Divorcement by Human Agency

 By Jeff Belknap

Lately, several Truth Magazine staff writers (and friends) have gone public with their teaching that civic action is “not” the determinant of when a marriage and/or divorce has taken place. This novel idea is being pressed in an effort to deny that the “innocent,” unwillingly put away victim of an unapproved divorce is among the put away whom the Lord precluded from remarriage to another in Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b and Luke 16:18b. We have been inundated with affirmations that civil compliance has “nothing” to do with one putting away their bound spouse. I have highlighted the words “no,” “none,” “not” and “nothing” in red for emphasis (cf. Genesis 3:4).

“And so, in conclusion from this, we learn that an unscriptural divorce releases neither party from marriage. When you have an unscriptural divorce, as men count it, it’s not so with God. That bond is still intact. And that little piece of paper is nothing in the sight of God. Just as well use it as Kleenex and blow your nose and drop it in the toilet. It doesn’t mean a thing to God. God’s law rules over the laws of men. And furthermore scriptural divorce, even when there’s a scriptural divorce, and that would be… Ron Halbrook (MDR sermon preached in Wilkesville, OH, June 14, 1990) Play Clip! See: It Is Nothing

Ron’s “application” above is absolutely contrary to Biblical teaching. In Matthews 5:32; 19:6, 9; Mark 10:9-11; Luke 16:18 and I Corinthians 7:10-11, 15, the New Testament reveals that it is possible for people to sinfully marry and/or divorce (cf. Mark 6:17-18; Romans 7:2-3). Moreover, the doctrine of Christ clearly reveals that an unapproved divorce breaks up a lawful marriage (cf. “unmarried” – I Corinthians 7:11). See Can Man Sunder A Marriage Against God’s Will?

While those involved in both sides of this controversy agree that an unapproved divorce does not release one from the spiritual obligation (bond) that God has imposed, there is a clear difference between the physical, “one flesh” marriage relationship and the spiritual bond (which God solely controls). It is because of (not in spite of) man’s ability to divorce (in cases where the bond remains), that God prohibits remarriage to another. See: Who May “Put Away”?

If we are to rightly divide the word of truth on this issue, it is imperative to understand the difference between the remaining obligation (bond) after an unapproved divorce and the “one flesh” marriage relationship. Moreover, we must realize that one cannot Biblically “put asunder” (put away; Matthew 19:3, 6, 9) a “one flesh” marriage partner “for fornication” who has already separated him/herself from us (away)! See: Those Who May Marry & Those Who May Not  Please observe the following denials of reality:

“That assumes the first putting away is done by the procedure prescribed by civil law. I deny that it is. Where do you find a legal proceeding, court action, a court or the judicial procedure in God’s word as it pertains to divorce and remarriage? They are not there.” Harry Osborne, [e-mail letter (4-15-01)]

“The conclusion is simple - legal action does not determine marital rights. One may be legally divorced and still possess the God-given right to remarry.” Tim HaileLegally Divorced, But Free to Remarry.”  (posted on Gospel Anchor 5-28-01)

“Do you not believe that the bond God bound them with still exists and therefore if either marry they commit adultery? WHY? Because the BOND REMAINS. God has NOT loosed it for there has been no God allowed cause (Matt. 19:9). The action in the civil court was but an action of man by a law that is out of harmony with God’s law (Matt. 19:9). That divorce decree is but a piece of paper that is not recognized by God though by men” (emp. his). Bobby Holmes [From an e-mail exchange with Jeff Belknap (sent 11-8-‘01) posted on this website]

“The Greek word aphiemi is rendered ‘put away’ in KJV or ‘leave’ in ASV in 1 Corinthians 7:11 and is synonymous with the Greek words choridzo and apoluo. Not one use in over 140 New Testament uses of aphiemi infers a civil procedure of divorce. Given the above facts, we must conclude that the word ‘put away’ (apoluo) in Matthew 5, Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 16 cannot be used as ‘synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one’s respective society’ since the synonyms given by inspiration do not refer to a civil procedure.” Harry Osborne  [The Sheridan - Osborne Debate (Harry’s First Negative) posted on Watchman Magazine, 1-1-02]

“If I go put my wife away today, if I go divorce my wife today, there’s no fornication involved on the part of either of us, who has the right to remarry? Neither. Neither party has any right. Neither party has any power. What if one of us commits fornication? God said the other one has a power, has a right. Well, is that until the ah, guilty party makes the quick move, secures the civil divorcement? Is that until that? And somebody said, Yeah, that’s up until that point. No, I didn’t read anything about that in the Bible.” Tim Haile [Lesson on “Biblical ‘Putting Away’” (2-12-02) during the All Day Bible Study; The Warfield Blvd. church of Christ, Clarksville, Tennessee].

“Jesus was not talking about American civil law, divorce laws of men, judges, lawyers, the USA, etc., but all people for all times in all places…All this ‘mental divorce’ stuff is foolishness.” Bill Cavender [From an e-mail letter to Vernon Love (sent 10-5-02) posted on this website]

“What role did God assign the court in determining marital status? None.” Tim Haile [Where’s The Courthouse?; Sent out to “Undisclosed-Recipients” (3-29-03)]

“We have absolutely no business binding any requirement upon anyone that is not expressly bound in Scripture. The judge’s gavel does not regulate the amount of time the innocent has to put-away the guilty fornicator; God does.” Tim Haile [Reflections On Brother Martin’s Divorce Question; Bible Matters (4-11-03)]

“It is not given in the truth. Jesus never specified that. It’s an addition. The idea of the timing, that all of it ends at the gavel of the judge, where’s that found in the word of God?  It’s not there, folks. It’s something that simply is not found, it’s an addition.” Harry Osborne, [Fight of Faith or Needless Controversy, Preached in Paden City, WV (4-10-03)]

“The verse also says nothing about a court house, lawyers, judges, filings, gavels…Jesus said absolutely nothing about ‘civil divorce’, post or otherwise! Man-made laws do not alter, or affect changes in, a God-given right, or permission.” Bill Reeves, [Review of Jeff Belknap’s “Examination of Mark 10:11-12;” BibleBanner.net (9-19-03)]

“There’s nothing, neighbor, in Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19, verse 9, about a courthouse, or a judge, or a lawyer. Doesn’t say that: “Whosoever puts away his wife at the courthouse,” it doesn’t say that. Preachers put that in there, bless your heart.” Weldon E. Warnock, [1-25-04 Radio program (WJLS 99.5 FM, Beckley WV) sponsored by the Beech Creek church of Christ, Meador, WV.] Play Clip!

“…But you know, Jesus gives the exception in Matthew 19:9, of fornication. And the innocent party may put away, dismiss, repudiate the guilty spouse and marry again. And I want to re-emphasize the courthouse has nothing to do with it. The Lord’s marriage laws, stated in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and other places like Romans 7:2 and 3, and I Corinthians 7, verse 39, a few other places, ah really ah has not America in mind. Specifically applies to America, but you know what many of us want to do? We want to Americanize God’s marriage laws. And when we think of divorce, all we can think about’s the courthouse. Or a marriage, the courthouse…” Weldon E. Warnock, [2-1-04 Radio program (WJLS 99.5 FM, Beckley WV) sponsored by the Beech Creek church of Christ, Meador, WV.] Play Clip!

“God knows, and the Lord knows the situation and fornication destroys the marriage. If a innocent mate disavows it before God, now the civil authorities have nothing to do with it. Civil authorities can’t join you in heaven and the civil authorities can’t unjoin you in heaven. God does the joining and God does the unjoining. And my God, my Lord said, neighbor, that fornication would destroy the marriage.” Weldon E. Warnock, [2-29-04 Radio program (WJLS 99.5 FM, Beckley WV) sponsored by the Beech Creek church of Christ, Meador, WV.] Play Clip!

