What Constitutes Biblical "Putting Away?"
Tim Haile

April 20, 2001

     Those who believe the Lord's teaching in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, agree that sexual immorality is the only acceptable grounds for divorce and remarriage. They also agree that this right of marrying another belongs only to the innocent party who put away his or her mate for that cause of sexual immorality, and that the put away fornicator has no right to remarry following this procedure (Matt. 5:32; 19:9).

     However, among those who agree that fornication is the only exception allowing for divorce and remarriage, there is disagreement over the exact procedure for that divorce. That conscientious brethren have this disagreement is perfectly understandable. For, though Jesus was specific with regard to the cause of putting away, yet He was general with regard to the options for executing that procedure. Jesus knew that though His moral and spiritual laws were universal, fixed, and unchangeable, yet human laws, customs, and traditions are in a constant state of flux. The principle of the universal application of God's spiritual laws demanded that Jesus use the language that He used. The gospel age engulfs many different times, countries, and cultures. In giving His marriage law and exception clause, Jesus gave principles that can be applied anywhere and at any time, regardless of social and civil laws, and regardless of customs and traditions. Let us not think that the Lord's marriage laws were written only to 21st century Christians living in North America!

Defining Our Terms

     Human laws and practices do not define Biblical terms and expressions. Scripture is no more interpreted by judges and lawyers than it is by councils and conventions. Whatever Jesus meant by the expression put away, He meant for all times and peoples. The failure on the part of some to recognize this fact has led them to equate civil divorce with biblical putting away. However, they are not the same. When Jesus spoke of putting away in Matthew 5, 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16, He spoke of purpose and procedure. Though some action is involved, Jesus did not specify the kind of action. And there is nothing inherent in the Greek word apoluo ("put away") that necessarily defines the putting away as civil court action. Those who view the Lord's words solely from a human law perspective are bound to make mistakes in their application of the Lord's divorce and remarriage laws.

     Let the reader understand carefully that some action is required of the innocent party if they wish to preserve their right of remarriage. Since men and women are also amenable to whatever civil laws they may be under, then they must comply with whatever requirements the law would make of them in securing a divorce. In cases where the fornicator is first to file for the divorce, and especially in "no fault divorce" states, the only civil action that the innocent party may be left with is to contest the fornicator's cause. One's options for doing this may be limited, but by taking some action of protestation, the innocent party refuses to become the put away party. It should be noted that most judges will grant the fornicator his divorce anyway, so that from the standpoint of Court House record, the innocent party may be shown as the divorced party. Acts 16:37 gives an example of Paul protesting an unjust civil order. We are obligated to comply with human civil rules only to the degree in which it is possible to do so (Acts 5:29).

     In its general sense, the Greek word "apoluo" means to "set free" (Lk. 13:12); to "let go" (Matt. 15:23); to "dismiss" (Lk. 2:29); to "let go free" (Lk. 22:68; 23:22). However, when used of divorce, Thayer says it means, "to dismiss from the house, to repudiate." (Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg. 66). Based upon the Lord's usage of the word apoluo, it is my studied conclusion that Thayer's word repudiation best describes the action of putting away. Regardless of culture or custom, regardless of civil law or social ceremony, whether in the 1st century or the 21st century, one may repudiate his mate for the cause of fornication. By this definition the Lord's liberty is preserved regardless of what men may say or do, and regardless of the laws they may pass.

Are Some People Formulating A Divorce Creed?

     One who might have the creed mentality is never fully satisfied with God's word. It views the Bible as being insufficient, especially in the areas of generic authority. Those who have this mindset are uneasy about God's use of generic authority, because generic authority implies options, and those options result in differing methods of applying the main principle. It is good and right for men to demand total uniformity in all matters of specific divine revelation (Col. 3:17). And it is commendable for men to be meticulous in their observance of God's laws. However, it is sinful for them to legislate and bind where God has not (Jas. 4:12; Matt. 16:19).

