A historical reflection on the ‘Exeption Clause'


Getting Around the “Exception Clause”

Jesus said, “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, EXCEPT on the ground of sexual immorality [Greek: Porneia], makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries  a divorced woman commits adultery,” (Matthew 5: 31-32).

Jesus also said, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, EXCEPT for Marital unfaithfulness [Greek: Porneia], and marries another woman commits adultery,”  (Matthew 19:9).

Jesus never had a problem explaining himself. What He said is exactly what He meant. Yet, for two thousand years, His well-meaning followers have kept on leaping and dancing all around His words, zealously, piously, trying to fit Jesus’ words into what seems most logical.

That is the wrong approach! Preconceived ideas, if followed upon, always lead to error, confusion and estrangement from God.

Let Jesus speak! Trust Him! He will not mislead you. Instead, take His words as literally as they are, like a child, and He will lead you on a safe and beautiful path.

God’s Commandments on Divorce and Remarriage

1. All sexual interaction, before marriage, is sin (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
But God does not hate sexuality. He loves marriage and marriage is the right way to go for the vast majority of human beings. More than ever, it is imperative for Christians to promote and support marriage. If people want to get married but find it difficult, it is the responsibility of parents and the elders of the congregations to assist them in getting it accomplished in a God honoring way (Hebrews 13:4).

2. God blesses the marriage bond, but all extra-marital affairs are sinful. Even having lust for someone other than one’s legitimate spouse is wrong (Matthew 5:28).

3. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Everyone who desires, initiates, or brings about divorce commits sin (Mark 10:9).

4. Everyone who abandons  a marriage partner to become linked to someone else, commits sin (Mark 10: 11-12).

5. Adulterers (people who abandon their spouses and choose to live in an unlawful union) break the marriage bond. Once broken, God does not allow it to be restored. To the contrary, he forbade Moses from allowing divorced men or women to marry one another again. He declared that would be abominable in his eyes (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). So, who under Moses or under Christ, would dare to commit what God hates?

6. Choosing to live in an adulterous union, like death, breaks and ends the marital bond. The contract is broken and all opportunity for restoration is lost, for life. Both partners of this permanent divorce, in many cases, share the guilt. But not always. One godly and upright partner who consistently attempts to keep the contract together, at all costs, may well escape the condemnation of divorce. So, according to Jesus, the faithful partner may indeed be free to marry again (Matthew 5:32, Matthew 19:9).

7. The abandoned spouse may never commit adultery. Obviously. But, according to the Scriptures, both in the Old and New Testament, there is no rule, no teaching, nor even a suggestion that abandoned husbands and wives need to stay single for the rest of their lives. To the contrary, Paul wrote, “because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband,
(1 Corinthians 7:2). Only, if a man has a second wife (id. two wives), he should not be in the leadership of the Church (1 Timothy 3:12).

Moses and Jesus on Marriage

Under Moses’ law any man could divorce his wife. In fact, both Jewish and Muslim people still find it easy to divorce for whatever reason. But Jesus and His apostles did not allow believers to initiate divorce and pointed, instead, to a better solution. Repentance and reconciliation!

Jesus taught His followers to learn how to forgive, serve one another, and if married, to faithfully support one another as long as life continues. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard,” Jesus told His Jewish companions, “but it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery,”
(Matthew 19:8-9).

Both Moses and Jesus condemned sexual immorality and Jesus narrowed the scope of divorce and remarriage. For one man to marry one woman was God’s ideal, but neither Moses nor Jesus insisted that marriages must remain intact if adultery had broken the bond. Neither did Moses nor Jesus condemn multiple (re-)marriages.

As long as a non-Christian spouse agrees to live faithfully with a believing companion, Paul counseled them to stay together. The unbelieving partner may well be led to the Lord by his or her faithful witness. 

But, if the unbeliever departs  and breaks the marriage contract, the believer is no longer bound (enslaved). In other words, it meant that he or she is free to marry again, but only in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12-15 and 39).

Early Christian Marriage

Jewish culture—in which Jesus was born and raised—revolved around the godly home. Jesus grew up in a large family and learned how to work with his earthly father. His mother and sisters washed his clothes and prepared his food. The fabric of Jewish life consisted of extensive family interaction and constant growth. So, the larger the amount of children born into the Jewish home, the happier and blessed the situation became.

