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By Caleb Simonyi-Gindele / September 25, 2017
Reading Time: 14 minutes

Have you ever wondered about the divorce-remarriage issue? Perhaps you have already had to face it in your own assembly and have come to a position on the matter.

My focus in this article is to look at Matthew’s Gospel and what is called the “exception clause.” This clause is found in Matthew 5:32, “saving [except] for the cause of fornication” (KJV) and referee to divorce not being permissible except when one party is sexually unfaithful.

Introduction

The is a complex issue and so I invite you to walk with me through pertinent scriptures with an inquiring mind and dependence on the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth. I am not here to convince or convert you to my view but rather to offer a well-reasoned exposition of these passages. If you think I am wrongly interpreting a passage, I would welcome your gentle and gracious correction.

Moreover, so you know where I am going: I believe that there are situations when a divorced believer can legitimately remarry (and be in the fellowship of a local assembly). I also believe that there are situations when a divorced believer remarrying is adultery (and should thus incur the discipline of a local assembly).

I would like to go through this subject in the following order:

  1. Interpret the passages in Matthew in context.
  2. Discuss the difference between no-fault vs. fault divorce.
  3. Emphasize the sacredness of marriage in scripture.
  4. Interpret parallel passages of scripture.
  5. Discuss some objections to the “exception clause” perspective.

It is impossible to consider all possibilities so I will be focussing on divorce and remarriage as it relates to when adultery has happened in the first marriage.

Matthew’s Passages on Divorce

The two pertinent passages in Matthew are found below. This will be a fairly expositional process so it would be useful to have a Bible in hand as you go through this article:

Matthew 5:31-32 “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.” (ESV)

Matthew 19:3-9 “And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”” (ESV)

Defining some Terms

No-fault divorce is a legal term that refers to the dissolution of a marriage for any reason other than sexual unfaithfulness or cruelty (in Canada; other countries may have variations). For example, if you heard someone say, “We just have drifted apart and don’t love each other any more, so we are getting divorced” that would be a no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce does not break the marriage bond in the eyes of God. For this reason, when the no-fault divorcee remarries the sexual consummation is adultery. It is adultery because s/he has had sex outside of the (still valid) first marriage.

Now, when you are unpacking all of this it gets particularly confusing around the word “adultery”. In the Bible, “adultery” refers to sexual unfaithfulness in a marriage relationship. As well it can describe remarriage after a no-fault divorce.

To avoid confusion I am going to use the term “sexual unfaithfulness” to refer to an extramarital affair when a married person has sex outside of their marriage.

I will only use the word “adultery” to refer to a legal but biblically illegitimate remarriage.

This will help us keep things clear.

Matthew 5:31-32 in Context

Let’s begin by looking at the verses in Matthew 5 in their context, which is the sermon on the mount. Several sections in Matthew 5 start with “You have heard that it was said [insert OT or rabbinical teaching] but I say to you [insert higher standard of Christ]”.

Why is this? The Lord Jesus Christ was not intending to undo the Law but to guide the believer to obey the heart of the law. He was teaching His disciples to adhere to a higher standard than just external obedience to the Law. He was showing the Law could be used to create behavioural compliance but God was interested in the transformation of the heart and mind.  For example, the law says “Do not murder” (Matt 5:21-26) but Jesus says, “Do not even hate”. Hatred is at the root of murder: this is taking the law to a higher standard.

Then the law says “Do not commit sexual unfaithfulness” (as in Matt 5:27-30) but Jesus says, “Do not even lust in your heart”. The wandering of the heart or the wandering of the eye is also sexual unfaithfulness even if the act is not committed. Again, He is teaching a higher standard. He is aiming for heart obedience.

Now when it comes to divorce and remarriage, again He is going to teach a higher standard. The law says, “Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce”. Basically it’s saying “If you’re going to divorce, get the paperwork done too!” But the Lord says, and I paraphrase: “You better not divorce unless sexual unfaithfulness has happened!” See Him identifying the higher standard once more? Again, He’s going for transformation of the heart and mind. Anyone who has witnessed a divorce in their family can testify—it is a heart-rending process. The Lord Jesus is teaching that marriage is not something that should be undone with a piece of paper.

Was This No-Fault Divorce?

In Matthew 5, the Lord Jesus quotes from a passage in Deuteronomy 24, which says:

“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.”

We need to consider these verses in the context of what was practiced in the Lord Jesus’ day. The condition for divorce was: “she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness [or, indecency] in her”. The conservative first century Jews applied this law only to grave matrimonial offences, like sexual unfaithfulness. The liberal Jews applied it to anything unseemly or indecent. So that if she cooked horrible meals and burnt his food, that was sufficiently “indecent” that he could just write her a bill of divorce and then remarry if he wished.

See how arbitrary this was?

It was the Jewish equivalent to our modern no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce just means that you do not have to prove there was sexual unfaithfulness or cruelty to end your marriage. You just choose to end the marriage. This is what the Pharisees were really driving at in Matthew 19:3 “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (emphasis added). It seems they were struggling with how arbitrary the reasons for divorce could be.

Is No-Fault Divorce Legitimate?

Now with the Pharisee’s question in mind, note Jesus’ response in Matthew 19: he goes around the question to the more fundamental issue. He asserts the sanctity of marriage and God’s blessing of the union of two to become one flesh (v.4-6). This is vital. He goes back to creation and reiterates “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Christ asserted the value and sacredness of marriage in God’s sight, and so must we.

He designed marriage to be a lasting, unbroken union. Marriage is both exclusive (between two people) and permanent (they are made one). That is how God wants marriage to be. You will find this value expressed from the creation account right through the Gospels and into the epistles.

Consequently, I would conclude that there is never a Biblical sanction for a no fault divorce. It is clear from these passages in Matthew that the Lord Jesus held that to remarry after a no-fault divorce would be adultery.

Return to Matthew 5:31 and its reference to Deuteronomy 24:1-2. The passage from Deuteronomy is only stating that following a series of possibilities (a series of “if’s”), the original husband is not to take his wife back. That is the point of the passage. We are not told why. It just seems to be something God determined. The passage does not support the liberal Jewish position that you only need a piece of paper. It is saying that you cannot cast a woman off like a used car by doing the legal paperwork as she exchanges hands. It is not right in the sight of God. The passage is protecting her and the sanctity of marriage.

So Jesus underscores this in Matthew 19:8 “Moses permitted you…but from the beginning it was not so”. I believe that this teaches that no fault divorce done from the hardness of the human heart (Deuteronomy 24:1) is a concession that God permitted but did not endorse.

What If There is Fault?

However, this begs the question: what if sexual unfaithfulness has occurred?

The laws addressing sexual unfaithfulness in the Old Testament are consistent in their prescription of capital punishment as a consequence for married persons and their partners in the affair (see Leviticus 20:10-16, Deuteronomy 22:13-30).
Since sexual unfaithfulness resulted in the execution of the guilty spouse, the Jewish de facto assumption was that sexual unfaithfulness ended the marriage as they were as good as dead. The Lord Jesus also assumed this as fact in His own teaching on the matter in Matthew 5:31-32. It is in this context that the exception clause makes sense: the marriage bond is broken thus leaving the betrayed spouse free to remarry without fear of committing adultery just as if the betraying spouse had died.

Following sexual unfaithfulness, permitting divorce and remarriage does not take away from God’s assertion that marriage is exclusive and permanent. There is no conflict because the sexual unfaithfulness has already broken the marriage bond; it is not the subsequent divorce that breaks the bond in this case. This understanding is central to accepting the exception clause.

The teaching of the Lord Jesus and the apostle Paul sanction the possibility of remarriage after sexual unfaithfulness based on the premise that sexual unfaithfulness has already broken the marriage bond. In this case, remarriage would not be adulterous, the same as a widow or widower remarrying is not adulterous.

Does One Devalue the Sacredness of Marriage by Allowing Divorce Via the Exception Clause?

At times, some would say that by allowing the exception clause for divorce, the sacredness of marriage is undermined, thereby allowing the easy, worldly practice of divorce.

Consider the question: who holds marriage to be more sacred?

The person who commits sexual unfaithfulness and can then tell his or her spouse: “You have to stay married to me!”
Or, the person who holds that sexual unfaithfulness breaks the marriage bond in the same way that the death of one spouse does?

Let me put the question a different way: which conviction would you rather be married to?

To a person who believed that you had no choice but to remain with them if they were unfaithful? Or to a person who realized that sexual unfaithfulness is a dangerous death blow to their marriage, that would not only break their vows but releases you from the marriage as well?

I would rather be married to someone who believes the latter.

Let’s investigate this question further. In Canada, prior to 1968, the only grounds for divorce were sexual unfaithfulness or cruelty. However, in 1968, the Divorce Act was amended to permit divorce for other reasons, including physical and mental cruelty and separation for at least 3 years. In 1986, the Divorce Act was further amended to permit divorce after one year’s separation, with no requirement to prove “fault” by either spouse .

