Is Porn Adultery?

Is Porn Adultery?

by Nick Stumbo October 11, 2018 11 Comments


Is my spouse’s struggle with lust, pornography, or other online behaviors biblical grounds for divorce?

If you’re married, you have probably thought about this question at one time or another. I think we all have. We wonder, “What would I be able to endure, and what would cause me to close off my heart and leave the marriage?

As a sexual integrity ministry, this is one question we often hear. Every day, Pure Desire helps couples who are dealing with the painful effects of lust, pornography, and infidelity in their relationship. It is truly remarkable to see how some marriages can overcome a destructive pattern of one spouse’s affairs. At the same time, it is truly heartbreaking to watch some couples divorce over emotional or mental infidelity. The level of behavior by the addicted spouse isn’t the determining factor of whether or not the marriage will make it.

But for some spouses, Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 become a benchmark or standard that permits divorce if lust or pornography are involved:




Matthew 5:28 (NLT)


But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.


Is this what Jesus intended? In this blog, I hope to articulate a biblical response to this line of thinking.

As a disclaimer, let me be clear: this blog isn’t meant to be a comprehensive coverage of this idea or a definitive statement on divorce. Every marriage is unique and the challenges couples face are vast. Books should be, and have been, written on this topic. What I offer is an outline of my understanding of what we learn from Scripture.

First, let me address the fact that Jesus refers almost exclusively to men throughout this passage in Matthew 5, part of his message called, “The Sermon on the Mount.” Scholars widely agreed that Jesus was simply using the vernacular and speech of the day, not directing his comments only to men. His words “men” and “husbands” throughout this passage could be interpreted today as “people” and “spouses,” as many translations have written. His teaching here is not to men exclusively, but to all humanity.

With that in mind, let’s look at where Jesus starts this teaching—the context of the passage. Rather than focusing on Matthew 5:28, we need to understand why this verse is tucked into a much longer teaching about how we follow and observe the Law of God in Matthew 5:17-48. Early in this discourse, Jesus proclaims, “Unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisee, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven!

Almost immediately, we are given a verbal clue that Jesus is employing a literary device known as hyperbole. Hyperbole is an intentional exaggeration used to make a strong point. This is like when a parent says, “Do that and I will ground you for life!” We don’t actually intend to ground our 14-year old daughter for life (although we might feel that way). What we are expressing is how seriously we feel about their behavior. In this verse, Jesus is already pointing to the fact that righteousness is beyond our ability.

In rather frank terms, He goes on to describe how we should view anger. Simply focusing on the 10 Commandment’s injunction against murder, Jesus broadens our view of murder in a shocking way: 




Matthew 5:22 (NLT)

But I say, if you are even angry with someone, you are subject to judgment! If you call someone an idiot, you are in danger of being brought before the court. And if you curse someone, you are in danger of the fires of hell. 



Yikes. I’ve had no problem in my life of avoiding murder. But being angry at someone? Calling them an idiot? Guilty. Yesterday I found myself cursing at someone who cut me off in traffic. According to Jesus, I deserve hell.

So, I pose this question: Is Jesus intending that we treat anyone who hates another person as a murderer? Or, is he using hyperbole to help us see the extreme action we should take to deal with hate in our heart? This is his call to action—our physical behaviors aren’t the focus, but the condition of our heart.

Jesus then goes on to say this, which is the point of our discussion: 




Matthew 5:28-30 (NLT)

But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. So, if your eye—even your good eye—causes you to lust, 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 throw into hell. And if your hand—even your stronger hand—causes you to sin, 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 be throw into hell.



Wow. That sounds pretty extreme, Jesus! But I would again ask you, was Jesus intending to create a society of one-handed, eye-less people? Or is he underscoring our need to take extreme measures to deal with current sin in our lives rather than risk missing out on heaven?

Now, let’s put these two passages together—the one about anger and the one about lust.


The stark reality is that if we believe pornography is grounds for divorce, we must also believe that hate is grounds for a murder trial, and cursing someone is grounds for being condemned to hell.

Those aren’t my words. This is the full implication of what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5, if we are being consistent with a literal meaning rather than hyperbole.

So was that his point? Because let’s be honest—based on his standards, wouldn’t we all need to be put on trial for “murder,” cut off a hand, or gouge out an eye at one point or another in our life? Was Jesus advocating for a world of people condemned to hell for fostering hate in their hearts?

I would argue, without doubt, no. Jesus was using hyperbole to create an awareness: not a single one of us can attain a righteousness worthy of heaven. Not a single person left to their own strength can live so well as to merit salvation. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5 exposes the depth of our sin and our desperate need for him. His words should prompt us, not to condemn people to hell or divorce those who lust, but to bring ourselves wholly to him, admitting our deep need for grace and His Spirit to empower change in us.

Interestingly, Jesus then turns directly to the idea of divorce. He quotes the Old Testament law from Deuteronomy 24:1 (which, if you look at Deuteronomy is not even the point of this law) and says, “You have heard the law that says, ‘A man can divorce his wife by merely giving her a written notice of divorce.’” In other words, for people in the Old Testament, divorce was a matter of emotion and opinion. I feel unhappy, therefore I am justified in making this decision. But Jesus confronted this wayward attitude when he addressed this same passage in Mark 10, saying, “He (Moses) wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts.

In Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to clarify, “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery.” The word here for “unfaithful” is Porneia. While this is the root word for pornography, it is NOT pornography that Jesus is referring to in this century or word usage. Not only would pictures or images of naked bodies been improbable in this time, but also the use of Porneia throughout Scripture is in reference to actual physical intercourse with anyone other than your spouse. It’s almost like Jesus knew that people would be tempted to take his previous comment about lust and adultery out of context, so he included a clarifying statement: the only biblical foundation for divorce is physical infidelity—intercourse—with another person. (Again, I am not trying to make a statement about all other kinds of divorce that have occurred in our world. I am simply trying to direct you to the record of Scripture on this topic.)

Jesus wraps up his teaching on following the law in Matthew 5:48 with these words, “But you are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.” If you look at the life of Christ throughout the four stories written about him, you will see quickly that Jesus did not expect people to be perfect. He loved and forgave the broken, the sinful, and the arrogant. He called people, not to perfection, but to a perfect experience of the Father’s love that could only come through faith in him. To use this teaching as grounds for divorce over pornography is a tragic misunderstanding of Jesus’ point to all of us.

Lust or pornography in a marriage is painful.

It is deeply personal.

But it is not biblical grounds for divorce.

However, Matthew 5 is a clear call to the person struggling with lustful thinking and acting. Jesus is calling that person to a life of holiness and purity that refuses to accept lust as okay and pornography as acceptable. Jesus is calling the one who is struggling to treat this sin as seriously as an affair and do whatever we must—no matter how extreme—to deal with this issue in our hearts and minds.

WARNING: 

The point of this blog is not for the offending spouse (the one struggling with lust or online pornography) to take to their wife or husband and say, “See! It’s not the same as adultery! I told you! You’re blowing it way out of proportion!” This blog is not your “get out of jail free” card. This is, instead, an opportunity for you to look at your own heart and ask for the courage of Christ to do whatever you must to eradicate this behavior from your life.


So what to do from here? Let me give you two thoughts in closing:

TAKE YOUR SPOUSE'S EMOTIONS SERIOUSLY

If they say it feels like adultery, then this IS their reality. Does it mean it IS the same as a physical affair? No—but it does mean that your spouse is attempting to communicate to you the depth of pain this behavior causes them to feel. 

I missed this point for almost 10 years in my marriage and it nearly cost me everything. I spent way too much time believing, “She just doesn’t understand,” when I needed to realize that I was the one who didn’t understand. Take their feelings seriously. Hear their heart. Let it motivate you toward deep and lasting change.


DON'T LET YOUR HURT DRIVE YOU TO DIVORCE

If you are the offended spouse, your hurt is real. The pain is real. But guard your heart from letting that pain be an all-too-convenient reason to write off the marriage. If everyone listened to this excuse, few would remain married today. However, do recognize that the reason you feel such intense pain is because your heart has been deeply bonded to your life partner. Rather than run from the pain, lean into it and seek to use it as a foundation to strengthen the relationship. It is okay to have honest, painful conversations. 

It is okay for you to ask them to stop this behavior. It is okay for you to expect change. But don’t let your emotion or opinion be the reason for a divorce. Jesus cautioned people against this 2,000 years ago and he calls us to the same today.


The topic of lust and pornography is never easy to navigate in a marriage relationship. But for those couples who are willing to face the struggle openly and honestly, the journey is truly life-changing. I implore you, if you’re not already, get into a Pure Desire group for recovery whether you are the one battling or the one being hurt by the battle. In a safe community, you can experience real healing and freedom, thus changing the trajectory of your marriage. Do whatever it takes—but please don’t gouge out your eye or cut off you hand. Jesus wants you whole—physically, emotionally, mentally and relationally.


             

NICK STUMBO

Nick is the Executive Director of Pure Desire Ministries. He has been in leadership for 15+ years. He was in Pastoral Ministry at East Hills Alliance Church in Kelso, WA for 14 years. Nick is the author of Setting Us Free and Safe: Creating a Culture of Grace in a Climate of Shame.





11 Responses

Julie
Julie

October 01, 2019

Wow Sarah, you missed the whole thing. FEELING hated or even feeling murderous is ENTIRELY different than the actual adulterous ACTIONS involved in pornography. I am saddened that so few see the the Truth of the Word of God. Jesus did not say that lust was committed in the heart, but ADULTERY ALREADY IN HIS HEART. ALREADY, do you see it? He started out by saying “thou shalt not commit adultery…..”. Be careful, Jesus meant what He said. According to Jesus, watching pornography is ADULTERY, the severing of the marriage covenant. Period.

Sarah
Sarah

September 13, 2019

“THE STARK REALITY IS THAT IF WE BELIEVE PORNOGRAPHY IS GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE, WE MUST ALSO BELIEVE THAT HATE IS GROUNDS FOR A MURDER TRIAL, AND CURSING SOMEONE IS GROUNDS FOR BEING CONDEMNED TO HELL.”

