Does the Bible say that divorce is permitted on the grounds of fornication or sexual immorality (which includes adultery, infidelity, fornication, or unfaithfulness)? Can a man or woman who has been the victim of an unrepentant, adulterous spouse proceed with a divorce? Is it a sin to divorce a spouse over a case of adultery (cheating)?
Whenever a spouse is unfaithful, it can literally rip the heart out of the other spouse. Nothing can feel so terrible as the feeling of being betrayed by your spouse–the one person you are supposed to trust and love more than anyone in this temporal world. In the Bible, God says that once a man and a woman marry, they become one flesh.
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.
Jesus also says what God puts together, let no man tear apart.
Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.
A marriage is a beautiful bond, and the husband and wife should rely on each other at all times. As King Solomon wrote,
“When one falls down, the other can pick you back up.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9)
God clearly meant for marriage to last a lifetime. God hates divorce with a passion (Malachi 2:16). Jesus rebuked the pharisees and correctly taught that divorce should not occur for merely “any reason” (Matthew 19). Our society today thinks that if a person no longer “turns you on” or if they aren’t “funny or charming enough,” it is grounds for divorce. Jesus disagrees!
Furthermore, never does the Bible teach that a divorce in any situation is MANDATORY! As Christians, we should always strive to make any marriage work, even in the case of adultery or other marital problems. However, the Bible does teach that a divorce is acceptable in the case of “fornication,” which includes various types of sexual immorality.
In Matthew chapter 19, the pharisees came to Jesus to test him. They asked him about divorce. Jesus’ reply was that even though Moses “suffered” or “permitted” divorce (due to the hardness of their hearts), it was not so from the beginning. This broke through their notion that a person could divorce if they saw any kind of unpleasant thing in their spouse (such as not being able to cook very well)—a complete misunderstanding and liberalization of a passage in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1).
If a man divorced his wife for a frivolous, unbiblical reason, Jesus said that he caused her to commit adultery. If a man married a divorced woman, he also committed adultery. However, Jesus said that there is an exception for divorce in the case of fornication, also translated sexual immorality, unchastity, or adultery:
“But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery” (Matthew 5:32).
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
These passages are somewhat controversial. Some suggest that the word “fornication” (translated from the Greek word ‘porneia’) refers only to sexual unfaithfulness during the betrothal period. A person did not simply join together and marry in those days. Rather, there was a long engagement period, and they were legally considered married during that time (they were “betrothed”). The marriage was consummated at a later date.
Therefore, some contend that Jesus is only allowing for the “putting away” (divorce) in the case of sexual immorality (fornication) during this betrothal period only, not after the marriage was consummated. They further argue that Mark and Luke fail to include this exception clause, which reinforces their case.
There are some problems with this view, however:
- Betrothal to a person during this time was considered the same as marriage. In fact, consider the passage below, in which Joseph, though only betrothed to Mary at this time, was clearly called her “husband” by Matthew:
“Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily” (Matthew 1:19).
- In the Old Testament, adultery was clearly punishable by death. However, sexual unfaithfulness during the “betrothal period” was also punishable by death, which proves that it was considered the same as a consummated marriage in God’s eyes. This is further reinforced by the Old Testament passage that says the woman was betrothed “unto an husband” and the man “humbled his neighbor’s wife,” even though they were only betrothed:
“If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour’s wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24; emphasis mine).
- In the Old Testament, the faithful spouse did not have to stress about divorcing an unfaithful spouse. The cheating partner was stoned to death, and they were no longer bound to them. They were free to move on. Christians should be loving and forgiving, but Jesus did not demand that we remain in a marriage that could place our safety at risk (in the form of an STD or careless sexual activity). To suggest that Jesus does not allow for divorce in the case of fornication, is to contradict His own teaching on the matter.
- Finally, just because Mark and Luke failed to include this clause in their gospel account, it does not mean that Jesus’ words are irrelevant in Matthew. One gospel often gives us additional information and expands our knowledge on a topic that another gospel only briefly mentions or omits entirely (such as Jesus final words on the cross, his inscription message, etc.).
Therefore, when people argue that the exception that Jesus gave was only in the case of fornication during the betrothal period, it makes no sense whatsoever. The betrothal period was the same as marriage! They were considered legally and spiritually married during the betrothal, and sexual immorality during this period carried the same punishment: the death penalty in the Old Testament, or the option of “putting away” in the New Testament (as with the case of Joseph and Mary).
In conclusion, Jesus is allowing divorce when adultery occurs at any point in a marriage. He’s not commanding it take place, but He is allowing it, especially if there is no repentance or option of reconciliation (due to abandonment, remarriage, etc.). However, Jesus also set the record straight on frivolous, unbiblical divorces.
Should a Spouse Always Divorce When Adultery is Discovered?
Does the Bible teach that if your spouse cheats, you should immediately file for divorce? Of course not. In fact, it is often in the best interest of the couple (financially, for the children, etc.) to remain married and work through the sin of adultery that has taken place.
I know of marriages that have survived infidelity and actually grew stronger over time. One man foolishly cheated on his wife, but it was an isolated incident. The wife forgave, and he cleaned up his act and was thereafter faithful to her. They remained happily married until death.
I also know of another couple, where the husband decided he was going to pursue a sexually immoral lifestyle, despite having three children with his faithful wife. I understand that this is happening a lot more these days. It tore the entire family apart, and he eventually moved away and abandoned his family to pursue his vile, sinful lifestyle. The woman in this case eventually remarried.
A couple should strive to make the marriage work, but Jesus permitted divorce in the case of unrepentant fornication (meaning any kind of sexual immorality).
The three grounds that are given in the New Testament for ending a marriage Biblically include the following:
- The death of spouse ends the marriage covenant
- Fornication (sexual immorality at any point in the marriage) can be grounds for divorce, although it’s not mandatory
- The leaving/abandonment by an unbelieving spouse (1 Corinthians 7:15)
That’s it. The Bible offers no other way to Biblically divorce or end a marriage. Whether or not remarriage is an option, and what to do in the case of an unbiblical remarriage, I’ll save for another article.
What is the Easiest Way to Prevent a Divorce?
The easiest way to prevent a divorce is to never commit adultery or any other sin against the other spouse in the first place. God must be the foundation for every marriage. If a marriage isn’t founded on Biblical principles, the marriage stands a high risk of ending in divorce. Think about it: If you are living in the flesh and not the spirit, you’re going to do what the flesh desires to do. The flesh is selfish, sinful, and wicked by its very nature.
If both spouses truly love each other, truly care for each other, walk in the spirit, and submit to the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ, then the marriage will likely last until death.
This is easier said than done, because we are dealing with two individuals in a marriage. One may do good, and the other may choose to sin. One may be a believer, the other may not. But if both follow God’s word, then they have a great chance of having a life-long, happy marriage.
Is Christ in the center of your marriage? Are you obedient to the Lord? Have you accepted Christ as your savior? If not, I urge you to repent and place your faith and trust in Christ today, and receive forgiveness for your sins.