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

Tuesday, January 23, 2001

Al Maxey Responds
To Ron's Recent Comments

Ron again states his view that "with respect to porneia in Matthew 5 and 19 the metaphorical will not work, but the literal is demanded." I continue to feel very strongly that Ron is incorrect on this matter. The figurative application of the term porneia will indeed work, and the literal meaning and usage of porneia is not demanded by the text. I believe the literal is demanded by Ron's theology, but certainly not by the context. I think this will become increasingly evident when we examine the word translated "adultery." For now, however, I concur with Ron that we should not "slow the progress of our discussion down any longer on this matter." It will surface again in the context of our debate on other points within the proposition.


With regard to our Lord's statement: "...and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," Ron makes the following observations:

  1. "No matter what the 'scholars' may be debating with respect to the application of the word 'eunuch,' a Jew would not have understood the application of the word as 'mutilate' which is essentially the alternative to the metaphorical use of the word."

  2. "No Israelite would have understood Jesus to speak of self-mutilation since they regarded it contrary to God's Will. Certainly, Jesus would not and did not use the word with both applications in this portion of the verse!"

Ron makes it very clear that his view on the latter part of Matt. 19:12 is that the figurative use of the word "eunuch" is DEMANDED, just as the literal use of the word porneia is DEMANDED just three verses earlier. Thus, in verse 12, the literal use can not in any way be in view, according to Ron, even though the two previous statements about eunuchs in that same verse are obviously literal in meaning and application. Thus, Ron is willing, in a sense, to overrule context in order to accommodate a personal perspective regarding authorial intent --- the very thing I sought to do in verse 9.

First, let me state that I agree with Ron that the Lord is most likely speaking figuratively in the latter part of verse 12. We agree on that, and most commentators agree this is the intent as well. However, where I would have to part company with Ron's perspective is in the view that the literal is not a possible interpretation here in any way at all. I think it possibly could be. In other words, although Jesus is most likely speaking figuratively, He may also have had a literal application in mind. In short, both views may well be applicable (which I believe also to be the case with regard to porneia in verse 9).

Ron objects on two grounds, if I understand him correctly.

FIRST --- He declares the Jews would have never understood the literal application here because "they regarded it contrary to God's Will." Ron then provides a couple of quotes from commentators and several passages of Scripture for consideration: Deut. 14:1-2; Lev. 19:28; 21:5; Jer. 47:5; Hosea 7:14. The passage in Hosea ("they slash themselves" --- RSV, one version which includes it) is based on a variant reading in a few Hebrew manuscripts and the LXX, but it is absent in most versions of the Bible. A careful reading of all of these passages, however, will clearly reveal that they have nothing whatsoever to do with castration, or making oneself a eunuch. Rather, they referred to making cuts in the body, as did the pagans, when in great mourning or distress.

"The superstitious marks of sorrow, as well as the violent excesses in which the heathen indulged at the death of their friends, were forbidden by a general law to the Hebrew people" (Jamieson, Fausset, Brown; from their commentary published in 1871). The Expositor's Bible Commentary points out that "there was nothing morally wrong" with such practices as those described, however the people were forbidden to engage in them as being of any religious significance (as did the pagans to their false gods). "They were apparently heathen signs of grief," and thus were inappropriate to the Jewish people. The Expositor's Bible Commentary goes on to describe this cutting and slashing: when one dies, the friends would "cut their cheeks and chins and lacerate their forearms, chests, and backs." Again, none of these passages has anything whatsoever to do with castration or the making of oneself into a eunuch. Thus, one cannot point to these passages, or any such law of God, to declare that such a practice would have been "contrary to God's Will."

SECOND --- Ron seems to believe the Jews would never have understood the literal application of "eunuch" in Jesus' statement because they would regard it as too offensive. Thus, Ron seems to reason, Jesus would never suggest that some Jews perhaps should/could engage in an act which Jewish society would have regarded less than positively. Since the Jews would have considered making themselves eunuchs (literally and physically) abhorrent, the passage thus demands the figurative application of the term, in his view.

A study of Jewish thinking, however, demonstrates that most Jews found abstaining from marriage and procreation equally offensive. "The figurative sense of celibacy, in which Jesus means the language, would have been less jarring, but nonetheless offensive, to most of His contemporaries. Although some pietists in the wilderness may have preferred celibacy, mainstream Jewish society regarded marriage and childbearing as solemn responsibilities. A metaphor of such shame and sacrifice testifies to the value of the kingdom of God for which anyone would pay such a high price" (A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Craig S. Keener, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999, p. 472). In a footnote to the above comment, Keener observes: "Roman society also emphasized marriage and childbearing," and he then lists several references to writings of the time which confirm this view.

