RE: Adultery – When Law and Morality (used to) Agree
On March 4, 2013, SBC icon, Albert Mohler, complains about Colorado’s drive to decriminalize adultery and sexual immorality. And he yearns for that golden yesteryear when sociopolitical laws were consistent ethical principles concerning marriage and adultery. From his blog entry…
Throughout most of human history, morality and law were united and in agreement when it came to the reality of adultery and the larger context of sexual immorality. Laws criminalizing adultery were adopted because the society believed that marriage was central to its own existence and flourishing, and that adultery represented a dagger struck at the heart of the society, as well as the heart of marriage.
As a student of history, I would claim that the statement is factually suspect. Socially and politically, such laws have proven impossible to enforce on most occasions, which gives rise to rational incoherence. However, most pertinent from a Christian, and not a moralist perspective, Mohler’s argument is irrelevant.
There is no disputing that healthy marriages are conducive to healthy societies. Marital infidelity, not only brings deep wounds and detriment to its participants; but from the relational locus in which the explosive fissure occurs, the damage ripples outward in lessening degrees of harm from those immediately affected (children) to society at large. However, such arguments exaggerate the immediate extent of effect. Severe decline of austere Roman morality and monogamous marital fidelity (1st Century B.C.) preceded any appearance of societal disintegration by a minimum of four centuries (Crisis of the 3rd Century A.D.). Furthermore, sexual and marital deviances are reflective of a moral decline and not its cause. In the Roman Republic, greed and corruption, a self-indulgent turning their backs on the common good and the poorer neighbours by its elites, and various other vices accompanied in lock step the decline in sexual manners and marital instability. Modern civilization proves no different.
Is it true that morality and law were united and in agreement when it came to the reality of adultery? There were laws on the books of many societies. But even as avid anti-feminist, I would have to concur with them that at best, it was only female adultery that was effectually and more consistently criminalized and punished. Classical Western cultures (Greece and Rome) effectually excused male infidelities by calling it other names, excusing it as an unfortunate proclivity of the male psyche or because of the economic leverage that husbands and males had over their wives and women. That same dynamic has similarly occurred in much of medieval and western society. And like the Romans at the high point of their Empire, the modern period saw a quiet revolt by women, which eventually led to the joining in of wide-spread adultery and sexual dalliance.
As to sexual immoralities, apart from marital adultery, Mohler is even on more factually precarious grounds. (There is unfortunate tendency of many Americans to think that history starts and ends with them.)
However, for the most part, laws concerning adultery were impossible to enforce. Edmund S. Morgan, an atheist scholar who was nevertheless sympathetically fond of the Puritans, noted that although adultery and other sexual peccadilloes were on the books, they were rarely enforced in strict accordance with strict justice.1 When Caesar Augustus promulgated his family-values Julian laws (18 B.C., 9 A.D.), they were roundly challenged. And except for a period of tyrannical scrupulosity under Domitian (81-96 A.D.), it was too politically and existentially dangerous to uphold such laws. Even Mohler acknowledges that “Well, the police have not conducted adultery raids in some time”.
And if a social law is not consistently enforced, are such laws anything more than an adornment? The Soviet Constitution purported to aspire to the same freedoms that the American Constitution granted. Does such script truly represent the realities of life?
Would we call the gravitational formulas a law if they were not universally and consistently applicable? Even the Law of God governing adultery infers a natural detrimental consequence to such infidelities.
Inconsistently enforced laws merely provide a potential vehicle by which capricious tyrants and tyrannical mobs get rid of political adversaries and social undesirables.
One becomes deeply wary of these same adultery laws that were used to incarcerate mixed erotic relationships, particularly in the land of the Southern Baptists, after the state arrogated unto itself the definitional scope of marriage. And when it comes to remarriage, even conservative preachers (Piper and Macarthur) have differences of opinions as to what constitutes a valid remarriage and adultery.2 Do we really want to go there?
However, the historical argument is rationally flawed. Most societies, throughout history, permitted polygamy and free sexual interference with slaves. Does Mohler also yearn for a return to those realities?
But the moral and cultural revolutions of the past several decades have shifted the meaning of marriage from a public institution to a private contract…We are now reaping the inevitable result of treating marriage as a merely private affair, and adultery as a merely private sin.
