Did Jesus allow divorce on the grounds of adultery?

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It is no surprise that divorce and remarriage are very common amongst people who do not know God. However, we have now reached the state where divorce and remarriage are as common inside the church as they are outside of it. This is because people are largely ignorant of what God has actually said about the issue. Unfortunately many preachers either just ignore the subject altogether for fear of offending people or they have never really understood it themselves.

Those few that do preach on it often take the view that Jesus did allow divorce and remarriage, but only when adultery has been committed. This view is obtained from one clause in the whole of scripture which is often called 'the exception clause'. If this clause was not there it would be very easy to see from the rest of scripture that God did not allow divorce and remarriage under any circumstances. But the clause is there and it colours how people interpret all the other scriptures regarding divorce and remarriage.

Therefore we need to carefully examine this clause and look at the context in which it was spoken. We also need to understand why this clause is not found anywhere else in scripture when divorce and remarriage are mentioned.

The clause is found in Matthew 19 at verse 9. (It is also found in Matthew 5 verse 32 but here Jesus is dealing with who caused the adultery rather than whether or not adultery allows for divorce and remarriage. As the clause is the same in each passage we will confine our comments to Matthew 19.)

I do not believe that Jesus said that divorce and remarriage could be obtained on the grounds of adultery. I do not believe that this is what Matthew 19 teaches and I will explain my reasoning below.

The question put to Jesus.

Let us examine Matthew 19 and the issues leading up to Jesus' statement regarding divorce and remarriage. Let us look at the background to, and the nature of, the question that the Pharisees put to Jesus. There were two schools of thought amongst the Jews regarding the Rabbis teaching on divorce.

There was Rabbi Shammai who claimed that the one and only ground for divorce was adultery by the wife. However, Moses commanded that any man or woman guilty of adultery must be stoned to death so Moses never allowed divorce on those grounds. (Lev. 20:10). As the view of Rabbi Shammai contradicted the law of Moses it is unlikely that the Pharisees held to this view, especially in view of the fact that they previously brought a woman to Jesus who had been caught in the act of adultery to see if He would allow her to be stoned to death. If some of them did hold to Rabbi Shammai's teaching they had put aside the teachings of Moses and followed the traditions of men – (see Mark 7: 7-8).

Then there was the teachings of Rabbi Hillel who expanded the list of reasons for divorce and taught that divorce was allowed but there had to be a reason for the divorce, no matter how trivial it may have been. This was the view that the Pharisees put to Jesus to test Him. They asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?" (V3).

(After Jesus' ministry there was another rabbi, Rabbi Akiba who taught that there didn’t need to be any reasons at all for the divorce. British law has followed the same path as these three rabbis, weakening the law until now there doesn't have to be any reason other than one or both partners desire it. This just goes to show that once a loophole is introduced, no matter how specific and restrictive, it gradually loosens until divorce is as commonplace as marriage. It is no wonder that divorce and remarriage are so rampant both inside and outside the church).

In effect the Pharisees were asking Jesus if He agreed with Rabbi Hillel or Rabbi Shammai. This was a clever trick (or so they thought). They were asking Jesus which of these viewpoints did He agree with. If He chose one rabbi over the other it would make Him extremely unpopular with the followers of the other rabbi. If He agreed with none of them that would be even worse as divorce was common in Israel and it would make Him even more unpopular with all the people. On top of that, the place where Jesus was at that time the question was put to Him was on the east bank of the Jordan in Herod's territory. Herod had already executed John the Baptist for denouncing his adulterous marriage to Herodias, who had been his brother Philip's wife. If Jesus had spoken against divorce then He was also speaking against Herod.

Why was the 'exception clause' not in the other gospels?

So, what are we to make of the so called 'exception clause, in Matthew 19? And why do we not find it in any of the other Gospels - most notably Mark 10: 11 - 12 and Luke 16:18? If there was no 'exception clause' in Matthew’s gospel we would have no problem believing that Jesus did not allow divorce and remarriage under any circumstances at all. But it is there so we need to understand it properly.

Does the omission of this 'exception clause' in Mark and Luke's gospel mean that those gospels were somehow incomplete? That they lacked some essential piece of information? After all, wasn't divorce and remarriage prevalent amongst their intended readers? Wouldn't it be vital for them to know that divorce and remarriage was allowed under certain circumstances? As the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of the Bible we can't believe that Mark and Luke just forgot to include the clause. So why did they deliberately omit this critical information? I will come back to this in a moment.

Misleading English translations.

I am aware that Jesus spoke in Aramaic but I think we can safely say that Matthew's recording of the events in Greek accurately capture the words used, were chosen with great care and inspired by the Holy Spirit. So we need to look at the language used and at what the Jews would have understood by what was said. Unfortunately many English translations are not accurate and are often misleading when it comes to Matthew 19.

When we look at Matthew 19 as written in the original Greek we find that neither Jesus or the Pharisees used the specific word wife. The Greek word used throughout Matthew 19 is γυνή (gunē). It is a word used throughout the new testament to just mean a woman of any description. It can, and often does, mean a wife but it does not exclusively only refer to a married woman. It can also mean a betrothed woman or a single woman, it all depends on the context. It is just the same as the way we use the word 'woman' today. This is an important distinction because it does not tie Jesus' answer exclusively to only wives and divorce.

Also, Jesus did not use the word divorce. The Pharisees did use the word when referring to the certificate of divorce that Moses allowed. The word used by the Pharisees in this context is ἀποστάσιον (apostasion). This word does specifically mean divorce and can mean no other. But Jesus never used the word 'apostasion' in Matthew 19 and certainly not in relation to the 'exception clause'. The word Jesus used was ἀπολύω (apoluō). Which is better translated as put away instead of divorce.

This is a general term. It has two elements to it. One is to break a bond and the other is to detain no longer. It is a word that is used to free a captive, i.e. to loose his bonds and give him liberty to depart, or grant freedom to a prisoner either by acquitting them of the crime, or by pardoning a guilty criminal, or to release a debtor by wiping out his debt, or dismiss a soldier from service. It can also mean divorce but, as with the word gunē, it can mean other things and isn't tied exclusively only to married people. Again, which meaning it has depends on the context. In English the word ‘wife’ can only ever relate to a woman who is correctly and fully married. And ‘divorce’ can only ever be the breaking of the marriage bond between two people who are correctly and fully married. But the Greek words used for wife and divorce in Matthew 19 can and do have other meanings.

It is clear that the Pharisees did intend these words to mean wife and divorce when they asked their question to Jesus. But because of the general nature of these words it does allow Jesus to include another aspect when it comes to the 'exception clause'.

What about the word adultery? Does the text specifically use this word? Yes it does, but not when Jesus talks about the 'exception' in Matthew 19:9. If we look at the whole sentence without the 'exception clause' it would read

And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his woman and shall marry another commits adultery (moichaō); and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery (moichaō).

The Greek word used twice in this sentence for adultery is μοιχάω (moichaō). It does specifically mean adultery – that is, sex between two people where at least one of them is married but not to the other person. In the 'exception clause' the Greek word used is πορνεία (porneia). So, If we read this sentence with the 'exception clause' put back in it would state:

And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his woman, except for (pornea), and shall marry another commits adultery (moichaō); and whoever marries her who is put away commits adultery (moichaō).

Pornea just means illicit sexual intercourse. It can mean adultery but again, it is a much more general term than adultery and is not exclusive only to illicit sex between married people. The fact that Jesus uses the word pornea in the 'exception clause' rather than the stronger term adultery (moichaō), which does occur twice in the same sentence, shows that He is thinking of something other than the more specific term for adultery.

Some translations do recognise that Jesus used a different word in the 'exception clause' but still want it to mean the same as adultery. Therefore they try and get round this by translating the word as marital unfaithfulness. But marital unfaithfulness is adultery – so why not just use that word instead? 

Some versions translate 'pornea' as 'sexual sin' or 'sexual immorality' but this just deepens the problem - as does the use of the word adultery. What constitutes sexual sin, sexual immorality or even adultery? Especially when Jesus said that just looking at someone else with lust in your eyes is adultery. This would mean that the 'exception clause' in Matthew 19 could just about apply to any married person and would allow divorce and remarriage for all. Which is clearly against the sanctity of marriage that God intended and why Jesus referred the Pharisees back to Genesis 2:24. Also, it would contradict Malachi 2:16 where God says that He hates divorce. 'Sexual immorality' can include a whole raft of things other than a physical union with people who are married but not to each other.

The King James version, translate pornea as the word fornication. Fornication usually refers to sex between two people where neither of them are married. So the passage would use the term except for fornication. I think that this is a much better translation.

Marriage is a covenant not a contract.

If we believe that Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery then it causes all sorts of problems. As stated above, Jesus answered the Pharisees by pointing them to the passage in Genesis 2: 24. As soon as God made Eve He constituted the laws governing marriage. That it should only ever be between one man and one woman for life. Divorce and remarriage was not allowed under any circumstances. God constituted this law before sin entered the world. By referring to this passage Jesus was stating that this law regarding marriage was still valid. God’s rule on marriage was binding on all people for all time.

