Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

JLP Digital Publications, Odessa Ont., 1993


We began writing this book in Abu Dhabi. Mollie and I discovered that in the United Arab Emirates adultery has a very different definition. We had assumed that adultery obviously meant any kind of sexual intercourse outside a monogamous marriage. The local Arabs certainly took marriage very seriously, and their laws punished adultery with death. But for them taking a second wife was not adultery. Nor was it considered adultery for a married man to bed a servant girl or a foreign woman. But if anyone had an affair with a local Arab woman who was married, or not yet married, the death penalty was required.

When we read the Bible again we were astonished to discover that the definition of adultery in modern Arabia was hardly different from the attitude to marriage and adultery in the Old Testament. It was also obvious why feminists have reacted so strongly to a patriarchal vision of male domination. But then we realized that Paul must have begun with just such a patriarchal attitude before his conversion. That made us wonder how our view of marriage related both to the Old Testament and the very different picture of marriage we had taken for granted in the New Testament.

So we decided to look again at the word adultery in some of the radical statements in the Sermon on the Mount. "Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." [Matthew 5:28] Jesus has obviously opened up the meaning of adultery. It is no longer a particular crime for which the death penalty could be assigned. It is an adulteration that begins in the heart, and it deeply affects one's partner. We also wanted to understand the astonishing statement: "Anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery." [Matthew 5:32]

Whatever our conclusion about the meaning of this text, it certainly indicates a quite new use of the word adultery in relation to an innocent person. That is why the title of this book focuses on the seventh of the ten commandments given to Moses, "You shall not commit adultery." [Exodus 20:14] And the sub-title reminds us that adultery is something to do with love, or the failure of love, and adultery has no meaning unless we first define what we mean by marriage.

We wonder how Christians will view marriage in the post-modern or the post-Christian era. Obviously we will not see things like Abraham, or Jacob, or King David. In most western countries adultery is no longer a criminal offense. And where divorces are easy to obtain proof of adultery is no longer needed as grounds for divorce. This means that in our culture governments now have no interest in the legal definition of adultery. At the same time many couples and parents are struggling with the moral questions of faithfulness and unfaithfulness in the messy relationships of their family life.

So as we try to make sense of the seventh commandment we choose some questions to focus our thoughts. The questions may seem unconnected, but they have a logical sequence. The prohibition of adultery is one of the ten commandments, but what is the content and purpose of this ancient moral code? (Chapter 1)  Jesus said the ten commandments were really about loving God and loving our neighbour. What kind of love are we talking about? (Chapter 2) And how does love workout in the mutuality of marriage? (Chapter 3)

We then wonder what Jesus could have had in mind when he said that divorcing one's wife or one's husband is adultery? (Chapter 4) That makes us wonder whether there are other marriage expectations that can also be adulterated? (Chapter 5) And how can normal sexual beings make sense of the idea that looking and lusting is already adultery? (Chapter 6) This early Christian vision of love and marriage now seems far beyond the reach of ordinary mortals. Is God willing and able to give us the love that he seems to expect? (Chapter 7)

To avoid burdening the chapters with material which might not be relevant we have some appendices. What do we make of the examples of polygamy, the keeping of concubines, and surrogate marriage which were not considered adulterous in the Old Testament? (Appendix A) How does prostitution and sleeping around (porneia) relate to the prohibition of adultery? (Appendix B) In our generation many maintain that the legalities of marriage contracts and divorce are irrelevant to loving. But common law relationships function much in the same way as legal marriages. How does the seventh commandment apply to them? (Appendix C) Jesus and Paul both commend celibacy. Whether we are married or unmarried how do we love other men and women freely and safely? (Appendix D) How do we handle the sexual energy that makes its demands in our life? (Appendix E) How does fantasy and sexual fantasy in particular relate to love and adultery? (Appendix F) The model that has emerged now looks perilously like situation ethics. In what sense can we view the seventh commandment as an absolute, and what difference could that make in discussing marriage and the raising of children to be moral beings? (Appendix G)

Our own vision of marriage is paradoxical. God is on the side of joy. We assume the Creator invented sex and family life to enable us to learn his kind of loving. But we are strangely designed so that joy is never attained by pursuing fun or pleasure for their own sake. Joy, and married joy in particular, is for us an unexpected byproduct of a joint commitment to a vision of God's purposes far bigger than ourselves. That obviously flavours our approach to each question. To help readers who might want to engage with our vision and develop their own we give references to the Bible. We hope that those who do not share our faith might still find this book a stimulus to the moral conversation needed for a creative relationship.

We make no attempt to explain why men and women are unfaithful to each other. Boredom, curiosity, jealousy, playfulness, revenge, dependence, power, weak-mindedness, childhood hurts, infatuation, companionship, guilt, excitement, frustration: the list could be prolonged, and each emotion would have tangled depths of motivation to unravel. It would take a major book for every culture of the world to understand why men and women commit adultery, even according to their own standards of sexual behavior. So we offer little by way of psychological explanations. Nor do we suggest techniques for better sex and for preventing our partner's adultery. Readers will find dozens of good and bad books on those topics in any public library.

Each chapter is designed to be read aloud to open up a group discussion. Or the reading could be by a couple as they reflect on where they came from and the changes going on in their own thinking. We hope parents will find the book helps to clarify their minds when they are worried about the shocking new ideas of their children. Often a younger generation can see implications of the good news of the love of God long before we can. So children might use the studies to cope with the slowness of parents trying to change, or refusing to change their antiquated ideas. Or one could read this little book as a preface to Christian ethics. Or even as an introduction to the love of God.

Chapter 1...