Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Some Second Thoughts on the First Exception

It is commonly held among conservative evangelicals that the Bible gives two “exceptions” to God’s plan that marriage is “one man, one woman, one lifetime,” (though there are a multitude of various incarnations of the answer to the divorce/remarriage question). The two exceptions are adultery (Matthew 19:3-9) and desertion (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). (As a side note, it is interesting to hear some expand “desertion” into all manner of things such as sexual abuse, physical endangerment, and the like as an effort to justify divorce in a difficult situations. However, that’s not my topic here.)

My thoughts are on the first exception: adultery. Most people see the “exception clause” of Matthews 19:9 as the equivalent of Jesus saying, “Divorce is sin, unless you divorce a spouse who has committed adultery, in which case it is not sin.”

In recent months I have been giving more thought to this, and wonder if we have too easily overlooked the import of the previous verse which says He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way.” (Matthew 19:8)

Jesus was answering the question, “Is divorce permissible for any reason?” (v. 3). Various resources can give you the history of divorce in the rabbis’ teachings, so I will not indulge that here. Nor do I want to give all the various options and arguments on the issue of “acceptable divorce.” I want rather to zero in on v. 8 and the phrase “the hardness of your heart.”

Setting the Table

First, let us note that under the OT Law, divorce was clearly permitted. We see this from regulations regarding how a divorcee was to be treated (Deut 24:1-4) and from regulations that forbade divorce (e.g. Deut 22:19, 29). Furthermore, Ezra commanded the people, presumably with the approval of God, to divorce their foreign wives (Ezra 10:11). Finally, you have Jesus himself confirming that Moses (meaning the Mosaic Law) permitted divorce (Matt 19:8).

The surface reason for divorce could have been many things. A great amount of focus has been placed on Deut 24:1 and the “some indecency” (NASB; Hebrew reads ervath davar, or “nakedness of a thing”). There have been many suggestions made as to what exactly the indecency was, but none are completely conclusive. It is possible that it was the forniciation of Matthew 19:9

In v. 8, Jesus identifies the root reason for the Mosaic regulations on divorce as “the hardness of your heart.” In other words, whatever the indecency was, the divorce was driven by the hardness of one’s heart—harboring sinful resentment that was driven by hardness toward God and His plan for marriage that would lead to the dissolution of the marriage.

Considering Jesus’ Exception

Jesus moves seamlessly from “the hardness of your heart” to the exception clause. The question is, “What exactly was Jesus saying?” I think it impossible to say that Jesus was here forbidding remarriage in any circumstance. The grammar seems to mitigate against that, and Jesus connects remarriage with adultery in the case of divorce (cf. Mark 10:1-12, which omits the exception clause). He could well be permitting remarriage only in the case of adultery, but it seems he is permitting it at least in case of adultery. How this ties in with 1 Corinthians 7 must be saved for a later date, especially since it is not the focus here.

What exactly is the exception clause connected to? Some say it should be connected to divorce, others to remarriage. The reflection of the last year or so has led me to conclude that the exception clause should be connected to “the hardness of your heart.” Divorce, even in the matter of indecency (whatever that is) is because of the hardness of heart. It was not the way God intended it from the beginning (Matt 19:8).

Jesus is saying that Moses permitted divorce is matters of sexual immorality perhaps short of adultery (some indecency) because your hearts were hard. You were unwilling to forgive and restore. It is true that the Mosaic Law contained the death penalty for adultery (Lev 20:10), and that has led some to say that this means that the indecency cannot be adultery since an adulterer would have been dead and thus ineligible for divorce. However, the death penalty was not always carried out for adultery (cf. David and Bathsheba). However, the precise identification of the uncleanness is unnecessary for our purposes, since we are not under the Law, and since our focus is on life in Christ.

How Should a Believer Respond to an Adulterous Spouse

We need to turn to the New Testament, to discern God’s will for divorce for us.

Let’s begin with this simple statement: If the spouse is unrepentant, 1 Corinthians 7:15 is the controlling passage. An unrepentant spouse gives evidence of unbelief since they are unwilling to repent of sin. Remaining in the marriage means, at the very least, cutting off all adulterous relationships. It need not necessarily involve inward repentance, since an unbeliever is being considered. If they refuse to cut off the adulterous relationships, then they show themselves unwilling to stay in the marriage. If they are unwilling to remain in the marriage, the “innocent partner” is free. They are not required to try to save the marriage. In fact, they can’t save it. It takes two to make a marriage. It is my view that “not bound” means they are free to remarry.

On the other hand, if the spouse is repentant, Ephesians 5:25 and Ephesians 4:32 are the controlling passages.

First, we establish from Ephesians 5:25 that spouses are “to love their wives as Christ loved the church.” Though the passage makes this statement specifically about husbands, it is hard to imagine that Christ has a lower standard for how the wife should love the husband. The point of Ephesians 5:22-31 is on function in the relationship, not mutual responsibility of love. I believe the “love as Christ loved the church” is applicable to both parties in marriage (cf. Titus 2:4). Ephesians 5 is merely addressing the function of leadership, rather than only the nature of love.

Second, from Ephesians 4:32 we establish that forgiveness is mandated by Christ for every believer, regardless of the wrong committed. The standard is “Forgive, just as God in Christ forgave you.” The standard by which God has forgiven us through Christ is the standard by which we are to forgive others.

This leads me to two conclusions.

1. Pursuing divorce is ultimately incompatible with Christ’s love for the church. It is impossible to “love as Christ loved the church” while at the same time willfully pursuing a divorce. Christ’s love for the church is unconditional. It pursues the one loved and covers the sins of the one loved. A divorce willful divorce refuses to pursue the one who is supposed to be loved, and refuses to cover the sins of the one supposed to be loved.

2. Pursuing a divorce is ultimately incompatible with “forgiving as God in Christ forgave you.” Forgiveness is a promise, not about our mental ability to forget, but about our volitional choice to treat someone in a particular way. The best definition of forgiveness is found in the writings of Jay Adams, among others. (See Adams, From Forgiven to Forgiving). He defines forgiveness as a promise to treat the forgiven as if the offense had not happened. It is a promise to refuse to bring it up to use it against the forgiven to yourself, the person forgiven, or any one else ever again. The very pursuit of a divorce is using the thing supposedly forgiven as a basis for further action. If we have forgiven someone, we have chosen not to treat them in light of that sin, and therefore cannot pursue a divorce because of it.

Answering Common Objections

The objections that could be offered are numerous, but most are very similar. I will anticipate a few of them here.

1. Christ gave permission for divorce in cases of adultery.

Answer: First, it is not clear that Christ is giving permission for divorce, as much as he is giving a concession to divorce. Why a concession? Because your hearts are hard. Because you are unwilling to live in obedience to God in the matter of forgiveness. In other words, you can pursue a divorce, but in so doing you will reveal an unwillingness to live life God’s way. You will reveal that your heart is hard. God will certainly concede to let you live in such a state. But it is no the way he intended it to be.

2. Forgiveness does not mean you have to stay in the marriage.

Answer: It depends on what one thinks forgiveness is. As defined above, forgiveness is a choice about how we will treat someone else. Our forgiveness is modeled on the forgiveness of God in Christ. When God forgives us, he does not break the relationship. He does not say “I forgive you, but I can never have a close relationship with you again” (cf. Sande, The Peacemaker, p. 202). He forgives us and restores us. It is true that there are temporal consequences of sin. The old example is getting drunk and losing your leg in a car accident. Forgiveness won’t bring your leg back. But it won’t cost you your relationship with God either.

It seems when you talk to people about this, there is one stock example that frequently gets used, especially among the fraternity of pastors: “When the church treasurer steals money, you forgive him, but you restore him to his position as treasurer.” This analogy is used to say “When your spouse commits adultery, you forgive him or her, but you don’t have to restore them to the previous position of spouse.” Really? Let’s examine the analogy.

However, I would suggest this analogy fails because it addresses a different type of relationship. Church treasurer is not a life-time commitment (or at least its not supposed to be). Spouse is a life time commitment made before God, your spouse, and others. I remind couples “When you got married, it was a promise for better or worse, until death do you part. This is the worse. Keep your promise for God’s sake.”

This analogy also fails in its outcome. When a treasurer steals money and then repents, he is not disciplined from the church. (At least he should not be.) His privileges may change, but his membership in the body does not, yes, even must not change. In marriage, an adulterous spouse will reap consequences. They will always live with the knowledge of what they did, and the pain that it caused. Their family will suffer. They will see the hurt and distrust in their spouse’s eyes. They may have to live without certain things, such as computer access or cell phone use, if those things were used in the commission of adultery. They may have to break off friendships if those friendships helped to enable the sin, either by encouraging it or covering for it. But how, in the name of “Christ’s love for the church” and “forgive as God forgave you” can they be cut out of the relationship? How can one say “I have forgiven” when their actions demonstrate that they still hold the sin against the other party? God does not do that us, so how can we do that to others?

The truth is that failure to divorce does not mean that there are no consequences. In fact, it heightens the consequences in some ways. But since God’s forgiveness does not remove us from the relationship with him, our forgiveness cannot insist that a person be removed from the relationship with us.

To this teaching, I have heard one good response. When confronted with this teaching, I was told, “I am not God.” That gets to the heart of the matter. Perhaps the real reason for the lack of forgiveness and restoration is an unwillingness to be as radical in the treatment of others as God is in his treatment of us.

3. It is unkind to ask an “innocent partner” to stay in a marriage with a spouse who committed adultery.

Answer: Why? It is unkind to ask an adulterous spouse to cut off a relationship that they greatly enjoy and receive benefit from? Of course not. Nor is it unkind or unmerciful to call an “innocent spouse” to obey God’s command to love as Christ loved the church and forgive as God forgave us. Calling people to obedience is never unkind. In fact, failure to address the underlying causes of selfishness and lack of Christlikeness is unkind. It allows people to go on living with what may very well be an idol of “ideal marriage” in their heart, driving their decisions.

Furthermore, our obsession with comfort and lack of suffering is an epidemic that drives our decisions. Sin brings suffering. Sin in marriage is no different. Whether the sin is adultery, or anger, or selfishness, or one of the multitude of others sins, it will bring suffering in the marriage. To pursue divorce to avoid suffering with a repentant adulterous spouse is to refuse to follow in the footsteps of Christ.

In what must be some kind of divine irony, 1 Peter 2:21 begins a section on Christ’s suffering for us leaving us an example. The very next passage begins with “in the same way” and talks about marriage. In other words, Peter connects Christ’s suffering with marriage, even with disobedient spouses. The truth is that marriage involves suffering, both for my sin and the sin of my spouse. Avoiding suffering should not be our goal, just as avoiding suffering was not the goal of Jesus.

By looking to Jesus, we can teach that suffering is a part of life whether in marriage and family, church, community, or any other sphere. Pursuing a divorce to avoid the suffering of having to “look at and live with my spouse” is failing to follow the example of Jesus. Restoring the relationship and suffering with your spouse is the way to follow Christ’s example.

4. By divorce, one can get away from the problems, such as daily having to look at my spouse.

Answer: No, you will not get away from it. You will wake up every morning in an empty bed and be reminded why you are there alone. You will trade the kids back and forth, a constant reminder of the problem. Indeed, you will simply exchange one set of problems for another set of problems.


Christ’s love for the church is unconditional, effectual, and purifying. It covers sinfulness and restores the relationship. It refuses to treat us as if we had sinned. It offers complete and unconditional forgiveness. It is true that it does not take away temporal consequences. But neither does staying in a marriage in which your spouse committed adultery. Building the marriage is Christ’s plan, even when there is sin.

