Marriage  Exception  Matthew  19:9 (Porneia)

Does the exception clause in Matt 19:9 allow for divorce from a Christian marriage and a subsequent remarriage ?   No. 

Jesus Christ taught that marriage was to be for life.  However, some people will argue that the exception clause in His teaching on marriage in Matt 19:9 proves that He allowed for a divorce from a Christian marriage and a subsequent re-marriage.  And so they insist that the 2000 year old tradition in the Catholic Church is contrary to the Bible and is therefore to be rejected.   The purpose of this article to demonstrate that this anti-Catholic argument is without any solid foundation.

Catholics have always taught that this teaching of Christ calls mankind to a much higher understanding of the value of marriage.  Marriage is a Sacrament where the couple encounter Christ in a profound way.  This life long bond as it is lived out reveals both the death and resurrection of Christ.  As they get closer to Christ His passion and glory and are made manifest in their lives.  The sacredness of the Marriage vow is such that a second marriage constitutes adultery.  [Since, Protestants do not have this understanding it should be noted that the Catholic Church does not teach that it is necessarily so that a second marriage for a Protestant couple is necessarily an adulterous union.] 

Here is Christ’s teaching:

Matthew 19:3-9 
Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him,  saying,  "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever ?" 
He said in reply,  "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’  and said,  ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’ ?   So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate." 
They said to him,  "Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss (her) ?" 
He said to them,  "Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 
I say to you, whoever divorces his wife except for unchastity and marries another commits adultery."

The exception clause,  "except for unchastity,"  is the crux of the argument.  In the Greek the word for  "unchastity"  is   "porneia."    In the Catholic NAB Bible words in parenthesis are inserted to reflect the constant tradition that has been passed down by the Apostles that a sacramental marriage is life long. 

Matthew 19:9 
"I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery."     NAB



The Protestant argument against the Catholic Tradition states that the Greek word  "porneia"  means adultery, and that the exception clause necessarily justifies the couple who wish to consider the marriage vows to be no longer binding.  And so the Protestant New International Version of the Bible gives the following translation:

Matthew 19:9 
"I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."      NIV

So, for most Protestants marriage is meant to last a lifetime, but adultery justifies divorce and remarriage.  Some Protestants hold that divorce, even in cases of adultery is wrong, but if a couple is divorced the  "divorce"  can be  "forgiven"  and the wronged spouse is free to remarry a second time.  And even the spouse  "causing"  the divorce will usually be free to remarry if he or she finds a new church to attend.

Whereas, in the Catholic Church adultery is also recognized as wrong and it can be forgiven, and if a spouse wrongly divorces his mate he can be forgiven.  However, for the Catholic, forgiveness only comes with conversion.  That is, he or she, would be required to reconcile with their legitimate (first) mate, or at least not engage in marital relations with another.   If a spouse sins by cheating on his vows by divorcing and marrying another he is required to repent and to renew his respecting and keeping of his original vow to his first and legitimate sacramental mate by not engaging in marital relations with another.

Whereas for most Protestants the  "forgiven divorce"  is recognized as to give justification to the spouse who wishes to continue to break and cheat on his original vow and to now live with his second (third, or fourth, etc.)  mate.  Although it claims as its goal to have life long marriages it allows for a sort of serial polygamy, that is more than one spouse, just one at a time. 

Matthew 19:6 
"So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate."    NAB

To support their Protestant understanding some will cite Protestant Greek dictionaries which define the word  "porneia"  as fornication or adultery.  However, any translation or dictionary will be limited by the prejudices of the author.  In this case it is helpful to do a word study on the word in question to examine the context of the various uses of   "porneia."   This will provide clues as to both what it could mean as well as to what it does not mean. 

Before doing this word study we will examine how the King James Version actually supports the Catholic position.

Matthew 19:9 
"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."     KJV

Here the Greek word  "porneia"   is translated as fornication.  [The footnotes in the New American Standard Bible also list fornication as the  "literal"  meaning.]  Fornication is the sin of two unmarried people having sexual intercourse.  If either person is married or if both are married to other people then the sin is called adultery.  So, the only way that the couple could commit fornication is if they were never really in a Christian marriage to begin with.  While the King James Version prohibits a second marriage it makes allowance for couples who were never truly married in a Christian sense, such as father and his own daughter or a mother and her son being married together.  Such marriages were not totally unheard of in regards to the pagans during the time of Christ. 

