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Written Debate:  "Biblical Putting Away"

First Negative
Harry Osborne

Before directly refuting brother Sheridan's affirmative, let me clarify the subject of this debate. Simply put, Terence plainly states that an innocent party in a marriage sundered for the cause of fornication must beat the guilty spouse to initiating the civil divorce and obtaining the court's ruling. His position requires that human law, procedure and judicial decree establish law binding God's judgment in this matter. He urges brethren to make a test of fellowship out of who wins that civil race and what the judge rules. Those are my points of disagreement with Terence.

In contrast, it is important to understanding what is not being disputed. There is no disagreement over the fact that a marriage may be sundered against the will of one spouse. We agree it may. Neither disputant contends that one may lawfully remarry following a marriage sundered for a cause other than fornication regardless of who later commits fornication. Though Terence attributes the "mental divorce" view to me, I do not believe it. A marriage is not sundered by merely mental means, nor may one spouse mentally put away the other after the marriage has already been sundered. The order must be fornication, putting away, then remarriage if the innocent has a right to remarry. Neither is this discussion about the need to comply with civil law in divorce. A civil divorce must be obtained when a marriage is sundered and the two people depart from one another. Our difference regards whether that civil divorce procedure is synonymous with biblical putting away, whether the innocent must initiate that civil action, and whether the court must grant the civil action in favor of the innocent party.

Brother Sheridan's problem lies with three main words in this proposition: "the Scriptures teach." Unfortunately, Terence spent the bulk of his article quoting from human sources and presenting hypothetical cases, rather than examining the Scriptures, the only pattern for human action. Though Terence agreed to affirm "the Scriptures teach that biblical putting away is synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society and that the innocent one must secure that civil divorce in order to have a right to remarry," he failed to produce a single passage to prove it. He shows no civil procedure, no filing, no judicial proceeding, no court or civil institution, no judge, no legal record, no judgment or any other "civil procedure for divorce" which he affirms "the Scriptures teach" as being synonymous with biblical putting away. He asserts that putting away "requires three elements": (1) renouncing the marriage bond, (2) initiating the civil action for divorce as defined by civil law and (3) receiving the judgment from that civil action. Where does Terence find the Scriptures teaching for his second and third requirements? Those are the two elements necessary to sustain the proposition.

Instead of scriptural proof, Terence establishes his pattern by presuming upon the silence of Scripture. He says, "Nowhere in the Bible is this process per se declared invalid." I do not deny the civil government may establish laws regarding civil procedures regulating marriage or divorce. That is not at issue. Terence must show how "the Scriptures teach" that the term "put away" as given by God through inspiration can only be defined by "the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society" as the proposition states. He must show that the varying laws in each country bind God and the application of His principles as given in Scripture. At present, Terence has not come close to bearing his obligation of proof.

To understand the language used, we must examine the text of Matthew 19 remembering that Jesus was answering a specific question asked by the Pharisees. The question was, "Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?" (Matthew 19:3). Notice, the question related to the cause for lawful putting away, not the procedure for such. The word for "cause" is also rendered "accusation" or "charge" in the sense of a reason (Acts 13:28; 25:18). In Matthew 19, the Pharisees asked about the lawful cause for divorce. Jesus stated that cause (19:9). The disciples then reacted using the same Greek word for cause, there rendered "case" (19:10). The Pharisees did not ask about the civil procedure associated with those sundering a marriage, nor did the disciples react to such. Putting emphasis upon the procedure when the text plainly emphasizes the cause is a violation of hermeneutic principles. Fundamental misinterpretation occurs when one does not leave the emphasis of the text as it is given in Scripture.

When one rightly understands the emphasis placed in context upon the cause, one understands why the "waiting game" approach is wrong and is not a consequence of my position as Terence charges. One has no basis to sunder a marriage for the cause of fornication if no fornication is present at the time that marriage is sundered.

Not only does brother Sheridan affirm that the civil procedure is synonymous with biblical putting away, but he contends "the Scriptures teach that biblical putting away is synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society." If any civil procedure is specified as synonymous with biblical putting away, why is it not the procedure of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 alluded to in Matthew 5:31-32, Matthew 19:3-9 and Mark 10:2-12? That procedure consisted of a man writing out a bill of divorcement, giving it to his wife and sending her away. But Terence does not seek to bind that procedure. Why? Could it be that he understands Jesus abrogated that provision of Mosaic law? Any procedure included in Deuteronomy 24 was abolished when the law was annulled. However, if one accepts that the Pharisees' question was based on Deuteronomy 24 and it is admitted that Jesus nullified that law, why would one use the nullified procedure as the basis for requiring another civil procedure neither specified nor necessarily implied in the text? The only procedure Terence will find in this text is the procedure of Deuteronomy 24 which Jesus said is no longer binding. Terence searches the text in vain to require another procedure of a civil nature.

