Divorce and the Meaning of Porneia

The title of this thread is taken from and article found here:

I thought this article is very good at explaining the position of divorce and remarriage Taught from Scripture. It is NOT a Catholic source or, to my knowledge, officially approved by the Catholic Church. Yet it seems inline with the Catholic position (and oddly enough no recognition is given the Catholic Church for professing this position from the earliest days:rolleyes:).

I dont want this thread to be concerned with only this article but the topic in general. I’d like to hear opinions about divorce and remarriage and the role that St. Matthew’s account, which includes the exception of “porneia”, plays.

Here is a section of the conclusion from the article:

“What is the meaning of the Greek porneia in this passage (Matthew 19)? The Church of God for 40 years has said it relates to an illicit sex act committed PRIOR to being bound in marriage, undisclosed to the husband until AFTER the marriage ceremony.”

“The word porneia in Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 does not, and cannot mean in this context, adultery …porneia can, and more often does mean fornication by an UNmarried person — prior to marriage. THIS IS THE ONLY MEANING THAT FITS THE CONTEXT IN MATTHEW 5 AND 19, CONSISTENT WITH GOD’S LAW AND ALL THE OTHER SCRIPTURES, AND CONSISTENT WITH GOD’S PURPOSE!”

“Matthew alone mentions ‘except it be for porneia’ because only he has explained the incident of Joseph thinking to put away Mary his betrothed. When Jesus said these words, recorded in Matthew 5 and 19, He was very conscious of the fact that this very ‘exception clause’ INVOLVED HIS OWN CONCEPTION AND BIRTH.”

It seems that there are two aspects of what divorce can mean. One being a mere ‘seperation’ or putting away which Paul addresses specifically in 1 Cor. 7, while the divorce which can render a marriage invalid or NOT binding is refered to by Jesus. The latter being a problem from very beginning of the attempted marriage which actually recognizes the marriage as never truly binding/consecrated/consumated thus allowing for a person to pursue a true marriage. The former recognizing a valid marriage which even though there is just cause for separation, both persons are bound to one flesh until death without exeption.

The Catholic Church uses the decree of anulity to distinguish these invalid marriages and examples of these could be situations where one spouse was led to believe the other was a virgin, or ilicit incest, or one spouse never being open to sex without contraception.

Taken from The Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs

Matthew’s Exceptive Clause

The biblical teaching about divorce and remarriage is straightforward until we encounter the cryptic “exceptive clause” which is found only in Matthew. Matthew’s gospel differs from Mark’s account by adding a limiting clause: “except for the reason of porneias”. The Greek word porneia means sexual immorality in a general sense, and has a large range of possible meanings. It can refer to any sexual activity outside of marriage as well as abnormal sexual activity inside of marriage. The following are examples of how some Bibles translate this clause:

        “excepting for the cause of fornication” (Rheims)
        “saving for the cause of fornication” (KJV)
        “except for the cause of unchastity” (NASB)
        “unless the marriage is unlawful” (NAB)
        “except for marital unfaithfulness” (NIV)
        “except on the grounds of unchastity” (NRSV)

In general there are three major schools of thought about how to interpret the Greek word porneia in this context. Porneia can mean (1) adultery; (2) sexual activity prior to marriage; (3) marriage within prohibited degrees of kinship.


The majority Protestant position translates porneia to mean adultery. Therefore, the meaning of the exceptive clauses is: divorce and remarriage are prohibited, unless there has been adultery in the marriage, in which case the marriage is already broken. This is a very weak interpretation, however, because it stands in contradiction to all of the other saying of Jesus about the indestructible nature of the bond of marriage.

There is also a long standing Catholic tradition which interprets porneia to mean adultery. Catholics hold that divorce is allowable if one party is unfaithful, but remarriage is not allowed because the bond of marriage is unbreakable. This Catholic interpretation, then, requires the exceptive clauses to refer only to divorce and not to remarriage.

As an historical note, shortly after the time of Christ, Jewish as well as Roman husbands were compelled by law to divorce their wives if it became known that she committed adultery. In this context Matthew’s exceptive clause is an accommodation to a cultural situation in which Christians would be facing legal persecution if they did not divorce.