Marriage, birth, teaching the young, and taking care of little ones—Jewish culture could not have been conceived without it. But, sad to say, when the good news of Jesus spread amongst Greek and Roman believers a big change occurred.

Jewish values and the high regard of human reproduction gave way to a mystical, personal and often austere asceticism. Seeking God, like pagans sought him, by debasing or afflicting themselves in order to appease divine displeasure.

Cultural foundations shifted. Values changed. And although Greek and Roman Christians continued to read the Jewish Scriptures, as well as the teachings of Jesus and His apostles, old truths were interpreted in radically different ways that led to previously unknown conclusions.

Since the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus without having interacted with a man, superstitious Greek Christians found it easy to conclude that sexual intercourse must be less than God’s ideal. That Jesus, and later the Apostle Paul, also declined marriage in favor of a noble sacrificial life, seemed to confirm that fact even further. Holy contingency, absolute purity, solitary detachment and the much celebrated cenobite life of the “Desert Fathers” eventually stood far above the squalor and drudgery of bearing and raising children.

Not surprisingly, Greek and Roman mysticism, along with Zoroastrian and possibly even Vedic or other pagan philosophies, led early Christians to conclude that marriage and child-bearing had become substandard behavior. Tolerated by God, but far from his ideal.

This fundamental error, this heresy, eventually permeated the entire church. It led to the forced celibacy of all ordained men. It inspired untold numbers of well meaning believers into committing themselves for life into celibate communities or even to mutilate themselves in order to live without even the hint of reproductive desire.

So, it is not surprising that the first Greek and Roman church leaders to write about marriage, divorce and remarriage drew conclusions vastly unlike those of Jesus Himself and His first band of Jewish disciples.

The Shepherd of Hermas, a second century Christian of the city of Rome, wrote about marriage and divorce. He insisted that although an errant wife might have left a Christian husband, he should never remarry in order to leave the door open for her return. That sounds kind and logical enough, but it stands in stark contradiction to the Scriptures. God finds such reunions abominable (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

Justin Martyr, a Greek convert of the second century, saw marriage and human reproduction as a concession, tolerated by God but not the ideal. In his book ‘On the Resurrection’ he claims that the reproductive organs were not originally intended or needed for their current use. He made much out of Jesus’ virgin birth and pointed to the fact that mules continue to exist although they cannot reproduce sexually (a singularly weak argument).

“Our Lord Jesus Christ,” Justin wrote, “was born of a virgin, for no other reason than that He might destroy the begetting by lawless desire, and might show that the formation of man was possible to God without human intervention. …”

Justin Martyr wrote much more about reproduction and desire, but his premise was fundamentally flawed. Marriage and reproduction is not “lawless desire.” It is God-ordained.

Athenagoras of Athens, a Greek Christian of the second century wrote: “To get married again is nothing more, and nothing less, than a sneaky way to commit adultery. … To marry again is to resist the hand of God.” 

Writing further, this influential Christian philosopher claims that all second marriages, even though a previous spouse was no longer living, is sinful and wrong. He stands in stark opposition to both Jesus and Paul.

Tertullian of the late second century believed that all second marriages are wrong because the union between husbands and wives, he thought, was everlasting. A marriage union beyond the grave. His fanciful argument does not hold water. What he says, according to Jesus, is untrue.

Origen of Alexandria in Egypt, wrote about marriage, divorce and remarriage. He also castrated himself to control his own passions. He grudgingly allowed some second marriages, but only if previous partners were no longer living.

Methodius of Olympus, a Greek brother of the third century allowed some second marriages “on account of the strength of animal passion” and for “those who are burdened with the disease of reproductive desire.”

Unfortunately Methodius’ understanding of marriage and reproduction was not only fundamentally flawed, it had become the understanding of most Greco-Roman Christians by that time, although it stands in flagrant opposition to God’s order. Reproductive desire is neither abnormal nor sinful. Only it needs to be controlled by the Spirit of God.

From the early Christians until the time of the Reformation in the 1500s only sporadic dissenting voices, far flung throughout the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Europe maintained any semblance of what God had in mind for believing families. Here and there faithful followers of Christ raised children, contracted marriages, and processed broken relationships if needed. But nothing of significance, regarding marriage or remarriage has matched or surpassed what we already have, beautifully laid out, in the New Testament.

