Is Wife Swapping Scriptural?
Dr. Joe Temple


You probably realize that very little is written about the Ten Commandments. They are simply stated and we are told they should be obeyed, and not much explanation is given in relation to any of them. That is one of the reasons we thought it well to find out exactly what these commandments say. It is particularly important with this commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I think we need to find out exactly what we are talking about. So let me say, first of all, that in both the Hebrew and the Greek, the word that is translated “adultery” is a word which describes the act of being unfaithful to marriage vows. The word that is translated “adultery” is a word which describes an act–and I want you to notice what I am saying–that is unworthy of the marriage vows.

The Wedding Vow

The question immediately comes to our minds: What marriage vows? If you have attended very many wedding ceremonies, you will remember that there is sometimes quite a list of vows that are taken by the participants in the marriage. We are not speaking about the numerous vows that are found in different church and ecclesiastical ceremonies; we are thinking about one vow–the only one that God makes a wedding vow. You will find it in chapter 2 of the book of Genesis, and it is this vow that is in the mind of the Spirit of God when He uses the word “adultery.” The first mention of marriage in the Word of God is found in this chapter. You will notice these words, please, in verse 22:

Genesis 2

21And the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept; and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof;
22And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man.
23And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of man.
24[Notice this verse especially] Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

These few simple words describe the basic vow of all marriages–namely, that when a person enters into the marriage relationship, he belongs solely and alone to this other marriage partner, and any violation of this vow constitutes adultery. That is the meaning of the words. The Bible has a great deal to say about adultery, and I think it would be wise if we know what the Bible says about it. So, the first thing I would like to say to you–and then we are going to examine the Scriptures to show what I am talking about–is that the Bible speaks of three kinds of adultery. If we are to understand this commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” we will have to know something about the three kinds of adultery in the Word.

Spiritual Adultery Committed By Israel

The first kind of adultery–I am not mentioning these necessarily in their order of importance, but merely as they come to mind–of which the Bible speaks is what we are going to call for want of a better word “spiritual adultery.” There is such a thing as spiritual adultery. If you will turn with me, please, to the book of Jeremiah, you will find a mention of it from an Old Testament standpoint–not the only mention, by any means, but one mention that will illustrate what we are talking about:

Jeremiah 3

6The Lord said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hast done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.
7And I said after she had done all these thing, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
8And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also.
9And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stone and with stocks.
10And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the Lord.
11And the Lord said unto me, The backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah.

That is as far as we are going to read, because this provides an illustration of spiritual adultery in the Old Testament. If we were to pursue this line of thought in detail, we would find in the Old Testament that God is represented as the husband of the nation of Israel, and Israel is represented as the wife of Jehovah. They had the same relationship, spiritually speaking, that a man and his wife have. In other words, Israel owed absolute allegiance to God, and when Israel violated that allegiance in any sense of the word whatsoever, she was committing spiritual adultery. One of the ways in which Israel committed spiritual adultery is suggested in verse 6:

Jeremiah 3

6…she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.

Acts of Spiritual Adultery

Throughout the land of Israel, when Israel was guilty of spiritual adultery, the high hills and the forests were the centers of idolatrous worship. That is the meaning of this statement in verse 9:

Jeremiah 3

9And it came to pass through the lightness of her whoredom, that she defiled the land, and committed adultery with stones and stocks.

That is, she worshipped stones and stocks, and in so doing was guilty of spiritual adultery. I am using the words “spiritual adultery,” but the Bible does not use that term; when you are reading in the Old Testament concerning adultery, you need to pay very close attention to the context to be sure whether the Spirit of God is talking about spiritual adultery or adultery as we commonly think of it.

Spiritual Adultery In the New Testament Church

In comparison with the spiritual adultery of the Old Testament in Israel's relationship to God, there is the spiritual adultery of the New Testament in the Church's relationship to our Lord Jesus Christ. Will you turn, please, to II Corinthians, chapter 11. Keep in mind that when I speak of the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am not speaking of any earthly organization. I am speaking of the Body of Christ that is made up of all born-again believers, regardless of any church affiliation they may have here on the earth, or the lack of such organizational affiliation. I am speaking of the Body which the Lord Jesus Christ purchased with His own precious blood. The Apostle Paul is addressing the Corinthian believers concerning separation, and in so doing he gives us the illustration to which I call your attention:

II Corinthians 11

1Would to God ye could bear with me a little in my folly: and indeed bear with me.
2For I am jealous over you with a godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.

