HRRheader.jpg (1167 bytes)

What Does Jesus’ “Exception Clause” Mean?


There are many who believe that the exception clause, found in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, absolutely has to mean that Jesus allowed divorce for adultery.They have wrongly assumed that the exception clause could not have been an interjected side point referring to the cultural premarital divorce that Jesus’ hearers were very familiar with.[i] Perhaps their strongest argument in favour of their interpretation that Jesus allows divorce for adultery, is that Jesus was definitely addressing the post marital divorce. Though it is correct that Jesus was in fact addressing the post marital divorce, they have incorrectly interpreted this to mean that it was therefore impossible for the exception clause to have been spoken in reference to that other kind of divorce, which only terminated betrothal. The opponents to this ‘betrothal explanation’ of the exception clause are mistaken concerning their assumption about exception clauses. An exception clause can in very fact be introduced into the kinds of sentences Jesus used and function only as an interjected side point; which means this kind of exception clause may be omitted and not affect the main point being made.This use of an exception clause can be demonstrated in both Greek and English.

It makes sense that if an example of this kind of exception clause can be produced, then that particular argument against the betrothal divorce, citing it as an unreasonable explanation of what Jesus’ exception clause means, should cease to be used. I mean, let those who disagree with the betrothal explanation argue against it all they want, but not with arguments that honesty itself should forbid them to use. [Note: the charge of dishonesty cannot honestly be laid against those who sincerely believe something false: to them it is honest. But when the excuse of ignorance is erased by factual demonstration and the person continues to hold to what has been proven false; then the charge of dishonesty may apply.]

To demonstrate the existence of this kind of exception clause, the first three clauses from Matthew 5:32, are paralleled by three other similarly constructed clauses:

1) Whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery

2) Whosoever shall open that valve, saving for the cause of overflow, causes damage to the crops

1 a)  Whosoever shall put away his wife,

[the action done, (two ways of doing it)]

1 b)  saving for the cause of fornication,

[the acceptable reason/situation for doing it]

1 c)  causeth her to commit adultery

[the negative result if done wrongly]

2 a)  Whosoever shall open that valve,

[the action done, (two ways of doing it)]

2 b)  saving for the cause of overflow,

[the acceptable reason/situation for doing it]

2 c)  causes damage to the crops

[the negative result if done wrongly]

The basic format is;

a) an action done

c) something negative caused by that action

b) an inserted exception indicating that in this case, that action may be done and not cause that negative result.

The above, which parallels the first three clauses in Matthew 5:32, concerns water flow in a particular farming situation. During the winter, when no crops are growing, the occasional severe rainy season will fill the reservoir to overflowing, which in order to prevent eroding the retaining mounds surrounding the reservoir, a valve is opened, which releases the excess water into the field used for crops.The problem is that the outlet of the valve is such that the water gushes out with force, which if there were crops growing, would cause damage to them. Hence, during the growing season, if anyone were to open that valve, damage would be caused to the crops. But during the winter, when it is sometimes necessary to open that valve, there is no concern of damaging any crops.

So let’s examine both sides of this parallel:

The phrase "Whosoever shall put away his wife", is the action being paralleled by the action of  "Whosoever shall open that valve", both of which can be done under two differing situations, which are determined by and connected to a time factor:

Divorce can be done:

during betrothal or during being joined in marriage

Opening that valve can be done:

during winter or during growing season

Opening the valve in our parallel will not necessarily produce a negative result. That action does not damage the crops if done at the acceptable time.

The Hebrews had an unusual divorce for fornication, which was done premaritally. Hence it did not produce the negative result of causing her to commit adultery since she had not gone outside of her status as a single, never-married woman. Any man marrying her after this was of course also not committing adultery since her ‘husband’ divorced her while they were both still single.

The phrase, “saving for the cause of fornication” is paralleled with, “saving for the cause of overflow”. These indicate allowable reasons for divorcing or opening the valve. Those actions for these reasons may be performed without causing the negative effects of:

1c)  causeth her to commit adultery

2c)  causes damage to the crops

Let us focus now on the water flow situation provided above that serves as a grammatical parallel to Matthew 5:32.

Suppose now that a discussion is being had among a group of farmers who are to buy and use the field for crops and are therefore unaware of the correct use of the valve. They are persuaded that it should be used during growing season to irrigate the crops. Let’s say someone even wrote a letter to an experienced farmer in another county describing to the best of their knowledge the situation, to which he replied that he believes, according to what he understands, that it would be alright to use that valve for irrigation during the growing season. So this whole discussion is about whether or not it is allowable to use the valve for irrigation during growing season. While they have been informed and are very aware that it is used for overflow during winter to prevent damage to the reservoir; that is not what they are enquiring about.  Their inquiry pertains specifically to the use of that valve for irrigation: the inquiry has nothing to do with its use for overflow. So their supposing that the valve should be able to be used for irrigation, they ask the previous owner to make sure.

They say, “we are confident that the valve may be used for irrigation. We even have a letter from an experienced farmer from another county, to whom the valve and piping situation has been explained to the best of our knowledge, and he agrees, that according to what he understands, the valve should be able to be used to release water into the field during growing season. But we wanted to ask you to see what you have to say since you are the former owner and should certainly know”.

The former owner and actual and final authority says;

“It has been said that it is alright to use that valve for irrigation.

But I say unto you, that whosoever shall open that valve, saving for the cause of overflow, causes damage to the crops”.

It must be recognized that the above exception clause does not pertain to the main point being made. Since this kind of exception clause only serves as an interjected side point, it can be omitted altogether and the point being made is completely unaffected by that omission. Notice how the farmer’s complete prohibition is not at all effected when this kind of exception clause is left out:

It has been said that it is alright to use that valve for irrigation.

