When I was a fundamentalist, we took a hard line against adultery and divorce. My father, a fundamentalist pastor, refused to perform weddings for people who were divorced. We took this hard line by understanding Jesus’ words in a legalistic way.

I think we were mistaken.


You have Heard: Do not Commit Adultery—But I Say…

Here is what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus contrasts what the Ten Commandments say about adultery with what he says about it, just as he did earlier with the commandment against murder. He doesn’t say adultery isn’t wrong but that a person hasn’t kept the commandment just because he has never committed adultery.

Adultery goes deeper than the physical act; it involves the heart as much as the genitals. If a man lusts after a woman, he has already broken the commandment against adultery.

What Jesus means by ‘lusting’ is sometimes a source of concern:

  • Is it lusting to admire a woman’s physical beauty?
  • Is it lusting to imagine a woman naked?

If this is so, then practically every boy over the age of ten or so is an adulterer.

The word Jesus uses suggests an active desire to engage sexually with another man’s wife (coveting). If a person wishes he could have sex with a married woman, but does not—perhaps because of rules, fear of getting caught, or other reasons—it is as though he has performed the act itself.

If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

Jesus often uses hyperbole (exaggeration)—a rhetorical device to make a point; this is an example. Jesus emphasizes the importance of adultery of the heart but does not suggest self-mutilation. The reference to hell is also a rhetorical device; it alludes to the imagery of Gehenna we have discussed before.

Adultery and Divorce

Jesus continues:

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

The evangelical church I joined after leaving fundamentalism was less stringent on divorce; they employed the exception clause: except for sexual immorality.

Whenever there was a divorce, a tremendous effort ensued to determine the ‘innocent’ party. Once that was done the innocent party was free to remarry, but the guilty party was not. The guilty party usually left the denomination in shame.

Divorced ministers could even be ordained if they were the innocent party, though if they remarried they would be demoted to ‘licensed’ minister.

Though this approach is an attempt to be in harmony with Jesus’ teaching, I think it is still a legalistic approach; it does not account for grace in such situations.

So, what is the point of Jesus’ statements on adultery and divorce?

In Jesus’ culture, divorce was the prerogative of men. Women, on the other hand, were very vulnerable. Divorce often had terrible consequences for the wife but not for the husband who divorced her. She was at his mercy, and Jesus was ever the champion of the marginalized and dispossessed.

Then why would Jesus say that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery? It might have something to do with broken relationships.

Broken Relationships and the Love of Jesus

How can we navigate Jesus strict guidance on adultery when life is so messy? I think this is the point: we can’t!

Jesus wants to heal broken relationships; he wishes reconciliation for everyone, but he knows life is complicated. His solution is not a list of rules but the principle of loving others.

Jesus is saying that if one claims to have achieved the purpose of the commandment: Do not commit adultery simply because he has never had sex with another man’s wife, then he has missed the mark.

For Jesus, the true meaning of the commandment against adultery concerns relationships and avoiding pain. But he does not establish a newer, stricter set of legalistic rules. Instead he points us to the principle of loving other people as we love ourselves.

But we are still faced with a problem: even when we follow the principle of love we seem to fall so short. We can never fully satisfy Jesus’ command to love others, so we think he must be so displeased with us.

I assure you he is not. Jesus understands our frailties and imperfections, and he loves us just the same. He wants us to grow in our love for others, but he knows we will never be perfect. Learning to love others is a journey but it is a gratifying one, and it produces good results.

Photo Credit: chrisinplymouth via Compfight cc
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29 Responses to Adultery!

  1. michaeleeast says:

    I’m afraid I find this passage problematical.
    I fear that Jesus is displaying a prejudice of the time.
    It is totally unrealistic to expect young males to stop thinking about sex.
    In fact it’s probably impossible.
    And perhaps not even desirable.
    This is one of the passages that created sex-phobia in the Church..
    I think it should be ignored.


  2. Michael, I think you are right that ‘It is totally unrealistic to expect young males to stop thinking about sex.’ But I don’t believe thinking about sex is lusting in your heart. Lusting in your heart is the desire to have sexual relations with another man’s wife, though this can reasonably be expanded in today’s culture as ‘another person’s spouse’.

    This passage has been used to feed sex-phobia, but I think the problem is with the interpreter and not the passage itself.


  3. Chas says:

    I think there is also the problem of the promises made at the time of marriage. Most of us took the vow to keep only to our spouse as long as we both live, so that vow binds us until one of us dies. I could never marry anybody else as long as my wife is alive, even if we had found that we could no longer live together.


    • Hi Chas,

      I believe marriage is a serious commitment, and many people today enter into marriage too lightly without sufficient commitment. And the resulting hurt and brokenness is evident in our society.

      If my wife of 40 years were to die, I am quite sure I would not remarry; but had she divorced me during our marriage I cannot say whether I would have remarried or not.

      The promises we make together at marriage are extremely important, but if they are already sadly broken by divorce I cannot say a person should not remarry. Such a firm stance seems like a legalistic effort to deny that brokenness has happened.

      I applaud anyone who refuses to remarry in such cases, but I cannot promote a rule to apply to everyone.


