What is the difference between fornication and adultery?


How should we interpret  Matthew 19: “I, however, tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another commits adultery: and whosoever does put away his wife also commits adultery.”? The usage of these two different words got me to thinking, what does God have in mind when He uses “fornication” and “adultery”? Does He mean:

– when the woman is not a virgin  (she fornicated before marriage)?

– when the wife has had an  extramarital affair?

– or both?

Because the text clearly states that if the man  leaves his wife without the proper reason then he is told that he commits “adultery” and not “fornication”.  What does the Greek text explain?

Here is Matthew 19:9 in the original:

λέγω δὲ ὑμῖν ὅτι ὃς ἂν ἀπολύσῃ

 τὴν γυναῖκα αὐτοῦ μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ καὶ γαμήσῃἄλλην μοιχᾶται.

I want to focus on the two different Greek words that are used in the Greek text, “fornication” and “adultery”.

Fornicationπορνείᾳ (PORNEIA) – any form of illegitimate sexual activity, unbridled passion, prostitution

Adulteryμοιχᾶται (MOIHATAI) -to break the marriage covenant via sexual relations with someone other than your marriage partner, not to be faithful to your marriage partner, having sexual relations with someone else’s spouse

The text refers both to men and to women. The word “fornication” (porneia) as I explained, refers to any form of illegitimate sexual relations including sexual relations before marriage. According to this verse, premarital sex is a cause for divorce. Therefore, before entering the covenant of marriage, each spouse must open his heart and confess his or her sins to the other. If one of the partners had a sexually immoral experience before repenting and entering the New Covenant, then the person must be forgiven as Christ forgives and accepts people who repent and makes them a new creation. If the partner is not able to forgive his or her future spouse and may have doubts to the person’s faithfulness in the future then it is better that they not marry. If you are the one who has to do the forgiving then forget the act and never remind the person of it again.

Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled ; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge. (Hebrews 14:4)

May we all pay careful attention to these words because they apply to both the married and single.

Translation by: Erik Brewer