Is Adultery Covenant Breaking?

face to face

by Richard Mansel

A growing belief is that the traditional definition of “adultery” is erroneous. Instead of being sexual sin, it refers to the breaking of the marriage covenant. Truman Scott admits that the heart of our differences lies in the definition of “adultery.”

He admits,

“Up front let me tell you that every publication, I mean Bible dictionary, commentary, Greek Lexicon, Greek word study, specific treatises on divorce and remarriage, I mean everything that has been written or translated within the last 350 to 400 years, define adultery as follows: ‘Sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse.’ That settles it. With such an array of scholarship, who would dare to think anything otherwise?’” [i]

He goes on to justify challenging the traditional definition of adultery. [ii] First, the restoration movement only succeeded because we questioned denominational beliefs on such things as baptism, music in worship and church organization. Second, the traditional definition leaves too much ambiguity. Third, these sources have failed to give the root meaning of the Greek word for adultery. Fourth, the fallacies of Bible translations. Fifth, the study of the Hebrew and the Septuagint point to  the legitimacy of the concept of covenant breaking. Sixth, a proper reading of the Old Testament will prove undeniable proof.

Scott insists that if we study these passages in the context they were given and not simply out of our preconceived notions we will agree with him. If in doing so, we find contexts still require a sexual aspect of adultery then we must overlook the proofs above and accept its traditional meaning.

Indeed, we must always be aware of context. Woods writes, “An elementary rule of interpretation is to observe carefully the significance of that which goes before and that which follows the passage under study, before attempting to reach a conclusion as to its intended and proper meaning.” [iii]

The Definition of Adultery in the Old Testament

A cursory polling of shoppers at a mall or pedestrians on a busy street would yield a virtually unanimous definition of adultery as “marital sexual unfaithfulness,” or some variation. Plucking my dictionary off the shelf yields the following definition. “Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and someone other than his or her lawful spouse.” [iv] Likewise, a congregation of mature saints would be even more concurrent.

While these examples are illustrative of the unanimity of public thought on this subject, Scripture must always be our sole judge on authority (John 12:48).

In The Old Testament, the primary passages are  Exodus 20:14 which says, in the context of the Decalogue,  “You shall not commit adultery” and Leviticus 20:10, in the context of sexual impurity, “The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.”

Combined, these passages constitute unmistakable evidence of sexual sin. Keil and Delitzsch define it as, “sexual intercourse of a husband with the wife of another, or of a wife with the husband of another.” [v]

If we read Leviticus 20:10,  in light of Leviticus 18:20, we find more proof as to its meaning. There the text says,  “Moreover, you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her.” Literally, this passage would read, “you shall not give your copulation to the wife of your fellow for seed, to become unclean by her.” [vi]

The word for “carnally” means the “flow of semen,” just as it does in Leviticus 22:4. [vii]

Deuteronomy 22:22 says, “If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die– the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel.”  Of course, “lying” refers to sexual relations. [viii]

How are these passages different from Leviticus 20:10? In order for “covenant breaking” to be true, the word “adultery” must have the sexual aspect removed.

Proverbs 6:32 says, “Whoever commits adultery with a woman lacks understanding. He who does so destroys his own soul.”  The writer uses the same word as in Exodus 20:14 and Leviticus 20:10. Moreover, the context of this passage cannot be missed. Earlier in 6:26 the New King James Version calls her a “harlot” while the King James Version says, “a whorish woman.”

The word is defined lexically as, “be or act as a harlot.” [ix] The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ISBE) defines a harlot as “one who uses her sexual capacity either for gain or pagan religious purposes.” [x]

Words can be used in Scripture literally and figuratively. One does not obviate the other. John L. Edwards admits that “adultery” does literally mean “sexual sin” (Leviticus 10:10). [xi] However, he continues by pointing out that it is more prominently used in the Old Testament figuratively (Jeremiah 3:6-9, et al). [xii] This is where their biggest push will be.

We must address the figurative passages. Jeremiah 3:6-9 is the one most often mentioned. First, though, let us look at Jeremiah 5:7-8 where the case is even clearer. Could we read this and actually miss the explicit sexual nature of this passage? They had been unfaithful to Him and attaching themselves to pagan gods (cf. Exodus 20:3).

“Adultery” here relates to spiritual matters but uses unmistakable sexual imagery.

