“Do I have a biblical right to divorce my husband because of his pornography addiction?”
Sadly, this is one of the most frequent questions my husband and I receive on the topic of pornography. By the time they reach out for help, many of the women we speak with are already at their breaking point. Divorce seems like a welcome end to the daily agony of living with a man whose heart is unfaithful.
The U.S. has the third highest divorce rate in the world. Of those divorces, pornography is one of the most common deciding factors. I’m sure your family, like mine, has been touched by marriages that have failed (or are headed that way) due in large part to an addiction to lust. It is such a problem that in a survey of lawyers taken in 2000, pornography was cited as a significant factor in over 56% of U.S. divorce cases. [i]
Pornography is an incredibly common cause of divorce, but is it a biblical one? Nearly all of us know someone whose marriage was destroyed by pornography. Because of that, this is an emotionally charged topic. There are so many people and circumstances involved, but to answer this question, we must stick with what God says. Not what I feel. Not what my sister thinks. Not what the world does.
What God said.
What God Says About Divorce
God clearly states that He hates divorce.
“’For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one’s garment with violence’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:16, NKJV).
We must be careful not to “deal treacherously” with the subject of divorce. Marriage is not just two people agreeing to live together as long as they make each other happy. It is a vow between a man and woman before God, Who joins them together for life. Marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:23), and God despises the destruction of that relationship.
But marriage is not always the picture of Christ and the Church it should be, is it? Too often it resembles unfaithful Israel whose heart strayed after other gods. In cases where a spouse’s heart lusts after that which is forbidden, do we have grounds for divorce?
Let’s read what Jesus says:
“The Pharisees also came to Him, testing Him, and saying to Him, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?’ And He answered and said to them, ‘Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.’ They said to Him, ‘Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.’ His disciples said to Him, ‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.’ But He said to them, ‘All cannot accept this saying, but only those to whom it has been given’” (Matthew 19:3-11, NKJV).
Jesus’ short answer? You are not two, but one. What God has joined together, let not man separate.
One Cause for Divorce
God’s ideal is for marriage to last a lifetime. But is there ever a case where God permits divorce? When questioned further, Jesus responded that you cannot divorce and remarry for any reason “except for sexual immorality.”
When Joshua or I give this answer, 90% of the time the response we receive is, “Well, there it is, then. Pornography is sexual immorality; therefore, I can divorce my husband.”
If you define the phrase “sexual immorality” using an English dictionary, you might understandably come to this conclusion. In English, “immorality” is very simply the opposite of what is moral and righteous. This definition would seemingly permit divorce in cases where a spouse has committed an immoral act related to sexuality.
Interestingly, if you were to only read the NASB translation of this verse, you might conclude that an even broader allowance for divorce was given.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
This translation drops the word “sexual” altogether, thus many have concluded that divorce is permitted in any case where a spouse is acting unrighteously. But is that what Jesus actually said? Let’s define our terms.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9, NKJV).
The term “sexual immorality” is used in the NKJV and the ESV and is a translation of the Greek word porneia (Strong’s 4204). The KJV and the ASV translate this word as “fornication”, and the NASB translates it simply as “immorality”.
What does porneia mean in the Greek? Thayer’s Greek lexicon defines this word as:
1) illicit sexual intercourse
1a) adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals, etc.
1b) sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18
1c) sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mar_10:11-12
2) metaphorically the worship of idols
2a) of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols
The word porneia very strictly applies to sexual intercourse, except where it is used metaphorically in reference to spiritual adultery. While it is certainly a breach of trust, a breaking of marriage vows, and a sexually-related sin, pornography is not sexual intercourse. It is not porneia. It is not the physical adultery of which Jesus spoke when giving allowance of one reason for divorce.
But What About Matthew 5?
Inevitably, someone will say, “But, Jesus said in Matthew 5:28 that lust is the same as adultery.”
Again, let’s look at our context.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28, NKJV).
Here Jesus compares lust to adultery of the heart, in the same way He compares unjust anger to murder in the verses immediately above this passage, which read:
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:21-22, NKJV).
We must make our arguments consistent. If we say that the consequences of lust ought to be the same as the consequences of adultery, we must apply the same logic to Jesus’ comparison of anger and murder. Do we imprison for life a person who is unjustly angry with his brother? Should an unrighteously angry man be sentenced to capital punishment? If we answer “no” to this question, then the same answer must apply to the question of whether lust should receive the same consequence as physical adultery.
The argument that Jesus allows divorce for the cause of lust misses the whole point of Matthew 5:27-28. The point Jesus makes here is that one sin is just as wrong as the next. Unrighteous anger is just as sinful as murder. It just as quickly separates us from our relationship with God. Spiritually, they are the same. We understand that the earthly consequences for anger are not the same for murder. We do not have biblical grounds to put an angry man to death. In the same way, we do not have biblical grounds to divorce a lustful spouse who has not committed physical adultery.
To further illustrate God’s figurative use of adultery, we can go to the book of James. In James, God refers to those who are friends with the world as adulterers.
“Adulterers and adulteresses! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (James 4:4, NKJV).
Do we have grounds for divorce if our spouse becomes a “friend of the world”? Obviously not. It is spiritual adultery that God is referring to in James, just as He spiritually compares lust to adultery in Matthew 5:27-28.
Biblical Grounds for Divorce
Jesus gave one reason, and one reason only, as grounds for divorce, and that is if your spouse has committed porneia, or, “illicit sexual intercourse”. I know that is not an easy answer. I know it flies in the face of the world’s logic. I also personally know the devastation that pornography addiction brings to marriage. But the only thing that will heal a home destroyed by pornography is responding with God’s Truth. No other answer will give you freedom from sin.
When we begin a conversation about pornography by seeking permission to divorce, we are starting with the wrong question. Instead of asking, “Will God allow me to leave my husband because of pornography?” we should be asking, “How can my husband and I build a God-honoring marriage despite our history of sin?” If this issue is first approached with a heart of submission, forgiveness, and faith that God can use even the most broken marriage for His glory, most couples will never need to exercise a right to divorce.
If your marriage is struggling due to pornography addiction, please reach out for help. Like any other addiction, it is something that is rarely overcome alone. But, like any other addiction, it is possible to overcome. Keep on! When you meet Him in Glory, you will not regret following His pattern for your life.
more resources on dealing with pornography, visit www.thebeatenroad.com
[i] “The Impact of Pornography on Marital Relationships.” The Wishing Wells Counseling Service. www.wishingwellscounseling.com/the-impact-of-pornography-on-marital-relationships