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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 03/16/1997
"You shall not commit adultery."
In today's world, the wedding ceremony is an act not only of commitment but also of testimony. A man and a woman not only declare their loyalty and commitment to each other, but they are also declaring their belief in and loyalty to an institution established by God as the divinely authorized and blessed framework for the propagation and development of human persons in the family. This is an increasingly needed testimony, for that institution is under great pressure in our lawless age. Statistics tell us that 50% of all marriages end in divorce (the failure rate is a little better if you eliminate multiple-marriage individuals from the study group). Perhaps even more sobering, less than 50% of children now grow up with both of their original parents. We view no-fault promiscuity as the greatest good, to the point that we are willing to murder for it in abortion. Therefore it is high time for the Church to call us back to the Seventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not commit adultery."
To understand the purpose of this commandment, we need to remember the basic structure of the Decalog as a whole. The First Table of the Law, dealing with our relationship to God, lays the foundation for the moral order developed in the Second Table, which deals with how we relate to our fellow men. Though we somehow miss it in the Seventh Commandment, it is clear when we look at the others in the Second Table that they are all concerned with PROTECTING specific areas of our lives: our life itself ("Thou shalt not commit murder"), our property ("Thou shalt not steal"), our reputation ("Thou shalt not bear false witness"). Seen in this context, it is plain that the purpose of the Seventh Commandment is not to restrain us from the enjoyment of something good (sex) but to protect the integrity of the family and of the home.
That is why adultery is forbidden: not because sex itself is evil or dirty, but because the integrity of the home and family depends on husbands and wives being able to trust each other. To have sex with someone other than one's spouse--to share oneself that totally in an experience that intimate and that intense with someone else--not only violates the promises made in the marriage covenant, but does it in such a way as to introduce a total breakdown of trust and confidence, and of the intimacy based on them, that few marriages can survive. Even Scripture therefore recognizes adultery as grounds for divorce. I am told that divorce is often more devastating than the death of a spouse. The damage it can do to the children is incalculable. And therefore the point of this commandment is to protect you from all the evil consequences that inevitably follow from this breaking of the marriage covenant.
It is also, by the same token, not to hinder us from enjoying sex, but to ensure that we do; not to forbid that particular pleasure, but to enhance it. Sex for humans is not and cannot be a mere animal reaction, a mere physical sensation. It is the ultimate moment of vulnerability. It can therefore only be fully satisfying in the context of a level of exclusive commitment and trust that is lifelong--i.e., in the context of marriage. Marriage is the only container in which that precious gift can be safely kept and preserved from being cheapened and degraded. (The mere formality of a marriage ceremony does not of itself guarantee that it won't be cheap and degrading even so, so great is our sinful capacity for selfishness and abuse; but outside of marriage it can never be anything else.) So the purpose of the Seventh Commandment is to preserve, not only the sanctity, but also the joy of sex. And this is a point we have failed miserably to communicate to a jaded and cynical world.
The explicit meaning of this prohibition deals with marital unfaithfulness. But by implication, all illicit and perverted sexual expression is included. For the context of the Seventh Commandment is surely Gen. 2:24, which established marriage as the one and only proper place for the right expression of our sexuality. All others are therefore outside the Law and contrary to it. It is true that fornication, or pre-marital sex, is not the same thing as adultery and is less serious. But it is included in the prohibition by the principle of Gen. 2:24, where the one flesh flows from the leaving and cleaving. We could think of an analogy with murder: if it is wrong to kill me, surely it is also wrong to break my leg or give me a black eye. These injuries are less serious than murder, but they differ from it only in degree, not in kind, and do not have to be explicitly mentioned to be understood as included in the Commandment by any person of sense. Fornication relates to adultery in much the same way. Though less serious, its dilution of the tie between one flesh and leaving and cleaving is also a dilution--an "adulteration"-- of the integrity of marriage. And it is sometimes physically, and always psychologically, harmful to those who become involved in it. So it is also sanctioned by specific legislation in Ex. 22:16.
Any practice of sex outside of marriage then is a perversion of sex, i.e., something that perverts, literally, "overturns" its unitive and procreative purpose. All other perversions, including bestiality, incest, homosexuality, and transvestitism are included in the prohibition both by the same logic and by explicit legislation in both Testaments (Lev. 18:22, 20:13, Rom. 1:26-27, 1 Cor. 6:9-11). Attempts to justify them and make them acceptable are sign of a culture in rebellion, a culture on its way to destruction and death.
