One of the consequences of the high divorce rate in our society is the number of adulterous marriages. These are unlawful unions in which at least one person is still bound to their original mate. Of course, when we discuss adulterous marriages, we must have the law of God in mind. To the state, there is no such thing as an adulterous marriage – only marriage. Once a couple is legally divorced, subsequent marriages are unconditionally legitimate in the eyes of the state. In this study, we will not be discussing civil laws about marriage and divorce. Instead, we will be looking at what the Scriptures teach about adulterous marriages.
Is There a Such Thing?
As we begin this study, it is important to ask this question: Is there a such thing as adulterous marriages? Many people do not believe that there is. Yet the Scriptures are clear that a couple may be married, but still be committing adultery with one another.
“And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:9).
Jesus was asked about lawful causes for divorce (Matthew 19:3). He answered that there is no lawful cause for one to put away his wife except for fornication. Therefore, if one puts away his spouse for a cause other than fornication, he commits adultery upon remarriage.
“For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband. So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man” (Romans 7:2-3).
Paul says here that if a woman is married (joined) to one man while her first husband is still alive, “she shall be called an adulteress.” This is obviously referring to God’s marriage law. The state does not label a married woman as an adulteress because she has been previously married. The law of God labels her as an adulteress, even though she is married to the one with whom she is committing adultery. If her husband died and she was, therefore, no longer bound to him, she could marry the second man without committing adultery.
What Is an Adulterous Marriage?
Knowing that there is a such thing as an adulterous marriage, we must determine what qualifies as an adulterous marriage.
First, we must remember the definition of adultery. Adultery refers to sexual relations between two people when at least one of them is married to someone else. An adulterous marriage then refers to sexual relations between a husband and wife when at least one of them is bound in marriage to another.
It is important to understand the fact that someone can be bound in marriage to one person, yet married to another. Again, this is based on God’s law, not man’s. It is possible for one to divorce his spouse, marry another, and still be bound to his original mate. This happens all the time. Notice a few examples:
- Jesus taught that after a couple is joined together by God in marriage (Matthew 19:6), if one then puts away his spouse for a cause other than fornication, his second marriage is adultery (Matthew 19:9). Why? Without the cause of fornication which would have triggered the divine permission to put away his wife, this man was still bound to his first wife.
- Paul taught that if a woman was married to a second husband while her first husband was still alive, she was an adulteress (Romans 7:2-3). Why? Since he was still alive, she was still bound to her first husband.
- Note the example of Herod – “For Herod himself had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife’” (Mark 6:17-18). Herod was married to Herodias. Yet John called her his brother Philip’s wife. How? Though Herodias had married Herod, she was still bound to her first husband, Philip.
The Scriptures certainly do teach that there is a such thing as an adulterous marriage. This is a marriage in which at least one person is still bound in marriage – by God’s marriage law – to another.
How to Avoid an Adulterous Marriage
If we consult the Scriptures, there are some simple steps we can take to avoid an adulterous marriage.
- Marry someone who is not bound to another (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:6) – and of course, we must not be bound to another, either.
- Remain in that marriage for a lifetime. Once bound, God intended a man a woman to not be separated (Matthew 19:4-6) until death (Romans 7:2-3).
- If separated, remain unmarried or be reconciled (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). When we sin, we cannot go back and undo our transgressions. We must repent and live with the consequences. If one becomes separated from the one to whom he was lawfully bound, his options are to either remain unmarried (if his wife will not have him back) or be reconciled (if she will take him back). There is no third option to marry another.
What to Do If You Are in an Adulterous Marriage
While it is important to avoid entering into an adulterous marriage, there are many who have not avoided it and are now in such a relationship. What should one do who is in an adulterous marriage?
Repent. One who is in an adulterous marriage is guilty of adultery (Matthew 19:9; Romans 7:3). The word of God is clear in its condemnation of the sin of adultery (1 Corinthians 6:9; Hebrews 13:4). Repentance is a prerequisite for forgiveness (Luke 13:3, 5; Acts 8:21-22).
How does one repent of adultery? One repents of adultery by stopping the adultery. Repentance requires an end to the adulterous relationship – even if this relationship is an adulterous marriage. When the people of Ezra’s day were guilty of marrying foreign wives (Ezra 10:10) – a violation of God’s marriage law under the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 7:3) – Ezra gave them this command: “Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:11).
We are not under the same law today that prohibits us from marrying one from another nation. But the lesson about how to repent when in an unlawful marriage applies. A separation must occur if we are to repent. This is surely not an easy thing to do. But the Scriptures are clear that we must put the Lord first before everyone else, even those who are the closest to us in this life (Matthew 10:37).
“Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). Marriage is an honorable institution. But we must keep the marriage bed (referring to the sexual union in marriage) undefiled. However, an adulterous marriage is inherently defiled. We must keep away from such a relationship, for “adulterers God will judge.”
Let us strive to be pure in all things. When we sin, let us have the courage to repent and turn from that sin, no matter how difficult it may be.