Now we will investigate what the Greek word   "porneia"  means.   Examining the context of the passages where the word  "porneia"  is used is helpful in discerning this.

In the following passages the Greek word  "porneia"  is translated as  "unchastity."

Matthew 15:19 
"For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, unchastity, theft, false witness, blasphemy."

Mark 7:21-22 
"From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,  adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly."     NAB

Notice that both  "unchastity"  [porneia]  and  "adultery"  are prohibited.  Therefore, from these passages we can see that porneia does not mean adultery as that would be redundant. 


Another important usage of the term porneia is found in Acts 15.

Acts 15:28-29 
"For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things:  that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from unchastity. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell."     RSV

These prohibitions come from the deeply rooted Jewish tradition that is found in Leviticus chapters 17 and 18.  Examining this context also gives us more insight into what is meant by unchastity, or porneia in the Greek.  Consider the following as to how it relates to the four prohibitions in Acts 15:28-29, (1) from the sacrifice to idols,  (2) from blood,  (3) what is strangled [because therefore the blood would still be in it] and (4) from unchastity or  *porneia*. 

Leviticus 17:7 
"No longer shall they offer their sacrifices to the satyrs to whom they used to render their wanton worship. This shall be an everlasting ordinance for them and their descendants."

Leviticus 17:12-14 
"That is why I have told the Israelites: No one among you, not even a resident alien, may partake of blood. 
...  You shall not partake of the blood of any meat. Since the life of every living body is its blood, anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off.

Leviticus 17:15 
"Everyone, whether a native or an alien, who eats of an animal that died of itself or was killed by a wild beast, shall wash his garments, bathe in water, and be unclean until evening, and then he will be clean."

Leviticus 18:1-6 
" ...  Speak to the Israelites and tell them: I, the LORD, am your God. 
  You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt  ...  My decrees you shall carry out, and my statutes you shall take care to follow.  ... Keep, then, my statutes and decrees, for the man who carries them out will find life through them. ... 
 ‘None of you shall approach a close relative to have sexual intercourse with her. I am the LORD.’ "

In fact chapter 18 goes on for 18 verses detailing for the Israelites of how they are to abstain from various types of incest or else they will be cut off from God’s people, cf. verse 29.  So, we can see that it was these unlawful incestuous marriages that were being referred to by the word   "porneia"   and forbidden in Acts 15.

In the King James Version porneia is translated as  "fornication"  rather than  "unchastity"  in Acts 15:29.   [ The New American Bible translates it as  "unlawful marriage."] 


It was these incestuous marriages among blood relatives were so offensive to both Jews and Christians.  And it was just this type of marriage that St. Paul was speaking about 1 Corinthians which is the final example of the term   "porneia"  that we will investigate.   Here the term  "porneia"   is translated as  "immorality."

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 
"It is widely reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of a kind not found even among pagans—a man living with his father’s wife. 
And you are inflated with pride. Should you not rather have been sorrowful? The one who did this deed should be expelled from your midst. 
I, for my part ...  have already, as if present, pronounced judgment on the one who has committed this deed, in the name of (our) Lord Jesus: ... 
you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."     NAB

Thus, again we see that the term  "porneia,"  the same term that is used in the exception clause, in Matthew 5:32  and 19:9,  on the prohibition from divorce and remarriage, is a reference to an unlawful and thus invalid marriage.   [ It is not a reference, as Protestants view it, to a specific act committed during a legitimate  "life-long"  marriage.] 


Jesus’s teaching on marriage was revolutionary.  No other religion, and no major Protestant religion has held fast to this teaching of His that is retained within the teachings of the Catholic Church.  If the Protestant position of allowing the  "divorce"  to be forgiven and a subsequent marriage to be valid then it would not be that hard to live up to.   And it would be unexplainable as to why the disciples responded in the next verse the way that they did if this exception clause was so wide.

Matthew 19:10 
"(His) disciples said to him,   ‘If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ "

In fact most of the passages about Marriage have no exception clause at all. 

Mark 10:1-12 
"...   He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;  and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." 

Luke 16:18 
"Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. 