**Sexual Activity Prior to Marriage**

Another interpretation of porneia is to translate it as sexual activity prior to marriage. This is known as the “Betrothal” view. In Jewish marriage, betrothal was a formal step prior to the consummation of the marriage. Once betrothed, the parties were legally married even though they did not enjoy all of the benefits of marriage. Nevertheless, divorce would still be required if someone wanted to call off the wedding. According to the betrothal view, the exceptive clause means: divorce and remarriage are prohibited, unless there has been infidelity prior to the wedding itself, in which case the marriage does not have to take place.

The betrothal view is appealing because, in the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel (See Mt 1:18-19), Joseph is described as a “righteous man,” who, nevertheless, had decided to divorce Mary during their betrothal period since he suspected her of porneia. Joseph could not be called “righteous” if he was about to do an action which would later be condemned by Jesus. Therefore, this situation in the beginning of Matthew’s gospel explains why Matthew inserted the exceptive clause.

**Marriage within Prohibited Degrees of Kinship**

A third interpretation is called the “Rabbinic” view. In the rabbinic view, porneia is interpreted to mean marriage, or in general, sexual activity, within the prohibited degrees of kinship as specified by Leviticus 18. Many scholars agree that Matthew was writing to a mixed Jewish/Gentile community. Gentiles, unlike the Jews, would sometimes enter into marriage with a close blood relative. The influx of Gentiles into the Christian community caused the leaders of the Christians to specify what was necessary of Gentile converts. Their decision is found in Acts 15:20, which includes a statement that Gentiles must avoid porneia. In this context, porneia most likely means marriage to a close blood relative.

According to the rabbinic view, the exceptive clause means: divorce and remarriage is prohibited, unless the marriage is unlawful in accordance with Lev 18, in such a case Gentiles must separate and enter into a lawful marriage.


And so, there are at least three ways in which the exceptive clause in Matthew can be interpreted. But it is wrong to interpret this clause in such a way that it contradicts or overturns Jesus’ consistent teaching about divorce and remarriage.

Thanks for that source JerryZ,

Here is another good article from a Baptist minister. desiringgod.org/articles/on-divorce-remarriage-in-the-event-of-adultery

Again, its funny how the Churchs’ looooong history of holding to the position is ignored. Instead its, “I have recently come to the conclusion…” and “I began, first of all…” and “The next clue in my search…” :rolleyes:

Nevertheless, he has realized some more aspects which support marriage as indisoluable and permanent until death, even in case of adultery.

I grew up in a liturgical church that uses the Revised Common Lectionary. So I got to hear this verse as a child. I remember when I heard it I thought it was very clear that Jesus was saying remarriage was adultery and therefore there was no divorce. Separation is a different issue. I have never understood how a Christian could think otherwise.

As the author says other versus in Holy Scripture don’t have any exception. It is interesting to consider that if the book of Matthew was not included in the Bible Christians the case would be closed (actually I shouldn’t say that - man is awful creative in justifying what he wants to do). The author points this out:

It would be many years after the time of Christ before the New Testament scriptures were collected together for everyone to read. Up till then, many of those in the early New Testament church would only have a part of the scriptures. Those who only had access to, say, the books of Mark, Luke or Romans, would read the very plain commandment — DO NOT DIVORCE.

The realization that divorce is forbidden is not nearly as surprising as is the mentioning of this fundamental problem. Early Christians didn’t have all the books, or any, of the Bible. How did they get by? How could they be Christians?

I’ve read before the basic points presented in the article on what pornea could mean and about the issue between the two Jewish schools of thought on divorce. What is presented makes sense to me. I really think the case against divorce is as ironclad.

Hi rcwitness,

I’m familiar with John Piper (from the link in your post). He also believes the following…

*Those who are already remarried:

  1. Should acknowledge that the choice to remarry and the act of entering a second marriage was sin, and confess it as such and seek forgiveness.

  2. Should not attempt to return to the first partner after entering a second union (see 8.2 above).

  3. Should not separate and live as single people thinking that this would result in less sin because all their sexual relations are acts of adultery. The Bible does not give prescriptions for this particular case, but it does treat second marriages as having significant standing in God’s eyes. That is, there were promises made and there has been a union formed. It should not have been formed, but it was. It is not to be taken lightly. Promises are to be kept, and the union is to be sanctified to God. While not the ideal state, staying in a second marriage is God’s will for a couple and their ongoing relations should not be looked on as adulterous.*

source: desiringgod.org/articles/divorce-remarriage-a-position-paper

I completely agree with John Piper.

