishment. Now we must ask: Were the rights of these “innocent ones” [those divorced for some reason other than sexual immorality] taken away by the ungodly acts of these ungodly men? Yes, they were. They were prevented [by God’s law] from remarrying without being called adulterers or adulteresses because they were not divorced for the only reason God allowed. But was God’s law superseded by such acts? No! God’s law still stands. Adultery is still adultery. The man who puts his wife away for some other reason than sexual immorality is still called, by God, an adulterer when he remarries another woman (Matt. 19:9a). The woman who was put away, if she marries another, is still called, by God, an adulteress (Matt. 19:9b). Both will have to answer for the deeds done in the body in the final judgment. God’s law still stands!

        Harmonizing. As you consider Matthew 19, let us remember that a parallel account is recorded in Mark 10:1-12, Luke (16:18) records a similar statement but without the “exception” of Matthew’s record, Matthew records another statement of Jesus on this subject (Matt. 5:32), and Paul gives us further instruction, too (1 Cor. 7:1-16). Of course, as with all topics, we must harmonize all passages so we know the full teaching on the subject. We must also remember that one Scripture may not be pitted against the other, and no Scripture contradicts another. Let us look at all passages together:

“But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matt. 5:32)

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for £sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Matt. 19:9)

“So He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” (Mark 10:11, 12)

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery.” (Luke 16:18)

“Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” (1 Cor. 7:10, 11)

        Again, Matthew 19 and Mark 10 are parallel accounts, while Matthew 5:32, Luke 16:18, and 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 are statements on the subject, but not parallel accounts. All must be harmonized with one another, though, to get the full understanding of what God would have us to know. Let us also remember that the different authors — though inspired to write — may have recorded different accounts of the same occasion, showing different details, or even rephrasing the words of Jesus. (For example: The birth of Jesus as recorded by Matthew and Luke, or the accounts of the “Great Commission” as recorded by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) These differing accounts do not mean the Bible is contradictory, for the differences do not change the meaning or the force of the commands given. They may mean we learn additional details or facts, however.

        When we look at all of these passages together and harmonize them, we find that not all passages say the exact same thing, but when all are considered together, we may know the full extent of God’s law on marriage, divorce, and remarriage. For example, Matthew is the only record that states an exception to God’s prohibition of divorce. If we read the other accounts without considering Matthew’s record, it might appear there is an absolute prohibition on divorce. When we compare Matthew 19 with Mark 10 [parallel accounts], we find that the writers used entirely different approaches. Matthew’s account speaks only of the consequences of a man who puts away his wife, whereas Mark speaks of the consequences should either the man or the woman put away his or her mate wrongly.

        It should seem strange that some are arguing strenuously against a sequence of events in Matthew 19:9 where it is obvious there is a sequence, and simultaneously arguing for a sequence in Mark 10:11, 12 where there is none. As has been explained earlier in this article, Matthew’s account clearly shows a situation where a man puts away his wife for a reason other than sexual immorality [part ‘a’ deals with the man who does the putting away and part ‘b’ deals with the woman who has been put away], and is a clear sequence of events [man puts away wife, remarries, commits adultery; additionally, the wife is put away, marries another, commits adultery].

        Mark’s account — though a parallel — is different. Mark records Jesus’ first answer as a question (“What did Moses command you?” - v. 3), where Matthew omits it. Mark also reveals that the words of Matthew 19:9 were spoken to His disciples inside the house after they had asked Him again about the same matter (v. 10 - Matthew did not mention this). Mark’s account is further shown to be different by the fact his record of Jesus’ words were teaching that, regardless if it was the husband or the wife, divorce and subsequent remarriage would equate to adultery. Mark did not record Jesus as having spoken about only one situation [a man putting away his wife], and neither was he describing a situation in which the husband first divorces his wife and then the wife puts him away. [Note that “and then” is not in the text.] Even if that was the case, it was still called adultery (v. 12, “And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”)! Mark’s account may be illustrated like this:

        Man divorces his wife + marries another = he commits adultery

                                                      (and if a)

        Woman divorces her husband + marries another = she commits adultery

        There are no exceptions applied here, so one must "read between the lines" what is not there to extract a doctrine that teaches a woman who has already been put away may then put away him and remarry another without being called an adulteress. Mark's record is not an account of a man putting away his wife, and then that same wife putting him away at some point later, but an illustration of what happens should either put away his or her spouse wrongly. [Both would be guilty of adultery.]

        The grammatical construction of the two verses shows both the man and woman as the ones taking the action, also. [Matthew’s account showed one acting and the other being acted upon.] In verse 11, the word translated as “divorced” is the same form of the word found in Matthew 19:9a [apoluse; ap-o-loo´-say; see the explanation of the word form at that location]. But here is where the similarity in the two accounts ends. In Matthew 19:9b, the form of the word [apolelumenen (ap-o-le-loo-men´-nen)] indicated the woman was the “divorced” [action had been taken against her]; but in Mark 10:12, the word used for the woman who “divorces” is apoluse [ap-o-loo´-say; see above], indicating she is the one who took the action against her husband. Mark uses no term for this woman that would indicate she was one who had already been put away by her husband, and to imply such would be an erroneous conclusion without a scrap of textual evidence or grammatical foundation.

        A few brethren have, of late, been writing numerous pages of arguments from this passage [Mark 10:11, 12] to somehow convince us that it supports the false concept that a woman put away wrongly now has a right to “repudiate” him [the man who had already put her away] if he commits adultery at some point after the original divorce. [A post-divorce divorce.] The argument some have now latched onto goes something like this: Because the man of Mark 10:11 is said to commit adultery against the original wife [not the second woman whom he remarries], this must somehow bolster the idea that the original woman is still his mate, thus giving her a “right” to “repudiate” him now for having committed adultery.

        Let me say a couple of things about this line of argument:

1.      The current dispute is not about whether or not a man and a woman are still bound if their divorce was for any reason other than sexual immorality; no one I know of is arguing that a man and woman in such a situation are not bound. But do not be confused: married does not always equal bound, and bound does not always equal married; if a couple divorces for some reason other than sexual immorality, they are certainly still bound, but they are not married.

2.      This changes nothing regarding the possibility of remarriage for either one after they have already been divorced! If a man puts away his wife for fornication, no illicit act she does after the divorce will change his status; if a man puts away his wife not for fornication, no illicit act she does after the divorce will change his status. On the flip side, if a woman is put away by her husband for fornication, no illicit act he does after the divorce will change her status; if a woman is put away by her husband not for fornication, no illicit act he does after the divorce changes her status. [Death is not to be construed as an ‘illicit act’ in this argument.] If one would dispute these last couple of arguments, let him or her show from the Scriptures where such is plainly taught. I do not care for one minute to hear simple statements or bold assertions about who has what right if they have no basis in Scripture. What we find is, there is not one passage in the entire Bible that teaches that there can be a change in the status of one already divorced simply because the other mate did something illicit after the divorce!

        Some want to run back to Matthew 19:9a and say there [“whoever”] is where Jesus teaches that this woman [the “wife” of Mark 10:11] who was put away wrongly may now put away her husband because now he has committed adultery against her, though after the divorce [usually with some reference to ‘the repudiation rights of the innocent’]. We have already shown that the context of Matthew 19 showed no such thing. [If this woman is to fit in Matthew 19:9a, we would have Jesus saying the following: “If this woman — who has been wrongfully put away by her husband {who has now committed adultery against her after the divorce} — divorces herself…” Such a reading would not even make sense!] Instead of running back to another passage, why not stay in the same context, since Mark 10 and Matthew 19 are parallel accounts? [The “wife” of Mark 10:11 is the same “wife” of Matthew 19:9a; she is not the “whoever” of Matthew 19:9a, as is being argued.] The reason some are going back and forth between the two passages just may be that it is because such a situation is not found in either passage, and some are trying to confuse the readers as to exactly what is being taught. The only way that can be done is to ignore the context!

        The only comment that needs to be made on Luke 16:18 is that Luke’s account does not mention the “exception” recorded in Matthew. The forms of the original Greek word for “divorced” are the same as Matthew 19:9. When the passages are considered in light of one another, there is no contradiction.