Although it is obvious from Matthew 5:31-32; 19:3, 9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18 and I Corinthians 7:10-11, 15 that the individual is spoken of as doing the unapproved putting away, we must acknowledge that, in that day and time (just like today), he/she did so by means of human agency [cf. Matthew 5:31; 19:7 (Mark 10:4, 11-12)]! An example of this is Peter’s charge that the Jews, “with wicked hands,” had crucified and slain Jesus Christ (Acts 2:36), even though scripture clearly reveals that the travesty was carried out via the “hands” of government officials. See: Recognizing The Reality of Man’s Sin Via Human Agency

Just because man involves the government in carrying out his own sin does not make his wicked action any less real, nor does it make him any less responsible for the violation (I John 3:4; 5:17). Therefore, since scripture clearly affirms man’s ability to sunder marriages for both just and unjust cause, the question that must be asked is, HOW does the individual sunder the MARRIAGE?

Let’s be honest. It is illogical for brethren to argue that those who acknowledge the reality and consequences of an unapproved divorce (employed by man and ratified via the governing authorities) are guilty of placing man’s law above God’s, when God’s word clearly acknowledges the reality of man’s sin.

Obviously, Paul’s writing in Romans 13:1-5 applies to those who would reject “the minister of God to thee for good.” Brother Gene Frost wrote:

“Perhaps we should now review the role of civil authority. Read Romans 13:1-5 and I Peter 2:13-15. It is clear that civil authority receives its authority from God. Legislators and administrators are God’s servants, His agents. To reject what God ordains is to reject God. Civil law is designed of God for our good, to give order and establish stability in society (in travel, commerce, domestic tranquility, protection of life and property, etc.) What would life be like without civil laws, where anarchy reigns? Of course, there may be shortcomings, laws or regulations not to our liking, but this does not limit and qualify the Christian’s submission. The only area in which one is not to obey the law is when demand is made of the Christian to disobey God. (Acts 5:29) To reject civil law in areas not to our liking, or that are perceived to be unfair, is to reject God. Brethren need to realize that it is not a light thing to cavalierly exclude civil law from any regulatory control of marriages and divorces. And we need to be careful that we do not equate our sense of “fairness” with God’s will. Obey the law, not just to avoid punishment, but do so with a good conscience, knowing that we have acted with respect to what God has ordained.

If we do not have proper respect for civil law, we can be sure that we will not avoid punishment. When civil authorities learn that certain preachers are counseling citizens of the state to ignore the law, that they are “married” without a covenant confirmed according to statute, we will see these preachers being brought into court. Or, when one tells a man that he can just dismiss his wife, without an annulment confirmed according to statute (no certificate, no ratification, no record), and that he is then free of any responsibilities toward her, that they are “divorced,” expect to see him in court.” See: The Marriage Covenant and Ratification

The errorists’ presupposition behind the no civil involvement argument is their assertion that the person who is innocent of fornication cannot be unwillingly put away, so as to negate his/her ability to remarry another, contrary to the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 5:32; 19:9b and Luke 16:18b. Since the absurdity of such a contention is evident to those who recognize the aforementioned inspired statements of fact, it is no wonder that the brethren who argue against civil compliance in marriage and/or divorce do not actually voice this presupposition.

