Is Pornography Use Ever Grounds for Divorce?


1. In Matthew 5:32 and 19:9, Jesus gives grounds for divorce based on sexual immorality (porneia). Is that your understanding of the text?

Yes, porneia is a broad term designating sexual immorality, and the most natural way of reading the text sees Jesus as allowing an exception for divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual sin. Some want to say that the word porneia refers to incest or to sexual sin in the engagement period, but we would need clear signals in context to limit the word porneia to such specific sins. And those clear indications are lacking in both Matthew 5 and Matthew 19. Others say that the exception clause only applies to divorce, but not to remarriage. Such a restriction is not clear in the Greek text. The most natural way of reading Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 is that the exception clause applies to divorce and remarriage.

2. Does pornography use ever qualify as porneia? If so, does just one use of pornography qualify? Must it be a habit? An addiction?

Yes, pornography constitutes porneia since the word designates sexual sin in general. How to apply the text is a matter of hermeneutics, and we must remember that we don’t go to Scripture in cases like these as if it is a rulebook with case laws.

I’m not saying there are no universal commands in Scripture! Of course there are. We must not murder, commit adultery, and steal. The Scriptures, however, do not provide detailed case law for all the situations we face. It is imperative, therefore, that we apply the Scriptures with wisdom. The Lord shapes us and sanctifies us by making us more like Jesus. We begin to live in a new way and think about life in a new way. Wisdom doesn’t mean that we simply search the Scriptures to find “answers” for all our specific questions. Of course, Scripture is our authority and is the basis for any wisdom we have. And we must apply the truths of Scripture to specific situations. However, we are not like robots searching the database of the Scriptures to see what we should do. God is changing us so that we think more like Christ.

So, does pornography ever qualify as grounds of divorce? It is precisely here that we need wisdom since God is giving us a transformed mind (Rom. 12:2), so that we can discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5:10). Wisdom means that we are not quick to recommend divorce since Jesus teaches us that the marriage between one man and one woman is a life-long covenant. Divorce is always a last resort, and thus we should not immediately commend divorce because a person engages in pornography, especially if the use is singular or even occasional. We must immediately say, from the perspective of wisdom, that any use of pornography is egregious and heinous; there are no excuses for looking at pornography. At the same time, we don’t want to say that any use of pornography justifies divorce.

People want to know when pornography use crosses the line so that divorce is justified. Here’s the answer: when it is egregious enough to warrant divorce! One could respond, but what in the world does that mean? Give me specifics! I would reply that we can’t write down a simple answer to a question like this.

To be sure, there are cases where pornography use is serious enough to warrant divorce. Thankfully, the Lord has given wise counselors and elders to help believers discern whether divorce is permissible in a particular situation. If we had a handy rulebook to consult on the matter, we wouldn’t need the leadership and counsel of elders/pastors/overseers. But the question of how to apply what Scripture says takes wisdom. Thus, church members need to make such agonizing decisions in the context of their local church.

3. How would you work through it pastorally if an exasperated church member came to you convinced that he or she wanted divorce because of their spouse’s porn addiction?

A church member may come to the elders and demand a divorce because of the pornography use of spouse, even as the elders wisely counsel against a divorce in that situation. The person desiring a divorce should have the inclination to follow the counsel of the elders since the Lord has appointed them to shepherd the souls of the flock.

Are elders sometimes wrong? Are they sometimes even abusive and tyrannical in their use of authority? Of course! Elders are fallible, too, and sometimes elders make wrong decisions, and in some cases the leaders of a church are not wise and godly in the shepherding of their flock. We don’t live in a perfect world.

I would say, then, that the inclination of the person desiring a divorce should be to follow the counsel of the elders. If the person thinks a divorce is warranted anyway, the elders should be slow to discipline the person who disagrees unless it is very clear that the person wanting the divorce is in blatant sin.

Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas R. Schreiner is a Professor of New Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Pastor of Preaching at Clifton Baptist Church. You can find him on Twitter at @DrTomSchreiner.

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