Is Pornography Grounds for Divorce?

“My spouse is addicted to pornography. Does this give me the biblical right to divorce and remarry? After all, didn’t Jesus say that to lust after a woman is the same thing as if he actually committed adultery with her?”

This is a tremendously relevant question, one that I am increasingly hearing, and one that needs a biblical answer. We live in a culture that is saturated with pornography. The average age of exposure to pornography is 11 years of age. According to a recent statistic, 64% of “Christian” men view pornography on a monthly basis (Proven Men’s Ministry). And don’t think pornography is just a male problem. Recent statistics from a major pornographic website reported that 31% of their users are women (Pornhub, 2016 Report).

Because pornography is so accessible, affordable, and anonymous, many are allured into this sin, and like all sin, it destroys.  In the wake of its destruction is marriage.  Husbands and wives find themselves the victims of this so-called “victim-less” sin, and are asking, “What recourse do I have?  May I divorce my spouse for his/her pornography use, and be free to marry another?”  Let’s answer this question by addressing two points:

The Definition of Fornication
First of all, we know that Jesus said that a man could divorce his wife for “fornication” and marry another without being guilty of sin (Matthew 19:9). So the question is raised, “Would pornography be considered fornication? The answer to this question is complicated because of an inexact definition of the word, “fornication” employed in several translations of the Bible.  Several English translations translate the word, “fornication” (porneia) as “sexual immorality, and if that is an accurate translation, who could argue that pornography isn’t sexually immoral?  However, translating the word, “fornication” (porneia) as sexual immorality is too broad and does not recognize the specificity of what Jesus actually said.

Fornication (porneia) is more specific than the broad term of “sexual immorality.” It specifically has reference to “illicit sexual intercourse.” In other words, it involves physical contact with another person. One could say it this way: Just as all adultery is fornication, not all fornication is adultery; and just as all fornication is sexual immorality, not all sexual immorality is fornication.

For instance, is telling a “dirty joke” sexually immoral? Of course it is. However, that does not rise to the level of fornication. It would, however be condemned under other terms such as “uncleanness,” “lewdness,” and “lasciviousness” (Galatians 5:19). By listing these terms independently in this passage, it seems to suggest Paul recognized they were not synonymous.  Elsewhere, Paul said that those who “lust in their heart” are said to be given over to “uncleanness” (Romans 1:24).

Does Lust Constitute Adultery?
Next, let’s consider the statement of Jesus, “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” (Matthew 5:27-28). Does this not prove that the lust involved in pornography, resulting in adultery in one’s heart, would give a person grounds for divorce and remarriage as per (Matthew 19:9)?

The answer to that is, “No.” Clearly in this passage, the adultery resulting from lust is not literal, but figurative. While Jesus was demonstrating how our thoughts cannot be separated from our actions, he is not suggesting that our thoughts should bear the same consequences as our actions. For instance if one who lusts after another is subject to the same penalty as one who acts on that lust, then one who is angry with his brother or calls his brother a malicious name would be subject to the same penalty as one who actually acted on that anger and murdered his brother (Matthew 5:21-22).

Likewise, if no distinction is to be recognized between the figurative use of the word “adultery” from its literal usage, then a person would also have the right to divorce and remarry if his/her spouse ever became a “friend of the world.”  James called those who had become “friends of the world,” “adulterers and adulteresses” (James 4:4). Should we then conclude that worldliness on the part of one’s spouse is reason for divorce and remarriage?

When God’s children forsook him for idols, they were condemned for their “spiritual adultery” (Jeremiah 3:20). Their actions were condemned as the actions of a cheating wife.  Would we be correct in concluding that if one’s spouse became unfaithful to God, the faithful spouse would have grounds to divorce and remarry? Of course not!

In Matthew 19:9, Jesus wasn’t stating that “spiritual adultery” provided grounds for divorce and remarriage, but rather, he was stating that literal, illicit sexual intercourse provided grounds for divorce and remarriage.

While pornography is a destructive, sexually immoral sin, it does not rise to the level of fornication, and thus, does not give one grounds for divorce and remarriage.

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Comments 10

  • How does this relate to lesbian activity?

  • I recently heard from the pulpit (by a gospel preacher of 50 years of the church) that anyone who doesn’t love their spouse any more has broken the wedding vow and the victim of that can remarry!!!!! News to me. Am I missing something??? Are there then, exceptions to Matthew 19:9 (I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery) and if so, what are they and where is scripture for it. As for your question about pornography, it would give pretty well all spouses divorce as the trump card to hold in their hip pocket. Good article.

