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Remarriage, Fornication & Adultery: Explaining the “Exception Clause”

As some of you may know, I wrote about the topic of divorce and remarriage some time ago. I would STRONGLY urge you to read this first since this blog entry is a continuation of that conversation. At the time, I gave my best theoretical explanation of what is known as the “exception clause” and still stand by what I wrote. Still, I want to add this other insightful explanation.

What is the exception clause??

The exception clause is mentioned in Matthew 19:9 in regards to divorce and remarriage. Some people argue that the exception clause given in this scripture validates remarriage. Matthew 19:9 states:

And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”

The “exception clause” we are referencing is “except it be for fornication”

Proponents for remarriage while your original spouse lives believe that they are allowed ot remarry if their divorce was due to fornication (a cheating spouse, as they define it).

**Our Guest Blogger (my friend), Michelle Renee, has studied this topic in great depth and will be presenting her findings on the exception clause in today’s blog.  She writes, in part, and quotes John Piper’s teachings in the rest. I hope this is insightful.

“Explaining the Exception Clause”

Compiled By Guest Blogger: Michelle Renee

I know there are those that believe adultery or sexual immorality (Matthew 5:32;19:9) is the permission given for marrying another while the estranged spouse of their youth is still living. At one time, I remember thinking that this must be what severs that one flesh entity which is spoken of in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” But, that thought didn’t sit right with me. For me, it made me think about all of those *FIRST* marriages where they’ve survived adultery (or sexual immorality) through repentance and forgiveness, and remained together. Are they now required to marry again in order to become one flesh again and seen as married again with God? I’d say of course not, because the adultery or sexual immorality did NOT sever their one flesh union which God had created when they were joined in Holy matrimony.

I’m certainly NOT infallible in my understanding of scripture (what I see), and I am always learning. But, because adulterers will not inherit the Kingdom of God, I believe this is something we don’t want to be wrong about when we take our last breath. I’d like to share this for you to take into serious consideration. It’s not written by me [it’s by John Piper], but I do see the same thing from scripture.

Bible Scholar, John Piper, writes the following:

blogpicWhy does Matthew use the [Greek] word PORNEIA instead of the word MOICHEIA, which means adultery? Almost all commentators seem to make the simple assumption that porneia means adultery in this context. Even though the question nags at me why Matthew should not use the word for adultery, if that is in fact what he meant. Then I noticed something very interesting. The only other place besides Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 where Matthew uses the word porneia is in 15:19 where it is used alongside of moicheia. Therefore, the primary contextual evidence for Matthew’s usage is that he conceives of porneia as something different than adultery. Could this mean, then, that Matthew conceives of porneia in its normal sense of FORNICATION rather than adultery?

The next clue in my search for an explanation came when I stumbled upon the use of porneia in John 8:41 where the Jewish leaders indirectly accuse Jesus of being born of porneia. In other words, since they don’t accept the virgin birth, they assume that Mary had committed fornication and Jesus was the result of this act. On the basis of that clue, I went back to study Matthew’s record of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18-20. This was extremely enlightening.

In these verses, Joseph and Mary are referred to each other as husband (aner) and wife (gunaika). Yet they are described as only being betrothed to each other. This is probably owing to the fact that the words for husband and wife are simply man and woman and to the fact that betrothal was a much more significant commitment than engagement is today. In verse 19 Joseph resolves “to divorce” Mary. The word for divorce is the same as the word in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. But most important of all, Matthew says that Joseph was “just” in making the decision to divorce Mary, presumably on account of her porneia, fornication. Therefore, as Matthew proceeded to construct the narrative of his gospel, he finds himself in chapter 5 and then later in chapter 19, in a difficult situation. He has before him the absolute sayings of Jesus that if a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery, that is, he commits a grave injustice. Nevertheless, the one divorce that Matthew has contemplated with his readers in chapter 1 has been described by him as a “just” possibility. Therefore, in order to avoid the jarring inconsistency between what he has said about Joseph and what Jesus says about divorce, Matthew inserts the exception clause in order to exonerate Joseph and show that the kind of divorce that one might pursue during a betrothal on account of fornication, is not included in what Jesus has said. This interpretation of the exception clause has several advantages:

1) It does not force Matthew to contradict the plain, absolute meaning of Mark and Luke.

