One would hope that a statement like “rules are rules and exceptions are exceptions” would be universally accepted as self-evident. Unfortunately, in many recent controversies regarding marriage, divorce, and remarriage, this concept has not been respected. Too much emphasis has been placed on the exception and precious little on the rule.
Consider what is written in Luke 16:18 (and also in Mark 10:11-12):
“Every one that putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth one that is put away from a husband committeth adultery.”
Please notice that Jesus here presents the rule. We have a natural tendency to automatically want to harmonize these passages of Scripture with Matthew 19:9, and carve out the exception to the rule. While we are not attempting to invalidate the exception, let us set aside this harmonizing impulse for just a moment and allow the rule to sink deeply into our hearts. The rule is that those who (actively) divorce and marry others commit adultery, and those who marry those who are (passively) divorced commit adultery.
This is the principle that God has demonstrated in Scripture. Yes, in Matthew 19:9, God makes an exception to this rule: if sexually deviant behavior (Greek porneia) is committed, the offended spouse may divorce the offending spouse and marry another without committing adultery. Therefore, those who have divorced their spouses for their sexually deviant behavior and have married another have committed no sin.
Unfortunately, far too many brethren try to blow the exception wide open. They will declare that God preserves the “right” for the “innocent party” to “lawfully divorce” in Matthew 19:9, focus on this and emphasize this, and in so doing make the exception the rule and the rule the exception. This ought not be!
We should never forget that God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), and man is not to separate what God has joined together (Matthew 19:4-6). The way that Jesus has spoken what is revealed in Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, and Luke 16:18 indicate that He expects “legitimate” divorces to be in the minority and the fully sinful divorces to be in the majority. The rule is that divorces are sinful and remarriage involves adultery; the exception is carved out for one specific reason, and while it is mentioned by Matthew, Mark and Luke pass over it in silence.
Therefore, to focus on the exception to the detriment of the rule, or to emphasize the exception over the rule is to radically distort what Jesus is attempting to communicate. Divorce is never a “right”: God allows a person to divorce the one who has committed sexually deviant behavior against them, but such is never commanded. Since God hates divorce and strongly affirms covenant faithfulness, one could make a strong argument that God would rather such a couple work out their challenges and stay married. The Bible never speaks of an “innocent” party or a “guilty” party, terms that are very prejudicial and which rarely reflect the realities of a marriage and divorce scenario (many “innocent” parties are hardly innocent, and while the actions of the “guilty” party are inexcusable, they are sometimes understandable). Again, we emphasize that God hates divorce, and therefore to emphasize the exception over the rule is not wise. Most divorces are going to be for inappropriate reasons. Divorce leads to great sadness and misery. Since divorce has become quite popular in our society, we must keep these timeless truths in mind and hold fast to them. Let us preach the rule as the rule and the exception as the exception!