      • Chas says:

        Hi J W B
        Agree that it is not appropriate to try to determine a rule that would apply to everyone; we each have to respond as we are able. My commitment was made in the knowledge of the possible downsides, and it was made a long time before I was led to believe in Jesus, but it was still a commitment that was made consciously. Whether I would feel the same about not remarrying if I had not come to serve God, I don’t know. All I know now is that it would be breaking a promise made in front of Him if I remarried.


  4. sheila0405 says:

    I’m still not clear on what you think Jesus meant when he said that if a man marries a divorced woman he is committing adultery. I believe in the sanctity of the marriage vow. To be unfaithful to the one you promised to forsake all others for, is a pretty grave sin. It is the sin of betrayal, the opposite of the law of love.

    I realize that I tend to be judgmental in this area. When I hear of famous people treating their spouses badly, I get angry. I am especially harsh on the person with whom the married partner cheats. How dare they establish a relationship with a married man (or woman)?

    Being judgmental is also breaking the law of love. I don’t know the people involved, I don’t know the hearts of those involved, and I believe the better way for me to respond is by praying for those involved. I must leave any judgment up to God.

    So, it all comes back to recognizing that we as humans fall far short of the unconditional love of Jesus. We must at all times look at our own thoughts and feelings and see if the motivations for them are in line with what God wants. After all, we are only human!


    • Sheila, I agree that we fall far short of the unconditional love of Jesus. If we attempt to live by the principle of love, we will make life better for ourselves and others–but we always fall short.

      Even I am not clear on what I think Jesus had in mind when he said that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. If she is already divorced by her husband, it is her old husband who has broken the vow. It would seem to me that a man marrying such a disadvantaged, abandoned woman (in that culture) would be showing compassion.

      Perhaps Jesus means that marrying a divorced woman expands the brokenness somehow; I don’t know. I wish someone could make better sense of this statement than I can.


      • michaeleeast says:

        I agree that marrying a divorced woman in the society that Jesus lived in would be an act of compassion. Unmarried women had no means of support. They were totally dependent on men for their living. So Jesus’ statement is inexplicable.
        Perhaps this is an example of the writer of the Gospel imposing his own prejudice in the words of Jesus. I can find no other explanation. This statement is at odds with Jesus’ teaching that love and compassion are above the law.


        • Michael, you might be right that the writer of Matthew could reflect an interpretation different than the actual words of Jesus, or the statement might be missing the proper context.

          As written, it does see at odds with Jesus’ usual perspective.


      • sheila0405 says:

        Thanks for a great reply. I appreciate your honesty. I have struggled with that very passage in the way you do. Women were not allowed to divorce their husbands. So, if a woman was divorced by her husband, what recourse did she have? Jesus said the certificate of divorce was ordered by Moses due to the hardness of heart of the men. Did a certificate protect a woman in any way? I suppose I have to do some research if I want a clearer explanation.

        All the more reason for me to be very very careful before being judgmental when I hear about adultery being committed. It is God who is the final arbiter, as I said. My role is to pray for those harmed by human failures.


        • It is God who is the final arbiter, as I said. My role is to pray for those harmed by human failures.

          You are right Sheila, it is the role of believers to love and support those who are hurting–not to be their judge.

          I have not read that the certificate of divorce protected the woman in any way, but there might be protections of which I am unaware. In our culture women can divorce their husbands and I think this is a viable option–especially in cases of abuse which are currently so widespread.


    • Chas says:

      It is easy for us to become judgmental when we hear of this type of betrayal. It makes me angry too, but we need to understand why people can behave in such a way; it is often a result of the perpetrator having been the victim of betrayal as a child. Whatever we think about the one who breaks up a marriage by their selfish behavior, it is so often a child, or children, who suffer the most. It is difficult to overstate how much our children benefit if we can give them a loving and stable home to grow up in, but we can see it in their own love, stability and loyalty.


  5. Marc says:

    Perhaps Matthew 5:32 is more a warning to the man who would divorce his wife for anything other than willful adultery. By doing so, he would then be responsible for her future adultery and that of her second husband if she remarried. The first husband’s sin is far greater because he destroyed a marriage approved by God for selfish reasons that impact the lives of others.


  6. scraffiti says:

    This scripture has been a ticking bomb down through the centuries and has arguably caused more grief and pain than any other. I understand that there were two rabbinical teachings on divorce and it was this that prompted the question that Jesus – so unhelpfully – answered. I speak as someone that has been divorced and has married again years later. I would not wish the purgatory and pain on anyone that is inflicted on church members whose marriage has failed. By the way, marriage vows are a ‘church’ invention (liturgy) and are constantly being fiddled around with to adapt to present day culture. Going back to the Matthew 5 scripture, I agree entirely with Michaeleeast – ignore it! You cannot spend your life under that burden of guilt!


    • Scraffiti, thanks for bringing up the pain inflicted on divorced families.

      No matter how much we attempt to live by the standard of love, life is complicated and bad things happen.

      Is not the pain of the divorce itself not enough? Why do church communities feel it necessary to use this passage legalistically to inflict further pain at the very time the hurting family needs love, support, and understanding? When they do this, they multiply the failure to observe the standard of love.