In the USA, all states now accept no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce simply means that one person can choose to divorce their spouse without needing to demonstrate wrongdoing by the other.

The position I am teaching from scripture at the moment in no way supports the easy dissolution of marriage or no-fault divorce as practiced in our modern western world. I take the teaching of Jesus and Paul to say that there are just three circumstances under which God recognizes the breaking of the marriage bond: sexual unfaithfulness, abandonment and death. (I will talk about abandonment in a future article).

If you feel there are gaps in my interpretation, I am happy to have your feedback,  but to say that this position is treating marriage “like the world does” is entirely unfounded and unfair.

Adultery Is Caused by Remarriage, Not Divorce

We need to pause for a moment to make a quick point. I think it is an obvious one but we need to be clear.

The Lord Jesus states that to divorce one’s spouse when there is no fault and marry another is to enter a forbidden, adulterous relationship. This is where, as in other parts of Matthew 5, He raises the bar to say one absolutely may not break a marriage bond just to get a new spouse. Thus in the eyes of God, as long as sexual unfaithfulness has not happened, the marriage is valid and cannot be annulled.

So remarriage causes adultery under these circumstances, not the divorce. We need to keep this clear.

The Exception Clause

Let me give it to you in a nutshell. I have said, “You absolutely may not break a marriage bond”. The exception clause is actually, in a sense, not an exception clause at all. It’s a parallel clause.

Sexual unfaithfulness breaks the marriage bond. Sexual unfaithfulness is prohibited by God. So this parallels the claim that the marriage bond must not be broken.

It is also true that a no-fault divorce cannot break the marriage bond in the sight of God. That is why remarriage after a no-fault divorce invokes the charge of sexual unfaithfulness: the first marriage bond is still valid before God, so the sexual intercourse in the second is adulterous.

This is a fundamental premise, so let me be very clear: divorce does not break a legitimate marriage bond in God’s eyes. Death, abandonment and sexual unfaithfulness do. That is why we ardently oppose no-fault divorce as a means to break the marriage bond. In God’s sight, no-fault divorce its absolutely wrong when, for example, the claim is made that love is gone from the relationship. To divorce and remarry under these circumstances would be to commit adultery and disobey the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Thus, I can say “you absolutely may not break a marriage bond” while holding this position because to purposefully break a marriage bond you would need to either commit sexual unfaithfulness, abandon or murder your spouse! All of those behaviours are sin and are prohibited by God and break a marriage bond.

The exception clause “saving for the cause of fornication” in the KJV and “except sexual immorality” in the NKJV points out that sexual unfaithfulness in the first marriage is what breaks the marriage bond. Once that bond is broken, the betrayed spouse is free to remarry.

How Is The Betrayed Spouse Free to Remarry?

How does sexual unfaithfulness in the first marriage give the betrayed spouse the freedom to remarry?

Under the law of Moses, sexual unfaithfulness was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:22). This is nearly carried out in John 8. So the sexually unfaithful spouse, the betrayer, is put to death in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, under the day of grace, execution is no longer prescribed.

However, the bond is still broken as if the betrayer had died.

There is no scripture that explicitly states this but as far as I can tell it is an implicit assumption in the Lord’s teaching in Matthew. The betrayer is considered dead, and so the betrayed, innocent spouse is free to remarry. This should underscore in our minds the severity of unfaithfulness and cause us to uphold the sanctity of marriage even more. Let us never forget that this is a sin God considered worthy of punishment by death under the law!

Note also that no Jewish person from the conservative group or the liberal group questioned the fact that sexual unfaithfulness was just ground for divorce. This was because they already understood that sexual unfaithfulness broke the marriage bond.

The question now is about how many good reasons there are for divorce with a possibility of legitimate remarriage. Jesus Himself says there is only one…sexual unfaithfulness. He is raising the bar on the sanctity of marriage. He is saying: you and I must not be unfaithful to our spouses, because if we are, they are free to remarry (although, personally, my hope is they would seek the recovery and restoration of the marriage if at all possible). Now, Paul will name two others reasons, as we shall see in a future article.

Objections to This View

Objection 1: Parallel Passages Do Not Reiterate the Exception

I think it is worth being exhaustive on this subject because it is a profound request, when for example, you ask a young sister to not ever remarry after her husband has left her and married another woman. One better have a solid scriptural foundation to say “No to remarriage”. Likewise, to say “Yes”, is also a profound thing for an oversight to endorse adultery, if this interpretation is unscriptural.

Mark 10:2-12

There is no unique information in Mark 10 that is not in Matthew 19:1-9.

