Thousands of young boys walked past the Bathwell Castle in England, and none ever dreamed
of climbing up the chimney to carve his name at the top. There was one exception, however. One
boy did the unusual, and his name was David Livingstone. That boy went on to become one of
histories most famous missionaries to Africa. Browning wrote,
You see lads walk the street.
Sixty the minute, what's to note in that?
You see the one lad astride the chimney stack.
Him you must watch.
Browning is saying, keep your eyes on the exception, for the exception may be more significant than
the rule. The age old saying that the exception proves the rule is nonsense. What it proves is that
the rule is not all there is. It proves the rule does not cover all cases, and to say it does, in the face of
an exception, is to say that a black sheep proves that all sheep are white. The exception does not
prove the rule, it breaks it, and shows that reality is more complex than the rule. Science must
constantly reckon with exceptions. It cannot say, light is always a wave, for there are conditions
under which light behaves like a particle. This exceptional behavior cannot be dismissed as
irrelevant, but must be incorporated into the total picture. Darwin had to postpone the publishing of
his book for 29 years, because he had to be honest about exceptions. Often he would exclaim,
"This little beast is doing just what I did not want him to do."
Ignore exceptions, and you become, not a seeker for truth, but a manipulator of facts to get your
own way, and a narrow minded legalist, whose only concern is getting your own way. The Bible
demands that you be open to the power of exceptions, for only those who are, are open to the spirit of
grace. Even under Old Testament law we see examples of exceptions that allow grace to dominate.
The law forbids the Jews to marry Caananites or Moabites, but Rahab the Caananite and Ruth the
Moabite are in the blood line of Jesus. They became exceptions by their faith, and played a major
role in God's plan.
The Jews recognized the need to be flexible, and open to exceptions. It was the law that all male
babies be circumcised on the eighth day. It was a sign of the covenant between God and Israel. But
there were conditions that could alter this law, and allow for an exception. A Rabbi wrote, "If a
mother has lost 2 sons by the fever following circumcision, the operation on the third should be
deferred until he is grown and strong." Here was a circumstance where holding to the letter of the
law would be cruel. You destroy the whole spirit of the law if you cannot adjust to exceptions. This
was the whole point of Jesus breaking the Sabbath laws to heal people. He was making it clear man
was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath was made for man, and, therefore, it is always right
to do good on the Sabbath. The rule is for man's good, but if the exception is even better, then the
rule can be broken. The exception is more important than the rule, if it accomplishes the purpose
that made the rule good in the first place.
Exceptions are so vital to the whole plan of God that there would be no New Testament without
the power of the exception. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God, is the blanket of
condemnation that falls over the whole of humanity. All, that is, except one. There is one glorious
exception to this rule, and that one exception-the Lord Jesus Christ, by not falling short of God's
glory, made it possible for there to be a perfect sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. In other
words, through this one exception the door is opened for grace to triumph over law, and allow all
men to escape the condemnation of the law. God's entire plan of salvation is based on the power of
Jesus stressed the motivating power of the exception in His own ministry. The 99 followed the
rule, and they stayed in the fold, but the one exception wandered away. Jesus says the exception is
what dominates the shepherd's mind, for he leaves the 99 and goes after the one to seek and to save
it, and when he does, all heaven rejoices over that one exception being found. The point is,
sometimes it is the exception that matters most. Those Christians who refused to deal with exception
tend to become legalists, like the Pharisees, and depart from the spirit of Christ. Much of the conflict
of Catholic and Protestants was over this very issue.
Jesus made it clear in Matt. 5:32, and 19:9 that there was an exception which made divorce
legitimate. That exception was adultery. The word actually covers all forbidden
sexual relationships, including sex with animals. Jesus is saying there are some things no mate
needs to tolerate. He does not say they have to divorce for this behavior, but they are free to do so, if
they cannot forgive and be reconciled.
The Catholic church had to reject this exception. Their legalistic system did not permit them to
be open to the Lord's exception. They had developed the concept that marriage was a sacrament. A
sacrament is a means of grace, and once you have experienced a sacrament, you have received
something from God that can never be undone. Baptism is another of the sacraments, and so once
you have been baptized, they say, you have received the grace of God, and this can never be undone.
Applied to marriage, the Catholic church said, there can be no such thing as divorce, for once
married it is like being baptized, and you can't undo it. Only death can end a marriage.
Now, of course, they had to deal with intolerable situations, and so they called marriages like
Jesus and Paul deal with, not true marriages, and, therefore, able to be annulled. The history of this
is a terrible scandal, for people married for many years, with large families, could get their marriage
annulled, if they knew the right people, and had the power. The Catholic church had to deal with
exception, but they did it by pretending there were no exceptions.
Then came the Protestant reformers, and they began to question the Biblical right of the church to
impose on people what God did not. The first thing the reformers did was to reject the idea that
marriage was a sacrament. This was clearly a man made idea, for marriage is universal. All men,
even pagans and atheists, get married, and they do not receive grace in doing so, and so the whole
idea comes from the Catholic desire to get power in people's lives. The reformers discovered that
Jesus not only allowed divorce for the exception of adultery, but that Paul allowed another exception
here in I Cor. 7. Desertion by a non-Christian became the second exception the reformers allowed.
The Catholic church at the Council of Trent in 1563 blasted the Protestants for heresy. The two
sides became locked into their positions. The Catholics became more legalistic than ever,
and the Protestants became more soft hearted than ever.
Luther felt that the exception Paul allowed was based on the recognition that the marriage was
dead. You cannot keep alive that which is dead. This lead to their being still more exceptions.
Once you depart from the absolute of the Catholic church, you open the door to more and more
exceptions, and this is what the Protestants did. Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Zwingli, all
agreed that divorce was permissible for other reasons that destroyed the whole purpose of marriage.
They added such things as:
1. Impotence: If sex is not possible, and is yet vital to ones partner, they said there is no marriage,
and divorce and remarriage is legitimate. If a mate refused to meet the sexual need of the other, as
Paul stresses in the first part of this chapter, they forfeit their right to be married. We are getting into
touchy territory here, for the reformers are now going beyond Jesus or Paul, and we are in the area
where the Bible does not speak, and it did not end here.
2. Leprosy became another cause for divorce, for this made marriage impossible. Other sicknesses
were soon added, such as mental illness.
3. John Calvin added extreme religious incompatibility. And Italian leader in Naples became a
Protestant and fled to Geneva where Calvin's authority was strong. His wife remained a Catholic
and refused to come with him, even after he settled down and invited her to join him. Calvin said
the marriage was dead. He dissolved it, and the man was allowed to remarry.
The Protestant view seems to open up more and more reasons for valid divorce and remarriage,
for life seems to get more and more complicated. What if a man's wife became a witch? What if
she tried to poison him? Were these not just as serious as adultery and desertion? The Puritans tried
to limited divorce to the two exceptions of Jesus and Paul, but these other issues forced them to
consider more exceptions. In the late sixty's, the Baptist Convention of Canada called upon the
government to recognize divorce for incurable insanity, chronic alcoholism, and repeated prison
There is much more of the history of this battle, but we have seen enough to get the picture. The
Catholic position of absolutely no divorce led to all kinds of cruelty and hypocrisy. But the
Protestant view of divorce for anything that destroyed the purpose of marriage led to more and more
exceptions. One refused to let the water of liberty flow at all, and the other produced a flood. The
conflict goes on to this day, and Christians still tend to fall into one category or the other. They are
either so anti-divorce they refuse to accept the exceptions, even of Christ and Paul. Or they are so
open to divorce they accept it as inevitable for numerous reasons. It is hard to stay in the middle, but
it is important to try and strive for balance. Which way you lean depends largely on how you
interpret Paul in this paragraph which deals with what have come to be called, The Pauline
Having studied the history of the interpretation of this passage, I have to take my stand with the
Protestant Reformers, and recognize that Paul has added an exception that Jesus never dealt with.
There were no Christian and non-Christian marriages when Jesus spoke, but Paul had to deal with
this issue, for when the Gospel came to Corinth, and all of the Gentile world, many families were
divided. On top of this, Christians were in the minority, and non-Christians were the majority.
Where that is the case there are always Christians who fall in love and marry non-Christians. Paul
would not have had to warn Christians not to do it, unless they were doing it. Paul was dealing with
a major social and spiritual problem that did not exist in the time of Christ.
That is why Paul begins this paragraph in verse 12 by saying, "I say, not the Lord." He has no
word of Christ on this issue, and he has not received any special revelation. It is a complex subject
the Corinthians have asked him about, and Paul is saying, here is my best judgment on the issue.
