Emotional Adultery

Question

Prior to coming to our church a Christian man was involved in an "emotionally adulterous" relationship with a woman he met online. His wife learned of it and she pursued and obtained a divorce. If the affair was never more than emotional is he the guilty party in adultery? He has repented and pursued reconciliation with his wife, but to no avail. Is he ever free to remarry? Is he free to remarry if after a "reasonable" time of seeking to be restored with his ex-wife she says, "never" or if she later is remarried?

Answer

I take it that "emotional adultery" is falling in love with someone who isn't your wife, or perhaps lusting after someone else? Clearly there is a connection between this and physical infidelity. For example, Jesus said that one who wrongly lusts after a woman has committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt. 5:28). His point was that the aspect of God's eternal character embodied in the law against adultery is also incompatible with unrighteous lust.

Nevertheless, these two things are not identical, and therefore do not provide the same recourse in the Law or elsewhere in the Bible. For example, the same aspect of God's character that is reflected in the law against murder is also contrary to anger and name-calling without appropriate cause (Matt. 5:21-22). But we are not thereby justified in executing people who exhibit such anger or looseness of tongue. The Law is designed to render justice, which must be proportionate to the crime. Jesus' exposition was intended to show the broad application of the Law, not to justify extreme penalties against less than extreme infractions.

Now, it is true that the Bible exonerates those who divorce unfaithful spouses - but it does so for cases of adultery, not for cases of fantasized adultery or inappropriate emotional attachments. In the example you provided, the man has sinned according to the type of adultery, but not according to the degree of adultery. My assessment is that the wife has divorced her husband on unbiblical grounds. Moreover, her actual divorce would seem to be a greater sin than his so-called emotional adultery.

The question of remarriage is a separate but related one. Christians are free to remarry if their marriage covenant is severed in God's eyes - but divorce on unbiblical grounds does not severe this (Matt. 5:32). Notice that the same passage that condemns emotional infidelity also condemns divorce on any ground other than actual adultery! It also prohibits remarriage for one who has been divorced on unbiblical grounds. This prohibition applies to both parties (1 Cor. 7:10-11), so that neither the wife who sinned by getting a divorce nor the husband she left may remarry. The only available options are reconciliation and remaining single (1 Cor. 7:11). Some theologians and churches have sought to make use of an argument that I consider to be somewhat of a "loophole" in order to allow people who have been involved in unbiblical divorces to remarry. I am not friendly toward this position, and cannot write about it without revealing that to some degree, but I'll try to keep it to a moderate level. The bases for the loophole are various, and often include such elements as:

1) If an unbeliever divorces a believer, the believer may remarry (1 Cor. 7:12-15).
2) Those who fail to care for their families are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim. 5:8).
3) Those who undergo church discipline are counted as unbelievers (Matt. 18:17).

The approach is to get one spouse to be counted as an unbeliever and accused of abandoning his/her spouse so that the other may remarry. This is generally done in one of two ways:

1) If only one spouse goes to your church, the other is the unbelieving abandoner.
2) If both spouses go to your church, the one who will not submit to church discipline in this matter is the unbelieving abandoner.

Unbelief is established on the basis of refusal to submit to church discipline or on the basis of failing to fulfill the needs of the other spouse (1 Tim. 5:8 is often applied broadly, so that failing to meet emotional needs, etc., may be equated to failing to put food on the table). This is relatively easy to do in most cases, since there are usually real problems in marriages where divorce is sought, and since every believer has at least some sin issue he/she cannot conquer, and thus can be proven to have spurned church discipline if the process is applied with enough force. If the "unbelieving" spouse is willing to leave, the other is considered to have been abandoned by an unbeliever and free to remarry. If the "unbelieving" spouse does not leave, he or she may be considered to have left "emotionally," thus freeing the other to seek a divorce while claiming that the "unbelieving" spouse was really the one who left (despite Paul's instruction in 1 Cor. 7:12-13 that a believer not leave an unbeliever).

The most unscriptural form of this argument that I have encountered is the one that states that any person who divorces a believer and refuses to reconcile demonstrates by his/her actions that he/she is not a believer. In other words, all divorced persons may remarry in all cases. Although this is the most extreme version of this argument, it is my sense that almost all practical applications of this "loophole" argument make some of the same fundamental mistakes, such as: assigning harsh sentences to sins that only figuratively resemble the actual sins to which Scripture assigns harsh sentences; and pursuing vindication of one's own or oneself above justice, often though wrongly motivated and uncharitable church discipline (excommunication being a great way to demonstrate that someone is an unbeliever). Paul does not excommunicate believers who divorce. He even allows it as an option (albeit a less than ideal one, and not one without the sin of refusing reconciliation; cf. Matt. 19:8) for those who are not willing to remain married.

Although it may be painful, I would suggest again that the only biblical options for an ex-spouse of a professing believer who has not committed adultery are singleness and reconciliation. I believe that God takes marital vows seriously, and therefore that potential loneliness is a very real risk we take when we marry.

I would also point out that just because reconciliation has not, as yet, taken place, it may still be possible in the future. From a human perspective this may seem extremely unlikely, but God can do anything.

Failing that, there is also the possibility that the wife in your scenario will remarry, which Scripture tells us is adultery. Then again, she might simply sleep with someone else. At that point, she will be guilty of adultery, which is a biblical ground on which the husband may terminate the marriage covenant and remarry. He would also be free to remarry upon her death - but I do not say that he ought to hope for this (we should pray for the cessation of sin, not for its commission).


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.