What Does “Adultery” Really Mean?

By Paul K. Williams

In recent years a new argument has been put forth by those who teach that a divorced person, regardless of the reason for his divorce, has the scriptural right to marry again without sin. Since these people have used several other arguments through the years, I am very suspicious of any new argument they come up with. They remind me of the Christian Church preachers trying to justify the use of instrumental music in worship. Every so often they come up with a “new” argument, usually from the Greek language, which is supposed to revolutionize our thinking about instrumental music. It is clear to me that they are motivated by a desire to justify their practice, not to find what the scriptures teach. They have been driven off of every argument they made in the past, but instead of abandoning their unscriptural practice they look for new arguments. Those who seek to justify remarriage for the unscripturally divorced person have been met on their past arguments, but instead of abandoning their false doctrine they have found a new argument! You can excuse me for being suspicious of it.

The New Position Stated

The arguments is found in the book Marriage and Divorce by John L. Edwards, first published in 1985 and a revised edition published in 1990.1 can paraphrase the position like this:

The Greek word translated adultery in Matthew 19:9 and Matthew 5:32 sometimes, in other places, means some practice other than sexual unfaithfulness to a marriage partner. The Greek verbs translated “divorces” and “marries” another are present participles, and that means the adultery in the verses must take place at the same time as those actions. Since the sex act comes after the second marriage, the word adultery in these verses cannot mean the sex act. Since it does not mean the sex act, it must mean the breaking of the marriage covenant. Therefore the act of divorce is adultery. You do not commit adultery by having sex in the second marriage. The only sin is the divorce, which you can repent of and receive forgiveness for. The second marriage is not a sin.

Here are some quotes from Edwards: “Therefore, the action of adultery is at the time of the divorce and the remarriage. It is the action of divorcing a faithful wife for the purpose of marrying someone else” (p. 52). (My comment: This is like saying forgiveness of sins comes before baptism [See Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38]. Edwards makes the adultery take place at the time of the divorce and before the remarriage. In Matt. 19:9 Jesus makes both necessary to the committing of adultery. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” Edwards cannot solve this contradiction.) Other quotes from the book say the same thing: “. . . it is the act of destroying the marriage that is adultery, according to Jesus” (p. 55). (My comment: Whatever “adultery” means in the first part of Matthew 5:32, it means in the last part. The last part says, “whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” This man had no part in destroying a marriage, yet he commits adultery. Edwards’ definition won’t work.) “Jesus was speaking against divorce for married people and not marriage for divorced people” (55). “Adultery is committed if one divorces a faithful spouse (this action is adultery)” (61). “To marry someone after they are divorced is not a sin in and of itself. THE SIN WAS GETTING THEDIVORCE.” (64) “WE CONCLUDE THAT ADULTERY IS THE BREAKING OF A COVENANT ” (56).

The Greek Lexicons Speak

There are many problems with this position. One of the greatest is that the new definition is contradicted by all the standard lexicons (dictionaries) of New Testament Greek. In the 1992 Hicks-Smith Debate, J.T. Smith showed that Thayer and Vine (the two best-known Greek authorities) both define “adultery” in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 to mean the sexual act.

J.H. Thayer’s lexicon defines moichao to mean: “to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with.” He then lists Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 under that usage. In fact, he lists every New Testament passage using the word as having that meaning. Later he notes that the word was used by Greeks in a figurative sense and gives some instances from secular writings. But the only usage of this word in the New Testament means to have unlawful intercourse with another’s spouse.

W.E. Vine first defines the noun moichos. He says it “denotes one who has unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another.” Then he says of moichao, “used in the Middle Voice in the N.T., is said of men in Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11; of women in Mark 10:12.”

Neither Thayer Nor Vine Hints That “Adultery”

Has a Figurative Use In Those Passages.

