Bible Answer

What is “spiritual adultery”?

Recently, I heard someone using the term "spiritual adultery." What does this term mean?

The term “spiritual adultery” (or emotional affair) does not appear in scripture, nevertheless we can find the concept in the Bible. Specifically, the Bible describes idolatry as a type of adultery. We can see this metaphor in Ezekiel 16 (among others places) when the Lord rebukes Israel for their unfaithfulness:

Ezek. 16:8  “Then I passed by you and saw you, and behold, you were at the time for love; so I spread My skirt over you and covered your nakedness. I also swore to you and entered into a covenant with you so that you became Mine,” declares the Lord GOD. 
Ezek. 16:9 “Then I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 
Ezek. 16:10 “I also clothed you with embroidered cloth and put sandals of porpoise skin on your feet; and I wrapped you with fine linen and covered you with silk. 
Ezek. 16:11 “I adorned you with ornaments, put bracelets on your hands and a necklace around your neck. 
Ezek. 16:12 “I also put a ring in your nostril, earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 
Ezek. 16:13 “Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your dress was of fine linen, silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour, honey and oil; so you were exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 
Ezek. 16:14 “Then your fame went forth among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of My splendor which I bestowed on you,” declares the Lord GOD. 
Ezek. 16:15  “But you trusted in your beauty and played the harlot because of your fame, and you poured out your harlotries on every passer-by who might be willing.
Ezek. 16:16 “You took some of your clothes, made for yourself high places of various colors and played the harlot on them, which should never come about nor happen. 
Ezek. 16:17 “You also took your beautiful jewels made of My gold and of My silver, which I had given you, and made for yourself male images that you might play the harlot with them. 
Ezek. 16:18 “Then you took your embroidered cloth and covered them, and offered My oil and My incense before them. 
Ezek. 16:19 “Also My bread which I gave you, fine flour, oil and honey with which I fed you, you would offer before them for a soothing aroma; so it happened,” declares the Lord GOD. 
Ezek. 16:20 “Moreover, you took your sons and daughters whom you had borne to Me and sacrificed them to idols to be devoured. Were your harlotries so small a matter? 
Ezek. 16:21 “You slaughtered My children and offered them up to idols by causing them to pass through the fire.
Ezek. 16:22 “Besides all your abominations and harlotries you did not remember the days of your youth, when you were naked and bare and squirming in your blood. 

The Lord compares the nation of Israel to a young bride raised up for the purpose of honoring God, Who is Israel's Husband by covenant. Rather than remaining faithful to the Lord, the nation of Israel played the “harlot” by worshipping other gods, the Lord says.

In a sense, the Lord called Israel an adulteress who “cheated” on Her Husband by worshipping foreign gods. The Lord uses adultery as a metaphor for spiritual unfaithfulness, and in that sense, the Bible includes the concept of "spiritual adultery” (if not the words).

A New Use of the Term

More recently, however, the term spiritual adultery has been used to describe any inappropriate, nonsexual relationship between a man and a woman that doesn't otherwise qualify as literal adultery (i.e. no sexual act was involved). We presume the term was coined for relationships that fall in the grey area between an ordinary, casual friendship and an illicit, sexual affair. 

For example, consider the situation of a man and a woman who are married to other people who form a personal friendship. Over time, the couple grows very close and spends increasing time together without their spouses' knowledge. Eventually, they begin to meet for private dinners, conduct frequent phone conversations, and exchange intimate texts or letters. Still, the couple never engages in sexual contact of any kind. 

Is this couple guilty of adultery?

Despite the troubling nature of such a relationship, we cannot call it adultery. Adultery, by definition, is a sexual relationship outside marriage. For example, consider the comparison between adultery and prostitution:

Hos. 4:14   I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot
                  Or your brides when they commit adultery,
For the men themselves go apart with harlots 
And offer sacrifices with temple prostitutes; 
So the people without understanding are ruined. 

The Lord speaking in Hosea says He will not punish Israel's daughters when they play the harlot, which He equates with adultery and prostitution. Obviously, the services offered by harlots and prostitutes revolve around sexual acts, not merely spending quality time together! So if adultery is equal to prostitution, then it involves sexual contact.

Furthermore, the legal definition defines adultery as:

"...voluntary sexual relations between an individual who is married and someone who is not the individual's spouse."