     If one has a creedal mindset, he may see himself as just being very conscientious in his application of God's word. He may even see himself as providing a great and noble service to their brethren. He might reason that his additional rules and regulations would help remove the guesswork in areas involving personal judgment. He is not concerned that his approach actually eliminates the concept of generic authority. He becomes blinded by his misguided zeal. His scrupulosity carries him beyond the boundaries of what is inscribed in the Scripture of Truth (Dan. 10:21; 1 Pet. 4:11; Isa. 8:20). He legislates what God did not legislate, and he regulates what God did not regulate! Sadly, the result is always the same. Confusion, strife, and division always follow (Tit. 3:10-11; Rom. 16:17).

     As I said above, Jesus clearly stated the reason that would allow for divorce and remarriage, however, He did not specify any particular civil law or cultural tradition to define the procedure for that divorce. It is important to observe that whatever Jesus meant by the expression "put away," he meant for all times and for all nations. This means that one "puts away" his mate by doing whatever Jesus meant by this expression. Of course, as noted above, depending upon one's social and legal situation, there may be other things he must do in addition to this putting away (Rom. 13:1-4), but let it be understood that the act of putting away does not change with the times and culture. It remains the same. I take comfort in the Lord's perfect wisdom. I do not fret over the notion that some law may be passed by a godless legislature that infringes upon divine laws or liberties. In those areas where human laws contradict divine laws, we have no King but Christ.

     When one teaches that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is defined by what he thinks ought to be the proper procedure, he binds where God did not bind. When one teaches that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is defined by present North American civil jurisprudence, he binds where God did not bind. When one teaches that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is defined by past North American civil jurisprudence, he binds where God did not bind. When one teaches that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is defined by a particular North American state's civil jurisprudence, he binds where God did not bind. When one teaches that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is defined by some other particular country's civil jurisprudence or social custom, he binds where God did not bind.

     If some have decided that it is time to standardize the divorce procedure for churches of Christ, they are indeed faced with an ominous task. For, as we said above, even among those who agree that fornication is the only acceptable cause allowing the innocent party to put away their spouse and remarry, there is disagreement on other matters relating to options of the divorce procedure. Let us consider a few of the more commonly held positions:

1. Some strongly believe that the act of putting away is the civil divorce proceeding itself. This would mean that the combination of a fast driving fornicator with an ambitious lawyer and an unjust judge would be able to overthrow a divine liberty. Some scoff at the notion that sinners are capable of nullifying divine permission in this way, while others readily accept it as the truth.

2. Among those who believe that the putting away is necessarily the civil divorce paper, there is still disagreement. For while one group holds that the cause of fornication must be specified in writing on the divorce certificate, another group claims that this is not necessary at all! This last group will argue that all concerned parties have the understanding that the innocent party was putting away the guilty one for fornication. Which group holds the correct position? Perhaps we shall just have to wait for the creed to be published before we know with certainty! Question: In the interim, while the creed is preparing, may those who insist that the cause be in writing, be allowed to accuse their opponents of taking the Mental Writing Position on divorce and remarriage? Just wondering?

3. Among those who agree that the putting away of Matthew 19:9 is the civil divorce paper, there is disagreement as to whether or not a counter suit, by the innocent party, has any affect upon their marital rights. Some say the counter suit changes their situation, allowing them to now remarry, while other say the counter suit is not biblically allowable. Counter suit, or no counter suit? Which will it be?

4. Among those who are agreed that the putting away action does not necessarily involve the civil writing of divorce, there is disagreement as to what the innocent party is required to do that constitutes putting away. Some believe that the innocent party's purpose for putting away their mate must be stated in an assembly of the saints. But what if they aren't Christians? Do God's divorce laws apply only to Christians? Some feel it would be necessary to take out a newspaper or radio advertisement. Some say they need only tell their friends and family members. Which one is required? Perhaps the creed will enlighten us!

