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Could you clarify adultery according to scripture? Several sources now define emotional affairs as adultery as well. Is this correct?


Adultery is defined as “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband“.

The Hebrew word is “na’aph”, which means to have sexual intercourse with other than a spouse.

However, Jesus said:

Matthew 5:27-28 “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. (NKJV)

So, does adultery only occur when sexual intercourse is involved, or every time a person lusts? Yes, and yes. Depends on the perspective, eternal or temporal; judgment or relationship.

Jesus goes on to say about divorce:

Matthew 5:32 But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (NKJV)

Here, “sexual immorality” is “porneia” which most normally translated as “fornication” meaning illicit sexual intercourse, but does incorporate a broader sense of gross sexual immorality too (terms to graphic to list in this answer). However, it does not take in a kind of a casual “emotional affair” type issue we hear about so much today (ie. “you had feelings for some other person”).

What can Jesus mean by saying that “lust is adultery in the heart” in one verse and then “divorce is permitted for adultery” in another? Is Jesus saying that every time a person lusts, their spouse can now divorce them Biblically? Obviously this is not the meaning or divorce would be an option for 99.99% of all marriages clearly going against God’s stated opinion of divorce (Mal 2:16).

In Matt 5:28, Jesus is pointing out a higher standard whereby thoughts and motives are as real as actual acts. From an eternal perspective, lusting is just like adultery because in your heart you “virtually” committed the act. This becomes a real sin of adultery as it relates to God judging heart of man.

However, only God can judge the heart. We are left with judging the external actions. Therefore we start with a clear and tangible standard, and beyond that it becomes the domain of the conscience, discernment and wisdom.

So am I waffing? Are “emotional affairs” the same as adultery and grounds for Biblical divorce? Again, I believe, on a case by case basis, this takes wisdom, discernment and spiritual maturity to determine. Consider this:

  • A legalistic husband, knowing that only “sexual intercourse” constitutes grounds for “adultery” in the Bible, engages freely in pornography, filthy sexual talk, inappropriate conversation with other females and all manners of emotional and mental sexual immorality.
  • A legalistic spouse, believing the soft views of today’s Christian counseling community, and incorrectly applying Jesus’s words about lust and adultery, seeks a “Biblical” divorce because their partner had dinner with a co-worker of another sex and shared intimate details with them.

Like all things, we humans can take the letter of the law, or grace, and use it for our own selfish agenda. We can be legalistic in either direction: strict or loose. I can say these things definitively:

  • Jesus did not mean that every time someone lusts, that is grounds for divorce. He was speaking of purity of heart and thought, that the “inside” is as important as the “outside”… not laying down a loophole by which every marriage could be dissolved.
  • Adultery in Scripture is primarily and routinely defined as the physical act of sexual intercourse with someone other than a spouse.
  • God hates divorce.
  • Divorce should be a last resort even when adultery has occurred.

However, that leaves us with some tough situations to consider:

  • What about the husband knee deep in pornography who won’t repent or stop and claims he’s “not guilty of adultery” because he has not “done the deed”?
  • What about the spouse who has done EVERYTHING EXCEPT the final act of intercourse, and like a certain former President of the United States, claims innocence because the actual act of intercourse did not occur?
  • What about the spouse who carries on long emotional and intimate relationships with other people of the opposite sex while neglecting their own marital relationship?
  • What about the spouse who lives in chat rooms and message forums who engages in every manner of sexual acts through words, but never meets the other person physically?

Are any of these “adultery” as in “Biblical grounds to divorce”? I have to say for myself that I HAVE seen cases like this where the physical act had not occurred, but I had no hesitation in stating my belief that Biblical grounds for divorce were applicable (adultery, in the spirit of Biblical principle had occurred).

I state that with MUCH caution and apprehension though. There are many Christians who are just waiting for some Bible teacher or person in Christian authority to make such a statement so they can say “Brent Riggs says you don’t have to commit the physical act in order for it to be Biblical grounds for divorce”.

(I once knew a woman who asked a self-proclaimed Christian marriage counselor, “should I stay married just because its the right thing to do?”

The counselor replied, “God does not want you to be unhappy. Even if its the ‘right’ thing, that’s not the only reason to consider”.

REALLY??????????!!!!!!!!!! I thought doing “the right thing” was THE reason to do anything! Or at least the primary, overriding, most important one.)

Likewise, I hesitate to say “if the physical act has not occurred, tough luck”. For the same reason, people will use those words to egregiously violate their marriage covenant stopping short of “adultery” by never actually engaging in sexual intercourse outside of marriage while ignoring their own gross sexual immorality, infidelity, emotional betrayal, and flagrant neglect.

Having said all that, I’ll stick my neck out and close with this summary:

Generally speaking, the physical act of illicit sexual intercourse is required to constitute adultery Biblically, related to the option of divorce. However, even then, divorce is not automatic or a given, but only a careful option available to the victims.

Cautiously, and with great consternation, I will propose that there are times that “adultery” has occurred (giving Biblical grounds for divorce) even when the final definitive physical act of sexual intercourse has not occurred based on the choice and behavior of the offending spouse who has so violated and destroyed the marriage covenant through gross immorality, emotional infidelity and neglect, that every consequence and result of “adultery” is manifested unmistakably. However, I will temper that by saying this has become and all too convenient and easily reached conclusion in today’s world of relativistic thinking.

This conclusion (adultery in the absence of sexual intercourse) should not be reached casually and only with the counsel and agreement of spiritually mature, and Biblically sound shepherds on a case-by-case basis. There is no “one size fits all” or checklist that covers every (or even most) situations.