A. Ralph Johnson


Divorce is a serious problem of our times.  God hates divorce (Mal 2:16).  Preachers have contributed to the problem by compromising the scriptures to please the ears of people.  The world mocks the will of God concerning both the commitments made to marriage, and adulterous behavior. 


In response to this, some have taken the position of the opposite extreme, that God does not permit remarriage of divorced people, even when the cause was fornication.  “What saith the scripture?”  (Gal. 4:30).  


Two passages in the New Testament provide a clear exception to the general prohibition against divorce.


Matthew 5:31-32.

 31 It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: 32 But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.


Matthew 19:2-11

2 And great multitudes followed him; and he healed them there. 3 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? 4 And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, 5 And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? 6 Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. 7 They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? 8 He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery. 10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given.


Nothing could say it much plainer.  I find it utterly impossible to confront these scriptures and honestly deny an exception for fornication.




1.      “The exception opens the floodgates of divorce.  We must stop this terrible situation.”



We have no right to change God’s teachings to justify humanly devised solutions.   The present situation is not caused by permitting the exception God has allowed but because people have failed obey the scriptures.


Denying the exception and devising our own solution actually compounds the problem. It adds to the stress situations that tempt people to give up on God’s leaders.  It undermines our credibility with those who know the Bible. It makes us look foolish and arbitrary, undermining people’s confidence in our judgment and flies in the face of the wisdom of God.  God knows where to draw the line better than we do. 


2.      “Some passages mention no exceptions.  They teach that the person who marries while their mate is alive is guilty of adultery.”



It is not valid to pit scripture against scripture. All that any passage contains is true but no one passage may contain all of the truth on a subject. Matthew, Mark and Luke are called “synoptic gospels because they are similar.  Each contributes part of the story of the Life of Jesus. We must beware of the assumptions by critics that the accounts are contradictory.  Each supplies something not included in the others.


The same is true of the statements by Paul.  Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would teach the disciples all things, bring to their remembrance what he said and guide them into all truth (John 14:26; 16:13).  These were not their private interpretations (2Peter 1:20,21).


3.      “The passages in Matthew were comments about the meaning of the Old Testament.  They had nothing to do with things after Pentecost.”



The “Sermon On The Mount” contrasts what Moses said with the teachings of Jesus.  Moses said, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement.”  In contrast, Jesus said, “but I say unto you, whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causes her to commit adultery.”  Likewise, in Matt. 19, they cite Moses, but Jesus gave his own conditions.  It is nonsense to say that everything Jesus said is abolished.  Jesus himself said, “The words that I speak unto you, they shall judge you in the last day” (John 6:63).  Again, he said, “...my words shall not pass away” (Matt. 24:35).


4.      “The exception refers to conditions for divorce, not remarriage.”



It says, “except for fornication and shall marry another” (Matt 5:32, 19:9).  This is the grammatically correct way to state the condition.  If fornication were the only grounds of divorce there was no need of adding the phrase concerning remarriage.  If fornication were the only grounds for divorce, it is strange that Paul does not mention that when he says that if the wife departs she should remain unmarried or return to her husband.  The divorce itself would be adultery.  Rather, it looks like her remarriage to another would be the final break in the marriage relationship.  One does not commit adultery merely by divorce.  Adultery is only if there is unfaithfulness or remarriage in the absence of divorce for fornication.  No other reading of these passages makes any sense.


5.      “The exception applies only to sexual sins of unmarried people.  After one is married he cannot commit fornication and there can be no exception.”



Why in the world would God view sin before marriage as more serious than unfaithfulness during marriage?  Pursuing such reasoning to its logical conclusion makes sexual activity before marriage grounds for divorce and remarriage, but once married, a mate could be unfaithful with no way out for the innocent party, even though they might be exposed to a deadly disease.


The Greek word, “porneia,” translated “fornication,” has reference to sexual sin in general, whether in or out of marriage.


