Why is adultery a sin?

Why is adultery a sin?

From what I read and hear, many Christian answers have to do solely with the breaking of a contract. Marriage is a contractual arrangement in which both parties have certain rights, privileges, and responsibilities. Among those responsibilities is sexual exclusivity with the marriage partner. Breaking that contract harms the other person and is therefore a violation of the law of love.

The sin is entirely explained by the harm caused another person.

One problem with such an argument is that lots of marital arrangements suddenly become kosher: open marriages, spouse swapping, anything else where both parties agree it does not violate “the contract.” So long as the parties involved agree to the terms, it is just fine. No harm, no foul.

Of course, for Christians the Ten Commandments and the teaching of Christ make adultery about much more than human obligations. Adultery is a sin because it is rebellion against God. It is rejection of Christ’s lordship.

We do not have to explain the sin in terms of human harm — although we can in this case. Adultery is a sin because God has declared it so.

Is there a better answer than this?


29 thoughts on “Why is adultery a sin?

  1. This conversation has been quite interesting to me. It has me thinking that my first question should have been “what is sin”?

    My understanding of Catholic teaching is that sin is a willful violation of a command of God, which is necessarily evil because God is the source of all good. Wesley’s teaching on sin is quite close to my understanding of the Catholic teaching (which may explain some of why he was called Catholic by the Calvinists). I start with Catholics only because they do a good job of being quite explicit in what they mean.

    For both, (and likely others) the definition of sin is the rejection of God’s commands or law. Because God is good, of course, the rejection of God’s commands leads to harm and evil. Every command of God is good.

    The practical problem comes in when the content of God’s commands becomes contested. That seems to be when we import in notions of utility or some other human value system to determine good and bad. But these human valuations, it seems to me, are always valid only to the extent that they reflect God’s valuations.

  2. My favorite definition of adultery came from a 12 year old pastor’s son. During a children’s sermon one day he blurted out that it means “Don’t do what your parents do…” (The pastor’s sermon was not heard that day; but David’s was long remembered.)

    1. I’m staggered by the pastor who would make adultery the subject of a children’s sermon. Either brilliant or crazy. Not sure which.

  3. All that said, I think I understand your point about experience. It is hard to explain experience, especially to those who do not have that experience. And I do think that our desires are sometimes disordered enough that we need the bumper rails of actual rules to keep us out of the gutters.

    I really don’t like this threading system on WordPress.

    Yes, sometimes we need actual rules but I think you’re making up your rule as much as I am making up my rule. So why don’t we just be honest about that process?

    “Marriage is a life-time commitment of one person to another” makes just as much sense to me as your rule. Where the heterosexual component of your formula doesn’t make sense to me is where it essentially turns everything that I believe I have benefited from in marriage into a sin because the two parties are homosexual.

    Really, the only philosophically consistent process I can see is the old Roman Catholic one: “God has given The Church hierarchy to you lay people because you can’t be trusted to know what’s good for you. The Church hierarchy says one man and one woman marry for life for the purpose of procreation. No divorce, ever, even in the most dire of circumstances. No sexual activity that doesn’t have the potential of begetting children. And if you are unable to have children, you may not marry but must remain celibate.”

    That’s all internally consistent. Once you allow divorce, even on the pastoral grounds, the whole consistency of the thing is pretty much shot and we are all making it up as we go along. Which is not an argument for the old RC way – rather an argument for honesty of process.

    1. I am not aware of myself as making up my rule, but rather trying to understand the testimony of Scripture and the historic understanding of the church. Of course, I am an imperfect human prone to mistakes, so I may be discerning such things incorrectly, but my goal — what I take as my duty — is to try to determine God’s will in such things because God’s will must be good and just.

      I don’t see the same binary you do — either the Roman Catholic way or say we are all making everything up as we go. I see a lot more middle ground between those two. For one, Jesus allowed divorce. I actually see the United Methodist position as a pretty good representation of what Jesus said in MT 19.

  4. I’ll chime in here with Pam to say that the Catholics, agree or not with their conclusions, have the most consistent and well-thought out actual theology of human sexuality and marriage. I give them props for doing the hard work of staying consistent, even in the face of unpopular conclusions.

  5. I know I’m late getting in the game, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

    The first thing that occurs to me is that (a) our urge toward materialism has led us to believe we’re just hunks of flesh, while another strand in our culture (b) edges toward a gnostic denial of our bodily nature, making only the spiritual count. Biblically, we humans are spiritual and material, intertwined so deeply there seems no ultimate point of division. The eternity God intends for us includes a bodily resurrection. God also calls us, in our total being, to image him to creation.

    Similarly, our life now is a life of body and spirit. Marriage is more than a contract, more than a legitimation for sex and its fruits, more than an outcome for romantic love. Scripture speaks of it as becoming “one flesh.” This “becoming one flesh” is not just a momentary thing that comes and goes in moments of sexual intercourse. Sex might be a major part of the means, but I take the “one flesh” to be something that endures. Adultery works against that “one flesh,” ripping it apart.

    We can observe that people can have sex without marriage. Sure. But the advantage of marriage is that the “one flesh” takes place in the context of an institution designed to support and nourish that “one flesh” relationship. Sex may be a sort of “rivet,” but it’s NOT the whole of it, and, especially as the relationship solidifies and endures, is probably not even primary.

    1. Thank you for these thoughts, Richard. The “rivet” metaphor is both evocative and constructive.

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