5. Some strongly believe that if one's mate is unfaithful, then later repents, the innocent mate is under divine obligation to receive them back into the marriage. Other equally conscientious brethren hold the view that, though the innocent party is always obligated to forgive a penitent brother or sister, yet God has attached physical consequences to the sin of adultery. They believe that this physical consequence allows the innocent party to put away an immoral mate even if that mate has repented of their sin. Which position will the creed writers endorse?

     These are just a few of the many different views that are held by brethren who agree that the only person who has a right to remarry after a divorce is the innocent person who put away their spouse for fornication. Unity can only come as a result of us uniting upon what the Bible actually teaches. It will not come from our insistence upon our own personal preferences, opinions, and scruples.

"But What About the Writing of Divorce?"

     In the majority of adultery cases, the fornicator is the first one to seek the civil divorcement. There are two reasons for this: 1.) The guilty party wishes to be free to pursue their new relationship, and 2.) The innocent party has been emotionally crushed by their mate's sin. They need time to recover and to determine what course of action they wish to take. Some people so intertwine the civil divorcement with the putting away that they end up with a position that runs contrary to the Lord's teaching. They believe that if the innocent party fails to be the first one to pursue this civil action, then they forfeit their right to remarry. This position punishes the most conscientious, family-loving, Christ-like Christians. It tells them to forget about trying to convert their erring mate; forget about reasoning with them; forget about the children - think only about protecting yourself. On the very surface, this concept appears to be flawed.

     The first-one-to-file or race-to-the-courthouse position violates several biblical principles about love and forgiveness, but it especially violates the Lord's teaching in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. There Jesus shifted emphasis away from "the writing" of divorcement, and placed it upon the purpose of divorcement (for fornication). He emphasized the "purpose" above the "paper."

     If the "putting away" of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is defined by the action of "giving a writing of divorcement" as discussed in Matthew 5:31 and 19:7, then rather than reinforce Genesis 2:24, Jesus reinforced Deuteronomy 24:1-4! This position has some grave consequences.

Consequences of Using Mosaic Law or Jewish Tradition to Define Putting Away

(1) Those who argue such would have to concede their argument with the divorce liberals, that Jesus was doing more than just explaining the Law of Moses. If the "putting away" is the same thing as the "writing of a divorce certificate," then Jesus was merely explaining the Law of Moses. This would make the divorce liberals correct in their argument, and it would preclude us from even appealing to Matthew 5 or 19 for current divorce law!

(2) If the "putting away" is the "writing of divorcement," then where else would one turn but to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for his procedural divorce authority? And, if you do go to this passage for this procedure, what New Testament passage authorizes its use? If you say "Matthew 5:32 or 19:9," you are again stranded with the consequence of your argument. You end up saying that, in those verses "Jesus was only explaining the Law of Moses."

(3) If the Deuteronomy 24 "divorce certificate" is the "putting away" of Matthew 19:9, then the certificate must be written out by the putting away party, and the only role that the civil law would have in this, would be to allow the practice to be done (Matt. 19:8). No lawyers, no courts, no judges, no money - just a pen and piece of paper!

(4) If the Deuteronomy 24 passage constitutes current procedural divorce authority, then the divorce certificate is for the protection of the put away party! This is where their argument collapses. First, they argue that the "putting away" action is necessarily the civil court procedure. Then they argue that the innocent person must initiate this civil procedure by being the first one to file the legal papers against the guilty party. It is argued that if the fornicator is the one who secures the civil divorce, giving the certificate to the innocent, then the innocent person cannot remarry. But there is a big problem with this position! Their procedural authority is obtained from Deuteronomy 24, but there, the divorce certificate was given to the put away party for her marital protection, and not for his! Those who insist that the procedure for putting away is defined by the Mosaic "writing of divorcement," find themselves in a difficult place. On the one hand, they need that Old Testament expression to make their case, but on the other hand, they wish to avoid the definition and application of that expression. For what it is worth, my suggestion would be to remove the emphasis from the writing of divorce and focus our attention upon the marriage bond!