The second edition of Arndt and Gingrich’s lexicon, p. 693 says it means, “prostitution, unchastely, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.”  Then, among other things it includes,  “ 1...Of the sexual unfaithfulness of a married woman, Mat. 5:32; 19:9...”


Thayer’s Lexicon, p.532 says, “a. properly of elicit sexual intercourse in general...used of adultery, Mt. 5:32; 19:9.”


In the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint) used by the Apostles, we find this word used to describe elicit sexual acts of married women. 


Jeremiah 3:1 They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man's, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot [#2181 zanah = LXX ekporneuo] with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the LORD. 

6 The LORD said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot [#H2181 zanah = LXX porneuo]. 7 And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it.  8 And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot [#H2181 zanah = LXX porneuo] also.

14 Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I am married unto you:


Some argue that there are places where fornication and adultery are both mentioned in the same verse and thus they cannot mean the same thing.  In response, we did not say that the two words were totally identical in meaning but neither are they totally different.  Fornication deals with sexual sins in general (such as homosexuality --Jude 7) while adultery is explicitly dealing with the violation of the marriage relationship.  The words are used together sometimes because they stress different factors.  This is not unusual.  For example, in Rom. 1:29-31; 2Tim. 3:2-4; Col. 3:5, 8 we have lists of sins that often overlap in areas (such as anger, wrath and malice).


  1. “If Jesus meant adultery, why didn’t he say that instead of fornication?”


ANSWER: Because “adultery” would have been too narrow.  An unmarried person cannot commit adultery.  Jesus wanted to include situations prior to marriage.  For example, an unmarried person in an incestuous situation (1Cor. 5:1).


  1. “Fornication only has reference to incestuous marriage to close kin.”


ANSWER:   Again, incest is only one of many sexual acts called,  “fornication.”


  1. “Fornication only has reference to infidelity during the engagement period under Jewish law (such as Joseph’s decision about Mary).  After they were fully married divorce was not allowed.”


ANSWER:   This again is an unfounded assumption.  Why would it require a person to endure the horrors of a harlot mate yet be freed if the person had committed fornication before marriage?  Even God divorced for such conduct (Jeremiah 3:8).  Jesus didn’t just say these things for Matthew’s Jewish readers, and even the Jews would not have understood him as restricting “fornication” to engagement.




The exception from guilt of adultery, when the previous marriage was dissolved for the cause of fornication, is clear and decisive.  A person who puts away his wife for any other cause, shares the guilt of her adultery if the mate remarries.  A person who remarries after a divorce for any other cause, commits adultery.  The person who marries someone who has been divorced for any other cause, likewise commits adultery.


Jeremiah 3 (see above).  God put away his wife, Israel, for committing adultery.  The Church is now the bride of Christ. (Rev 21:2, 9; Eph 5:25-27, 32)




After careful consideration I believe they may.


In the first place, “guilt” is often a shared thing.  A person sometimes leaves, determined to hold out until their mate turns to someone else so they will be free to marry again.  This can be a powerful pressure tactic (1Cor. 7:5).  In so doing they may “cause” their mate to commit adultery and thus share the guilt (Matt. 5:31, 32).  


Likewise, the problem of a person who has sinned and repented but is now divorced and the other party has remarried becomes impossible to bring a reconciliation.  God called that an “abomination” (Deut. 24:4).  Is there no remedy, even after repentance? Must he remain forever unmarried and “burn”?  (1Cor. 7:2)  To avoid fornication the solution is marriage.


A careful examination reveals that Matthew 19 does not teach that if one commits fornication, causing the marriage breakup, they again sin by re-marrying.  It only teaches that re-marriage for any other cause than fornication is adultery.  Fornication is the only grounds for divorce with the right of re-marriage. Once a divorce on these grounds has been finalized, both parties are free to remarry.  In the absence of fornication, neither is free to remarry because it could be solved by returning to each other. 


What then does it mean when it says that anyone who marries her that is put away, commits adultery? (Mat. 19:9; 5:32)  Note that this is all a part of the same sentence that includes the exception.  “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery.”  He is only declaring adultery for re-marriage where there has been no fornication.  In fornication situations the guilt is established, and upon divorce the former marriage ties are severed.


Why does the passage not repeat the exception specifically with reference to the woman who was put away?  The rule of conservation of speech does not require it.  The rest of the sentence is dependent upon this clause for understanding.  To require the repetition makes it unnecessarily redundant.


Are we saying that one can commit fornication in order to break up the marriage and go Scott-free?  Not at all.  The person who does so is accountable for that sin.  He must repent, which includes regret for having done it and a determination never to do it again, even if faced with similar circumstances.  Consequences will follow in other ways, just like with David and Bathsheba, but even there, God forgave and continued the second union.


Since the church may act in such matters, it would be proper for them to require some “works suitable to repentance” (Luke 3:8; Mat. 18:17)--perhaps even returning and making up the damage to the injured mate if neither of them has remarried.




It is sad that distortions of these passages, in well-meaning attempts to curb rampant divorce, has created a prison of oppressive guilt from which even innocent people are unable to escape.  They are locked into relationships with perverted, abusive and ungodly mates, doomed to years of loneliness, struggling to care for themselves and their children while the mate goes on his way and remarries.  From the beginning, this also was not so with God.  The exception clause was provided because of hard-hearted mates.  There are still a lot of those around today.


Some of the loudest and most dogmatic opponents of the exception clause that I have known have been men who cheat. It is not that they care what God said but is a means of controlling their wives while they sleep around.


Another group that I have known are wives who use it to justify their enabling role for their irresponsible husbands--even if they are beaten or their own kids are sexually abused!  “Poor me.”  “There is nothing I can do.”  “Look at me the martyr.”  “I am better than other women because I obey my husband no mater how unfaithful or abusive.” 


Worse yet, I sometimes hear church leaders (or wives of church leaders) laying guilt trips on women that the “poor guy” is crying his eyes out.  She, his wife, ought to be more  “Christian” and forgive the poor guy.  It is easy to decide how things should be for the other person when they didn’t have to suffer the indignities.


The guy goes out, gets AIDS or some other disease, comes home stinking drunk and beats her up, turns the children’s lives into a living hell night after night.  He gets some other woman pregnant and then has to spend family finances paying for the kid.  He is verbally abusive and blows what little money they have on booze, prostitutes and drugs.  Yet, she must be a submissive Christian wife!  I don’t buy it.




Some maintain that repentance requires that we insist on divorce from a subsequent marriage.  The incestuous man in 1Cor. 5 is cited as an example.  It appears that he was required to give her up.  However, we don’t know that the man was actually married.  If he married her, would he have been permitted to keep her?


Under Ezra, marriages with foreigners were broken up (Ezra 10:3, 19) because they had been prohibited.  However, in the New Testament marriages with non-believers, while prohibited (1Cor. 7:39), were not required to be broken (1Cor. 7:14-15).


Others maintain that a second marriage should not be broken up as part of repentance.  A second marriage is still valid.  In John 4 Jesus recognized that the Samaritan woman had “five husbands.” Jesus did not question the validity of her other marriages or require that she return to her first husband.


David’s marriage to Bathsheba was recognized as legitimate even though he had been previously married. He was not required to divorce her.  Their son, Solomon, was accepted by God and was recognized as legitimate heir to the throne and ancestor of Jesus. 


My natural reaction is that people should not be permitted to get away with their sin by being accepted in an illicit marriage.  I have actually had people ask, “Why can’t we go ahead and marry and then repent?”  However, we must realize that nobody “gets away” with anything with God.  God may forgive, as with David and Bathsheba, but He may also extract consequences as with loss of the child and the continued problems that plagued David.  I will repay says the Lord (Rom. 12:19).