Why is sex outside of marriage so wrong? Our society is increasingly losing its grip on some pretty basic truths about human sexuality, so let's remind ourselves of a couple of them.
In the first place, sex outside of marriage is wrong because of the way in which sex is indissolubly linked to the mystery of life and its creation. We do not agree with our Roman Catholic brethren who oppose all forms of artificial contraception, saying that sex is only right in the context of potential procreation. But in their sense of the intimate tie between sex and the creation of life they do have a point. Think about it. Between any two healthy man and woman, every act of intercourse has the potential to create a new human life. Even the best methods of contraception only promise between 92-97% effectiveness. So much for "safe sex!" There is no such thing outside of marriage. OK, let's be generous and assume a 99% effectiveness. That still means that when you engage in sexual intercourse you have a one in one hundred chance of creating a new human life. Now, clearly, no couple has a right to take even that chance unless they are prepared to provide a permanent, stable home in which that life can be nurtured--in other words, unless they are married! To ignore these facts is to hold life cheap, and it is no wonder that abortion on demand is the result.
In the second place, all sex outside of marriage is wrong because of the way in which sex is indissolubly linked to the nature of marriage itself. As we have already noted, intercourse is the act of supreme intimacy, vulnerability, the lowering of all real and symbolic barriers or walls of protection between two people. Only in the context of a mutual and total lifelong trust and commitment can it really be enjoyed. Outside those parameters, there is no pleasure that is shorter and no guilt and pain that last longer and have more serious consequences. We were given bodies so that our spirits might express themselves in the external, physical world. The union of one flesh is a picture of the marriage union and commitment itself. Every act of intercourse is an act of communication, and outside of marriage what it is communicating is a lie. The most basic purpose of those acts is to express, and by expressing to reinforce, the unity of spirit and soul which is the essence of marriage itself. This is the most basic purpose, I say, because it is based on teh union of Adam and Eve in Gen. 2:24, where one-ness is being expressed but procreation has not even been mentioned yet. That fellowship, that unity, creates the family into which any resulting offspring will come. That is what the gift of sex is for. And therefore in any other context, the act is literally a perversion, a misuse, of the gift.
As an act of love between two faithful married people, sex can be one of the most satisfying and fulfilling experiences in life. All of us desire that fulfillment. All of us seek it above almost any other earthly good, as the continuing popularity of romance in fiction attests. But it cannot be had except in accordance with God's design. Otherwise, the search for sexual fulfillment only leads to degradation and frustration.
Our society's very obsession with sex proves that sex outside of a godly marriage does not satisfy. In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis gives a telling illustration. Imagine that you are a stranger in a foreign culture. You see a line of people waiting to go into a theater. Curious as to what they find so interesting, you join them. When you get inside, the lights come up and the curtain pulls back from the stage to reveal a plate containing a thick, juicy stake. To the accompaniment of seductive music, a waiter slowly removes the cover. Everybody in the audience drools. The cover is then replaced and everybody goes home. Would you not conclude, Lewis asks, that something had gone very wrong with that society's appetite for food?
Why hasn't the loss of the stigma attached to extra-marital sex, the availability of contraceptives and free sex not made such exhibitions passe? Because free sex does not satisfy. When was the last time you heard people panting for air? When they weren't getting enough good oxygen! Never have we seen more intercourse being performed with less satisfaction. So when "normal" sex divorced from marriage doesn't satisfy, we blame the partner and keep looking for a better one. When that doesn't help, we gravitate toward ever kinkier forms of perversion. The evolution of the magazines attests to that: beautiful, exposed, air-brushed bodies are no longer enough. So we move on to group sex, bondage, torture, and the ultimate perversion, "snuff"--the filming of actual rape, murder, and brutality when nothing less can satisfy our increasingly disordered appetites. Folks, the search is getting desperate!
When will we learn: God's gift, taken outside God's will, destroys both us and the gift. In this society, few people are untainted by at least the mental sin. But whatever you have done, there is forgiveness. Jesus shed his blood for that too. So therefore, come back! In this day when Society has so badly lost its way in this matter, let us come back to God's way of life and fulfillment.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams