When I was a fundamentalist, we took a hard line against adultery and divorce. My father, a fundamentalist pastor, refused to perform weddings for people who were divorced. We took this hard line by understanding Jesus’ words in a legalistic way.
I think we were mistaken.
You have Heard: Do not Commit Adultery—But I Say…
Here is what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5:
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
Jesus contrasts what the Ten Commandments say about adultery with what he says about it, just as he did earlier with the commandment against murder. He doesn’t say adultery isn’t wrong but that a person hasn’t kept the commandment just because he has never committed adultery.
Adultery goes deeper than the physical act; it involves the heart as much as the genitals. If a man lusts after a woman, he has already broken the commandment against adultery.
What Jesus means by ‘lusting’ is sometimes a source of concern:
- Is it lusting to admire a woman’s physical beauty?
- Is it lusting to imagine a woman naked?
If this is so, then practically every boy over the age of ten or so is an adulterer.
The word Jesus uses suggests an active desire to engage sexually with another man’s wife (coveting). If a person wishes he could have sex with a married woman, but does not—perhaps because of rules, fear of getting caught, or other reasons—it is as though he has performed the act itself.
If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
Jesus often uses hyperbole (exaggeration)—a rhetorical device to make a point; this is an example. Jesus emphasizes the importance of adultery of the heart but does not suggest self-mutilation. The reference to hell is also a rhetorical device; it alludes to the imagery of Gehenna we have discussed before.
Adultery and Divorce
It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
The evangelical church I joined after leaving fundamentalism was less stringent on divorce; they employed the exception clause: except for sexual immorality.
Whenever there was a divorce, a tremendous effort ensued to determine the ‘innocent’ party. Once that was done the innocent party was free to remarry, but the guilty party was not. The guilty party usually left the denomination in shame.
Divorced ministers could even be ordained if they were the innocent party, though if they remarried they would be demoted to ‘licensed’ minister.
Though this approach is an attempt to be in harmony with Jesus’ teaching, I think it is still a legalistic approach; it does not account for grace in such situations.
So, what is the point of Jesus’ statements on adultery and divorce?
In Jesus’ culture, divorce was the prerogative of men. Women, on the other hand, were very vulnerable. Divorce often had terrible consequences for the wife but not for the husband who divorced her. She was at his mercy, and Jesus was ever the champion of the marginalized and dispossessed.
Then why would Jesus say that a man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery? It might have something to do with broken relationships.
Broken Relationships and the Love of Jesus
How can we navigate Jesus strict guidance on adultery when life is so messy? I think this is the point: we can’t!
Jesus wants to heal broken relationships; he wishes reconciliation for everyone, but he knows life is complicated. His solution is not a list of rules but the principle of loving others.
Jesus is saying that if one claims to have achieved the purpose of the commandment: Do not commit adultery simply because he has never had sex with another man’s wife, then he has missed the mark.
For Jesus, the true meaning of the commandment against adultery concerns relationships and avoiding pain. But he does not establish a newer, stricter set of legalistic rules. Instead he points us to the principle of loving other people as we love ourselves.
But we are still faced with a problem: even when we follow the principle of love we seem to fall so short. We can never fully satisfy Jesus’ command to love others, so we think he must be so displeased with us.
I assure you he is not. Jesus understands our frailties and imperfections, and he loves us just the same. He wants us to grow in our love for others, but he knows we will never be perfect. Learning to love others is a journey but it is a gratifying one, and it produces good results.
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