Fornication: Grounds For Divorce

by David Padfield

In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord told His disciples that "whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality" commits sin (Matthew 5:32). Jesus told the same thing to the Pharisees who questioned Him about "no fault" divorce in Matthew 19:1-9.

The word translated as "sexual immorality" in the New King James Version of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 is the Greek word porneia. Without exception, the King James Translation uses the word "fornication" every time the Greek word porneia is found. Other versions of the Bible translate this word in a variety of ways. Moffatt and the Revised Standard Version translate porneia as "unchastity" in both passages. The New International Version translates porneia in both passages as "marital unfaithfulness." Goodspeed and Weymouth translate porneia as "unfaithfulness" in both texts.

Since sexual immorality is the only Scriptural reason for one to put away his spouse and marry another, we need to be extremely careful in defining the word. A general definition of "fornication" is: "Sexual relationships outside the bonds of marriage. The technical distinction between fornication and adultery is that adultery involves married persons while fornication involves those who are unmarried. But the New Testament often uses the term in a general sense for any unchastity. Of the seven lists of sins found in the writings of the apostle Paul, the word fornication is found in five of them and is first on the list each time (1 Cor. 5:11; Col. 3:5). In the Book of Revelation, fornication is symbolic of how idolatry and pagan religion defiles true worship of God (Rev. 14:8; 17:4)." (Nelson's Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Thomas Nelson Publishers, p. 393).

Some people prefer translations which use the word "fornication" instead of "sexual immorality," believing that "fornication" is a less ambiguous term. Arthur L. Farstad was the Executive Editor of the New King James Version of the Bible. He explained why the NKJV translated the word porneia as "fornication" in some passages and as "sexual immorality" in others. "Five times in the New Testament the word whoremonger occurs, each time in lists of gross sins. The Greek word is pornos, which is also translated fornicator five times in the KJV. Where this term is used in a general sense in the NJKV, it is translated sexually immoral. Where it occurs next to other specific sexual sins, like adultery or homosexuality, the more precise English word for illicit sex between unmarried people—fornication—is used. The NKJV uses fornicator(s) six times and the abstract noun fornication(s) sixteen times, all but once in New Testament texts. Because sexual sin is rampant in modern society, it seems relevant to retain the Biblical terms rather than to conform to softened secular usages. 'Premarital sex,' 'extramarital sex,' and 'gay sex' are morally anemic substitutes for plain 'fornication,' 'adultery,' and 'sodomy.'" (The New King James Version In The Great Tradition, pp. 86, 87).

Because this topic is so important, let us notice a few more definitions of "fornication" and then try to apply it to the subject of divorce. It is not my desire to offend anyone with delicate sensibilities. Some of the definitions might seem a bit unrefined—even crude to some—but we want to deal honestly and fully with the issue.

F. Wilbur Gingrich defines porneia as "unchastity, prostitution, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse" (Shorter Lexicon of the Greek New Testament, p. 180).

John Groves defines porneia as "fornication, adultery, incest, whoredom, all kinds of lewdness" (A Greek and English Dictionary, p. 480).

A. T. Robertson, the great Baptist scholar, when commenting on Matthew 5:32, made the following comments: "Saving for the cause of fornication (parektos logou porneias). An unusual phrase that perhaps means 'except for a matter of unchastity.' 'Except on the ground of unchastity' (Weymouth), 'except unfaithfulness' (Goodspeed), and is equivalent to me epi porneiai in Matt. 19:9." (Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol. 1, p. 47).

Ralph Earle wrote an excellent New Testament word study book for English readers. On Matthew 19:9 he wrote, "Except for Fornication. This exception is found only in Matthew. Porneia does not here mean 'fornication' (KJV) but 'immorality' (NASB) or 'marital unfaithfulness' (NIV)." (Word Meanings in the New Testament, p. 18).

On Matthew 5:32, Earle wrote, "Fornication. The Greek word is porneia, which occurs 26 times in the NT and is always (in KJV) translated 'fornication.' It sometimes has this meaning in distinction from moicheia, which regularly means 'adultery' but occurs only twice in the NT (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21). On the other hand, Abbott-Smith notes that here and in 19:9 it equals moicheia (p. 373). Arndt and Gingrich give this definition of porneia: 'prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse' (p. 699). Today 'fornication' means 'sexual intercourse between a man and woman not married to each other' (American Heritage Dictionary, p. 517). According to this, it is not an accurate translation here; the meaning is more accurately 'marital unfaithfulness' as in the NIV." (Word Meanings in the New Testament, pp. 4,5).

From the definitions we have examined so far, we see that porneia includes "fornication," "adultery," "incest," "all kinds of lewdness," "unchastity" and "every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse."

Are all forms of "unchastity" and "lewdness" to be considered grounds for divorce and remarriage? Where do we draw the line?

Dean Alford stated the problem well in his comments on Matthew 5:32, "Only that porneia, which itself breaks marriage, can be a ground for dissolving it. The question, whether demonstrated approaches to porneia, short of the act itself, are to be regarded as having the same power, must be dealt with cautiously, but at the same time with full remembrance that our Lord does not confine the guilt of such sins to the outward act only: see ch. v. 28." (Alford's Greek Testament, Vol. 1, p. 194).

Would a man lusting after a woman be grounds for a Scriptural divorce? I have met some who so teach. Or, would one have to do more than merely lust? What about a man who takes the next step and purchases a pornographic magazine? One woman tried to convince me that since her husband had purchased a copy of Playboy he had been guilty of "sexual immorality" and she therefore had the right to divorce him and marry another. What about the man who flirts with a woman, but no physical contact is made?

Would heavy petting with another man's wife be grounds for divorce? I believe it would. It seems to me from the definitions we have looked at that another party has to be involved and that physical contact has to be made. The other party might be one of the opposite sex or of the same sex (a homosexual act).

In Matthew 5:32 Jesus said, "whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart." This adultery "in the heart" is not the same as physical adultery and not grounds for divorce—no more than a man who angry with his brother would be subject to capital punishment (cf. Matthew 5:22).

For further study