SOTM: Matthew 5:31-32 (Divorce, the Ethics)

SOTMOne last, very important point. “Divorces” in Mat 5:32 translates a word meaning to release, let go, or dismiss. The word was routinely used of ending a marriage, and so we translate “divorce,” but that’s not quite right. There’s a huge cultural divide we have yet to navigate.

You see, in American law, a husband cannot divorce his wife except with the consent of state government. A court proceeding is required.

In contemporary practice, the court really can’t say no. No-fault divorce laws mean that anyone asking for a divorce is going to get one, but only if they file a petition in court and let the court resolve property rights and custody of the children. To an American, “divorce” is a privilege granted by the government.

Back in the 1960’s and earlier, many states would not grant a divorce except for adultery or cruelty. Laws varied, and some couples who had grown to despise each other could not end their marriages. The result was a “quickie divorce” industry where couples traveled to other states to obtain a divorce from a more lenient legal system.

But in First Century Judaism, the husband “divorced” his wife by declaring the marriage ended. Period. He was required to give her a certificate of divorce (a get) to allow her to remarry, but the get followed the divorce. If a husband refused to issue a get, a rabbi would order him to do so, but the rabbi had only the power of family and societal pressure. He had no authority to force the issuance of a get, and sometimes a vengeful husband refused.

As explained in the Jewish Virtual Library,

One of the most agonizing, and pressing, issues facing the Jewish community arises when a husband refuses to grant his divorced wife a get, thus preventing her from marrying again in the future. Such women, called agunot (literally, “chained wife”), have little recourse in the matter since the issuance of a get lies solely in the responsibility of the husband. The problem of agunot has a long and painful history in Judaism and it remains even more problematic today, especially outside of Israel, since the Jewish establishment has relatively little power in terms of domestic law.

In Israel, however, steps have been taken to ensure that the problem of agunot is mitigated. In 2012, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, ruled that a husband has 45 days maximum to provide his wife with a get once a rabbinical court has ruled that one is needed. If the husband refuses to do so within that time frame, the court must hold a hearing to arbit whether to impose punitive sanctions, which can include preventing the husband from traveling abroad, confiscating his driver’s license, and even incarceration.

Imagine! It took 2,000 years for the Jewish government to adopt a law requiring a husband to issue a get!

And so, when did a marriage end? Not when the government issued a divorce decree. There was no such thing. No, the marriage ended when the husband ended it, when he dismissed his wife.

Now, the rabbis also taught that if the husband failed to provide the wife with the necessities of life, food, clothing, and marital rights (Exo 22:20-21), then she had the right to insist on a get. And most husbands complied with the rabbinic requirement.

In short, the marriage ended when one spouse so violated the marriage covenant that the marriage was ended. This might have happened due to fornication or due to denial of marital rights. But once the covenant was violated, the spouses would either reconcile or else be divorced.

American churches tend to focus on who is the “guilty party” and define this based on who seeks the divorce in the court system. In reality, the “guilty party” is the one who violates the marriage covenant so as to end the marriage. If the husband abandons his wife, leaving the house and disappearing, he has violated Exo 22:7-11, violated the marriage covenant, and loosed his wife, even if she is the one who files the divorce petition. She is not the one who broke the marriage and she is not the guilty party.

In addition, I can’t speak harshly enough of the theory, all too common, that there never is an innocent party. This position, taken by countless Church of Christ preachers, denies reality, is often cruel toward one of the spouses, and is not justified by scripture. And as a practicing attorney for nearly 40 years, it’s just not true.

The only reason to take such an uninformed, absurd position is to avoid the theological problem of how to deal with the innocent spouse in light of the false theory that God does not recognize a marriage as ended, even when the couple is divorced, remarried, and one spouse is in prison for repeatedly, brutally beating his wife. Sometimes we love our legalism far more than we love abused spouses — sometimes even forcing women to go back into physically dangerous situations just to satisfy an un-studied, tradition-bound theory that has proven cruel — and often dangerous — to both women and men.

It’s high time we left Medieval Scholasticism behind and came up with a better approach, truer to the scriptures and to the heart of God.

To wrap up —

* God hates divorce. Really.

(Mal 2:16 NASB) “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”

For very good reason. Divorce is a sin. Always.

* But “divorce” in the scriptures is not brought about by filing papers in court. Rather, “divorce” in the scriptures translates “putting away,” “sending away,” or “loosing,” that is, breaking the marriage covenant in a way that undoes the core promises of marriage.

