Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage
What does the "exception clause" mean?
Unfortunately, seeing the exception as referring to the "putting away" does not resolve all controversy. But fortunately, the differences are relatively minor. They center largely around the meaning of the word translated "fornication." The Greek word is porneia. This word can have a rather broad meaning of immorality and sexual misconduct in general, or it can have more specific usages, such as fornication or whoredom (that is, prostitution -- the root porn means "to sell").
Some scholars have understood porneia to mean strictly fornication, that is, sexual relations before marriage. They would understand Jesus to be making a comment on Jewish espousal custom.
Since this view has had wide acceptance among conservative people, we will consider it rather carefully. The Jewish betrothal was begun with a proposal and a commitment made in the presence of witnesses. It was beyond the private promise made in modern engagements, and was considered legally binding. Furthermore, espoused partners were referred to as husband and wife (see Matthew 1:19 and 20 -- "Joseph her husband" and "Mary thy wife"). Therefore to break an espousal in Jewish society required a legal separation -- a writing of divorcement equivalent to that required of married couples.
According to this view, Jesus' exception was aimed primarily at this Jewish situation. He was saying, in other words, that divorce is wrong, except the putting away of an espoused partner who is unfaithful during engagement.
Joseph was in such a predicament when he learned that Mary his espoused "wife" was with child. "Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily" (Matthew 1:19). Those who hold the espousal view see Joseph's contemplated action as an example of what Jesus had in mind when He said, "saving for the cause of fornication." They insist further that while the term porneia has a broader meaning at times, it means "fornication" strictly (sexual relations before marriage) when used with the term moichao (adultery), as in these passages. Certainly, the only time a "wife" could possibly commit "fornication" would be during the betrothal period.
Another pillar of support for this position is that Matthew alone includes this exception. Matthew wrote his Gospel particularly with the Jewish people in mind. The Jewish audience would readily understand this exception for fornication.
The major premises of the espousal view would be as follows:
The ante-Nicene fathers did not understand porneia as "fornication," strictly speaking, but as "whoredom," or persistent unfaithfulness. Jesus was not making an exception for an adulterous affair, or He would have used the word for adultery, moichao. Instead, He used porneia, indicating a promiscuous partner. Jesus was saying, in other words: no divorce, no remarriage; excepting, a man may put away his wife if she persists in sexual unfaithfulness. He need not continue, in other words, living in a three-way relationship. The early church writers in the second and third centuries almost universally taught this position.
To understand the early church position, we need to realize that their understanding of "put away" was not necessarily synonymous with modern divorce. Modern divorce, like Moses' "writing of divorcement," is a legal process which includes the legal right to remarry. The early church understood clearly that that kind of divorcement, though granted by Moses, was done away by Christ. To divorce in the sense of severing the union and permitting remarriage was not permitted in the early church.
To "put away" a companion, to them, meant literally to "send forth" or to "leave." This was more a physical process than a legal process, and thus would be more the equivalent of separation than of modern divorce. In Roman society, "putting away" actually required no legal process. The early church understood that Jesus' exception meant a Christian companion could "put away" a promiscuous companion. If a man had a wife, in other words, who cohabited with other men -- who practiced whoredom rather than faithful love -- he could "put her away." That is, he could either send her out or he himself could leave.
Since Jesus did away with Mosaic divorcement, the early church understood that to put away a companion for whoredom meant one of two things: either singlehood or reconciliation. Remarriage was not an option.
This position is consistent with the way God related to Israel. He called for their faithful devotion. But when they turned to idols, He withdrew His presence, not to seek someone else, but to wait until repentance on their part brought them back to His love.
Let's summarize the basic premises of the early church position: