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Institute in Basic Life Principles

Command 33 : Honor Marriage | Day 229

Understand the Exception Clause!

The woman looked down and began to weep tears of pain and regret. She had just told me her tragic story. After her husband had passed away, a smooth-talking divorced man had convinced her to marry him. At first she was hesitant, but he managed to persuade her and her pastor that he had a Biblical right to remarry because his wife had left him. As it turned out, his true interest was not in this widow, but in her money. Much unnecessary heartache could have been avoided if they would have heeded Christ's instruction:

“Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery” (Luke 16:18).

Notice that there is no "exception clause" in this passage. Luke was a Gentile writing primarily to a Gentile audience. His testimony is confirmed by Mark: “... Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her. And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery" (Mark 10:11-12). There is no exception clause in this passage either. Paul also confirmed that there is no "back door" out of a one-flesh covenant. (See Romans 7:1-3.)

Only the Gospel of Matthew has the clause "saving for the cause of fornication." (See Matthew 5:32 and 19:9.) We can gain perspective on the intent of the exception clause by recognizing that this Gospel was originally written to a Jewish audience that followed the custom of betrothal.

Instead of becoming engaged, a couple would be considered legally married at the time they were betrothed. However, they would not come together physically until after the wedding feast at a later date. If during this waiting period the bride-to-be had relations with another man, she would have been guilty of adultery and her betrothed husband could "put her away." This was the presumed situation that Joseph faced regarding Mary. However, an angel revealed to Joseph that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, but was with child of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, he did not put her away. (See Matthew 1:18-24.)

The word fornication, used in the exception clause, is translated from the Greek word porneia and refers to any relations that take place prior to marriage as well as any adultery that occurs during the time of betrothal. However, a distinction is made between fornication (porneia) and adultery in marriage (moicheia) in Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, and Galatians 5:19.

Porneia also refers to illegal marriages in general. The man in the Corinthian church who married his father's wife had an unlawful porneia marriage. John the Baptist condemned the incestuous (porneia) marriage of Herod the Tetrarch to his brother's wife. A sodomite marriage would also be considered an example of porneia. Divorce in cases like these involves a completely different set of factors than the covenant marriage of a man and a woman in a one-flesh relationship.

If we are to honor marriage we should look for reasons to keep it together, not excuses to tear it apart.

It used to be that the exception clause was applied to only a few extreme cases. As a result, divorces were rare and the family unit was respected and guarded. Today however, marriages are under fierce attack and many are being destroyed through a false understanding of the exception clause. Separation for a time may be necessary for the protection of a wife and children; however, let's do all we can to keep marriages together rather than looking for reasons to divorce.

“For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh ... . What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:5-6).

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Contributing writer: Bill Gothard