But I say unto you, that whosoever shall open that valve… causes damage to the crops”.

The effect of this kind of exception clause is as if he said, I am not saying that valve has no use, it does, for overflow, but it is absolutely not to be used for that about which you have inquired. If you use it for irrigation, you will damage the crops.

It could be said that that kind of exception clause clarified the farmers point in light of all that pertained to the use of that valve. By way of comparison it adds an element of completion to his overall prohibition of that which they had up to that point mistakenly supposed was allowable. Though the question had nothing to do with opening the valve for overflow, it was reasonably included as part of his answer.

This kind of parallel makes it difficult for the opponents of the betrothal explanation of the exception clause to continue to assert that this kind of exception clause does not exist. Jesus’ exception clause is very easily read in this manner once a person becomes informed concerning first century culture and use of words.

“It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement:

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.”


One would think that this understanding would cause a rejoicing and relief that the plain wording in Mark 10:2-12, Luke 16:17,18 can be accepted at face value without concern that such acceptance is error.These other foundational verses in Mark and Luke plainly forbid divorce and remarriage. The reason why there is not the slightest hint in these verses that an exception for divorce exists, is because such an exception does in fact not exist. Divorce and remarriage by these verses is very clearly prohibited for any reason whatsoever. And like Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, the point of discussion in these other two main references spoken by Jesus is also the post marital divorce.

Since the exception clause in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is only an interjected side point, it can also be omitted in both verses, as seen below, without effecting the main point Jesus is making:

32  But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife… causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

9  And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife… and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

The verses in the NT without the exception clause, (Mark 10:11,12 and Luke 16:18), and the verses with the exception clause, (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), all mean the same thing because the type of exception clause recorded in Matthew can be omitted without changing the point being made. Notice how Matthew 19:9 and 5:32, quoted above, with the exception clause omitted, are identical in meaning to the verses below, which do not possess the exception clause:

Luke 16:

 18  Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

Mark 10:

11  And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

12  And if a woman shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery.

By understanding the exception clause correctly, it is easy to understand that these four main references in the NT, spoken by Jesus, (Matthew 5:32; 19:9 Mark 10:11,12 and Luke 16:18) all say the same thing. Divorce from the married state followed by remarriage is not allowed: not for adultery; not for something worse than adultery; not for anything. Divorce from the married state followed by remarriage is adultery.

But this question will continue to be asked:

Why would Jesus make an exception clause that doesn’t pertain to the point under discussion?

Other than the reason provided above, (that including the exception clause provided a more complete answer in light of their culture and thereby clarifying his intended prohibition by way of comparison), consider the following:

Jesus’ exception clause served to prevent his words from being taken to an extent that he did not intend. He was dealing with those looking to accuse and find fault with his teaching. Though Mark and Luke do not record the exception clause, (without any great consequence since it doesn’t pertain to the married wife anyway), the exception clause still served the practical purpose of preventing those who strained at gnats but swallowed camels from accusing him:

Since Jesus by his teaching prohibits a husband from divorcing his wife for anything, and since their betrothed couples were also titled  “husband” and “wife”, the exception clause served the practical purpose of clarifying that he was not going to that extent in his prohibition of husbands divorcing their wives. Since, “for the cause of fornication” was a very clearly recognizable reason in their culture for acceptably terminating a betrothal, Jesus used that as a means to say in effect that the only way a man can divorce his wife is if he does it before joining with her in marriage.

That cultural divorce, where a “husband” “divorces” his “wife” for her fornication, (not for adultery), which divorce only terminates their espousal/betrothal, is not a putting asunder what God has joined together. By Jesus’ clarification of what constitutes “what God hath joined together”, the premarital divorce for fornication is not a sin because that kind of divorce takes place before they become a joined married couple. This means that that kind of divorced wife is not caused to commit adultery. It also means that the man who divorced her for fornication can also marry afterwards and not commit adultery by so doing. This fits perfectly with the texts of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 concerning the husband and wife involved in the divorce for fornication. In 5:32, she, the wife having committed fornication, is said to not have been caused to commit adultery by being divorced: and in 19:9, he, her husband who divorced her for fornication, may also marry afterward without committing adultery by so doing.



[1] Unlike today, Jesus’ hearers were very familiar with this kind of divorce. As strange as this may sound, the betrothed couple were titled as “husband” and “wife” before they were joined in marriage. This does not mean that they were married as “what therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder”; it only means that in ancient times the words “husband” and “wife” were used differently than how we use them today. Their titles of ‘husband and wife’ not only described the couple joined in marriage, but also the couple not yet joined. Nowadays we could say ‘husband and wife-to-be’, while they simply called them ‘husband and wife’, their betrothal, by culture, being very binding and hence not easily terminated.  Please see Deut. 22:23,24;  20:7  Matt. 1:18-24.

Further, this termination of their betrothal, for her fornication, (not adultery) was described as “divorce”, a word that we today understand can only apply to a couple already joined in marriage. This strange-to-us premarital divorce was not for adultery. The word adultery by definition can only be applied to the sexual offence violating someone’s joined marriage. This, on the other hand, was a divorce for “fornication”.

One application of the word “fornication” is that it may function to describe the premarital sexual sin exclusively. That is one specific definition of ‘fornication’.


This article is distributed by a ministry that is making a call for reformation: a return to biblically sound Christianity. Articles that provide correction of other widely accepted incorrect Christian teaching may be obtained from:: L. Jones, send email.

If you would like a digital copy of this document (and all our other works from this site) in eBook form please press here and a copy will start downloading to your computer right away.

To return to our main site, close this page by pressing on the 'Close Box' ("X") in the top right hand corner above.