How Should the Church Handle Adultery?
God’s mercy provides a way out…do we?
Have you been marred by the sin of adultery? Has your heart ever ached for a friend’s or relative’s marriage that has been battered by adultery? The church has ways to handle adultery, but do we handle it as Jesus did? Have you seen the church mishandle people affected by adultery? How do we extend mercy for such a despicable sin that disrupts so many marriages, homes, children, and precious lives?
No Definition Needed
Most people understand what adultery is, even if we masquerade behind false pretenses. We all understand how marriages can be affected by the sin of adultery, or worse, even destroyed. Often, we forget to delve into how the body of Christ views the sin of adultery and all the parties involved. It would seem in such a sexualized culture, with the spiritual condition of the church being what it is, that anything goes. The contrary is true. Sin has never been tolerated by God; neither should it be tolerated by the church. But for every sin that has been committed or that will be committed, the penalty has already been paid by the blood of Jesus.
Adultery is an ugly thing that has very ugly consequences, but despite the ugliness, incredible mercy and redemption can result. If we as Christ’s body handle adultery as Jesus did, more people would be restored back to God.
Caught in the Act
There are a few definitions for the word caught: came upon suddenly; surprised, and detected. Many of us in childhood were “caught” doing some stuff we knew we had no business doing. My mother used to warn her children, “Your sins will find you out.” As I have children of my own, I find this such a true statement. When you are caught in the act of wrongdoing, the emotions are indescribable and often unbearable. As a child, I wanted to disappear when caught in some act, when my parents found out my “dirty little secrets.” To make matters worse, can you remember being caught doing something when “everybody” knew you did it? How awful!
Many marriages have been plagued by adultery; the statistics are alarming. According to Focus on the Family, an estimated one-third of men and one-quarter of women have admitted to engaging an extramarital sexual act. I am certain that there are even more cases that have not been reported, guilty parties who have not been “caught.” By no means am I making light of such a sensitive subject. We have already established that adultery is sin, but how we as the body of Christ handle it could be the difference between restoration and reprobation.
In John 8:1-12, an adulterous woman was brought to Jesus by the scribes and the Pharisees; for the sake of this article we will call them “church people.” The church people told Jesus that this woman was “caught in the act of adultery” (John 8:4). The church people quoted the laws of Moses that demanded punishment for this woman. They asked Jesus, “What do you say?” They were not really concerned about the sin of the woman, the missing man, or even the law of Moses; they had concerned themselves with how to tempt Jesus.
I love how Jesus addressed this very delicate matter. Jesus stooped to the ground, and with his fingers wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. As a child, I imagined Jesus writing, “What about you, what have you done?” The Bible tells us that the scribes and Pharisees continued to address the adulterous sin of this woman before Jesus. As always, Jesus spoke with conviction and redemption: “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” (John 8:7).
I find it amazing that even in the body of Christ today, when a person is overtaken in a fault or sin, rather than restore them as Paul admonishes us in Galatians 6:1, we expose their sin to others. Worse, we expose their sin to the world, often through social media.
If we follow the example of Jesus, we see nothing of the sort. We see Jesus covering this precious woman with love and mercy. The Bible declares, “Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8b). As Jesus delivered his convicting words to the scribes and Pharisees, and stooped down again and wrote on the ground, something happened on the inside of those church people.
Convicted by Our Own Conscience
John 8:9 declares, “When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.” I am convinced that if the members of the body of Christ were more convicted of our own conscience, we would less likely deliver our brothers and sisters up to be punished. If the light of God’s Word shined in some of our very “dark” places, we would find grace easier to extend. Not only did her accusers leave, but there was no one there to accuse her. Jesus’ final response to this woman is both incredible and convicting: “Neither do I [condemn you]. Go and sin no more” (John 8:11).
Jesus’ final word to this adulterous woman gives a death blow to the self-righteous heart in the body of Christ. The self-righteous heart in the church is evident when we as believers seek to bring justice to every sin without taking the time to see the sinner. How can we let adultery go unpunished? Is it easy? Of course not, but the church must follow the example of our Savior. How can it be that Jesus did not condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery? Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost. Well, what about believers who commit adultery? Jesus came to redeem all of us back to God; he desires that no one perish.
If we allowed our conscience to convict us, we would repent more quickly, forgive more easily, and love wholeheartedly. But I am afraid that this cannot happen until we have a real encounter with the grace and mercy of God. I used to be one of those “church people” until I found Jesus for real. I used to be one of those people not convicted by my own conscience, until I needed the grace and mercy of God when I was being delivered up to be punished because I was “caught.”
It causes me great grief when members of the body of Christ find more pleasure in execution than in restoration. What picture does this portray about the wickedness of the heart and the depravity of the soul that would rather “rip apart” than restore? The scribes and Pharisees were rebuked constantly for their outward salvation and their unregenerate hearts. Jesus extended mercy to the woman caught in the very act of adultery. The scribes and the Pharisees wanted her to be stoned. Have we demonstrated this mentality in the church to an already dying world? Do we operate out of the same unregenerate hearts when prominent people, especially Christian leaders, fall from grace? Rather than institute a prayer meeting, we send Facebook messages about them, tweet and Instagram our opinions of their failures and what an embarrassment they are to the body of Christ. I must mention this is modern-day stone throwing.
If the scribes and Pharisees were with sin in the time of the adulterous woman, what about now? The Word of God decrees that where sin abounds, grace abounds much more (Romans 5:20). It is the responsibility of the church to live this concept to a world in need of a Savior. The church must handle the sin of adultery with mercy. Every sin, irrespective of our disgust for it, must be handled with mercy. The church’s focus should be on redemption and restoration. We need to be delivered from finger-pointing and engage in good old-fashioned intercession for our brothers and sisters and those who are in need of Jesus.
The Way Out
I know many passages in the Bible speak on adultery and those who commit adultery. And I believe them. What we as the church have failed to do is point sinners to the cross, where they can find help and healing. Directing people to Jesus was the way then, and it’s certainly the way now. If we direct people to Jesus, condemnation is crippled and lives are restored. It is our job as the church to be the eyes, ears, mouth, and feet of Jesus. We cannot do this if we are unfamiliar with his methods. We must do a couple of things if we are going to help restore those caught in the act of adultery.
First, we must show them there is a way out and it begins with the mercy of God. We must show love, the kind of love that covers a multitude of faults (1 Peter 4:8). Our love must give them room to make mistakes, and we must extend grace and receive them. We must show compassion. Compassion that is laced with sympathy for the pain the adulterer feels and the pain the spouse feels, even compassion for the partner in adultery. It can be hard, but it must be done.
As the body of Christ, we must extend forgiveness; it is in this atmosphere where Jesus found us. We must show mercy. If Jesus did not condemn, we must follow his example, especially when a person has committed to sin no more. Finally, we must present the offending party opportunities for restoration. Opportunities for restoration include high levels of accountability, prayer support, and continued encouragement as all parties struggle to rebuild their lives.
Sin has always mattered to God, but creation matters much more. God sent Jesus to give the adulterer a merciful way out.
Domeniek L. Harris is a writer, speaker, professional educator, women's ministry leader, Bible study teacher, and founder of By His Side Ministries, a multicultural, inter-denominational, and international ministry for ministry wives. She is a co-laborer in pastoral ministry, and pastor's wife at Dominion Living Ministries in Memphis, Tennessee.