Home About Us Apostolic Free Library Questions & Answers Guestbook Order Online Search The Network

Is adultery grounds for divorce?

Submitted: 6/3/2014
Post a comment or
ask a follow-up question
Question: Can you explain Matthew 5:32? It seems to me it's okay to remarry in the case of when your spouse cheated or committed fortification. If you disagree, please give me verses.

Answer: In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, 'But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality (porneuo) causes her to commit adultery (moicheuo); and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery' (Matthew 5:32). In Matthew 19:9 Jesus taught,”Whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality (porneuo), and marries another, commits adultery (moicheuo).” The Greek word translated 'sexual immorality' can include all forms of illicit sexual practices. Some extrapolate from these passages an exception for believers to the general prohibition against divorce. They say that Jesus was establishing sexual immorality as a legitimate ground for divorce. We disagree.

To understand what Jesus was intending in these verses, we must first look at the similar pronouncements in Mark and Luke. In Mark 10:11-12, for example, Jesus simply stated, 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.' In Luke 16:18 He said, 'Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery' (Luke 16:18). We view these passages as idealized expressions of God’s high priority on marital faithfulness and the fact that He considers marriage to be a lifelong union. There are clearly no “exceptions” in them. We do not, however, consider them to be controlling dictates, defining the ramifications of every situation where there is marital failure or answering every question about remarriage. We see them instead as roughly equivalent to Paul’s idealized commandment that “a wife is not to depart from her husband...and a husband is not to divorce his wife' (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). From these verses we conclude that the baseline is no divorce, period.

We agree that sexual immorality by a marriage partner is a horribly painful and destructive act that will severely damage any marital relationship. But we do not see the words of Jesus as an establishment of sexual immorality as a ground for divorce. Instead, we interpret His words in Matthew 5:32 to mean that if a man divorces his wife for a reason other than sexual unfaithfulness, he is putting her in the position of committing adultery upon remarriage. On the other hand, if he divorces her because of sexual sin, he is not causing her to commit adultery because she has already committed adultery by her sexual sin. We see His words in Matthew 19:9 to mean that if a man divorces his wife for sexual immorality and marries someone else, he is not committing adultery. This is not the same as saying he has a right to do this. Therefore, we believe that neither of these statements on divorce constitutes either an endorsement of divorce or the establishment of a “biblical ground” for divorce. Their emphasis is more on the results of divorce than the basis for it.

The word “adultery” generally pertains to voluntary sexual relations between a married person and someone who is not his or her spouse. But the root meaning of the word is literally “to another” (Latin ad alter). This is why the word “adulterate” can mean to falsify (to make a thing into something it is not) or to water-down (to make something inferior or impure by adding something harmful or less valuable). This suggests that the word “adultery” can refer to more than an illicit sex act; it can also have a spiritual component. In Matthew 5:28, for example, Jesus stated that when a man looks upon a women to lust after her, he has committed adultery in his heart. This is because lustful thoughts are damaging to the underlying emotional and spiritual bond between a man and his wife.

We therefore submit that anytime a man turns to “another women,” whether physically, mentally, or emotionally, he is committing a form of adultery (of course the same would be true of a women who turns to another man). But forming a non-sexual connection alone is not “sexual immorality” (porneuo), otherwise a women could divorce her husband for looking at pornography or harboring lustful thoughts, even though he had never done the act. Notice that Jesus never said anything about a divorce on the ground of adultery (moicheuo), but rather on the ground of “sexual immorality” (porneuo). This means that the illicit sex act must have actually taken place, which is why the men who brought the adulterous woman to Jesus said, “This woman was caught in adultery, in the very act” (John 8:4). They knew that Jesus had a definition of adultery that included factors other than the very act.

As we have acknowledged, when sexual unfaithfulness occurs, it will bring great trauma to the marriage and create a huge emotional breach. But this still does not mean that the injured spouse has an automatic right to divorce. There are many factors to consider, such as how the injured spouse may have contributed to the failure and whether the offending spouse wants to keep the marriage together. When asked what He would do to the women taken in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her but instead forgave her. This is His ideal, even when sexual immorality has taken place.

But He also told the women to go and sin no more. When sexual unfaithfulness by a marriage partner continues and becomes a persistent pattern, the faithful spouse may have a legitimate reason for refusing to continue cohabiting with the offender. Jesus seems to have recognized the potential for sexual sin to so completely ruin a marriage that it becomes unsalvageable. But we view Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 and 19 not as the establishment of a biblical ground but rather as a concession to the limitations of the human spirit to endure emotional wreckage. In other words, He was acknowledging that if a believer divorces his or her spouse because of persistent unrepentant sexual unfaithfulness, the faithful spouse should not be charged with adultery if he or she remarries.

It is important to note that sexual unfaithfulness is the only condition Jesus mentioned, perhaps because it strikes at the very heart of the marriage covenant—two becoming one.