Fornication, adultery, and the UMC

Traditionally, the Christian Church has considered both fornication and adultery sinful.

Fornication is sex between two (or more?) people who are not married. Adultery is sex by a married person with someone who is not his or her spouse.

In our culture, we tend to frown much more on adultery than fornication. My theory is that we do this because we don’t really consider either a sin. What we object to is the broken promise. Cheating on your spouse hurts that person and violates a commitment. We almost never speak of it as an affront to God, though, which explains why we find adultery easy to condemn but speak hardly at all about fornication – unless it is concern about diseases and pregnancy.

In matters relating to sex, we buy into the cultural standards. If two (or more?) people consent to a sexual relationship and they don’t have an obligation to someone else then we act as if it is really no concern to anyone else.

But does such an attitude comport in any way with Scripture? Whether we can agree on the exact outlines of a biblical view of sex, it is pretty hard to argue that the Bible expresses no interest in the topic. On the contrary, it gets repeated attention. The Bible – at least – appears to believe that God cares about who we have sex with.

The conduct of United Methodists as a whole, however, suggests to me that we do not consider such behaviors as affronts to God. We do not believe that the adulterer or the fornicator is placing his or her salvation at risk. We don’t fret about God’s righteous judgment on those individuals. We are practical atheists on matters of sex. So long as no one is hurt, we say, it does not matter.

How did we come to this position? How can it possibly be biblical or loving to our brothers and sisters who get caught up in such sins?

10 thoughts on “Fornication, adultery, and the UMC

  1. Perhaps much of what has changed is that the extended family is no longer at the foundation of Western society. At one time generations would share the same household. The very survival of a person depended heavily on the unity of the extended family and the goodwill of the matriarch or patriarch of that unit. Moral issues that affected the long term stability of the extended family and one’s participation within it were critical. In these days, however, children grow up and leave home. When ma and pa get old they go to care centers because there isn’t a family home. What their kids do with their lives, morally, is less important to ma and pa’s survival in old age, especially when they live 1000 miles away.

    1. Paul, please correct me if I am wrong. It sounds like you are analyzing this as a sociological issue or in terms of evolutionary biology. Do these inform theology or over ride it?

  2. but! if the church need be separate from state (which i will contend is a must) marraige should not be defined by the state’s documentation of such. rather, marriage should be defined by the church without it being a matter of state legislation or law. again…but! adultery is bigger and wider than sexual basis. if it is only defined by sexual behavior (or what occurs within the heart…i.e. “the sermon on the mount”) then we miss the other ways in which unfaithfulness to the relationship become an adultered way of living outside of, without regard to, or despite the relationship which is understood to be marriage. the greatest of adulteries be addictions to work, food and beverage, sex without love, power/control issues, politics of gender.

    1. Gary, I am afraid I have a hard time following your argument here. Could you slow down a bit and explain to me.

  3. John,
    I agree. And at the same time, we are obsessed with sex (homosexuality). The traditional, present view, IMO, has very little traction in light of your argument here. I make a similar argument about divorce and the management of households on a post from this weekend – the reason the UMC should not ordain me:

    1. Chad, divorce certainly has a long history in the Christian Church. As you know, the UMC has come to position that recognizes it as a sometimes unavoidable step in a broken world. So far, we have not made any such claim with regard to adultery and fornication.

      I find our sexual theology quite muddled and hard to sort out. It really does feel as if our basic question is that God does not really care so whatever comports with the culture is okay. We have taken the practical position that matters of sex are morally indifferent if they are consensual. “It is my body and what I do with it is my business.” That may be a good American claim, but I don’t see how it holds up theologically.

  4. John,

    I think we came to this position not because of turning a blind eye on sin, but more so because of pragmatism.

    If a child approached a parent and asked to be married for the sole reason of avoiding the sin of fornication…well, I will leave the answer up to the reader.

    That being said, would a church allow a pastor that was single to be a “player” (today’s term for “playboy”)? In this case, I would think fornication would still be considered a sin and a disqualifying sin at that. Again, it’s the pragmatic approach that we see into today’s church approach to fornication: overlooked if you are young and stupid due to hormones, otherwise, a sin.

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