by Al Maxey

Issue #90 ------- December 5, 2003
Where the way is hardest, there go thou:
Follow your own path, and let people talk.

--- Dante (1265-1321) -- The Divine Comedy


Examining the "Exception Clause"
A Study of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9

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 for marriage (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 of our God 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 recourse 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 a great many 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 pose to you 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?!

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 and hurtful doctrines and practices have been constructed upon it.

If one carefully considers the teaching of Jesus on this issue throughout the gospel records, one will note Jesus repeatedly refused to acquiesce to the popular and prevailing views of His day, each of which acknowledged various "just causes" for divorce. Some schools of thought insisted that there was only one just cause for terminating a covenant of marriage; other schools maintained "any and every cause" was justified. Jesus held high for observation the IDEAL of God for marriage, and refused to acknowledge any justifiable cause for failure to achieve it. Yes, Jesus was aware that marriages were failing; He was aware that there were a great many reasons for these failures; but to justify any or all of them, as men were attempting to do, would be to diminish the majesty of God's IDEAL itself.

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? There are two possible explanations:

  1. The first is that this clause may be an example of a "Preterition," which means the exception of which Jesus speaks is an exception to the proposition of the text itself, rather than to a specific verb within the proposition. Thus, the passage might well be translated: "Anyone who divorces his wife --- the permission of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1f notwithstanding --- and marries another woman commits adultery." This effectively removes any exception to the IDEAL, and makes the intent of the message far more consistent with other statements of the Lord within the context --- "The Law says .... but I say ....!" Jesus would thus be issuing a New Dispensation challenge to the people of God: although the Law of Moses permitted certain acts due to the hardness of their hearts, it was not so from the beginning; it was never a part of the Creator's divine design. Under the New Covenant, mankind is called to return to the IDEAL; to begin living on a vastly superior spiritual plane; to begin behaving as the children of God! Permission to do otherwise is no longer granted! The permissive provisions of Law, due to hardness of heart, are now terminated. This is one view.

  2. A second probable interpretation (which I very much favor) 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.

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. If the husband was dealing treacherously with his wife, HE must bear the guilt; if the wife was not behaving according to the vows of her covenant, SHE must bear the guilt. In either case a marriage has ended, but the matter of culpability has now been addressed. This view also has the advantage of being much easier to reconcile with the remainder of Scripture, in which no mention is ever made of any such "exception to the IDEAL."

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. With seared consciences and hardened hearts men seek ways to "legally" circumvent their responsibility to both God and their spouses. Divorce is a concept foreign to the heart focused upon God and His IDEAL; it is a worldly option sought out and embraced only by one whose focus is inward, and whose god is SELF. Jesus refused to dignify such maneuvering by declaring any aspect of it just.

Do marriages end? Yes, and with a frequency that grieves the Lord. Divorce is a tragic reality of life, of which the Lord is painfully aware, but it is not the will of God that marriages end, rather it is the will of man! When divorces occur people get hurt; sometimes innocent people, through no fault of their own. In such cases, one spouse must bear the responsibility for this destroyed covenant of marriage, and also the guilt. It is the assigning of this responsibility and culpability which Jesus addresses in the so-called "exception clause" of Matthew's gospel record.

As one can perceive from these comments, 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 share with you the following case history. It will help illustrate this principle.

Tom and Debbie had been joined in marriage twelve years
when Tom discovered his wife was having an affair with his
best friend Jack. Unbeknownst to Tom, this had been going
on for months. When confronted, Debbie acknowledged her
infidelity. She stopped seeing Jack for a while, but eventually
began the affair again. They went to marriage counseling,
spoke to their church leaders, and various family members
got involved, but to no avail. Debbie refused to give up her
sexual relationship with Jack. With a heavy heart, Tom sought
out an attorney and secured a divorce against Debbie.

In the above case history, it was Tom who sought and secured a divorce against his wife, but who was actually responsible for the breakdown of this covenant of marriage? Was it Tom, since he was the one who presented Debbie with a certificate of divorce? Or, was it Debbie, since it was her immoral conduct which forced Tom to seek the solution he did? Who was the guilty party? Again, we see the significance of the Lord's so-called "exception clause." Although Tom divorced Debbie, it was the latter who must bear both the guilt and the responsibility for the destruction of the covenant of marriage.

