Week 8: The Seventh Commandment
This week, the Rev. Dr. Suse McBay is teaching on the seventh commandment, “you shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14, also Deuteronomy 5:18). Here are the notes to accompany her message.
“In its full sense, sexual intercourse is not simply an activity. It is a reflection of intimate and loyal relationship between two persons who share their life together as partners in an enduring relationship. Even where divorce may be an outcome of a relationship, it is not presumed in its initiative. Faithfulness to one another starts in the sexual relationship, but that is only the beginning of it. Much is often made of the fact that, in the Old Testament, sexual union is described as “knowing.” One needs to be careful about carrying that particular use of the verb over into all forms of knowing, but it is no small matter that in the relationship of a wife and husband, their most intimate acts together are characterized as “knowing,” for in that act whereby the two become one, there is a coming to know that blossoms in countless other ways. Adultery is a breach of that intimate knowing relationship.”
Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments p.428
The seventh commandment reads: “You shall not commit adultery.” This instruction from God is not simply about crossing an abstract moral line. In a sense, it is the ‘horizontal’ reflection of the ‘vertical’ first commandment. As we are to have no other gods but the Lord God who revealed Himself to Moses, so we are to honor our spouse and give ourselves only to them in sexual intimacy. This means more than simply having a sexual relationship with someone to whom we are not married. Various chapters in the Torah point to the implications of this command in various ethical situations (e.g. Deuteronomy 22:13-23:19, Leviticus 16-17). We know the Torah explores and explains the ethics of the Ten Commandments in various ways. (For more on the challenges of Torah law and commands, and some of the nuance and questions people often have, I thoroughly recommend Tremper Longman III’s book Confronting Old Testament Controversies.)
Jesus Himself is pretty clear on the subject. Matthew 5:18-24 shows the vision for sexual wholeness–one that transforms the heart’s desires as well as bodily actions. In Matthew 19, Jesus points back to both creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, reminding us that marriage is a gift of God in creation, reflecting something of what it is to be made male and female (Matthew 19:4 and Genesis 1:27) and that marriage, which demands loyalty over and above familial ties, is expressed in the sexual union where “they are no longer two but one flesh.” (Matthew 19:5-6 and Genesis 2:24) The vision for sex and marriage within the New Testament is remarkably consistent: it is for marriage. Adultery, among various other illicit sexual behaviors, is prohibited (Hebrews 13:4, 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, Mark 7:22, 10:19; Romans 2:22, 13:9, 1 Corinthians 6:19).
We know from virtually every book in the Bible, however, that the commandment to fidelity in marriage was more easily said than obeyed. From Abraham attempting to present Sarah as his sister (rather than his wife) to the king of Gerar (Genesis 20), to David’s taking of Bathsheba from her honorable husband Uriah the Hittite (2 Samuel 11-12), to the man who had an affair with his step-mother in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 5:1-5), and to Jezebel who encouraged adultery in the church of Thyatira (Rev 2:20-23), we see time and time again how the covenant of marriage, its loyalties and the fidelity demanded from it are not honored but misused for human advantage.
We also know from human experience that so many Christian leaders and pastors who have appeared to be paragons of virtue when it comes to sexual ethics (and have taught, sometimes vehemently, against sexual immorality) are subsequently found to have been hiding some form of sexual addiction or compulsion, even using their position and power to form illicit sexual relationships. It can be hard to comprehend the contradiction that we see and, sadly, often an abuse of power in the process.
How do we follow Jesus’ teaching in a way that actually brings life and not more shame? The shame cycle is pretty toxic. Instead of digging into the reality of the parts of ourselves and our behaviors we’d rather avoid, we exhaust ourselves with perpetual aspiration–constantly trying to do better. The result? Perhaps external success for a while, but eventually there is failure. Shame overwhelms as well as the fear of exposure, being seen for who we really are. We might remind ourselves that through Jesus, we can be forgiven, but that truth is used to bury (rather than liberate us from) the shame and to try harder next time. However the next failure–because it always comes around– brings with it only more shame and self-contempt. And so the cycle repeats. Jay Stringer talks about the “Binge / Purge Cycle” he sees in many church leaders, drawing on his experience from having worked with thousands of men who have what he calls “sexual bulimia,” which he defines as “an agonizing struggle where someone engulfs themselves in a particular sexual behavior and then does everything they can to purge themselves from the sin and shame of what they’ve just indulged.” (For more on this subject, read Unwanted by Jay Stringer.)
Think of the woman caught in adultery in John 8. The message of the story is not that the woman went away with a clean slate to do better next time. The woman was not running from her guilt and shame when she experienced forgiveness. She was not hiding from her shame: she had been found out and was being publicly shamed and punished (the question of where the man was who was caught with her is a question for a different day!). Jesus came to her when everything was out in the open. The reality of her transgression and the consequences coming her way were both very real. It was in the place of guilt and shame that Jesus met her, treated her with compassion and forgave her.
Jesus takes the scope of the seventh commandment and points us back to Creation, to marriage and sexual intimacy as God intended it to be. That’s the vision. He exposes that our adultery and lust begins in the heart, not in actions. And that is where God wants to create change–change that will last.
“You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”
Questions for Reflection
- What examples have you seen of marriage where there is true fidelity and intimacy between husband and wife? What stands out for you about those relationships?
- When you think about the seventh commandment and what Jesus teaches about it, what goes through your mind and heart? What are the biggest challenges in your own life on this topic? What might be the challenges for someone different from you (e.g. single/married/female/male/divorced/widowed, etc.)?
- What lessons have you heard and received about adultery (from the church, your friends, TV/movies, etc.)? How helpful / unhelpful have those messages been? Why?
- Why do you think adultery is the metaphor often used to describe the idolatry of God’s people from their relationship with Him?
- Compare John 8:1-11 and 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. Do they offer different views on how to treat sexual sin? How might they be reconciled as part of the same ethic?
- Where do you think the church could be a ‘light to the world’ on this topic? Where do you think the church has got it wrong? Where do you think it has done well?
A Prayer for this Week
Heavenly Father, we thank You for all the relationships we have in life. We thank You especially for the gift of marriage as a reflection of Your relationship with Your people. For those who are married, show them what it is to live out their marriage vows faithfully and grow in the loving knowledge of and commitment to their spouse. For those who have experienced the pain of betrayal in marriage or those who hurt in one way or another because of relational heartbreak or loneliness, hold them and heal them, that they might come to know the fullness of Your love. In Jesus’ name, amen.