Notice, Paul did not say the Bible has the answer to everything, and then quote a couple of proof
texts to settle the matter. He says just the opposite, and says that we have no word of God on this
problem, because it never before existed. Paul is, therefore, setting a precedent for the entire history
of the church. He is saying that there are all kinds of new problems that can arise that are not dealt
with in Scripture. The Bible is not an exhaustive rule book to cover all of the issues that life can
bring. There is no law for everything under the sun. Instead, there are principles that the believer
must apply to make the best judgments as new issues arise.
Paul said that his best judgment in the case of a non-Christian deserting a Christian mate, was
that the Christian had no marriage, and was not bound. All of the reformers said, by being not
bound Paul meant they were free to divorce and remarry. The assumption is that the non-Christian
has left to remarry another non-Christian more to his liking. If this is not what Paul meant, then
there is no sense in saying they are not bound. If they had to remain married to that mate, even when
they were gone, and had remarried another, there is no way to say they were not bound. They would
be nothing but bound, and they would actually be slaves to the non-Christian deserter, who was free
to do as he or she pleased, while the Christian had no freedom at all.
Believe it or not, some Protestants took this view that Paul meant by not being bound,
that they were merely not bound to try and win their mate to Christ any longer. Some comfort, after
they have taken off and remarried. The cruelty of this view has hurt many Christian lives, and
made them slaves when Paul's whole purpose was to set them free. The majority of Protestants,
however, recognized that Paul had already established desertion as a legitimate basis for divorce and
remarriage. This Pauline Privilege has been a guide to the church through the centuries in dealing
with new situations. There are circumstances that make a marriage no marriage, and when these
circumstances are that severe, the marriage is dead, and grace and mercy demand that the victims be
given a chance for a new beginning.
I have read of many pastors who solved the problem of how to deal with divorce people by
saying, they just don't deal with them at all. There are to many uncertainties as to who is to blame,
and who is lying, and so they just wash their hands of the whole mess. This is the no risk legalistic
approach. It solves everything for the pastor, and solves nothing for those who are suffering. In
contrast, we have the Pauline approach. The Corinthians have messed up their lives. Their sin and
ignorance has taken them into complex relationships that have created suffering and sorrow. They
need help to find a way to get their lives straightened out so that they can live meaningful lives for
Paul says, I don't have all the answers, but I'll do my best to give you the guidance you need to
get back on track. God took this attitude and Paul's advice, and made it a part of His Word, and by
so doing He says to the whole church, this is the way to go to be Christlike, and to build my
kingdom. Deal with people where they are. Whatever their mess, there is always a way to go that
leads to life, for sin can be forgiven, and there can be a new beginning that leads to happiness.
Look at how Jesus dealt with the woman at the well. Hollywood cannot produce a more messed
up person than her. She was married five times, and was living with a man who was not her
husband. It is likely she was divorced from several of her five husbands, for there is no hint that they
all died, or were poisoned by her. She was a person that most counselors would be happy to avoid.
Jesus accepted her as a person of value, and by so doing He won her, and she became the best
evangelist we have any record of in the Gospels. She was not the type of woman you go looking for
to be a leader. She had done everything all wrong, and had gone down every path God had
forbidden. Yet, Jesus saw her as a precious person worth saving, restoring, and using for His
The point is, Jesus did not treat this often divorced woman as one guilty of unforgivable sin. On
the contrary, He so forgave her that He allowed her to become His disciple and witness. This kind
of grace is scandalous to many Christians. They refused to believe a person can make so many
mistakes, and still have the right to be happy in Christ. There legalistic minds demand that she pay
for her folly, and they refuse her the right to remarry and be happy with another mate. They demand
that she remain single for the rest of her life, regardless of her misery and temptation. You can go
this route if you chose, for many good Christians do, but I have made my choice to go with the
reformers, and chose the way of Christ and Paul, which is the way of grace that allows exceptions,
and permits the victims of a dead marriage to remarry in the Lord. If I err, let me err on the side of
love, and not on the side of legalism.
Does this view of the reformers encourage divorce? Not at all, the reformers hated divorce and
fought against it on all levels. They just faced up to the fact that you have to reckon with
exceptions. To ignore them, in order to be an absolutist, is to put law above love, and precepts
above persons. God did not do it in the Old Testament; Jesus refused to do it in the New Testament,
and Christians must refuse to do it as long as history lasts. Exceptions that fit the Bible principles do
not open the door to sin, but they open the door of mercy to those who otherwise may be dominated
by sin. The exceptions permit us to make people our priority. This is the goal of the Pauline