Matthew 5:32
But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.

Is Matthew (Jesus) saying that divorce is acceptable in the case of adultery, or is he saying that premarital sex, while betrothed, is the only legitimate reason for a divorce?

The King James version and the original Greek appear to use the word "fornication," meaning premarital sex exclusively but the meaning of this word seems to have changed over time to include adultery.

That change in the meaning of the word "fornication" further begs the question: Did it's definition change to fit the (Protestant) church's desire to allow divorce?

I will add this:

The Torah differentiates between two categories of husband: an arus, or betrothed, and a baal, or full husband. Under Torah law, marriage consists of two distinct stages. First comes the betrothal (erusin), by which the bride becomes "forbidden to the rest of the world." 3 From this point on, for another man to have relations with her is tantamount to adultery, and to dissolve the betrothal requires a get (writ of divorce), as for a full-fledged marriage. The betrothal, however, only establishes the prohibitive side of marriage (the exclusion of all other men from the relationship), but not the substance of the relationship itself—the two still cannot live together as man and wife. This is achieved through the second stage of marriage, the nissu'in, which renders man and wife "one flesh." 4 In Biblical and Talmudic times, the eirusin and the nissu'in were held on two separate occasions, so that for a certain period of time (usually a year) the bride and groom were bound by the prohibitions of marriage but had not yet begun their actual life together. In this period, the groom is called an arus; following the nissu'in, he assumes the status of baal. (source)


2 Answers 2


The operative Greek word in Matt 5:32 is πορνεία (porneia). BDAG offers three basic meanings of this word:

  1. unlawful sexual intercourse, prostitution, unchastity, fornication. 1 Cor 5:1, Rom 1:29, 2 Cor 12:21, Gal 5:19, Eph 5:3, Col 3:5.
  2. participation in prohibited degrees of marriage, fornication. Matt 5:32, 19:9
  3. immorality of a transcendental nature, fornication. Rev 19:2, etc.

Thus, with the exception of the third meaning above, illicit or unlawful sex of any nature would qualify as "porneia" and would presumably include homosexuality, bestiality, paedophilia, pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, etc. Therefore, most Bible versions now translate Matt 5:32 and 19:9, 1 Cor 5:1 as, "sexual immorality" ie, any deviant or unlawful sex would this qualify as potential grounds for divorce according to Matt 5:32 and 19:9.

However, the fact that grounds for divorce exist does not necessarily mean that they MUST be acted upon. That is a matter for those involved.

  • If we are going to use the modernized liberal interpretation of the word porneia, or fornication, almost anything will suffice to justify a “Christian” divorce – watching porn on the computer, masturbating, drinking, drug use, unemployment and arguing. Any sin, failure or impurity qualifies as an excuse for divorce..Which brings us right back the the state that the Pharisees were in at the time of Christ, a state that Jesus denounced when He simply declared: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” Luke 16:18.
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:24
  • moichos, μοιχάω is the Greek for adultery. Why did the author not use this word if he meant adultery? Why did he use the word "fornication."
    – Dan
    Commented Mar 12, 2019 at 15:28
  • 2
    I think you have missed the point. The lexicons I quote are NOT for modern Greek but for the ancient Koine Greek. ALL lexicons like BDAG and Friberg are published recently but contain the meanings as used in the 1st century.
    – user25930
    Commented Mar 13, 2019 at 20:32
  • 1
    Dan, the lexicons Mac references are not "modern liberal" lexicons, they are scholarly lexicons that work to give the most accurate definition of how a word was used, often explaining how it was used at different time periods. What they show is that "fornication" was NOT limited to premarital sex when the Gospel was written. Here's a link with that may help which includes other NT references where the same word is used in ways that clearly do not fit your definition. epm.org/resources/2010/Feb/3/…
    – P. TJ
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 19:57
  • 1
    From that article: "1 Corinthians 5:1 says, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality (porneia) of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” So there's a NT example of porneia being used in a way that clearly includes adultery (at the very least).
    – P. TJ
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 19:59

The concept that adultery is not a legitimate reason for a divorce is primarily based on a semantic argument centering on the word "fornication."

"Fornication" is described as premarital sex and differentiated from adultery.

I am coming to believe that this argument is very thin and is not well supported by any other scriptures or Biblical examples.

The belief that Matthew 5:32 is saying that only premarital sex is a justification for divorce inevitably leads to the conclusion that anyone who is not a virgin cannot marry, as they would be committing adultery.

"There is a circumstance in which, in God’s eyes, a man and woman do not become ‘one’ when they marry. This is when one or other partner has been unchaste before the marriage. Then, in God’s eyes, when the marriage takes place, the unchaste partner is already joined to someone else. In this case, the innocent party can divorce the other and marry again without committing adultery." https://theologicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/divorce_nelson.pdf

I see little evidence to back up this concept, except for a very arguable interpretation of the word "fornication" and the fact that this interpretation is not well accepted is a red light. Furthermore, it seems improbable that Jesus would address his statements on divorce to such a tiny minority of divorce cases involving engaged individuals while ignoring the vast majority of divorces involving married people.

Marriage is a covenant with God as a witness, but Hebrew covenants could be broken with a legitimate reason. Adultery may well constitute a legitimate reason.

God exclaimed to Abimelech, a Gentile, that if he did not return Sarah to Abraham, “know that you shall surely die, you, and all who are yours” (Gen 20:7).

If we take Abraham and Sarah's experience with Abimelech as an example, God, (and Jesus), take adultery very seriously, lending support to the belief that adultery is a legitimate reason for divorce.

Having said that, God has never divorced the church:

"I agree with R. B. Hays that “the Christ/church typology [cf. Eph 5:21-33] presents an extraordinarily high standard for marriage; if marriage truly reflects the love between Christ and the church, it should be characterized by infinite loyalty and self-sacrificial love." https://www.wisereaction.org/ebooks/heth_mind_changed.pdf

Hosea, serving as a practical example of marriage, did not divorce his adulterous wife but accepted her back, not only accepted but purchased her back, if I recall correctly.

In any case, as William A. Heth has further said:

"I have found that scholars like Collins, Davies and Allison, Hagner, and Hays, whose exegesis leads them to believe that Jesus categorically prohibited divorce and remarriage, eventually speak of Jesus’ divorce sayings as an ideal that must be realistically applied in this “not yet” era. Their suggested modern applications are almost identical to what we find among proponents of the majority view."

We live under Grace, not the law. Even if divorce is wrong under the law, God will cover our errors by his Grace and make it right. (Romans 6:14)

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