Maxey - Thomas Debate
An Examination of a Proposition
Relating to Divorce and Remarriage

Thursday, January 18, 2001

Al Maxey Responds
To Ron's Recent Comments, and
Examines the "Exception Clause"

I would like to make several comments and observations pertaining to Ron's last post, and then I'll "switch gears" and address the next area of our proposition which needs to be examined in some depth.


Ron stated, "I appreciate Al's vigorous defense of his approach." We have some serious differences of interpretation with regard to this vital topic, and I believe we are both very zealous for our convictions. However, I also agree with Ron when he considers our current exchange to be a "gentlemanly debate" between brethren who have Christian love and respect for one another. Some who differ with me on this and other subjects have labeled & libeled me with all manner of harsh characterizations. This is a common tactic among far too many of our brethren. Thankfully, Ron evidences a far more noble spirit, and for that I thank him. There is no reason why devoted disciples can't discuss and contend earnestly for the faith without being divisive and contentious in the process. I believe Ron and I both are determined to engage in a zealous defense of Truth, as best as we each perceive that Truth, but without the ranker and recriminations. In the process, perhaps the cause of Truth will be furthered and our God will be glorified.

In his final statement Ron expressed this resolve: "As you write in a 'hard' way to what I have said, I'll not assume that you intend any disrespect, only that you are defending what you believe to be correct." And I am convinced of the same with regard to you, brother! I will indeed be firm and frank in some of my comments, perhaps even blunt at times, but you are correct: no disrespect is intended.

I was somewhat encouraged by Ron's last post, although somewhat DIScouraged as well. He seemed to be willing to at least admit the possibility that some Greek words (porneia, for example) just might have multiple meanings and applications in Scripture. That is a positive step, and it is more than some are willing to acknowledge. For example, notice the following statements by Ron:

  1. "I would be happy to acknowledge the possibility of a single reference having more than one meaning (or application) if it was warranted in the passage under discussion."

  2. "Yes, we must be open to the possibility."

  3. "Yes, I can agree that one should not exclude an application of a word when it applies."

My opponent in this debate also voiced agreement with several of the hermeneutical principles I quoted which declare that we must be cognizant of the wide "semantic range" of various biblical terms. Ron made it very clear, however, and I agree with him, that the determining factor in how a word is interpreted will invariably be the context within which that word is used. Context is critical. It is Ron's conviction that the context within which porneia is used by our Lord in the passages under discussion excludes all other possible meanings and applications of porneia besides the sexual. Ron states emphatically: "Have I decided that the only meaning of the word porneia is its literal application? I did, but because the context demands it." Notice a few other remarks by Ron with regard to his understanding of the importance of context:

  1. "I concur with your 'rational' approach to the understanding of Scripture. But I object to allowing the figurative to apply when the literal is demanded."

  2. "Al, with all due respect, I don't think it is safe at all to apply meanings when the context makes it clear that a single meaning is that which is warranted."

  3. "I would be happy to acknowledge the possibility of a single reference having more than one meaning (or application) if it was warranted in the passage under discussion, but it is not."

  4. "...neither should one try to be too willing to apply metaphorical meanings to words when, in the context, the literal meaning will do exceptionally well! Here it is required."

  5. "The difficulty came (comes) when a particular context eliminates a metaphorical meaning and demands the application of the literal meaning."

  6. "If a reader has good reason to narrow the use of the word, in a specific context, then he is to do so. That is exactly what I'm saying is demanded in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9."

  7. "There is nothing in the context that will allow for anything other than an understanding of a sexual application."

I think these quotations leave no doubt as to where Ron stands with respect to the interpretation of our Lord's two statements in Matthew concerning divorce and remarriage. When the word porneia is used in those statements Ron contends that the context DEMANDS that the word ALWAYS denote an illicit sexual encounter of the physical kind! Indeed, he believes that to suggest otherwise makes Jesus guilty of "deliberately using ambiguous language" (or "double-talk").

Ron seems to believe that if a word can have more than one meaning or application in a passage, and if there is any doubt whatsoever as to which may be uppermost in the Lord's mind, then our Lord is guilty of being unclear in His teaching .... and Ron apparently does not believe our Lord would ever leave a statement in the realm of ambiguity. He wrote: "To say that Jesus is using a word that would not be clearly understood makes understanding Jesus questionable." He further noted: "Merely because a word is used more in one sense than another does not mean it is to be applied with BOTH senses in a single passage." Ron goes to the heart of his dilemma with this statement: "Which meaning of the word would one choose?" This uncertainty as to which way to go seems to be a major hurdle for Ron, who obviously wants things to always be "black & white" and clearly spelled out. Having to make a choice between possible meanings and applications, or even choosing both as being contextually valid in some cases, is apparently more responsibility than Ron is willing to take on as an interpreter of Scripture.

Thus, Ron seems to believe that Jesus would never engage in any kind of teaching that was ambiguous in nature. He would never place His disciples in the position of having to think their way through some concept and make rational, real-life choices and applications from divine principles and directives. He would never utter something that could be interpreted and applied in more than one way. Is that true?! That is the impression I get from Ron's statements. And if Ron does NOT agree with my impression of his position, then maybe, just maybe, he would be willing to acknowledge that porneia might, just might, have a meaning in the passages under consideration other than the "ordinary" one .... even if it is just in addition to the "ordinary" one, and not as a replacement or negation of it.

Although Ron does not see the passages in question as ambiguous, since he thinks the words porneia and moicheia clearly denote SEX, nevertheless both of these words CAN and DO mean other things as well, and are so used in Scripture. Thus, it may not be ambiguous to Ron, but it is less "black & white" to many other scholars.

Just for the sake of establishing the premise, let's see if Jesus ever engaged in teaching which might be considered ambiguous in nature. Well, we don't have to go very far to find an example. One can be discovered just three verses after His statement in Matthew 19:9. In verse 12 He stated: "For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." In the first two sections there is little doubt among scholars that a literal meaning of "eunuch" is intended. However, there is great debate over the third section of this passage. It is felt by most scholars that BOTH a figurative and literal application may be valid here, although some feel ONLY a literal application is in view. But, is Jesus really talking about people physically mutilating themselves for the sake of the kingdom? Again, some demand that we take this as the only acceptable interpretation. However, a very large number of scholars feel it is also possible that Jesus may have the concept of celibacy in mind (thus, a figurative application of the word "eunuch").

Several major translations of the Bible even take a stand for the figurative interpretation here in this passage. The NIV, for example, reads: "For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven" (the New English Bible reads the same way here). The NAB (New American Bible, St. Joseph edition) reads: "...and some there are who have freely renounced sex for the sake of God's reign." In a footnote to this verse, the NAB acknowledges "there is no consensus on its meaning," therefore "some exegetes understand it to refer to voluntary and perpetual celibacy." The CEV (Contemporary English Version) reads: "Others stay single in order to serve God better." The paraphrase known as The Message reads: "Some decide not to get married for kingdom reasons." This sounds a bit like Paul's teaching in I Cor. 7, doesn't it?! You will find that most commentators favor the figurative interpretation here, even though contextually it would appear that the literal would be more consistent. I think this passage (just four verses after Jesus' porneia statement) shows that sometimes the "ordinary" or "obvious" meaning in a passage may NOT be the one the Lord had uppermost in mind when making His statement. I happen to agree with the bulk of scholarship that the figurative meaning and application of "eunuch" is probably the more likely interpretation, even though contextually one could make a case for the literal.

At the very least, most scholars will freely admit that this passage is very ambiguous. Either meaning and application could be valid. I hardly think we can accuse Him of "double-talk" here, though. Ron, there are simply times in Scripture when more than a single usage of a word may be in view. Thus, we dare not be dogmatic in selecting one over the other when there is no clear contextual or rational direction for doing so. There are other examples that could be given where Jesus spoke in such a way that more than one meaning was possible, and on some of these occasions His disciples even asked Him to clear up the ambiguous teaching for them, because they themselves didn't know which way to take it (such as when Jesus said "Lazarus has fallen asleep" ...... "Jesus had been speaking of his death, but His disciples thought He meant natural sleep" -- John 11:13), but I'll let this suffice to demonstrate that it was not uncommon for Jesus to speak in such a way that disciples were not sure which meaning or application to give a statement. In some cases, yes, Jesus may have only intended a single meaning, but in others He may have had several levels of application in mind, both literal and figurative (spiritual). If there is ANY uncertainty as to which, then one should at least leave open the possibility that EACH meaning and usage MAY be applicable to some degree. This is simply sound hermeneutics, and not a malicious manipulation or mishandling of the text.

Ron is convinced that the passages from which our proposition is drawn DEMAND a single meaning for the word porneia, and that this meaning is strictly sexual in nature. I am simply not convinced that the passages in question DEMAND such a restrictive and exclusive interpretation. I will certainly acknowledge that the sexual nature of porneia is probably the primary meaning and application in those passages, but I simply cannot, and will not, discount the possibility that the term may well apply to other scenarios as well. To do so, in my opinion, would be to limit the fullness of the teaching of our Lord with regard to this matter.

Realistically, I doubt that Ron and I will ever convince the other of our hermeneutical perspectives on these passages, so I will not belabor the issue with him. This debate, ultimately, is not over the meaning of porneia, although an understanding, or misunderstanding, of that term obviously will have some impact upon our theology with respect to divorce and remarriage. Nevertheless, to facilitate further discussion of our proposition, and to move on rather than getting bogged down over a side issue, I will "allow" Ron the sexual meaning of porneia in the context of our proposition simply for the sake of this discussion only.

Since I do indeed believe that this is the primary meaning here (although not the ONLY meaning), I will approach our discussion with the view in mind that Jesus is saying, "A married person who divorces his or her spouse for any reason other than fornication (illicit physical sexual activity), and marries another, is a person who keeps on committing adultery." At various points later on, as our discussion develops, I may interject an objection to this "concession" when I deem it necessary for the sake of clarity and Truth, but otherwise I think our discussion can continue on to the major elements of the proposition. I don't believe my denial of the proposition before us will be seriously impacted by this practical "concession" with regard to porneia. However, just for the "record," let it be known once again that I personally do not embrace the restricted, exclusive interpretation of porneia in these particular passages which is held by my opponent in this debate.


There are those who believe that the statement by Jesus in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 constitutes some kind of divinely proffered "exception clause" to God's IDEAL (the "exception to the rule," if you will). In other words, most believe the IDEAL of God is "one man for one woman for life," EXCEPT in the case of "fornication" (porneia), at which point that IDEAL can be "acceptably" set aside. If fornication occurs then it is maintained there is some kind of "authorized" or "approved" exception to the rule.

Yes, I believe that a spouse who is the victim of marital unfaithfulness DOES have legal recourse. But, is this what Jesus was seeking to convey when He said "except for fornication"? Was this some legal provision of law --- the "one just cause" for divorce which some of the Jews were seeking as a "legal loophole" --- or was there something deeper in view here?! Something far more spiritually significant?

It is interesting to note that the phrase "exception clause" (as well as the concept itself) is of human origin. Nowhere in Scripture is this statement by Jesus in the Matthew account so characterized. Also, it should be noted that one will not find this so-called "exception clause" anywhere else in the Bible. It appears only in Matthew's account, is excluded in the parallel accounts of Mark and Luke, and is never even hinted at in the writings of Paul.

As one might imagine, there have been numerous theories proposed down through the centuries as to the meaning of this brief clause in Matthew's account. It has been the cause of much debate among scholars. Let me ask a question here: Is it just possible our Lord was not granting an "acceptable exception" to God's IDEAL for the covenant of marriage at all?!

It is likely, in my view, that this notion that Jesus was admitting to a single "just cause" for failing to achieve God's IDEAL (i.e., trying to select some palatable "middle course" between the Hillel & Shammai schools of thought) may well be a false premise altogether, and that numerous false doctrines have been constructed upon it. Indeed, I believe this to be the case.

Notice the following excerpt from Chapter Six of my book Down, But Not Out:

As one can perceive in my above comments (from my 300 page book), I would probably be considered even more "conservative" than some of the staunch "traditionalists" on this matter. I don't believe Jesus has allowed ANY "exceptions" to the IDEAL of God for marriage. ANY failed covenant is a "missing of the mark." Simply put, the so-called "exception clause" is NOT an exception to the IDEAL at all. It is merely part of our Lord's declaration as to who must bear responsibility for the breakdown of the covenant of marriage. It is a declaration of culpability.

Let me give you the following case history from Chapter Six of Down, But Not Out, and my subsequent commentary from the text of the book. This will help illustrate this principle.

Interesting, is it not, that when the Truth of this passage is finally perceived, that it is the "traditional" view which can be characterized as the more "liberal," whereas mine is actually the more "conservative."

In our proposition, which follows, note that I have placed in "all caps" the so-called "exception clause" for ease of identification:

A married person who divorces his or her spouse
and marries another,
is a person who keeps on committing adultery

The traditional teaching with regard to the "exception clause" is that it is the single "loophole" through which one may squeeze to justify the termination of a covenant of marriage. If it can be demonstrated, for example, that one's spouse has committed fornication, then God will approve the divorce and the wronged spouse will be free to marry again without "committing adultery." However, if one divorces a spouse and fornication CAN'T be demonstrated on the part of the put away spouse, then the partner initiating the divorce is NOT free to remarry, and if he/she does marry again they are "committing adultery" (indeed, they are continuing in adultery with each SEX ACT they commit with their new partner, since "adultery" is viewed by these interpreters solely as a sex act). This is apparently Ron's view, since he has affirmed the proposition of this debate.

This doctrine, by the way, has led some spouses to actually "set up" their partners in an effort to secure a "scriptural divorce" and thus remain in "good standing" with God and the church. Women have hired prostitutes, for example, to seduce their husbands, and when the husband succumbs, they then have their "acceptable grounds" for a "scriptural" divorce from a man they simply wanted to be rid of.

Further, the belief that this is the ONLY "just cause" for divorce the Lord has granted, has led to some wives remaining in a marriage where the husband beat, tortured and ultimately murdered them. Why did they stay? Because it would have been a "sin" to secure a divorce against this abusive husband. As long as he wasn't sleeping with someone else, then she was "obligated by God" to remain in the marriage, even at the risk of her own life, and the lives of her children. Thus, this so-called "exception clause" has led to unbelievable abuse and suffering for countless spouses trapped in dangerous and deadly unions. I actually know of a preacher's wife who told a horribly battered and abused woman that she HAD to stay with this man and be a "good wife to him" as long as he hadn't actually slept with another woman. She told this battered woman that unless the husband had sex with someone else that God would send her to hell if she divorced him to avoid the beatings. The "loophole" was not there for HER, thus she was not entitled to a "scriptural" divorce. Thankfully, this woman eventually came to me for counseling, and I was able to convince her of the lunacy of the traditional teaching on this matter. She was thus enabled to escape from her abusive spouse, and she found God's grace to help her heal and to move on with her life.

Properly understood, the "exception clause" is not some legal loophole which the Lord established for terminating a marriage covenant "scripturally;" the "one just cause," so to speak. Rather, it is nothing more than a statement which assigns culpability for the destruction of the covenant of marriage. If a man casts off his innocent wife and marries a woman he desires more, then HE is the one responsible for the termination of the marriage. HE is the party who has committed adultery, not the wife cast off. The exception to this would be if the wife had destroyed the marriage by her porneia and the husband simply takes the legal steps to free himself of her adulterous and faithless presence (just as God did with Israel --- "I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries" --- Jeremiah 3:8). In that case, although he was the one who divorced her, it was nevertheless SHE who was responsible for the termination of the marriage; it was she who had committed adultery (just as Israel was the adulteress --- the covenant breaker --- and not God, even though God was the one who issued the certificate of divorce). THIS is the significance of the so-called "exception clause." It is not a loophole at all. Rather it is simply a statement as to which spouse must bear the burden of guilt for the termination of the covenant of marriage.

I look forward to your response to this point of view, Ron. May God richly bless you, brother!

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