By Kevin S. Kay

As long as one’s first mate lives, can an innocent “put-away” person ever remarry someone else without committing adultery?  Many sincere students of the Bible say yes.  They argue that if the “put away” person did not want the “divorce,” did everything that could be done to keep the first marriage together but to no avail, and then subsequent to the “divorce” the first mate “marries” someone else, the innocent “put away” person may then “put away” the first mate for fornication and remarry. One writer explains the reasoning behind this view in this way:

Suppose a woman innocent of any wrong doing is divorced by her ruthless husband. We know that God does not recognize such a divorce. Even though a “civil divorce” has been obtained it is unscriptural and does not dissolve the marriage in God’s sight. Then suppose that the husband marries another, and thus commits adultery (Matt. 19:9). What action may be taken by the innocent wife? . . . Jesus in Matthew 19:9 gives every married person the right to put away their adulterous mate. When an innocent woman is divorced, this divorce is, in the sight of God “no divorce.” He does not recognize it! The innocent woman is still married in God’s sight and the husband who “divorced” her is still married to her in God’s sight. Their marriage has not been dissolved and as far as God is concerned she is not “put away” (apoluo). When her husband remarried he committed adultery. I contend that the innocent may then “put away” her husband. Reason? That is exactly what Christ said she could do![1]

The argument being made is this. If Jack and Jill “divorce” unscripturally, they are not actually divorced in the eyes of God (only apparently divorced in the eyes of man). Thus, if Jack “marries” again unscripturally, he is not actually married in the eyes of God (only apparently married in the eyes of man); therefore, Jill may then scripturally and actually mentally[*] divorce Jack in the eyes of God for fornication (even though they are already apparently divorced in the eyes of man), and may scripturally and actually marry John in the eyes of God.

I will be the first to admit that this concept seems reasonable and logical, at least on the surface. In fact, the fundamental presupposition behind it is one that I at one time believed, though I did not take it to its logical conclusion.  But I now believe that this concept is false for a number of reasons, and this article will attempt to highlight the fallacies of this popular position regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage.

Jesus stated the general rule regarding divorce and remarriage with these words: “Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth one that is put away from a husband committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18). There is only one exception to this general rule: if the “putting away” is for the cause of fornication, remarriage is not adultery. It must be noted however that this exception is only given to the one who does the “putting away;” it is never given to the one who is “put away.” In fact, every passage in the NT that contemplates the remarriage of a “put away” person to someone else while the first mate is still living describes that relationship as adultery (Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b; Luke 16:18b; Romans 7:3a). Therefore, the only way that the remarriage of an innocent “put away” person can possibly be justified is to argue that the innocent “put away” person is not really a “put away” person at all. This is the fundamental argument behind this position.  And this position is false, because the argument behind it is false. And the argument is false, because the fundamental presupposition behind it is false.

The fundamental presupposition behind this whole concept is that one CANNOT really divorce and remarry except for fornication. One writer says: “As far as God is concerned one is ‘not divorced’ except it be for fornication.”[2] Another writer says: “Remember, to deny this divine right to such a person on the grounds of her being a put away person overlooks the fact that such putting away is futile and dethrones divine authority and enthrones human authority.”[3]  The assumption is that if the marriage or divorce is not RIGHT, it’s not REAL; if it’s not APPROVED, it’s not ACTUAL; if it’s not PERMISSIBLE, it’s not POSSIBLE. Is this really what the Bible teaches?

After Jesus reminded the Pharisees of God’s general law on marriage, established at the very beginning of time (Matthew 19:4-5), He said: “So that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:6). Please note that Jesus did not say that man CANNOT but rather that man MAY NOT put asunder what God has joined together. There is a big difference between MAY NOT and CANNOT (cf. Romans 6:12).[†] Why would Jesus have said that man should not put asunder what God has joined together if he could not do it in the first place? The very fact that Jesus commands us not to do this implies that we have the POWER but not the PERMISSION to do it.  This statement alone highlights the fallacy of the fundamental presupposition behind this position.

