Adultery: No Longer Shameful?

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No Longer Shameful?

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Sordid scandals among the elite of society have dominated the news lately in several countries. It seems that extramarital relationships and political power go together. Some politicians abuse their position by taking sexual advantage of others. However, their supposed victims are not always blameless. To be able to boast of a relationship with a famous figure appeals to their vanity.

As King Solomon was inspired to write 3,000 years ago, "there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Solomon was an authority on having multiple bed partners; the Bible tells us that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).

Solomon might have excused himself by claiming that he was only following the lead of other monarchs in the Middle East at the time for whom multiple wives and concubines were a sign of status and prestige. But he should have known better. After all, he had access to the true God. The Bible also tells us that Solomon's pursuit of many women of various religions led to idolatry and "turned away his heart" from God.

More recently King Charles II of Great Britain (1660-85) was publicly known as a philanderer. He left illegitimate heirs, but no children to take the throne. Charles had apparently been influenced by the French court of Louis XIV. Like most European monarchs at the time, "Louis lived an atheist and died a Catholic" (Durant, The Age of Louis XIV). Religion was not taken seriously, and deathbed repentances were common.

In contrast, Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was a pillar of rectitude. She was a committed family woman, remaining faithful to Prince Albert and not even remarrying after his death. But her son and successor earned a dubious reputation.

Some American presidents have not set a good example of fidelity. A 19th-century president was known to have had a mistress and an illegitimate child. Recent revelations show that more-recent presidents have indulged in extramarital relationships.

Some would say that the only difference between then and now is the publicity given today's leaders. Back then the press kept quiet. As part of an unpoken gentlemen's agreement, reporters did not betray the dalliances of politicians, princes or kings.

An Age-old Temptation

Adultery is nothing new. Nor is prostitution, commonly referred to as the world's oldest profession. Throughout the ages men (with the complicity of women) have tried to justify sex outside of marriage, sometimes even to legalize it.

The early theologian Augustine, who fought a long personal battle with sexual temptation, taught that the woman was the criminal when it came to adultery, the man being a mere accomplice.

How should we view public morality? Some think that affairs should be a politician's private business.

Should society turn a blind eye to sexual shenanigans in high places? Certainly we shouldn't clamor for every lurid detail. The apostle Paul admonishes us in Philippians 4:8 to think on "whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things."

This advice would preclude Christians from focusing their attention on the seamier side of life and gossip about the rich and famous.

But it still matters. Adultery always matters. Whether the adulterer is John Doe, a king or a president, adultery matters and adultery is always wrong.

What Does God's Word Say?

Politicians and the public may have varying definitions of adultery. But adultery, by biblical definition, is the violation of the marriage contract by either or both partners in the marriage through sexual activity with a third person. The commandment against adultery should be understood to include fornication (sexual relations before marriage), incest and male and female homosexual practices, all of which are outlawed in the Bible.

Adultery is considered such a serious sin by Almighty God that its prohibition constitutes one of the Ten Commandments. Our Creator says: "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18).

God was and is serious about this sin. In ancient Israel people who committed adultery suffered capital punishment (Leviticus 20:10). Adultery is described as an abomination in God's eyes (verse 13).

It is interesting that, whereas some may feel that any sexual activity short of intercourse is not a sin, the Scriptures show us that anything involving "uncovering nakedness"—for the purpose of sexual misbehavior—is a sin (Leviticus 18:6-19). Jesus Christ went so far as to say that even desiring to interact sexually with someone other than your marriage partner is a sin (Matthew 5:28).

Deeper Dimensions

When we take time to look at the Ten Commandments more closely, we see that in principle committing adultery is not just breaking the Seventh Commandment. James 2:10 reminds us that "whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all."

It's no good blaming it on somebody else, either. The same apostle also wrote that "each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death" (James 1:14-15).

Earlier in the same chapter James, the Lord's brother, said that "blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love him" (verse 12).

Clearly, the matter is serious. Like breaking any of the Ten Commandments, committing adultery endangers our happiness and jeopardizes our eternal salvation (Romans 6:23).

But why is it so important to God?

Adultery is an issue that comes down to character. God wants us to "be perfect" (Matthew 5:48), even as He is perfect. God is love (1 John 4:8). It is essential therefore that we learn to love as God loves. God's love is completely selfless, not selfish. God's love is concern toward others. He does not want to hurt anyone (Isaiah 11:9). He gave His law to protect us and those around us from harm's way.

God is vitally concerned about our happiness and wants us to have lasting, loving relationships rather than pursue self-gratification at the expense of others. Breaking God's law, or any one of His commandments, results in hurt and pain for all involved—even the one who might get some temporary pleasure from sin (Hebrew 11:25).

In contrast to what God says, illicit love affairs are often depicted in a favorable light in films and other entertainment media . Not only do the purveyors of popular culture neglect to focus on the dark side of adultery as an act of betrayal of the marriage vows, but they often overlook the dire consequences that follow.

Jonathan Rauch, correspondent for The National Journal in Washington, D.C., observed that "adultery represents a serious problem for society as well as individuals on a variety of levels. Society has a strong interest in binding people together into long-term couples. Marriage civilizes and settles men (especially younger men), promotes secure homes for children, helps achieve economic stability for both partners, ensures that everyone has somebody to look after him or her in times of ill health. To serve these functions marriages must be durable."