Christ’s love for the church calls us to an uncommon demonstration of marital love.God’s command of forgiveness calls us to an uncommon and unexpected demonstration of marital love. Those “innocent parties” in adultery have a unique opportunity to demonstrate the love of Christ and the work of God in their lives. They can preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that others will never be able to.

May our marriages be about the gospel, more than they are about our comfort. May our lives be about God and our spouse, rather than about ourselves.


Dave said...

Please correct me if I am wrong, but is this your position/conclusion: Jesus is also making a concession for those who are hardhearted.

I take you also to mean that no obedience believer would take advantage of this concession. Is that also your position?

Something I don't think you addressed, but what are the ramifications of your position here to the matter of church discipline. That is, if remarrying after pornea-associated divorce is disobedience, then is it disciplineable?

Larry said...

To try to answer briefly (this may redefine "brief"), the context of Matthew 19 is the Pharisees asking about the Law, and Jesus is answering about the Law. He is also answering Pharisees who themselves are hard-hearted and not looking to live in grace. His exception for porneia is a concession for the hardness of heart.

So I would not say "Jesus is also making a concession for those who are hard-hearted." I think even the "porneia" exception is with respect to those who are hard-hearted. In other words, the reason they want to divorce, even in porneia, is because they are hard-hearted and therefore unwilling to forgive and love as Christ loved the church. (Of course in light of an earlier discussion, they did not fully understand all that, but we do.) I would use the example, does Christ “divorce” us for our sins against him, even when we stumble into idolatry such as greed or covetousness? My answer is no (unless you are Arminian … which you aren’t, are you???) When we repent he takes us back into full fellowship and relationship. Our marriages are to be patterned on that example.

If the forbidding of divorce is a concession for hardness of heart under the Law, how much more is it egregious under grace? Now that we have the example of Christ’s love and God’s forgiveness, we are even more bound to find it in our hearts to love and forgive.

The fact that a divorce is for porneia may remove the stigma of adultery in remarriage. But it does not, IMO, remove the connection with hardness of heart.

I do tend to think that no obedient believer would take advantage of this concession. I know that sounds harsh, but I struggle to figure out how obedience to the command to love as Christ loved the church and forgive as God forgave us is compatible with "I'm too hurt to live with you anymore." I think hurt and pain cannot be justifications for hardness of heart (and I think you would agree at least with that much).

It is, however, of sufficient lack of clarity however that I would not pursue church discipline against an "innocent party” who chose to divorce (or a repentant guilty party for that matter). However, I would strongly counsel against pursuing divorce on the grounds of Eph 5:25 and 4:32.

Ultimately, they won't answer to me. And again, it is of sufficient dispute so as not to bring church discipline for that alone. If there were manifestations of an overt lack of forgiveness, such as retaliation, etc, that may be grounds for church discipline. In a case of pursuing a divorce that did not involve porneia, church discipline would be more cut and dried.

With respect to remarriage, my position is slightly different than many in “our circles.” I believe any single person can be a candidate for marriage, assuming their spiritual "house is in order." This means all sin problems, such as led to the divorce or marital conflict, must have been taken care of with genuine fruits of repentance manifest.

The question of adultery in remarriage is more difficult given several what seem to be conflicting passages, and the exception clause. In short, I take 1 Cor 7:27-28 to express the possibility of remarriage without sin. I think the "loosed" of v. 27 must be loosed from a divorce, based on the parallelism there. It seems to me that Paul is saying remarriage after being loosed is not a sin. The only way to avoid that that I can see is to say that the "released" is not a divorce, something that seems to violate the parallelism. I also take the idea of "better to marry than to burn" as a consideration. Remarriage may not be the best option, but I think it is a legitimate option in some cases. I think there are many factors, including the possibility of reconciliation (i.e., has the other spouse remarried? Is there a chance for reconciliation?)

