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adultery marriage ten commandments

7. No adultery

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I embarked on a project to write about each of the ten commandments in the summer of 2016. When I got to this one, however, I found I could not continue. My thinking about it was so fraught with conflicting ideas about women’s rights, patriarchy, and the biblical teaching of my youth that I felt stuck. What follows may still be considered a work in progress. The north star for all my efforts at understanding the bible is the supreme goodness and unconditional love of God. Anything that does not align with God’s love must be understood differently if it is to be understood at all.

It is impossible to discuss adultery without discussing the status of women in society. The prohibition specified here is against adultery only. The commandment does not prohibit sex outside of marriage as some have claimed. It prohibits either partner in a marriage being unfaithful to the other partner. It also is not limited to a specific gender, yet throughout history, enforcement of this commandment has unquestionably fallen with much greater weight on women1For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s adultery was revealed through her subsequent pregnancy and punished, but her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remained undiscovered until his own guilt outed him.. There are two likely reasons for this. The first is that women until recently have almost always been treated as less than men. The second is that there are consequences to sex that are difficult for women to hide, but about which men do not need to concern themselves.

Men have used this commandment to suppress and punish the sexual expression of women, but I do not think the law was intended to be primarily about sex. Marriage in almost all instances is a promise of fealty, a vow to be true to one person. It is foundational for forming a family. The bible recounts various attempts to circumvent the binding nature of marriage, almost all of which led to tragedy. From Sarah persuading Abraham to have a child with her servant Hagar to Jacob tricked into marrying a woman he does not love before he can marry the one he does to David essentially raping Bathsheba while her husband is away fighting on his behalf, the stories of tragic consequences for ignoring the marriage vow are numerous. Popular culture today with few exceptions reinforces the same message: adultery—often rendered somewhat more mildly as cheating on a romantic partner—is harmful and wrong. This, I think is the primary prohibition in the commandment: Don’t cheat the person you are married to.

The modern world makes a notable exception, however. If you no longer love someone, whether you’ve made a vow to them or not, you no longer have to remain faithful to them. If you’re married, you divorce; if you’re not, you break up. Then you are free to love someone else and make the same vows of fealty again. There are several problems with this modern exception. It nullifies what it means to make a vow. It prioritizes transient feelings over genuine commitment, and it undermines the responsibilities adults have toward their children.

Divorce and other forms of broken commitment have become so common that many couples now marry without making a vow of lifelong fealty. They believe it is more realistic to acknowledge the reality that love often does not last. Most certainly hope theirs will last, but they don’t want to make a promise they might not be able to keep. I can’t say I blame them. Marriage is hard, and when you embark on a life with someone else, you have no idea what life is going to throw at you. It helps a lot if your own parents and your partner’s parents remained together because you have seen how couples resolve their differences even when the rift runs deep. But if you’ve seen your parents split up, you may have no idea how to fight constructively.

Traditionally, couples vowed to remain true to one another before God and members of their community. God and the members of the community, as witnesses to their vow, take on some responsibility for seeing that it is kept up. Of course, no one can force another to be true to their partner, and, while coercion was once acceptable, it is no longer and never ought to have been. Still, witnesses can remind the couple of all the good they have enjoyed and can still look forward to if they will work together to stay together. Such reminders will not prevent all divorces; both partners must be willing to invest in the marriage to make it work. But making a vow despite the acknowledged difficulties of keeping it can help a couple remain resolute in pursuit of lifelong love.

Another criticism often leveled at the seventh commandment is that it reflects patriarchal concern with property rights rather than faithfulness to a partner. Women were regarded as having little autonomy and could be traded and disposed like property at the discretion of the men who had authority over them. So a father could give his daughter in marriage to a man she neither knew nor loved, and her only choice was to accept. Men wanted to be certain that any children born to their wives were their own and not some other man’s, because the (male) children would inherit his wealth. Therefore they wanted a law to punish women who had sex outside marriage. This is a compelling argument, and there can be little doubt that patriarchy influenced the interpretation and application of this law as it does even to this day in many conservative Christian circles.

When Jesus discussed divorce, he made it clear that marriage should be regarded as a permanent union. He told the religious leaders that their practice of divorcing their wives so they could marry another was tantamount to legally justified adultery. Of particular note is the way he explains that the Law Moses gave was a concession to their own hardness of heart. In other words, the law that allowed them to get rid of a wife they no longer found attractive and take a new wife they liked better had never been an expression of God’s will regarding marriage. His design was for husbands and wives to remain true to one another until death. Nearly everyone who marries freely hopes for just such an outcome even if they can’t quite believe in it.

The godly purpose, then, of this commandment is not to oppress women by keeping them in unloving, unfulfilling marriages where they are subject to husbands who may be cruel or uncaring. It is to encourage both partners in a marriage to commit themselves fully to the task of making their union as loving, supportive, and caring as it can be, for in so doing they represent the mutual commitment of Christ and his church.

Footnotes

  • 1
    For example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Hester’s adultery was revealed through her subsequent pregnancy and punished, but her lover, Arthur Dimmesdale, remained undiscovered until his own guilt outed him.
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about me certainty children Christians faith guilt jesus life love sin spiritual life struggle theology

Armchair Christian

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I’m an armchair Christian. I don’t mean that my beliefs are not sincere or that my faith has not faced trial, but compared to the first disciples, I have done little to advance the good news about Jesus. Like the teacher of the Law in Matthew 8 who volunteers to follow Jesus without being called, I have a home, a wife, a family. I can’t just give them up to go traipsing around the countryside, dependent on the generosity of strangers for my livelihood. And even if I could, what about those who depend on me? Do I have a right to compel them to share a life of voluntary poverty?

Instead, I tell myself that I am doing something just by writing, making equivocal comments on Facebook that might set someone thinking. What more can I do? I’m not really a people person. I have few friends outside my family and none at all outside it that I need to see or keep up with. I like people, but I don’t get close to them. My wife and kids are the only ones who hear my sermons, and they no doubt have quite enough of them. Despite my apparent ineffectiveness, I keep writing.

In part, I keep writing for my children. They are all grown now, but like many today they all struggle with how to square their faith with their knowledge of the world we live in. Such struggles are inevitable, but they are not the central mission of Christian living. The central mission is to communicate the good news of God’s grace and forgiveness through acts of kindness and mercy, through love and care, and sometimes even through words. I hope and pray that they will become better at that regardless what they believe about this or that bit of orthodox dogma. Faith not reflected in loving deeds is no faith at all but a mere mental assent to intrinsically untestable propositions. Can such faith save anyone? If not, what good is it?

In Jesus Christ, God has opened a way into eternal life that no one can bar. But that is only the beginning, the most basic foundation of Christian life and experience. The certainty of God’s fatherly love for us, frees us from all the destructive and manipulative behaviors to which shame and guilt have driven us. Having delivered us, he expects us to become like him, full of grace and truth. When we act out of wounded pride or angry defensiveness or even guilty self-abasement, we are not acting like Jesus. We tarnish the image of God in which we have been made. Fortunately, his forgiveness is not limited to three strikes—or even to seventy times seven. It is a continuous gift that he constantly offers whenever needed. All we have to do is acknowledge what we have done wrong, and God reliably and without rancor forgives us. The only unforgivable sin is the one we pretend not to have committed.

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complacency hell jesus life punishment religion sin spiritual life theology

Fear of Hell

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Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

Robert Frost, “The Death of the Hired Man”

To me this sounds more like hell than home, but that could be because I grew up in a loving home where I almost always found comfort and security. Still, for those who believe in heaven and hell, heaven has entrance requirements; hell has none. Hell accepts all comers. Maybe that’s why Jesus said the way to hell was broad, but the way to heaven narrow. It takes no special effort to get into hell. It’s the landfill of the universe. You end up there unless you take care not to.

The word Jesus used for hell, Gehenna, was a valley near Jerusalem where certain Israelite Kings had practiced child sacrifice, burning their own sons on altars to Molech or even to Yahweh. It was associated with fire, judgment, death, and apostasy. Several times in the synoptic gospels, Jesus commented on the extravagance of efforts one needs to make to avoid Gehenna. If your hand or foot or eye hinders you from entering the kingdom of God, cut it off and discard it. It is better to enter life maimed than to be whole and cast into hell. He may have had a more literal meaning in mind given how imminent the destruction of Jerusalem was and how strongly he urged his followers to avoid lingering in the city when invading forces were marching against it. It could be that Christian doctrines about hell rest on instructions to first-century followers to flee the coming destruction and to join not the resistance.

Jesus spoke of that destruction as a judgment upon the Jews. After all, their long-awaited Messiah came to them, but they did not recognize him, and instead trumped up charges of blasphemy against him and had him executed by the Romans. In the same vein, he inveighed against the Pharisees and religious leaders, implying that they were children of hell and that they could not escape being condemned to hell for they’re utter indifference toward the suffering of their own people. None of the passages that mention hell represent it as a place of eternal damnation for sinners. They represent it as a place of judgment for the complacent and self-righteous.

Of course, there are other passages that do not mention hell but nevertheless imply judgment or condemnation. There are the parables of the ten virgins, the talents, and the sheep and goats—all found in Matthew 25. Each of these ends with some person or groups of persons left out. The door keeper tells the five foolish virgins he doesn’t know them. The master takes the money from the wicked servant and gives it to the servant who has ten bags, then he tells those standing by to throw out the worthless servant into the darkness where there will be frustrated anger and regret. Those sorted to the Lord’s left go away to eternal punishment. Even in these stories, however, Jesus seems to be critical of complacency rather than sin. The five foolish virgins are not fornicators. The servant with the one bag of gold is no thief. The people sorted to the left claim not to have neglected their duty; they just never saw it.

It’s interesting to think about hell as punishment. We use punishment in two ways: as discipline and as retribution. As discipline, the aim is instruction. As retribution the aim is justice. Hell, conceived as a place of eternal punishment, can only be retributive. It has no disciplinary purpose. Surely an eternity of torment cannot be justified for just going with the flow! What is so bad about complacency, about not making an effort?

I think the disciplinary aspect of punishment offers a clue. We punish children so they will not experience the natural consequences of their bad actions. For example, the natural consequence of playing with fire is getting burned. We do not want our children to get burned or to burn someone else, so we punish them for playing with fire. The punishment is not as bad as the natural consequence. It is light and temporary and meant to instruct.

What if hell is the natural consequence of complacency? What if going with the flow is something only dead fish do? What if spiritual laziness leads to spiritual death as surely as physical laziness leads to poverty? Maybe God, rather than actively chastising the damned forever—and without reason, merely stops impeding their headlong rush toward self-destruction. Maybe, as C. S. Lewis once noted, there really are only two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.”

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