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What Does the Bible Say About Adultery?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Adultery?

Old Testament

In the Old Testament, adultery was understood as sexual relations between a married (or betrothed) woman and a man other than her husband. It was therefore a sin against the husband.

New Testament

Jesus extended the definition of adultery to include sexual relations between a married man and a woman other than his wife (Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18). Other New Testament teachings also understand it that way (1 Corinthians 6:15-16, 1 Corinthians 7:2 ).

Therefore, for Christians, adultery is the sin of a married man having sexual relations with anyone other than his wife or a married woman having sexual relations with anyone other than her husband.

Exceptions?

People sometimes wonder if an exception is allowed in case the spouse cannot or will not have sex, or if the couple is separated, or for other reasons. However, the Bible does not mention any possible exceptions. Therefore, as long as a couple is legally married, sex with anyone else is considered adultery.

Nonsexual Relationships

People also wonder if romantic relationships outside of marriage are permissible as long as there is no actual sexual intercourse. However, in Bible teachings, marriage is an exclusive romantic and sexual relationship between husband and wife. Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. (NIV, Matthew 5:27-28)

And the apostle Paul wrote:

But because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband. The husband should fulfill his wife's sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband's needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. Do not deprive each other of sexual relations, unless you both agree to refrain from sexual intimacy for a limited time so you can give yourselves more completely to prayer. Afterward, you should come together again so that Satan won't be able to tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (NLT, 1 Corinthians 7:2-5)

In practice, an "office romance" or other extramarital affair causes great emotional pain to the spouse whether sexual intercourse is involved or not. Also, sexual attraction clouds judgment and often leads to actual sexual relations, even when that was not the original intent.

Bible Teachings

Adultery is one of the most frequently and severely condemned sins in the Bible. Adultery is mentioned 52 times, including in the Ten Commandments, all four Gospels, and ten other books of the Bible. Only the sins of idolatry, self-righteousness and murder are mentioned more often.
You shall not commit adultery. (NIV, Exodus 20:14)
But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself. (NIV, Proverbs 6:32)
For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” (NRSV, Matthew 15:19–20)
And a certain ruler questioned Him, saying, "Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not bear false witness, honor your father and mother.'" (NAS, Luke 18:18-20)
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. (NRSV, Hebrews 13:4)

Divorce

The Bible mentions adultery as grounds for divorce (Matthew 5:31-32, 19:9) but does not require it. In many cases the husband and wife can be reconciled and the marriage saved even after adultery. It is not a sin to continue to live with and have sex with a spouse who has committed adultery. (As a practical matter, the risks of sexually transmitted diseases should be considered.)

Forgiveness

As with other sins, God will forgive the sin of adultery if a person sincerely repents and also forgives other people. There are more details in this article: What Does the Bible Say About Forgiveness of Sins?

Lasting Damage

Even though God will forgive adultery, the damage it causes often cannot be undone. It is extremely hurtful to the spouse. It often leads to divorce and leaves the marriage partners embittered, disillusioned and financially poorer. It robs the children of the love and security of a healthy family and denies them a good role model for their own future marriages. Children from families where there is conflict and/or divorce are more prone to anxiety, poor school performance, drug abuse and delinquent behavior. These problems can persist into adulthood. Adult children of divorced parents tend to have lower educational attainment, lower income, more children out of wedlock, higher rates of divorce themselves, and a lower sense of well-being.1, 2

Related articles:
What Does the Bible Say About Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage?
What Does the Bible Say about Premarital Sex?

Related verses: Proverbs 5:18-23, 6:20-35, Jeremiah 13:27, Matthew 15:17-20, Mark 7:20-23, 10:11-12, Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.

1 Charles L. Bryner, Jr, MD, Children of Divorce, The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice  May–June 2001 Vol. 14 No. 3, http://www.jabfm.org/content/14/3/201.full.pdf
2 Paul R. Amato, Bruce Keith, Parental Divorce and the Well-Being of Children: A Meta-Analysis, American Psychological Association, Psychological Bulletin 1991, Vol. 110, No. 1,26-46

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