Jesus on Sexual Sin and Divorce

April 28, 2013

in Series, The "D" word

As I continue the series on applying the Sermon on the Mount to marriage, we come to a passage that’s all about marriage:

It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” [Mat 5:31&32]

Adultery © Dreamstime Agency |

This seems to be one of those passages people either ignore or make into more than what it says. I find it sadly interesting some who treat divorce as the unforgivable sin don’t get nearly as worked up about other things Jesus said in this discourse. I don’t mean to downplay divorce, but why don’t we spend as much time on the whole “anger is like murder” passage a few verses earlier? But I digress …

The contentious issue here is the meaning of the word translated as “sexual immorality”. I’ve studied this a great deal, and I think sexual immorality is exactly the right definition. The Greek word is Porneia, which Strong’s defines as “adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.”. Most scholars agree first century Jews and Christians used the word to indicate sexual sins as a whole, but some then go on to argue this is not what Jesus meant in this passage. Some say it means only fornication, meaning it only applies if the woman is found to have had sex before marriage. Others say it means adultery, and only allows for divorce if one’s spouse commits adultery.

There are a great many arguments for and against all of the definitions; I choose to focus on the issue of covenant – something most in the Western world don’t understand. A covenant is not like a contract; there are no loopholes and you can’t end it by mutual agreement. A covenant only ends when one of two things happens – either one person dies, or one person breaks the covenant. The thing that breaks a marriage covenant is… sexual immorality. Sexual immorality always breaks the marriage covenant – period, full stop. Under the law, anyone who broke a covenant was put to death – no appeal, no exception, death. So in the OT if a spouse had sex with another person (of either gender) or with an animal, they were put to death. This clearly left their spouse single and free to marry again.

As I see it, God still sees sexual immorality as a really big deal. Sexual immorality still breaks the marriage covenant; the cross didn’t change that. What the cross did change is the death penalty. If you commit a sexual sin, your marriage covenant is broken, but you’re not put to death. So the husband and wife are both still alive, but not married because the covenant has been broken.

Divorce is a legal action, and it has no power over a covenant. You can be divorced and still in a marriage covenant, or your marriage covenant can be broken but you are not divorced. It seems to me Jesus was telling us we are allowed to divorce if our spouse breaks the marriage covenant. This makes perfect sense as it brings the legal condition into line with the spiritual condition. The divorce doesn’t end the marriage, because a divorce can never end a marriage.

All this said, the wronged spouse has the option to rebuild the marriage. This isn’t required, but given how God feels about grace I suspect it’s His will more often than not. However, that does not mean we can tell people it’s a sin to divorce after their spouse commits sexual sin! I have heard this many times – “my spouse committed adultery half a dozen times, but I was told if I get a divorce I’d be kicked out of the church and s/he would not be”. This requires a very narrow definition of the word Porneia and completely ignores the fact marriage is a covenant. While I have no doubt the intention is good, changing what Jesus said never turns out well. I’ve actually heard men say their wife can’t divorce them if they committed adultery, and I think that kind of thinking makes adultery far more likely!

Okay, have at it in the comments!

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Links to blog posts that stood out to me this last week:


The Generous Wife

Giving Together ◄ A way to make money a positive force in your marriage.
It’s the Little Things ◄ What little things are you doing for your spouse?
Silent Expectations ◄ A great way to hurt your marriage.

Hot, Holy and Humorous

So What Should We Aim for in Marriage? ◄ Happiness, holiness…??
Is “Don’t Have Sex” Enough for Teens? ◄ Are you saying enough about sex to your kids?

Intimacy in Marriage

Is It Truly Possible to Escape Pornography Addiction Permanently? ◄ Yes!!

Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage

Idol of Happiness – Part 2 ◄ Speaking of reasons (not) to divorce…

One Flesh Marriage

Tear the Book In Half ◄ Skip the parts written for her.

refine us

5 Mistakes Many Young Couples Make Part 1 Part 2 ◄ Any couple would do well to avoid these.

The Romantic Vineyard

Drive-In Movie Night ◄ Great idea – and not what you think it is.

Safe at Home

Great Marriages Require Significant Investment ◄ Do NOT cheap out on your marriage!

…to Love Honor and Vacuum

Is Masturbation in Marriage Wrong? ◄ It certainly is when it is in place of sex.


Paul - where do you come in on the last part of the scripture, about marrying a divorced woman? I am married to a divorced woman. She was married for just over two years at the ripe old age of 20, and he left with his third mistress (that she knows of). Now, I'm happily married, love my wife with wild abandon, and am told by my church that I cannot be a deacon or leader in the church because I'm married to a divorced woman. I think this is a bunch of Bravo Sierra, and have told them as much. It tears her up every time someone suggests that I be involved in leadership and we have to tell them that I can't because, according to their interpretation, we're in a sinful marriage. Seems a bit outside the intention of this passage, don't you think?


