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November 21, 2013

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.”

Extending Mercy

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.


This is really a good word Domeniek. I think one of the pitfalls for ministry leaders is getting swept up in the chaos that follows adultery with the family affected. For us to keep a high view of God and his grace and mercy requires us to be led by the Spirit and as always... before we serve and lead, examine our own hearts. I also love how Jesus' response to the woman caught in adultery was to "go and sin no more." His mercy is new every morning and thus... we need to leave room for that when we serve as his hands and feet.

I have witnessed the devastating effects of adultery far more than I would have ever imagined. Many times I was so angry for the one who was betrayed that forgiveness was almost impossible. I wanted five minutes to just punch this person. They needed to feel pain. The Lord has been dealing with my heart in this matter. I must forgive. I can with my mind and heart know that. This article puts another dimension to this and that is restoration. Jesus still died for them and it is His desire that no man perish. This was a very healing article for me. Thank you.

I have not only witnessed the devastating effects of adultery in the church, I am also the one who was betrayed. We were in ministry together and I was working in the church office. It is an awful experience that I would wish for no one but unfortunately I have seen more marriages fall apart in the church from infidelity. In my opinion and experience we know what God's word says and we are good at reciting the verses and blurting them out to the hurting but the truth for me was that the church had no clue what to do with me or my husband or how to help us. Because of our position in the church and living in a smaller town word spread like wildfire and I was the talk of the town. I was told that "I didn't pray enough" or "I wasn't a good wife" or "I didn't have enough faith for God to fix the mess I was in!" I will admit, I bought into those lies in the beginning. My self esteem had gotten so low and desperate that I believed anything anyone told me. We were on staff at a fairly large church (approx. 5,000) with 10 pastors on staff and they couldn't help me. I beg and pleaded with God to fix this and bring my husband back. I think my eyes were swollen and red for months because the tears wouldn't stop coming. Finally, one pastor reached out to me which was the beginning of a healing journey I never thought possible. He loved me through my hell and helped me see how much God loved me and wanted more for me. He then told me that there were other women in the church who were going through this or something similar and we should all meet together. We did and you know who the other five women in this group were.....5 church secretaries!!!! I couldn't believe it! We loved each other, supported each other for two years. These ladies were my life line. God did not intend for us (the church) to go through life on our own. I learned how much we need each other to help one another. My husband and I reconciled and he was restored to ministry. Our marriage is thriving and better than ever.

But what if the partner is not Christian, doesn't repent and continues in his infidelity? Should we still forgive? What if they're also abusive? This was the case with myself and my children. Ten years down the line, we are still suffering not only from the repercussions of my X's past actions during the marriage ,but also from his continued abuse and miserliness. I have forgiven for the affairs, but am struggling with his continued behavior towards us. HELP !

This is my fist visit to this wonderful ministry. While I was writing this morning, and honestly feeling terribly discouraged, I "accidentally" stumbled onto Amy Simpsons website which in turn led me here. I never stop being in awe at how the Lord orchestrates encouragement to us when we least expect it and in the perfect ways. Other times though, I know personally, maintaining balance between sin, accountability, consequences, repentance, restoration, and most importantly the Grace of Christ is one of the most difficult aspects of leadership. It can be so natural to put degrees on sin and in the name of prayer stone fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. When this type of sin occurs it is easily labelled...not easily dealt with. What though do we do in the case of abuse, or like Monica when sin is suffered silently and repetitively and the answers are not black and white? My experience is that a larger percentage of congregation members suffer needlessly and silently because their situations are not as easily "labeled" or "handled". In the majority of cases, it the woman who is often given some spiritual fix or even worse she is left with the burden of struggling with the state of her own spirituality because pastors and church leaders whom aren't equipped to properly counsel aren't comfortable referring more complicated situations to professionals. I believe we all must become more comfortable in comforting & secure enough regardless our position of leadership to have a variety or network of helping professionals that we can refer hurting people too if there is even the chance they may need more care or counsel than we are equipped to give. It saddens me that the body of Christ is where we should be most able to be transparent and the church is usually the first place one will turn when they are in pain; yet, often when people take that chance...the depth of their pain and care needed goes unrecognized and that person may not take another chance reaching out. I would encourage my dear sister who is struggling with continued abuse to reach out to a Christian Counselor. I am not one to often voice an opinion but abuse within the church is an issue close to my heart. As much as God hates divorce, I have no problem assuring any woman that He hates abuse more.

How... I did not read the article, but all I can say after 40+ years in church. It does NOT! Adultery in the church of USA is a joke. Is the biggest hypocrisy! We scream from our lungs that homosexuality is sin, but we have embrace adultery like is it just drinking coffee with a friend!

