What the Bible Says about
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage

John Coblentz

What does the "exception clause" mean?
Pages 33 - 38

"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" (Matthew 5:32). "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" (Matthew 19:9).
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:

  1. Jesus did away with the Mosaic provision for divorcement.

  2. Marriage, therefore, is for life.

  3. Remarriage while one's partner is still living constitutes adultery.

  4. To the Jews, Jesus qualified His no divorce position: Putting away an espoused wife for fornication during espousal is an exception to His statement against putting away.
While this understanding is certainly compatible with Jesus' major position (no divorce, no remarriage), we would note that no early church writer understood this as referring to the Jewish betrothal period. This would not automatically negate the espousal view, for the early writers misunderstood Jesus elsewhere, too. They did know ancient Greek, however, with a fluency no modern scholar can equal. How did these early writers understand the exception clause?

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:

  1. Jesus set aside the Mosaic provision for divorcement (which likewise forbids the modern equivalent -- divorce).

  2. Thus, marriage is for life.

  3. Remarriage while one's companion is still living constitutes adultery.

  4. Putting away a companion is wrong, excepting putting away a promiscuous companion. (The modern equivalent of putting away a promiscuous companion as taught by the early church would be separating and remaining single.)
Early church writers in the second, third, and fourth centuries could have been wrong in their understanding of the exception clause. Perhaps, as the espousal view maintains, Jesus made the exception for a specific Jewish audience, Matthew alone recording it. As we noted earlier, the espousal view is consistent with Jesus' basic position: no divorce, no remarriage. The early church view is likewise consistent with this basic position. Although they did permit putting away for whoredom, they understood Jesus to have set aside divorce in the Mosaic sense (and thus in the modern sense also). Marriage is for life -- no exception. 3


  1. Another understanding of porneia which has gained some acceptance recently is that porneia here is a legal term. In Leviticus 18, various close-kin marriages were forbidden -- a man, for example, was not permitted to marry his aunt or his sister. According to this understanding, the Pharisees had asked a legal question, "Is it LAWFUL for a man to put away his wife for any cause?" Jesus then gave an answer with a legal exception. He said, in essence, "Anyone who puts away his wife, excepting the putting away of an unlawful wife (porneia), and marries another is committing adultery." Support for this view rests in that the term porneia is used in the Septuagint to refer to these unlawful relationships in Leviticus 18. Two New Testament examples of unlawful relationships include Herod, who married his brother's wife and was told "It is not LAWFUL for thee to have thy brother's wife" (Mark 6:18); and the man at Corinth, whose sin of having his father's wife was termed porneia (I Corinthians 5:1). This view, like the espousal view, is consistent with Jesus' basic position: no divorce, no remarriage. It seems a rather obvious exception, however, one that would hardly need mention either to the Jews or to modern readers. Furthermore, no early writer understood the exception clause in this way. Return

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