Author: James R. Graham, Jr.

Before we turn to the Savior’s words in this connection let us remind ourselves that we are interested in what the Scriptures actually teach in these matters and not what is the consensus of opinion of any group of men however eminent. If we have preconceived ideas let us try to divest our minds of them and fairly consider the words and the context.

Even a casual reading of the two longer passages in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 will show that the Lord Jesus Christ was setting forth the Divine mind with respect to the institution of marriage.

(a) From the very beginning there were only two, one man and one woman.

(b) The marriage relation was to supersede the relation of the son to the parents, because a man was enjoined to leave his father and his mother and “cleave” unto his wife.

(c) The two are to be “ONE FLESH.” This is twice repeated. They are not any longer reckoned to be two but ONE (Matt. 19:5, 6). It would seem that the Saviour could not have been more specific in setting forth the indissoluble nature of the marriage relation after the two have become one. No exception is allowed in the thunderous declaration, “What God hath joined together let not man put asunder!” Being convinced from these words that Christ is setting forth an irrefragable union we are disinclined to believe from the outset that He will later introduce an exception that will dissolve the indissoluble or break the unbreakable. To do so would be for Him to contradict Himself, to, stultify Himself.

So drastic are His words, so contrary to the looseness of the times in which He lived, so great an advance upon the allowances of the great Lawgiver, that they immediately take issue with Him and demand of Him why Moses made certain concessions and permitted divorce after marriage. He replies that it was on account of the hardness of their hearts.

Bereft of the Holy Spirit as an indwelling presence since Adam’s fall, without the example of the God-man who lived in poverty and self-sacrifice and died in agony and ignominy, the hearts of men, under the law were ignorant, impenitent, hard. “But,” He repeats, “from the beginning it was not so.” It was not so in the sinlessly felicitous condition in which the first couple found themselves and it is not to be so when by the impartation of the Spirit at Pentecost men and women are to be made partakers of that beloved Adam the Last-the period of Grace.


Now we come to verse nine in the great battleground, the verse which the ignorant have wrested and the vicious have perverted to provide an aperture through which the demon of divorce has been permitted to enter nominal Christendom. This writer admits with shame that he himself was formerly one of “the ignorant who wrested” the verse to mean something that with careful consideration and hallowed study it obviously does not mean.

When we viewed the blighting effects of divorce within that which calls itself the church and became convicted that we and others had spoken all too glibly about “Scriptural grounds for divorce” without any very careful study of the lone two verses of almost identical phraseology (Matt. 5:32; 19:9), from which such “grounds” were allegedly derived, we set ourselves to discover the truth.

We know of no occasion on which we have carefully and open-mindedly set ourselves to know the truth of any passage under the guidance of the blessed Holy Spirit that we have been left further in darkness or error. This occasion was no exception.

“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.” If the verse is read at first omitting the parenthetical phrase “except it be for fornication,” it will be seen that divorce and remarriage are forbidden in the strongest terms. What a volume of sin and wickedness has been excused with that little parenthetical phrase! We note the exception rests with the word “fornication,” while the word “adultery” occurs twice later on in the same verse. Exactly the same thing is true in Matt. 5:32. We are forced to conclude then that there is a definite distinction in the use of the two words “fornication” and “adultery.” The consultation of any reputable English dictionary will show that “fornication” means “illegitimate sex relation on the part of an unmarried person,” while “adultery” means “illegitimate sex relation on the part of a married person.”

A study of the Greek words which these English words are used to translate will show about the same meanings, with the difference that “porneia” (fornication) widens out on some occasions to mean general unchastity. However, when in this verse Christ uses it in contradistinction to “moikeia” (adultery) we are compelled to the conclusion that it is used in its specific sense of premarital impurity.

A simple illustration will aid us in understanding the issue. The word “man” has both a specific and a general meaning. Specifically it means the male of the human species. In general it means the whole of the genus “homo.” The context will always reveal whether it is used in its general or its specific sense. If the word “man” is used in the same sentence with the word “woman,” one is sure that it is used in its specific and not in its general sense.


So it is with “porneia” and “moikeia.” When these words are used together they denote a contrast and no amount of sophistry or obscurantism can make them synonymous or interchangeable. Fornication here simply does not mean adultery unless words have lost their meaning and it is a reflection if not an insult to the omniscient Son of God to insinuate that He was unable to express Himself clearly in such an important statement. If He had intended to make adultery a ground for divorce under His law He could very easily have said so. When He meant “moikeia” (adultery), He said “Moikeia.”

The cause of the misunderstanding of this passage by many honest hearts lies in a difference between Oriental and Occidental customs and terminology. When a Westerner reads the words, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication,” etc., he naturally supposes that “fornication” is used of something of which a “wife” can be guilty. A “wife” with us in the West is one who has already entered into the marriage relation. It is never used of a young women who is merely betrothed. But in the East betrothal is a very serious affair and is legally as binding as marriage itself, so that even before the marriage is consummated the young woman is a wife.

This is seen in the first chapter of Matthew, where in verse nineteen we read, “Then Joseph her husband…was minded to put her away privily.” He was NOT her husband according to our usual Western terminology as the verse preceding clearly states. Mary was merely “espoused” to him. The same thing appears in the next verse in which the Angel Gabriel counsels Joseph, “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife.” She was not yet his wife according to our Western usage. The use of “wife” for a betrothed girl is seen also in Deut. 22:24.

It was the real occurrence in the case of a betrothed wife of what Joseph thought had occurred in the case of Mary that Christ had reference to in Matt. 19:9 as a just cause for terminating a betrothal contract which had not yet eventuated in marriage. It is noteworthy that Joseph planned to put away Mary. This implies a legal process and not merely an oral disavowal. The verb used in this case is exactly the same verb as the one used in every instance where it is translated “divorce”- “apoluo.” While Joseph himself, on the assurance of the Angel, became convinced that Mary had not committed fornication, the stigma of illegitimate birth pursued the Blessed Lord Jesus all through His life and never left his lovely mother. This is seen in the wicked taunt that His adversaries hurled at Him in later years, “We be not born of fornication…” (John 8:41.) It serves only one purpose for us, and that is the further clarification of the use of that ugly word‹ unwed motherhood is invariably that porneia.

We believe that every fair-minded reader will follow us in concluding that the parenthetical phrases “saving for the cause of fornication” and “except it be for fornication,” in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 respectively, are not to be taken to contradict the whole trend of His remarks wherein He is setting forth the indissolubility of the marriage relation and the union into one flesh of two bodies but simply to allow of the termination of a betrothal contract if the woman is found guilty of impurity before the marriage is consummated.

It is deeply significant that in Mark’s gospel, written more for the Romans than the Jews, the words of Christ with respect to the unbreakable nature of the marriage bond are again set forth, but the exception is omitted ~Mk. 10:2-12). The Gospel of Luke, written by a Greek to a Greek, carries only the one verse on the subject (16:18) in which Christ unequivocally affirms that divorce and remarriage are adultery. “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish,” Luke 13:3. “The blood of Jesus Christ, His son cleanseth us from all sin,” 1 John 1:7.


© Church of God Evening Light