You are only invalidating the following argument:
“Jesus says lusting is adultery and adultery is grounds for divorce, therefore lusting (or porn use) is adultery and therefore grounds for divorce.”

The problem with your argument is that it assumes that those arguing for lust/porn use as justification for divorce are arguing SOLELY according to this line of reasoning, which is indeed faulty. Jesus did not say that lusting in the heart is equivalent to full-blown adultery. He simply said that if a man looks at a woman with lust, he has committed adultery IN HIS HEART.

Lust is not equally heinous to full-blown adultery in God’s eyes, just as hate is not equally heinous to murder. These sins simply fall within the same spectrum of offense to God and Jesus is not implying that we should respond to sin on all sides of the spectrum with equal severity.

What this blog does NOT address is the argument that pornography use (specifically that leads to climax) falls within the broad definition of porneia that is explicitly laid out by Christ as valid grounds for divorce.

Julie
Julie

September 10, 2019

I believe that part of the reason it is not taken seriously, or believed to be grounds for divorce, is that ministries are not teaching the TRUTH about it. It IS adultery, and, therefore, grounds for divorce. Some of your article reads as justification for sin. Pornography is breaking covenant. My understanding is that Jesus is being very clear, but if it is a sin that one is enamored with, they will water down the seriousness of it.

Nick Stumbo
Nick Stumbo

August 07, 2019

Mihcael- Thanks for your thorough and thoughtful comments. I feel that you are still missing the motif of hyperbole that Jesus is using in this passage. Based on your approach, it would seem we should also agree, then, that adulterers (those who view porn) should go out and gouge out their eyes. Thoughts?

Tabby Hamrick
Tabby Hamrick

July 17, 2019

Proverbs 6:35-36 You have every right to protect yourself ….

Tabby Hamrick
Tabby Hamrick

July 17, 2019

You have to protect yourself. Porn watching can and usually leads to physical adultery which can lead to herpes, hiv and incurable diseases. Proverbs 6:32-35.

Julie
Julie

July 01, 2019

Last comment….Jesus said “looks” at a woman with lust…..He just said “looks”. What people do with porn is a WHOLE lot more than looking with lust. They have action too, and Jesus said even looking was adultery. How interesting that he then goes on to talk about eye and hand. Hmmmm.

Julie
Julie

July 01, 2019

Mihcael, so sorry that I spelled your name wrong.

Julie
Julie

July 01, 2019

With respect, I wholeheartedly agree with Michael. Sorry Nick but you are completely in error about this subject. And just in case you are feeling that I might be trying to justify…..my husband has been doing phone sex, using porn and now interactive porn our entire marriage and as a committed believer, I have stayed. But, it is without question adultery, every-single-day. Do not deceive yourself, or believe that Jesus did not mean adultery. His sexuality is by covenant, mine. However he receives sexual pleasure by another it is adultery, every-single-time.

Mihcael Perron
Mihcael Perron

June 29, 2019

Nick – I appreciate your blog. Thank you. My feedback is based on one flaw in the premise. Hate, lust and cursing are thoughts (temptations) not behaviors – watching pornography for sexual gratification (masturbation to orgasm) is a behavior. You state that, “THE STARK REALITY IS THAT IF WE BELIEVE PORNOGRAPHY IS GROUNDS FOR DIVORCE, WE MUST ALSO BELIEVE THAT HATE IS GROUNDS FOR A MURDER TRIAL, AND CURSING SOMEONE IS GROUNDS FOR BEING CONDEMNED TO HELL.” So, first, hate is not the equivalency as murder as the action of murder was not committed (i.e. no one was killed). However, when hate leads to the behavior of murder (action) then the person is guilty of murder. Second, cursing (unforgiveness) is a thought as well, the truth is that if you will not forgive – you don’t have salvation in the first place so essentially you are condemned to hell already (Matthew 5:14-15). The issue is the manifestation of the thought (temptation) not the thought itself. So in the case of pornography (masturbation to orgasm) the temptation is manifest – therefore, the covenant of marriage has been broken. Whether or not divorce is the result is based upon the willingness of the person to admit and repent of their behavior, and obviously the mercy of the party (spouse) that has been offended. For example, in the case of hate that manifests in the action of murder, the person guilty of murder must deal with the consequences of their behavior – most likely prison. The one who curses and is not born-again, according to Jesus, is condemned to hell as a result of their behavior. So pornography (sexual climax “with” someone other than your spouse) is the breaking of covenant.

Jim Eschenbrenner
Jim Eschenbrenner

October 11, 2018

Great job tackling this this difficult and often misunderstood subject. Two things: First, I’m reminded we often miss the intended meaning of Jesus teaching because we haven’t taken the time to look past our “western” interpretation and consider the middle-eastern context. Second, our default reaction in difficulty is to look for a way out. But Jesus doesn’t promise to protect us from all trouble and hardship; He does promise to walk with us through the pain.

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