The decline of marital stability began about the time of Civil War. A stable divorce rate of 2% climbed rapidly in that 19th Century of moralist methodism. American divorce rates have always exceeded those of other Western countries until recent decades; because of a greater ideological bent of individualistic conservatism, to which Mohler’s charges are in large agreement.
Marriage is in fact a private covenant, between man, woman and God. Even Mohler concedes elsewhere that marriage preceded civil society (as well as ecclesiastical organizations). In so doing, marriage needs neither civil society nor ecclesiastical hierarchy for its natural existence or its welfare. Indeed, I could argue quite convincingly, that external interference, provides detriment to its health and raison d’être in the minds of its participants. The state of Caesar Augustus or modern France and the Romanist church enlisted it as a pawn in its procreation imperative visions. Modern feminism has tilted the scales of marital law, such that most males justifiably consider their colleagues, who wish to be ‘legally’ married, to be sadomasochists.
And for one, such as Mohler, to consider this private covenant to be a public institution that needs social interference, it is curious that he repudiates the ability for the state to also regulate private commercial transactions, when economic inequality and its ensuing social, political and legal inequality, are also conducive to societal disintegration. But hypocrisy knows no bounds!
However, the source of my resentment is that Mohler represents a moralist perspective; and not a Christian one. And although I strongly believe that Mohler is true Christian, his worldly sociopolitical perspective and legalism is at great variance with New Testament principles, to which Mohler purports to uphold. And legalism always proves, not only to be hermeneutically incorrect but rationally absurd and prone to empirically produce historical travesty and atrocity.
The primary mission of the Church and its leaders is to transmit the Gospel and Full Counsel of God and exemplify it. If the congregations of Evangelicals, including his Southern Baptists, have divorce, abortion and cohabitation rates, little different than society what large, what credibility does he have in posing sociopolitically coercive measures against persons outside of his charge? Why is he pontificating to his neighbours instead of tending to his own family?
A very seminal message of the Bible is the futility of external regulation. The ancient state of the Hebrews was meant as object lesson. The book of Hebrews and Colossians speak particularly to this pointlessness. The whole Gospel solution speaks of transformation of heart as true solution to moral decadence. Therefore, why waste such time and talent on the unproductive and ultimate futility of sociopolitical measures, while neglecting the true source of transformation of society?
And there is no sanction in the New Covenant of Christ to become so entangled in worldly affairs; to scurry about like Constantinian bishops, self-deluded in their influence. To speak against the shortcomings and consequences of adultery and sexual license has full Scriptural sanction. However, legal prescriptions are deafeningly absent in the New Covenant. It is beyond its concern and indeed considers such measures as fruitless “weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:4). It is only by patching an arbitrary and capricious selectivity of Mosaic Law to the New Testament covenant, to self-serve worldly concerns, that coercive morality at such a picayune level can be imposed with Scriptural imprimatur.
And by giving precedent and approval to state interference of the Estate of Marriage, these obtuse social conservatives and moralists, posing as Christians, have given their adversaries that same power to coercively define and regulate marriage upon all as they see fit, whenever these adversaries seize the Commanding Heights of society. And while freeing humanity from one form of legalism and minutiae of conduct associated with their adversaries, these secularist liberals have imposed their own legalisms. A nunnery of rabid feminists have successfully pushed onto law codes (and is occasionally enforced), the need to notarize consent for every play-by-play act of sexual congress, within or without marriage; which directly challenges New Testament principles on conjugal relations (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). Marriage is legally intimated to be a loose partnership, instead of a microcosm of a commonwealth. And we need discuss same-sex marriage…
The duty of a true Christian is to protect and uphold the Gospel and Full Counsel of God from secularist and pagan incursions from without, and from both lawless Christianity and alternatively, Pharisaic moralism from within.
- Edmund S. Morgan, “The Puritans and Sex”, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4. (Dec., 1942), pp. 591-607.
- Piper believes that although separation/divorce is valid, remarriage quintessentially becomes adultery if the former spouse is still alive regardless of fault or infidelity on the part of the other spouse. MacArthur, in an unusual transposition (he usually is more morally conservative) has slightly more liberal understandings of Scriptures.