In short, Ron, both the literal and figurative meanings and uses of the term "eunuch" would have been offensive and abhorrent to the Jewish people of Jesus' day (and even to the Romans), but neither were specifically forbidden by Mosaic Law. Thus, either is a legitimate interpretation and application of the teaching of Jesus in Matt. 19:12. I emphasize this simply to point out, Ron, that one must not be overly anxious to render an exclusive interpretation of a passage when there is any possibility at all that other applications may be valid as well. Again, I believe such to be the case with Matt. 19:9. But, I'll let this brief commentary and analysis suffice for the moment.


Ron writes that I "affirm that God has an ideal (to which I agree)." First, let me say that I appreciate the fact that Ron and I are in agreement on this point. God's design for marriage has never changed. It was, is, and will continue to be: one man for one woman for life. No matter how far man falls from this divine design, it will remain constant and true. Our commission from above is not to preach and teach a lesser ideal, but rather to hold high for all to view, and call all people to embrace, our Lord's original design for the covenant of marriage. I believe Ron and I are both committed to this task.

As I tried to state in my last post, but maybe did not do so quite as effectively as I should have, I do not believe God ever intended for there to be "exceptions" to the IDEAL. The marriage covenant is sacred, and any challenge to its sanctity should be dealt with forcefully, and with a view to maintaining the IDEAL. Even an act of sexual infidelity should not be an excuse to cast off a faithless wife or husband, if there is any glimmer of hope for restoring the relationship and saving the marriage. When two souls are committed to the IDEAL, all negative challenges to the achievement of that goal will be repelled. As one wise leader in the Body once declared, "The word 'divorce' should not be in the vocabulary of any Christian man or woman; it should not even enter their minds as an option, no matter the nature of the challenge to their covenant." I agree.

The reality, however, is that marriages DO fail. If one partner (or both) determine in their hearts no longer to strive for the IDEAL, and to instead pursue some course of self-gratification which excludes their spouse, then that marriage will in time come to a tragic termination. The Lord recognizes this, and has always made provision for the care of the innocent victims of such covenantal failure. God is especially sensitive to the plight of the women and children in such breakdowns. This loving care is seen repeatedly in the laws He enacted under the Old Covenant, and I deal with these extensively in my book Down, But Not Out.

But Jesus explained this merciful and gracious provision this way: "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning" (Matt. 19:8). Thus, in the statement just prior to the one upon which our proposition is based, Jesus declares the original intent of the Father was that marriages were to be permanent. The same was stressed just two verses earlier as well: "Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate" (vs. 6). Malachi also deplores the "breaking of faith with one another" (Mal. 2:10f), declares God's hatred of divorce (Mal. 2:16), and holds aloft the IDEAL of the Creator! "So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith!" (Mal. 2:16).

When Jesus speaks of porneia, He speaks of an action and attitude which can and does destroy covenants of marriage. That is just a fact. However, He is not declaring a single circumstance in which the soul committed to the IDEAL can set aside all efforts to achieve that goal and cast off a spouse. Otherwise we have Jesus saying in effect, "Marriage is sacred and every conceivable effort must be made to maintain it, UNLESS you catch your wife having illicit sex .... in THAT case, and in that case ONLY, dump the slut!" A strange perception, is it not, in light of the fact that God Himself (the wronged "Husband") sought repeatedly, and with great patience, to restore Israel (His faithless, "fornicating" wife) to Himself, even though she had gone after other lovers. "'Return, faithless people,' declares the Lord, 'for I am your husband'" (Jeremiah 3:14).

Unfortunately, after every conceivable effort had been made to preserve the covenant relationship, and much patience and forbearance had been shown for the sake of that covenant, the Lord was forced to acknowledge that in this case the wife (Israel) had made her choice, and she was NOT going to return. Thus, reluctantly, "I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away" (Jeremiah 3:8), and turned to her sister Judah. Did God divorce His "spouse" Israel? Yes, He did. Did He have the right to do so? Yes, He did. NO partner to a covenant of marriage should EVER be the CAUSE of the breakdown of that union (there is NO "just cause" for seeking to break covenant with one's spouse). However, when one of the spouses willfully sets aside the IDEAL, and willfully breaks covenant with his/her spouse, and refuses all efforts at restoration, the other spouse, like God, may be left with no other choice but to recognize that the union is finally ended.

