by Steve Higginbotham
“My spouse is addicted to pornography. Does this give me the biblical right to divorce and remarry? After all, didn’t Jesus say that to lust after a woman is the same thing as if he actually committed adultery with her?”
This is a tremendously relevant question, one that I am increasingly hearing, and one that needs a biblical answer. We live in a culture that is saturated with pornography. The average age of exposure to pornography is 11 years of age. According to a recent statistic, 64% of “Christian” men view pornography on a monthly basis (Proven Men’s Ministry). And don’t think pornography is just a male problem. Recent statistics from a major pornographic website reported that 31% of their users are women (Pornhub, 2016 Report).
Because pornography is so accessible, affordable, and anonymous, many are allured into this sin, and like all sin, it destroys. In the wake of its destruction is marriage. Husbands and wives find themselves the victims of this so-called “victimless” sin, and are asking,
“What recourse do I have? May I divorce my spouse for his/her pornography use, and be free to marry another?”
Let’s answer this question by addressing two points:
The Definition of Fornication
First of all, we know that Jesus said that a man could divorce his wife for “fornication” and marry another without being guilty of sin (Matthew 19:9). So the question is raised, “Would pornography be considered fornication? The answer to this question is complicated because of an inexact definition of the word, “fornication” employed in several translations of the Bible. Several English translations translate the word, “fornication” (porneia) as “sexual immorality,” and if that is an accurate translation, who could argue that pornography isn’t sexually immoral? However, translating the word, “fornication” (porneia) as sexual immorality is too broad and does not recognize the specificity of what Jesus actually said.
Fornication (porneia) is more specific than the broad term of “sexual immorality.” It specifically has reference to “illicit sexual intercourse.” In other words, it involves physical contact with another person. One could say it this way: Just as all adultery is fornication, not all fornication is adultery; and just as all fornication is sexual immorality, not all sexual immorality is fornication.
For instance, is telling a “dirty joke” sexually immoral? Of course it is. However, that does not rise to the level of fornication. It would, however be condemned under other terms such as “uncleanness,” “lewdness,” and “lasciviousness” (Galatians 5:19). By listing these terms independently in this passage, it seems to suggest Paul recognized they were not synonymous. Elsewhere, Paul said that those who “lust in their heart” are said to be given over to “uncleanness” (Romans 1:24).
Does Lust Constitute Adultery?
Next, let’s consider the statement of Jesus, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, “Thou shalt not commit adultery’: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Does this not prove that the lust involved in pornography, resulting in adultery in one’s heart, would give a person grounds for divorce and remarriage as per (Matthew 19:9)?
The answer to that is, “No.” Clearly in this passage, the adultery resulting from lust is not literal, but figurative. While Jesus was demonstrating how our thoughts cannot be separated from our actions, he is not suggesting that our thoughts should bear the same consequences as our actions. For instance if one who lusts after another is subject to the same penalty as one who acts on that lust, then one who is angry with his brother or calls his brother a malicious name would be subject to the same penalty as one who actually acted on that anger and murdered his brother (Matthew 5:21-22).
Likewise, if no distinction is to be recognized between the figurative use of the word “adultery” from its literal usage, then a person would also have the right to divorce and remarry if his/her spouse ever became a “friend of the world.” James called those who had become “friends of the world,” “adulterers and adulteresses” (James 4:4). Should we then conclude that worldliness on the part of one’s spouse is reason for divorce and remarriage?
When God’s children forsook him for idols, they were condemned for their “spiritual adultery” (Jeremiah 3:20). Their actions were condemned as the actions of a cheating wife. Would we be correct in concluding that if one’s spouse became unfaithful to God, the faithful spouse would have grounds to divorce and remarry? Of course not!
In Matthew 19:9, Jesus wasn’t stating that “spiritual adultery” provided grounds for divorce and remarriage, but rather, he was stating that literal, illicit sexual intercourse provided grounds for divorce and remarriage.
While pornography is a destructive, sexually immoral sin, it does not rise to the level of fornication, and thus, does not give one grounds for divorce and remarriage.