A very difficult issue for the Church and I appreciate any attempts to bring this topic into the open. I truly believe when the Church as a Body and as individuals are able to accept those people who have committed these more public and damaging sins, the Church will be able to successfully extend the love of Christ through all those tools and gifts our Lord has given the Church. When those needing forgiveness from God believe there is true forgiveness and love then these brothers and sisters will no longer live as second class citizens in God's Kingdom. If we love and forgive each other regardless of the sin Christ will be honored. Corky Riley

I would argue the Church and most churches fail in this and other, indeed most sins.

I think the extension of mercy, compassion and forgiveness leads many to think we're absolving the adulterer of their sin and the consequences thereof. You're not suggesting this are you?

I also got to ask, as a child you wondered what Jesus was writing? Not only wondered but had a thought(s)? Really?

This is a good article as far as it goes. However, it does not address the situation of a church member, maybe even a leader such as the pastor or deacon, who is engaging openly and in an unrepentant way. Unfortunately, this happens. What should the church body do in response to those cases?

2 Thessalonians 3 verses 6 through 15

My experience with my husband who left because he was not happy and
'strategically' found a woman on the internet so that he would be comforted and not alone, blatantly showing her off 'as a trophy woman' (was a friend's comment), to friends, family, work colleagues and then going back into the church as a part time minister, fully accepted by everyone; is that adultery doesn't matter, the marriage is over and he could do what he liked (we are
still separated but he is unlikely to come back - she is 14 years younger). Though he still blames me entirely for the marriage breakdown and remains angry I have in my heart forgiven him and would still have him back. I am trusting God to turn him to the light. He has not told the Bishop about the situation. Jen

We must not forget the carnage adultery does. Support, grace and healing for the "offended" spouse and family is also critical.

Nor must we downplay the seriousness of the sin as some do by forbidding divorce where the Bible explicitly allows it under these circumstances - not due to legalism but in recognition of the severe emotional pain caused to the offended spouse.

Then there is the task of navigating the difficult waters of: "I forgive you, I just can't live with you anymore."

I wonder if the strong reaction to this sin reflects something that hits a little too close to the mark. Have we not all been tempted? Have we not all lusted in our hearts? Didn't Jesus say that this was the real problem?

Thank you for your insightful article, Domeniek. Your using the scripture passage where our LORD Jesus handled the accusers of the woman caught in adultery was a good reminder for me to look at this social and spiritual problem through the eyes of Jesus. Is it not amazing that men somehow escape being held accountable for adultery and women are put on "trial"? While we rush to "restore" church leaders back into their positions, I wonder who ever considers the pain and hurt of their spouses and children. I have seen this in my work of counselling.

Soon after my baptism almost 5 years ago, I confessed to my wife of an affair I had 15 years prior at a time we were previously separated.

After thinking on it a couple of weeks, she decided she wanted out. No forgiveness. We divorced 2 years later. My wife had been a Christian since almost a year after we married.

I think because her parents divorced when she was young and her siblings turned out "OK" even though they've all been divorced (my wife, the last and only Christian), I thought we could break the cycle. Let others see how we can overcome this as Christians.

Her church leader explained his belief of a pattern of wrongdoing, which was not the case.

In the meantime, many things came to light, and I felt she had another agenda, which is why she didn't want to reconcile.

We lived in different states for a number of years because of a lack of employment, but now live in the same city, but I found out a lot of character assassination was tossed my way.

I sent an email to her church leader, and CC'ed my ex telling them I didn't appreciate the slander and gossip that had been disseminating and it wasn't Christ-like to do so, nor be aligned with this behavior.

After not speaking with my ex for several months (some things she said I found utterly unbelievable), I emailed her a letter for MY closure, because I never got it; never got a chance to have an honest discussion about a variety of issues.

I sent it New Year's Eve so I coould start the new year renewed in spirit and ask God to work on my heart regardless how she responds to me.

I knew the email would anger her, and sure enough she went to a mutual friend who attends her church. this friend and I had been close for some time unbeknownst to my ex and many others in their church, but he was a fount of wisdom and assistance through my darkest days.

He was the ONLY one who heard my side of issues. Longer story short, my email must have registered, because the next weekend my ex called me to apologize for the way she'd been treating me since I relocated to the same town.

Our 3 children have missed out on both of their parents sharing their lives in a Christ-like manner with each other because of Satan's wiles to disrupt our union.

My prayer is that we still reconcile.

This is a fantastic article and some good discussion follows about a much too common issue in the modern church. I am a new pastor dealing with an issue in my church. I am seeking God's wisdom and guidance through his word and discussions with people who have experienced this type of pain.

I think christ was right to forgive because certainly
We do all make mistakes even more so in these days
Of such confusion and immorality in society. However
I think a main point to consider is when he forgave
he said sin no more. It would be interesting to have
Heard christs reaction to the woman if he had seen her
Later on and she had continued in her adultress ways.

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