BY MIKE BENSON
IT IS SOMETIMES suggested that if and when a mate (husband or wife)1 looks at pornography (especially if that mate exhibits certain addictive behaviors), that the innocent spouse therefore has Scriptural grounds to divorce. The argument goes something like this:
“Because a) Jesus says fornication is grounds for divorce (Mat. 19:9), and b) because in the act2 of looking and lusting the spouse has ‘already committed adultery (i.e., a form of sexual immorality—cf. Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 5:11, et. al) in his or her heart’ (Mat. 5:28; cf. Mark 7:21), that c) the innocent spouse not only has heaven’s sanction for severing this marital union (Mat. 19:6; Mark 10:9), but may even marry another individual.”
In an effort to properly interpret (Luke 10:26; cf. Eph. 5:17) and apply God’s Word in this regard, let’s honestly and prayerfully reflect upon the following passages, questions, and remarks in our personal study (Acts 17:11). Consider:
God is God—Creator (Heb. 3:4), Sustainer (Acts 17:28), and Master (vv. 24, 27), and He alone therefore gets to decide what His children will believe and practice IN ANY AND ALL realms (Isa. 55:8; cf. 2 Pet. 1:3). NOTE:
. The ONLY way we can know what God is thinking on any subject is by what He tells us in His word (1 Cor. 2:9-13).
. Marriage was/is God’s idea (Gen. 2:22-25); it is not some sort of evolutionary concept borrowed from the pairing rituals of animals.
. God has defined what constitutes a divinely approved marriage—one man and one woman, for life (Mat. 19:1ff).
. God gave only one reason for divorce (Mat. 19:8-9; 5:32).
. God has spelled out who is, as well as who is not, qualified to divorce and remarry (Mat. 5/19; 1 Cor. 7). Since He is not the author of confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), and since it is impossible for Him to lie (Num. 23:19; Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18), what God the Son (Heb. 1:1-2) said in Matthew 19 and what Paul said 1 Corinthians 7 or elsewhere (through Jesus—John 16:13) MUST compliment, not contradict, each other.3
. It is possible for a person to divorce his/her spouse with man’s lawful approval, but without God’s divine approval (Mat. 5:32).
Did Jesus say that a man could divorce his wife for fornication (i.e., sexual immorality—NKJV) and marry another woman without being guilty of sin? A. Yes—Mat. 19:9, cf. Rom. 7:2-3.
Did Jesus say that a man could divorce his wife for some (or any) reason other than fornication and marry another woman without being guilty of sin? A. No. Compare “unless”—Luke 13:3 with “except”—Mat. 5:32.
Does adultery actually sever the marital union? No. It is possible for a mate to literally commit adultery, be fully and thoroughly penitent for his/her sinful thoughts and actions, and then be forgiven by their spouse for their immorality (cf. Mat. 18:21-22; Col. 3:13) so that the marriage continues. The act(s) of adultery (Col. 3:5-7) do not sever the marriage (even though they sever the trust within the marriage); the marriage is severed when the divorce is finalized.
Is it wrong to think sinful, lustful thoughts? A better question might be, “Is it wrong to ponder upon sinful thoughts?”
Example: If a man glances at a woman who is immodestly dressed in public, is he automatically guilty of sin? No. However, if that same man not only glances at the woman, but then begins to mentally imagine and cultivate what he might/would do with her sexually, assuming he had the opportunity to do so, he has—in fact—sinned IN HIS HEART.
Important observation—Sin in the heart always proceeds sin in the life:
. “Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life.” Pro. 4:23
. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies.” Mat. 15:18
. “Each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin…” Jas. 1:14-15a
. NOTE: A person can think about committing sin, and lust in his heart, without actually committing the sin itself.
