The following is a brief answer to the above question. The “Exception clause” is Jesus’ statement in Matthew 5:32 “saving for the cause of fornication,” and Matthew 19:9 “except it be for fornication.” It gives an “exception” for remarriage after a divorce that is the result of fornication. Matthew 5:32 says “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.” Similarly, Matthew 19:9 reads, “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.” So, what precisely is “fornication,” and why is it an exception to Jesus’ statement that remarriage after a divorce is adultery?
JESUS WAS CLEAR, WITH NO AMBIGUITY ABOUT HIS STATEMENTS ON DIVORCE
The meaning of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is clear. If a person gets a divorce, and then remarries, it is considered adultery unless the exception clause is in effect. The word “fornication” is a translation of the Greek word porneia, the word from which we get our modern word “pornography.” The essential meaning of porneia is “a habitual sexual perversion or sexual sin including, but not limited to harlotry, adultery or incest among other sexual sins” In Greek literature, around the same time as the New Testament, porneia was used to refer to adultery, fornication, prostitution, incest, and idolatry. It is used 25 times in the New Testament and is most often translated as “fornication.”
The meaning of porneia in the New Testament seems to be the general concept of sexual perversion or sin. Other Greek words are used to refer to specific forms of sexual perversion, such as adultery. With this meaning in mind, according to the exception clause, any participation in sexual perversion/misconduct is an exception to Jesus’ statement that remarriage after a divorce is adultery. If one spouse commits adultery, or any act of sexual perversion, and a divorce results, the “innocent” spouse is free to remarry without it being considered adulterous, or in other words, in Jesus’ eyes not considered to be the spouse of two husbands or two wives.
AN EXCEPTION, NOT A COMMAND
Please understand that the exception clause is not a command for divorce and/or remarriage. Jesus is not saying that if marital unfaithfulness occurs a couple should divorce. Jesus is not saying that if a divorce occurs due to marital unfaithfulness, the innocent spouse should remarry. At most, Jesus is giving allowance for divorce and remarriage to occur. In no sense is Jesus declaring divorce and remarriage to be the best or only option. Repentance, forgiveness, counseling, and restoration are God’s desire for marriages damaged by unfaithfulness. God can and will heal any marriage in which both spouses are committed to Him and willing to follow His Word. But in those cases where one spouse is not committed to Him, does not care about restoration, Jesus provided a way for the innocent spouse, in those situations, to continue on with their lives and be free to remarry with no sin or guilt attached or assigned to that new marriage by Him.
HUSBAND OF ONE WIFE – NOT TWO
Also the exception clause, as it is known, clearly teaches if you marry again after divorce and the divorce is not for fornication you are committing adultery or you would be considered the husband to two wives; but if you marry again and the divorce was a result of fornication by the other spouse you can marry again and it is not considered adultery and you would not be considered the husband of two wives.
For it not to be considered adultery, you would have to be presently unmarried, or in other words, the husband of zero wives, then you can get married again according to the exception clause and in Jesus’s eyes according to Matthew 5:32 & Matthew 19:9. You would then be the husband of one wife; because if you were not, you would then be committing adultery and Jesus clearly teaches that the innocent spouse, that later remarries, is not committing adultery.
A passage pertaining to the Old Testament law of divorce can be found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jesus explains that this law was given by Moses on account of the hardness of the people’s heart; that is, to prevent greater evils (Matthew 19:8). The law permitted the husband to put away the wife when “he hath found some uncleanness in her.” But Jesus here limits the right of divorce to cases of “fornication,” and if there be a divorce on any other grounds, neither the man nor the woman can marry again without committing adultery (Matthew 19:9). The “Exception clause” in no way relaxes or liberalizes the marriage law; it in fact does the opposite in stiffening it and limiting divorce. It is implied and indicated in these passages in Matthew 5 & 19 that divorce for “fornication” breaks the marriage bond, and this conclusion is widely held both by commentators and preachers alike, that the innocent party to such a divorce can be free to marry again.
GRACE & LAW
We are presently under grace, not law, so the spouse that is guilty of fornication is no longer put to death for fornication. But, in times past, when they were put to death for fornication, this served the purpose of punishment of the offender, setting an example that purity was expected, and it also set the innocent party free. They were no longer married, they were free to marry again.
Now in the New testament, the guilty party is no longer put to death for fornication, they have been given grace. Now does that mean their grace given to them turns into the law being now applied to the innocent victim where they are no longer free to remarry because their former spouse is still alive? Why would God give grace to the guilty party and put chains on the innocent party? By many interpretations and applications of divorce in the church today, that is what many do because God no longer requires the life of the guilty party, they require of the innocent party in the divorce a life sentence of being single or told they cannot marry or cannot serve or cannot be a pastor or deacon because they are divorced. In the Old Testament they would not be divorced they would be widowed, but because God now gives grace to the guilty party, the innocent victims are now not widowed, but divorced, and now the church imposes law and restrictions on them, as a direct result and consequence to the grace that God bestowed on the guilty party. How does this make sense? How is this biblical? How is this right? How is this God’s will? – It is not.