2) It provides an explanation for why the word porneia is used in Matthew’s exception clause instead of moicheia.

3) It squares with Matthew’s own use of porenia for fornication in Matthew 15:19.

4) From a redaction-critical standpoint, it is a very astute edition which promotes the truth of Jesus’ own absolute command and the rightness of Joseph’s intention in resolving to divorce his betrothed Mary.

Mark 10:2-9 and Matthew 19:3-8 teach that Jesus rejected the Pharisees’ justification of divorce from Deuteronomy 24:1 and reasserted the purpose of God in creation that no human being separate what God has joined together.

Mark 10:2-9: “And some Pharisees came up to Him, testing Him, and began to question Him whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife.  And He answered and said to them, ‘What did Moses command you?’  And they said, ‘Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce and send her away.’  But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment.  But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.  For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother,  and the two shall become one flesh; consequently they are no longer two, but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.'”


In both Matthew and Mark the Pharisees come to Jesus and test him by asking him whether it is lawful for a man to divorce his wife. They evidently have in mind the passage in Deuteronomy 24:1 which simply describes divorce as a fact rather than giving any legislation in favor of it. They wonder how Jesus will take a position with regard to this passage.

Jesus’ answer is, “For your hardness of heart, Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (Mt. 19:8).

But then Jesus criticizes the Pharisees’ failure to recognize in the books of Moses God’s deepest and original intention for marriage. So he quotes two passages from Genesis. “God made them male and female. …For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Genesis 1:27; 2:24). From these passages in Genesis Jesus concludes, “So they are no longer two, but one.” And then he makes his climaxing statement, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”

The implication is that Jesus rejects the Pharisees’ use of Deuteronomy 24:1 and raises the standard of marriage for his disciples to God’s original intention in creation. He says that none of us should try to undo the “one-flesh” relationship which God has united.

Before we jump to the conclusion that this absolute statement should be qualified in view of the exception clause (“except for fornication”) mentioned in Matthew 19:9, we should seriously entertain the possibility that the exception clause in Matthew 19:9 should be understood in the light of the absolute statement of Matthew 19:6, (“let no man put asunder”) especially since the verses that follow this conversation with the Pharisees in Mark 10 do not contain any exception when they condemn remarriage.

Matthew 5:32 does not teach that remarriage is lawful in some cases. Rather it reaffirms that marriage after divorce is adultery, even for those who have been divorced innocently, and that a man who divorces his wife is guilty of the adultery of her second marriage unless she had already become an adulteress before the divorce.

Matthew 5:32: “But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”

Jesus assumes that in most situations in that culture a wife who has been put away by a husband will be drawn into a second marriage. Nevertheless, in spite of these pressures, he calls this second marriage adultery.

The remarkable thing about the first half of this verse is that it plainly says that the remarriage of a wife who has been innocently put away is nevertheless adultery: “Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery.” This is a clear statement, it seems to me, that remarriage is wrong not merely when a person is guilty in the process of divorce, but also when a person is innocent. In other words, Jesus’ opposition to remarriage seems to be based on the unbreakableness of the marriage bond by anything but death.

I would assume that since an innocent wife who is divorced commits adultery when she remarries, therefore a guilty wife who remarries after divorce is all the more guilty. If one argues that this guilty woman is free to remarry, while the innocent woman who has been put away is not, just because the guilty woman’s adultery has broken the “one flesh” relationship, then one is put in the awkward position of saying to an innocent divorced woman, “If you now commit adultery it will be lawful for you to remarry.” This seems wrong for at least two reasons.

1) It seems to elevate the physical act of sexual intercourse to be the decisive element in marital union and disunion.

2) If sexual union with another breaks the marriage bond and legitimizes remarriage, then to say that an innocently divorced wife can’t remarry (as Jesus does say) assumes that her divorcing husband is not divorcing to have sexual relations with another. This is a very unlikely assumption. More likely is that Jesus does assume some of these divorcing husbands will have sexual relations with another woman, but still the wives they have divorced may not remarry. Therefore, adultery does not nullify the “one-flesh” relationship of marriage and both the innocent and guilty spouses are prohibited from remarriage in Matthew 5:32.

1 Corinthians 7:27-28 does not teach the right of divorced persons to remarry. It teaches that betrothed virgins should seriously consider the life of singleness, but do not sin if they marry. “Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek marriage. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin.”

Some people have argued that this passage deals with divorced people because in verse 27 Paul asks, “Are you free (literally: loosed) from a wife?” Some have assumed that he means, “Are you divorced?” Thus he would be saying in verse 28 that it is not sin when divorced people remarry. There are several reasons why this interpretation is most unlikely.

Verse 25 signals that Paul is beginning a new section and dealing with a new issue. He says, “Now concerning the virgins (ton parthenon) I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” He has already dealt with the problem of divorced people in verses 10-16. Now he takes up a new issue about those who are not yet married, and he signals this by saying, “Now concerning the virgins.” Therefore, it is very unlikely that the people referred to in verses 27 and 28 are divorced. A flat statement that it is not sin for divorced people to be remarried (verse 28) would contradict verse 2, where he said that a woman who has separated from her husband should remain single.

Verse 36 is surely describing the same situation in view in verses 27 and 28, but clearly refers to a couple that is not yet married. “If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his virgin, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin.” This is the same as verse 28 where Paul says, “But if you marry, you do not sin.”

The reference in verse 27 to being bound to a “wife” may be misleading because it may suggest that the man is already married. But in Greek the word for wife is simply “woman” and may refer to a man’s betrothed as well as his spouse. The context dictates that the reference is to a man’s betrothed virgin, not to his spouse. So “being bound” and “being loosed” have reference to whether a person is betrothed or not. It is significant that the verb Paul uses for “loosed” (luo) or “free” is not a word that he uses for divorce. Paul’s words for divorce are chorizo (verses 10,11,15; cf. Matthew 19:6) and aphienai (verses 11,12,13).

Corinthians 7:15 does not mean that when a Christian is deserted by an unbelieving spouse he or she is free to remarry. It means that the Christian is not bound to fight in order to preserve togetherness. Separation is permissible if the unbelieving partner insists on it.

1 Corinthians 7:15: “If the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.”

There are several reasons why the phrase “is not bound” should not be construed to mean “is free to remarry.” Marriage is an ordinance of creation binding on all of God’s human creatures, irrespective of their faith or lack of faith.

The word used for “bound” (douloo) in verse 15 is not the same word used in verse 39 where Paul says, “A wife is bound (deo) to her husband as long as he lives.” Paul consistently uses deo when speaking of the legal aspect of being bound to one marriage partner (Romans 7:2; l Corinthians 7:39), or to one’s betrothed (l Corinthians 7:27). But when he refers to a deserted spouse not being bound in l Corinthians 7:15, he chooses a different word (douloo) which we would expect him to do if he were not giving a deserted spouse the same freedom to remarry that he gives to a spouse whose partner has died (verse 39).

The last phrase of verse 15 (“God has called us to peace”) supports verse 15 best if Paul is saying that a deserted partner is not “bound to make war” on the deserting unbeliever to get him or her to stay. It seems to me that the peace God has called us to is the peace of marital harmony. Therefore, if the unbelieving partner insists on departing, then the believing partner is not bound to live in perpetual conflict with the unbelieving spouse, but is free and innocent in letting him or her go. This interpretation also preserves a closer harmony to the intention of verses 10-11, where an inevitable separation does not result in the right of remarriage.

Verse 16 (“For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?”) is an argument that you can’t know, and so should not make the hope of saving them a ground for fighting to make them stay. This supports the understanding of verse 15 as a focus on not being enslaved to stay together, rather than not being enslaved to say single. Paul did not see the single life as a life of slavery and so would not have called the necessity of staying single a state of being enslaved.

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