Is the thought of an action equal to the action itself? No. Consider but two examples: 1) “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly” (Mat. 1:19). The word rendered “minded,” Greek—boulomai, is sometimes translated “be willing,” “be disposed,” or “intend.” Since Joseph considered divorcing Mary, did he actually sever his bond with his betrothed? 2) Jesus said: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment…” (vv. 21-22). Was Jesus saying that a person who is angry and hates his brother is actually guilty of murder itself? How could a brother be guilty of murder if the person he hates is not actually dead? Consider: If merely the thought of an action is equal to the action itself, then Joseph really divorced Mary, and hatred is really murder. If not, why not? As Wayne Jackson observes:
“If the term ‘adultery’ is to be pressed literally in Matthew 5:28, should the remedy that is subsequently imposed (i.e., the plucking out of the eye and the amputation of one’s hand) likewise be pressed literally? Clearly, Christ is dealing with mental acts that, as evil as they are, do not yet rise to the level of physical murder or adultery, but are, in principle, serious sins. There is a nexus between what goes on in the heart and what becomes manifest in physical actions (cf. Mk. 7:21-23). Lust, when it “conceives,” bears sin (Jas. 1:15), i.e., sin of a greater consequential nature.4
Is lust a form of moral uncleanness, and can a person be lost for failing to repent of looking at pornography? Yes. “Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts…” (Rom. 1:24; cf., Job 31:1; Psm. 101:3; Acts 17:30; Phil. 4:8).
IMPORTANT OBSERVATIONS FROM ROMANS 1:
. Notice how the apostle Paul equated uncleanness with lust in the heart.
. Notice also that those whom Paul mentioned reached a point in their lives where God gave up on them (vv. 24, 26, 28), literally—He abandoned them to their impurity (cf. v. 32).
. But also notice that God didn’t condemn these individuals simply because of their immoral thoughts, but because they had acted upon their vile imaginations with impunity—due to the fact they no longer retained God in their knowledge (v. 28). Watch:
. Thoughts—“[They] became futile in their THOUGHTS, and their foolish HEARTS were darkened…” v. 21
. Actions—“God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, TO DISHONOR THEIR BODIES…” v. 24
. Actions—“God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women EXCHANGED the natural use for what is against nature…” v. 26
. Actions—“Men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men COMMITTING what is shameful…” v. 27
. Actions—“They did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, TO DO those things which are not fitting…” v. 28; cf. 1 Cor. 6:9-10
While brethren correctly argue that the context of Romans 1 addresses homosexuality (i.e., a form of fornication), the principle of the text teaches that while there is an obvious correlation between thinking and acting, a person can think about (and lust for/to) sin and still not necessarily act upon those thoughts (cf. Rom. 8:6).
Was Jesus teaching in Mat. 19 that any and all forms of “sexual immorality” might be grounds for divorce. A. No.
Example: If a husband told a dirty or off-color joke to his peers at work, would that be a form of sexual immorality? Yes. But because he had passed along a jest involving immorality, a) would that be equal to actually committing the physical act of adultery itself, and b) would his wife have Scriptural grounds for divorcing her husband? No. We can agree that a) it was sinful to think, much less share, the story, and b) that he certainly needs to repent and stop telling lurid stories, but the Lord obviously didn’t employ the word “fornication” in the context of Matthew 19 in such a broad fashion.
Example: If a wife watched one or many episodes of a reality-TV program that glorified sexual immorality (ex: The Bachelorette) where any number of people act on their sexual desires outside the bonds of marriage, would that be a form of sexual immorality? Yes. But because she had watched either one episode or many (or several seasons), and obviously filled her heart and mind with illicit activity, a) would that be equal to her actually committing the physical act of sexual immorality itself, and b) would her husband have Scriptural grounds for divorcing her for adultery? No. She certainly would need to express genuine penitence for thinking about and dwelling upon people—who without moral restraint—consummated their lust (2 Tim. 2:22, Gal. 5:16), but he would not have Biblical precedent for divorcing her.
Now consider, if the husband does not have grounds for divorcing his wife for her “soft-core” lust, by what CONSISTENT method of interpretation could the wife Scripturally divorce her husband for his “hard-core” lust? In truth, they are both guilty of sin, they both need to apologize, repent, and turn their energy and thoughts towards one another (Heb. 13:4; Gen. 2:24; Pro. 5:15-19; Song of Sol. 7:6-12; 1 Cor. 6:8; 7:4; 13:4-7; Eph. 4:32; 1 Thes. 4:3-5; Col. 3:5).
Example: If a wife started “sexting” intimate words and/or photos to man (not her husband) on his phone, would she be guilty of sexual immorality? Yes (1 Pet. 4:3; Rom. 13:13). But would those messages be equal to actually committing the physical act of adultery itself, and would her husband have grounds for divorcing her? No. Kyle Butt observes:
“With Jesus’ statement in mind, it becomes imperative to learn what the term “sexual immorality” means, since this is the only infraction on behalf of a spouse that would allow for the remarriage of the innocent party (the spouse who does not commit sexual immorality) after a divorce. As you can imagine, in our culture of rampant divorce and remarriage, and secularized Christianity, this word has been given all sorts of meanings in an attempt to allow virtually every divorced person to be considered a God-approved candidate for marriage. Many of these definitions are nothing more than attempts to alter the Word of God. So then, what does “sexual immorality” mean?
In order to understand what Jesus was saying, we must go back to the original language and identify what the word meant in the first century. The word translated “sexual immorality” in this verse is the Greek word porneia. The respected Greek lexicon of Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker states that the word refers to ‘prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse.’ In primary definition, they mention that it refers to ‘the sexual unfaithfulness of a married woman’ (1979, p. 693). The NIV Theological Dictionary of New Testament Words has an extensive section on porneia and related words: ‘This word group describes various extramarital sexual modes of behavior insofar as they deviate from accepted social and religious norms e.g., homosexuality, promiscuity, pedophilia, and esp. prostitution’ (Verbrugge, 2000, 6:1077). This dictionary further notes, [Rabbinical Judaism] frowned on any kind of prostitution of extramarital sexual intercourse…”
From a survey of the lexical information regarding the word [sexual immorality], the almost universally understood meaning of the word porneia is illicit physical sexual intercourse with someone who is not the person’s God-approved spouse… In modern terminology, then, the text is simply saying that the only time a person can divorce his or her spouse and marry another is if that spouse has been involved in a sexual affair with someone else…”5
Is lust necessarily contingent upon full, or partial nudity? A. No. The visual exhibition of skin can certainly heighten an individual’s feelings of lust (cf. 2 Sam. 11:2), but it is not necessary in order to actually produce illicit thoughts. In fact, it is possible for a person to lust after another fully-clothed individual (cf. Gen. 39:6-11).
Is lust necessarily contingent upon actually watching/seeing intimate sexual acts portrayed in print or other media formats? A. No. As noted above, it’s possible to engage in lust without seeing nakedness or intimate acts being performed.
Can a Christian spouse Scripturally divorce his or her mate even if he/she never even actually looked at pornography, but did admit privately to lusting? A. No.
So why then did Jesus refer to “adultery in the heart in Mat. 5:27-28?” Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
NOTE THE CONTEXT OF WHY JESUS MADE THIS STATEMENT:
At first blush, a Bible student might think that Jesus was simply restating one of the Ten Commandments (Exo. 20:14), but in reality, He was responding to the common rabbinic tradition that as along as a person didn’t actually commit a sinful act, he was accepted by God. The context of the passage shows that the Lord was exposing the folly of an “act only” theology—which many of His first century peers (i.e., the Pharisees–John 8:3-5; cf. Mat. 23) heartily endorsed.6 They sternly condemned the overt act of sin, but they hypocritically ignored the wicked heart which prompted the sin in the first place (cf. Mat. 5:21-22; 27-28; 31-32, et. al). MacArthur states:
“The pronoun I…is emphatic, indicating that Jesus puts His own word above the authority of revered rabbinic tradition (emphasis mine—mb). Looks (from blepō) is a present participle and refers to the continuous process of looking. In this usage, the idea is not that of an incidental or involuntary glance but of intentional and repeated gazing. Pros to (to) used with the infinitive (epithumēsai, lust for) indicates a goal or an action that follows in time the action of the looking. Jesus is therefore speaking of intentionally looking with the purpose of lusting…
Looking at a woman lustfully does not cause a man to commit adultery in his thoughts. He already has committed adultery in his heart. It is not lustful looking that causes the sin in the heart, but the sin in the heart that cause lustful looking. The lustful looking is but the expression of a heart that is already immoral and adulterous. The heart is the soil where the seeds of sin are imbedded and begin to grow.”7
NOTE WHY THE CONTEXT OF THE PASSAGE MATTERS:
“When Jesus is saying that one who looks on a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart, He is not answering the question, ‘When can I get divorced?’ Instead, He is answering the question, ‘If I sin in my heart, but I don’t commit the outward, physical action, is that still cool with God?’ You can see that the context is really important here. Jesus is showing that God is not merely after external actions, but after a heart that wants to obey. Therefore, this metaphorical lesson about not sinning in your heart should not be ripped out of context and used in a completely different context about divorce…
Elsewhere, Jesus says that being angry with someone is like murdering them in your heart. Does that mean we should lock someone up in prison for ‘murdering’ because they were mad in their heart? Should we have someone undergo the same punishment as an actual murderer because they were mad at someone in their heart? In Jesus’ day, if you want to say that someone can get divorced due to heart adultery, then you must logically say that someone should be stoned to death for heart murder (mb). You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that heart adultery is really adultery, but heart murder is not really murder.
…There is a sense in which pornography is sexual immorality, but it is not the type of sexual immorality that would allow for divorce. Just like there is a sense in which being angry in your heart is murder, but it is not the type of murder that would allow for a long-term prison sentence.
Though we read about Jesus in the New Testament, He lived and ministered under the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament (cf. Gal. 4:4–mb). If Jesus is arguing that visual adultery is the same thing as physical adultery, then (under the Mosaic Law) the penalty would be death (cf. Lev. 20:10–mb). Since nobody who commits ‘lust in their heart’ is stoned to death for it (in either the Old or New Testament) it shows that this can’t be a correct interpretation.
Notice that the text says nothing about ‘pornography.’ It just mentions looking with lustful intent. This means that if you think someone has grounds to get divorced because their spouse is looking at pornography, then they also have grounds to get divorced because their spouse has had a lustful thought (mb). If a man has ever checked out a woman at Starbucks, or a woman has ever had lustful thoughts about a co-worker, or someone has ever had straying eyes at the beach, his or her spouse would have grounds for divorce. If sexual immorality in one’s heart is grounds for divorce, then the whole conversation about pornography is actually irrelevant. Now, don’t get me wrong, looking at naked pictures of someone who is not your spouse is an egregious sin. We are certainly not saying that pornography is no big deal. But, Jesus only talks about lustful thoughts. If heart adultery is grounds for divorce, then anyone who has ever looked at someone with lust can now be divorced. We are not free to say that one type of visual lust is grounds for divorce, but another is not (mb).
If sexual immorality in one’s heart is grounds for divorce, then almost everyone has grounds for divorce—all the time.