The entrance of sin into the world has not changed it - not even sexual sin. Many commentators who believe that Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery state that adultery breaks the bond of marriage. They argue that when a person commits adultery they become one flesh with the person with whom they commit adultery. Therefore this negates, or dissolves, the original one flesh relationship with their spouse. However, they can't point to a single place in Scripture that confirms this belief other than Matthew 19. They engage in circular arguments. They use their existing belief that Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery to 'prove' that Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery.

Adultery may be a betrayal of the marriage bond but it does not cancel it. Marriage is more than a sexual union. It is a covenant relationship. A covenant is not a contract which can be dissolved if one or both parties fails to keep their side of the contract. A marriage covenant is an unconditional promise which must be kept even if no one else does. Couples who marry make a vow of commitment to each other. They make these vows before God. It does not matter whether or not they believe in God or speak the vows out loud. God holds every person who is correctly married in His sight to have made this covenant commitment. That is what God meant when He said that, "A man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife". They are committed and stuck to each other for life. God takes vows and covenants very seriously and does not let people out of them just because they fail to keep them.

Jesus confirmed this by stating "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder". He was stating that when a man and a woman get married correctly in God's sight God joins them together in a covenant relationship as one flesh for life. God will not ever consider that that union can be undone so no man should do so either. When Jesus said "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" He would have contradicted himself by then saying that the marriage union can be dissolved on the grounds of adultery. If a marriage can be dissolved because of adultery then man, by his sin, has put asunder what God has joined together.

Further absurdities and illogicalities.

Another problem that is raised if we believe that Jesus allowed divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery is that divorce and remarriage could be seen by some as a reward for adultery. Imagine a married couple who have never been married to anyone else. They have grown tired of each other and no longer have anything in common. They would like to get divorced and be free to remarry. They may even have fallen in love with someone else. But they are honourable enough and will not seek sex with another whilst they are still married to each other. Under Matthew 19 there is no help for them and they must remain married.

Now consider another couple under the same conditions but one or both of them is dishonourable enough to commit adultery. Whilst the sin of adultery would need to be repented of, they can get divorced and remarried without committing any further sin. Their adultery allows them to have something the other couple would dearly like but is denied to them. And of course this brings up the point that if Jesus allowed adultery as grounds for a divorce then it is not only the innocent party (if there is one) but the guilty partner that is allowed to divorce and remarry.

If Jesus did say in verse 19 that adultery was a valid reason to allow divorce and remarriage then it makes His whole sentence absurd and illogical. Imagine again the first couple in the examples above. There has been no adultery so the exception clause does not apply to them. Therefore God says to them that He will not allow them to get divorced and remarried in His sight. But supposing they ignore God and get divorced and remarried anyway under the law of the land. Jesus said that if they do that they will commit (and go on committing) adultery in their new relationship. This is because He does not recognise the divorce and remarriage as valid. In His sight they are still married to their original spouses.

But once they commit adultery in their new relationship they have now fulfilled the grounds for the 'exception clause'. So now God would have to allow them to get divorced and remarried in His sight. Adultery will always be a part of every divorce and remarriage. It will either occur in the old relationship or in the new. Therefore God would have to eventually sanction all divorce and remarriage. If adultery is a part of every divorce and remarriage at some point then it can't be an exception. The exception clause can't be an exception if it is the norm. As I said it is clearly absurd and illogical. There are many difficulties with believing that Jesus allowed divorce and remarriage on the grounds of adultery but I think I have made my point.

If Jesus didn't allow divorce how do we understand the 'exception clause'?

There is a way of understanding the 'exception clause' in verse 9 that resolves all these difficulties. And that is that Jesus was referring specifically to the Jewish custom of betrothal which Jews took as seriously as marriage.

It is interesting to note, and not many people see this, but in Matthew 19 there is a break in the conversation. It is implied in Matthew 19 but made clearer in Mark 10. In Matthew 19 Jesus' conversation with the Pharisees ends at verse 8. Verse 9, which contains the 'exception clause', is spoken to the disciples some time later when they had got back to the house. Notice that it is the disciples who respond to the statement and not the Pharisees.

Jesus' answer to the Pharisees was a straightforward no divorce and no remarriage. This is made evident by their reply to Him in asking why then did Moses permit divorce. If He had said to them that divorce was permissible on the grounds of adultery He would merely have been agreeing with Rabbi Shammai and He would have fallen into their trap and their job would have been done. He would also have been stating that stoning was no longer the penalty for adultery, which is what they tried to get Him to say when they brought the woman to Him who had been caught in the act of adultery. So again, He would have fallen into their trap.

Meanwhile, back at the house.

As the discussion about what Jesus had said to the Pharisees was continuing back at the house it is reasonable to assume that the disciples must also have been discussing it on their journey back to the house. As the term 'putting away a woman' used by Jesus and the Pharisees in their discourse was the same for ending a betrothal as it was for divorcing a wife the disciples must have been concerned with how Jesus' statement affected the Jewish custom of betrothal.

A Jewish man expected his bride to be a virgin when they actually got married (Deut 22). The betrothal was treated with the same solemnity as actual marriage with the one exception. If the woman proved not to be a virgin, even on the wedding night, he could dissolve the union - or "put her away" (apoluō). In a Jewish wedding the marriage was consummated during the wedding feast, usually on the first night, whilst all the guests were still in attendance. The next morning the groom was to produce the bloodied bed sheet to prove to all the guests that his bride had indeed been the virgin that she confessed to be. If the bride could not prove that she was a virgin then the groom could put her away (apoluō), even at that point, as he would otherwise be getting married under false pretences.

Of course a man could have found out before the wedding that his spouse was not a virgin and also put her away then. In Matthew 1:19 Joseph was going to put away (apoluō) Mary because he thought that she had been fornicating with someone else. They were not married so he could not divorce her in the full sense, nor had she committed adultery.

This explains why the 'exception clause' is found only in Matthew's gospel and why neither Mark nor Luke mention it. Matthew's Gospel was written primarily for Jewish believers and is full of references to things that only the Jews would understand. For example, he breaks the genealogy of Jesus into three groups of fourteen. A Jew would understand that this strengthened the claim that Jesus was a direct descendant of David (the number of David's name in Hebrew adds up to fourteen). A Gentile would not have understood the reference.

And it explains why Matthew only records Jesus as referring to a man putting away a woman and not a woman putting away a man. In Jewish society only a man could initiate a 'putting away' - a woman could not. However, Mark and Luke's gospels were written primarily for Gentile unbelievers where a woman could initiate a divorce as well as a man. So Mark refers to both men divorcing their wives and women divorcing their husbands. Also, neither Greek nor Roman cultures required virginity before marriage.

The fact that both Mark and Luke wrote their gospels for Gentiles and that neither of them mention the 'exception clause' further proves that Matthew was referring only to the Jewish custom of betrothal. Mark and Luke's statements about divorce and remarriage are complete and need no additional information for the Gentiles. Their gospels just state no divorce and no remarriage - no exceptions. Many churches at that time only had one of the gospels available. But even those who only had either Mark or Luke's gospel would have the whole truth regarding marriage and divorce. They would not be missing vital information regarding permissible divorce and remarriage.

The disciples reaction.

The disciples understood that Jesus was saying that the 'exception clause' only applied to betrothal and that He was saying that once someone was correctly married there could be no divorce and no remarriage. This explains their reaction to His statements. The disciples were fully aware of the teachings of Rabbi Shammai who allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery and it would not have caused a shocked reaction from them if Jesus had agreed with Rabbi Shammai. However, they were shocked by Jesus’ statement that once correctly married there can be no divorce and no remarriage. They basically said that if once you get married you just can't get out of it ever, then it is better not to get into it in the first place.

Did Paul allow divorce for specific reasons?

Those who believe that Jesus allowed divorce on the grounds of adultery usually believe that Paul taught that divorce and remarriage are possible if an unbelieving partner left a believer. However, this belief is not supported by the text without reading into it something that is clearly not there. They quote 1 Corinthians 7: 12 - 16 as their proof text. If Paul did teach that a Christian can divorce and remarry in these circumstances then he found yet another 'exception clause' that Jesus was either not aware of or failed to mention in His earlier discourses.

The contentious line is 1Co 7:15 "But if the unbelieving one separates, let him be separated. A brother or a sister is not in bondage in such cases, but God has called us in peace." (MKJV). Some people believe that the phrase 'not in bondage' in these cases means that the marriage bond can be broken and therefore they are free to marry again. But if this is so then Paul has just contradicted himself.

