“You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14)
Q108. What does the seventh commandment teach us?
A. That God condemns all unchastity, and that therefore we should thoroughly detest it and live decent and chaste lives, within or outside of the holy state of marriage.
The seventh commandment speaks specifically and directly concerning sexual sins. This should be instructive for us. On the one hand, sexual sin is not the only sin. Evangelical Christians are often accused of fixating on sexual sins to the exclusion of all others. The fact that only nine of the ten commandments speak of different sins should remind us to consider a more broad understanding of sin. However, on the other hand, sexual sins are included in the Ten Commandments. The sin of adultery is placed alongside that of murder and theft. Sexual sin is serious. It is not the only sin, but it is clearly significant. The inclusion of the seventh commandment should invite Christians to consider sexual sin with complete seriousness, but never to the exclusion of other sins.
Yet, I was initially puzzled at the shape of the seventh commandment. In it, God forbids adultery. Why adultery, specifically? Surely there are more monstrous sexual sins (pedophilia comes to mind). Other places in scripture provide significant detail the boundaries and character of sexual sin, but not here. In the ten commandments, only adultery is addressed. Why?
I want to suggest that there are at least two reasons that adultery is singled out in this commandment. First, adultery violates the God-ordained space for sexual relationships. Sex is a gift created to be enjoyed within the context of marriage between a man and a woman. God imprinted this law upon our hearts at creation (Genesis 2:23-24) and confirmed it in Jesus (Matthew 18:4-6). Since marriage as the context of sexual intimacy is a part of creation, it should not be surprising that marriage is practiced outside of the Christian faith. Yet, because of the effects of sin upon humanity, it should also not be surprising that marriage is practiced in both beautiful and destructive ways. There is a proper space for sexual intimacy and, in a very concrete sense, adultery is crossing a line into sinful territory. Having sex with someone other than your spouse is seeking sex outside of where God intended it.
Jesus reminds us in his teaching on adultery (Matthew 5:27-30) that adultery is as much a matter of the heart as of the hands. Lusting after another person is the same as adultery, we simply lacked opportunity. Any relationship where we are constantly wondering ‘where the line is’ may betray a problem within our own hearts. This is not to say there are not clear violations of God’s commandments and the love and trust of another, but that our obsession with knowing ‘just how far you can go’ is itself a symptom of our disordered hearts.
Second, adultery breaks trust in the most intimate relationship known to human kind. There is not only an objective violation of God’s commands, but a subjective violation of the other person. Both the spouse who has been abandoned for the sexual pleasure of another and the person for whom they were abandoned fall victim. Adultery is not a private sin, but one where multiple people are denigrated and injured. God designed marriage as a place of incredible intimacy. This intimacy requires exclusiveness, trust, love, and fidelity. When adultery occurs (in the heart or in the body), this intimacy is broken. In addition to the damage to the marriage, adultery also damages the other.
As a result of this last point, it is perhaps fitting that one of the most common ways God describes his relationship with humanity is as a marriage. An intimate relationship designed for covenantal faithfulness, exclusivity, love, and trust. And therefore, it is also fitting (and not misogyny) that Scripture frequently speaks of our sinfulness in terms of adultery. The first three (or four) commandments speak of our relationship with God and the call for marriage-like faithfulness.
Our faithfulness to God should bear fruit in faithfulness in the other relationships in our lives. It may be important at times to establish clear boundaries in our relationships, but it is perhaps more important to find the center. In placing faithfulness to Christ at the center of each relationship, we find ourselves more eager to show faithfulness to others and less concerned with pushing the boundaries for our own gain.