    Vern Hibbard

  • Well, my article doesn’t. My article addressed the singular question of whether pornography gives a person the right to divorce and remarry. If you have a question about lesbian activity, I would be happy to try and answer it.

  • Very good article, Steve. Since the road to pornographic addiction starts for many, especially boys, at such an early age, I would appreciate you writing some thoughts on how parents can best address this issue. Or, provide some links or websites that would be helpful.

    There is very little preaching and teaching in many places about this subject. My own thoughts are that spouses should be very open and communicative with each other regarding their sexual desires. A hungry animal will jump the fence to fulfill its desires for food, sex. When one spouse is starving sexually they may “jump the fence” inside their own house. Not suggesting this is the only cause of pornographic addiction. Thanks again for addressing this issue.

  • This is a great article. I feel like I have heard it recently though. lol joking aside, good job.

  • I mostly agree with your conclusion. This article is very helpful. Thank you Steve.

    However I am aware of a past situation where the husband is heavily into pornography and the vile things connected to it. He doesn’t just dabble, he is involved in it weekly, and sometimes daily. The wife is ill with his behavior and cannot stand to be around him. But he persists in his “addiction.”
    She is not looking for a way out of the marriage. But she is at the end of her rope with his adultery (Matt.5:28).

    She argues that her trust in him has been violated. I am not sure she is totally persuaded by the figurative vs literal adultery distinction. She argues, “Why would Jesus describe adultery in two different ways in the same breath (comparing Matt.5:28 and Matt.5:32)? Did Jesus really mean for us to jump from literal to figurative within the scope of five verses?”

    She makes another argument: Unless you catch your spouse in the actual physical act of adultery, divorce for adultery is based on circumstantial evidence. Most of us accept conclusions based on this kind of evidence, though not direct, when it comes to studying with people who have been divorced. But she argues, when it comes to pornography the evidence is direct (in that the husband is physically involved in a specific sin, which Jesus calls “adultery”).

    Question (not specifically directed to Steve):
    Those of us who study the Bible with people often encounter men and women who have been divorced. What about a person who has divorced their spouse for “adultery” (because of involvement with porn)? How do we interpret their spiritual condition? What instructions would we give this person relative to baptism, or placing membership with the local church? Would we encourage them to repent of the sin of divorcing their spouse for “adultery” (for involvement in porn)?

    Once again, a very good article. You brought out a couple of points that I had not considered. Thanks!

  • Very good article. Too often people search for a reason to divorce rather than a reason to stay together. As for definitions, I recall a question from a student in a Bible class back at FHC about the definition of lust. The teacher explained that God made humans to desire the opposite sex, and He did not design us to be sinners. Therefore, desire is not lust. Simply put, desire is, “What I would like to do with her/him.” Lust is, “What I would do with her/him if I could.”

  • Sin has consequences. Sin starts in the mind or heart. That is what I believe Jesus was bringing to the legalistically minded pharasee.

    I do not believe simple observation of pornography is grounds for divorce based on the same word study you have shared. However, the same word study can and has been used to come to different conclusions based on the level of “adultery” which can indicate the state of the offenders heart. Brian’s statements above are valid thoughts. I do think there is a point when divorce could be the only option for the other party. Remarriage is a different question.

    This is a deep and convoluted area to explore, and too often persons without much personal experience in it take staunch positions out of ignorance. Nowhere in any of this article or the above statements has grace been mentioned. Nor has the fact that someone might completely abandoned the marriage and marriage bed due to pornography involvement. We are told in scripture that “if the unbeliever leave, you are not bound to them any longer.” To just say that means you don’t have to follow them is intellectually dishonest. To be unbound is to be free from them. If a master frees a slave, is the slave limited in what they can do after the freeing? Yet masters and slaves relationships are used multiple times in scripture in the same thoughts as marriage and other relationships. Is it sexually immoral (contrary to God’s desire is the definition of immorality is it not?) for a spouse to leave the marriage bed of their own selfish desire? Will there be consequences when the Christian (Jesus’s bride) leaves the bridegroom? Is the bridegroom still bound to the one leaving? Is Jesus bound to save them anyway? Wouldn’t that be once saved, always saved? Or could we say once married, always married? How legalistic do you want to get?

    I have been one that has been lost in pornography. Thank our Lord that I have a wife that chose grace when she was faced with the truth of my sin. But I know in my heart I was committing adultery in my heart, mind and soul with multiple women beside her. I was taking from her what was hers and no one else’s – whether she wanted it or not. Had she chosen to leave me, it would have been the height of hypocrisy for me to claim legalistically that “it was only in my mind!” I knew better.

    Praise the Lord for His forgiveness and grace!

  • Paul, I appreciate you taking the time to reply. However, there is much within your reply with which I disagree. This is not a forum for lengthy discussion, but rather than not posting your comment, that you put so much time into, I decided to go ahead and post it with the following brief observations.

    You said:
    “Simple observation of pornography” isn’t grounds for divorce, but you can divorce if your pornography viewing reaches a certain “level of adultery,” based on the person’s heart.

    My Reply: Where would I turn in Scripture to learn of this division you speak of? What passage speaks of “simple observation” of pornography not being grounds for divorce as opposed to a more committed observation? Where would I read of “levels of adultery” that you speak of? You have no Bible for such an affirmation. Adultery isn’t committed by the number of times you do something, it’s committed by the act itself. You are affirming without any Scriptural backing the “simple pornography” doesn’t rise to the level of adultery, but “persistent pornography” does.

    You said:
    that divorce might be the only option for a person whose spouse in involved in pornography.

    My reply: Jesus and Paul both said not to divorce (Mt. 19:6; 1 Cor. 7:10-11). The only exception to this teaching is fornication. Yet you say, you might have no other option other than to divorce other than that for which Jesus gave permission. If divorce occurs for any reason other than fornication, it is a sin. There’s a mistaken notion that we can divorce with impunity so long as we don’t remarry. The sin is not just in the remarriage, but in the divorce itself because it is a violation of what Jesus and Paul commanded.

    You said:
    Nowhere in this article is grace mentioned.

    My reply:
    No, it wasn’t because that was not the scope of my article. My article was intended to answer a single question. Is pornography grounds for divorce. Can I not address this question without addressing all the other matters that have connection to it? Should I have also talked about the importance of the marriage bond? The selection of a proper spouse? Internet filtering? etc. Furthermore, if what you are implying is that the words of God can be set aside because he is gracious, then you have misunderstood the nature of God’s grace. Do you remember when Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan?” Do you know why he said that? Because Jesus said he must die, and Peter said no Lord, “mercy be upon you” (translated far be it from you). In other words, Jesus said he must die, and Peter said, no Lord, rely on mercy. We see the Lord’s reply to that way of thinking, and it appears that is what you are offering by your complaint.

    You said:
    that I also failed to consider situations when a person completely abandons the marriage bed.

    My reply:
    Correct, I did not consider that situation because it has no bearing on the question. If you’re suggesting that one can be so caught up in pornography that they no longer fulfill their marital obligation/privileges, therefore the spouse would have grounds for divorce, that would be wrong. The fact that a spouse fails to perform their duties in the home, whatever those duties may be, does not grant one the right to divorce. Why is forsaking the marriage bed any worse than forsaking any responsibility within marriage.

    You said:
    When the unbeliever departs the believer if free, no longer bound. And you used a slave owner and a slave as an example. One the owner sets him free, he’s free.

    My reply:
    Your illustration is faulty, for it doesn’t represent the parties in marriage. I don’t own my spouse as a slave owner owns a slave. Quite the contrary to what you said, A man can divorce his spouse for fornication and be free from her. But if you think that would also free her, you’re mistaken. For she is still bound by God. You see, marriage is not a bond of two, but of three. A better illustration would be a police bringing a criminal before the judge. The policeman may take off the handcuff he had on that bound him to the prisoner, and be free to leave. But we all know the prisoner isn’t free to leave, because he is still bound by the judge.

    I am sorry to hear that you have suffered because of this sin and I am thankful to hear that your wife has been gracious towards you. I wish you the best.

  • Really, I think what Jesus was getting at in regard to lust=adultery and hate=murder thing is simply that eventually, our thoughts can become our reality. Sin starts in the heart, so, in order to keep it from growing into something we actually act on, we need to keep our hearts in line. This happens with porn addicts many times from what I have read. Many feed themselves with it so much that they eventually try to act out what they see.

    Great article, by the way!

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