In 1 Cor 7: 10 Paul has already issued a command to married people that they must not divorce. He issues this command with great solemnity and a statement that this command is from the Lord. The only exception is in verse 11 where it states that if a woman has already separated from her husband then she should remain unmarried (that is, she must not seek to get married to someone else) or seek a reconciliation. (Note that here the verb tense is the ‘perfect’ tense. It is used of a past event with ongoing effect - that is that the separation has already happened).

Again we need to distinguish here between what has happened under the law of the land and what is the status in God's sight. When Paul says that they should remain unmarried he is referring to their status under the law of the land. They must either seek a reconciliation or refrain from getting married again under the law of the land because, in God's sight, they are still married to their original husband.

Then Paul goes on to deal with mixed marriages where one is a believer and the other is not. What is he really dealing with in this section? He is dealing with the thinking that if an unbelieving partner is determined to leave then the believing partner must try and force their spouse to stay in the same household in the hope of saving them. He asks, "For what do you know, O wife, whether you shall save your husband? Or what do you know, O man, whether you shall save your wife?" Paul is not saying that they can save their unbelieving spouse but that there is probably very little possibility of saving them if they force them to stay. Also, forcing them to stay when they are determined to go will produce great conflict and, "God has called us in peace".

So it is clear that Paul allows for separation under these circumstances but does that mean that he considers this to be a divorce? And does this then allow remarriage? Is this what "A brother or a sister is not in bondage in such cases" means? The Greek word for bondage in this sentence is δουλόω (douleuo). It is taken from the world of slavery (slave is doulos), and it is never used of marriage. So it should be translated: ‘you were not enslaved’, i.e. in your marriage. A Christian slave has a duty to stay with their master, which is why Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon. But marriage is quite different. It is a bond but not bondage, which is the nearest we can get to the distinction in English. In verse 39 where Paul says that the wife is bound by law to her husband as long as he lives the Greek word for 'bound' is δέω (deō) and refers to the marriage bond which cannot be broken. (It is also the same word that Paul uses in verse 27 when he asks men if they are bound to a wife).

Another example from Romans 7

The statement that a woman is bound (deō) to her husband as long as he lives is also found in Romans 7. Here Paul is using it as an example in his argument that when Christ died He was dead to the Law. And we are joined to Christ in His death so we are also dead to the Law. Now that we belong to Christ we should bring forth fruit to God and not the dead works of the Law. Just as it is only death that can end a marriage so it is only Christ's death that can free us from the Law. (Verse 2).

If a person could end a marriage before death through divorce or adultery then it makes a nonsense of using marriage as an example of how only Christ's death can free us from the Law. The meaning is clear and unmistakeable. Verse 3 states, "So then, if she marries another man while her husband is still alive, she is called an adulteress. But if her husband dies, she is released from that law and is not an adulteress, even though she marries another man." This is a very clear statement and it does not contain any exceptions.

So Paul is saying that if an unbelieving partner is determined to leave, the believer is not bound to stay in the same household, but this does not undo the marriage bond itself. This then removes the conflict with the other statements that Paul has made regarding marriage - especially where he commands other people who have already separated to be reconciled. Or if that is not possible then they should not seek to be remarried.

To say that Paul allowed divorce and remarriage, even under such a special situation, is to stretch the meaning of the text too far. He never ever mentions divorce anywhere in the text nor does he mention the possibility of remarriage after a couple have separated. To use 1 Corinthians 7 as a proof text to support divorce and remarriage is to clearly go beyond the bounds of what has been written.


I am aware that there has been, and still is, much discussion on the texts above. I am also aware that if I am correct it will cause a lot of difficulties and hardships for many Christians. Often the arguments in favour of divorce and remarriage are things like, "Well, what about the children?" citing the difficulties of splitting up the new family. Or stating that they have found happiness in their new family and surely God can't be against people being happy. These are emotional arguments and have no validity in establishing the truth of Scripture. They are important issues but they can only be dealt with once the truth has been established. The only way to know the truth is to establish what God has actually said. That is what I have tried to show.

If what I have said is true and God does not allow divorce and remarriage under any circumstances what must we do about it? Should we go round telling Christians who have divorced and remarried that they are not correctly married in God's sight and so they should separate? The answer to this is no - that is not our role. We need to deal with these issues with love, compassion and sensitivity.

What we should be doing is to ask God to give us opportunities to speak to those couples about the issues involved and then teach them the truth from Scripture. Once they know what Scripture teaches on the issue we should invite them to take what they have learned before God in honest seeking prayer and ask them to ask God to tell them what they should do. If there is anything in them that loves God and truly seeks to do His will God Himself will show them what they must do.

God bless you and reveal His truth to you.

© David Hopkinson - March 2015

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