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

Friday, January 19, 2001

Ron Thomas Comments On
The Scope of Porneia and
Al's View of the "Exception Clause"

For the sake of encouraging the discussion along, Al granted my contention of the Greek word porneia in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Al does not believe that it is to be understood exclusively as I've offered (though I think I have established my contention). I will not slow the progress of our discussion down any longer on this matter except to offer a few observations of my own on what he has said.

Al wrote: "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."

When I insisted that the Lord did not use "double talk" in Matthew 5:32 or 19:9, I in no way suggested that He encouraged His disciple to not think. What I said cannot be translated into the above principle (2nd sentence). Jesus certainly required His disciples to think as is demonstrated in Matthew 16:5-12 (here, in this context, the literal understanding of the word will not work, but the metaphorical does). Now, with respect to porneia in Matthew 5 and 19, the metaphorical will not work, but the literal is demanded.

Concerning the comment on Matthew 19:12 --- I agree that many scholars may have some discussion between them about the application of this word ("eunuch"), but I have little difficulty when I compare that with what Paul said and the application in I Thessalonians 4:3-5. The word "eunuch" means an emasculated man (Vine's Expository Dictionary of NT Words). It can have an extended application rather than merely a literal application. No Israelite would have understood Jesus to speak of self-mutilation since they regarded it contrary to God's Will (Deut. 14:1-2; Lev. 19:28; 21:5). Certainly, Jesus would not and did not use the word (its 4th and 5th occurrence) with both applications in this portion of the verse!

So, 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. You referenced various translations and pointed out difficulty with how to understand the application of the word. Some, rather than translate, gave a commentary; others translated the Greek word to its English equivalent. Your comment to the effect that the figurative should apply here rather than the literal is based upon what? The context of what the Bible says about mutilation? Or is it on some other basis? I suspect it will be the former (but since I don't know, maybe I ought not to say --- though I did anyway.(G)

Al wrote: "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, 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. If there is ANY uncertainty as to which, then one should leave open the possibility that EACH meaning MAY be applicable to some degree."

It was not the disciples (to whom Jesus spoke) who had difficulty with the word "eunuch," it was (is) the so-called scholars. I insist that in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 the Greek word porneia has only one application (or meaning).


Al calls into question the validity of the interpretation of how one reads the so-called "exceptive clause" of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. He affirms that God has an ideal (to which I agree) and that the phrase "except for fornication" is generally read as some sort of "acceptable set aside." He calls this into question, not because it is wrong, but rather to say (or ask the question) "Was this some legal provision of law --- the 'one just cause' for divorce --- or was there something deeper in view here?! Something far more spiritually significant?" Well, of course, all that God commands or talks about is going to deal with the spiritual part of man. So, in that respect, the answer is yes there is something spiritually significant to these words Jesus uttered. Of course, this is not entirely what Al had in mind.

Al asked a question: "Is it just possible our Lord was not granting an 'acceptable exception' to God's IDEAL for the covenant of marriage at all?!!" Sure, it's possible, but that does not mean that it actually is the case. In a similar vein it is possible that unicorns exist, but that does not mean that it is actually so. Whereas the latter is contrary to human experience, the former is contrary to the natural reading of the text.

Al wrote: "Jesus held high for observation the IDEAL, and refused to acknowledge any justifiable cause for failure to achieve it."

Of course Jesus would never approve of a failure to achieve God's ideal (that is like saying God approves of sin). Nevertheless He did give a reason for an allowable divorce and a subsequent remarriage.

Al wrote: "If it is true that Jesus was in fact offering NO exceptions to the Creator's original design for marital relationships --- one man for one woman for life --- what is one to make of this apparent 'exception clause' recorded in Matthew's gospel?"

To begin, 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. Further, He said that there is one reason for a divorce and a subsequent remarriage. When God created man and woman He created the woman for the man. He created the woman to be a helpmeet to her husband. This intimacy that exists between these two people establishes a relationship stronger than anything one can think of (the exception being God), hence the word "cleave" being used by Jesus. 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). Now, that is exactly how the text reads. The ideal as stated by God is in Matthew 19:6. It is God's intent that there be one man for one woman for life. When God joins the two together, man is not to break it. To do so is to do so at one's own peril. The abuse that occurred is stated in Matthew 19:8. In the context in which this discussion took place Jesus stated that the abuse was because of the hardness of the heart. The exception to this is stated in Matthew 19:9. God's ideal (verse 6) is implied in these words; if a man were to "put away" (divorce) his wife and marry another, that man (who had done the putting away) would be committing adultery. Jesus said the exception to this consequence (committing adultery in a subsequent remarriage) is if he put away his wife because she committed fornication against him. Again, that is exactly how the text reads. Where is the interpretation wrong? Al has questioned this teaching because of the perversion he has seen take place in the lives of people. But, he knows full well that abuse does not negate a true teaching.

Al wrote: "A second probable interpretation (the one which I very much favor), and one very much compatible with the first, is that this so-called exception clause is simply a means whereby responsibility or guilt for the breakdown of the covenant of marriage is ascribed to one spouse or the other. If a man puts away his wife, and she has done absolutely nothing to warrant such an action on his part, HE is the one who must bear the responsibility for the dissolution of the marriage. However, if the wife is guilty of porneia then SHE must bear the guilt for the ultimate breakdown of the relationship, even though it may have been her husband who actually sought and secured the certificate of divorce against her."

There is no way one can read this as you suggest (1st sentence) in the text of Matthew 5 and 19 (as it presently reads). That is not the natural reading of the text. Your 2nd and 3rd sentences are certainly true; Jesus states what this so-called "guilt" is: if he remarries he is guilty of committing adultery. However, 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?

Al wrote: "Thus, the Lord's exception clause is in reality no such thing; Jesus was merely assigning responsibility for the ultimate destruction of the marital relationship."

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. Though that phrase may not be in the Bible it is still nonetheless an exception. Either an "exception" is an "exception" or it is not. Since you said it is not, what would you call it? If people can understand the meaning of "except" they can understand that a person must be born again of water and spirit or be lost. Likewise they can understand the use of the phrase in the Matthew passages without having to have it reinterpreted for them.

Al wrote: "Perhaps one explanation for why the religious world has so woefully misunderstood this teaching of the Lord is that the focus of God's people has been misdirected. While Jesus lifts up the Creator's original design for marriage --- the IDEAL --- men squander their time and energy searching for some legal justification for their failure to embrace it."

It is so simple to say that man is misdirected because he looks for some legal answer to a difficult experience. But, that is not the reality of it. I could just as easily say that teachings, just as Al is presenting, is the result of trying to get around the clear teachings of the Lord. In this discussion I don't want to attribute any dishonor to Al for such a thing. Do men (all or any) actually squander time and energy because they are looking for legalities? No, it is not a "legal" question at all.

Al wrote: "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."

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. Further, Al, your appeal to emotions in the example you have set forth does nothing against the teaching I'm affirming. This is nothing but the fallacy of appealing to emotion (or ad populum). I could have easily attributed to you the abuses of your position.

As I conclude this response to Al's argument I will summarize what has occurred up to this point on the discussion surrounding the "exception clause" (briefly):

  1. The exception clause, as found in Matthew 5 and 19, is not an exception to the Lord's ideal, but rather a determinant to who is guilty of breaking the marriage, nothing more. The only consequence of breaking one's marriage is guilt, nothing else. This is Al's position. Certainly, Al will be ready to correct what I have misconstrued.

  2. I deny Al's position because it is contrary to the natural reading of the passage(s).

Home Index