        The only comment that needs to be made on Matthew 5:32 is the fact that Jesus added an additional condemnation of the man who put away his wife wrongly. Here, Jesus said, “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.” In Matthew 19:9, Jesus condemned the man for adultery when he remarried another woman, but here he condemns the man without and before remarriage because he causes his wife [“her”] to commit adultery when he puts her away for a reason other than sexual immorality. We should note that remarriage is not the only sin in ungodly divorces!

        In 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, we should note the words of Paul in that he commanded the women to “not depart from” [Gk. choristhenai] her husband. The word is from the root word chorizo [koridzo] and is in the infinitive mood, aorist tense, and passive in voice. Most Greek lexicons will identify the form of the word as passive in voice, but some also add that it is better understood as middle voice, by reason of the context. In context, Paul addresses the woman first, and commands that a woman not seek to be divorced from her husband. He then went on to say, “But if she departs, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” Paul said, in effect, “Do not be divorced, but if you do, stay unmarried or be reconciled to your husband.” There was no other option. Paul did not say, “Once you’re divorced, just wait until he commits adultery and then you can put him away and be remarried to someone else.” Paul said she should “remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband.” That was the only options given by God.

        Couple this with the command to the husband in the latter part of verse 11, when Paul commanded, “And a husband is not to divorce his wife.” Here, the word translated as “divorce” is aphiemi [af-ee´-ay-mee], and is in the infinitive mood, present tense, and active voice. This simply means that he is the one who takes the action against his wife; the command is that he is not to do it. When both verses are considered, we find a command to the woman to not be divorced from her husband and, to the man, he is not to divorce his wife. If the woman is divorced from her husband, she is to remain unmarried or be reconciled to her original husband. [We might imply that the husband has the same constraints.]

        At this point, it is important to note some similarities between this passage and Mark 10:11, 12. Here, Paul tells the woman, “Do not divorce your husband,” and then to the man he says, “Do not divorce your wife.” The only recourse offered to either when a divorce occurs is that they be reconciled. Mark’s record has Jesus stating that if a man puts away his wife and marries another, it is adultery, and if a woman puts away her husband and marries another, it is adultery. Paul’s account is a command not to divorce, whereas Mark’s account of Jesus’ words addresses the consequences should either one divorce and marry another. But both accounts show that God addressed both the man and the woman, and clearly stated, first, that neither should divorce and, second, that adultery was the result should either marry another after he or she was divorced.

        Paul gives further instructions to those who may have been married to unbelievers (vv. 12-16), but the law of divorce and remarriage does not change. Paul instructed a man married to an unbelieving wife to “not divorce her.” (v. 12) The word form used is aphieto [af-ee-eh´-to; from aphiemi; see above], and is in the imperative mood, present tense, and active voice. Literally interpreted, this may be read: “Do not command her to leave.” The same command is given to wives who have unbelieving husbands (v. 13).

        But, it may have been that some seek a departure [divorce] anyway. What then? Paul said, “Let him depart.” (v. 15) What about the wife who wants him to remain when he seeks to depart [divorce]? Must she now abandon her faith to please her unbelieving husband, though he seeks to divorce her wrongly? No, for Paul said, “A brother or sister is not under bondage in such cases.” Those who are divorced wrongly by unbelieving spouses are not given liberty to be remarried, but neither are they to be considered a slave to the whims and wishes of the unbelieving spouse. The Greek word translated as “under bondage” is dedoulotai [root word douloo], which is in the indicative mood, perfect tense, and passive voice. [Seen also in Acts 7:6 and 1 Cor. 9:19.] This form of the word indicates she was not then, nor ever was, in the state of bondage or slavery to her husband; she never was to be considered as such, and the departure of the unbeliever [or even the possibility of such] did not change that. She was not expected to leave Christ so he would stay! Contrast these instructions of Paul with the situation of Onesimus, where Paul sent him back to Philemon because he owed him that responsibility (Phlm. 1:10-16). Onesimus was a slave and he was obligated to return to his master [Philemon]. Such is not the case with the woman whose unbelieving husband seeks to wrongfully put her away. She is not a slave and should never have been considered as such.

1.      Davis, William Hersey, Beginner’s Grammar of the Greek New Testament, [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1929], p. 78.

Steven C. Harper
October, 2003

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