In the time of Jesus, the Jewish hearers were governed by the provisions of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 and the rabbinical traditions concerning the procedure for sundering a marriage. Deuteronomy 24:1 required the husband to take the procedural action commanded in the text. There is no provision in this law for the woman to take that action. The rabbinical traditions made the same provision. Note these comments on the Mishnah:

    A man can divorce his wife but a woman cannot divorce her husband, except in the case of an orphan minor who had been given in marriage by her mother or brother(s) and she may on attaining puberty repudiate her marriage. A woman has nevertheless the right to seek the aid of the Court to induce or compel her husband to grant her a divorce under certain conditions (as for instance refusal by the husband to grant her connubial rights, his apostasy, if he is impotent, if he suffers from a loathsome disease, for his unfaithfulness, if he refuses to maintain her, for cruelty toward her).... The Court had no authority to issue a letter of divorce: this had to come from the husband. In the 11th Century C.E. it was decreed that no bill of divorce by a husband was to be issued without the wife's consent, thus restricting the ancient, absolute, unrestricted right of a man to divorce his wife at will (Mishnayoth, Blackman, III:391, "Introduction" to Gittin; see also S.E. Johnson, Gospel According to St. Mark, 169).

Josephus also recorded the actions allowed by Jewish law:

    But some time afterward, when Salome happened to quarrel with Costobarus, she sent him a bill of divorce, and dissolved her marriage with him, though this was not according to the Jewish laws; for with us it is lawful for a husband to do so; but a wife if she departs from her husband, cannot of herself be married to another, unless her former husband put her away (Antiquities, XV.vii.10).

It was in a society with these procedures that Jesus raised the possibility that a wife may "put away her husband" (Mark 10:12). How could that be possible if putting away demands taking the procedural action specified by civil law as Terence affirms? Saying that the Gospel of Mark was written to Gentiles where women could initiate the civil action does not answer the point. The text shows that Jesus stated this possibility to the people who surrounded Him who were governed by the provisions of Jewish law. When one puts Mark's statement that a woman in that society could "put away" her husband with Matthew's account allowing remarriage if such were done for the cause of fornication, Jesus affirmed what Terence denies — that an innocent spouse can put away a spouse guilty of fornication even when no civil procedure provides for such. Jesus clearly did not teach that "biblical putting away is synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society and that the innocent one must secure that civil divorce in order to have a right to remarry." This fact destroys Terence's whole theory!

Though Terence detailed no scriptural argument to prove his proposition, he did make reference to the Greek word apoluo which is translated "put away" in the Scriptures. In relation to that word, he says, "Obviously in the context of the divorce sayings, the word has to do with what a person attempts against his spouse, justly or unjustly." How does this prove his affirmation? He has not affirmed that the innocent party must make "attempts against his spouse." If he had merely affirmed that some action must be taken by the innocent to show the sundering of the marriage was due to the other party's fornication, I would not have objected. Our difference comes when Terence legislates the specific actions of the innocent party acquiring the civil procedure and court's judgment "before" the guilty so acts as the only means by which the innocent can put away the guilty.

The Scriptures help us understand the meaning of the word apoluo when we examine its use in Matthew's Gospel. There, the Greek word apoluo is used 11 times outside of texts related to sundering of a marriage. It is used of sending people away (14:15-22; 15:23). It denotes releasing a debt obligation (18:27). It describes the action of releasing a prisoner (27:15-26). If the word apoluo necessarily implies the initiating of a specified civil procedure and receiving a civil judgment, where is such found in these texts?

When we examine the use of apoluo in the entire New Testament, it is clear that the word does not imply a specified civil procedure, much less require such. It is repeatedly used of sending people away (Luke 8:38; 9:12; Acts 19:41). It is most commonly used of releasing prisoners, even without legal action (Acts 4:21-23). It is used of those released from seizure by a mob (Acts 17:9), of being forgiven (Luke 6:37) and of being healed (Luke 13:12). Paul was "sent" (apoluo) by the church at Antioch to preach the gospel and later sent by the Jerusalem elders to refute the claims of the Judiasers (Acts 13:3; 15:22-33). If apoluo requires taking civil actions according to specified procedure determined by civil law and receiving the judgment of the civil authorities, where do we find such in these texts?

It is obvious by examining the use of the word apoluo that it does not convey the concepts Terence attributes to it. If he claims the word in Matthew 19 and related texts requires a special meaning of commencing a specified civil procedure and receiving the legal judgment, let him prove it from the context. Otherwise, we must conclude that the word neither implies nor demands that which Terence claims it requires. If he wants to impose that judgment on himself as a matter of conscience, he may do so. If he binds it as a test of fellowship as he has stated, he has bound human law not bound by God and stands condemned by Scripture for adding to God's word (Mark 7:1-13; Colossians 2:8; 2 John 9; Revelation 22:18-19).

