There are some who teach that marriage can’t be dissolved except through death or a lawful divorce. However, the reality is that the Bible teaches, in both the Old and New Testaments, that marriage is dissolved and severed through a divorce, even if it is an unlawful divorce.
In Deuteronomy 24:1-4, under the Law of Moses, the Bible teaches that if a man divorced his wife and she went and became another man’s wife, she couldn’t return back to her original husband even if her current husband was to die. The reason this was done was to protect the woman from being passed back and forth and to protect her rights and possessions. The text says:
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man’s wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for thatis an abomination before the Lord, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deut. 24:1-4).
Deuteronomy 24:1-4 teaches that divorce dissolved the marriage so much so that the original husband couldn’t take back his former wife. Another example under the Old Law that shows where divorce ended the marriage and betrothal can be found in Exodus 21:1-11:
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years; and in the seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing. If he comes in by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free, then his master shall bring him to the judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost, and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him forever. And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”
In this context, two different examples are mentioned. First, if a master gave his slave a woman to be his wife and she has borne him children, then after the husband has served the master, the husband could go out free and the woman would then be the master’s wife. But if the man loves the woman and children and doesn’t want to go out free, then he can keep his wife if he becomes the master’s slave forever.
The second example is if a man is either married or betrothed to a woman, but the woman does not please the man or if the man cannot provide her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights because he has married another woman, then he is to let her go free, without paying any money. Both of these examples show that divorce dissolved both marriage and betrothal.
Deuteronomy 21:10-14 is another passage that teaches divorce dissolves the marriage:
“When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hand, and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and desire her and would take her for your wife, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall put off the clothes of her captivity, remain in your house, and mourn her father and her mother a full month; after that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife. And it shall be, if you have no delight in her, then you shall set her free, but you certainly shall not sell her for money; you shall not treat her brutally, because you have humbled her.”
Jesus also taught that marriage can be dissolved. In John 4:17-18, Jesus recognized that the woman at the well had been married to five husbands and was currently living with someone to whom she wasn’t even married.
“The woman answered and said, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You have well said, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one whom you now have is not your husband; in that you spoke truly.”
Due to the fact that she was currently living with a man to whom she was not married would certainly give way to the fact that her past five husbands didn’t just all die naturally. As she admitted, her moral living was not above par. He didn’t tell her that she was “still married in the eyes of God to her first husband.” In fact, He acknowledged that these men had been (past tense) her husbands and that she currently (present tense) had no husband.
If marriage was not dissolved through divorce, then Jesus would have told the woman to return to her original spouse, or He would have told her to return to the last man to whom she was scripturally married. However, that wasn’t what Jesus said. Instead, Jesus acknowledged that the woman had been married five times. Jesus taught that the woman had no husband (Jn. 4:17). Divorce, even unlawfully, dissolves marriage according to Jesus.
Not only did Moses and Jesus teach that marriage can be dissolved, but Paul also taught that marriage can be dissolved. According to 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, man can separate what God has joined together. Even though someone may divorce unlawfully, Paul taught that divorce severs the marriage. The apostle Paul says that when a wife departs from her husband, they are unmarried. The word for depart/divorces is the same word used in Matthew 19:6 translated separate or put asunder. Thus, one can separate what God has joined together according to Paul.
Some believe that Paul is referring to mere separation. However, that position cannot be sustained because Paul uses the exact same word Jesus used to refer to divorce (Mt. 19:6). Furthermore, Paul is clearly referring to divorce in this context (1 Cor. 7:11).
Some claim that Paul still recognized this couple as married since he said to “be reconciled to your husband.” However, Paul just stated that the woman is “unmarried” (1 Cor. 7:11). Paul is dealing with a hypothetical time. He is referring to what would be the woman’s former husband if the situation did happen. But since the situation hasn’t happened, he is still her current husband since he is giving a hypothetical scenario which hasn’t happened yet.