I would marry divorced people in limited circumstances. I have done it for people who got saved here after their divorce

As I recall, Minnick’s position is somewhat similar except that he takes the exception to be for infidelity during betrothal (as Piper does). He does not forbid remarriage, though he will not perform it. He does say that he will not pursue church discipline if an “innocent party” remarries.

Admittedly, I have changed my position on this in the last year or so. But Wenham did it, and Ryrie did too I think. … Rogier, Wenham, and Ryrie … What a trio.

Jon from Reidville, SC said...


Thanks for the great article. I am saving it in my divorce file. I really liked your rap-up: I thought it was well stated.

I was a bit confused at the beginning when you were talking about divorce and suddenly you were talking about remarriage.

Overall you really hit the key point: that divorce is incompatible with Christ-like love, forgiveness and restoration of an erring brother.

One thing I will also throw out to you if you go back to 1 Cor 7: How should we treat an unrepentant brother/sister involved in continuing adultery? How does 1 Cor 6:9-11 and 1 Cor 5:10-11 play into this discussion?

I look forward to your continued thoughts on this difficult subject. BTW, do you have any thoughts on the effect of divorce/remarriage on eligibility for church leadership?

Dave said...

Wow, that was a long answer to what I thought were simple yes-no questions.

If I understood correctly, the answer is yes, Jesus is continuing the concession for hardheartedness. And, you don't believe an obedient believer would do this, but you wouldn't push for church discipline.

At least one problem, it seems to me, is that the text is addressing remarriage, not simply divorce. It seems that, in your original article, you may see this differently, but I am not sure how you can. It can't be adultery simply to divorce someone, so the point must be about the remarriage following divorce. It is adultery except in cases of pornea.

The point being, this text isn't providing a concession for divorce. It is providing an exception for remarriage. The most one can argue from v. 9, it seems to me, is that the very narrow restriction placed on remarriage is a disincentive regarding divorce (which seems to be the disciples' understanding, v. 10).

One could argue that this would actually make a better case for the Bible's position against divorce, i.e., that it is so far from God's intention that an unjustified one bars one from remarriage.

FWIW, in almost 25 years of pastoral ministry I can't recall one time where someone divorced a repentant spouse following adultery. So, along with my disagreement with the exegetical issues of the text, I am not sure about the pastoral need to stigmatize something that the Lord allows (even if it is a concession).

Larry said...


Good to hear from you.

I think an unrepentant adulterer is acting like an unbeliever, and is subject to church discipline. Any further contact after church discipline is for the purpose of restoration. 1 Cor 5:9-11 prevents just getting together to get together. 1 Cor 6:9-11 has the idea of repentance at which time they are restored.

On leadership, I am not convinced that the Bible completely precludes divorced men from leadership. I believe the qualification is "blameless." The following list are examples of what it means to be blameless. I can imagine a scenario in which a divorced person could be blameless, though it would be rare.

Now, it's my turn to be confused. I am not sure what you are referring to about switching to remarriage. Where did I switch? I could have spent more time editing to be sure, but I am not sure which part you are talking about.

Larry said...


Sorry to be long-winded.

I may have misunderstood you originally. You are correct in your restatement. (Boy, that was easier than my earlier explanation.)

I do think the text is addressing both divorce and remarriage. I think Christ is saying that divorce is conceded only because of hardness of heart, though a divorce in the case of porneia removed the stigma of adultery from remarriage. So perhaps we do not disagree on that as much as it might appear. Or perhaps I don’t understand what you are saying.

Here’s my question: It seems you are connecting the exception only with remarriage, saying that divorce is permissible in more cases than porneia, but remarriage is possible only with porneia? First, am I understanding that correctly? Second, isn’t that a minority position? I think most connect the exception clause with both, though it has been a while so I may be not recalling correctly.

Do you believe that “not under bondage” in 1 Cor 7:15 is freedom to remarry? I have taken it as free to remarry, meaning that porneia is not the only exception for remarriage.