* Divorce is not to be used as a means of sanctifying sin against a spouse.  A spouse may not lust after a man or woman other than his or her spouse. Divorcing in order to marry another is adultery. In fact, desiring someone other than your spouse is adultery long before the divorce and long before having sexual relations with other person.

* Putting away a spouse without cause is a sin against him or her and a sin against whomever marries the put-away spouse because the divorce taints both. This was certainly true in the culture in which Jesus lived, and it’s also true in much of the U.S. today, especially in more conservative Churches of Christ where both spouses are routinely tainted as “guilty parties” regardless of the facts.

* The solution to our failing marriages and unacceptably high divorce rate is not stricter interpretations of the scriptures or tougher state laws. Laws do not solve spiritual problems, and we really need to get that into our heads.

The solution is Jesus — not as a slogan or as a teacher of morality or giver of law. Rather, it’s the cross. If we would learn to emulate Jesus on the cross, we’d all be far better spouses and parents, and we’d have far stronger marriages.

The idea is simply this. We must teach as one of the central goals of Christianity living as Jesus lived: committed to service, submission, sacrifice, and even suffering. This is what it means to pick up our cross daily and follow Jesus. This answers the question: “What Would Jesus Do?” And this is NOT what we preach from our pulpits or teach in our Bible classes. But if it was, we’d have a far easier time in our marriages and as parents. (And our oldest members would be our least selfish.)

(Eph 5:1-2 NIV) Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children  2 and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. 

(1Jo 3:16 ESV) 16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.

(Phi 2:4-8 ESV)  4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,  7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 

This is one of central themes of the NT, and we miss it because we’ve been looking for laws and rules and commands, when we should have been looking at Jesus so we could imitate him.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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20 Responses to SOTM: Matthew 5:31-32 (Divorce, the Ethics)

  1. Alabama John says:

    Jay, remember ‘Jumping the broom” divorce?
    Look at the lines of cars trying to get in the churches that preach love of Jesus. That theme instead of laws is what folks want to hear. We sang of that love but sure didn’t preach it.

  2. Rose Marie says:

    Just sat yesterday afternoon and listened to the heartbreaking story of a woman married to a non-orthodox Jew who left after 25 years that included sadistic manipulation, thievery, and adultery. She was baptized last summer into the CofC but is still struggling mightily to know what she is forgiven of………..and does that include the sin of divorce? I am printing this article to share with her . I did assure her that all sins are forgiven. Period. Now to restore her mental and fiscal health and her relationships with her two children. And the human spirit is somehow triumphant in even the direst of circumstances. Down inside this woman is a spark that believes that marriage and loving relationships are still possible. May God prove it so.

  3. Dwight says:

    Jay, you wrote “He was required to give her a certificate of divorce (a get) to allow her to remarry, but the get followed the divorce.”, but the COD was just a written statement by the man that she is being let loose (put away). The COD didn’t just allow the woman to get remarried, but placed the action of her being put way into writing. God commanded the Israelites to put away from them the foreign women of the surrounding nations, but this was not for sexual immoralty and God did not tell them to write a COD, just to put them away.
    The “get” as you say was the written representation of the putting away or divorce and didn’t just simply follow it. You even said it yourself, divorce means to “release, let go, or dismiss” so the COD was simply the legal paper in regards to her divorce or being let go.
    We tend to make “divorce” and the “let go” two different things and yet they are really the same action. The word divorce wasn’t used until the 15th ct. and it means is “to leave one’s husband”. In the Hebrew the word divorce means 7971, “to send”. COD -paper of sending away.

  4. Dwight says:

    What is disturbing is that finally in 2012 the Jewish parliment did what God told them to do through the scriptures thousands of years ago, “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,”
    The scriptural order is: due to uncleanliness, becomes unfavorable, (not simply because of uncleanliness, but unclean and unfavorable), he writes her a certificate of her leaving and then puts her away with it.
    There is no holding back of the COD as an option in the Deut., but there is of the putting away (unfavorable due to uncleanliness).
    It is strange how we kind of by-pass the sense of mercy shown here as an option and often teach that divorce is the direct course of action to be taken due to uncleanliness or fornication.

