Is Viewing Pornography Grounds for Divorce?

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Matthew 5:28 - But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Jesus says that looking at a woman with lustful intent is adultery. Elsewhere, Jesus permits individuals to divorce their spouse if their spouse has committed (you guessed it) adultery. So then, does this mean that you can divorce your spouse if they look at (or have an addiction to) pornography?

This is a very good question. But before we begin our discussion, we want to acknowledge that we’re stepping right in the middle of a tense debate dividing Evangelical churches. Thus, this blog is inevitably a bit longer, a bit more technical, and a bit controversial. We apologize in advance for any “rabbit trails” the complexity of this conversation forces us to chase.

By the way, if you want to hear an even fuller treatment of this issue, check out an hour long teaching on it here.

With that in mind, let’s answer some preliminary questions that will provide a good foundation on which to determine whether or not viewing pornography could be grounds for divorce.  

 

Setting the Stage

Let’s begin by looking at the larger context of what the New Testament says regarding divorce; we never want to interpret one passage of scripture in a way that is inconsistent with the larger context of scripture.

First, the Bible gives one (and only one) allowance to pursue divorce. What is this allowance, you ask? Consider the following texts:

Matthew 5:32 - But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

Matthew 19:9 - And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

According to Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, the only allowance to pursue divorce is sexual immorality committed against one’s spouse.

Second, in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19, sexual immorality refers to literal, physical adultery. Jesus is not referring to some sort of “visual” or “emotional” adultery. How do we know? A few reasons:

  1. Sexual immorality is actually interpreted in the Old Testament as literal, physical adultery. In the Old Testament, people were stoned to death for physical adultery but not for what we might consider more metaphorical types of adultery (“visual” or “emotional”). If God’s word is perfect, we do not have permission to add phrases to the Bible that are not there. We don’t get to say that physical adultery, as defined by Jews thousands of years ago, should now be defined as emotional adultery, heart adultery, psychological adultery, etc. We’re then just adding words in front of the word “adultery” that are not in the scriptures.
  2. When we look at rabbinical commentary regarding what adultery is in the Old Testament, we don’t see rabbis pushing for the death penalty in cases of straying thoughts or eyes; rather, we see them pushing for it in cases of literal, physical adultery.
  3. The Greek word used here is “porneia” which, unless metaphorically defined by the context, refers to physical sexual acts such as homosexuality, adultery, bestiality, and many others.

Now, to clarify, pornography is a violation of the covenant of marriage. But it is not a breaking of the covenant of marriage. That only comes through creating some type of physically sexual, one-flesh union with another (see Deut. 24:1-4). Yes, it is true that pornography is sexually immoral; but, with the context of Matthew 5 and Matthew 19 in mind, it is not the type of sexual immorality that would allow one to pursue divorce.

Third, Paul does NOT give a second allowance to pursue divorce in 1 Corinthians 7. Many people allow for divorce for reasons the Bible does not allow because they accidentally misinterpret what Paul says about divorce in 1 Corinthians 7. They often read their presuppositions back onto the text and just assume Paul is adding a second allowance for divorce. The text says:

1 Corinthians 7:15-16 - But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?

Because of this text, here is how a lot of people misunderstand the New Testament’s teaching on divorce:

Step 1: Jesus allowed for divorce only in the case of adultery.

Step 2. But Paul seems to give a second allowance to pursue divorce for abandonment.

Step 3: Therefore, we are free to add other cases where people can get divorced (since Paul did), thus showing that Jesus didn’t intend to cover all situations.

But there are three logical errors in this line of reasoning:

First, Jesus didn’t merely say you can get divorced for adultery. That might have left open other options. He says you cannot get divorced for any reason other than adultery - which includes everything else. If I say, “you can have vanilla ice cream,” that might leave open the possibility that you can also have chocolate or strawberry. But if I say, “you cannot have anything except vanilla ice cream,” then I have removed all other possibilities.

Sometimes when we are dealing with an unhealthy marriage, we act as though God didn’t know how bad that marriage would be when Jesus gave this all-encompassing command. We think, “But, if Jesus had envisioned this specific situation, he would have certainly included it in his allowance for divorce.” But he did know how bad it would be and still decided to only allow for divorce for physical sexual immorality.

Second, even if Paul did add a second allowance for divorce, you would not then be able to add a third. Why? Because you are not an apostle. You are in a different class than Paul who, as an Apostle, is inspired to write the very words of God in scripture. 

Lastly, and most importantly, Paul is not giving a second allowance for divorce; he is only telling you what to do if your spouse divorces you. Read that again; this is enormously important! Most people just assume that Paul gives a second allowance for divorce because they haven’t considered the context. Jesus says you cannot file for divorce for any reason except adultery. Paul simply says that if your spouse divorces/leaves/abandons you then you are not at fault. Notice that he doesn’t give a second ground for you to pursue divorce (thus, contradicting Jesus), but merely lets you know that you are not guilty if your unbelieving spouse just decides to up and leave.

So, to summarize all we know so far:Jesus lets you get divorced for physical adultery.

Paul simply says that if your spouse leaves you, you have not sinned.

 

Is Viewing Pornography Grounds for Divorce?

With this larger biblical background in mind, we are now prepared to answer the question at hand: is viewing pornography grounds for divorce? . 

In light of everything the Bible says about divorce, the answer is a resounding “no.”

Why? Let’s examine Matthew 5 again and look at a few reasons:

Matthew 5:28 - But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

1. The context of Jesus’ statement

When Jesus is saying that one who looks on a woman lustfully has committed adultery in his heart, he is not answering the question, “when can I get divorced?” Instead, he is answering the question, “if I sin in my heart, but I don’t commit the outward, physical action, is that still cool with God?” You can see that context is really important here. Jesus is showing that God is not merely after external actions, but after a heart that wants to obey. Therefore, this metaphorical lesson about not sinning in your heart should not be ripped out of context and used in a completely different context about divorce.

To give an example, 1 Timothy 2:15 says that a woman is “saved” through childbearing. Does this mean that we should rip this out of context and say that, in addition to faith in Christ, someone now has to physically give birth to a child to be saved? Obviously not. We can’t exchange the contexts of two passages just because the same word is used in two passages (whether the word is “saved” or the word is “adultery”).

2. The consistency of Jesus’ statement

Elsewhere, Jesus says that being angry with someone is like murdering them in your heart. Does this mean that we should lock someone up in prison for “murdering” because they were mad in their heart? Should we have someone undergo the same punishment as an actual murderer because they were mad at someone in their heart? In Jesus’ day, if you want to say that someone can get divorced due to heart-adultery, then you must logically say that someone should be stoned to death for heart-murder. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say that heart adultery is really adultery but heart murder is not really murder.

As we already mentioned, there is a sense in which pornography is sexual immorality; but it is not the type of sexual immorality that would allow for divorce. Just like there is a sense in which being angry in your heart is murder; but it is not the type of murder that would allow for a life-long prison sentence.

3. The social situation of Jesus’ statement

Though we read about Jesus in the New Testament, he lived and ministered under the Mosaic Law of the Old Testament. If Jesus is arguing  that visual adultery is the same thing as physical adultery, then (under the Mosaic Law) the penalty would be death. Since nobody who commits “lust in their heart” is stoned to death for it (in either the Old or New Testament) it shows that this can’t be a correct interpretation.

4. The implications of Jesus’ statement

Notice that the text says nothing about “pornography.” It just mentions looking with lustful intent. This means that if you think someone has grounds to get divorced because their spouse is looking at pornography, then they also have grounds to get divorced because their spouse has had a lustful thought. If a man has ever checked out a woman at Starbucks, or a woman has ever had lustful thoughts about a co-worker, or someone has ever had straying eyes at the beach, his or her spouse would have grounds for divorce.If sexual immorality in one’s heart is grounds for divorce, then the whole conversation about pornography is actually irrelevant. Now, don’t get me wrong, looking at naked pictures of someone who is not your spouse is an egregious sin. We are certainly not saying that pornography is no big deal. But, Jesus only talks about lustful thoughts. If heart adultery is grounds for divorce, then anyone who has ever looked at someone with lust can now be divorced. We are not free to say that one type of visual lust is grounds for divorce, but another is not. 

If sexual immorality in one’s heart is grounds for divorce, then almost everyone has grounds for divorce - all the time.

5. The words of Jesus’ statement

There are some people who say that they won’t allow for divorce if someone is looking at pornography, but they will allow divorce if someone is looking at really dirty pornography or if they are “habitually” looking at pornography. So if a woman’s husband is looking at “regular” porn she can’t divorce him, but if the pornography is exceptionally dark, evil, or bizarre, then she can. This line of reasoning is ridiculous. The question is not, “are some types of pornography spiritually darker than others?” The answer to that is yes. Bestiality, pedophilia, homosexuality, etc. are spiritually “darker” than other types of pornography. But that’s the wrong question. The question is “are some types of pornography more not-with-your-spouse than others?” and the answer to that is no. Likewise, is viewing pornography more frequently in some sense worse than viewing pornography less frequently? Of course. But again, the question is not about frequency. Regardless of what type or how often someone is looking at pornography, it is all equally sinning against your spouse. If you want to allow people to get divorced for pornography, the type or frequency of pornography use is irrelevant, because it all commits “heart adultery.” Some pornography is “darker” than other types, but it is not more “adulterous” than other types.

Notice that lusting in your heart is when you’re looking at a woman who is not your spouse. That’s the issue – who the person is. Jesus doesn’t say that if you have really bad lustful thoughts, then that is adultery – but if your thoughts are just normally perverse, then it is not. It is the fact that your thoughts are for a person who is not your spouse which makes them unfaithful.

Either everyone can get divorced if their spouse is looking at porn or nobody can. The one view we know is wrong, illogical, and sinful is to say that some can and some can’t; that’s the one view that is logically inconsistent from both sides.

6. The holiness of Jesus’ statement

Jesus’ ministry is not about giving people moral loopholes. His statements are meant to show us how to walk in more holiness – not less. Though the Old Testament allowed you to divorce for some reasons, Jesus gives only one allowance. Furthermore, Jesus wants you to repent of heart sins, not just body sins. To try to use this statement to loosen his standards about the sanctity of marriage is the exact opposite of what he wants you to do. In both the statement of lusting with one’s heart and the statement of not getting divorced, he is trying to kill our sin, not to give us more reasons to get divorced.

 

Conclusion

Pornography is awful. It is sinful. It ruins marriages, ruins sex lives, and ruins culture. It leads to higher rates of rape, abuse, perversion, homosexuality, transgenderism, and child molestation. And, if it is not repented of, it will lead you to hell. In no way do we want this blog to minimize how sinful pornography is or how frustrating it is to have a spouse who is addicted to pornography.

But the solution to one sin is not another sin. If someone gets pregnant due to rape, the solution to the sin of rape is not to commit the sin of abortion. Sin doesn’t fight sin.

In the same way, the solution to the sin of pornography is not to commit the sin of unbiblical divorce. What your spouse needs is Jesus. A husband looking at porn needs his wife to help him fight sin and believe the gospel (1 Pet 3:1-2). A wife who is looking at porn needs her husband to help provide for her physical needs (1 Cor 7:1-5) and to remind her of the gospel.

Porn is the enemy – not your spouse or your marriage.