There are some who teach that marriage can’t be dissolved except through death or a lawful divorce. The reality is that the Bible teaches, in both the Old and New Testament, that marriage is dissolved through divorce even if it is 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. This was to protect the woman.
“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 that is 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 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.”
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. 7:11b).
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 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.
– Kevin Pendergrass
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