It should be abundantly clear to most that this clause in no way constitutes an "exception to the rule" or an "acceptable reason" for divorce. Jesus is merely speaking to the matter of culpability. The position of Jesus is that marriage is for LIFE, and ANY challenge should be met and conquered. However, when covenants are broken, then SOMEONE is to blame; SOMEONE must bear the guilt. In this passage Jesus gives us insight into WHO is to blame. If the husband casts off his wife in favor of another woman, then HE is the covenant breaker .... it is HE who is guilty of adultery. If the husband secures a certificate of divorce against his wife because she was committing fornication, then SHE was the covenant breaker .... it is SHE who is guilty of adultery. Even though HE was the one who divorced HER, yet SHE is the "guilty party." THIS is the significance of the so-called "exception clause." It is NOT permission to set aside the IDEAL for "one reason, and one reason only;" rather it is a declaration of guilt, and an assigning of guilt, for the failure to achieve the IDEAL.

Interesting, is it not, that when the Truth of this passage is finally perceived, it is the "traditional" view which can be characterized as the more "liberal," whereas the above is actually the more "conservative" view. 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, it is alleged, since "adultery" is viewed by these interpreters solely as being a sex act).

This doctrine, by the way, has led some spouses to actually "set up" their partners in an effort to secure a so-called "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.

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, for ridding oneself of a spouse. 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.

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Texas:

Thanks for another excellent article. Would you think that the words "church" and "baptism," though not limited to the KJV, are also a type of paraphrase?

From a Preacher in Tennessee:

Brother Al, I have been reading Reflections for quite some time and enjoy them. I appreciate the work that you do. I like the way you push people to use the Bible and think for themselves. I don't agree with you about everything you write, but then again my wife doesn't agree with everything I write either! I understand the dangers of Legalism and have fought against these ideas my entire adult life, first as a Bible class teacher and now as a preacher.

From a Reader in Washington:

Congratulations on your First Anniversary of Reflections. November 28 was my 73rd birthday. May Reflections last even longer! Even after you are called home. Prepare a successor, Al. By the way, for the first twenty plus years in my life I survived on my parents' faith and Acts 2:38. Then, when I returned from the Korean War in 1952, the preacher where I attended was a doctrinal legalist from way back, It took from 1952 until 1980, when I first heard John MacArthur on radio, before I heard the word LOVE. It took me a while, but I eventually repented and turned to what the Bible said instead of what I had heard as a youth. Keep up the great work.

From a Reader in Nevada:

It's 11:30 P.M. and I have just finished your latest Reflections. Great and encouraging. Amen and amen! Would to God that we could all learn that legalism is not wrapped up, sealed and finished in the Law of Moses, but that it exists and grows in ungodliness even in this 21st century. My prayer is that I might learn daily to love others. Not necessarily to agree, but to be kind and patient and gentle. After all, that fiery Paul, who used to be so legalistic, learned that "love never fails." If we would bring others closer to God, or even persuade them to accept our opinions, then we must do it through genuine concern, and not through commands.

From a Reader in Texas:

I sure enjoyed and appreciated your research into the KJV. Quite a task. Al, I know you have all your Reflections on your web page, but have you ever thought about publishing them in a book? They could be arranged by topics, and would make excellent study material for those just beginning their "walk." I would be happy to help in underwriting the project.

From a Reader in Texas:

I enjoyed your essay on judgmentalism. Matthew 7:1-5 teaches us that we will be judged as we judge others. I have often thought this is one of the most sobering (maybe frightening) passages in the Bible. By the way, in regard to the definition of grace, I like Major Ian Thomas' definition: God's Riches At Christ's Expense.

From a Reader in New Mexico:

I would like to receive your Reflections E-Mails. I have appreciated your scholarship and insight since I first became familiar with you through a mention in Edward Fudge's GracEmail several months ago. I live in Clovis, New Mexico and was pleased to find you pastoring a church in Alamogordo. As a lifelong member of the Advent Christian Church, it is refreshing to see your writings concerning "Conditional Immortality" and man's fate after death. May God bless you as you continue your ministry. Thank you again.

From a Reader in Texas:

Dear Al, Your KJV posting was excellent. One day, in reading about the "Authorized Version" in McClintock and Strong, I discovered the 15 rules that King James bound on his translators. No. 3 read, "The old ecclesiastical words to be kept, as the word church not to be translated congregation." He could see that his power as the head of the Church of England was being threatened by the correct translations of certain such words by Tyndale, Coverdale, etc., so he ordered his translation to keep this down. So many of the errors in the KJV that give us problems today are the outgrowth of these 15 rules.

I had a very interesting discussion with Foy Wallace, Jr. one day in my home on versions. He was the strongest of KJV defenders. He had one of the old original RSV New Testaments. He pulled it out and had it underlined in many, many places where, as he said, the RSV disagreed with the KJV. So, it was a "terrible translation" because it differed with the KJV. Oh well, such is life with religious fanatics. Keep up the good work. Seriously, consider putting all your Reflections in book form.

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