“We must not confine the reference to spiritual adultery (a fall away from Jahveh into idolatry); the context, especially the next clause, and yet more unmistakeably (sic) v. 8, refers to carnal uncleanness. This  too was a breach of the covenant, since in taking it the people bound itself not only to be faithful to God, but to keep and follow all the laws of His covenant. That the words, crowd into the house of the harlot, i.e., go thither in crowds, are to be taken of carnal uncleanness, may be gathered from v. 8b: each neighs after the wife of his neighbor. Fornication is denounced as a desecration of the name of the Lord in Amos 2:7.” [xiii]

Keil and Delitzsch refer the reader to Ezekiel 23, for a deeper understanding. There we find throughout the chapter, Samaria and Jerusalem as two harlot sisters.  The prophet is explicit as he discusses the adultery of Jerusalem (Ezekiel 23:17-18).

Concerning Jeremiah 3:6-9 we cannot simply forget the context the prophet places spiritual adultery. The language here has the same sexuality that the previous passage did. To say that we should forget that and apply covenant breaking here is to forget the definition of exegesis.

There are two levels of context. The near context is that which is before or after a passage. The remote context, which is no less valid, takes all of Scripture into account. Repeatedly we are finding spiritual adultery expressed in sexual terms (cf. Jeremiah 13:27). Unless this passage has a powerful reason why we should forget the remote context, we shall include it.

The prophet begins the chapter with the question, “They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?” (Jeremiah 3:1).

Jeremiah continues in the same chapter, “lift up your eyes to the desolate heights and see: ‘where have you not lain with men?’” (3:2). Clear enough. So, when we come to 3:6-9 we cannot forget the context. In 3:6 the text says, “she has gone up on every high mountain and under every green tree, and there played the harlot.”

The question begs to be asked, “If the sexual nature of adultery must be removed from the figurative nature of spiritual adultery then why the persistent use of the image of harlotry?” Keil and Delitzsch call their actions “spiritual whoredom.” [xiv]

Ezekiel 16 is undeniable proof as God’s rage is poured out over their participation in the child sacrifices of the Canaanite nation. The King James Version says in 16:25, “thou hast built thy high place at every head of the way, and has made thy beauty to be abhorred, and hast opened thy feet to every one that passed by, and multiplied your whoredoms.”

Then the prophet ties harlotry to adultery in a most expressive manner in 16:31-34.

Hosea, who at God’s behest, married a harlot and wrote of God’s unfaithful people. “Let her put away her harlotries from her sight, and her adulteries from between her breasts” (2:2).

The proper approach to word study is to understand derived meanings of words (including figurative meanings and various special applications) in the light of their most basic literal meanings. It is improper to impose a derived meaning on a word when it is used in a context that requires its most fundamental or at least one of its fundamental meanings. This is not merely an arbitrary rule of ivory-tower scholars; its just plain common sense. [xv]

The Definition of Adultery in the New Testament

The Greek word for “adultery” is moicheia and W. E. Vine translates it as, “unlawful sexual intercourse with the spouse of another.” [xvi] Hauck defines it simply as, “illicit intercourse.” [xvii] However, as we noted earlier, Truman Scott has challenged us to approach each passage within its context and that is our commission.

Let us examine Matthew 5:27-28, 31-21. What does Jesus mean when He says, “you shall not commit adultery?” Joseph Thayer says of moicheuseis in 5:27, “commit adultery” while he translates moicheusen in 5:28 as, “unlawful sexual intercourse with another’s wife.” [xviii] Of moichasthai in 5:32, it as of the wife “to suffer adultery, be debauched” while moichatai as “to have unlawful sexual intercourse with another’s wife, to commit adultery with.”  [xix]

Earlier, we posed the question of why, if adultery means covenant breaking, the persistent sexual references to adultery? Here we have the Omniscient Savior maintaining the consistency.

Christ says, “whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Thayer translates “looks” as “to turn the eyes to anything, to look at, look upon, gaze at” with reference to “woman.” Thayer defines “lust” as “sexual desire” toward a woman. [xx]

Mounce defines it as “to set your heart upon.” [xxi] “The term lust demonstrates that a sexual inclination is involved. Do men lustfully fantasize about breaking covenants? Surely they are  not ogling a marriage document with a view  to tearing it up!” [xxii]

Of 2 Peter 2:14, Steven F. Deaton adds,

Did these people have visions of divorce and remarriage? Were these folks enraptured and enamored with going to the courthouse and signing papers? Did they day-dream about an expensive  ceremony? Rather, were they not ones full of sexual lust? [xxiii]

In John 8:1-11 we read,  “The scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act” (8:3-4).  Whatever “adultery” was, “she had been caught in the very act.” The King James Version says she was “taken.”

This woman was “caught” or “detected” [xxiv] In 8:4, she was caught during the very commission of the crime. [xxv] Jackson says, “what was the act? Was she merely shredding a marriage license? Was she slamming the door as she abandoned her home?”[xxvi]

In Matthew 19, we find further clarity on the definition of adultery and its relation to salvation. The Pharisees in their continued quest to discredit Jesus, try to attack His teachings on marriage and divorce. They ask, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?” (19:3). Jesus goes back to Genesis 2 and the origination of marriage and adds, “So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate” (19:6). Then  19:8-9 relate His teachings on this pertinent subject.

Earlier we looked at 5:27-32 in view of the definition of adultery. Now, we want to address 5:32 with our discussion of 19:9. “But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.”

What does “divorce” in these passages mean? The King James Version translatesapoluse as “put away.” W. E. Vine translates it as “to let loose.” [xxvii] Thayer defines it  as “to sever by loosening” and in this context, “to dismiss from the house; to repudiate.”[xxviii] Bauer and Bromley say it means to “send away.” [xxix]

What does “sexual immorality” mean in these two passages? The Greek word is porneia.Vine translates it as “illicit sexual intercourse.” [xxx] Bauer literally defines the word as “every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse” and in our specific context, “of the sexual unfaithfulness of a married woman.” [xxxi]

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT) defines it as “all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse.” [xxxii]

Thayer notes that it is used interchangeably of “adultery” in these two passages. This is interesting when we include Hebrews 13:4 in the mix. “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge.”

Here fornication and adultery are inextricably linked. They are how the bed is defiled. Thayer defines “undefiled” as, “soiled, defiled, its force and vigor unimpaired.” [xxxiii]What is the purpose of the marriage bed? Married couples sleep in the marriage bed but nowhere is sleep mentioned in the context of moral implications.

Therefore, the author of Hebrews must be referring to marital sexual relations. If the bed will “lose its force and vigor” when fornication and adultery exist in a marriage, then the bed will lose its moral function, which is marital sex.

In Revelation 2:20-22 we find Jesus discussing Jezebel who caused God’s servants to “commit sexual immorality” (porneias). God will cast her into a “sickbed” and “those who commit adultery with her” will be cast into “great tribulation.” So, would we say that she is being punished for her sexual immorality and idolatry but those men who lie with her will only be punished for idolatry?  “Adultery” very obviously alludes back to “sexual immorality.”

In the context of the study of porneia we must mention Scott’s definition of “fornication.” He writes that when he can determine contextually how Biblical writers are using the term it “has gone to a repetitive, immoral promiscuity. It describes a sin that is therefore becoming a pattern of life.” [xxxiv] In the next paragraph he reaches his conclusion.  Fornication is harlotry, prostitution, homosexuality or bestiality.

Utilizing this definition, he translates Mark 10:11 as, “He that send his wife away, unless she has become a prostitute, unless she has become a harlot, unless she has given herself to a pattern of immorality, and if he marries again, he has committed adultery.”[xxxv] “Only in the situation where the wife has become an incorrigible harlot, prostitute or some pattern of immorality that’s degrading, that is, then,  when you can start thinking about it, putting her away and marrying again without sin.” [xxxvi]

If this is true, then where do we find in Scripture the criterion for a pattern of sexual misconduct? Must she be paid? Must she keep a log? Must she get a receipt?  How many men constitute a pattern? What is the standard of “immorality that’s degrading?” Do we use societal standards for what is “degrading”? Since “homosexuality” is gaining acceptance would it still be fornication if society no longer considers it “degrading”?

Adultery and Its Relation to Salvation

Examining Jesus’ words in these passages in Matthew sheds light on the importance adultery has in relation to the souls of men.  There are two states one can be in: saved or lost (Matthew 25:31-46). Earlier, we noted that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and others establish clearly that adultery will place one in the latter group unless put away and repented of. Matthew 19:9 has developed criterion for how we will be judged in this matter. Divorce can only occur when sexual immorality has occurred.

Why the need to change what we have always believed concerning adultery? Why must it mean covenant breaking when every passage we have examined explicitly shows adultery still retains its sexual component? Why does “fornication” mean that one has to become a prostitute before a marriage can be dissolved? Jackson says it is “result-oriented dogma.” [xxxvii]

Those who believe adultery means covenant breaking claim that their beliefs would lessen the number of divorces. In fact, their beliefs would allow more divorces by removing the sinful parameters. We should seek those who will live in accordance with God’s will and help them move closer to Him. Widening the tent to include those who will not “take up their cross” will cheapen the effort (Mark 8:34).

Under their scenario, the person can repent and continue in their new marriage.

“Divorce B whether remarriage ever occurs or not B is adultery (i.e covenant breaking). Both Old and New Testaments assume that divorced people will remarry. There is no prohibition of doing so. And these second marriages are not situations of ‘living in adultery.’ People adulterate, violate, or break their marriage covenants by breaking ‘one-flesh’ unions. They are not ‘living in sin’ when they marry again. And their effective repentance from the adultery they committed by ending a marriage without justification plays out in making the new marriage work.”  [xxxviii]

Scripture does teach forgiveness and God never wants anyone to suffer the terrible pain of divorce. Yet, good intentions never triumph over Scriptural precedent.

Jesus said, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery;” (Matthew 19:9). The Greek term for “commits adultery” in the present tense denotes continuous action meaning that the offender continues to commit adultery as long as they are having sexual relations with their new partner. [xxxix]

If we accept the first sexual union of the couple as the one time action which was adultery, we find ourselves in an unusual predicament. We are saying the first time the couple had sexual relations after their marriage ceremony they committed adultery. Was it also adultery the second time? If so, the relation continues to be sinful as long as the couple lives together in sexual union. If the second time they had sexual intercourse the act was not sinful, and stood approved before God, what made it approved? It would have to be the first act of adultery because nothing else has changed in the relationship. Therefore, by one adulterous act an individual can change a disapproved marriage into an approved one. It is illogical to maintain that by committing a sin one can make sinless following acts of an identical nature. [xl]

Moreover, if this is true Matthew 5:32 presents an extremely difficult situation. “Contemplated here is an innocent woman who has been victimized by her husband. She has been put away. She did not break the marriage covenant. Her husband did. And yet she, should she remarry, is stigmatized as an adulteress.” [xli]


The view that adultery means covenant breaking is untenable and cannot be defended by Scripture. Let us take Scripture as written and not try to circumvent God’s simple message. The words of Isaiah 30:10 are just as pertinent today as the day they were first given. “(They) say to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us right things; speak to us smooth things, prophecy deceits.”


[i]. Jackson and Scott,  21. 

[ii]. Ibid., 21-28.

[iii]. Guy N. Woods, How to Study the New Testament Effectively (Nashville: Gospel Advocate, 1992), 75.

[iv]. Robert B. Costello, Editor in Chief, “Adultery,” Webster=s Random House College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1991):19.

[v]. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1866-1891; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001), 1:401. cf. David Freeman, “Adultery” inThe International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 1:59.

[vi]. Ibid., 13.

[vii]. Francis Brown, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody: Henrickson, 1979), 282.

[viii]. Ibid., 1011.

[ix]. Brown, 275.

[x]. David W. Wead, “Harlot” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 2:616.

[xi]. John L. Edwards, An In Depth Study of Marriage and Divorce (St Louis: privately printed, 1985), 14-15.

[xii]. Ibid.

[xiii]. C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, 8:79.

[xiv]. Ibid., 55.

[xv]. Barclay, 34-35.

[xvi]. W. E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Iowa Falls: World Bible Publishers, 1981), 33.

[xvii]. F. Hauck, “Amoicheuo” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testamentedited by Gerhard Kittel and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 4:730.

[xviii]. Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), 417.

[xix]. Ibid., 417.

[xx]. Thayer, 238.

[xxi]. William D. Mounce, The Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1993), 205.

[xxii]. Jackson

[xxiii]. Steven F. Deaton, “Adultery, What is it?… And Then Some,”  May 6, 2002.

[xxiv]. Thayer, 332.

[xxv]. Ibid., 87.

[xxvi]. Jackson

[xxvii]. Vine, 329.

[xxviii]. Thayer, 66.

[xxix]. Walter Bauer, William F.  Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979),  96: Geoffrey W.  Bromiley, ADivorce@ in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 974-975.

[xxx]. Vine, 125.

[xxxi]. Bauer, 693.

[xxxii]. Hauck, “Fornication” in The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by Gerhard Kittell and translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), 6:590.

[xxxiii]. Thayer, 32.

[xxxiv]. Jackson and Scott, 45.

[xxxv]. Jackson and Scott, 53.

[xxxvi]. Ibid.

[xxxvii]. Jackson.

[xxxviii]. Rubel Shelley, “There is (Spiritual) Life After Divorce,”  May 21, 2002.

[xxxix].James D. Bales and Roy Deaver, The Bales – Deaver Debate (Pensacola: Firm Foundation, 1988), 19.

[xl]. James O. Baird, And I Say Unto You (Oklahoma City: B & B Bookhouse, 1981), 78. Cited by Earl Edwards, AExegesis of Matthew 19:3-12? (Henderson: Unpublished Manuscript), 21.

[xli]. Jackson.