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  8. Good post Tim. Having come from divorced parents, and having seen the churches reactions to that divorce, I have though a lot about this. My conclusion is that at the end of the day, we can’t ever get to the bottom of what Jesus was saying or why. And I also think its likely that these writings in the Bible could contain ideas of Jesus that are just straight up errant (based on bias of the day) or which reflect the bias of the writers / redactors.

    I personally think its just like any TV or Newspaper interview, if we asked Jesus about this today he would say we were taking him out of context or something like that. I think he might say “Look, I’m just trying to say stop being sex animals all the time and stop divorcing your wives for petty reasons!!!” I think the degree to which we humans think about sex, and how quickly we accept the idea of divorce, can be decreased with a little bit of discipline, and I think Jesus is really saying that. If people just follow every sexual urge this world will be sunk, and there are healthy ways to work around that, and I personally think that’s what Jesus was speaking to.


  9. scraffiti says:

    A certain British journalist said that when he turned 60 he lost his libido and it was like being unchained from a monster! Men have been gibbering wrecks in the presence of beautiful woman from time immemorial. I think this lusting in the heart stuff is just rubbish. It’s guilt all about nothing. Men ‘admire’ my wife all the time. I take it as a compliment to my impeccable taste. Going back to the the scripture, I don’t think woman were the underclass as is made out. It is woman that have the power of sex – not men! If she doesn’t want to give it – you ain’t going to get it! I’m sure that was true in biblical times as now.


    • Scraffiti, I think you are right that ‘lusting in the heart’ is rubbish the way many understand it, but I believe what Jesus has in mind, as indicated by this very passage, is that actively desiring to have sexual relations with a married woman if you have the chance is a violation of the commandment against adultery.

      I certainly do not believe simply admiring a woman is anything other than a compliment, though gawking and drooling can be awkward. In particular, I have difficulty with the attitude of some church cultures that females should dress unattractively to avoid causing males to ‘lust’.


  10. fiddlrts says:

    I have a few thoughts on this, influenced by my experience as an attorney handling (among other cases) divorces on a regular basis.

    First, the obsession with “adultery” as the sole justification for divorce and the consequent search for the “innocent party” has led to some ridiculous results. I have seen a pattern where one spouse in a Christian marriage will want out, but won’t actually file for divorce, choosing to do (usually her) best to make the other spouse miserable enough to leave or, better yet, cheat. That way, the “innocent” spouse attains the divorce and also the martyr status. As my pastor put it, we have focused our energies on avoiding divorce, but not on being lovingly married. The divorce isn’t the cause of the breakdown of the marriage, but a mere symptom. That is why my opinion on the subject is that we need to stop worrying so much about when divorce should or should not be permitted, and take a long hard look at why the percentage of bad marriages is so high within the Church. (Atheists, who generally do not have a moral objection to divorce have far lower divorce rates. Is this due to economic factors, or are we really doing that bad of a job of creating successful marriages?) While I am certainly committed to my wife (of 12 years), I do not flatter myself that the sheer force of my will would keep me faithful in a loveless marriage. That is why I invest in adding love and caring and happiness to the relationship.

    Second, on a different subject, I wholeheartedly agree with you that lust is different than attraction or thoughts about sex. I also agree that it is directly related to coveting.

    Here is my spin on that issue. In the Decalogue, coveting is specifically applied to a number of objects of property: livestock, slaves. And wives. (Throughout most of history, women have been legally and socially the property of men, so this is unsurprising in that context.) Just like coveting of livestock, taken to its extreme, becomes theft; coveting a man’s wife, taken to its extreme becomes adultery – that is, the theft of that man’s property.

    Christ put an interesting spin on this by choosing to focus, not on the outward manifestation – the taking of another man’s property/wife, but on the heart issue that led to it. Just like He did with murder. When we reduce fellow humans to objects of revenge, we have already murdered their innate humanity in our hearts.

    I think this same analysis could apply to the issue of adultery. It isn’t as important that a property right was violated, but that the woman was dehumanized by being reduced to a mere object of gratification.

    With our modern understanding that women are not property, this also changes the way we look at the end result of lust. No longer is the ultimate result of the sin of lust/coveting the theft of property from a man (aka adultery), but the theft of sexual agency from the woman herself, aka rape. I think Christ’s words themselves, when coupled with his treatment of women always as fully human and never inferior or property, could lead to this conclusion. The issue isn’t that one steals, but that one dehumanizes and fails to love.


      • What an extraordinary comment!

        I loved it from start to finish; it addresses and integrates a number of issues and leads to solid conclusions that are consistent with the biblical passage at issue. Perhaps you should consider writing a blog post of your own!

        I have seen a pattern where one spouse in a Christian marriage will want out, but won’t actually file for divorce, choosing to do (usually her) best to make the other spouse miserable enough to leave or, better yet, cheat. That way, the “innocent” spouse attains the divorce and also the martyr status.

        I have witnessed this too. The judgment as to who are the ‘innocent’ and ‘guilty’ parties is often was off base; situations are much more complex than deciding along the ‘exception clause’.


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