The "exception clause" is the acknowledgment that when a husband, like unto God, issues the certificate of divorce against a faithless spouse, it was the faithlessness of the spouse that was the cause of the breakdown of this covenant, and not of the man who was forced to finally issue the certificate of divorce. In such a case, even if the man should later marry, it was the faithless spouse who is ultimately culpable for the disunion, not the husband who put her away, nor the one to whom he eventually turns. However, if the wife is put away, and she has done nothing to prompt such an action, then it is the husband himself who must bear the guilt for the setting aside of the IDEAL and for the termination of this covenant of marriage.

Ron comes very close to agreeing with me on this, by the way. He wrote: "Jesus did not want His ideal altered at all. God's ideal is stated in Matthew 19:6. Jesus was not giving an 'exception' to God's ideal, but He understood the abuses man would put forth for justifying that which is not God's ideal." AMEN!!! Notice what Ron said? Let me quote him again: "Jesus was not giving an 'exception' to God's ideal." That is exactly my point, Ron!!! God's IDEAL is one man for one woman for life! PERIOD!!! No exceptions!! It appears that Ron agrees with me on this vital point. However, sinful, faithless men and women set aside that lofty IDEAL and followed their own willful, destructive paths. The fornicating spouse (which is what Israel was) is a perfect case in point, indicates Jesus (perhaps thinking back to His Father and faithless Israel of centuries before). Obviously, like God, the righteous husband will want to do everything in his power to salvage the covenant of marriage, rather than jumping at this "legal loophole" for dumping a wife. But, if the union can not be salvaged, and he is forced to acknowledge the covenant is ended, then Jesus wants this man to realize that he is not culpable (any more than God was when He put away HIS spouse for HER fornications). It is rather the faithless wife who must bear the guilt for the breakdown of this covenant.

That is really all that is being said here. The schools of Hillel and Shammai were battling with one another over whether spouses could be dumped for a single cause or for any cause. Jesus did not opt for one school of thought over the other. Rather, He upheld the intent of the Creator which declares there is NO justifiable exception to the IDEAL. Anything and everything from burning bread to burning passions should be resolved in such a way that the covenant is preserved. However, if the covenant DOES end, then someone must bear the guilt for setting aside the marriage in order to pursue some personal agenda. Again, Ron seems to agree with me. He wrote: "Of course Jesus would never approve of a failure to achieve God's ideal (that is like saying God approves of sin)."

Ron then seemingly contradicts himself by saying, "I dare say that in a hundred years (to borrow a phrase) no one would read Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 and conclude such a thing as you have done by saying an exception clause is not an exception clause. Either an 'exception' is an 'exception' or it is not." And yet Ron himself stated: "Jesus was not giving an 'exception' to God's ideal." The confusion here, I believe, is over the nature of the "exception." Obviously, when Jesus says "except," He is pointing to some kind of exception to some kind of premise. I maintain that the traditional interpretation of this passage has misunderstood the nature of that premise and thus misapplied the "exception." Thus, THEIR "exception clause" is truly no such thing. The traditional point of view is that the only exception to the IDEAL is when a spouse commits porneia. Marriage is permanent and no divorce is ever allowed, EXCEPT if one of the spouses engages in porneia. THEN, and ONLY THEN, an "exception" to the IDEAL is allowed, and a divorce is permitted and recognized by God. Otherwise, forget it .... you're stuck for life!!!

I do not believe that is the true significance of this clause in the statement of Jesus. And it would at least appear that Ron might agree, since he declares there are NO exceptions to the IDEAL proffered by Jesus. Therefore, what IS the significance of this clause? I believe it displays which spouse is culpable for the breakdown of the union, and, yes, I feel this is a perfectly natural understanding of the passage. If a man dumps his wife for another woman, for example, HE is guilty .... EXCEPT in a case where he divorces her and finds another spouse BECAUSE it was SHE who destroyed the marriage covenant by HER porneia. It is THIS which I believe Jesus sought to convey to His disciples that day, and the whole teaching had as its great historical & spiritual parallel --- God and Israel. It was an example with which they would all have been more than familiar, and one which they could also apply to their own human situations.

Ron believes that my view "is not the natural reading of the text." Indeed, he says "there is no way one can read this as you suggest in the text of Matthew 5 and 19." On the contrary, Ron. I think it is perfectly natural. And not only that, but it is fully consistent with the remainder of the teaching of both OT and NT.

Where Ron and I radically break company with regard to interpretation of the Matthew passages is with regard to when "adultery" occurs, and under what circumstances. Ron firmly believes that the committing of adultery occurs "in a subsequent remarriage." In other words, if a man divorces a spouse who was NOT guilty of porneia, then his subsequent remarriage is adulterous. Not only that, but Ron believes that every single sexual act engaged in by this new couple is a continuing act of adultery. Thus, their remarriage is a "living in adultery." Ron says, "If he remarries he is guilty of committing adultery."