Just as understanding the meaning of "fellowship" is learned by studying the synonyms to it in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16, so also we can better understand the meaning of "put away" (apoluo) by seeing other words used synonymously in Scripture. Two words are used as its synonyms:

  1. The Greek word choridzo is translated "put asunder" in Matthew 19:6 and Mark 10:9. It is the word Jesus chose as a synonym of the word "put away" in the Pharisees' question. Choridzo meant to sunder, disunite, divide or separate something. No lexicographer defines it as requiring a civil procedure for divorce. The word does not denote civil action taken against another person, but action against the relationship. Paul uses the same word to reiterate what the Lord commanded (1 Cor. 7:10-11, "depart"). However, there is a notable difference in the form of the word used in the Gospels and that used by Paul. Jesus used choridzo in the active voice, while Paul summarized the same teaching of Jesus by using choridzo in the passive voice. If Jesus in the Gospels was mandating who must take the civil action in a legal procedure, how could Paul legitimately use the passive voice as a parallel? The conclusion is obvious -- Jesus was not requiring a procedure regarding who must take the civil action of divorce.

  2. The Greek word aphiemi is rendered "put away" in KJV or "leave" in ASV in 1 Corinthians 7:11 and is synonymous with the Greek words choridzo and apoluo. Not one use in over 140 New Testament uses of aphiemi infers a civil procedure of divorce.

Given the above facts, we must conclude that the word "put away" (apoluo) in Matthew 5, Matthew 19, Mark 10 and Luke 16 cannot be used as "synonymous with the civil procedure for divorce in one's respective society" since the synonyms given by inspiration do not refer to a civil procedure.

With that background in mind, let us examine the hypothetical situation raised by Terence. He says that Bob is married to Betty, then commits fornication with Susie. Next, Bob states his intent to divorce Betty and marry Susie. Bob then files for divorce and Betty contests the divorce, but the court grants the judgement to Bob. Terence affirms that Betty has no right to remarry following the divorce. He further affirms that the only way Betty could have a right to remarry is this: "She needed to (1) renounce her bond with Bob; (2) comply with civil law; and (3) obtain civil recognition that the marriage is no longer functioning. She needed to do this before Bob did" (emphasis HRO). In other words, Terence openly affirms one must win the race to the civil action and receive the court's judgment in order to have a right to remarry. If that is true, no later countersuit or judicial finding of fault (as in a child custody case that follows) would make any difference. According to Terence, everything hangs on who initiates the divorce and what the judge rules. If he wants to back away from this position, let us see how he makes a distinction from Scripture regarding the specific legal actions one must take.

To apply principles shown earlier, examine Terence's case in the first century setting. Jesus taught that a first century Jewish woman (call her Betty) could "put away" her husband (call him Bob) for fornication even though the law forbade Betty from writing the bill of divorcement. What is the difference?

Let us further consider Betty in Terence's hypothetical case. If Betty counter-filed after Bob, would that constitute action by which she could "put away" guilty Bob? If not, why not? She would have lost the race which Terence says she must win, but his condition is not found in Scripture. If counter-filing was not allowed in Betty's state and she protested before the judge that the true cause of the marriage breakup was Bob's fornication, would that constitute action by which she could scripturally "put away" guilty Bob? What if she renounced Bob for his fornication before the elders or the church, would that constitute action to "put away" Bob? If neither is sufficient, why not? I am willing to leave the specific action necessary generic just as Jesus left it. In each case, the legal requirements would have been met as demanded by Romans 13:1-7 and the innocent would have acted to put away the guilty spouse. Terence must show us where Scripture specifies the innocent initiating the civil action and receiving the court's ruling as the only means by which putting away can take place.

When Terence affirms biblical putting away must be for fornication and it requires one to initiate civil action and receive the court's judgment, he leaves himself with a problem. His position necessitates that the innocent must initiate the civil action for the cause of fornication (not for "irreconcilable differences") and receive the court's judgment for the cause of fornication (a record bearing testimony of the ruling because of fornication). If Terence says the cause of fornication may be merely understood, could he be accused of the "mental cause" or "mental judgment" position? Consistency in his position demands the cause of fornication be stated in the action filed and the court's ruling. If that is the case, very rarely could any innocent party meet his requirements.


Brethren, let us not divide over unspecified procedures added to God's word. Let us unite on principles plainly affirmed by Scripture and forebear with one another, allowing individual judgments regarding applications left generic in Scripture. If we fail to take that course, we will needlessly fracture as mandate after mandate is added by those making their conscience the rule for all.

First Affirmative: Terence Sheridan; First Negative: Harry Osborne
Second Affirmative: Terence Sheridan; Second Negative: Harry Osborne

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