The Grammatical Gymnastics of an Advocate for Divorce and Remarriage: Active Voice

We have seen that the use of the passive (or middle) voice in the Greek of Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and Mark 10:11–12 (even if we accept the translation in the passive or middle, which we do not) does not justify remarriage after divorce (at most it increases the guilt of the man who divorces his wife, but it does not permit the divorced woman to remarry). Luke records the teaching of Jesus on divorce in a different context, and in the active voice.

Since in Luke 16:18 Christ uses the active voice (and moicheuoo instead of moichaoo), a different argument is required to justify remarriage after divorce. In Luke 16:18 our advocate for remarriage clings to the present tense of the participles and the verbs: “Everyone putting away…and marrying…commits adultery.” This supposedly refers to the Pharisees who “were continually divorcing and continually marrying…The actions of divorcing and marrying resulted in continual adultery, actively destroying the very institution of marriage.”

Perhaps, to capture the fullness of the present tense, we could render it thus, although it would be an over-translation: “Everyone (who keeps) putting away his wife and (who keeps) marrying another (keeps on) committing adultery and the one (who keeps) marrying her who has been put away from (her) husband (keeps on) committing adultery.”

Nevertheless, I do not see how an appeal to the present tense helps the case of our remarriage advocate. In Matthew 5:32a the same phrase appears: “Everyone (who keeps) putting away his wife…” The point of the present tense is that when remarriage occurs the relationship that results (the second or subsequent marriage) involves the remarried persons (both of them!) in continuous, ongoing adultery. This is true whether the remarrying person is a Pharisee on his second or seventeenth relationship or whether he or she is a modern Westerner (even a church member or officebearer) on his or her second or third marriage. If the original spouse still lives, any subsequent relationship (second, third, fourth marriage) is adultery.

Present vs. Aorist Tense and Subjunctive

In grammar the “mood” of a verb expresses the attitude of the speaker to the action described by the verb. For example, the indicative mood expresses fact or reality; the subjunctive mood expresses unreality, possibility, and uncertainty; and the imperative mood expresses a command. For example, consider the sentence: “If I were rich enough, I would buy a house by the lake.” I am not actually rich enough, so “if I were” is an example of the subjunctive: it expresses unreality.

In English, the use of the subjunctive mood is infrequent, but many languages use the subjunctive mood in many different situations. Biblical Greek has a huge number of uses of the subjunctive. It has a hortatory use (“Let us pray”); it expresses purpose (“He died that we might live”); it expresses indefinite future (“When he comes, we shall see him”); it expresses future conditions (“If ye ask anything in my name, I shall do it”); and it expresses prohibitions (“Do not steal”), to name but a few.

In addition, the subjunctive appears in Greek in different tenses, but with no distinction in time: the present subjunctive and aorist (past) subjunctive have the same basic meaning, for example.

Greek grammarian, J. Gresham Machen writes,

In the subjunctive mood there is absolutely no distinction of time between the tenses; the aorist [past] tense does not refer to past time, and the present subjunctive does not refer to present time. The distinction between the present and the aorist concerns merely the manner in which the action is regarded. The aorist subjunctive refers to the action without saying anything about its continuance or repetition, while the present subjunctive refers to it as continuing or as being repeated… Ordinarily, it is quite impossible to bring out the difference in an English translation (New Testament Greek for Beginners [Unicoi, TN: Trinity Foundation, 2000], p. 131).

In Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and Mark 10:11–12 the form of the Greek verb gameoo (“to marry”) is gameesee, the aorist [past] active subjunctive. As indicated above, the use of the aorist [past] subjunctive instead of the present is of no major exegetical significance. The subjunctive is used after the word “whoever” because it is not certain who the person who does this shall be (it could be anyone, and it applies to anyone who would put away his wife and then remarry): “And whoever shall marry [gameesee] her that is put away commits adultery.” The same is true in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever shall put away his wife (apoloosee) and shall marry (gameesee) another…” In Luke 16:18, however, the present participle is used: “Everyone putting away…and marrying…” (The phrase pas ho apoloon or pas ho gamoon simply refers to everyone in a specific category: it is used, for example, in John 3:16, where it could be translated as “everyone believing…” or “whoever believes”).

Again, our advocate for remarriage appeals to the present participle in Luke:

This is important. The actions of divorcing and marrying were not done just once, but as the present tense indicates, the Pharisees were continually divorcing and continually marrying. Therefore, the use of the verb moicheuei (commits adultery), which is present indicative, demonstrates that the actions of divorcing and marrying resulted in continual adultery, actively destroying the very institution of marriage.