(5) Jesus said that the "divorce certificate" law was "permitted" by the Law of Moses. Nowhere in the Law of Moses can one read about any actual "court" procedure for either the writing, or the serving, of the divorce certificate. From Deuteronomy 24 it appears that this was simply done by the man who found "some uncleanness" in his mate. No civil procedure is even mentioned. We are only told that the man wrote a statement citing his reason for divorcing his wife, and that this written statement was for HER protection, not his! If one turns Deuteronomy 24 for his certificate authority, is he not also obligated to turn there for his procedural authority? "Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them" (Gal. 3:10). Will these brethren allow, per Deuteronomy 24, an innocent party to simply write a letter explaining why he or she is "putting away" his or her mate? If not, then why not?

     Of course, this opens our previous can of worms, doesn't it? If they allow this letter, will they go so far as to require it? And if it is required, must the innocent party give the letter to the guilty party? And, if so, what if the guilty party refuses to accept it? Would this rejection then nullify the innocent party's right to remarry?

     Furthermore, if one accepts either the actual context of Deuteronomy 24, or its rabbinical applications for his authority, where does he find authority for the divorce certificate to be used for the protection of the one doing the putting away? He has none. For the Deuteronomy 24 "writing of divorcement" was for the protection of the put away party. I guess we are back to square one! (Where are those creed writers when you need them!)

     If brethren turn to either Mosaic Law or Jewish traditions for their definition of putting away, not only would the putting away power belong exclusively to men, but the divorce could also be for the cause of "some uncleanness." And after the certificate was given to the woman, stating that the divorce was for this cause, both parties would have the right to remarry! Will men ignore everything else Jesus said on the subject of divorce and remarriage in order to prop up their theory that the obtaining of the divorce certificate necessarily constitutes the putting away?


     The same verses of scripture that eliminate man's right to "loose" where God has not loosed, also forbid him from "binding" where God has not bound (Matt. 16:19; 18:18; Gal. 1:8-9). True disciples will therefore be intolerant of either liberalism or legalism. Binding one's opinions makes one a heretic and heretics must be avoided (Tit. 3:10-11). With great confidence and enthusiasm, let us unite upon what Jesus said about marriage, divorce and remarriage. And, with equal enthusiasm, let us allow for differences in areas of judgment and application.

     Let us teach, with Jesus, that the only person who has a right to remarry is the innocent party who put away his or her mate for the cause of fornication. Let us also teach that just as Jesus did not define any exact procedure for that putting away, neither should we bind any.

     Let us also accept that according to Matthew 5:32, there are some divorce scenarios that do not allow either party the right of remarriage. People, who divorce each other for some cause other than fornication, are not approved for remarriage. The "fornication" exception clause was given by Jesus to protect the truly innocent party. The innocent party may choose to exercise this divine privilege or they may choose not to. It should be noted that Jesus did not specify the amount of time given to the innocent party to lead the erring spouse to repentance. When brethren dictate either the procedure or the time frame, they are guilty of binding where God has not bound.

     Civil laws and social customs may vary from place to place. Christians are to comply with these laws only to the extent that they do not interfere with the execution of divine laws or liberties (Acts 5:29). An innocent spouse, living in the United States, must comply with whatever civil laws are allowable when putting away an unfaithful mate (Rom. 13:1-4), but the divorce certificate is not the "putting away." The putting away is the dismissal or repudiation of the unfaithful mate. Jesus Himself authorizes this permission, and no act of the legislature, whether state or federal, may override it. An innocent spouse may repudiate his mate "for fornication" regardless of the time in which he lives, or the kind of civil law he is under. This may be done whether one lives in North America or Saudi Arabia. As seen from the diverse cultures, customs and traditions of the world, this repudiation may include complicated paper procedures, or it may not. Let us "follow after the things that make for peace" (Rom. 14:19), by allowing some latitude when making the application of the Lord's marriage principles. Let us "speak as the oracles of God" (1 Pet. 4:11), and avoid formulating procedural codes and creeds where Jesus was silent (Mk. 7:9).

by Tim Haile

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