The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, then, has been espoused to the Lord Jesus Christ. That terminology is used because we will not be formally married to the Lord Jesus Christ until the end of this age, according to chapter 19 of the book of Revelation. But an espousal in the day in which Paul lived was as binding as a marriage, so it is fitting to use the word “adultery” in relation to any unfaithfulness to this espousal. James does exactly that in his epistle. If you will turn with me, please, to the epistle of James, chapter 4, verse 4, you will notice James speaking along this very line:

James 4

4Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.

When he is addressing these people, “Ye adulterers and adulteresses,” the context indicates that he is not speaking of them as having committed the physical act of adultery. He is speaking of their disloyalty to Christ through their friendship with the world, and he calls them adulterers and adulteresses. So, you see, the Bible speaks of a spiritual adultery. In the Old Testament it describes the disloyalty of Israel to Jehovah; in the New Testament it describes the disloyalty of the Church to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

Mental Adultery

Turn, please, to Matthew, chapter 5, as I suggest to you the second kind of adultery which is mentioned in the Bible. For want of a better term, I am going to refer to this as “mental adultery.” There is spiritual adultery, as we have already suggested, and in this chapter there is presented to us an illustration of mental adultery. Many people are guilty of mental adultery who are not guilty of physical adultery. Notice verse 27:

Matthew 5

27Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery:

That is what we read in Exodus 20, verse 14. The Lord Jesus continued speaking, saying:

Matthew 5

28But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.

This verse needs no elaboration; it speaks for itself. I would like to suggest to you that the commandment in Exodus, chapter 20, verse 14, is applicable to spiritual adultery, and I would like to suggest to you on the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself that it is applicable to mental adultery. So, you see, this is not a commandment that we can read hurriedly and pass over, saying, “It has no application to me.” It could apply.

Physical Adultery

The third kind of adultery we have already mentioned by way of comparison, but as we continue speaking about it in explanation, we are going to call it “physical adultery.” So, we have spiritual adultery, mental adultery, and physical adultery. I would like to suggest to you that physical adultery is of two kinds, and we are not thinking about the thing in its entirety unless we keep that in mind.

The first kind of physical adultery to which I would like to call to your attention is described in I Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 9. You will understand as I give you these Scriptures that they are not the only ones related to the subject. We do not have time to look at all of them. These are some that we have chosen because they seem to discuss the subject fully in few words, and that fits in with the brevity of time allotted to us.

In this chapter, Christians are being addressed concerning those things which are becoming to a Christian testimony:

I Corinthians 6

9Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
10Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, not revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Intentional Physical Adultery

We skip to verse 15, where we read these definitions of adultery:

I Corinthians 6

15Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.
16What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

Here is a description of the physical act of adultery. I have referred to it as “intentional adultery,” because you will notice that there is a deliberate intent on the part of the individual described here whereby he intentionally, wilfully, associated himself in the physical act of adultery with a harlot, a prostitute, a whore; all those words are used in the Scripture to describe such a person.

I would like to say this, so we will be thinking along the same line: When the Bible uses the word “harlot” or “whore,” it is not thinking of a person who is confined to a house of prostitution in a red-light district. It is speaking about a person who is loose in his or her sex life, although that individual may be in the very highest stratum of society. I make mention of that so we will not be misled. We are talking about intentional adultery, when a person wilfully makes himself a part of a harlot.

A Second Type of Physical Adultery

I would like for you to turn with me, please, to chapter 16 of the Gospel of Luke. This is one of several passages of Scripture at which I want us to look as we talk about the second kind of physical adultery. In this portion of the Gospel is the simplest statement of a subject which is discussed in Matthew, Mark and Luke. We have been talking about intentional adultery in I Corinthians, chapter 6. We want to talk now about unintentional adultery–an act of adultery in which a person may find himself, although he does not intend to. When God views what he does, God terms it “adultery”:

Luke 16

18Whosoever putteth away his wife, and marrieth another, committeth adultery: and whosoever marrieth her that is put away from her husband committeth adultery.