  5. Jay Guin says:


    It’s a fact that a Jewish woman without a get could not remarry in the eyes of the rabbis and under the prevailing interpretations of the Torah. The rabbis would have considered her still married to her husband due to having no certificate of divorce — even if he abandons the household and leaves the country. Worse yet, if he abandons her, while she could go to a rabbinic court and demand that he issue the get, the court could not do this for him. The rabbinic court could only fine him or shame him into issuing the get. In theory, they could could have him whipped to induce the granting of the get.

    That’s the law of the Jews as understood at the time of Jesus, as reported by David Instone-Brewer.

    Now, take a step back and think about all this as Jesus would have. Look at the case, not through the eyes of law, but through the eyes of Jesus — the Lord of the Sabbath, the man who urged mercy rather than sacrifice. Think as Jesus is teaching us to think in the SOTM.

    Point 1: If she’s still married to the man, why does she need a get? They’re married. Nothing’s happened or changed. What is it that drives the demand for a get so she can remarry? Well, obviously, the marriage has ended. He’s abandoned the family and left the jurisdiction of the court. The present situation is untenable and the rabbis want to do right by her but are bound by an ancient tradition — a narrow reading of Deu 24 that ignores reality. They can’t just declare her divorced because they’ve concluded that divorce only happens by get, which creates an unrealistic, inhumane situation.

    Their thinking is plainly immoral. The husband is doubtlessly an adulterer. He has abandoned his wife. To hold her to her “marriage” is to indulge a sheer fiction. There is no real marriage. The marriage is over, and the rabbis just couldn’t find a way around their own legalism — which is the nature of legalism and why Jesus taught us to flee such thinking.

    2. The husband could, according to the rabbis, remarry even if he never issued a get. He was allowed to be a polygamist. Hence, he suffers no penalty for violating the law and leaving the wife of his youth unable to remarry. We correctly see him as sinning against her because what he has done is obviously cruel and intended to hurt her.

    When we find ourselves on the same side as mean-spirited abusers of women, we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. The law was not given to hurt women but to help them. The law requiring a get was a humanitarian allowance so the divorced wife could prove her right to remarry. It was never intended to give the culpable husband the ability to torture his wife by leaving her and denying her the right to remarry.

    3. In fact, the husband and wife are no longer married, no longer “bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh” or one body. The husband is no longer joined to his wife. The Gen 2 description of marriage does not apply, the covenant is broken, and they are not married — which is the very reason he owes her a get. If they’re still married, why issue the get?

    4. The rabbis, being legalistically inclined, chose to deny the purpose of the law in order to enforce one possible interpretation of the law. This is bad hermeneutics and contrary to the heart of God. The law was intended to solve this problem, and so should have been interpreted to solve this problem — perhaps by allowing the court to issue the get in the husband’s name. (This is a very common solution in American jurisprudence under the modern rules of civil procedure).

    And so I’d agree that in the eyes of the rabbis, the marriage continued. But this is inconsistent with their position requiring the husband to issue the get (to formalize what has already happened in reality). And so, their eyes were blind both to reality and to the will of God.

    I mean, should we take the position that the wicked husband succeeds, that his wife remains bound to him, and that he can remarry while she cannot when he’s the one who broke the marriage covenant? Is that really the reading of Torah that we think Jesus who have us come to?

    In all seriousness, this is THE turning point in how we read the SOTM. If we read Jesus as approving the abuse of wrongly divorced women, we’ve missed the point entirely. And the rabbinic courts were unwilling to take the leap toward reading through the words of the Torah to the heart of God — to read the text as affirming God’s purposes. And this is why they were condemned by Jesus.

    Now, I’m not saying that Jesus is addressing this issue in Matt 5. He’s not. I’m saying that we should learn how to read Torah in light of what Jesus does teach. We should follow the example of his hermeneutics.

    I should add that he further declares in Matt 19, implicitly, that he’s opposed to polygamy, which is why in Matt 19 the husband who puts away his wife to marry another is an adulterer — he violated his marriage covenant with his first wife, and this can only be true if Jesus insist on monogamy. And Jesus himself said he reached his conclusion from Gen 2. The husband can’t be truly one with his wife unless he has only one wife.

    Ultimately, it’s about how we define “marriage.” And Jesus defines marriage based on Gen 2, not Deu 24, and so we must read Deu 24 in light of what Gen 2 says — taking Gen 2 as the “higher” law. This is what Jesus did in Matt 19, and so it’s right — and it makes a lot of sense.

