Chapter 7 ADULTERATING the sacredness of sex
As given in the Bible, the seventh of the ten commandments was "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14). And in all nations there are rules about unfaithfulness to one's partner in a sexual relationship. But how adultery is defined varies immensely.
In some Arab countries a man can have extra wives, keep concubines, and have affairs with foreign women, but it is only counted as adultery if he has sexual intercourse with the wife of another local Arab. But any unfaithfulness on the part of his wife can incur the death penalty. At the opposite extreme during the sexual revolution of the sixties in North America a book commended sexual relationships on the side as long as the partners were open with one another about this (Nena and George O'Neill, Open Marriage, 1972).
Obviously the meaning of adultery depends on what marriage is. In the west we have assumed that a couple are married when the government gives them a legal contract as a result of a ceremony in a church or before a judge. And the marriage ends when the government issues the couple a certificate of divorce. But this is a very recent development in western countries. All over the world for millions of people a couple were married when a couple began living together. Among serfs and slaves and the vast majority of poorer people no marriage contract was needed because there were no assets.
A publicly recognized legal contract was required for royalty or the nobility with large estates, and richer people where a dowry had to be settled between the two families. If a marriage contract was made it was called the betrothal. A betrothal set out the terms of any dowry that should be paid and the legal rights of each party. It was often settled verbally or in a written form between the parents long before the marriage, as still occurs in India and the Middle East. But the contract only came into force when the couple were married, and that was defined as the time when the couple began living together. We still retain the vestige of this idea in the legal argument that a couple are not properly married until the marriage is consummated.
As the feudal system gave way to capitalism, a legal definition of marriage emerged based on recorded documents. Lawyers needed to know, if someone dies without a will, who inherits the property. Instead of the betrothal being made earlier by the parents, it was now the marriage that was viewed as setting up the contract. And since the priest was often the only literate person in the village he was charged with making sure that the marriage was properly witnessed and recorded in the parish register.
Eventually the betrothal lost its legal importance, and now an engagement is merely the romantic occasion when the proposal is made, a ring is given and accepted, and an announcement is made to one's family and friends. At first the ancient practice of betrothal followed by sexual union and living together coexisted with the new idea of having the marriage document witnessed and signed. Gradually the mediaeval church began suggesting that wedding vows can only be made before a priest in a church. Any other kind of sexual relationship was sinful. Eventually governments began providing facilities for marriages to be witnessed before a judge as an alternative to being performed by a priest or minister of a church.
Our laws against bigamy illustrate the concern of governments with legal contracts. In a modern capitalist system based on monogamy it seemed necessary that no one should be legally married to more than one person. When a married man or woman dies without a will, lawyers must be sure who is the legal partner entitled to the bank accounts, stocks, and real estate. Bigamy is therefore a very serious crime. It adulterates the legal status of a marriage, and it is punished very severely. But obviously there is no law against bigamy in a country where a man is allowed to marry more than one wife, as in Arabia.
In western countries we have therefore developed an elaborate system of recording who is married to whom. Local and state governments have established methods of recording marriages as legal documents. But of course the government computer has no interest in whether there is sexual intercourse before the legal moment, or whether there is any intention to be faithful afterwards. A couple could part a week later, a man could have a whole harem of women living with him, or both partners could have a string of bedmates over many years, but the government only wants to know who is the legally recorded husband or wife.
Meanwhile there is the added confusion that hundreds of thousands of couples are living together common law as if they were "properly married." Until recently churches called this living in sin or fornicating. The English word fornication is however a translation of the Greek word porneia, which means "sleeping around without love or commitment." By that definition a common law marriage is not fornication. It is an agreement for a man and a woman to eat together and share a place together as long as the partners want the relationship to continue.
Some common law couples do eventually get legally married, especially when children are expected, or a legal contract is needed. Meanwhile Christian parents agonize over whether their daughter, who has been living with a nice man for the past two years, should be encouraged to bring him home, and if so, do you put them in the same bedroom? For most younger people such parental concerns seem incomprehensible relics of the Victorian era.
What is significant is that even in such informal common law unions there is a clearly understood concept of adultery. Once a couple are living and eating together in the same home there is an implied understanding that they should be as faithful to each other as if they were legally married. A sexual relationship on the side is therefore viewed by the other partner as adulterous. These days with the danger of AIDS it could even be murderous.
It is also evident that when such relationships end the break up feels like a divorce, especially for the partner who would have preferred the relationship to continue. This suggests that in practice a common law relationship is a form of marriage (taken from Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage appendix on Common Law).
In our generation governments have discovered that millions of couples are living together common-law. Public opinion has required that a woman who has lived with a man for a few years must have some legal protection. Under the pressure of innumerable cases more and more property and social security rights have therefore been assigned to partners who have lived together for certain periods of time. These rights have to be proved by lawyers in each case, and entitlement will be in doubt until a judge has given a ruling. But where this occurs another method of getting legally married has been recognized.
