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The Biblical Definition And A Biblical Conclusion

by Robert Waters

In presenting any subject for discussion, it is essential that pertinent words be accurately defined. It has been said that if one is allowed to define or redefine words he will be able to "prove" anything. Thus, in the present discussion it is crucial that the term adultery is accurately defined, and that it is comprehensible.

First, we must establish how we are going to arrive at a definition. Are we going to allow men who purport to be scholars to define adultery, or should we look to the scriptures? Not everyone agrees that using scripture, rather than scholars, to define a word is a preferable method. Those disagreeing with this approach will, no doubt, go with the "believe the scholars" philosophy when seeking for a definition of adultery. However, those who seek the truth soon realize that the influence tradition has had on scholars has tainted the view of some as they attempt to define the term.

The Bible is not a dictionary, thus we should not expect it to define a word in the same manner as would a dictionary. The Bible is the word of God composed of various books and letters. In defining adultery, we must study and compare various passages of scripture. This is the only way to ensure an accurate, scriptural definition.

As is often the case, a word may have more than one definition. Some, for example, would say that adultery is nothing more than "the act of sex a married person has with the spouse of another." To believe this one would have to be ignorant of or deliberately ignore a number of scriptures that contradict such a definition. The scriptures reveal that adultery is used to describe different actions committed by an individual or group. But the result is always an action contrary and detrimental to the covenant known as marriage. The narrow definition of the word that some espouse is merely effort to defend traditional error.

In defining adultery, consider the following scriptures:

Jeremiah 3:9 And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and with stocks. (KJV).

This passage tells us that "she" (God's people) committed adultery with stones and stocks. These things were party to the sin. When we understand the sin, we will understand adultery as it relates to the present marriage, divorce, and remarriage controversy.

A covenant was made between the nation of Israel and God. Israel agreed to abide by the terms of the covenant and God promised to bless them. The stones and stocks were the objects to which God's wife (Israel) gave its affections. The foreign object that adulterated the relationship served to replace God. God divorced Israel and the relationship he had with them ceased to exist. No sex involved yet adultery was committed! Therefore, if anyone tells you that "adultery is nothing but a sex act," you may want to refer him or her to the scripture noted above.

Some, in an attempt to defend the traditional definition, may argue that adultery in the passage under study is spiritual adultery. But the sin in view here is marital adultery (Jer 3:14), a sin that was an act of unfaithfulness to the marital vows, even though sex was not involved. Today, a person can commit adultery against his spouse in exactly same way, without sex being involved. Even those who are not capable of having sex are able to commit adultery in various ways, namely by simply being unfaithful to their spouse--acting as if the marriage does not exist and taking up with another.

Mark 10:11 And he saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her.

This scripture does not agree with the traditional definition of adultery. Jesus says that adultery is committed against the previous spouse rather than with the second woman he marries! We are compelled, therefore, to reject the traditional definition in favor of the biblical definition. This scripture make it clear that adultery includes the idea of the breaking of a covenant. But do not confuse the word breaking with the word destruction. One may break the terms of a covenant; yet, if repentance and forgiveness follow, the covenant remains intact. A marriage is ended, destroyed, over, when one or both parties have legally declared the marriage to be over. The Jewish Law and the law of our land require a “bill of divorcement” or divorce certificate. When one who is divorced, and therefore “unmarried,” is unable to resist sexual temptations, he may marry another (1Cor 7:8, 9).

Referring to the definition of adultery, Foy Wallace Jr. wrote:

The word adultery in New Testament usage does not necessarily refer to the sinful physical [sexual] act, it is not restricted to the one way of violating the bond. In the four passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke the term adultery is given the sense of ignoring the bond, of which a man is guilty who formally puts away his wife unjustifiably and regards himself unhitched" (The Sermon on the Mount and the Civil State; p. 42). John 8:4 "They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act."

For many, this passage (John 8:4) confirms the traditional definition of adultery. It appears that this woman was caught having sex with a married man or, more likely, she was married to another. This scripture further defines adultery. The idea that having sex with someone not your spouse is an adulterous act has merit. Indeed, when a married woman cheats on her husband she is committing adultery, i.e., she is breaking the vows she has made to her husband (Ez 16:38).