1 Corinthians 7:10-15 
"To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband   —and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband—and a husband should not divorce his wife  ..."            NAB 

In conclusion, the charge that the Catholic position is inconsistent with the Bible has no basis.  Rather, it is the Catholic Church that is most Biblical.  Protected by the Divine guidance of the Holy Spirit [ John 14:16, 26]  and the constant unchanging  Tradition passed down since the time of the Apostles,  She has held fast to this difficult, yet life giving teaching. 

The Book of Ephesians was the climax of St. Paul’s teachings.  He started many Christian communities but it was to the Ephesians that he was able to explain the entire plan of  God’s  Salvation.

Acts 20:16-27 
"Paul  ...   had the presbyters of the church at Ephesus summoned. 
When they came to him, he addressed them, "You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia.   ...   and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes.   ... 
26 And so I solemnly declare to you this day that ...   I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God."    NAB

And it is in this Book of Ephesians that we find the pinnacle of his teaching on marriage.

Ephesians 5:21-33 
"Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. 
...   Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,  that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 
So (also) husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.   For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church,  because we are members of his body.

 "For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.   In any case, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and the wife should respect her husband."        NAB

Since God is a part of the sacramental union of a married couple it is keeping that the vow be a life long vow.  The Bible compares marriage to God’s love for the Church.  Even if people in the Church sin against Him, He is always faithful to His unconditional love to them.  It is this love, God’s love for the Church that is represented by the spouses vow to love each other until death do them part, for better or for worse. 



1.  Does the declaration by the Catholic Church that a marriage is  "annulled"  mean that there never was any marriage to begin with ?

ANSWER:  No.  There are two different types of marriages that need to be considered.  These types are (1)  a legal marriage recognized by the state and  (2) a Sacramental marriage recognized by the Church.  An annulment means  that there never was a Sacramental marriage.  It in no way affects the legitimacy, one way or the other, of the legal or state marriage.

2.  Does an annulment make the children of that marriage bastard children ?

ANSWER:   Definitely not.  Bastard children are defined as being children from a union that is not recognized as a valid legal marriage.  Since an annulment has no bearing on the legitimacy of the legality of the state marriage it has nothing to do with the children being bastards or not. 

3.  Does the Catholic Church forbid divorce in all cases ?

ANSWER:    No.  While the Church does recognize the vows of a sacramental marriage to be life long, her pastors can and do recommend separation when severe circumstances do mandate it.   Such individuals are not free to marry others and engage in marital relations if their first marriage was indeed a sacramental one since according to Christ that such a relationship would be adultery while their first mate was still alive 

4.  If a couple is in a second marriage that is not recognized by the Church are they required to get a divorce  ?

ANSWER:  Not necessarily.  But they would be required to abstain from marital relations.  Such a calling would be a heroic sacrifice, but it is the living up to the calling that Christ gives to His saints that have been the avenues of God’s precious grace being poured out to His people so that true happiness could be made attainable and so that many souls can be saved. 

5.  Isn’t an annulment in the Catholic Church the same as a divorce in the Protestant Church ?

ANSWER:  No.   A decree of divorce is a declaration that a legitimate marriage has come to an end.  Whereas an annulment is a declaration that a sacramental marriage never existed.  A divorced Protestant is always able to remarry in a Protestant Church.  However, Catholics recognize that God is calling us to a higher, even if it is a self-sacrificing, standard.  We are called to a vocation of holiness.  Annulments are not always granted in the Catholic Church.   [ The Vatican has said that the number of annulments issued in the West needs to come down.  Any abuse of the annulment process has the potential to weaken the view and respect of the Sacrament of Marriage as well as the hope in the power of God’s unconditional love to change peoples lives for the better.  Ephesians chapter 5 explains how the Sacrament of Marriage represents God’s unconditional love for His people and His unbreakable covenant with them. ] 

6.   Do Catholics have to buy an annulment ?

ANSWER:  No.  In order to protect the institution of marriage and its sacredness, as well as to protect the marriage partner who may perhaps have legitimate reasons for believing that the marriage was indeed a sacramental one, an investigation is required before an annulment can be granted.   Several people have to be discreetly interviewed and a panel of three people who are especially trained to deal with this difficult situation have to examine the relevant information.  The total cost of this procedure can range from $2000 to $6000 or so.  Usually the Church does not require total reimbursement for these costs, but sometimes a very small portion is requested for reimbursement if the party seeking the annulment is capable of doing so without any significant hardship.