Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Chapter 2

How Do We Define Love?

Matthew 22:37-40

 In modern Arabia it is called adultery if anyone has an affair with a local Arab woman who is married, or not yet married, and in such cases the death penalty can be required. But it is not viewed as adultery if a married man takes a second wife, or even if he beds a servant girl or a foreign woman. [Note: In Appendix A we suggest one explanation of the inner logic of an Old Testament patriarchal view of marriage and how it is adulterated.]

 So we suspect that our idea of adultery must come from a very different vision of what married love is meant to be.

 A good starting point is the way Jesus turned the ten commandments inside out, and restated them in two love commands instead of ten legalistic rules. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:37-40] Paul put it this way. "Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall do no murder; you shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbour as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." [ Romans 13:8,9]

 How then does love fulfill the ten commandments? We might compare the way a healthy person fulfills a physician's checklist for a physical examination. The end in mind is "you should be full of life and health." But when we get sick the positive law of health needs to be broken down by negative laws for diagnosis. "You should not have a shadow on your chest, your cholesterol is too high, the fracture in your tibia needs to be set, that ulcer is very dangerous." Similarly Jesus reminds us that the positive purpose of life is to love. That does not mean that the ten commandments are superseded and unnecessary. As we saw in Chapter 1, the seventh commandment "you shall not commit adultery" should be taken as an absolute that marks off the bounds of any marriage. But in this book our concern is to turn the commandment around, as Jesus did with the other nine commandments, and see if we can give it a positive content in terms of loving. To be precise, what is the particular kind of marriage love that fills out and fulfills the requirements of the seventh commandment not to commit adultery?

 The problem is that most of us have a fairly clear idea of what health is and we know when we feel unhealthy. But if we are asked to define what love is we flounder in generalities. The Inuit of the Arctic Circle in Northern Canada have nineteen different words for snow, so for them the word for packing snow is quite different from the words for drifting snow and every other kind of snow. Unfortunately in English we only have one word for love.

 We would find it difficult to explain what is in common between falling in love, making love, married love, loving parents, loving enemies, Good Samaritan love, loving God, loving jazz music, loving ice cream, etc. It would be much easier if we had a different word in each case. When we know English well we can usually figure out what someone intends to convey in that particular context. But we would probably be puzzled by the difference between romantic love and married love among King Arthur's knights of the Round Table. Social history is the investigation of what counted as love and marriage among different classes of society in every age. Our interest is much narrower. How does a modern western person fill out the quality and extent of his or her partner's love? Obviously the particular mix of what he or she views as important will vary in each marriage. For some companionship would be the first priority. That might be in terms of being together, going together, and doing things together. For others that might not count as much as a deep sharing of their heart experiences and longings. One woman measures love by the frequency and thoughtfulness of the flowers and gifts that he gives her. Another wants torrid passion. As we will see in the next chapter, there are many ways in which a person can sense the marriage is more or less adulterated. Food can be adulterated just by being left untouched in the refrigerator.

 By way of illustration we might just pick out one aspect of married love that has come into prominence in our day. "A man loves me if he cares about my freedom." This does not mean a freedom to break up the marriage, but being freed to grow in the direction of all her best and purest and highest longings. Feminists point out that this the exact opposite of a patriarchal marriage where only the man's freedom is important. The idea that God's love cares about our freedom certainly has roots in the Old Testament. Having been freed from slavery Miriam sang "In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed." [Exodus 15:13] Miriam is celebrating the freedom of her people from slavery. And she rejoices that since the Exodus they can now enjoy the love of God as he has freed them to go towards their promised land.

 [Note : Miriam's word for love was khesed which was later used again and again, especially in the Psalms of David, to describe God's kind of love. It was unfortunately translated mercy in the King James Version, which gives a quite wrong impression, but it is correctly translated steadfast love in the NRSV and unfailing love in the NIV. Miriam apparently knew already that God is love, and love cares about the freedom of his people. There are dozens of references in the Psalms to God's kind of khesed love, and again and again khesed is connected with freeing others. This was the main theme of South American Liberation Theology.]

 In the Book of Judges God's love and concern again and again raised up leaders to free the people from foreign oppression. And the Old Testament prophets kept speaking of the need to care for the poor and oppressed, the widows and fatherless, prisoners and captives, and those who suffered as aliens in the land. In the New Testament Jesus himself connected neighbour love with a concern to free the other from danger and financial anxiety in the story of the good Samaritan. That women can vote as full citizens seems an obvious fact to us now, but in England the suffragettes were persecuted and ridiculed for forty years before women were given the right to vote. Their love for their sisters was demonstrated by a concern for their freedom to take their proper place in society. Similarly Martin Luther King's love for his black brothers was expressed by caring for their freedom to exercise their civil rights, and he died for that cause.

 How can we tell if an employer loves those who work for him? Love is not just a warm smug feeling in the heart. The best evidence is that his or her employees know that the boss listens and cares about each person's freedom to grow, develop new skills, and enjoy the work. There can be very high standards and expectations, but if there is a genuine family emergency the employee will be freed to do the needful without the fear of being fired. The early Christians said to each other "Slaves . . . render service with enthusiasm . . . and masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven." [Ephesians 6:5-9] The freeing love of parents is also a good way for us to picture the freeing love of God. There is a false love that uses children for its own pleasure and pride. But parents who love the way God loves will care about the freedom of each of their daughters and sons. They impart language and life skills so their children will be ransomed from ignorance and danger. And when parents have imparted what they can they then free their offspring to leave the nest and fly on their own. If they force their daughter to marry a man who could be an oppressive monster we cannot imagine they love enough to care about her freedom. On the other hand loving parents can surprise us when, like the father of the prodigal son, they are ready to ransom and redeem and pick up the pieces where things have gone very badly wrong. Which is an obvious reason why parent love, like God's love, is often so costly.

 As we try to clarify the new vision of love and marriage that appeared among the first Christians we are struck by the fact that Jesus picked out serving as one facet of his kind of love "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant."

 [Note : Matthew 20:24-26, Mark 10:42-43. The term servant leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness, (New York: Paulist Press, 1977). ]

 If we combine these two ideas we can say that a servant who loves his master cares about the freedom of the one he serves. A retainer frees his knight to fight the battle. An old style secretary loves by freeing the boss to do his managing. A butler frees the lady of the house to entertain her guests. Mark freed Paul and Barnabas for preaching. [Acts 13:5] And a coach frees a team to play their best or an individual to attain excellence.

 So one way to define love is very simply caring for the freedom of the other. We could have chosen the definition that love is caring about the joy of the other, but the meaning is hardly different. Joy is the emotion we experience when we feel ourselves freed from oppression, danger, anxiety, guilt, hatred, self-pity, etc. That suggests that genuine love is the concern to free others from all that prevents their joy.

 So it is not surprising that among the early Christians, and in countries influenced by their vision, we find the root of the astonishingly modern idea that a loving husband will care for the freedom and joy of his wife. Again quoting from Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians "Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. . . Husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies." [Ephesians 5:25- 28]

 Besides a concern to free one's partner for all his or her best and purest and highest longings, readers will no doubt want to include other facets of genuine love in their ideal of a marriage relationship. But already we have sufficient to lead us into an exploration of how two persons can be involved in a genuine mutuality of loving and freeing, and how this could be adulterated.

Chapter 3...