Jesus spoke on the basis of marriage and remarriage but he never actually said that a second marriage must be broken up.  We need to be cautious about going beyond what is written (1Cor. 4:6). In leaving the consequences to God, we are not indicating approval of what was done.  We should avoid playing God and stick to just doing as we’re told. 




1 Corinthians 7:15 But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace.


The question here is whether “not under bondage” [#1402 “doulo”] means they are free to remarry.  The argument is that 1Corinthians 7:39 uses “bound” in the sense of being bound in marriage.  However, upon examination of that passage there is serious question about the claim.


1 Corinthians 7:39 The wife is bound [#1210 “deo”] by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord.


1 Corinthians 7:27  27 Art thou bound [#1210 “deo”] unto a wife? seek not to be loosed. Art thou loosed from a wife? seek not a wife.


This is essentially the same as found in Romans 7:2:


Romans 7:2   For the woman which hath an husband is bound [#1210 “deo”] by the law to her husband so long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.


First, we note that the Greek word used in 1Cor 7:27, 39 for bound in marriage (#1210 “deo”) is different than in 1Corinthians 7:15 (#1402 “doulo”), which suggests bondage as a slave (Acts 7:6). 


Secondly, no place in the text does it actually state anything about the right to remarry.  One has to insert that assumption.  “Not under bondage” may only permit divorce, as suggested in verse 11 between believers.


1 Corinthians 7:11   But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.


Thirdly, even the passages cited about being “bound” to a wife indicate it is for life (1Cor. 7:39; Rom 7:2).


Finally, Jesus specified fornication as the only exception allowing remarriage. Can that be stretched to include desertion?


It may be objected that this places an unfair burden upon the Christian.  I think not.  It is highly likely that soon the unbeliever will become involved in a fornication relationship which then releases the believer.  Or, the unbeliever may choose to reconcile, as in 7:11, which places no more burden than if a believer divorces a believer.




The condition for remaining in the marriage is, “...if he be pleased to dwell with her” (1 Corinthians 7:13).  That means something better than wanting to keep her as a slave.  We are called to peace (1Cor. 7:15).  Christians are not bound to remain and take abuse, whether he professes to be a Christian or not.  Indeed, if a man doesn’t provide for his own he has denied the faith and is worse than an infidel (1Tim 5:8).  1Cor. 7:10 admonishes them not to depart but 7:11 seems to recognize that some circumstances will result in divorce, in which case they are to remain unmarried or be reconciled.  This leaves the door open to resolve the situation so long as one of the parties does not turn to someone else. 




A Christian should marry “only in the Lord” (1Cor. 7:39).  This avoids a lot of the pitfalls resulting in these situations. 


If a Christian is married to an unbeliever who is willing to dwell in peace, she should not leave him (1Cor. 7:12-14; 2Cor 6:14-17). If he will not live in peace, let him depart, she is not bound.


A wife should not leave her husband.  However, if she leaves she should remain unmarried or return to her husband (1Cor. 7:10, 11).  This assumes other reasons than fornication. 


If he is unfaithful, she is free to put it behind her and begin a new life.  She is free to remarry.  


Marriage may be broken by adultery.  The sin was in committing the act that destroyed the marriage.  Once the marriage is ended on these grounds (with a writing of divorcement) there is no sin in remarriage. 


Parting caution: 

While God provides an exception to permit divorce and remarriage under special circumstances, it is important to realize that there are serious risks.  Marriages of divorced people have a much higher failure rate.  Part of this may be pre-existing problems that contributed to failure of the first marriage.  Those who enter a new relationship may still have fears and conflicts from the previous abuse or stresses.  Previous sexual feelings and experiences may result in negative comparisons or jealous feelings.  If there were children the previous parent may continue to be a disturbing element and there may be serious problems of the new mate and the children accepting and adjusting to each other.  Another problem is that having lived alone for some time, there are usually stresses in learning to adjust which may not be as patiently accepted as in a first marriage.  And of course, where there have been previous sexual relationships there may also be exposure to sexual diseases. 


These are not insurmountable but they are caution lights which must be carefully considered.