The Bible speaks of marriage and divorce as being either RIGHT or WRONG, APPROVED or UNAPPROVED, LAWFUL or UNLAWFUL, PERMISSIBLE or PROHIBITED, but it never speaks of marriage and divorce as being either REAL or UNREAL, ACTUAL or APPARENT, “IN TEE EYES OF GOD” or “IN THE EYES OF MAN” as do the proponents of this position. A marriage is a marriage is a marriage is a marriage! It may be right or wrong, but it is still a marriage. And the same thing is true of divorce. Something may be WRONG and yet still be recognized, by both God and man, as REAL.

Jesus consistently used the same terms “put away” (apoluo) and “marrieth” (gameo) whether the activity was lawful or unlawful. Did our Lord equivocate in His use of these terms? When the proponents of this position explain the general rule concerning divorce and remarriage in Matthew 19:9, they, perhaps unconsciously, have Jesus saying in effect:  “Whosoever shall put away his wife (BUT NOT REALLY) . . . and shall marry another (BUT NOT REALLY), committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her (BUT NOT REALLY) committeth adultery.” And then when they apply the exception clause, they have Jesus saying in effect:  “Whosoever shall put away his wife (REALLY) . . . for fornication, and shall marry another (REALLY) . . . (does not commit) adultery: and he that marrieth her (some say BUT NOT REALLY, others say REALLY) when she is put away (REALLY) committeth adultery.”[4] These interpreters have Jesus speaking out of both sides of His mouth at the same time—ACCOMMODATIVLY in one instance and ACTUALLY in another. This is not sound exegesis. Can we not see that whatever the terms “put away” (apoluo) and “marrieth” (gameo) mean when fornication is involved, they mean when fornication is not involved? If not, why not??? One of the rules of literary interpretation states that “a word can have but one fixed meaning in the connection in which it occurs.”[5] One might as well argue that the fornication mentioned in Matthew 19:9 is not real because it is without God’s approval as to argue that unscriptural divorce and remarriage are not real because they are without God’s approval. But who is willing to make that argument? Did the Pharisees and the disciples know that at times Jesus did not really mean what He said and at other times He did?

The Holy Spirit tells us that Herod “married” Herodias, and yet He describes her as Philip’s “wife” (Matthew 14:3-4; Mark 6: 17-18; Luke 3:19). Whether it was an unlawful relationship because of adultery as some contend or because of incest as others contend, the Holy Spirit still referred to this relationship as “marriage,” and there is no evidence in the context that He was speaking accommodatively. It was not RIGHT, but it was still REAL.

The apostle Paul says that when a wife “departs” from her husband, no matter what the reason, she is “unmarried” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Thayer defines the word “depart” (chorizo) to mean: “to separate, divide, part, put asunder. . . Mt. xix. 6; Mk. x. 9.... Mid. and 1 aor. pass. with a reflex. signif to separate one’s self from, to depart a. to leave a husband or wife: of divorce, 1 Co. vii. 11, 15 … b. to depart, go away.”[6]  Arndt and Gingrich report in their lexicon that the word was often used in marriage contracts in the Greek papyri.[7] This is the same word that Jesus used when He said that man is not to “put asunder” what God has joined together (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9). Therefore, Paul teaches that divorce is POSSIBLE even though it is not PERMISSIBLE. Arndt and Gingrich define the word “unmarried” (agamos) to mean: “an unmarried man or woman: of both 1 Cor 7:8 … Of men vs. 32 … of women … 1 Cor 7:34 … of divorced women 1 Cor 7:11.”[8] This word is used four times in the same context (1 Corinthians 7:8, 11, 32, 34), and yet some would have us believe that it does not really mean “unmarried” in verse 11.

I believe that Maurice Lusk is absolutely correct when he writes:

It is the contention of this writer that it is a flagrant violation of language and reasoning to argue that a person is divorced and yet married to the person from whom he/she is divorced. A person may be divorced unscripturally, but he/she is yet divorced; and a person divorced from another person is not married to that person. This business of insisting that one may be divorced “in the eyes of men” and not divorced “in the eyes of God” is nonsense. God may not approve of a given action (divorce or whatever), but that does not mean that the action does not occur because God does not approve of it. A divorce without scriptural grounds is yet a divorce and renders the person divorced “unmarried.” The argument being advanced here is that: “All actions not approved of by God become non-actions or actions which do not occur.” If this is the case, then is it legitimate in any sense to speak of an action as having occurred when in actuality it did not occur? It is far better to take the language of a given text as meaning what it says (i.e. married means married, divorced means divorced), than to play this game of semantical gymnastics wherein words do not mean what they mean.[9]

The idea that an innocent “put away” person is not really “put away” is just not true. When one is divorced for any reason (scriptural or unscriptural), one becomes a “put away” person, and Jesus says “he that marrieth one that is put away from a husband committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18b; cf. Matthew 5:32b; 19:9b; Romans 7:3a).

Jesus’ statement “Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery AGAINST HER (emphasis mine--ksk): and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery” (Mark 10:11-12) is often cited by the proponents of this position to show that an innocent “put away” person is not really “put away.” They argue that the husband commits adultery against his first wife, even though he has “divorced” her and “married” another woman, because they are still really married in the eyes of God. Though this argument sounds reasonable, at least on the surface, I believe that it has some serious difficulties.

First, it contradicts the way that the Bible consistently uses the term “put away” (apoluo), as we have already demonstrated.

Second, though the weight of the evidence seems to suggest that the phrase “against her” refers to the “put away” wife, there is at least some evidence to suggest that it refers to the “other woman.” Alexander Balmain Bruce writes: “The ep auten at the end of ver. 11 may mean either against, to the prejudice of, her (the first wife), or with her (the second). The former view is taken by the leading modern exegetes, the latter by Victor Ant., Euthy., Theophy., and, among moderns, Ewald and Bleek.”[10] Berry translates the phrase ep auten as “against her” in his Interlinear,[11] and Marshall translates it as “with her” in his.[12] Obviously, if the phrase ep auten should be translated “WITH HER” (i.e. the “other woman”), this argument is invalidated.

Third, even if the phrase “against her” refers to the first wife, this does not prove that the first marriage has not really been dissolved by divorce. After all, the apostle Paul says that following a divorce, no matter what the reason, one is unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). Well, how can a husband commit adultery against his first wife if they are really divorced and no longer married to one another? The apostle Paul answers that question. Paul says that a woman who has a husband is bound by law to her husband “for as long as he lives” (Romans 7:2; 1 Corinthians 7:39). Please note that Paul does not say that a woman is bound to her husband for as long as they continue to love each other, or for as long as there are no irreconcilable differences or for as long as they remain married to each other, but for as long as he lives. Paul also says that if while the husband lives, a woman be “joined” to another man, she shall be called an adulteress (Romans 7:3). The phrase, “be joined” (ginomai), literally means “to become” and refers to marriage in this context. Thus, the apostle Paul contemplates a situation in which a woman is bound by law to one man while she is married to another, and that is why she is an adulteress. When a husband divorces his wife unscripturally and marries another woman, he commits adultery against his first wife, not because they are still really married to one another, but because they are bound by law to one another.[13]

In addition to its faulty presupposition, this position has other problems as well. It assumes that there can be more than one “putting away”—one “in the eyes of man” and the other “in the eyes of God.” But Jesus speaks of only one. This position also assumes that the innocent “put away” person has something to “put away.” The term, “put away” (apoluo), means “1. set free, release, pardon. . . . 2. let go, send away, dismiss—a. divorce, send’s wife, or betrothed. .. . b. dismiss, send away….”[14]  The Bible speaks about “putting away” a person, but after the first marriage has been dissolved, there is no one for the innocent person to let go, send away, or dismiss. The innocent mate cannot dissolve the marriage relationship, because that has already been dissolved, and he cannot dissolve the marriage “bond,” because only God can do that.

Furthermore, this position changes the Lord’s order in Matthew 19:9. If we take the passage at face value, the proponents of this position change the Lord’s order of MARRIAGE, FORNICATION, DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE to MARRIAGE, DIVORCE, REMARRIAGE, FORNICATION. The Bible teaches that fornication must be the CAUSE for divorce, not the CONSEQUENCE of divorce. If we cannot change the Lord’s order in Mark 16:16, we cannot change the Lord’s order in Matthew 19:9.

The arguments that I have made thus far, I believe, demonstrate that the position that an innocent “put away” person may remarry while the first mate is still living rests upon a faulty presupposition. But perhaps it is not the presupposition that has given rise to this fallacious concept but rather what I will call the “presupposition behind the presupposition.” Some have assumed as a foregone conclusion that God would never require an innocent person to live in celibacy. But this is just not true. It is possible for people to fall into circumstances, through no fault of their own, that require them to remain celibate if they are to be faithful to God. What of the innocent wife whose husband suffers from some physical or mental illness that makes it impossible for him to be a husband to her? What of the innocent wife whose husband has been incapacitated by an accident? What of the innocent wife whose husband is an MIA, or a POW, or a convict serving a life sentence? What of the innocent wife who has been divorced, through no fault of her own, and her first husband never remarries? These are innocent, but God’s law does not allow them to remarry. It does not seem fair to me, but that does not change God’s law. But someone says, “Fornication was not involved in those situations, and it is in this situation!” We must remember, however, that fornication on the part of one’s mate does not give one the right to remarry; it gives one the right to divorce one’s mate. It is only divorce for fornication that gives one the right to remarry. When an innocent person is “put away,” there are at least two reasons why he may not remarry. First, the divorce was not for fornication, and this is the only scriptural grounds for divorce and remarriage. Second, the right to remarry following divorce is not given to a “put away” person.

But some argue that if the innocent “put away” person cannot remarry when the first mate commits adultery by marrying again, then man’s law takes precedence over God’s law. One writer says: “I cannot accept the position that the law of God in this matter is regulated by and contingent upon the civil laws of fallible man.”[15] Once again this argument assumes that if the divorce is not RIGHT; it’s not REAL, and I have already demonstrated that this presupposition is not true. But God’s law is not regulated by and contingent upon man’s law in this situation. God’s law specifically says, “and he that marrieth one that is put away from a husband committeth adultery” (Luke 16: 18b).

We must remember the painful truth that life is not always fair (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12; 10:5-7). Sometimes the innocent suffer because of the sins of others (cf. Exodus 20:5; 1 Kings 21:29). Sometimes innocent people suffer as a result of other’s disrespect for God’s law on marriage (cf. Ezra 10:1-4, 18-19, 44). But if God built a hedge around the innocent so that they never suffered, many would serve God out of CONVENIENCE and not CONVICTION (cf. Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). My heart goes out to the innocent who must suffer because others have not respected God’s law on marriage. But I cannot change God’s law. I can, however, assure them that the glory to be revealed in the next life “beyond the sunset” will more than make up for their sacrifice and suffering in this life “under the sun” (Romans 8:18).

(Article first published in Is It Lawful?:  A Comprehensive Study of Divorce, 1989, pp. 329-337)



[*] I know that some strenuously object to the terminology “mental divorce” and that they believe that more is required than just a “mental decision.”  I use the terminology “mental divorce” accommodatively.  Perhaps it would be better to describe this view as the “post-civil-divorce divorce position.”

[†] All of the “let not” statements in the ASV version of the NT mean “may not” rather than “cannot”  (cf. Mt. 6:3; Lk. 21:21; Jn. 14:1, 27; Rom. 6:12; 14:3, 16; Eph. 4:26; 1 Tim. 5:16; Jas. 1:7; Mt. 19:6; Mk. 10:9)



[1] Ken Cheatham, “Barnett-Cheatham Discussion on Divorce and Remarriage,” The Gospel Anchor, V (June 1979), 301.

[2] Ken Cheatham, 299.

[3] Marshall Patton, “Patton-Phillips Debate,” Searching the Scriptures, XXVIII (March 1987), 342-343.

[4] Gene Frost, “Mental Marriages/Mental Divorces,” The Gospel Anchor, VIII (May 1982), 269.

[5] Louis Berkhof, Principles of Biblical Interpretation (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1950), 75.

[6] Joseph Henry Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1977), 674.

[7] William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1979), 890

[8] Arndt and Gingrich, 4. See also Thayer, 3.

[9] Maurice W. Lusk, III, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Teachings of Jesus and Paul (Atlanta:  Guild of Scribes, 1982), 44-45.

[10] Marcus Dods, “The Synoptic Gospels,” The Expositor’s Greek Testament, W. Robertson Nicoll, ed. (Grand Rapids; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979), 409.

[11] George Ricker Berry, Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1981), 162.

[12] Alfred Marshall, The Interlinear Greek-English New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1958), 182.

[13] For a more detailed analysis, see chapter 17.

[14] Arndt and Gingrich, 96. See also Thayer, 65-66.

[15] Weldon Warnock, “‘Divorce and Remarriage’ Response,” Searching the Scriptures, XXVII (March 1986), 61.

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