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Thursday, September 6, 2018

Does the "exception clause" really make an exception?

Here is a question submitted to the podcast better suited to be answered here: 

“I've heard Bible-believing Christians say that divorce is un-biblical, except on the grounds of adultery.  Even those Christians, I feel, would agree divorce should undoubtedly be the last resort, especially if the adulterer is repentant.  For argument's sake, let's assume the adulterer is not repentant, and repeatedly cheats on their spouse.  Does what's known as the 'exception clause' in Matthew 5:32 really mean that?  Is there truly any biblical ground for divorce?”

First, let me agree with the idea expressed - that divorce should always be a last resort.  If marriage is intended to be a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church, we should fight for marriage and do everything lawful to keep them intact.  Nothing I am about to write should be construed to mean that I am pro-divorce or anti-marriage.

Second, this is an issue about which we can disagree and remain friends.  Good, godly believers hold a range of views on this issue.  

The question refers to a statement by the Lord Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount, which reads, "It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'  But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matt. 5:31-32).  

It’s not my intention to fully expose these two verses.  If you’re interested, there is a full sermon on this text on our website.  I’ll assert here one statement that is fully supported in that sermon - and which lies clearly on the surface of the text - if you divorce and remarry, you have committed adultery.  

But there are two biblical exceptions.  The first is Matthew 5:32.  It’s also found in Matthew 19:9 - “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”  Common to both texts is the phrase, except on the ground of sexual immorality.  To divorce, except on the ground of sexual immorality, and remarry is to commit adultery.  Therefore, to divorce on the ground of sexual immorality and remarry is not adultery.  If words mean things, it seems to me that divorce and remarriage is permitted in cases of sexual immorality.  

The Greek word for sexual immorality here is broad and covers everything from bestiality to fornication to adultery.  If your spouse commits one of those sins, divorce and remarriage is permissible.  According to Matt 19:1-9, we should believe it may be permissible, but it should never be considered compulsory.  It should be a last resort, not a first resort.

The second exception has been called “abandonment by an unbelieving spouse.”  We find it in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15: To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him…But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.  

If you are married to an unbeliever, and that unbeliever does not want to remain married to you, you are to let them go.  You cannot divorce them, but you cannot deny them a divorce.  If they want to remain married, you must remain married.   

So, yes, Matthew 5:32 really does mean that, and there are biblical grounds for divorce.  But divorce should always remind us that this world is broken.  It should always grieve us and cause us to long for the new heavens and new earth.  


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