This can be further sustained by the words husband and wife which can be used to refer to different tenses. Context must determine the tense of the words and how the words are being used. It is important to note that there is never a time in Scripture where someone is described as being unmarried when they are actually still married (and vice versa). This can be seen in the way Paul uses the word husband in the rest of the chapter to refer to former husbands (1 Corinthians 7:13-14, 16, 34, 39; See also 2 Samuel 12:9; Mark 12:19; Acts 5:10-11). The unmarried woman’s husband in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 would be her former husband after the divorce.
It is also interesting to note that in both Greek and Hebrew, the words for “husband” and “man” are the same. Most of the time when “andri” is used, it means man. In 1 Corinthians 7:11, the word is in the dative case rather than in the genitive (which shows possession). While avoiding overstating the point, I do want to point out that it is interesting that in 1 Cor. 7:10, the genitive (possession) establishes that they were married. He was her husband/man (past tense). In other words, they were husband and wife until the divorce took place. Once the divorce took place, they were considered unmarried (1 Cor. 7:10-11). In verse 11, after the divorce takes place, the dative (rather than the genitive) is appropriately used. When someone gets a divorce lawfully or unlawfully, they are considered unmarried and they no longer possess a husband or wife.
Some still argue that divorce does not dissolve a marriage. Below, I want to take a look at some of the alleged argumentation.
Alleged Argument #1 – Mal. 2:14
In Malachi 2:14, the Bible says:
“Yet you say, ‘For what reason? ”Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have dealt treacherously; Yet she is your companion. And your wife by covenant.”
Some use this passage to teach that divorce doesn’t dissolve a marriage. However, this passage does not teach that marriage can’t be dissolved. Under the Old Testament, a divorce clearly dissolved the marriage (Deut. 24:1-4; see also: Exodus 21:1-11). Malachi 2 is speaking of the former wife and not a current wife. Professor Luck comments on this verse:
“Hebrew verbs are not so much concerned with point of time as with completeness of action. As in Greek, it was common for the writer to omit verbs altogether when the action had the effect of the English present tense. Though they had a particle that could convey the idea of the present, they more often than not omitted it and expected the reader to supply it. Supplying the present tense in a verb-less clause is inappropriate if the previous clauses convey the sense of another tense. The Hebrew “perfect” (i.e., completed action) is as close to the English “past” as one could expect. Though the action could have ongoing implications, the stress is on the fact that the action is finished. Combining these grammatical elements and applying them to the text of Malachi 2:14, we note that ‘is your companion and your wife’ is a verb-less clause, without the particle, but in the context of a prior perfect (i.e., “you have dealt treacherously”). Thus, the translation of choice would be ‘though she was your companion and your wife.’ This matches quite nicely with the concept of relation subsequent to divorce in Hosea 2:2: ‘she is not my wife, and I am not her husband.’ (http://www.peacemakers.net/RevWmLuck/DivorceAndRe-Marriage.html).
In other words, based upon syntax, there is no problem understanding Malachi 2:14 to refer to the wife here as the former wife. The phrase “you have dealt treacherously” is perfect (which is typically past, completed action) in the Hebrew. The text doesn’t say that they were still dealing treacherously. This was an action done in the past to their former spouse(s) that had been completed.
The Holman Christian Standard Bible says:
“Yet you ask, “For what reason?” Because the Lord has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have acted treacherously against her, though she was your marriage partner and your wife by covenant.” (Mal. 2:14).
Interestingly enough, the Douay-Rheims Bible also translates this passage as the wife being a former wife. This is especially interesting because the Douay-Rheims Bible is a translation from the Latin Vulgate into English. It is basically a Catholic translation of the Bible and is the foundation on which nearly all English Catholic versions are still based. Why is this so interesting? Because most Catholics actually do believe that marriage is indissoluble. Yet, even they translated Malachi 2:14 as the wife being a former wife:
“And you have said: For what cause? Because the Lord hath been witness between thee, and the wife of thy youth, whom thou hast despised: yet she was thy partner, and the wife of thy covenant” (Mal. 2:14)
To attempt to use Malachi 2:14 to allegedly prove that the woman was still a current wife after divorce took place is to overstate a point from the English translation that cannot be sustained from the original Hebrew.