Early Anabaptist Marriage

In stark and revolutionary contrast to what all state churches had maintained for a thousand years, the first Anabaptist believers in Europe read their Bibles and returned joyfully, thankfully, into focusing once more on wholesome family life. Like Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, the first Anabaptist leaders formally renounced their celibate priesthood and one by one, chose marriage and the begetting of children. This included Michael Sattler, Menno Simons, Jörg Blaurock, Balthasar Hubmaier and many others.

The early Anabaptists, thoroughly disgusted with how things had gone amongst the celibate orders and amongst the priests, not only condoned but openly promoted marriage and the raising of children. Once again, as in Jesus’ time, the family became the hub of all life’s activities. Early Anabaptist communities actively helped their young members to find partners (there was no “dating” or complicated betrothals) and already in the first generation a rapidly expanding multitude of children and young people pushed the boundaries of the movement from Europe to Poland, to Russia, to the Balkan States, to British North America and eventually to all over the world. The extensive Christian family, not trammelled by birth control, has become the hallmark and glory of conservative Anabaptist fellowships to this day. 

But, what about the “exception clause” within the Anabaptist movement?

Thanks to the persecution they faced during their turbulent early years, it was not at all uncommon for Anabaptist believers to lose their married companions when they decided to follow Christ. Unbelieving husbands disowned their wives, and unbelieving wives deserted Anabaptist men. After discussing what to do about it, Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Leenaerdt Bouwens, Gillis of Aachen, and three other Anabaptist leaders decided in 1554:

If an unbeliever wishes to separate for reasons of the faith, then the believer shall conduct himself honestly. He shall not marry again as long as the unbeliever remains unmarried. But if the unbeliever marries or commits adultery, then the believing mate may also marry, subject to the advice of the elders of the congregation. …

If a believer and an unbeliever are in the marriage bond together and the unbeliever commits adultery, then the marriage tie is broken. If the unbeliever says it was an accident and desires to mend his ways, then we permit his believing wife to return to him and admonish him—if conscience allows it and in light of the circumstances of the case. But if the man is a bold and headstrong adulterer, then the innocent party is free. She shall, however, consult with the congregation and remarry according to their decisions in the matter.

In other writings Menno Simons reinforced this teaching:

Divorce is not allowed in the Scriptures except for adultery. Therefore we shall not to all eternity consent to it for other reasons. … We acknowledge no other marriage than that which Christ and the apostles taught in the New Testament: that of one man with one woman (Matt. 19:4). A married man and woman may not be divorced except in case of adultery (Matt. 5:32), for the two are one flesh.

The SwissAnabaptists in a booklet on marriage stressed the fact that the union of believers with Christ is more precious than the union between husbands and wives. They taught the permanence of marriage, and that it shall not be broken except in case of adultery. But then, with the counsel of the congregation, they did allow the “innocent party” to marry again.

The Anabaptist leader, Rauff Bisch of the Kurpfalz, said at the Frankenthal disputation in 1571:

We believe that nothing may terminate a marriage except adultery. But if the unbeliever wants to divorce because of the faith, we would let him go as Paul says in 1 Cor. 7. We believe that the cause for divorce should never be found in the believer.

The Anabaptists of Hesse, in central Germany, stated in 1578:

We believe and confess that a man and woman who have by divine fore-ordination, destiny, and joining in marriage become one flesh may not be divorced because of excommunication, belief or unbelief, anger, quarreling, hardness of heart, but only in the case of adultery.

The Anabaptists in Moravia included the following among their five articles of faith in 1547:

If the unbelieving one departs let him depart. … A brother or sister is not under bondage in such a case.

Most Anabaptists emphasized the fact that; “nothing can break the marriage bond except adultery.” But the presence of divorced and remarried couples among them caused personal hardship and earned them much criticism. On at least one occasion a brother who had remarried, Klaus Frey of Ansbach in southern Germany, was publicly executed for bigamy.

Current Anabaptist view on Marriage

During the last 125 years, since the rise of Evangelical Fundamentalism and a rapid deterioration of morals and ethics in the world around them, conservative Anabaptists have come to rethink and change the positions they hold regarding marriage, divorce and remarriage. 

As a result of their changed position, they have swung from one side to the other and become veritable experts on how to get around the exception clause as Jesus said it in Matthew 5: 31-32 and Matthew 19:9.

All conservative Mennonites, Amish, German Baptists, River Brethren, the Followers of the Way, and similar autonomous groups within the movement have adopted that fundamentalist position of no exception clause. But there are a few exceptions. The Holdeman Mennonites, a large conservative Anabaptist group, zealous missionaries all around the world, acknowledge the exception clause and those have full access into the membership of their congregations.

