Submitted to Truth Magazine, 23 February 2003 (Never Published)

Gospel Truths
Volume XVI, Number 3 (March 2005)

Non-Sexual Adultery and Mental Divorce

By Paul K. Williams 

One way to avoid Jesus’ plain teaching on divorce is to attempt to re-define the words He used. Jesus’ words are:

“but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:32 (NASB)

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 (NASB)

So the person who is seeking to justify a marriage after a divorce for some cause other than physical fornication says, “Jesus does not mean sexual adultery.” And when I ask for a definition of “adultery” he answers, “It means the act of divorcing and remarrying.” This is what a South African preacher told me and what a number of others are teaching. (Of course, the reason for this definition is to make it possible for a divorced and remarried person to “repent” of the act of divorcing and remarrying and to stay married to his or her second partner without sin.)

Defining “adultery” to mean “the act of divorcing for some cause other than for fornication and marrying again” violates two simple, common-sense rules of grammar.

1. The first rule, stated in my words, is that a word should be understood in its ordinary sense unless the way it is used shows that it is to be understood in another way. Often Jesus used words to mean something other than their ordinary meaning, but when He did it is easy to see from the context what He meant. For instance, in John 6:54 He said, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” A careful reading of the chapter causes us to understand that when Jesus said “My flesh” and “My blood” He was referring to His words, and therefore the word “eats” means “listens to” or “heeds”. (See verse 47, for instance).

However, unless the context shows that the word is used in a metaphorical sense, we should understand it in its literal sense. In John 3:5 Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” He later explains that the word “born” refers to a birth of one’s spirit, but there is nothing in the context to show that the words “water” and “the Spirit” are not literal. “Water” means “water,” not something else. Those who “spiritualize” the word “water” to mean “the Holy Spirit” or something else ignore the plain meaning of the word and violate an important grammatical principle.

Let’s apply this rule to Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. There is nothing in the context to show that Jesus used the word “adultery” in anything other than its ordinary sense. The ordinary meaning of the word fits perfectly with what Jesus says. Not only does the put-away woman commit adultery when she marries again, but the man who marries her commits adultery. When a person who is bound by the marriage bond has sex with a person he or she is not bound to, both that person and the person he or she has sex with commits adultery. That is the ordinary meaning of the word, and that fits perfectly with what Jesus says. There is nothing in the context to suggest that the word should be used in anything but its ordinary meaning. If we can change its meaning to fit our desires, we can change anything in the Bible! It reminds me of the story I heard a long time ago. A man who was in the Old Apostle Church told a preacher that the Ethiopian eunuch was not baptized in literal water. He said “the chariot” represented his “responsibility” and “the water” represented “the light.” What a mess! But the only way to avoid such a mess is to understand words in their ordinary sense unless the context shows that they are used in a different way.

2. A second simple grammatical rule is: When a word is defined properly, the definition can be substituted for the word and the sentence will make sense and mean the same.

If we go back to the example in John 6:54, if we substitute the word “heeds” for “eats” and the word “words” or “teachings” for the words “flesh” and “blood,” the sentence reads, “He who heeds My words has eternal life.” We have substituted the definitions for the actual words used, and the sentence makes perfect sense. It fits the context, and the definition fits in the sentence.

However this will not work with the non-sexual definition of adultery. If we substitute the definition for the word “adultery” we get:

“but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her [divorce and remarry]; and whoever marries a divorced woman [divorces and remarries].”  – Matthew 5:32

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman [divorces and remarries].” – Matthew 19:9

That simply does not make good sense. The definition does not fit the sentence. The definition must be wrong! The only way to understand Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 is to understand the word “adultery” to mean what it usually means.

Mental Divorce

Another recent doctrine redefines what the word “divorce” means. The proponents of this theory say that when a person (usually a man) divorces his mate for a cause other than fornication, the divorce is not a “valid” divorce. They have said that when one divorces his wife for a cause other than fornication, the divorce is a “farce”, not a real divorce. Because it is not for the cause of fornication, God does not recognize the divorce; the legal divorce means nothing in God’s sight. Later, when the former wife realizes that her ex-husband is not coming back to her and was committing adultery all the time, she can then decide to “divorce” her ex-husband for the cause of adultery. Since there is no legal way for her to do this, it is a mental act, thus the reason I call it “mental divorce”. This becomes the “valid” divorce and she, therefore, has the right to remarry.

Incidentally, the reasoning that allows the wife to divorce her husband for adultery in her mind after he divorces her legally, will allow her to wait until he commits adultery after the divorce and then divorce him mentally. Though the proponents of this theory do not like this consequence of their teaching, it appears to me to be the logical conclusion. If the legal divorce is not a divorce, then if the ex-husband commits adultery after the legal divorce, their doctrine will allow the woman to mentally divorce her husband and remarry without sin. This has been called “the waiting game.” Most of those who are teaching “mental divorce” claim not to believe in the waiting game, but I believe their doctrine allows it.

I consider this to be a very dangerous doctrine. I am persuaded that it is giving comfort to people who are living in adultery. The plain words of Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9 show that the doctrine is false. Let’s read those verses again.

“but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the cause of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:32 (NASB)

“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 (NASB)

Jesus says that a man “divorces” his wife when she is not guilty of unchastity (fornication). That is what Jesus calls the act. He calls it “divorce”. He does not call it “unrecognized divorce” or “farcical divorce” or “invalid divorce”. He uses a word which his hearers and his readers can easily understand. He uses the word “marries” in the same way. He does not say, “marries in an unrecognized way” or “marries in a farcical way” or “marries in an invalid way”. The man “divorces” the woman, and she “marries” another. Simple. Easy to understand.

Understanding the teaching is easy. Any woman who has been divorced by her husband, regardless of the reason for the divorce, commits adultery if she marries another man. The only problem is—we don’t like that teaching. We want to find some way out.

So those who are teaching the new theory have redefined the words used by Jesus. But it won’t work. Read those verses again. Jesus calls it “divorce” whether it is for the cause of adultery or not. The ONE word is used for both circumstances. It has to mean the same in both cases. There is no way it can be “divorce” for the cause of adultery but “no divorce” in other cases.

Long articles with complicated reasoning will not change this plain truth. There is no room for “mental divorce” in Matthew 5:32 or 19:9. The quote below deals with this very adequately:

“It is the contention of this writer that it is a flagrant violation of language and reasoning to argue that a person is divorced and yet married to the person from whom he/she is divorced. A person may be divorced unscripturally, but he/she is yet divorced; and a person divorced from another person is not married to that person. This business of insisting that one may be divorced ‘in the eyes of men’ and not divorced ‘in the eyes of God’ is nonsense. God may not approve of a given action (divorce or whatever), but that does not mean that the action does not occur because God does not approve of it. A divorce without scriptural grounds is yet a divorce and renders the person divorced ‘unmarried.’ The argument being advanced here is that: ‘All actions not approved of by God become non-actions or actions which do not occur.’ If this is the case, then is it legitimate in any sense to speak of an action as having occurred when in actuality it did not occur? It is far better to take the language of a given text as meaning what it says (i. e. married means married, divorced means divorced), than to play this game of semantical gymnastics wherein words do not mean what they mean.” [Maurice W. Lusk, III, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Teachings of Jesus and Paul (Atlanta: Guild of Scribes, 1982), pp. 44ff]

Postscript: I am very disturbed about the teaching of mental divorce. I consider this doctrine to be just as unscriptural and leading to just as bad consequences as the doctrine that “baptism washes away marriages and you can keep the partner you are with when you get baptized, no matter about divorces before.” And what appals me is that leading brethren whom I respect highly are believing and teaching this doctrine. We are faced with a situation which is, I think, worse than when Bro. Hailey was promoting his false doctrine that unbelievers are not under God’s marriage law and therefore can be accepted on baptism no matter their previous divorces. It is a time for study and soul-searching. It is a time when we must look to our consciences and make sure that we do all things without bias (1 Timothy 5:21). It is a time when we may have to make choices as difficult as those we older ones had to take during the 1950’s over institutionalism. May God help us!

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