There is a lot of guilt-laden teaching on divorce and remarriage, mostly due to misunderstanding scripture, as a result of poor translation.
Our understanding of divorce and remarriage must be in harmony with all of scripture, including the fact that Moses permitted divorce and placed a restraint on a particular sequence of remarriage.
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 indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out from his house and she leaves his house and goes and becomes another man's wife, and if the latter husband turns against her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her to be his wife, then her former husband who sent her away is not allowed to take her again to be his wife, since she has been defiled. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4 NASB unless noted)
Notice that divorce is permitted in this scripture and is described as a three-step process as underlined—writing a certificate of divorce, putting it into her hand, and sending away or separation. When the process of divorce is properly carried out, God permits both divorce and remarriage. This could be considered a two-step process if worded as giving her a certificate of divorce followed by separation.
He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives." (Matthew 19:8)
Jesus admitted that Old Testament Law (God's law to Moses) permitted divorce1 and elsewhere he also said, "Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven"2 and that he had not come to "abolish the Law or the Prophets...but to fulfill."3
Annulling any part of the Law, including telling people they cannot divorce or be remarried, would incur the consequences of Jesus' warning.
According to God's Law, and so in Jesus' time, divorce proceedings were not necessary when adultery was confirmed.
"If there is a man who commits adultery with another man's wife, one who commits adultery with his friend's wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death." (Leviticus 20:10)
“Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?” (John 8:4-5)
To say then that the Bible only allows for 'divorce' when adultery is confirmed is a blatant and dangerous mishandling of Scripture.
How then do we understand Matthew 5:31-32:
Unlike English, Biblical Greek is an exacting language. Words used are done is with intended purpose. Having five specific words depicting different aspects of our word for "love" is just one example. The phrase, "Making love." is a case in point. God-breathed scripture uses specific words with exacting intent. We, on the other hand, can be sloppy, vague, and/or biased in our interpretation and translation.
Our understanding and interpretation of New Testament language and scriptures must concur or be in harmony with Old Testament Law. On this point, the translators seem to have been inaccurate in the handling of the Greek and Hebrew words related to separation and divorce. Yes, God's original intention for marriage did not include divorce, nor did He intend for Sin to damage relationships. However, He did permit it—and in Isaiah 50:1 and Jeremiah 3:8, admits to using the two-step process when He divorced Israel.
Thus says the LORD, "Where is the certificate of divorce By which I have sent your mother away?" (Isaiah 50:1)
I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce. (Jeremiah 3:8)
Again, these two steps are very important—the giving a certificate of divorce, step one, followed by, the sending away step two. With that in mind, we'll revisit some familiar verses looking at the literal interpretation of the words.
"For I hate divorce [send away], says the LORD, the God of Israel..." Malachi 2:16
The Hebrew word used in this verse is shalach which means 'to send'.4 Translators assumed 'sending away' was synonymous with 'divorce'. That would be like assuming 'divorce' and 'separation' were the same things.
In Malachi's day, it was cruel 'to send' a woman away without first giving her a 'writ' or 'certificate of divorce' since she would then not be permitted to remarry. Marrying someone who was merely separated and having no 'certificate of divorce' was adultery. A woman without a certificate of divorce would be forced to live a life of poverty as a single woman or be guilty of adultery. God hates the cruelty associated with withholding the certificate of divorce, and it was this practice that Jesus was rebuking in Matthew's gospel.
Now, look at Jesus' words in Matthew when I insert the transliteration of the Greek words used there. Make note of these Greek words as they are used:
"It was said, 'WHOEVER SENDS (apoluo) HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE (apostasion)'; but I say to you that everyone who divorces (apoluo) his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery (moicheuo); and whoever marries a divorced (apoluo) woman commits adultery (moicheuo). (Matthew 5:31-32 NASB unless noted) (I've added the Greek and put in bold the two-step process)
Why would translators correctly use apoluo, which means 'to send away', the first time, and then, wrongly translate apoluo as 'divorce' the last two times? The Greek word for divorce is apostasion. These verses should have been translated as follows:
"It was said, 'Whoever separates from his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who only separates from his wife, except for her unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries a woman who is only separated commits adultery." (Matthew 5:31-32) (my translation)
Or this translation by the Literal Standard Version:
And it was said that, Whoever may put away his wife, let him give to her a writing of divorce; but I say to you that whoever may put away his wife, except for the matter of whoredom, makes her to commit adultery; and whoever may marry her who has been put away commits adultery. Matthew 5:31-32 (LSV)
Any woman who is sent away without a certificate of divorce is only separated and not lawfully divorced. Marriage to a woman who is only separated would represent adultery since she is not divorced. Notice it is also a fault against the one who only sends away, he "causes her to become an adulteress."
The words 'for the reason of unchastity' in this verse represents the Greek word porneia the root for the word we know as pornography. Other versions translate porneia as fornication, unchastity, lewdness, or immorality. Interestingly, Jesus did not use the word moicheuo, which is the Greek word for adultery, as the only justified reason for divorce. People caught in adultery then were not then divorced, they were stoned.
I would suggest that porneia represents any action where you have given your heart/devotion to anyone other than your spouse—even holding your children in higher regard than your spouse. It could include flirtation or lewd behaviour with someone other than your spouse, and even friendships you are not willing to stop at the request of your spouse.
Since those caught in adultery were stoned, sexual intercourse cannot then be the only justification for divorce. Any behaviour violating fidelity could be represented by Moses' words, "some indecency," as justification for a conveying a certificate of divorce in addition to separation.
In the following verses from Matthew 19, I've inserted, in bold, the literal translation of the Greek words:
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, "Is it lawful for a man to send away his wife for any reason at all?" . . .They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command to GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE AND SEND her AWAY?" He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to send away your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever sends away his wife, except for lewd behaviour (porneia), and marries another woman commits adultery." (Matthew 19:3, 7-9)
The Pharisees' question shows that practice of that day seems to have been simplified to the one-step of just sending the wife away and yet they acknowledge the two-step process. Jesus takes them back to what was scriptural—the only reason permitted for divorce was porneia which is not adultery because adultery doesn't require a divorce. As mentioned earlier porneia refers to some sort of unfaithfulness or indecency. Jesus adds that if the man, who is only separated remarries, he commits adultery.
Paul too, gives some advice about marriage and again I've added and underlined the literal translation:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not send away his wife. But to the rest aI say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not send away her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send away her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:10-13)
Here he uses the Greek word aphiemi, which means to send away5, abandon, leave behind. Greek is a very exacting language, unlike English. It has five distinct words for different types of love. English has just love--we love hotdogs, shoes, pets, our sister, spouse, sunshine, etc. It is a blatant error to translate aphiemi as divorce.
In other places aphiemi is translated forgive. Another blatant error based on the sloppy English language/translation. Try using that translation in the verse above..."a husband must not forgive his wife." Does that work (see the article God Cannot Forgive Sin)?
For Paul to forbid divorce, as most modern translations read, would be to nullify what God permitted through Moses. That cannot be.
The literal translation of these verses, again, gives warning against a separation-only—with no certificate—end to a marriage.
While meeting with a couple struggling with marriage difficulties, each began to list the faults of the other, so I stopped them and invited them to tell me what they knew to be their own faults or shortcomings in these difficulties. I waited three or four minutes surrounded in total silence—neither knew what to say. We can only experience forgiveness when we confess our faults, not when we confess the faults of others faults (usually called "the blame game").
We would do well to work on changing the only heart to which we can affect change when we surrender our heart to the Spirit of Holiness.
A softening of our heart toward the other and avoiding expectations are by far a preferred solution to marriage difficulties, but where that is not a consideration, or if aggression or abuse is involved, a properly executed divorce is in harmony with scripture.
Separation is not a divorce, and as such even dating a separated individual is dating a married individual, and this equates to marital unfaithfulness. Divorce without both the separation and a certificate of divorce, is not divorce. Never confuse what the world, the legal system, or the church allows with what God requires. God does not compromise
Biblical divorce is permitted for reasons of marital unfaithfulness, and Biblical remarriage is permitted when the divorced process is properly followed—a certificate of divorce and separation. To teach that divorce is only permitted where adultery is confirmed violates Jesus' warning on changing or nullifying scripture.
Divorce is an emotionally damaging step to take and never to be taken lightly, and especially when children are involved, the damage goes on for generations. God can heal our relationships if we are willing to surrender our hearts and lives to him for change. Please ensure that every other option is exhausted before turning to divorce, it is a terrible solution.
1 Deuteronomy 24:1
2 Matthew 5:19
3 Matthew 5:17
4 per Strong's Concordance