Hicks had no real reply to what Thayer and Vine said. He did not try to quote other Greek lexicons to contradict them. He simply said they were wrong because the tense of the Greek words “divorces” and “marries again” requires the action of adultery to be committed at the same time, not afterward. He and Edwards (who moderated for Hicks in the debate) are aligned against every reputable Greek lexicon. Their desire to justify the remarriage of unscripturally divorced people has caused them to brush aside these authorities, and even the standard English translations of the Bible. On page 51 Edwards quotes Matthew 5:32 as “. . . anyone who divorces his wife, except for fornication, makes her adulterated.” So he rejects the lexicons and the standard translations of the Bible!

The Figurative Use of “Adultery”

It is well-known that the word “adultery” is used figuratively in the Bible. Such verses as Jeremiah 3:8-9 abound. “And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. And it came about because of the lightness of her harlotry, that she polluted the land and committed adultery with stones and trees.” Such us-ages are easy to understand because they carry the basic meaning of sexual unfaithfulness to one’s spouse. Since Israel and Judah were in a relationship to Jehovah as wives to a husband, when they went after other gods they were acting the same as wives who go after other men. The stones and trees were idols. Judah was giving her love to idols instead of to God; therefore she was committing adultery.

It is easy to see that the basic definition given by the Greek lexicons, that adultery is sexual intercourse with the spouse of another, continues as the meaning even when the word is used figuratively.

When Edwards writes, “WE CONCLUDE THAT ADULTERY IS THE BREAKING OF A COVENANT” (56), he makes a crucial error. His definition is incomplete. Adultery is the violation of a covenant, of course, but of a specific covenant by a specific act. Adultery is the violation of the covenant of marriage by sexual intercourse with someone else. Figuratively, adultery is the violation of a covenant which can be paralleled to marriage by a relationship with a for-bidden party which can be paralleled to sex. In Matthew 5:28, adultery is committed in the heart with a woman. There the lustful desire is counted as the act completed as far as guilt is concerned, but there are two parties involved in the heart of the man. Figurative adultery, like literal adultery, requires two parties.

In the Old Testament instances where God’s people committed adultery against him, they did it by going after other gods. Mere disobedience to God’s covenant is not called adultery. It was adultery when they committed deeds which could be paralleled to an unfaithful spouse having sex with someone not their spouse.

The Meaning in Matthew 19:9 and 5:32

Therefore, Edwards’ contention that divorce alone is adultery violates the use of the word in the Bible, and is now what Jesus said. It requires divorce and remarriage to produce adultery because adultery is sex with another than your spouse. The man makes his wife an adulteress by divorcing her because when the next man marries her he commits adultery, obviously with her, which makes her an adulteress. J.W. McGarvey comments on Matt. 5:32  “the mere fact of divorce did not make her an adulteress, but it brought her into a state of disgrace from which she invariably sought to free herself by contracting another marriage, and this other marriage to which her humiliating situation drove her made her an adulteress.” McGarvey was being true to the meaning of “adultery” in his comments. He recognized that she cannot be an adulteress without committing adultery with someone else. This is true whether the adultery be actual sex or a figurative use of the word (Bro. McGarvey was a Greek scholar. He saw nothing in the tense of the words “divorces” and “marries another” which requires the action of “adultery” to take place before the man . goes to bed with his new wife.)

The adultery committed by the man in Matthew 19:9 required two acts: divorce for a cause other than fornication and remarriage. The product of that is adultery. Those two acts are not adultery. They result in adultery. The parallel with Mark 16:16 is obvious. He who believes and is baptized shall be saved. Both acts are necessary to the result. And the two acts are not salvation, but salvation is the result. Divorce is not adultery. Divorce and remarriage are not adultery. He who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Adultery is the result of divorce and remarriage. When an unscripturally divorced man marries another woman, he commits an unlawful sexual act whenever he has sex with her. This is what Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 clearly teach.

“Divorce is not adultery. Divorce and remarriage are not adultery. He who divorces and remarries commits adultery. Adultery is the result of divorce and remarriage. When an unscripturally divorced man marries another woman, he commits an unlawful sexual act whenever he has sex with her. This is what Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 clearly teach.”

GuardianofTruth XXXVIII: 7, p. 16-17
April 7, 1994