Ron declares that "if one of the two were to be sexually unfaithful (porneia) to the other, Jesus said the innocent one can divorce the guilty one and marry another without having sinned (or being in sin)." He says, "That is exactly how the text reads." Actually, that is only how Ron interprets the text to read. The text does NOT declare that adultery occurs in the new marriage. That is purely an interpretation, and we will examine that in more detail later in this debate. I believe Ron's theory is incorrect.

Ron makes an interesting admission, one which flies in the face of the bulk of traditional teaching which he seemingly otherwise embraces: "Al, you won't read in any of my posts where I said the only reason for a divorce is because fornication was committed. What you will read is that the only reason for a divorce AND remarriage is because of fornication being committed against a spouse." In other words, Ron seems to acknowledge that there may well be more than a single cause for rightfully issuing a certificate of divorce against a spouse, and thus having that divorce acknowledged by God. Porneia, thus, is only one of several causes which may bring to termination a covenant of marriage. If this is what Ron means, then I concur. Jesus is not giving just ONE "just cause" for ending marriage. MANY things may destroy a marriage just as quickly and completely as illicit sex. It thus appears .... and I emphasize appears .... that Ron and I may actually share the view that the so-called "exception clause" is not truly an exception to the IDEAL at all, and that Jesus is not actually siding with the "ONE just cause for divorce" school of thought.

However, where Ron and I differ is in the next step he takes. He views porneia on the part of the offending spouse as the ONLY approved way the offended (innocent) spouse may marry again without being guilty of adultery. This, I believe, is far more than Jesus ever declared in this passage. This means that an innocent spouse, who is now free from the spouse guilty of destroying the marriage covenant, may ONLY remarry acceptably without committing adultery IF the guilty spouse was guilty of porneia. This raises a host of problems for Ron's theory, and we will examine these much more closely later in our debate.

Ron also equates "adultery" to "remarriage" in some cases. This, it seems to me, makes Jesus far more concerned about the beginning of new marriages than the breakdown of current ones. Thus, Jesus is placed in the strange position of condemning remarriage rather than divorce. I really think such a view misses the whole focus and emphasis of His teaching here.

Ron, as one might imagine, has some difficulty perceiving MY view, since he must view it through the darkened spectacles of his own!! Therefore, he asks: "If I'm understanding you correctly, the penalty is exclusively 'guilt' and there is no such thing as committing adultery. What if the person who broke the marriage feels no guilt? What responsibility does one have to bear?"

Whether or not one "feels" guilt in no way diminishes the fact of his/her guilt. Some murderers, for example, "feel" no guilt or remorse whatsoever, but they are nevertheless GUILTY of murder, and will be dealt with accordingly. The "feelings" of the accused is not the issue here. Those who break covenant with a spouse ARE GUILTY before God Almighty, whether they "feel" it or not!!! There will be many "penalties" experienced in this life as a result of such destroyed covenants (financial, social, familial, religious, emotional, etc.), but the ultimate penalty (if that guilt is not repented of) will be experienced when God issues His sentence of death against this guilty spouse. What responsibility does this person bear? He bears the responsibility, and the guilt, for the destruction of a covenant of marriage, and for the countless lives he has harmed in the process. A heavy burden to bear indeed.

You suggested that in my view there "is no such thing as committing adultery." Nothing could be further from the truth!! Adultery WAS committed. I think this will become more clear when we examine the significance of this word in the original language. As with porneia, the traditional view tends to see "adultery" as exclusively a sexual act. Thus, they must find a "partner" for this sex act. Since the husband has cast off his wife, the obvious "partner" is the new spouse. Thus, adultery is NOT committed, according to this view, until he remarries. And the man "continues in adultery" with each sex act committed with this new spouse .... or, so say those who promote this theory.

I believe it is a horrendous mistake to reduce this term to a sex act alone, and it has led to the further affliction of the innocent victims of divorce. This will be discussed in greater depth when we examine this word. However, we are not there yet. Suffice it to say, at this juncture, that "adultery" DOES occur, Ron. I just don't happen to believe we can restrict it to the remarriage.

I will let this suffice as my stand on the "exception clause" and its significance in the teaching of Jesus Christ with respect to divorce and remarriage. Perhaps this has served to clear up some of the confusion in your mind as to my views on this clause, and maybe even helped to draw our positions somewhat closer together in this one area. I look forward to your reaction to these thoughts, brother.

Have a wonderful day, and may God richly bless you in your service to Him.

Home Index