That “divorce” in the Bible refers to breaking the marriage, rather than going to court, is easily confirmed by looking at the words the writers use to described what some versions translate as “divorce”:
|1 Cor. 7:10||“depart”||“separate”|
|1 Cor. 7:11 & 12||“put away”||“divorce”|
|1 Cor. 7:13||“leave”||“divorce”|
|1 Cor. 7:15||“depart”||“leaves”|
|1 Cor. 7:27||“be loosed”||“divorce”|
|Matt. 5:31&32||“put away”||“divorce”|
Strong’s Greek Dictionary of the New Testament defines apoluo, the Greek word translated several places as “put away” (KJV) or “divorce” (NIV), as including the meanings forsake, lay aside, leave, and yield up. Zodhiates in The Complete Word Study New Testament Dictionary includes the meanings to send away, to dismiss, to forsake, to leave, and to omit or neglect.
Of the 69 uses in the New Testament, apoluo is translated “divorce” 14 times in the NIV. All of these are in the Gospel passages discussed in the main text with one exception. In Matthew 1:19, “Joseph had in mind to put her away privately.” Because Joseph and Mary were not married, but engaged, apoluo plainly means to end their covenant to be married — not just to divorce.
Other NIV translations of apoluo include depart, dismiss, divorce, forgive, let go, loose, put (send) away, release, set at liberty. For example —
“Depart” (2x): Luke 2:29, Simeon — let me die in peace; Acts 23:22, the commander dismissed the young man.
“Dismiss” (2x): Acts 15:30, sent off to deliver the letter in Antioch; Acts 19:41, city clerk dismissed the assembly.
“Forgive” (2x): both in Luke 6:37, forgive and you shall be forgiven (ironic, isn’t it, that the same word can be translated “divorce” and “forgive”!)
“Let go” (10x): Pilate wanted to let Jesus go, the Sanhedrin let the apostles go, etc.
“Loosed” (2x): servant loosed from debt, Matthew 18:27; Luke 13:12, woman loosed from being bent over.
“Put away” (12x): Matthew 1:19, Joseph had in mind to put her away privately. 13 other times in Gospel passages on divorce.
“Send away” (12x): eleven times in Gospels, Jesus sent away the multitudes or someone. Acts 13:3, they sent away Paul and Barnabas on their mission.
“Release” (17x): all 17 are about Pilate wanting to release Jesus.
Of a total 69 uses, only 14 refer to a marriage break up. Plainly, “divorce” is always a translator’s conclusion from context.
In each case, the context is clear that the word used means “end a marriage,” but in no case is a court proceeding or any action by the government or church involved. In each case, it is simply one spouse ending the marriage by leaving, departing, separating, loosing the other from the bonds of marriage, or putting the other away. It is always purely an action between the spouses themselves. Thus, the sin of divorce is the sin of the spouse who violates the marriage covenant so as to end the marriage, whether by putting away, neglect, abandonment, forsaking, or the like.
For example, imagine a married couple today. The husband abandons the wife, perhaps not even leaving a forwarding address. If we were to think of “divorce” in modern terms, we’d say that they are still married. If the wife were to go to the courthouse and file for a divorce, many would declare her a sinner because God condemns divorce.
And yet in the context of what “divorce” meant in the First Century and earlier, we’d clearly see that the sinner is the husband who abandoned his wife. He ended the marriage by severely violating his marriage covenant. When the wife goes to the courthouse to obtain a divorce, she is only asking the court to declare as ended a marriage that is already ended. In Biblical terms, she has not sought a divorce. Rather, her husband put her away, and now she simply wants the government to recognize that her marriage has already ended.
Another example might help. Suppose a husband emotionally abuses his wife and refuses to repent despite counseling and urging from the elders. The husband is unhappy with his life situation and takes out his frustration by belittling and constantly criticizing his wife. His sadism has eroded the love from the marriage and made his wife’s life a living hell. Having exhausted all avenues of persuading him to be a husband to her, she concludes that she can no longer live with the man. Because she needs his financial support to finish school and become self-supporting, she files for divorce, seeking alimony. He continues his resentful, sadistic ways by resisting her petition, causing her untold expense and heartache.
Under the traditional view, she is a sinner for seeking a divorce and he very properly is resisting her sinful effort to end a God-ordained marriage. In reality, he is the sinner and she is the victim, and in reality the Bible says so. He “put away” his wife long before she went to court to formally end a marriage long ago ended in fact.
Now, I readily admit that drawing lines here is hard. But that suggests that we are truly on the right path. I mean, it’s also hard to draw a line as to when a Christian has fallen away and become lost. It’s hard to know if someone has truly repented. It’s hard to know who is really qualified to be an elder.
The point is that God judges the heart (1 Sam. 16:7), and we have trouble making Godly judgments because we aren’t equipped to judge as God judges. And so when I find that drawing a line like this requires knowing someone’s heart, rather than a law book, I figure I’m close to the truth of the matter.
Let’s be quite clear: “divorce” in Biblical terms is the ending of marriage, and marriages are ended by husbands and wives, not judges. The sinner is the spouse who breaks the marriage covenant — not necessarily the spouse who goes to court.
 Thanks to Buddy Jones for his notes on the use of apoluo.