Just think about the simple meaning of the words without trying to answer all the questions which may naturally arise in your minds. Surely you can see why I refer to this as “unintentional adultery.” For any number of reasons, their homes might be broken, and for any number of reasons, two people might decide to try to live their lives together after they have had certain disappointments in the marriage relationship.

If we take this verse of Scripture as it is right here, we would find that when people marry in this way, they are involved in an unintentional state of adultery. Their intention is not to commit adultery. Their intention is not to displease God. Their intention is not to violate the will of God. In many instances, it is simply to make a home for themselves, to try to patch up a life that has been wrecked and ruined by careless living–on the part of one individual in most cases, rarely on the part of both individuals.

We need to ask ourselves the question, “Why does God look on this as adultery?” What are the extenuating circumstances related to this, as presented in the Word of God? Turn with me to the book of Romans, chapter 7. I asked you to turn to Luke, chapter 16, because that is the simplest statement of the matter, but there are no qualifications in that verse, and if you had only that verse, you might think there are no qualifications to consider at all. But we must look not only at one verse of Scripture; we must look at all the Word of God. In Romans, chapter 7, the Apostle said:

Romans 7

1Know ye not, brethren, (for I speak to them that know the law,) how that the law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth?

Until Death Do Us Part

That is a simple statement of fact: As long as a man is alive on this earth, he is subject to law. Otherwise, there is anarchy. Paul gives us an illustration of what he means by that; in verse 2, he takes the marriage relationship as an illustration of the general statement:

Romans 7

2For the woman which hath an husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he liveth; but if the husband be dead, she is loosed from the law of her husband.
3So then if, while her husband liveth, she be married to another man, she shall be called an adulteress: but if her husband be dead, she is free from that law; so that she is no adulteress, though she be married to another man.

Here is a simple statement that the marriage relationship is binding until, as the marriage vow says, “death do us part.” If either member of the marriage partnership marries before the death of the other, according to this passage of Scripture, he or she is guilty of adultery. Once again, adultery is a secondary result of the marriage; the marriage in most cases was not planned primarily with that thought in mind. It is unintentional adultery.

We are not through. We have more Scriptures at which we must look if we are to have the entire picture before us. Turn, please, to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 19:

Matthew 19

1And it came to pass, that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan;
2And great multitudes followed him,…
3…tempting him [that is, testing Him, trying to trip Him up, trying to cause Him to stumble], and saying to him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?

Divorce Not In God's Perfect Plan

Let's notice what we are reading. What they were saying to Him was, “Jesus, is it all right for a man to divorce his wife just for any old reason at all?” That is what they meant when they said, “for every cause.” Notice what the Lord Jesus said in verse 4:

Matthew 19

4And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female,
5And said, for this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?
6Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.

Let's stop right there and realize what the Lord Jesus Christ said. The Lord Jesus Christ said that when a man and a woman are joined together in marriage, they should not divorce, period–no ifs and ands. “What God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” I am emphasizing that because I want you to see that that is God's first choice; that is God's perfect plan.

God would be pleased if the word “divorce” could be blotted from our vocabulary. God would be pleased if there were never a need for divorce. God would be pleased if never an occasion arose for it. God does not want it. But we have it with us, don't we? In many instances, the people involved are involved through no fault of their own. Many times the people involved in it are crushed and brokenhearted because of it; they wish it never had happened. But it has happened. Now, what is to be done about it? Well, let's read further in the Scripture:

Matthew 19

7They said unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?

Result of a Hardened Heart

Do you see what they are saying? “Jesus, you are saying that God never intended divorce. All right, if He never intended divorce, why did Moses say that a man ought to have a writing of divorcement when he put his wife away? Why did Moses say that, if what you are saying is true?” Notice what the Lord Jesus Christ said in verse 8:

Matthew 19

8He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.