    Jesus gave some examples of how this works, and he did not address the question of the failure to issue a get. But once the husband puts his wife away, refusing to honor his marital obligations to her, treating the marriage as ended, then in Gen 2 terms, there is no marriage.

    (Mat 19:4-6 ESV) 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”

    Jesus declares it a sin to break the marriage covenant to separate from one’s wife. He does not declare it impossible. In fact, his point is that separation can happen and that Moses allowed putting away, but he did not approve it.

    The rabbis had taken the view that divorce for adultery (or the like) was mandatory. It was unthinkable for a man to forgive his wife and affirm the marriage. They took Moses to COMMAND divorce in this situation.

    Again, the rabbis missed the point due to their focus on law rather than God and his purposes. Just as God repeatedly forgave Israel for his adulteries against God, God unquestionably approves forgiving a spouse and reconciling. When Paul instructed spouses to reconcile if possible in 1 Cor 7, he was writing contrary to the rabbinic consensus. Jesus taught him to see things differently.

    In short, God hates divorce, but divorce sometimes happens contrary to God’s will. But God does not insist on a “marriage” where the husband does not care for his wife and the wife is left without support. To call such a thing a “marriage” would thrill the hearts of many a Pharisee and scribe, but it’s not true to the heart of God.

    One of the major points of the SOTM is to teach us to think in Kingdom terms rather than legalistic terms.

  6. laymond says:

    One of the major points of the SOTM is to teach us to think in Kingdom terms rather than legalistic terms.

    Mat 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

    It sounds like even the kingdom has rules/laws. Obedience to either God’s law. or man’s law is voluntary, but the penalty for breaking said law is set.

  7. Dwight says:

    Jay, I don’t disagree with you in the way the Jewish rabbis interpreted the “get”, at least through the many varying intepretatations of the Torah that existed depending on the school of thought, but Jesus wasn’t asked about the get, as He was aksed about the reason for the get. Reading Deut. doesn’t given an exclusion for not giving a “get” so the Law doesn’t neccessarily match the interpretations that the Rabbies later gave thier voice too. This is also seen in the differnet schools of thought between the Shemmai and Hillel in how they either sought to follow the strictness of the words or rethink the meanings for allowances of the husband. If Jesus followed the Shammai school of thought which followed Gods/Jesus original thought, then Jesus probably was of the understanding that a woman that was put away should have a “get” as well.
    Yes indeed, the Rabbis seemed to veer away from the points that God had in place to place heavy burdens where there were none to begin with or remove a reasonable action upon the husband when he should have done the right thing.

  8. Monty says:

    Jay said, “Just as God repeatedly forgave Israel for his adulteries against God,”

    Shouldn’t that be “her” adulteries? Great article!

  9. Dwight says:

    Jay you wrote, “I mean, should we take the position that the wicked husband succeeds, that his wife remains bound to him, and that he can remarry while she cannot when he’s the one who broke the marriage covenant?”
    At least when Jesus commented as giving the Shammai thought on Deut. the command was that when the man let the woman go/giving here a COD, she could remarry, if he let her go for sexual immorality. In fact they both could remarry again. Jesus comments that to let her go for any other reason than sexual immorality would make both of them adulterers if they remarried. So the law and Jesus worked equally for and against both the husband and wife, neither further penalizing them past the point of the sin that they comitted the first time for sexual immorality in regards to marrying another, but a sin of adultery awaited if they divorced for any other reason than the sin they were supposed to divorce for. We often want to make fornication the sin that keeps on giving, especially to the wife past the point of divorce, but it was not supposed to be that way.

  10. Jay Guin says:


    You are right. I distinctly remember typing “her.” I’ll fix. I’m getting old …

  11. R.J. says:

    There were 4 things the Rabbinical Pharisees falsely inferred from Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

    1. That divorce was mandatory if the husband finds something indecent(no forgiveness).

    2. Divorce never happens(at least for the wife) unless the husband issues a get.

    3. A get was used to stigmatize her as someone unreliable(even an adulteress).

    4. That Moses gave a moral permit to break wedlock.

    In the SOTM, I believe Jesus was mainly addressing the third interpretation. A law that was originally meant to protect women of former husbands has now been twisted to actually damage reputation and well-being. If a new guy wanted to marry her, he too would be stigmatized and be left digging out the arrows lodged deep within her.

    Question. Does the lack or a definite article in verse 32b necessarily mean that it’s indefinite? In other words, do you have to supply an indefinite(a) before “divorced woman”? Is a definite article required in Greek to specify?