But today's casual acceptance of adultery is the archenemy of long-lasting marriages.

Many Sins Involved

Breaking the Seventh Commandment is a character issue. Not only has the guilty party broken the marriage vow, but he or she has allowed another person came before God—thereby also breaking the First and Second Commandments.

This sinful, shameful act also shows no respect for parents and in-laws who also suffer when adultery is committed—thereby breaking the Fifth Commandment (Exodus 20:12).

The Eighth Commandment has also been broken in that the affection, love and trust of someone else's spouse was stolen (verse 15).

And the Ninth Commandment is also broken because lying and deceit are involved (verse 16).

We see that at least six of the Ten Commandments are broken in adulterous acts—sometimes more, if the sinful act should lead to murder (verse 13) or taking God's name in vain (verse 7), which can be done when people try to justify their sin.

Adultery's Consequences

How can any adulterer ever be trusted on any issue? If so many of God's Ten Commandments are broken when adultery is committed, then adultery is a major trust factor. The guilty party has lost the trust of others, not just that of his wife or her husband.

As Jonathan Rauch put it: "An adulterer is a missile with many warheads, capable of wrecking a series of homes." How tragically true. Adultery has a wide-ranging ripple effect. It often leads to divorce, which in turn divides families. Not only are the husband and wife affected, but the children, any grandchildren, parents on both sides and even society at large.

A recent British survey on the reasons for divorce showed that adultery was the biggest reason by far, contributing to 31 percent of divorces (The Daily Mail, Jan. 26). Also, in Britain "it's an uncomfortable fact that 50 percent of divorced and separated fathers lose contact with their children after just two years" (Independent on Sunday, Feb. 15). No wonder Malachi 2:16 says that God hates divorce.

The verse continues with a strong warning to our nations: "Divorce ... covers one's garments with violence." Much of the violence in our society is the direct result of broken homes—often broken as a consequence of adultery.

God cared enough for Israel's greatest king that, after his act of adultery, which in turn led to deceit and murder, He sent the prophet Nathan to King David to help him face up to his sin and repent of it. "Why have you despised the commandment of the Lord, to do evil in His sight? You have killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword; you have taken his wife to be your wife ..."

The result? "Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife" (2 Samuel 12:9-10). Adultery has consequences that can last for generations.

No Exemptions to God's Commands

Not only politicians are guilty. Others who hold high office have fallen victim to this sin. This sadly includes religious leaders, who know better. They know the Word of God but sometimes fall into the trap of rationalizing that their supposed special relationship with God somehow protects or exempts them from the consequences of sin.

God doesn't see it that way. "The wages of sin is death," He inspired the apostle Paul to write (Romans 6:23). And "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34).

The same apostle listed the qualifications of a minister in his first epistle to the evangelist Timothy: "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife ..." (1 Timothy 3:2). Adulterers should not be ordained to the ministry, and adultery is grounds for expulsion from the ministry. Ministers "must have a good testimony among those who are outside [of the church], lest [they] fall into reproach and the snare of the devil" (verse 7).

This is not to say that those who have committed adultery cannot repent and be forgiven. When the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8) was brought before Jesus by religious zealots who wanted to see the full penalty of death carried out immediately, Jesus defended her by turning to her accusers and saying, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first" (verse 7).

Because no one was willing to self-righteously proclaim that he was without sin, everyone walked away. Then Jesus turned to the woman and said, "Go and sin no more" (verse 11). Although He defended her, He did not defend her sin, and He unequivocally told her never to sin again.

To those who have committed the sin of adultery, this passage should be encouraging. Jesus Christ paid the penalty for all human sin—but, on repentance, it is absolutely essential to cease the practice completely.

This is more easily said than done. Some have a habitual sexual addiction on a par with heroin or alcohol abuse. The sinner often needs help from others. The ministry or reliable and trusted personal friends can be of inestimable help, but in stubborn cases competent professional assistance should also be sought.

No one caught in the grip of sexual addiction should hesitate to seek help. Calling for assistance is a solid sign of a repentant attitude and a sincere desire to overcome. Those who are called on for assistance should never look down on anyone genuinely seeking help nor betray a confidence (Galatians 6:1-2).

Repentance Requires Change

Here lies good advice for anyone caught in the sin of adultery, even prominent people in our society. When this sinful act has been committed, trust has suffered. If that trust is to be regained, sincere repentance must be in evidence, as was the case with King David (2 Samuel 12:13). "A broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise"—a quote from verse 17 of David's heartbroken prayer of repentance (Psalm 51).

Although world and national leaders may follow in the footsteps of Kings Charles II and Louis XIV, their deathbed repentances are not what God wants. It's no use living a sinful life while hoping to put things right later. God wants a change of heart now—not only for His sake, but for ourselves as well, individually and collectively.

Solomon wrote: "Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people" (Proverbs 14:34). It's difficult for other nations to take leaders seriously when they are surrounded by sordid rumors. Perhaps many have not really understood the seriousness of sexual misbehavior. Clearly, our current Western society takes infidelity far too lightly. This is all the more reason to heed the advice of the apostle Paul to the Athenians: "Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30).

The sooner leaders start living by the laws of God, the sooner they and those who naturally regard them as role models will become the kind of examples Jesus Christ described: "the light of the world" and "a city set on a hill ... Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven" (Matthew 5:14-16). GN