Lastly, your comment about stigmatizing something the Lord allows is a bit unclear to me. If the passage is not providing a concession for divorce (as you argue), then what is the Lord allowing that I am stigmatizing? Do you believe that Christ was allowing for divorce that does not involve hardness of heart? Perhaps I am misunderstanding something here.

In any event, my less than clear writing aside, my main point in writing this was to argue that pursuing divorce from a repentant spouse is incompatible with loving like Christ loved the church and forgiving as God forgave us. I would like my experience in pastoral ministry to be as yours.

I might end up deleting this post and rewriting it to make it more clear on this. The exegetical details were kind of a side issue to the point at hand, so I didn't put much time into clarifying that section. I wanted to focus on love and forgiveness in the aftermath of adultery.

Dave said...

Yes, I believe there can be divorce without remarriage (cf. 1 Cor 7:10-11).

I don't see v. 9 granting a concession for divorce simply because that isn't what it is addressing. It is a statement about remarriage after divorce. The kernal of the sentence is: "whoever divorces his wife...and marries another woman commits adultery." The exception clause functions as a qualifier on that statement. It can't mean "whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, commits adultery." Divorce doesn't equal adultery. So, it seems to me that v. 9 can't be a concession to divorce. V. 8 mentions the OT concession, but Jesus isn't conceding divorce in v. 9.

I use the word stigmatize because you argued that no obedient believer would do it and that it is the evidence of hard heartedness. That's putting a stigma on pornea based divorce and remarriage. It is saying, in effect, that if you were godly and obedient you wouldn't not be doing what the Lord gives permission to do.

Keith said...

Further stigmatization comes from refusing to marry those who are not subject to discipline for their marriage.

Travis H. said...

My wife has committed adultery in two one-night stands and two several month relationships. She has shown true repentance in each situation and I have forgiven her as I do not see how I can withhold forgiveness since I have been forgiven by God. If she does it again, I am not so confident that I am bound to continue to forgive. Does habitual adultery show a person is not truly repentant or does it mean a person is just a weak Christian? Where do you draw the line? Thanks for the excellent post. This has been your best ever in my opinion.

Larry said...


Thanks. I think I better understand what you are saying now. I am not sure I fully agree, but I appreciate the comments.


There are a number of situations where I wouldn't marry a couple but would not discipline them from the church. I don't think that is stigmatizing them, though I am not sure I have a problem with that. There are some situations that should be stigmatized, it seems to me.


That is a difficult situation. There is some discussion about repentance and return to sin. I am not sure I know exactly where that line is.

Anonymous said...


Good article. We must also recognize the fact that God never permits divorce on the grounds of insanity, illegal activity, drug/alcohol abuse, or for the simple fact of "well, I'm tired of this relationship." The reason I list these, above, is because I've dealt with every situation like this. Many today think that if their spouse is on drugs, then it's ok to divorce them. Or, their thinking may be like this, "Well, he can't keep a job - so, the marriage is over." All this thinking is strickly wrong.

I tend to believe that God does permit divorce - on the grounds of adultery. This has been my position for years. Interesting - though - as some have commented - the Bible never allows for remarriage. I personally think that if someone gets a divorce - they shouldn't remarry.

Lastly, how do you council someone who has a spouse that has just packed up and left the house, leaving an innocent spouse at home? Our state laws will grant a divorce - even if a godly spouse refuses - technically, they are still divorced - agains their own will. How do you counsel someone like this?

Mark Ward
First Baptist Church
Tipton, IN

David T. said...

If a spouse leaves you for another person I think this would indicate they are unsaved and so then divorce would be totally appropriate, because the unbelieving spouse is entitled to leave and Paul says that the believing spouse is free in those cases.
There are many offenses perhaps that would indicate a spouse is unsaved, or at least, a tare. Divorce and remarriage would be OK in that circumstance.