My wife committed adultery twice and I did once.  I listened to the enemy when he told me my wife would never want me again and I would never be able to forgive her.  She wanted to reconcile once after a year and we stumbled along but now 3 years later, she wants out for good and no longer loves me.  Along the way, Jesus saved me and I truly understand covenant now.  I so want our marriage to be resurrected because I still love my wife and am now able to see her as Jesus does.  God allowed me to see my mistakes and how I hurt her.  I am very confused over what Scripture says.  I loved being married, but am sure I made my wife and our marriage an idol.  I do not want to marry again, only to reach the end of my life and stand before Him, only to hear I'm an adulterer.  I love Him and I want to do His will regarding my wife, but I don't know what it is.  My heart is shattered.



This is a great post. I believe you have interpreted this Scripture accurately.

A man in my church teaches a 13-week continuing class called “Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage”. He hits the meaning and implications of ‘covenant’ really hard for most of that time. Pretty much what you say about it.

Then, he turns right around when discussing the word ‘pornea’ and says that it means an incorrigible long-term pattern of adultery or something of that sort. He says that one act of sexual infidelity is not a “Get Out Of Jail Free” card for the offended spouse.

My question to him (which I haven’t actually confronted him with) is: Suppose the guy only cheats once every five years and stops when he is caught – Pleading that he will never do it again? Is it going to take 25 years of his wife’s life to establish the ‘pornea pattern’ so she can get an acceptable divorce and remarry without committing adultery?

I agree with you that one act of infidelity (sex with some person or thing not your spouse) breaks the covenant. It is a bright-line divider – fidelity before, infidelity after. I don’t believe Jesus is in the business of giving us mushy instructions amenable to all sorts of philosophical, hair-splitting interpretations.

Then, everything you say about broken covenants is good biblical “stuff”.


Thanks for the Daily article Paul. When we think of porn, normally, we think of women being the objects of desire by men, and for good reason too, because men are visual. We, as men look at women as a object of beauty and desire. Which is why there are so many magazines and website geared more for men than women. But for the few women that have been in my life or are still in my life, the daily soap operas seem to captivate their attention. My mother is a soap opera watcher, my ex-wife and her mom are soap opera watchers. But in our society, soap operas aren't deemed to be pornography, as maybe some R-rated movies or some prime time shows that have scantily clad dressed women. And lets not forget the annual swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated and other sports magazines. Then comes summer time, the lakes, the beaches, the public pools, where men and young men are exposed to women and young women in swimsuits, and vice versa. It seems it is everywhere. I remember an episode of 18 and counting. The Duggar family was at a family reunion. Jim Bob Duggar, was telling the viewers, that he wanted his kids to be modest even when swimming and that wasn't just for the Duggar girls but the boys as well. Amazing that even us as men, we should be dressing modestly when out in public.


A wife who found your post via twitter here. My husband had an affair and broke our covenant. He has repented and I have chosen forgiveness and together with Jesus we are believing for restoration of our marriage. So in light of your post, what would be required or constitute the re-establishment of covenant? Is that possible biblically speaking?


What about cases of abuse? Would that make the divorced abused women who remarries an adulterer?


Thanks, Paul.  I've found this to be a pretty good analysis of what Jesus said.  Several years ago there was a movement toward "Covenant marriages" supported and heavily pushed by a Major Nationwide Ministry but it also seemed to lean heavily toward guilt if there was a divorce.  When my wife and I were in counseling I suggested that  sexual abandonment and neglect would also be covenant-breaking. He was sympathetic but didn't fully agree with that definition.  


I'm not sure betrayed husbands get the opportunity to forgive their unfaithful wives and rebuild their marriages.  From what I understand, in most cases, when a wife is willing to cheat on you, she is unwilling to end her affair and work on the marriage.  She is emotionally attached to the other man and begins to spout things like, "God wants me to be happy" and "It was a mistake for us to marry."  She runs off, files for divorce and you have no chance to save the marriage.

Given that 2/3rds to 3/4s of divorces are filed by women, not men, and men and women are equally represented in affairs, (at least one man and one woman in the majority of affairs) it stands to reason that men really do not have the opportunity to rebuild their marriages after suffering at the hands of an unfaithful wife.

I do agree that men SHOULD be willing to forgive.  What I've found in both personal experience AND from studying the topic is that few men actually have the opportunity to welcome home a wayward wife.


This one really hits home, for me, because my divorce was based on the fact that she had an affair.  I found out later she was planning never to tell me about it.  At the time, I considered this a huge breach of trust, and I still do.  It was like a gut-punch, and despite my efforts(emphasis on mine, not hers, as I don't think she was willing) to save the marriage, our divorce was final in July, 2009.  

As I understand it, because she broke the marriage covenant with her affair, there would be no adultery if I myself remarried later, correct?  This is the part of the issue I struggle with the most, because I feel strongly in my heart that I will be married again, one day, but despair at the same time that I may be too old to do so.  As time passes(I'm a freshly-minted 37), that feeling increases, and it feels like God is dangling that as a carrot in front of me, giving me a goal I can't quite reach, no matter how hard I try.  I know He isn't like that, as He wants to give us the desires of our heart, but there are days when that fear really grips my heart.

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