Notice that last statement, “But from the beginning it was not so.” So you see, God's first purpose, God's first plan, was for the marriage to remain intact. Tell me now, whether in relation to divorce or to envy or to hate or to anything, tell me why is it that these things must come into our lives? Why? We are talking about divorce now, but let's not isolate it. Let's talk about some other things, and say why, why, do these things come into our lives? The answer is, because of the hardness of our hearts. Our hearts are not tender toward God. Our hearts are not surrendered to Him. Our hearts are not yielded to Him.

Needless to say, if every person were thoroughly yielded to the Lord, there would be no problem related to this. “Oh,” you say, “I know an instance where a man was thoroughly yielded to the Lord, and it was his wife's fault.” Well, that's right. She was not yielded to the Lord. If she had been, it would not have happened. “Well, I know a case where a woman was thoroughly yielded to the Lord, and the husband …etc.” Well, that's right. That is what I am talking about. If everybody were thoroughly yielded to the Lord, this problem would not arise. It arises because of the hardness of our hearts. Notice in verse 9, the Lord Jesus Christ said:

Matthew 19

9And I say unto you, …

Now He is getting back to the original question. The question was, “Shall a man put away his wife for just any old reason at all?” The Lord Jesus Christ had to say what God's first plan was. He had to say what was dear to the heart of God. He dealt with that; then He said, “Now, in answer to your question:”

Matthew 19

9…Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

You see, we must take all the Scripture together when we talk about a subject like this. What does this verse of Scripture say? It says that there is only one ground for divorce which God recognizes–only one. It does not matter how many the laws of the land recognize; there is only one that God recognizes. That is fornication.

“Oh,” you say, “don't you think there are some extenuating circumstances where divorce is absolutely necessary?” I think there are extenuating circumstances described in I Corinthians, chapter 7, where separation is permitted–the separate partners to remain unmarried. However, because of the legal technicalities involved, divorce proceedings may become necessary. But God is saying that even with the hardness of our hearts considered, there is still only one reason that He deems sufficient for people to divorce one another. The grace of God should be able to take care of any eventuality that arises in a marriage and make it possible for two people to stay together if both of them know the Lord. If I did not believe that, there would not be any point in my speaking now. If the grace of God can work only up to a certain point and cannot work beyond that, there is not much point in our talking.

Continuous Practice

God said fornication is the grounds which He recognizes for divorce. I want you to notice that word “fornication.” Because we read our Bibles rather hurriedly, I suppose that if I had asked most of you before we got into this secondary part of what the Biblical grounds for divorce is, most of you would have said, “Adultery.” But that is not what this says. It says “fornication,” not “adultery.” Fornication includes adultery, but it is not reserved for adultery alone.

What is fornication? If you study the word “fornication” in both the Old and the New Testaments, you will find that it speaks of a continuous practice of lewd, sexual living. It speaks of a continuous practice of adultery. Why am I saying that? Through the years I have done a great deal of marital counseling, and I discourage divorce in every instance that I can, because I think that the problems involved in keeping the home together are much fewer than the problems that evolve when divorce occurs.

Many of the conferences which I have are based upon the unfaithfulness of one marriage partner to the other. In most of those cases, it is only one act of unfaithfulness–one act of adultery, just one. The individual concerned says, “I have a right to get a divorce. He was unfaithful to me.” Or, “She was unfaithful to me.” I have to point out to them, “No, you don't; unless this is a continued practice, you have no right to do it.”

One act of unfaithfulness does not constitute a right to divorce. That one act of unfaithfulness may have killed all the love involved, and it may create problems that are almost insurmountable; but we must remember that even as God for Christ's sake forgave us, we should forgive one another–even an act of adultery. But if a person by deliberate intent and practice indicates that he has no intention of keeping the marriage vow–it is not a question of falling into sin because the temptation was too great but there is a deliberate intent of not keeping the marriage vow–then God says there is grounds for divorce. And that is the only grounds that God recognizes.

