What Is Adultery?
Several years ago it would hardly have been necessary to discuss the meaning of “adultery.” Virtually every educated person knew that adultery is a sexual relationship that somehow or another breaches a marriage relationship.
In recent years though, a new view of adultery has been espoused by a minority element within the church. It is the notion that adultery is merely the act of repudiating one’s marriage vows (whether or not the covenant-breaker ever enters a new marital union).
The motive behind this novel theory is perfectly transparent. It is a result-oriented dogma. It suggests that if one commits adultery, i.e., he repudiates his marriage vow (admittedly an evil thing), then he may simply “repent” of that action, i.e., pledge not to do it henceforth, and, if he desires at some subsequent point, he may secure a new mate. According to this view, one can abandon his spouse for any trivial reason, pledge to never do such again, and then enter a new marriage.
Such an ideology makes an absolute mockery of the New Testament teaching on divorce and remarriage. But some are vigorously promoting this new view of adultery. (See note #1 below.) It is thus imperative that attention be focused upon the true meaning of that term as revealed in the Bible.
One of the fundamental rules of New Testament interpretation is known as usus loquendi. This is a Latin phrase which suggests that the common meaning (or the prevalent usage) of a term is to be assumed, unless some special significance is demanded by the context. The question is, therefore: how did the ancient writers—both profane and sacred—employ the term “adultery”?
The Classical Writers
The Greek word for adultery is moicheia. The classical Greek writers assigned a very clear meaning to the term. It had to do with the illicit sexual conduct of a married person, or with a married person.
For instance, Lysias (ca. 401 B.C.) writes concerning Euphiletus, an Athenian, who killed Eratosthenes after catching him committing adultery with his wife. In his defense he contends that the Court of the Areopagus has “expressly stated that whoever takes vengeance on an adulterer [moichon], caught in the act with his spouse, shall not be convicted of murder” (1.30).
Xenophon (ca. 401 B.C.) describes the adulterer who “enters the woman’s quarters, knowing that by committing adultery [moicheuonti] he is in danger of incurring the penalties threatened by the law.” He suggested that this is foolish since “there are many remedies to relieve him of his carnal desire without risk” (Memorabilia II.1, 5).
In the second century A.D., Sextus Empiricus wrote: “Adulterers [moichous] are, of course, punished by law with us, but amongst some peoples, intercourse with other men’s wives is indifferent” (Pyrrhonism III.209).
There is no question about what the Greeks meant by “adultery.”
The Greek Old Testament
In the third century B.C., the Hebrew Old Testament was translated into the Greek language. That version is known as the Septuagint. How is the term moicheia employed in the Greek Old Testament?
Moses wrote that the man who “commits adultery [moicheusetai] with another’s wife” is subject to death (Leviticus 20:10). Note that adultery was not merely walking out on one’s spouse; it involved an act with another’s wife.
Concerning ancient Jerusalem, God said: “I have seen thine abominations, even thine adulteries [moicheia], and thy neighings, the lewdness of thy fornication, on the hills in the fields” (Jeremiah 13:27).
Though “adulteries” is here used figuratively of Judah’s apostasy, there are clear sexual overtones associated with the word. The fact is, sexual activity was a common feature of Canaanite idolatry.
In Ezekiel 16, Jehovah describes Jerusalem as “a wife that committeth adultery! [moichomene] that taketh strangers instead of her husband!” (v. 32). She had “opened [her] feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied [her] fornication” (v. 25). The graphic nature of this language simply cannot be misconstrued.
Again, to worldly, idol-worshiping Israel, the prophet Hosea said: “[L]et her put away her fornications from her face, and her adulteries [moicheian] from between her breasts” (2:2). The allusion to an immoral embrace is obvious.
Clearly, in the Old Testament, adultery had to do with a sexual violation of marriage.
General New Testament Evidence
How does the New Testament use the term “adultery”? Is there any indication that the word means merely the abandonment of a marriage? We confidently affirm that there is not a scrap of evidence supporting this idea. Let us consider several New Testament passages in which the word “adultery” occurs.
First, Jesus spoke of those who “look upon a woman to lust after her.” He says that such one has “committed adultery” with her in his heart (Matthew 5:28). The term “lust” demonstrates that a sexual inclination is involved.
Do men lustfully fantasize about breaking covenants? That is not a viable viewpoint. Moreover, those who have “eyes full of adultery” (2 Peter 2:14) are surely not ogling a marriage document with a view to tearing it up!
Second, on a certain occasion the Pharisees brought a woman to Christ who had been caught “in adultery” (John 8:4). In the Greek text, the term is moicheuomene, a present tense participle. She was in the process of committing adultery when apprehended; the writer even emphasizes that she was “in the very act.”
What was the act? Was she merely shredding a marriage license? Was she slamming the door as she abandoned her home? Can one really miss the meaning of “adultery” in this context?
Third, the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes Christians to “let the bed be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (13:4). Exactly how does an adulterer “defile the bed”?
Let the Bible answer this question. According to the Old Testament text, Reuben, the son of Jacob, “went up to [his] father’s bed; then defiled it” (Genesis 49:4). What was his sin? He “lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine” (35:22). There is no question but that “adultery” has a sexual import in Hebrews 13:4. See also the connection between “bed” and “adultery” in Revelation 2:22.