Those who are reluctant to put their trust entirely in a dictionary, commentary or lexicon might find what I'm about to say to be convincing. The only human authority that one could consider as being more credible than a dictionary, lexicon or commentary would be not one person but a group of qualified men who have put together a version of the Bible. Admittedly, all versions are not credible. Some, such as New World Translation, put out by Jehovah's Witnesses, are designed to promote their own denominational faith. But many translations are credible. Now, what if some credible translators translate a word as adultery while others translate the same word as "break wedlock" and yet others translate the same word as "unfaithfulness" and "untrue to"? Such would indicate they saw more in the word they were translating than mere sex, wouldn't it?

Note the following versions:

[American Standard Version] (Ezekiel 16:38) And I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock and shed blood are judged; and I will bring upon thee the blood of wrath and jealousy.

 [Bible in Basic English] (Ezekiel 16:38) And you will be judged by me as women are judged who have been untrue to their husbands and have taken life; and I will let loose against you passion and bitter feeling.

(CEV) (Ezekiel 16:38) I will find you guilty of being an unfaithful wife and a murderer, and in my fierce anger I will sentence you to death!

Adultery is:

1) A sexual act committed outside of a marriage relationship and against the marriage (John 8:4).

2) The act of "putting away" (apoluo is the Greek word, not apostasion) and marrying another (Mt 19:9).

3) A hideous sin against one's spouse (mere putting away) that is contrary to the marital vows (Mark 10:11).

4) Within the scope of marriage—the display of improper affection for another (Jer 3:9).

5) Ignoring the bond and considering oneself unmarried (1 Cor 7:15).

Scholars who define adultery as "sexual relations outside of marriage" are not in error. However, if or when a "scholar" (or any teacher) limits adultery to a sexual matter or says sex is always involved, he is mistaken.

Those who reject the biblical definition of adultery (whether ignorantly or defiantly) and engage in the practice of breaking up marriages and "forbidding to marry" (1 Tim 4:1-3; are on dangerous ground. This ungodly and destructive practice is based on the assumption that adultery is nothing more than sex in a second marriage, since the second marriage presumably does not exist in God’s eyes, and that the adultery continues. This is not true because a state of adultery exists even if the physical act is never committed. In Mark 10:11, we see that the man commits adultery against the woman who is “put away.” He is obviously done with her. This makes it apparent that adultery can be something other than a sex act.

If you have been faithful to your spouse but he/she divorces you, for whatever reason, what sin would you have committed? None! Any conclusion that has God punishing innocent people for the sins of another cannot be scriptural. God has never established a decree that calls for the innocent to be punished.

Many passages warn against punishing innocent people. Consider the following examples:

Thus saith the LORD; Execute ye judgment and righteousness, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the oppressor: and do no wrong, do no violence to the stranger, the fatherless, nor the widow, neither shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer 22:3).

Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? (Job 4:7).

Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment. (John 7:24).

It is not righteous judgment to punish a person not charged with sin. Don't cut off the righteous by insisting they must remain celibate because of something their spouse has done.

When desertion, separation, or a "putting away" occurs and at least one person marries another without first completing a legal divorce (composed of three parts according to Deuteronomy 24:1-4), adultery is committed by at least one of the parties in the original marriage. Innocent individuals who are legally divorced by their spouse do not sin by marrying (1 Cor 7:8-9; 36).  


We have no scriptural support for breaking up legal marriages between men and women or for the idea that certain people have no right to marry. It is against justice to suggest that innocent persons must be punished for the sins of another. It is against reason to conclude that someone is still married and/or “bound” or in some way martially obligated to a person who has a legal divorce. It is against scripture to argue that one is not eligible to marry in cases where he obviously is not married (1 Cor 7:2; 8, 9). It is against a direct command of God to “forbid” marriage (1 Tim 4:1-3) for those who are "unmarried" or have no marriage, because the apostle Paul said “let them marry.” It is against proper hermeneutics to construe what Jesus taught to mean something that is against what is elsewhere taught in various ways and in numerous passages throughout the Bible.

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