The Right to Remarry

You will notice in verse 9 the word “except”–“except it be for fornication.” The majority of Bible scholars believe that that gives to an individual who has a divorce on those grounds the right to remarry. The marriage vow has been broken on the basis of what God recognizes, these people say, and remarriage is permissible on those grounds. I am going to repeat what I think most of you accept. I believe that sincere Christians, by God's grace, should endeavor to observe God's first plan; and God's first plan was one man to one woman until death do them part, no matter how long they may be separated and no matter how far away they may get from each other. That is God's first plan. But, if because of the extenuating circumstances involved, or the weaknesses of the flesh involved, this is impossible, God looks on all of us in mercy.

I am often asked two questions in relation to this subject. One is, “What would you do? Suppose that thing occurred in your life; what would you do?” I am always quick to answer, “I don't know what I would do.” That has nothing to do with what God's Word says. Knowing myself as I know myself, I probably would do exactly what the majority of people have done.

Conditions Prior to Being Saved

The other question I am asked is this: “Suppose I have entered into a marriage relationship with another person after a divorce. I just had not thought along this line; it was never brought to my attention. What about this; what am I supposed to do? Am I displeasing God as long as this relationship continues? What can be done about it?” There are two things to keep in mind when we answer that question. I touched upon one of them in the early part of our discussion. Nowhere in the Bible is adultery referred to other than as an act. You don't read in the Bible about people's living in adultery, but you do read in the Bible about their living in fornication. Adultery is an act, and if that is a sin, it can be forgiven in the same sense that any other sin is forgiven. Keep that in mind. It is not a continued state of sin.

The other thing that I think we need to keep in mind is what is found in I Corinthians, chapter 7. This chapter deals with this subject, and it deals with a number of other problems that arose in the early Church. You cannot imagine, unless you are familiar with this sort of thing, what mixed-up lives Gentile, heathen people had from a moral standpoint, from a sexual standpoint, from an idolatrous standpoint. Missionaries realize this; missionaries who are serving on the foreign fields today have to deal with the very same problems Paul did, firsthand.

Often there is a terribly mixed-up state, and if you should try to go back and untie all the knots and try to straighten out all the situations involved, it would be an impossible thing. Paul gives this word of advice:

I Corinthians 7

20Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called.

God found you in this state. He received you in this state. Then don't try to do any more about it; you will only make bad matters worse. Again, in I Corinthians, chapter 1:

I Corinthians 1

24Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.

This is a relationship that needs no changing, because God's grace has made provision for it.

Harm Done By Intentional Adultery

Now I would like for you to notice with me some of the things the Bible says about adultery–intentional adultery. Some of the things that God says about it indicate the reasons why God was so very pointed and so very definite in relation to this commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” Turn, please, to I Corinthians, chapter 6, verse 18:

I Corinthians 6

18Flee fornication [ the continued practice of adultery ]. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body.

One of the reasons this commandment is so very important is that the Spirit of God said that not every other sin takes the toll of your physical body that the sin of adultery takes. The wise man said in the book of Proverbs that it also takes a toll of your soul (Proverbs 5). Peter said in his second epistle that it is one of the things that war against the soul (II Peter 2:11). Many of our hospitals today are filled with people who are paying the price within their bodies for the sin of intentional adultery.

Another reason why God speaks so firmly about this sin of adultery is that it is a sin which nullifies the fifth commandment, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” I don't think I need to tell you now that the people who suffer most when divorce occurs are the children. They are the ones who pay the price. It makes impossible in most cases the observance of the fifth commandment.

If you will take the time to read chapter 5 of the book of Ephesians with emphasis on verses 3 and 32, you will find that another reason God speaks out so against adultery is that it is a direct contradiction of our Christian testimony. What did God intend the Christian home to be? He intended it to be a living illustration of the relationship that exists between Christ and the Church; and when we treat the marriage relationship lightly, we have harmed the testimony. That is another reason God speaks so against it.

Sinning Against God

You will remember that when we first began a discussion of these Commandments we told you that these Commandments were written in the hearts of men long before they were written on tables of stone; and we used as an illustration the experience of Joseph, who, when he had an opportunity to commit adultery, refused to do it. He said, “How can I sin against God in so doing?” (Genesis 39:9). Perhaps if we thought more about this matter as a sin against God, things would be vastly different from what they are.

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