Again, adultery is a sexual act, by definition.

Nevertheless, our example relationship of the man and woman is not without sin. Such a relationship will likely involve sins of lust, lying or coveting. In the worst cases, the relationship will eventually result in literal adultery, but until such time that the relationship involves sexual contact, how would we describe the relationship if it's not adultery?

Church leaders have struggled with how to characterize such a situation. In fact, just determining when such a relationship has become inappropriate can be difficult (i.e., when is a close relationship between a man and a woman “too close?”). Therefore to address this ambiguity, some churches invented the term "spiritual adultery" to describe a relationship that intimates marital unfaithfulness yet does not involve sexual sin. 

Is such a label warranted? Is there such a thing as spiritual adultery in this context?

We believe the answer is no. We do not believe the label spiritual adultery is appropriate nor helpful. While we understand the desire to call out such behavior in a strong way, we believe labeling it spiritual adultery is confusing to the church and may lead to unintended consequences. 

First, sufficient terminology already exists to describe and address the sin(s) involved in excessively-intimate relationships. Lusting, lying and coveting are usually present in any inappropriate relationship, so there is no need to invent new sins to condemn such behavior. Even Jesus Himself equated the seriousness of lust with adultery in Matt 5:28, indicating that the sin of lust is already sufficiently serious to warrant sanctioning within the body. 

Furthermore, adding the word “ adultery” in situations where no sexual sin is present is misleading, unnecessarily inflammatory and invitation for abuse within the church body. The sin of adultery is a serious sexual sin, and it carries significant penalties within the church, including disqualification from leadership and even barring from future marriage. 

Therefore when the church uses the word “adultery” to describe situations where sexual sin is NOT present (even if in a metaphorical sense), the overuse of the term risks diluting the seriousness of literal adultery. Equally troubling, the term “adultery” opens the door for excessive and inappropriate penalties for those involved in lessor sin. 

In the worst cases, a man or woman’s sin might be labeled “spiritual adultery” as a political ploy. Since literal adultery disqualifies a person from leadership (see 1Tim 3), a nonsexual relationship could be labeled spiritual adultery to justify disqualifying a person from pastoral leadership or eldership, or to deny an individual fellowship within the church body. Such abuse is possible – if not inevitable – when the church entertains new, unbiblical classifications for sin.

Thirdly, the term spiritual adultery is likely to confuse the Church, since the term implies the existence of some new, mysterious category of sin. The congregation can't know for sure what behaviors will trigger a charge of  spiritual adultery, since the Bible offers no definition of the term. Therefore, how can a Christian know when he or she has moved from lusting or coveting into spiritual adultery? 

Fourthly, the label of spiritual adultery is contrived, and therefore when we take the concept to its logical conclusion, we reach ridiculous outcomes. For example, should spiritual adultery be subject to the same penalties reserved for literal adultery? If not, why not? Why treat one form of adultery differently than another? 

Furthermore, since spiritual adultery is a sin of desire (not action), are we prepared to judge all sinful thoughts equal to sinful actions? WIll spiritual murder become equal to literal murder, spiritual theft equal to literal theft, and spiritual lying equal to literal lying, etc.? These questions illustrate the inconsistency resulting from contriving such ill-conceived labels. 

Instead, the church should remain constrained by scripture. First, the church should teach spiritual wisdom, including how every spouse must guard his or her heart against the schemes of the enemy, which will test our faithfulness in marriage. Each must be prepared to withstand such temptations taking every opportunity to prepare in advance, including adopting simple rules in marriage like not spending time alone with or communicating privately with someone of the opposite sex, etc. 

As James says:

James 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 
James 1:15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. 

In cases where inappropriate, nonsexual relationship outside marriage are brought to light in the church, leaders should rebuke the couple, demanding confession and repentance, and counseling the individuals involved to consider their behavior in light of their commitments to their spouses and to Christ.

If repentance follows, the church should forgive the individual and restore them, as Jesus commanded:

Luke 17:3 “Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.
Luke 17:4 “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

And as Paul commanded, we are to restore the brother who repents in the face of correction:

Gal. 6:1  Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted. 
Gal. 6:2 Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ. 

These instructions are sufficient to deal with the sin of an inappropriate relationship. Based on scripture, there is no need to “amp up” the charge or any corresponding penalties.