The same is true of the Reformed Mennonites, another conservative group established in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in the early 1800s. And most Hutterite communities, founded in Austria in the beginning of the Anabaptist movement also accept the exception clause as given.

My Position on Marriage

Years ago, in Australia, an orderly and happy family—father, mother, with nine children, all of them in exemplary order—visited us on a Lord’s Day morning. They stayed with us for our communal meal and we noticed how polite and friendly all of them were. The teenagers and even the little children, all of them modestly and neatly attired, responded nicely to our questions, making eye contact with us while we spoke.

Everything went well until, in the afternoon, we happened to touch on the subject of divorce and remarriage. I explained the current Anabaptist position; ‘No exception clause’. Our hosts exchanged glances. Then, somewhat hesitantly, he told us their story: 

“I grew up without God. No church. No nothing. As an eighteen year-old I foolishly got legally married. I soon discovered my wife was cheating on me. We had a row and she left me. Our marriage had only lasted three months and we never had kids. She went along with another man and we have not interacted again. Later, in my mid-twenties, I got married again and we sought the Lord and found him. Now we have nine kids and are homeschooling. We love one another and could not separate even if we wanted to, because of the kids. Do you mean to say that if we joined your fellowship we would need to part ways?”

His words did not come to me as a question, but as a challenge.

I cringed, but my extremely difficult job was to tell him, “Yes. Our church does not accept any marriage after divorce, regardless of the consequences.”

Our visitors soon packed up. The atmosphere had changed. They left, and we never saw them again.

A similar situation happened to me in the city of Stockholm in Sweden. A whole collection of seekers who had met in a friendly home in the south-west end of town. Then again in Germany (involving a sincere family, and a pastor, living in Russia), and in Costa Rica (an exceptionally dear and faithful Christian couple with five small children) and in New Zealand, and in Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. … 

Wherever I go the situation haunts me.

No exception clause at all? 

“Just to be safe!” my brothers tell me.

How “safe” is it to divide and separate a loving family on nothing more than a flaky supposition of what Jesus might have possibly meant (but most likely meant the exact opposite)?

How safe, how wise, is it for a young man to live without a wife, especially if he has children to take care of? Remember what Paul wrote: “Each man should have his own wife,” (1 Corinthians 7:2).

After interacting with real live humans, their lively families and their poignant needs, their problems, their visions and fears in all the countries we have lived and known for so many years, I am tired of philosophical and religious arguments that only work on paper, but never in reality and flesh and blood. Paul stayed single. Most others did not. But it was between him and God to work that out, and so it is with you!

During the last 30 years I have been listening to a constantly growing fascination with the renowned Early Christians, what they did and wrote, and particularly how they handled issues like marriage and divorce. 

In all due respect, I have to say that when I read what those Early Christians had to say on this subject, I am far from impressed, or convinced. The spiritual and intellectual gap between Justin Martyr and the writings of Paul, for instance, seems just as large, or even larger to me, than the gap between Paul and any popular Christian writer of our time. 

My confidence does not lie on the “Ante-Nicene Fathers” but on Christ and the words He spoke as recorded by the Gospel writers.

Whatever Jesus said, seems safe to me.

In most cases, it is not the divorced and remarried couples that are having a hard time understanding Jesus, but the “scribes and Pharisees” of our time that twist Jesus’ words into saying what He most likely never meant to convey.

Personally, I have never used Jesus’ exception clause and I never will. Neither will I recommend its use or forbid its practice. Everyone, individually, needs to turn to God for direction. Every case needs to be evaluated, prayed and fasted about, and considered honestly. It will take wise trusted brothers and sisters, to share advice. But in the end, whatever we decide, which ever direction we choose, will have eternal consequences and we will stand responsible for what we have chosen for ourselves and for our descendants.

I am tired of dancing around the exception clause as it did not exist. Do you have a copy of the Bible? Open it up at Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and LOOK. The exception clause is THERE for all the world to see.

If you want to see something else, go ahead! Believe what you will. But I will take Jesus’ words at face value and I do not expect He will hold that against me when I stand before Him when He comes.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes in him who sent me, has everlasting life,” Jesus said, “and shall not come into condemnation, but has passed from death into life,” (John 5:24). 

I trust Him and so should you,

P. H. 

Conservative Mennonite

© OTR 2023