I agree, but I fail to see how this helps his case. If anything, it strengthens our case. Remarriage after divorce is wicked, ongoing, continual adultery! If a man (any man) divorces his wife and marries another (any other woman), he commits adultery, and if a man (any man) marries the one who has been divorced, he commits adultery. In every case, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, everyone who divorces and remarries, whether the guilty or the innocent party, is guilty of adultery.

And marries another…who is put away from her husband…

In Matthew 5:32, 19:9, and Mark 10:11–12 Jesus says, “and marries another,” where the word another is alleen. In Luke a different word for “another” is used, namely heteran. Our remarriage advocate writes,

The Greek word there for “another” is alleen. But the word for “another” in Luke 16 is heteran. Alleen means another numerically. But heteran means of a different kind or qualitatively different. Why did the Holy Spirit use different words here? The idea is that the Pharisees would see some little difference in a woman who was their wife and because of this difference would throw out their wives to marry this different woman. They would see in the new one something that the wife didn’t have.

Our remarriage advocate is correct: in Greek there is indeed a difference between these two words: alleen (or allos in the masculine gender) is another in the sense of an additional, whereas heteran (or heteros in the masculine gender) is another in the sense of a different kind. This distinction is exegetically significant in certain texts, but there does not appear to be a very significant change in meaning in this case. Whether a man marries another (alleen) or a different (heteran) woman, the point is that he marries someone to whom he was not originally married! God forbids the taking of another wife, whether an additional wife or a different wife. Whatever the reason for wanting another or different spouse might be, the remarriage (second or subsequent marriage) is forbidden. He might marry a second woman because she is prettier, richer, younger, or whatever, but the issue is treachery against the wife of his youth (Mal. 2:14).

Richard C. Trench explains:

Allos … is the numerically distinct… but heteros… superadds the notion   of qualitative difference… It would be easy to multiply the passages where heteros could not be exchanged at all, or could only be exchanged at a loss, for allos… At the same time it would be idle to look for qualitative difference as intended in every case where heteros is used (Synonyms of the New Testament, [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, repr. 1980], 357-359).

Therefore, there is no great significance in Luke’s use of heteros instead of allos in Luke 16:18, certainly not significant enough to justify remarriage after divorce.

One final point must be addressed: in Luke 16:18b we read, “And whoever marries her that is put away from her husband commits adultery.” Our advocate for remarriage appeals to the preposition “from,” which is the Greek word apo:

[This word] shows that the action of divorce is placed on the wife. Remember that Luke writes principally to Gentiles, where the wife could initiate the divorce. So this woman does precisely the same thing as the wicked Pharisees: she also continually divorces and marries. She has no regard for God’s law. She mocks the very institution of marriage. She sees a man who is different and wants him instead of her present husband, so she divorces him, and marries another, and that continually.

I am at a loss to understand what this appeal to the word apo is supposed to prove: how does it make it different from the modern practice of divorce and remarriage that is permitted freely throughout the world and even in many churches? The preposition apo simply refers to separation: she is put away [separate] from her husband. That she did not initiate the divorce is indicated by the use of the passive voice (in this case, the tense is the perfect passive): “And the one marrying her that is put away (apolelumeneen) from her husband commits adultery” (Luke 16:18).

In conclusion, Jesus Christ forbids divorce, for it is something that he hates. Against the permissive practices of the Pharisees, where divorce was permitted for every cause, Jesus gives one ground for divorce, which is fornication or adultery (Matt. 5:32, 19:9). In addition, Jesus forbids remarriage [a second or subsequent marriage] to all these parties, whether the man who puts away his wife, the wife who is divorced from her husband, or the man who marries the divorced woman. All instances of remarriage [subsequent marriages] while the original spouse lives constitute adultery, which Christ also hates: one living in adultery [even in an adulterous remarriage] must repent and until he does, he may not be a member of the church. To commit adultery is to sin against God’s institution of marriage, which is a picture of the even deeper relationship of Christ and his church, a relationship in which Christ is always faithful. Christ never divorces his wife, and he never takes a subsequent spouse in addition to or instead of the church.

This truth stands, the grammatical gymnastics of advocates of remarriage notwithstanding!

Incidentally, if a young man is reading this, I pray that the Lord might stir his heart with the desire to study Greek. Although it is not necessary for the child of God to master Greek in order to comprehend the scriptures, good knowledge of Greek is invaluable for good exegesis of the New Testament in the ministry, for which reason Reformed seminaries rightly insist on good knowledge of the original languages (Greek and Hebrew). As one theological professor was wont to say to men in seminary, “The Lord speaks loudly through the Greek!”


This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments, please post them in the comment section on the blog.

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