One of the common problems that pastors have in giving counsel to troubled couples is the problem of determining when a particular sin in marriage is “actionable.” How bad does it have to be before the wronged spouse can walk? I am speaking here of sexual sins, which, given the nature of the case, are on a dimmer switch, not a toggle switch. Life would be simpler if it were on a toggle switch, but apparently God doesn’t want it to be simpler.
To review the basic biblical teaching on this, when it comes to sexual sin, Scripture says the offense that allows for lawful divorce is porneias (Matt. 19:9). I would want to render this with a general term like “sexual uncleanness.” But we still have to make a judgment call when it comes to the point. How unclean? And it is in answering this question that many Christians trip up.
Porneias that is actionable by human players in marital meltdowns is not co-terminous with porneias as God would judge it. If God were to mark iniquities, who would stand (Ps. 130:3)? If God were to mark iniquities, every man and every woman is guilty of adultery, and everybody therefore has grounds for divorce. That can’t be right. So there are clearly instances when God calls something tantamount to adultery which is not grounds for divorce. An unlawful second marriage would be an example (Matt. 19:9). That amounts to adultery, but it is not grounds for divorcing the second wife or husband.
When a man is unfaithful to his wife through adultery simpliciter, having sex with another woman, the situation is tragic, but still clear. His wife can divorce him without sinning.
But suppose there is not another woman involved. Suppose the only “other” involved is ones and zeros, and some pixels. Now what? We have to go into situations like this knowing two things — first, we have to make a judgment call about the relative seriousness of the offense, and second, we have to make a decision based on that judgment call.
So let’s check the settings on our dimmer switch. Suppose a man goes to the store to get a few things, and while in the checkout line he checks some things out. He stumbles into lustful thoughts directed at a magazine cover, a high gloss collage of breasts, eyes, blonde hair, and not very much red dress. He does this for thirty seconds, kicks himself in the ankle, goes home and apologizes to his wife. Now, has he been “unfaithful” in such a way as to justify thoughts of divorce in his wife’s mind? I think that every balanced Christian counselor would say “of course not.” And I think that if a wife were thinking divorce in such a situation, it is either because there are other big problems in the marriage we don’t know about, or she is the one with a deeper problem.
But this is not because porn cannot constitute a lawful ground for divorce. Suppose a wife discovers that her husband has a collection of the vilest kind of magazine porn there is, he has had it for decades, and has no intention of repenting or getting rid of anything. The sin is technically the same (magazine lust) and the sin is totally different. I would counsel a wife in this kind of situation to get while the getting’s good.
Take another problem that the Bible does not mention specifically — a husband plucking his eyebrows, wearing silk underwear, and getting hormone shots. What should a wife do? She should clear out, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
All right, so then let’s move this into more difficult territory. This is what I meant by a dimmer switch. Suppose a husband has visited strip clubs? Suppose he purchased a lap dance? How many lap dances? Was he caught? Did he confess or was he busted? You can have certain situations that are more serious in nature that are still retrievable because the repentance is true, and other sins of a less serious nature be more of a marriage threat because the repentance is non-existent or superficial.
I would say two other things here. The Westminster Confession says (wisely) of divorce that “the persons concerned in it not [be] left to their own wills and discretion in their own case” (WCF 24.6). But this is only going to be a blessing if the magistrates and pastors concerned have taken up the responsibility of protecting and defending the innocent and obedient party in the marriage, instead of doing what is too often done, which is to join the abusive partner in kicking around the one person who will put up with it.
There is another issue, and another complication. I have long said that the principle problem with pornography is the didactic and catechetical aspect of it. Immodesty and licentiousness are of course sinful, but it is not remarked enough that porn is a sex ed curriculum put together by liars and incompetents. The central wrong lesson (one easily believed by guys, because it flatters them) is that women have men’s brains encased in women’s bodies. Everybody in the whole world is hot to go. Then, when he gets married to a normal woman, and discovers that all the free sex he thought was going to be on tap . . . isn’t on tap, at least not like what he expected, and he thinks he got a dud, or a frigid one, or something. But no, he got a woman instead of the lie he was used to.
Men in this situation need to be taught, and the central thing you should look for is a willingness to be taught.
It should be kept in mind that on these issues, guys are stupid, gullible. And here is another layer of complication. Suppose the husband, catechized by porn, comes into the marriage with enough bravado to browbeat his wife into things she doesn’t like, or feel comfortable about. She is reluctant, but he is enough of a jerk not to notice any of the signs of her trepidation. So she participates in certain things that he wants — using porn together, making porn together, particular sex acts, etc. — and she does this for a few years, until she revolts.
When she revolts, she cannot simply say that “x,y,and z” were terrible, and that she wants a divorce now. She cannot say this because she was complicit. She was browbeaten, sure enough, and that was his sin, but her sin was in not standing up to her husband. Because she was complicit, he has his lying porn lessons he can point to, along with their early years together (which he thought were golden). Life is always golden for jerks who are getting their way.
In this situation, the husband is guilty of his arrogant self-centeredness. But the wife is responsible for tolerating that kind of arrogant self-centeredness. She is now partly responsible for the state of affairs they are in, and so she must repent together with him. To take an extreme example, a husband and wife can’t belong to a wife-swapping club, and then when she quits it, have her charge him with adultery and leave him. They were both committing adultery. She was complicit.
I need to develop this some more, I know, but teaching headship and submission in marriage is only safe if we are also teaching women their responsibility to be an Abigail if married to a Nabal.