    Literal translation: “And he who might marry divorced woman himself becomes dishonored“.

  12. Jay Guin says:


    Greek articles are very different from in English. It can be very confusing. Much more contextual. Absence of a the is not determinative.

  13. Dwight says:

    R.J., Is verse 32b “and he who might marry divorced woman himself becomes dishonored” from Matt.5? I assume. This is quite a different reindetion than most. Even YLT says, “but I — I say to you, that whoever may put away his wife, save for the matter of whoredom, doth make her to commit adultery; and whoever may marry her who hath been put away doth commit adultery.”
    and CompleteJewishBible ” and that anyone who marries a divorcee commits adultery.”
    This is is of course in the context of the one who marries another who was divorced not for sexual immorality. It must have context of the rest of the verse.
    So the opposite would be that one who marries one divorced for the cause of fornication doesn’t commit adultery, which is what Deut.posits as well.
    This seems counter to what we think should happen. But the divorce for the cause of fornication breaks the man and wife state/marriage allowing for remarriage, while divorce (for any other cause) doesn’t and this results in adultery all the way around when there is remarriage.

  14. R.J. says:


    I was just giving a literal rendering of the Alexandrian text(save the word order for clarity). Some bible translations do indeed take the passive approach by revealing her as a victim instead of an instigator(from temptation) of adultery.

  15. laymond says:

    Everyone commenting on the subject of adultery seems to think they know all there is to know about it, so I ask “Is artificial insemination adultery” ?

  16. Dwight says:

    Laymond, Is she having a personal relationship with the man who she is getting the artificial insemination from aside from her husband if she has one, then I would be inclined to say yes, but if not then I am not not going to touch it. I only know what the scriptures say and when the talk goes outside of the boundaries of what the scriptures say, then I try to stop.
    RJ, I am going to have to go back and find the Alexandrian text. I have heard of it, but hadn’t done any reading of it. Jesus does given an instance of the woman divorcing from her husband, which from what I understand wasn’t done then, but He gives it as an example of what could be done.
    But then again Herodias divorced from her huband Philip to marry Herod and John still calls Philip her husband.

  17. Jay Guin says:


    The verb “commits adultery” as to the wife differs in the Byzantine (Majority) text vs. the critical text. The Majority Text has μοιχᾶσθαι, which is passive in form but generally taken to be a deponent, that is, active, intransitive: “commits adultery.” The critical text has μοιχευθῆναι, an infinitive aorist passive, as discussed in my post above. It’s clearly passive in form: “to be dishonored [at a point in time].” The error in the majority text is likely the reason this passage has been misunderstood for so long.

    The critical text is based on Codices Aleph, B, and D. The Majority Text begins, so far as we have records, with Codex Bezae — notorious for eccentric readings. The critical text is also supported by the ECFs: Theophilus, Origen, and Chrysostom.

  18. Jay Guin says:


    The Greek, both Majority and critical, include “makes her” before “commit adultery.” Even the KJV makes clear that the cause of the adultery is the man who put her away. Obviously enough, if he is the one at fault, he is the one who sinned, meaning the sin cannot be having sex with her second husband. Jesus plainly points his finger at the offending first husband.

    The texts differ as to whether she is said to “commit adultery” to be “committed adultery against” — as in “be dishonored.” There’s no English equivalent of the critical text’s Greek.

    Both texts are aorist – point in time – further eliminating the theory that sex with the second husband is the “commit adultery.”

    But the Majority Text reads “makes her commit adultery” – which is very hard to figure. How can she be made to sin by someone else? But the critical text, based on the oldest and best manuscripts, says that she is dishonored, which makes perfect sense.

  19. Alabama John says:

    I have given sperm several times during my life to licensed doctors in a fertility clinic so he could get married couples that couldn’t have a child one. In animal circles that would be called a licensed stud but in my case there was no stud fee, just an act of sympathy and compassion and when we heard one got pregnant, JOY.

    Didn’t have the sexual enjoyment looked forward to in adultery. Was very clinical and neither side ever knew the other. Have had my spouse point at a younger person and say that might be one as he or she looks a lot like you.

    No telling how many children were born because of it. Clinic said a hundred or more was possible.

    Another debatable question: Not having sex and getting pregnant that way, would the recipient be considered still a virgin giving birth?

    How we can confuse things.

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