Sound Teaching

This is the teaching site of the West Side church of Christ in Fort Worth, TX. Unless otherwise indicated, all materials were written and prepared by Stan Cox

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Defining and Redefining Adultery

Let None Deal Treacherously
An examination of God’s Law (and the error of men) on the subject of Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage
(Article 5 of Series)

Sophistry is defined by Webster as “deceptively subtle reasoning or argumentation”. That which is sophistic is “plausible but fallacious”. Another term used for fallacious reasoning or argumentation is specious. Webster defines specious as, “having a false look of truth or genuineness”.

The arguments that false teachers forward in their attempts to skirt the teaching of God on the subject of Divorce and Remarriage can rightfully be described as sophistic or specious. They have a deceptive allure and a surface plausibility, but are not legitimate treatments of God’s word. One of the most obvious examples of such argumentation is the attempt to redefine the term “adultery” as it is used in Matthew 19:9.

Errorists contend that the term has no reference to sexual activity, and that it is used in an accommodated way by Jesus. They contend that Jesus defined the term contextually by saying that the commission of adultery consists of “whoever divorces his wife,… and marries another”. That is, that adultery consists of two actions, divorce and remarriage. Note the following quote from Jerry Bassett, taken from his book Rethinking Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, page 68:

“Notice that Jesus used two verbs, “divorces” and “marries,” and says the result of these two ACTIONS is the commission of adultery.”

Such an argument is simple, and has appeal to some who give a cursory reading to the text… especially those who are uncomfortable with God’s rule concerning marriage, one man, one woman, for a lifetime. The consequence of the position would allow a man to be guilty of adultery (he divorced his wife and married another), but since the adultery is not sexual sin with his new mate, he could repent of the adultery (divorce and remarriage), and keep his new mate! In effect, it makes every example of divorce and remarriage potentially acceptable in sight of God. It stands Jesus’ teaching regarding the sanctity of the marriage relationship on its head! A careful study of the text and the term shows this argument to be specious.

An important rule of Biblical interpretation is to supply a term with its most natural meaning unless such a meaning is untenable. In other words, take it literally unless it is obviously figurative. Note the first three rules given by Dungan in his work Hermeneutics (regarding Bible interpretation) in the section titled: Rules by which the meaning of words shall be ascertained (pgs. 184-185)

  1. All words are to be understood in their literal sense, unless the evident meaning of the context forbids. (He continues – Figures are the exception, literal language the rule).
  2. Commands generally, and ordinances always, are to be understood in a literal sense.
  3. The literal meaning of a word is that meaning which is given it by those to whom it is addressed.

The literal meaning of the term “adultery”, from the Greek word moichao is defined by Thayer, “to have unlawful intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with” (pg. 417). Likewise, Vine says an adulterer (same root term) is one who “has unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another” (pgs. 32-33).

To say that Jesus redefined the term here is a forced interpretation, given in an effort to defend a false position. Jesus here is talking about the marriage relationship, the only relationship with the component of lawful sexual activity. The question surrounds what marriages are acceptable to God, and the answer Jesus gives indicates that some of these relationships result in sexual activity which is not lawful (adultery). There is nothing in the context of the passage which necessitates anything other than a natural understanding of the term.

Bassett and others say that the text does not say “commits adultery (by having sexual intercourse with her, and each and every time he does so).” While this is true, it is not surprising. Jesus knew that his hearers knew what adultery is. There was no need for further explanation. Such need arises only when men seek to twist the words of our Lord.

Other texts bear out the literal use of the term. Romans 7 records Paul’s statement that a woman who marries another man while her husband lives “will be called an adulteress” (vs. 3). John the Baptist was imprisoned for his admonition of Herod, who had married his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. “For John had said to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:18). Notice here that the term is in the present tense. The divorce and remarriage was past, and yet on this side of it he did not have the right to her. In 1 Corinthians 5, a man had married his stepmother. He had no right to her, and the sin is not defined as accommodated adultery (divorce and remarriage). Rather, it is defined by the Greek term porneia (sexual immorality).

Adultery is sexual sin. To redefine it in an attempt to set aside Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 19:9 is a sophistical effort. While plausible to those looking for comfort in their sin, the argument does not survive close examination. Remember God’s rule: one man, one woman, for a lifetime!