Alleged Argument #2 – Rom. 7:1-4
In Romans 7:1-4, Paul is not giving a discourse on marriage and divorce. In fact, divorce is not even mentioned in the letter to the Romans. He is telling the Jews that they are no longer bound to the Old Law and have been freed. He does this by using an illustration from the Old Law of Moses:
Or do you not know, brethren (for I speak to those who know the law), that the law has dominion over a man as long as he lives? For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man. Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God.
Notice the context of this passage. Paul is speaking to those who knew the Law of Moses (Rom. 7:1, 6). The passage only speaks about the wife. Why? Because a man could have multiple wives under the Old Law, but a woman couldn’t have multiple husbands (2 Chron. 30:21; Gen. 16:3; 1 Kgs. 20:3; 1 Chron. 2:18-19; 2 Sam. 12:7-8; 1 Sam. 25:43; Judg. 8:30; Gen. 20; 29:23, 28; 40:4, 9; 1 Sam. 1:2; etc.). However, if a husband divorced his wife and gave her a certificate of divorce, then she could marry another without being an adulteress (Deut. 24:1-4).
Romans 7:1-4 isn’t dealing with divorce since Paul’s illustration comes from the Old Law where divorce did dissolve the marriage under the Old Law. The woman at the well had been married 5 times and was currently single when Jesus spoke with her. She had no husband to whom she was bound because she had been divorced (Jn. 4:15-19). Divorce is not included in Paul’s illustration. To take this passage and somehow try to teach that marriage can’t be dissolved is to completely ignore the illustration and the immediate and remote context.
Alleged Argument #3 – 1 Cor. 7:39
The other passage often cited in attempts to teach that marriage can’t be dissolved is 1 Corinthians 7:39:
A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.
If a woman is married to a man, she is bound by law to him. This is a true statement. But nothing is said in this verse about divorce. Under the Old Law, if a woman had a husband then she was also bound to him. However, as noted above, when a divorce took place, they were no longer married and no longer bound. When one divorces, even unlawfully, they are considered unmarried and no longer bound (1 Cor. 7:11; Mt. 19:6).
When a divorce takes place, a woman has no man to whom she is bound for she is unmarried and has no husband (1 Cor. 7:10-11; Jn. 4:17-18). What God joined together has been separated when a divorce takes place (Mt. 19:6). If a woman has no husband to whom she is bound, she has no law of a husband to whom she is bound. Therefore, Romans 7:1-4 and 1 Corinthians 7:39 cannot be passages used to teach that marriage can’t be dissolved since they are only speaking to situations involving women who are still married and not divorced in any sense (lawful or unlawful).
Alleged Argument #4 – Mt. 19:6
In Matthew 19:6, Jesus commanded mankind “not to separate what God has joined together” in marriage. Matthew 19:6 is a command of what not to do, it is not a statement of what is impossible to do. Jesus emphasized that man should not separate what God joined together indicating that man can separate what God has joined together.
Jesus Himself recognized the fact that many would be divorcing and remarrying for reasons other than fornication (Mt. 19:9). Therefore, Matthew 19:6 doesn’t teach that marriage can’t be dissolved unlawfully, but that it shouldn’t be. While Jesus taught that it isn’t permissible to dissolve the marriage for just any reason (Mt. 19:9), He taught that it was possible.
This is like arguing that since murder is wrong, it isn’t real. If you told a man that he can’t murder you because it is wrong and he decided to kill you anyway, then you would be dead. Dissolving marriages unlawfully is not right, but it nonetheless happens when a divorce takes place.
Jesus says that “no one should separate” those whom God has joined. The very fact God says not to proves that one can (even though it isn’t right). Grammatically, there is no way you can translate it as “no one can separate”. The fact that Jesus commands people not to break up a marriage proves the very fact you can.
Paul says that if you fornicate with a prostitute you become “one flesh” (1Cor. 6.16). Are we to conclude that if one has slept with a prostitute, then they are forever joined? No. According to the context, he is saying that sex is very special and it involves a bonding, just as “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one flesh with him” (v.17). We should not take sex lightly because our bodies are a temple of God (v.19). While this should never happen, it sadly so often does. However, Matthew 19:6 and the idea of someone becoming “one flesh” does not mean that an indissolvable union was just formed.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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