An objection may be raised here to say that if the exception clause was important, Mark would have reiterated it. Further, some say that Matthew is directed to a Jewish audience and so it applies only to Jews and not to the Church. Let us deal with the latter objection first.

If we are to assume that any content uniquely found in Matthew and not in the other two synoptic gospels or John’s gospel is only for the Jews then to be consistent we must also disregard the following scriptures from Matthew as well:

  • The beatitudes on the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart and the peacemakers.
  • Matthew 11:28 “Come unto me all ye that labour…”
  • Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three are gathered…” and the verses prior to it.
  • Matthew 16:18 “…on this rock I will build my church…”

If one would say that we can disregard the exception clause from Matthew because it is only found there and was only intended for the Jews, then by virtue of the same reasoning one should discard the concept of the church which is Jesus’ body in Matthew 16 as well as the foundational statement of principle of the local church in Matthew 18 as well as the invitation of Christ to those who labour in Matthew 11. One would have to accept that these matters also are only for the Jews by virtue of the same reasoning.

Therefore, to argue from the view that the exception clause is in a “Jewish” gospel and not in a “Greek” gospel is faulty reasoning and fails to stand as consistent exegesis of the Word of God.

However, we can ask the question: why did Mark not record the exception clause? One answer is that it was well known, accepted and therefore obvious to first century believers. In reality the exception clause can only be dropped if one ignores the seriousness of sexual unfaithfulness in the sight of God.

For the record, there is another parallel passage in Luke 16:18 where, once again, the exception clause is assumed. In Luke, there is no other information. He upholds the sanctity of marriage. I believe that Luke assumes the exception clause because it was accepted and obvious to his readers.

Objection 2: The Exception Clause Applies ONLY to Divorce, Not Remarriage

An argument commonly proposed is that the exception clause applies to divorce and not to remarriage. Those that assert this view take the words “saving for the cause of fornication” in 5:32 and apply them to the words, “put away” (KJV). The claim is that the only valid reason for divorce is adultery and that remarriage is not in view. So if there is sexual unfaithfulness, divorce is authorized but not remarriage.

However, it does not make sense to say that divorcing someone causes them to commit adultery. The divorce is not the cause of adultery. It is sex outside of marriage, or sex within an illegitimate marriage, that is adultery.

I should make something clear at this point — my main expertise in secular employment is marriage counselling. An extra-marital affair breaks the marriage bond: I have helped couples recover that bond, and I love to watch it happen. It is amazing to see a betrayed spouse extend forgiveness when there is proper, remorseful repentance of the betrayer. I wish every marriage could recover after sexual unfaithfulness.

So let me say: just because the betrayed spouse is free to divorce does not mean it is necessarily the recommended or best option. Often it is not.

Objection 3: Divorce was Only For Engagements

Once I had someone write to say that “the divorce that was granted for fornication was under the Mosaic law, and it was pertaining to unmarried persons.”

This view is taken from the example of Joseph and Mary in Matthew 1:19 where he was planning to divorce Mary to whom he was engaged to be married upon finding out she was pregnant, and knowing the pregnancy was not by him.

It is true that in the first century there was such a thing as divorce during engagement.

However, under the Old Testament law that they would be following, the divorce of the “unclean” spouse of Deuteronomy 24 certainly involved a married couple. So I cannot see a Biblical basis for saying the exception clause was exclusively pertaining to engaged and unmarried persons.

Conclusion

I believe scripture clearly teaches that divorce and remarriage are permitted by the exception clause since sexual unfaithfulness has already broken the marriage bond. As well, scriptures clearly teach that remarriage following no-fault divorce is adultery.

Does that mean that remarriage is the best option for the betrayed spouse? Not necessarily — that is where I defer to local elders. I have sought to support all that I have stated from scripture. Yet the application to each situation requires spiritual discernment and collaboration between the betrayed spouse and the oversight of his or her assembly.

In many cases, and perhaps most, it would be most ideal to recover the marriage. I understand there is no cheap forgiveness and that it is not easy to recover from an affair. A brother or sister facing this challenge of recovering from betrayal requires a great of support and care. But our God redeems broken marriages.

Having said that, there are circumstances where it is simply not possible or not safe to restore the marriage. In those cases it will be a comfort to know that the betrayed spouse has the option of divorce and remarriage.

Postscript: Letters to the Editor

Since this is a controversial topic I would like to remind you of my Letters to the Editor policy. I welcome healthy, productive discussion. I have a very happy memory of sitting with an overseer from another assembly discussing this subject late into the evening. We were able to compare and contrast our differing positions without any breach in friendship or fellowship. I would invite the same from you as well.


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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.