Jesus’ Divorce Exception -- By: Phillip H. Wiebe

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 32:3 (Sep 1989)
Article: Jesus’ Divorce Exception
Author: Phillip H. Wiebe

Jesus’ Divorce Exception

Phillip H. Wiebe*

Jesus’ teaching on divorce has been construed by a number of commentators to include mention of a condition under which divorce of one’s spouse and subsequent remarriage was permitted. The verse that has been thought to do so is Matt 19:9, which reads as follows:

Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery. (1)

Not everyone, of course, agrees that this statement of Jesus makes provision for an exception—on the grounds of immorality or unchastity (porneia)—to the usual prohibition against divorce and subsequent remarriage. Many traditionalists on the subject have failed to see this implication in the verse in question. Representative of such a view are Heth and Wenham,1 who contend that the more liberal interpretation of it is not warranted. They insist that the only implication of the quotation in question is that one who divorces his spouse for unchastity and does not remarry does not commit adultery.2 The object of this paper is to examine the logic of this verse in an effort to determine what implications can and cannot be drawn from it. I shall restrict my examination to the English text and make some remarks below about the relationship between the Greek and English texts.

It is widely understood that the “except” clause is crucial to the understanding of this verse. But one fact that does not appear to be widely appreciated is that “except” clauses in statements have the effect of producing two propositions. It is from this simple fact that one can derive the view that Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19 allows for divorce and remarriage without guilt of adultery. I shall argue that the logical implications of the verse include the following:

If a man divorces his wife, and the ground for the divorce is not his wife’s unchastity, and the man marries another, then he commits adultery. (2)

* Phillip Wiebe is professor of philosophy at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, Canada.


If a man divorces his wife, and the ground for the divorce is his wife’s unchastity, and the man marries another, then he does not commit adultery. (3)

The significant assertion in the divorce and remarriage debate is of course (3).

Heth and Wenham argue that the implication that one can divorce and remarry wit...

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