Divorce and Remarriage Contexts
Let us now view the use of “adultery” as such appears in two New Testament contexts which specifically deal with the divorce and remarriage issue. Let us see whether or not the covenant-breaking definition will fit reasonably into these passages. After all, it is well known that if one correctly defines a term, the definition may be substituted for the word itself, and the sense of the passage will not be compromised.
First, Jesus declared that the man “who divorces his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, makes her an adulteress” (Matthew 5:32). Contemplated here is an innocent woman who has been victimized by her husband. She has been put away. She did not break the marriage covenant. Her husband did. And yet she, should she remarry, is stigmatized as an adulteress. (See note #2 below.)
This statement makes no sense at all if “adultery” is defined as covenant-breaking. But it makes perfect sense if the woman involves herself in a new sexual union without the benefit of a divinely authorized divorce.
Second, in Matthew 19:9, Jesus taught that anyone who divorces his companion, without her having been unfaithful, is committing adultery. The force of the form “committeth adultery” (a Greek present tense) is this: the offender keeps on committing adultery.
As Reisser (1976, 583) notes, he “enters the realm of adultery.” Professor William Beck (1963, 37) renders the verb in this fashion: “he is living in adultery.” Each act of sexual union with an unauthorized partner is adulterous.
However, this grammatical nuance does not fit the covenant-breaking definition of “adultery,” as set forth by some of our brethren. The advocates of this view contend that the adultery was a one-time event; it occurred when the divorce was initiated, and it was concluded at that point. That position is not consistent with the thrust of the present tense in this passage.
The Language Authorities
In conclusion, we should observe that some of the proponents of this new and novel theory have acknowledged that they are without scholastic support for their argument.
In his debate with this writer, Truman Scott (21) confessed that there has not been produced a single “Bible dictionary, commentary, Greek lexicon, Greek word study, [or] specific treatises on divorce and remarriage . . . within the last 350 to 400 years” that agrees with his position, namely that adultery is simply covenant-breaking. The brother would be a “law unto himself” when it comes to defining words.
Seldom have language authorities so unanimously agreed upon the meaning of a word as they have in the case of “adultery.” In the Old Testament the term na’aph (adultery) “represents ‘sexual intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another man’”(Harris, Archer, and Waltke 1980, 542).
The corresponding Greek word describes “one who has unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another” (Vine 1991, 17). Such testimony could be multiplied many times over. But why bother when the leading defender of this position concedes there is no scholastic support for his position?
A number of respected brethren have shown the utter folly of the theory under review. J. D. Thomas, writing in The Firm Foundation (June 7, 1983), charged that the “covenant breaking” ideology has “no support whatever from scholarship,” and “is an invented idea pure and simple.” He correctly diagnoses the situation: this theory is a capitulation to the immoral pressures of our culture (Jackson and Scott, Appendix IV).
Hugo McCord has carefully reviewed this “bizarre definition of adultery” and denounced it (n.d., 160-64). Jack Lewis has also written an excellent article on this theme (1992, 19-20).
We do not help our worldly contemporaries by contriving theories which leave them in their sins. Yet that is precisely what some of our brethren have done. May God grant us the courage to speak the truth in love; but yes, it must be the truth.
1 This view has been advocated in recent years by several brethren. Olan Hicks defended this concept in The Connally-Hicks Debate (1979). John Edwards argued the position in An In Depth Study of Marriage and Divorce (1985). Perhaps the most widely-known proponent of the adultery-covenant-breaking theory is Truman Scott, affiliated with the Sunset School of Preaching in Lubbock, Texas. For his views, see Divorce & Remarriage – A Study Discussion by Wayne Jackson and Truman Scott (1983). (See also Jackson 2002.)
2 The unscrupulous husband “causes her to commit adultery (by contracting a subsequent marriage)” (Arndt and Gingrich 1967, 528). Lewis notes: “It is assumed she will marry again” (1976, 93). Some argue that the passive form, “makes her an adulteress,” means that she is subjected to the reputation of being an adulteress, the presumption being that her husband would not have divorced her unless she had been unfaithful. In any event, the word “adulteress” can only be viewed in terms of sexual activity.
- Arndt, William and F. W. Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
- Beck, William F. 1963. The New Testament in the Language of Today. St. Louis. MO: Concordia.
- Edwards, John. 1985. An In Depth Study of Divorce and Remarriage. St. Louis, MO: Edwards.
- Harris, R. L., Gleason Archer, Jr., and Bruce Waltke. 1980. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Vol. 2. Chicago, IL: Moody.
- Hicks, Olan. 1979. The Connally-Hicks Debate. Ramer, TN: National Christian Press.
- Jackson, Wayne and Truman Scott. 1983. Divorce & Remarriage – A Study Discussion. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Jackson, Wayne. 2002. The Teachings of Jesus Christ on Divorce and Remarriage. Stockton, CA: Christian Courier Publications.
- Lewis, Jack. 1976. Matthew. Austin, TX: Sweet Co.
- Lewis, Jack. 1992. What Is Adultery? The Gospel Advocate, January.
- McCord, Hugo. n.d. Fifty Years Of Lectures: Volume Two. Atwood, TN: Church of Christ.
- Reisser, H. 1976. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Colin Brown, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
- Vine, W. E. 1991. Vine’s Amplified Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Iowa Falls, IA: World.