Porneia and the Exception Clause of Matthew 19:9

Anonymous: John, I heard you argue that the Greek word porneia (for “unchastity”) in the Exception Clause of Matthew 19:9 refers to any sexual sin. This is incorrect. The word porneia refers only to sexual relationships between blood relatives, that is, those who were too close in consanguinity. To argue that porneia means any sexual sin like adultery is quite Protestant.

J. Salza: Anonymous, you could not be more wrong. In fact, yours is the Protestant position and it is based on a misunderstanding of the application of the Exception Clause. Here is why. Protestants want to except adultery from porneia because they incorrectly interpret the Exception Clause to apply to both the divorce and remarriage. They (at least many of them) correctly believe that it is immoral to divorce and remarry for adultery. Thus, they believe that porneia cannot mean adultery because, according to their interpretation, it is permissible to divorce and remarry for reasons other than adultery (i.e., incest). If porneia included adultery, then, according to their interpretation, it would be okay to divorce and remarry for adultery but this is not true. That is why they argue that porneia does NOT include adultery. You have fallen into this error, and it makes your exegesis of Matthew 19:9 also erroneous.

The weight of the exegetical evidence, as well as the Church Fathers and Medievals (Clement of Alexandria, Basil, Ambrose, Jerome, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Lombard, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Bellarmine) and the Council of Trent, all side with the Catholic position (which, of course, happens to be my position as well): the Exception Clause applies to the divorce only, not the remarriage. That is, Jesus was allowing divorce (but not remarriage) for porneia.

In Matthew 19:9, Jesus says, “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” Notice that Matthew places the Exception Clause between the relative clause (“whoever divorces his wife”) and the indicative clause (“and marries another”). In doing so, Matthew is emphasizing that the Exception Clause is limited to what has immediately preceded it. If the Exception Clause were placed at the end of the sentence, it would not be clear whether it would apply to the relative clause, the indicative clause or both clauses.

In fact, if the Exception Clause came at the end of the sentence, Jesus’ teaching would be utterly confusing. Would it mean that an offended spouse could leave her fornicating husband and remarry another man? Would it mean that an offending husband could marry his mistress with whom he committed adultery? Jesus’ teaching would be misleading at best. That is why the Holy Ghost inspired Matthew to place the Exception Clause where he did. So, next time, Anonymous, do your research before you accuse a fellow Catholic of being “quite Protestant.”

Anonymous: I agree that the Exception Clause applies to the divorce only, and not the remarriage. What I disagree with is your interpretation of porneia to include adultery. Porneia refers to a state of sexual uncleanness that comes from intercourse with blood relatives. That is the only type of sexual uncleanness that a Jew would have been subject to.

J. Salza: What? I don’t think so. If a Jew contracted a marriage with a Gentile, that would have also rendered the Jew unclean. If a Jew committed a homosexual act, that would have rendered the Jew unclean. If the Jew committed an act of bestiality, that would have rendered the Jew unclean. Sexual uncleanness for the Jews was not limited to incest. I don’t know where you are getting your definition of porneia, but I can assure you that it is not from any knowledgeable Catholic resources. Nevertheless, let me demonstrate using the Scriptures why your definition of porneia is incorrect.

While porneia does include the sexual sin of incest as you insist (see 1 Cor 5:1), it is more encompassing than that. Porneia includes any kind of sexual sin, whether it be incest, fornication, adultery (which is a type of fornication committed by married people; see Sir 23:32-33), homosexual and lesbian acts and bestiality. You would have learned this by briefly checking any New Testament Greek Lexicon, where porneia is used 25 times. That is where we get the word “pornography” (viewing sexual sin, which is not limited to incest).

For example, in Romans 1:29, Paul connects porneia with homosexuality. In 1 Cor 7:2, Paul uses porneia in the context of adultery by saying that every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband so as to flee porneia. In 1 Thess 4:3-5, Paul uses porneia in the context bad sexual motivations, that is, taking a wife in lust and not in holiness. In 1 Cor 6:9, Gal 5:19, Eph 5:3, and Col 3:5 Paul uses porneia in the more general sense of fornication, as does Apoc 2:21; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2,4; 18:3; and 19:2. The Scriptures are crystal clear that porneia is not limited to incest, and generally does not mean incest, unlike what you have proposed.

Now, let me explain the theology behind the Exception Clause for porneia which I believe you have missed in your analysis. The reason why Jesus allows divorce (but not remarriage) for porneia is because porneia (e.g., adultery) has already divided the spouses. In marriage, the spouses have become one flesh (Gen 2:24; Mt 19:5-6; Mk 10:8; Eph 5:31). When a married person enters into a one flesh union with someone other than his spouse, he ruptures the one flesh union he has established with his wife. While this competing one flesh union does not dissolve the marriage (which is why it is impermissible to divorce and remarry for porneia), it nevertheless divides the man between his wife and his adulteress. Paul even says that such a man carries the sinful effects of his adultery around in his body (1 Cor 6:16-20).

Because the fornicating man has separated himself from his wife by entering into a one flesh union with another, the divorce that Jesus allows simply ratifies the condition that the man has already created. There has been a rupture in the original one flesh union, and the divorce merely legalizes that which has already occurred, mystically and theologically (the bodies have separated). One body can have only one union, not two or more unions.

This is why Jesus, right before teaching about the exception for porneia, said, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning 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. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mt 19:4-6). Thus, Jesus sets the theological stage for the Exception Clause which He presents three verses later – divorce is permissible for porneia because the porneia has already ruptured the one flesh union, and the divorce merely legalizes the rupture.

Paul also teaches that it is impermissible to divorce and remarry another. In Romans 7:2-3, Paul says that a woman is an adulteress if she is with another man while her husband lives. In 1 Cor 7:39, Paul teaches that marriage is dissolved only by death. In 1 Cor 7:10-11, Paul says that a wife should not separate from her husband, but if she does, let her remain “unmarried” or reconcile with her “husband.” Although the woman has separated from her husband (which is divorce), Paul still calls the spouse her “husband” which means the separation did not dissolve the marriage. Her state of being “unmarried” refers to the civil law, while her still having a “husband” refers to the higher moral law.

I hope that clarifies for you the meaning of porneia and the Exception Clause of Matthew 19:9.

John Salza