I frequently receive questions from women who live with the continual anguish of a husband who regularly views pornography. Specifically, they want to know if viewing pornography is a legitimate basis for seeking divorce. It’s a question that comes up more often than I would like when dealing with wives of Christian men. Eventually, I realized that very few women actually want to end their marriages; they merely raise the question of divorce because they have grown weary of being ignored on the issue and cannot think of another means to stop the sin and put an end to their own pain.
So, bear with me as I don my theologian’s hat and answer the question from a biblical point of view. Is viewing pornography a legitimate basis for seeking divorce based on the teachings of Christ? In the article, My Husband Is Having an Affair with Pornography, What Should I Do?, I suggest another course of action that will confront this sin forcefully and effectively without necessarily ending the marriage. Also keep in mind that when pornography in the home threatens to harm someone—exposing the material to children, displaying it openly, potentially leading to physical or sexual abuse, etc.—the circumstances change. A redemptive divorce may be in order.
The Problem with Lust
The viewing of pornography is a difficult theological issue for several reasons. First, it did not exist (as we know it today) in the first century. Second, strictly speaking, it is a gray area between mental and physical sexual expression; more than mere lust, yet it fails to involve actual contact with another person. Third, the emotional wounds suffered by women are no less severe than outright adultery. But most confusing of all, the issue appears to bring together two statements of Christ, uniting the issues of lust, sexual immorality, and divorce. The logic goes like this:
Lust = Adultery [A = B] (Matthew 5:27–28)
Adultery = Grounds for Divorce [B = C] (Matthew 5:32; 19:9)
Therefore [A = C], Lust = Grounds for Divorce.
People should be commended for taking Scripture as a whole and bringing all relevant passages to bear on theological issues. However, we must understand each passage in its context before bringing them together. This is true of Jesus’ condemnation of lust and His teaching on divorce. Let’s look at each issue in its context.
Grounds for Divorce
Jesus taught that sexual immorality (porneia) severs the mystical union in the eyes of God (Matthew 5:32; 19:9), and permits the offended party to dissolve the marriage. (You might disagree with my conclusion, but for the sake of argument as it relates to the logic stated above, assume it to be true.)
The Greek word porneia is an umbrella term for a broad range of sexual sin, not just adultery. If He had wanted to limit His exception to adultery, He could have chosen the very common, more specific term moicheia. But He elected to use a term that originally stemmed from the idea of prostitution and, by the first century, encompassed a range of illicit sexual activities, including adultery, homosexuality, incest, bestiality, child molestation, etc. However, the term porneia, as used during Jesus’ time, always referred to activity involving physical contact with another person. If we take the “exception clauses” on their own, this does not include the sin of lust.
The Sin of Lust
Earlier in His ministry, Jesus commented on the teaching of the rabbis concerning the Law and then offered His clarification as the divine Author. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17). He then took the opportunity to breathe new life into some Old Testament laws in order to correct the teaching of the Pharisees. Note how He presented His lessons:
- “You have heard…” (v. 21), “But I say to you…” (v. 22), followed by teaching on murder and resentment.
- “You have heard…” (v. 27), “But I say to you…” (v. 28), followed by teaching on adultery and lust.
- “It was said…” (v. 31), “But I say to you…” (v. 32), followed by teaching on divorce and fidelity.
- “You have heard…” (v. 33), “But I say to you…” (v. 34), followed by teaching on vows and integrity.
- “You have heard…” (v. 38), “But I say to you…” (v. 39), followed by teaching on justice and kindness.
- “You have heard…” (v. 43), “But I say to you…” (v. 44), followed by teaching on fair play and grace.
In each case, Jesus extended the application of the Law given through Moses to include what the rabbis had omitted. Furthermore, He amplified the divine revelation in the Old Testament to reveal the full measure of God’s standards. Not only must we refrain from murder, but we must also avoid hatred. Not only is adultery an abomination, so is lust.
While the laws of the Old Testament reflect God’s righteous character, they were primarily intended to regulate the public affairs of a nation, much like the laws of our own government. But we generally understand that a person must be more than merely law-abiding to be considered moral. Obedience to the law is a minimum standard. The rabbis in Jesus’ day not only reduced righteousness to mere obedience to the Law, but they also played clever word games with Scripture to lower the standard even further! They lowered the standard of righteousness in order to call themselves righteous.
When Jesus equated lust with adultery, He was not suggesting the men apply the Law accordingly. It was to point out their hypocrisy. It was to confront the wayward rabbis for lowering the standard of righteousness. It was to convict the self-righteous of their sin.
Correlating the Teaching of Christ on Lust and Divorce
As we examine the teaching of Christ on the Law, we must apply it in the New Covenant sense rather than under the Old Covenant. If we are to apply Jesus’ extension of the Old Covenant strictly (Lust = Adultery = Grounds for Divorce), we must do so consistently (Lust = Adultery = Grounds for STONING!)
When Jesus confronted the rabbis, His purpose was to show that no one can be called righteous, even those who are not guilty of murder or adultery. Our hearts are thoroughly polluted with sin; even our thoughts make us guilty. Therefore, ALL are guilty before God and ALL need His grace.
If we apply the teaching of Matthew 5:27–28 in the same spirit Jesus gave it, then equating lust with adultery is the kind of confrontation needed by men viewing pornography. They want to rationalize their sin by stating it doesn’t involve actual contact with another. We must help them raise the standard of righteousness, not lower it if they expect God to bless their marriages and hear their prayers (1 Peter 3:7).
Is viewing pornography grounds for divorce? I think not. However, there are ways short of outright divorce that can be just as effective. The article, “My Husband Is Having an Affair with Pornography, What Should I Do?,” outlines a tough-love approach to the sin of viewing pornography. I also provide a rudimentary sex addiction assessment tool along with several suggested resources to address this potentially marriage-ending sin.