What Constitutes Adultery?

The study committee which produced the Report on “Marriage Guidelines” has written much with which no one can disagree. It gives us the needed reminder that marriage is more than sex. There must be “communion on other levels” in the marriage relationship. In the past we have given tacit approval to the couple who, in spite of continual disharmony, maintained the outward semblance of marriage. The Bible makes plain that such marriage partners cannot have a proper prayer life.

Synod was not willing to accept this Report in toto. For one thing, it had a problem with the broad meaning given to porneia, the Greek word for adultery. It is to this question that I wish to address myself.

What is adultery? The Report states that “adultery covers all the ways in which infidelity in marriage can take place.”1 And again, “The basic meaning of adultery is breaking of trust or fidelity, unfaithfulness in marriage. Physical unfaithfulness is only one typical form of adultery.”2

In the argumentation that adultery is to be considered in the broad meaning of all “marital infidelity,” reference is made to the relationship of God and His people. God considers Himself as the Husband of His people. His people constitute His wife or bride. This is a spiritual relationship, and a breach of this relationship is called adultery. The term “adultery” in this connection is manifestly used in a figurative way. The relationship which God has established with His people is completely spiritual in character. Every sin is a breaking of the covenant. Every sin is a turning away from God to follow after another god. Spiritual adultery may be defined as replacing God in our heart and life with another god. It is a transfer of loyalty and devotion and service.

From the above it follows that adultery in the human relationship also would involve another person. It is possible to conceive of a human relationship which lacks nearly everything which ought to be found in marriage and yet not involve another person. Marital infidelity is broader than adultery. Adultery always involves another person; this also rings true with the definition given in the dictionary.

It is clear on the other hand that the concept of adultery, especially defined in the New Testament, includes more than physical intercourse. It also includes the desire for another than one’s spouse. Yet the term must be limited to physical intercourse and/or the desire which would lead to it.

Friedrich Hauck states: “From the religious standpoint adultery does not consist merely in physical intercourse with a strange woman; it is present already in the desire which negates fidelity” (Matt. 5:28).3 The reference to desire means the desire for physical intercourse with a strange woman.

The whole tenor of the word study of moicheuo (adultery ) limits it to physical intercourse or the desire connected with physical intercourse. The Report states that “adultery covers all the ways in which infidelity in marriage can take place” and “physical unfaithfulness is only one typical form of adultery.”4 A more correct statement would be that adultery is only one typical form of marital infidelity. According to Paul, adultery excludes from God’s kingdom (I Cor. 6:9). It is stated in the Report that “every husband and wife has been unfaithful in diverse ways and in various degrees.”5 If adultery is as broad as the Report states, then everyone who is married will have to ask the question the disciples asked in another connection: “Who then can be saved?”

Another related question is: What is porneia? (fornication). The Report states that “porneia is not the same as moicheia (adultery).” It is clear that the words are different. It is another question whether it cannot be said with Kittel that “porneuo is materially moicheuo.”6

One of the conclusions reached in the Report is that “it is not possible to limit fornication to physical infidelity.”7 If porneia (fornication) is materially moicheia (adultery) then what has been said about adultery would apply here. The TDNT ( Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel and Friedrich) states: “In both verses [Matt. 5:32, 19:9] porneia refers to extra-marital intercourse on the part of the wife, which in practice is adultery (cf. Sir. 23:23: en porneia emoicheuthe).8 The latter reference is from one of the Apocryphal books and it may be used to point out the usage of the Greek words in combination. These words are translated: “she has committed adultery through harlotry.”9 The basic meaning of porneia is prostitution and harlotry. One may commit adultery through fornication or prostitution.

Can the statement made in the Report that “in Matthew it (porneia) is the Greek translation for the ‘some idecency’ of Deuteronomy 24:1, “be substantiated?”10 It may be argued that the “logos porneias in Matthew 5:32 is perhaps modelled linguistically on the Hebrew formula”11 found in Deuteronomy 24:1, “because he has found some indecency in her.” But to be modelled after does not say that it is equal to, or that it is a translation. To say that Matthew is translating the Old Testament words “some indecency” with the word “porneia” is not warranted. The “some indecency” of Deuteronomy 24:1 was much debated, and a great deal of frivolous exegesis was in evidence. “In conscious opposition to this, and in exposition of the formula, the Sermon on the Mount limits the ground of divorce to the logos porneias, ‘some form of licentiousness.’”12

I can appreciate the practical problem of remarriage for those previously divorced irrespective of the cause of the divorce. But to give such a broad meaning of tbe term “adultery” as to justify all divorce appears to go beyond the meaning of Scripture, Rather we would do well to ponder the words of R. C. H. Lenski in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel: “The point of the utterances of Jesus is his condemnation of the disruption no matter what the cause may have been . . . Whatever the cause, a disrupted marriage is a disrupted marriage . . . . As regards the guilty one who causes the disruption, the way of repentance is surely open also for such a sinner as it is for any other who has caused an irreparable wrong to another.”13

1. Acts of Synod 1973, p. 598
2. Ibid., p. 599
3. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Kittel and Friedrich, Eerdmans, Vol. IV, pp. 733, 734
4. Acts, pp. 598, 599
5. Acts, p. 599
6. TDNT, Vol. VI, p. 588
7. Acts, p. 601
8. TDNT, Vol. VI, p.592
9. The Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, 1965, p. 158
10. Acts, p. 601
11. TDNT, Vol. VI, p. 592
12. Ibid., Vol IV, p. 105
13. p. 735

The CRC 1973 Synod considered but decided not to adopt the report of a committee that had been appointed to recommend Marriage Guidelines for pastors and consistories in dealing with marital problems (see Report 40, Acts 1973, pp. 595–607). One ground for not adopting the guidelines recommended was the following:

“Whereas the study committee maintains that the Greek word porneia as used in Matthew 5;3 and 19;9 has a broader meaning than illegitimate sexual intercourse, we question whether that interpretation can be substantiated from Scripture” (Acts 1973, p. 59).

At stake here, of course, is the question whether Scripture recognizes only one or more than one ground for divorce.

It is to this matter of the restricted or the broad meaning of porneia (adultery) that Rev. Gerrit Vander Plaats, pastor of the First Christian Reformed Church of Oskaloosa, Iowa, addresses himself in this article.