There are some people who say that they won’t allow for divorce if someone is looking at pornography, but they will allow divorce if someone is looking at really dirty pornography, or if they are ‘habitually’ looking at pornography. So if a woman’s husband is looking at ‘regular’ porn she can’t divorce him, but if the pornography is exceptionally dark, evil, or bizarre, then she can. This line of reasoning is ridiculous. The question is not, ‘Are some types of pornography spiritually darker than others?’ The answer is yes. Bestiality, pedophilia, homosexuality, etc. are spiritually ‘darker’ than other types of pornography, but that’s the wrong question. The question is, ‘Are some types of pornography more not-with-your-spouse than others?’ and the answer to that is no. Likewise, is viewing pornography more frequently in some sense worse than viewing pornography less frequently? Of course. But again, the question is not about frequency. Regardless of what type or how often someone is looking at pornography, it is all equally sinning against your spouse (mb). If you want to allow people to get divorced for pornography, the type or frequency of pornography use is irrelevant because it all commits heart adultery. Some pornography is darker than other types, but it is not more adulterous than other types.
Notice that lusting in your heart is when you’re looking at a woman who is not your spouse. That’s the issue—who the person is. Jesus doesn’t say that if you have really bad lustful thoughts, then that is adultery—but if your thoughts are just normally perverse, then it is not. It is the fact that your thoughts are for person who is not your spouse which makes them unfaithful.
Either everyone can get divorced if their spouse is looking at porn, or nobody can (mb). The one view we know is wrong, illogical, and it is sinful to say that some can and some can’t. That’s the one view that is logically inconsistent from both sides.
Jesus’ ministry is not about giving people moral loopholes. His statements are meant to show us how to walk in more holiness—not less… Jesus wants you to repent of heart sins, not just body sins. To try to use this statement to loosen His standards about the sanctity of marriage is the exact opposite of what He wants you to do. In both the statement of lusting with one’s heart, and the statement of not getting divorced, He is trying to kill (cf. Col. 3:5–mb) our sin—not to give us more reasons to get divorced.
Pornography is awful. It is sinful. It ruins marriages, ruins sex lives, and ruins culture. It leads to higher rates of rape, abuse, perversion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and child molestation. And if it is not repented of, it will lead you to hell. In no way do we want…to minimize how sinful pornography is, or how frustrating it is to have a spouse who is addicted to pornography.
But the solution to one sin is not another sin (mb). If someone gets pregnant due to rape, the solution to the sin of rape is not to commit abortion. Sin doesn’t fight sin. In the same way, the solution to the sin of pornography is not to commit the sin of unbiblical divorce (mb). What your spouse needs is Jesus (cf. John 10:10–mb). A husband looking at porn needs his wife to help him fight the sin and believe the gospel (1 Pet. 3:1ff). A wife who is looking at porn needs her husband to help provide for her physical needs (1 Cor. 7:1-5) and to remind her of the gospel.
Porn is the enemy—not your spouse or your marriage.8
1 “More than a third of woman watch pornography at least once a week… 90% of the 3,000 female respondents said they watched it online, and 2/3 said they watched it on their smartphones.” https://fightthenewdrug.org/survey-finds-one-in-three-women-watch-porn-at-least-once-a-week/
2 The “act” of lusting might include personal, physical stimulation (i.e., self-pleasuring).
3 “Without quibble, Paul was inspired (1 Cor. 2:10-13; 7:40) thus what he says must be strictly adhered to. To reject the words of the apostles is to reject the words of Christ (John 17:8, 14, 20.). J.D. Conley, “Separation and Divorce” – 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, The Book of 1 Corinthians – 1st Century Solutions for 21st Century Problems, 2012 Victory Lectures, West Virginia School of Preaching, 176.
4 Wayne Jackson, “Is Lust Fornication?” ChristianCourier.com. Access date: July 8, 2020. https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/1371-is-lust-fornication
5 Kyle Butt, “What is ‘Sexual Immorality’ in Matthew 19:9?” http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=11&article=4778
6 “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act…” John 8:4
7 John MacArthur, Jr., “Who Is an Adulterer?” New Testament Commentary Series—Matthew 1-7, Moody Press, Chicago, 302-303.
“God loves you and I love you and that’s the way it’s gonna be!” – Mike
Other articles to consider in this series: