Friday, November 4, 2011

Discussing the Dreaded "Exception Clause" Within the Context of Church Family

When our church family gathers as a large group, one of the things we usually do is study through a section of scripture. We are currently working our way through the book of Matthew. This past Sunday we began discussing Matthew chapter 19.

Studying through Matthew 19 means dealing with the dreaded "exception clause." I'm referring to Matthew 19:9 were Jesus says, "And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery." (exception clause emphasized)

The meaning of the exception clause has been argued by Christians for many years. You've likely had the discussion yourself. Although I personally hold to the betrothal view, my point in this post is not to go down that path. Instead, I simply want to talk about the discussion we had.

As we gathered, we had about twenty people in the room. At least one-half have been directly or indirectly involved in and/or impacted by divorce. Therefore, this was not some sort of theoretical talk. It was real.

The body-life context of the discussion was critical. We all know one another well. We have solid, deep relationships. We trust one another. It's not perfect, but we are a family. Therefore, as we began to talk the entire atmosphere was one of grace and love. At the same time, we desired to seek God's truth and avoid falling into some sort of postmodern interpretive pit "just to make everyone happy."

We talked for quite a while about various aspects of marriage, divorce, God's desire for marriage, God's thoughts on divorce, what Moses meant and did not mean, what the exception clause may mean, what Christians should do now who have been divorced, what Christians should do now who have remarried after divorce, and what Christians should do now who are struggling in their marriages.

This passage could have led to one of two negative outcomes. First, we could have simply glossed it over, avoiding it to "keep the peace." Second, we could have argued over it in a nasty way. I'm happy to say that neither happened.

Instead, in the context of church family, we were able to talk about this hard passage in love, grace, and mercy. There was no judgment from any of us. We desired to see the truth and apply it from here forward.

It was beautiful to watch the body in motion. With various people adding to the conversation, different points of view and concerns came to the surface. Each person who spoke added a little bit to what we were all learning. We all gained in Christ from one another.

One example of this comes to mind. After I talked about why I hold to the betrothal view, a good friend of mine cross-referenced to Matthew 1:18-25. This is the passage where Joseph is betrothed to Mary and finds out that she is pregnant. The beauty was that this brother of mine added to the conversation in a way that I didn't. I hadn't even thought of that passage.

We as a group were also able to help some within the family deal with tough questions related to marriage and divorce. Many Christians struggle with their pasts related to this. Within the context of love and acceptance, we were able to ask hard questions and try to help these folks apply these.

I would not want to discuss this passage in any other setting. I was reminded again how we all need each other. We need one another not just for encouragement, but also to help one another determine the meaning of scripture. Our church family context enabled us to delve into this tough passage, dig for truth, dare to apply it, and lovingly encourage one another in the process.

My hope for you is that you have this sort of opportunity to share body life in a way that everyone is built up in Christ.


Steve Scott said...


As one who was divorced not long before becoming a Christian (she left me), I can relate. Within the first year of being a Christian, I was exposed to three radically different (and mutually exclusive!) views of marriage, divorce and remarriage, two of those views coming directly from churches I attended.

Some things I have learned over time are that Jesus came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, so he didn't address these issues in the context of Gentile culture like Paul did. Also, it only recently struck me that the "exception clause" deals ONLY with a husband who divorces his wife, and not a situation where the wife deserts him. Another is that there is the tragedy of too many people basing eternal destination on your view of this issue, especially if you act(ed) upon it. Later on my previous divorce became an issue when I became a deacon in the church I was attending at the time.

Marriage, divorce and remarriage is a tough issue that is emotionally and theologically charged. I'm glad you have the opportunity to discuss this with your church family.

Eric said...


This certainly is a difficult issue. You make an excellent point that some Christians turn this into a salvation level discussion. I'm not sure why they do that.

As for our church family, it was very edifying to have the discussion, hearing differing perspectives. They key to the whole thing was the context of the relationships in Christ.

Steve Scott said...


It's a "salvation level discussion" becuase fornicators and adulterers shall not inherit the kingdom of heaven. And determining who is and who is not an adulterer is based upon one's view of M/D/R doctrines. For many people it's as black and white as anything there is and "getting it right" is far more important than mercy and compassion.

Eric said...


This reminds me of the issue of rank ordering sins. It seems like the church faults on both extremes. Either divorce and remarriage is no big deal or it's the worst thing that a person can do. I wish we could, instead, simply try to understand how Jesus sees the issue.

Xavier Johnson said...

Every time adultery through divorce and remarriage (ATDR) is addressed in Scripture the Mosaic Law is either mentioned or connected to the discussion. ATDR is born from the Mosaic Law - a Law which those in Christ are not under (Romans 7:1-6). According to the Law, it is possible to divorce and remarry without the penalty of adultery under a very narrow condition (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). For those who do not qualify for this narrow exception in the Law, they are adulterers under the Law.

Regarding Joseph, his choice to divorce Mary was unlawful. In the Law there was no provision for divorce when a spouse was unfaithful during betrothal. The only provision in such cases was death, due to the fact that Mary did not cry out to Joseph (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). But, Joseph did not want "to make her a public example" (Matthew 1:19). So, he decided to divorce her secretly. Has anyone ever heard of a secret divorce? Is there such a thing? No in both cases! So, why would Joseph divorce her secretly, if it were lawful for him to do so openly? Because it was NOT lawful for him to do so; Mary was supposed to be stoned to death! And this explains why he was doing it secretly, because it was wrong because it was not permitted by Law.

As was said earlier in this blog, Jesus was ministering to Jews. However, what was left out of the discussion was the fact that Jesus was ministering to Jews who were under the Law - a Law that does not hold the power of sin and death over Christians (Romans 6:14). Hence, in 1 Corinthians 7:27-28, "Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned." There are two ways to be loosed from a wife: death and divorce. The topic of being loosed by death was already addressed earlier in verses 8-9. So, verses 27-28 deal with divorce, albeit without mentioning the words for divorce in Koine Greek.

At the end of the day, Jesus taught that we are to understand marriage in the way it is portrayed in Genesis prior to the fall regarding divorce: it doesn't exist. This is where we plant our flag. We don't look at exception clauses. We look at the seriousness of marriage with eyes wide open, and this is how we view the world.

However, we live in a fallen world. And our Father's word permits divorce and remarriage under a very narrow condition in the Law (Deuteronomy 24:1-4), because the world is fallen; our Father gave us the Law because of transgression (Galatians 3:19). Under our Father's grace, our Father's word allows for divorce and remarriage without penalty of sin in the New Testament with the understanding that our Father's law requires us to be married to our spouses until death (1 Corinthians 7:27-28, 39).

In terms of salvation, Jesus prefaced His famous "Sermon the Mount" with these words, among others, "Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven" (Matt 5:19). One of those commandments addresses divorce and remarriage and is found a little later on in Matt 5:31-32. So, Jesus did not say that those who break the least of the commandments (divorce and remarriage included) and teaches others to do so either go to hell, or do not inherit the kingdom. He said they "shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven".