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What is Marriage? – Myths of Divorce, Adultery, and Infidelity

Having examined the biological, Biblical, and cultural basis for marriage, we’ve applied that understanding to various alternate forms of “marriage.” Read those articles first if you haven’t, or this one may not make as much sense. Now, we want to turn our attention to how it applies to the breakdown of a marriage.

What I’ve often encountered in reading various articles on marriage, divorce, adultery, and infidelity are a lot of misconceptions, especially among Christians, about what Jesus said about it. What are the common myths about Jesus’ words, and infidelity in general? The following is my list.

Divorce is a Sin

This is one of the most common ones. In actuality, most of the time, it is true, but most people don’t know what divorce means. No, I’m not merely referring to the “adultery clause” divorce. I mean getting a legal divorce, in and of itself, is not sinful. Before you start throwing things at your computer, hear me out.

First, keep in mind what we’ve established as the basis for marriage in the first three articles. The defining basis is the biological sexual act of procreation (no matter whether the act ever does procreate). Without that union, there is no marriage, per biology, history, and Biblically.

That as a given, what act can rend that union asunder? A legal piece of paper saying you are no longer married, even though we’ve shown that the government cannot establish a marriage? See if you can pick up Jesus’ answer to that question:

For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh: so that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. And in the house the disciples asked him again of this matter. And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her: and if she herself shall put away her husband, and marry another, she committeth adultery. (Mar 10:7-12 ASV)

The disciples asked Jesus to clarify what He was talking about concerning divorce and the conditions when a marriage is “put asunder”. Note Jesus list two conditions: putting away and marrying another. By so doing, a person commits the sin of adultery save when adultery has already been committed, that is, the marriage has already been torn apart.

More to the point, the matter of divorcing legally does not tear a marriage apart by itself anymore than a legal marriage certificate marries a person. Rather, the real destruction of the marital bonds occurs when a new marital relationship is established with someone else. That is, when a person has sex with someone other than their spouse, they are marrying that person and divorcing their spouse.

Merely getting a legal divorce does not commit sin. If a person never marries another through sex, they never in reality divorce their spouse. Rather, it is a mere separation and not sinful unless you have sex with another before your spouse does.

One Commits Adultery Only When They are Legally Married

Not true. The first person you have sex with in your life becomes your spouse. The next person you have sex with, you divorce your first spouse and marry your second, and so on down the list, however long it may be. As we’ve seen, it is having sex that is the basis for marriage, even if not the fullness.

“Premarital” sex is an oxymoron since it is sex that marries two people together. It is impossible to “sow your wild oats” before marriage, for planting them is the same as marrying someone. There are only two situations when having sex is not adultery, according to Jesus. The first time you have sex and having sex with a new person after your spouse has committed adultery on you. Other than that, if you are not having sex with your spouse, you are committing adultery. Premarital sex is nothing more than getting married, divorced, and committing adultery over and over again for most people.

When Your Spouse Commits Adultery, You’re Biblically Required to Divorce Him

Jesus never said that. What He said is the only time divorcing and remarrying is not committing the sin of adultery is when your spouse has already committed adultery. In truth, Jesus’ ideal is that a couple doesn’t get torn asunder in the first place. When it does happen, a lot of circumstances go into a decision to rebuild or divorce. However, there is no Biblical requirement to do so upon discovering your spouse has committed adultery.

Jesus Said You Can’t Divorce Except for Adultery

This is another very common one. Strictly speaking, divorce alone isn’t the issue, but divorce in order to marry another. But what did Jesus really say?

And they said, Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement, and to put her away. But Jesus said unto them, For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. (Mar 10:4-5 ASV)

Note: Though due to our “hardness of heart” it was permitted, but that is not the design specifications as God created marriage. Rather, “and the two shall become one flesh: so that they are no more two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mar 10:8-9 ASV)

The design specs is that a man and a woman will join together and that union will never be nullified for a lifetime. Strictly speaking, one would never remarry, even if divorced, even if doing so would not commit adultery. Because God’s design specs is one spouse, period. But due to the fall, He allows us to divorce and remarry.

Jesus never said you can’t get a divorce. Only that getting a divorce and remarrying is a result of the fall, not how God designed it to work. What He did say is that you cannot divorce and remarry without committing the sin of adultery unless your spouse beats you to the sin first. Whether or not you are committing the sin of adultery by divorcing and remarrying is the point Jesus was making. Unfortunately, there is still plenty of hardness of heart to go around. Jesus stops short of taking the option off the table.

Cheating and Adultery Are the Same Thing

Though they frequently go together, they are not the same thing. Cheating, infidelity, or having an affair involve two main components: emotional and/or physical sharing of martial intimacy outside the marriage, and deception with one’s spouse. Adultery is when a person commits or strongly wants to commit the act of sexual intercourse with a person other than one’s spouse.

A person who divorces and remarries may commit adultery as Jesus explained, but he is not deceptively cheating on his spouse. No affair is involved. Likewise, a person may be involved in an emotional affair without their spouse’s knowledge, but successfully avoid sexual intercourse or the desire to do so and therefore not commit adultery.

Therefore, discovering your spouse is cheating on you, if he’s not had sexual intercourse with her or desired to do so, he’s not committed adultery and hasn’t torn asunder the marital bond. There’s some other heavy sins and breaches of trust involved, but there would be no “get out of marriage free” card to avoid committing adultery yourself if you were to divorce and remarry him.

Conclusion

Adultery is the act of rending asunder your marriage to your spouse by uniting sexually with another, in effect marrying them instead. This is also the definition of divorce in order to marry another. Only when your marriage has already been rent asunder by your spouse do you avoid the sin of adultery to do the same thing—before you reunite to them, in effect remarrying them.

This process happens no matter the legal marital status, presence of a ceremony, or promises made or not made, since sexual union is the foundation of what it means to be married. Not recognizing this and failing to treat it as a real marriage is the basis upon which what we’ve erroneously termed “premarital sex” or “sowing one’s wild oats” is sinful. There is no such thing as sex before marriage, because sex establishes the marital bond. It is the lack of commitments of a marriage with it that make it sinful. Ironically, many people in our society when they first “officially get married” commit adultery in doing so.

It is this reality which leads to so much infidelity and divorce. What can we expect when our society conveys to teens, “have sex as much as you want now, because eventually you’ll be ‘tied down’ to one woman when you get married.” Teens ask why premarital sex is wrong when it seems like a purely recreational activity you do with someone you love, not much different than going to a movie together, or sharing ice cream?

Then, suddenly when they get a marriage certificate and say, “I do,” sex now means something more? That all those years of playing the field will come to a screeching halt and they’ll be faithful to one person? That what before was a recreational activity will no longer be seen as such or treated that way? How dumb are we to expect anything different than the high rates of divorce and infidelity in our society when we’ve failed to learn ourselves and teach to our children the biological and Biblical basis for marriage: sex consummates and seals that union. It is not merely a recreational activity that two people who might love one another do. Especially in God’s eyes.

The reality is that a huge majority who read this blog fall into this category. I recall a woman’s surprise when she learned, while I was at college, that I’d never had sex with anyone. For her, at least, I was the first male virgin she’d ever met. Sure made me feel like I was in a small minority.

Often, due to the hardness of a spouse’s heart either in sin, abuse, or a combination thereof, divorce is either unavoidable or the least of all sins. While not God’s ideal, remarriage avoids some worse sins. We live in a fallen world, and sometimes we’re left with fallen solutions.

So what if you’re in one of these groups? The good news is that while there is sin, while you’ve harmed yourself and perhaps others, while you’ve not lived up to God’s ideal, there is healing for both yourself and your relationships. My final article will take a look at healing a marital relationship broken by these disruptive activities to what God has joined together.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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11 Responses to What is Marriage? – Myths of Divorce, Adultery, and Infidelity

  1. Am I understanding you correctly? Under “Cheating and Adultery Are the Same Thing,” you say “a person may be involved in an emotional affair without their spouse’s knowledge, but successfully avoid sexual intercourse or the desire to do so and therefore not commit adultery.” From that I infer that as long as there’s no lust, there’s no adultery. Is that what you meant?

    And thank you for writing “Jesus never said you can’t get a divorce. Only that getting a divorce and remarrying is a result of the fall, not how God designed it to work.” That sums up very succinctly something I’ve never been able to put into words. I once helped a friend leave an abusive husband, and I’ve always felt a little bad about it (but only a little). I just could not believe Jesus would call her to live in a dangerous situation. This helps me get a better handle on it.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Yes. In theory, a person can not lust for the other person even though they are, say, sharing intimate sexual chat. A lot of people do it for the pure thrill of the attention, with no desire or intention to actually have sex with anyone. Therefore, they are not lusting after that person. In my understanding, when Jesus said lusting after someone is committing adultery, he meant to lust to have sex with them, as in saying to themselves, “I’d love to get her in bed!” It doesn’t mean if I notice a sexually attractive woman that I’ve committed adultery. Only if I find myself wanting to have her.

      I actually should have put that in as another myth. :)

      In the divorce issue you mentioned, unfortunately there are instances of picking the least worse of the non-ideal situation. If one finds themselves in an abusive relationship, committing a form of “emotional adultery,” the harm caused from that for both wife and any kids is much worse than the harm caused by divorce. Sometimes one finds themselves in situations to which there are no easy, clean answers. Thus where the hardness of heart comes in. In the above situation, the hardness of heart of the abusive spouse.

      Glad that helped to clarify it for you and thanks for your comments.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      I should clarify, to make sure there’s no confusion.

      Though someone may not be committing adultery in that situation, they are still cheating, being unfaithful to their spouse. By saying they are not committing adultery, I’m not excusing what they are doing, or saying it is not sin. It is simply not necessarily the sin of adultery specifically.

  2. Rick,
    I think your concept of the least worst option is an important one.

    Sometimes (like the abusive husband – or abusive wife) there is no good option. In that case simply to quote the wrongness of one option (leaving the abuser) without considering the greater wrongness of staying with the abuser becomes a pious hypocracy.

    That applies to marriage. Argueably it applies in other cases as well, or at least it is a point to be considered.
    If the mad axeman abusive husband comes into the house demanding to know where his wife is, because he’s going to decapitate her, then do I tell the truth (she’s hiding in the broom cupboard) or lie (she left yesterday to emigrate to the Falklands, you’ve just missed the monthly flight, so sorry).

    In that case I’d lie with a clear conscience.

  3. On divorce
    I’m slightly worried that some discussion on divorce seems to take Jesus’s teaching out of context.
    The argument runs, Jesus said divorce is wrong, except for adultery. Therefore all divorce today is wrong, unless there is adultery.
    But there’s two things wrong with that.
    1, What people say should always be taken in context.
    Jesus was answering a question, “Can you divorce your wife for just any reason” – ie she’s getting on a bit, and I’ve just found this sexy piece who’s 20 years younger (and that is how some people really do act) Jesus’s answer is no. But he’s saying no to divorce for trivial reasons, to divorce for selfish and obnoxious reasons.
    2, Paul later adds another ground for divorce. If your unbelieving partner walks out (or kicks you out). Is Paul going against Jesus’s teaching?

    It seems to me that the critical detail in both Jesus’s comment and Paul’s is a breach of the marriage contract, which is so severe that the agreement is voided, and the innocent party is free.

    That’s not the same as a blanket ban on divorce, but it’s not the same as today’s society standards either. What UK law now offers is “no fault” divorce, because one or both parties just want out. That’s something completely different.
    Biblical divorce is about dealing with the results of a breach of promises, of a betrayal, and how to deal with it in a least worst way.
    Today’s divorce is about disregarding those promises, and downgrading them to the point where they no longer matter.
    That’s a very different issue.

    On rape and forced marriage.
    In the Lost Genre group Krystine Kercher objected to what she thought you were implying, that if marriage is fundamentally the sexual act, then rape is a form of marriage, which puts victims of rape in an impossible position.

    However the critical detail in your definition of marriage (which I tend to sympathy with) is that the sex is consensual. Marriage is an agreement between two people. If the agreement is not there, or even if the agreement is on false premises, then I do not see how that can be a marriage.

    Your comments?

    • R. L. Copple says:

      I think the consensualness of it plays into the contractual nature being null and void, I’d agree. That said, the physical union does create the bond that physically unites two people into one flesh. It is not the fullness of marriage by any means, being there is no mutual commitment to participate in the act as a marriage, but the act creates a physical union nonetheless.

      Because it is not consensual, being forced upon the rapee, there is no moral obligation to then fulfill a complete marriage with the man by living with him and legally uniting, etc. However, because that bond was established, there is a sense that if she has sex with someone before he does again, she’d be committing adultery. Though not ideal, no one due to the circumstances, would fault her for marrying someone else of her own consent. In this case, it doesn’t represent her moral sinfulness, but the fallenness of our life, that due to sin, we are sometimes forced into non-ideal situations. IOW, due to Moses’ “hardness of heart” clause, in this case the rapist’s, to “divorce and remarry” would be permitted, even encouraged as a better route than living one’s life physically united to such a person.

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  5. she783 says:

    What if the husband commits adultery..lies about it for years then admits it to his wife finally…they separate..the wife wants divorce by never files..has sexual relation with another man..then stops it and repents while trying to save her marriage and then the husband decides to have a secret affair without telling his wife..having g sex with both women . and when wife finds out husband files for divorce and moved in with girlfriend before divorce is final. Wife stays committed to marriage. Is this considered adultery? Or are they considered divorced in gods eyes?

    • R. L. Copple says:

      They would have both committed adultery when they had their particular affairs, assuming they had sexual intercourse or desired to do so, with their affair partner. But in the first two instances, that was “healed” to some degree and forgiven, as they stayed together and we would assume resumed sexual relations.

      As far as physical union goes, in each of those instances where adultery occurred, the unfaithful spouse is marrying one person and divorcing the other. Obviously that didn’t legally happen until the final incident when the man not only committed adultery again, thus physically marrying another and divorcing his spouse in God’s eyes, but then proceeded to dissolve the legal marriage as well.

      So, has adultery been committed? Yes. Does God see them as divorced? According to Christ, yes, because he committed adultery. Even before he filed for legal divorce. In this case, there’s been a lot of rending asunder what God has joined multiple times by both parties, culminating in the one that sealed the fate of the relationship legally as well.

      • she783 says:

        Good answer. So is it adultery if the wife is bound to another and remarries?

        • R. L. Copple says:

          Strictly speaking, if she has sex with her new partner before he does with whoever, then it would be. But like any sin, it can be forgiven and healed. God knows the heart and what the motivations are behind it.

          But if he did first, then he’d be committing adultery and she wouldn’t in remarrying, according to what Jesus said.

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