In His Grace

This is a personal decision. If John, or any church authority, wishes to instruct the person involved, that is them assuming the guidance of Christ.

I would have to consult Catholic Law, since it pertains to the Law. But, being Catholic, I wouldn’t be in that situation, since there is a process of annulment, if the first marriage was deemed invalid.

I agree completely with John Piper.

In His Grace

Thanks for sharing.

What would the response be if someone pointed out that many feel the annulment process is simply a way around “divorce” and remarriage. In essence what if someone claimed an annulment is simply a whitewashed manner of divorce? Is there that type of discussion within the RCC?

I can appreciate that question very much! I am open to discussing that in this thread. Or if you care to start one specifically on that question, I’m in.

My initial response, is that Jesus apparently made an exception for a certain scenerio. The Catholic faith, at least, does profess the authority to interpret the Scripture and definitions of marriage.

I think the article is very Catholic in its assessment of the context of the exception clause in Matthew. It therefore, is logical to understand the resulting invalid union which existed in such a scenerio.

But I’ve been curious about annulment as well. The Catholic Church seems open to more possible scenerio than this article implies. Whether they are infallible or not is an important question also.

The annulment process is very long and difficult and some are never even granted.

I would not agree that it is “simply a way around divorce and remarriage”.

I know of at least two couples that have been married to their second spouses for years and are unable to take Communion because their annulment has not gone through. Not to mention all of the paperwork involved and the need to live as brother and sister.

The NIV translation is sexual immorality , just letting you know

Ask Anglicans about King Henry the 8th if the annulment process is just a way around divorce. Sometimes they are not approved.

It’s not something the church just rubber stamps. It goes to tribunal and you as the petitioner needs witnesses to testify for you. They also make a attempt to contact your ex-spouse, awkward as that can be.

Sorry, I realized after rereading that I didn’t exactly comment on the intent of OP. :blush: I have heard various definitions given for “porneia” along the lines already answered. I do think Christians in general have done an extremely poor job in teaching the indissolubility of marriage. In essence I believe marriage was supposed to cement a relationship in the same manner of a genetic relationship. In other words, a spouse is a spouse no matter if someone tries to deny it, just as a biological mother is a biological mother no matter if someone tries to deny it.

If we see marriage as a covenant, I feel the real question is; when does an offending spouse break a covenant? So, if we vow a vow to our spouse, if we break that vow, does it break the covenant connection, and if so, what is egregious enough to be a covenant breaker? We see in OT times that humans can indeed break covenant, and that break has consequences.

Another aspect to remember is that sexual sin was seen to be so heinous because of the lineage questions in Judaism. One’s lineage HAD to be known and verified because genetic lineage played such a large role in Jewish society (as dictated by God). So, logically I do think porneia does include adultery and the like because God Himself does not want or permit doubt on lineage. (Of course the biggest example of that is the Messiah, His lineage had to be sure, on a “lesser” degree, we have the priestly line, and inheritance of land within family.)

Then we also have to remember that this “law” was mainly to protect the women who would no longer be able to survive if their husbands dropped them like a hot potato.

ok. What’s the significance of that translation? The NIV, that is…

It means that divorce is allowed only in The case of illicit sexual activity like homosexuality, incest or adultery etc .

Jesus addresses this…

He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female,5and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? 6*So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”

Man cannot, even through breaking their vows, dissolve God’s action. An annulment is recognizing that something prevented God from joining the couple from the outset, on behalf of porneia committed by one or both of the candidates.

I understand you can question this, because there is no way to prove if God did or did not join the two.

There is an aspect that any two, who sleep together, do in fact join themselves together. But it does not always involve the Sacrament which God binds on them.

Just as an aside, we also have to remember that adultery was a “stone-able” offense under Mosaic law… which sure would “free” the remaining spouse.

We believe that Jesus “raised” Christian marriage back to the level God established it as. So making it a Sacrament.

He raised it above the righteousness of the Pharisees, who sat on Moses’ seat.

because the NIV translation “says so”?

The LMCS cautioned against its use… for what that is worth.

Not to “argue” without respect. Because that’s the point here… to share what this clause actually means, and how we come to that conclusion.

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