To substitute the Rock of Truth (Matthew 7:24; I Corinthians 3:11) for such a foundation of sand (Matthew 7:26) is a foolish exchange that will lead to devastating consequences at the judgment (Matthew 7:27; 15:14; cf. Proverbs 28:26). The Bible asks, “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Psalms 11:3)

Some Divorce Definitions


Smith’s Bible Dictionary

Divorce, [N] [T] [B] [E]

“‘a legal dissolution of the marriage relation.’ The law regulating this subject is found (24:1-4) and the cases in which the right of a husband to divorce his wife was lost are stated ibid ., (22:19,29) The ground of divorce is appoint on which the Jewish doctors of the period of the New Testament differed widely; the school of Shammai seeming to limit it to a moral delinquency in the woman, whilst that the Hillel extended it to trifling causes, e.g., if the wife burnt the food she was cooking for her husband. The Pharisees wished perhaps to embroil our Saviour with these rival schools by their question, (Matthew 19:3) by his answer to which, as well as by his previous maxim, (Matthew 5:31) he declares that he regarded all the lesser causes than "fornication" as standing on too weak ground, and declined the question of how to interpret the words of Moses” (emp. jhb).

Arndt & Gingrich

On Page 125 of the 1979 edition of Arndt and Gingrich, under the word Aphiemi, it states concerning I Corinthians 7:11—in a legal sense divorce(emp. jhb).

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 1, pgs. 509-512)

On pg. 509 under the Greek usage:

“To be emphasized is the legal use much attested in the pap.1to release someone from a legal relation,” whether office, marriage, obligation, or debt, though never in a religious sense.”

“Corresponding is the use of the rarer subst., which often has the legal sense of ‘release’ from office, marriage, obligation etc., as also from debt or punishment, though never religiously…”

The legal sense of ‘to remit’ is not so prominent, but it does occur.”

On pg. 511 under the NT usage:

“This word, which is not found in the LXX, has the same legal meaning as the verb [Gk. Word, jhb] ( – 509) and is attested in this sense…”

 On pg. 512 under the NT usage:

“There is thus avoided the legal understanding of the thought of forgiveness as a remission of punishment related only to past events…” (emp. jhb).


Liddell-Scott-Jones Lexicon of Classical Greek

II. send away,

1.  of persons, kakôs aphiei Hom. Il. 1.25; auton de klaionta . . aphêsô au=Hom. Il. 2.263.

b. let go, loose, set free, zôon tina a. au=Hom. Il. 20.464; let loose, bous Hdt. 4.69; peristeras Alex.62.3; a. Aiginan autonomon Thuc. 1.139; a. eleutheron, azêmion, Plat. Rep. 591a, ti=Plat. Laws 765c; tinas aphorologêtous Plb.18.46.5; aphent' ean tina Soph. Aj. 754, cf. E.Fr.463; es oikous, ek gês, Soph. OT 320, Eur. IT 739: c. acc. pers. et gen. rei, release from a thing, apoikiês Hdt. 4.157: in legal sense, acquit of a charge or engagement, phonou tina Dem. 37.59 (abs., ean aidesêtai kai aphêi Ibid=Dem. 37.59); sunallagmatôn IDEM=Dem. 33.12: c. acc. only, acquit, Antiph. 2.1.2, etc. (v. infr. 2 c):--  (emp. jhb).


c. in legal sense (v. supr. Ib), c. dat. pers. et acc. rei, a. tini aitiên remit him a charge, IDEM=Hdt. 6.30; tas hamartadas IDEM=Hdt. 8.140.b', cf.Ev.Matt.6.12, al.; tas dikas . . aphiesan tois epitropois Dem. 21.79; a. tini eis eleutherian chilias drachmas IDEM=Dem. 59.30, cf.IG22.43A27; a. plêgas tini excuse him a flogging, Aristoph. Cl. 1426; a. horkon Jusj. in Lexap.Andoc. 1.98; phoron Plb.21.24.8 (Pass.); daneion tini Ev.Matt.18.27 (emp. jhb).

Testimony exists which indicates the Greek works translated divorce were classified as “technical” and real, not “non-technical” and unreal.  Herodotus, a Greek writer, was one of many who used “aphiemi” in referring to divorce “in a legal sense(emp. jhb).

Moreover, the Greek word “chorizo” is found in numerous divorce decrees and had “almost become a technical term in connection with divorce,” (James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament, p. 696).

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Last Updated:  Thursday, January 26, 2006 12:41 PM