Adultery, What Is It? ... And then Some

Steven F. Deaton

In recent years, more and more brethren (mostly well-known "gospel" preachers) have taken up the position that adultery is a non-sexual covenant breaking. This is a theory that many Christians have never entertained, and, at one time, they would have laughed at a person for even mentioning such. However, it is catching on as more and more people find themselves in a second or third marriage. Let us first notice what the Word of God says about adultery, then compare it to what men are saying about adultery.

What The Holy Ghost Says

Now, what does that convey to you? Do you get the idea that the woman was found in the "gate of the city" filing divorce papers on her husband, or filing for a second marriage license, or taking vows to contract a second marriage? Rather, doesn't the term "taken in adultery" describe the fact that the woman was found having sexual relations with a man?

To what part of marriage does this passage refer? Is it to the vows taken when the couple stands before God and man? How ridiculous! It refers to the BED, that is, the sexual relations of a husband and his wife. If that is not so, then language means nothing. Now, notice the comparison being made: an "honourable" marriage "bed" (sexual relation) compared to an unhonourable sexual relation (bed) of "whoremongers and adulterers." It is addressing intercourse between a man and woman, righteous versus unrighteous, and uses adultery to define, in part, the latter.

Did these people have visions of divorce and remarriage? Were these folks enraptured and enamored with going to the courthouse and signing papers? Did they day-dream about an expensive ceremony? Rather, were they not ones who were full of sexual, sensual lust? What do you think?

It seems clear enough that adultery in the Book of God, when referring to a man and a woman (i.e. not idolatry or spiritual), is defined as a physical, sexual act. Nevertheless, some brethren do not agree.

What Men Say

Trying desperately to redefine adultery, Jerry Bassett says the following:

In his book, The Divorced and Remarried Who Would Come To God, Homer Hailey writes the following:

Olan Hicks, in the publication News & Notes, said,

W. L. Wharton in a taped sermon on MDR (1/19/92, San Antonio, TX) argues that adultery is covenant breaking.

Jim Puterbaugh, on tape in a study conducted at the Livingston Ave. church of Christ in Lutz, FL, argues that "to commit adultery" is subject to two possible meanings: 1. A single action; or, 2. a continual action, depending upon the context. Puterbaugh believes it is a single action in passages like Matt. 5:32; 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12. Thus, when the person gets a divorce and remarries another, he commits adultery as a one-time action. He argues it has no reference to the sexual part of the new marriage. The person needs to repent of the adultery and remain in the new marriage--it would be wrong to go back to the first marriage (a summary from the tape).

Weeding Through The Mess

As you can see, several issues need to be addressed. First, after reading all of the above, do you really think that the Bible defines an adulterer as one who has gone to the courthouse to sign divorce papers? (Reread the Bible passages) Is an adulteress one who sees the Justice of the Peace to contract a second marriage? Or, is it not true that the Bible portrays the adulterer and adulteress as ones who have sex outside their God-ordained marriage or ones who have sex with a married person? But this is where a second issue comes up, what is a God-ordained marriage?

Can one be lawfully married to a second or third spouse, not having divorced their previous one for the cause of fornication? Jerry Bassett thinks so, and thinks he finds comfort in a lexical definition.

We wonder why brother Bassett does not quote from Thayer's Greek - English Lexicon of the New Testament. Could it be that that definition would corner him? Notice what it says about the Greek word moicheuo (adultery in Matt. 5:28): " commit adultery with, have unlawful intercourse with another's wife: Mt. 5:28." If we, like brother Bassett, took one definition from one lexicon and made our case on it, we could claim that a heterosexual woman could not commit adultery! Do you see it? Thayer's definition says it is "unlawful intercourse with another's WIFE." So, if a woman wanted to have sex with a married man, whether or not she was married, it is all well and good, according to brother Bassett's logic. We do not charge him with such, but simply wish to expose his erroneous platform.

Fact is, both Vine's and Thayer's definitions of adultery clearly convey that adultery is sexual! It is pure assumption to say that adultery is the "dual act of divorcing one's wife and marrying another woman." Where is the lexicon that defines it as such? We'll pay good money to see it!

Furthermore, we must look at who is a lawful spouse. When two people are married, they are not the only ones involved, God is an interested third party. "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:6). When a person goes to the courthouse and divorces his mate (for a cause other than fornication) according to the law of the land, he breaks the civil connection. However, the couple was also joined by God--through His law. He established marriage and, thus, regulates it. Therefore, the man and woman are still joined through God. So, even if said man goes out and contracts another marriage through the civil courts, God does not recognize his new mate as a lawful one. The first wife is still the one who God acknowledges as the man's lawful spouse, while the second one is unlawful and results in the man being in an adulterous marriage.

Connection To Fornication

The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible, Vol. 2, p. 601, says,


  1. In 1 Corinthians 7:2 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul is warning unmarried people about the temptation to fornication. In both cases he advocates marriage to prevent single life of sexual immorality. In both cases fornication refers to voluntary sexual intercourse of an unmarried person with anyone of the opposite sex...
  2. In two passages (Matt. 5:32; 19:9) fornication is used in a broader sense as a synonym of adultery.

The argument goes like this: 1. Fornication is a sexual sin; 2. Fornication is used synonymously with adultery in Matt. 5:32 & 19:9; 3. Therefore, adultery in these passages is referring to sexual intercourse, not divorce.

When looking at the definition of fornication, we see that it is often a broad term which designates some type of illicit SEXUAL conduct, and frequently includes adultery.

{For further information on adultery as a sexual act and not a "non-sexual covenant breaking," see the appendix of Weldon E. Warnock's book, A Review of Homer Hailey's THE DIVORCED AND REMARRIED WHO WOULD COME TO GOD.}

Living In A State Of Adultery

Connected with our subject, and quoted especially from Hailey, is the idea that people cannot "live" in adultery, that is, it is supposed to be a "one-time" act. Well, the Bible portrays a different picture than our esteemed brethren.

We trust you can see our point. Fornication (which includes adultery - Vine) was a manner in which the Colossians had lived--it was a walk of life.

...And Then Some

What does all of this mean? We will try to summarize it like this: When someone says that adultery is the non-sexual breaking of a covenant, then those who are in a second or third marriage (after leaving their first spouse for a cause other than fornication) simply have to decide not to divorce and remarry again, that is, they can keep their second mate. This is what is taught. Therefore, to the casually observant, it is manifest that this opens the door to many, many more people who could be accepted as faithful Christians (appealing, isn't it). In other words, this opens the door of fellowship to those who, according to the Bible, are living in sin. When this door is opened by a redefinition of the term "adultery," what is next? Will we redefine the word church? God? Baptize? Fellowship? Love? Where will it end?

Moreover, some rant and rave about preachers in years past disagreeing on divorce and remarriage, but not drawing lines of fellowship. SO WHAT?!? Their actions prove nothing other than the way they acted. However, it would seem obvious that in the 19th century and early 20th century, divorce and remarriage was not so rampant, especially among brethren. Today it is everywhere. Those who lived back then were not forced to make much practical application of their beliefs, but we are. Today, the local church must decide if the couple (one or both of whom is married to their second mate) who wants to place membership is living in adultery or not. The local church must determine if the divorcee who wishes to marry again has the right according to God's law. More situations could be illustrated, but let these suffice. The point is, unlike in times past, we must face real situations, not just academic disagreements.

Let us beware of those who would turn the grace of God into adultery. Let us be mindful of God's will concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage, and teach our children and others diligently. Let us not compromise and sacrifice the truth of God's word upon the altar of friendship and feelings. "Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not" (Gal. 6:9).

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