I was involved in a discussion concerning the matter of whether pornography without physical contact with another human being constitutes “sexual immorality” for purposes of divorce in Matthew 19. My thoughts are far from finalized on the topic:
John Frame in his discussion of the 7th Commandment as it relates to divorce and remarriage (chapter 39, The Doctrine of the Christian Life) writes:
Practically, of course, it would be difficult to use “lustful thoughts” as a ground for divorce, since they are hidden in the mind. But the habitual use of masturbation and pornography are often externalizations of lust, evidence for it, especially (1) when they serve as substitutes for marital sex, and (2) when the person, during these activities, fantasies about someone other than his spouse. So I agree with the PCA [previously distributed to Think Tank] that sexual sins of this sort can break the one-flesh relationship of marriage and can therefore be grounds for divorce (p. 776).
In footnote 10 on the same page he writes:
I’m not sure what to say about the report’s contention here. It may be true that deprivation of conjugal rights is ground for divorce, but I think more argument is needed to establish that contention. My argument is simpler: masturbation and the use of pornography, accompanied by lustful thoughts about people other than one’s spouse, are adulterous, and for that reason are grounds for divorce.
The logic certainly seems to follow that if “porneia” extends to lust (“Lust is specifically the desire to engage in sexual acts that are contrary to God’s law” p. 767), then lust – without the addition of another living human being – is sufficient to meet the exception clause in Matt. 19:9.
Adultery certainly falls with the scope of “porneia.” In fact as by Frame, adultery was a given ground for divorce in the wider culture (774). Moreover, the pairing of the term with adultery in Matthew 5:31-32 & 19:8-9 seems to draw our understanding of the term to be related, in some manner, to adultery.
Frame notes that porneia is an exceptionally broad term; in fact, it is applied to Esau selling his birthright (Heb. 12:16). Thus, it would essentially apply to all sin. But, that can’t be the meaning for the exception clause (Frame, 774).
Now, in our culture, the ubiquity of what would have been consider pornographic – or nigh to it – makes this truly difficult. It seems that just about any website may be combined with provocative photography (I was recently assaulted on a newspaper website when I was looking up a story on oil drilling in the North Sea – which I thought would be a safe topic). How calculated a thought must be developed so that a viewer crosses the line, has a lustful thought, and thus is subject to divorce by his wife? And since the desire is for the marital relationship with someone other than a spouse, how many women have been beguiled by Mr. Darcy?
When we move beyond sexual conduct which involves another person (level 5 to level 6 in the Hambrick paper – a very useful tool for analysis, thank you for scale), we begin to generate more and more “permissible” divorces – which should give us pause. And, if we take the concept of lust most broadly, everything on the scale – beginning at level 1, gives grounds for divorce.
As Frame notes, every sin is potentially covered by the word –Heb. 12:16. Which is the same problem with the Dt. 24:1-4 passage:
This broader use for erwath introduces us to a major problem in the divorce and remarriage controversy. It is the same problem we face when we attempt to define the Greek term porneia in Jesus’ exception clause (Matt. 19:9). PCA Report, 209.
Now, that is interesting: Jesus condemns the broad reading of the Dt. 24 passage and yet uses an equally ambiguous (or broad) term to limit divorce.
Thus, the effect in terms of number of permissible divorces does seem to be a consideration of our understanding of the passage. The type of sin involved is plainly sexual, because porneia does center upon that concept, even if it is not limited to that concept.
I think we can safely reject the interpretation of every sin (because every sin – or almost every — is porneia or erwath). An exception which swallows up the rule (divorce is not permissible, except), is not an exception.
Perhaps rather than focus on the precise nature of the action, the investigation should be on the intensity of the action. If it were merely of a particular action, a more precise term could have been given. When we consider the narrative of the OT with God patiently waiting for the return of his adulterous bride and only with great reluctance divorcing her (Jer. 3:8), the emphasis lies with the failure to repent and return.
Note that in Matthew 19, Jesus lays the need (if you will) for divorce at the “hardness of your heart”. I think that may be a useful element in unwrapping this problem. I wonder the extent to which the discussion of desertion – particularly when it is in the context of something other than leaving the country to never return – helps elucidate this problem.
The man with the 4000 hours of viewing seems, intuitively, to fit into the scope of porneia. He seems as far gone as the man who had the one-night stand (in fact, he seems in many ways worse). But the man who looks too long at the photograph does not seem to have crossed the line. But, I am not certain on any of this yet.
Stier makes a useful comment:
On the one hand that fornication, or any infidelity, gives the right of divorce, since that has already in effect taken place; but that also on the other hand, neither the man nor the woman in the church of Christ ought, generally speaking, to exercise that right (Rudolf Stier, The Words of the Lord Jesus, trans. William B. Pope vol. 1 (New York: N. Tibblals & Son, 1864), 69).