Exceptional Divorce

A student recently asked me what Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 teach about divorce. These two passages differ from other passages in the Gospels where Jesus touches on the topic of marriage and divorce because they have what are commonly referred to as exception clauses, that is, each presents a situation where a broad prohibition against divorce would not apply.[1] Here’s the text of each from the NET Bible:

Matthew 5:32: But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9: Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.

The student approached me having heard a view that these really weren’t exception clauses at all. I wasn’t familiar with that argument, so I did a little digging and here’s what D. A. Carson had to say on this regarding Matthew 19:9.

Some hold that the except clause here and in 5:32 is really no exception at all. The preposition epi plus the dative can have the sense of addition: “in addition to” or even “apart from” (cf. Lk 3:20; Col 3:14; Zerwick, Biblical Greek, para. 128). In this verse, the words should be rendered “not apart from sexual promiscuity,” and similar reasoning applies to the slightly different construction in 5:31: “whoever repudiates his wife, in addition to the porneia [for which he repudiates her], causes her to be defiled by adultery.” There is then no exception to Jesus’ prohibition of divorce as reported in Mark-Luke. But all this requires almost impossible Greek. When epi has this “additive” force, it is nowhere preceded by (“not”), which most naturally introduces an exception. Dupont (Mariage et divorce, 102–6) has clearly shown that a real exception is meant.[2]

So as far as the grammar is concerned, these really can’t be anything other than exception clauses. To take them as anything else goes counter to the meaning of the text here.

The view I was familiar with previously which disallows the exception clauses is a hermeneutical one. Some argue that Matthew does offer true exceptions but that the broader statement in Mark (apparent prohibition of all divorce) is the general dictum and should have priority over the more specific statement in Matthew (allowance for divorce through the exception clause) which apparently was occasional. This reasoning fails in that it doesn’t really understand the point of each passage. Mark speaks generally because the question about divorce posed to Jesus is general and universal (see Mark 10:2). Matthew speaks specifically because the question about divorce posed to Jesus is specific (see Matt 19:3; note the addition of “for any cause”). Hermeneutically, we hold both statements in balance as correct; one cannot trump the other without allowing for a contradiction within the Gospels. Generally we can say divorce is not God’s will and we should not accept it or condone it. We can speak about it as being universally and normally wrong. On the other hand, we can say that in certain situations divorce is allowable because of sexual immorality which is a transgression against the deep, one-flesh bond marriage creates. We can speak of divorce as allowable only in these particular circumstances.

  1. A similar discussion occurs with Paul in 1 Cor 7:12–15, where he appears to allow divorce when a non-believing spouse no longer desires to remain married to a believing spouse.  ↩

  2. D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. Tremper Longman III and David Garland (rev. ed; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 9:469. If you have this resource in Logos, you can use this link to go right to this location.  ↩