It therefore seems that governments are now counting a period of openly living together as the equivalent of a witnessed statement of intention. We are therefore reverting to a definition of marriage which has been taken for granted by millions of people in every country of the world. A man and woman who live and eat and sleep together, whether or not there is a marriage contract, are in due course recognized as in some sense married. And if either is unfaithful on the side, he or she has committed adultery.
This is why we have stated our universal moral category as:
7 The adulteration of a sexual relationship is never right
Adulteration means the mixing of what must be kept apart. Salt is good but it must not be mixed into a person's salt-free diet. And we have concluded that a sexual relationship is badly adulterated by an affair on the side. But this word also enables us to see how a divorce inevitably causes an adulteration of what one or both parties had hoped for in a happy relationship.
Many are puzzled by Jesus' strong language. "It was said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.'" That was the Old Testament rule that when a woman is divorced, she must be given the certificate needed to prove she is free to marry another. Ordinary morality must respect the right of a woman to end a relationship when she or her children are being destroyed by an alcoholic, promiscuous, or abusive husband.
Then he added "But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:10-12). This verse has been twisted by churches to condemn divorce under any circumstances, and many still forbid the remarriage of divorced persons. Jesus admits that in the case of a woman who is running around with other men the marriage has already been adulterated. But how can a woman being divorced cause her adulteration?
By using the term adulteration we can see how for a woman who had hoped for a lifetime relationship, her hope is caused to be adulterated. These days the end often comes without warning or discussion. If there are children, their longing for the continuance of a united family is also adulterated. There is an inevitable confusion as the couple's families are torn apart, and then reconstituted in new ways. Which means that a divorce, however inevitable or necessary, is always an adulteration.
But Jesus' words do not mean that there is no hope for a new beginning. But if for any reason the relationship has to end it should be closed off after honest discussion with respect, and a humble recognition of how and why things had gone so badly wrong.
When a sailing ship runs on the rocks, it is always a disaster for the captain and the passengers and crew. It could be his own fault, or the mate on watch was drunk, or the hurricane too strong, or whatever. What he has to do is confess honestly to the owners what has happened, and suffer the consequences. But when all is settled, he has a right to go to sea again, and perhaps even be given command of a ship in due course. Divorce and remarriage causes terrible adulteration, but the new arrangements often turn out happily in the end with God's gracious help.
We also need to correct a misunderstanding of Jesus' other words concerning adultery. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:27-28). Preachers have often used this text to cause conviction of sin. Men must repent of looking and finding women attractive, and come forward to accept forgiveness for this sin. Some go to confession again and again and this is the sin they think they have to admit.
The key words in Jesus' statement are "lust, already, and heart". Men are designed by the Creator to find women attractive. Jesus was fully man, "who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15). There is a distinction between admiring a rose and its perfume as one passes by a neighbor's garden and cutting it off to take it home to one's wife. Lust is the intention to have sex with another if one can. And the point is that this decision is made already in the heart before the sexual act can take place.
Three men went on a business trip to Chicago. Each of them had lunch with a buyer who was interested in their company's product. And each of them found the woman very attractive. The first decided to bed her, and actually did so. The second wined and dined her with that in mind, but he discovered her husband was coming home shortly and he always carried a gun. The third appreciated the woman's beauty, thanked God for her, and prayed that he would in no way be unfaithful to his wife. By law only the first man committed adultery. But Jesus pointed out that the second man had already committed adultery in his heart. The love of the third man for his wife was in no way adulterated.
Jesus expressed this distinction in a powerful metaphor taken from archery. To shoot an arrow we close the left eye as we pull back the bowstring with our right hand, and then aim carefully at the target we have in mind. So he said "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away . . . and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away" (Matthew 5:29-30, which immediately follow the words about murder and adultery in 5:21-28). In each case "throw it away" isn't literal, so it might be better translated "turn it away." Looking at the person is not wrong, but when the heart has settled on the kill, murder (or adultery) has occured already. When the right hand pulls back and releases the bowstring, the arrow could miss its target, but God knows the intention of the heart.
As in our previous discussion of murderous anger, we should add that when we are facing sexual temptation we can ask the Holy Spirit to turn lust into genuine love for the person and for one's own partner.
The title of this chapter is ADULTERATING the sacredness of sex The intention was to shift our focus from the legal document for a marriage, and the outward act of physical adultery, to the beauty and sacredness of sexual intercourse. This means that sex should be valued and not treated as a game to be engaged in. It is designed to begin a long term relationship of love and faithfulness. And the safest way to preserve its sacred character is for the couple to pray together, sharing their deepest longings and concern. I agree with the observation of Norman Vincent Peale who said (after talking to over a thousand men and women) that he had never met a married couple who prayed together who ended up in adultery.
Chapter 8 STEALING what is