Perhaps the most sensitive area of human behaviour is sexual relationships. This may be because they have such great potential for good – but can also, if things go wrong, completely blight our lives. Like fire (Song of Songs 8:6), sexual desire makes an enormous contribution to our wellbeing – but it is potentially destructive when uncontrolled. Marriage can be a foretaste of heaven (Proverbs 5:18,19) – or hell on earth (Proverbs 21:9,19).
To see what marriage was intended to be, we must go back to Genesis 2, where God declared, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18) The partner that God eventually made for Adam was Eve: a single, female mate. God’s original design for human relationships is therefore seen to be monogamous and heterosexual. Eve was not a duplicate of Adam, but his complementary opposite: recognisably similar (Genesis 2:23), and yet different. The loss of part of the man in order to create her implies that neither sex is really complete without the other. The two were literally ‘made for each other’, and they took delight in each other. Their relationship was one of complete openness and honesty. Sadly, this relaxed joy was to be one of the first casualties of their sin (Genesis 3:7).
Although Adam was the ‘head’ of the couple (I Corinthians 11:7-9; I Timothy 2:13), they were essentially equal: the word ‘helper’ carries no connotations of inferiority or servitude. The woman was “not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved”. (Matthew Henry) The two sexes come together to make a new entity that is complete in itself. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:24) This key verse is quoted no less than four times in the New Testament.
‘Leave’ points to a necessary physical and emotional separation from the birth family. The wife must have priority in the husband’s life, displacing his blood relatives.
‘Be united’ is the commitment of faithfulness to each other, whatever happens; it presupposes a willing choice. Marriage is not simply for personal fulfilment, and it must be built on more than just romantic feelings. And since ‘leaving’ and ‘being united’ come before ‘becoming one flesh’, the divinely ordained pattern is for the public announcement of commitment to precede sexual intercourse.
‘One flesh’ refers to the union of husband with wife at all levels of their relationship (primarily sexual, but also emotional and psychological). It is expressed most clearly in their offspring (an actual fusion of the genes of the two parents to make a new whole person). This explains why pornography and prostitution (sex without the necessary context of relationship) are ultimately meaningless (I Corinthians 6:16), and why divorce is so traumatic (Matthew 19:6) – especially for the children.
Thus marriage was ordained as an exclusive, lifelong heterosexual partnership. Sexual intercourse in any other context should be unthinkable. “You shall not commit adultery.”
The permissive society
But modern society is obsessed with sex and with sexual self-gratification. Sex is vying with money as our number one idol. “Anything goes” – as long as both parties consent – and the last remaining taboo seems to be paedophilia. At the same time, long-term commitment (expressed in marriage) is regarded as an ‘optional extra’. It is taking several generations for the long-term cost to society to become fully apparent: family breakdown, child abuse, and an exponential increase in the number of people living alone.
Immersed as we are in an environment in which sexual licence is not merely permitted but encouraged, it is extremely difficult for believers to hold to moral standards that are widely ridiculed as old-fashioned, repressive and unnecessary. Why worry about extramarital sex when we have contraception to prevent pregnancy, and condoms and antibiotics to deal with sexually transmitted infections? Yet the physical, psychological and emotional fallout is immense. Unwanted pregnancies (most of them aborted) are as common as ever, a global HIV epidemic continues to rage, and a high proportion of people may never enjoy the stability and security of a committed, long-term relationship.
As with the previous commandment, we need to recognise the attitude underlying the behaviour. There is more to immorality than the ultimate act of sexual intercourse. Like murder, adultery can be committed in the heart (Matthew 5:27,28): lustful thoughts and fantasies are as bad as the immoral actions to which they so often lead. Pornography is not harmless; it distorts one’s perception of ‘normal’ behaviour and focuses all one’s attention on self-pleasing. It is perhaps not surprising that so many people find it addictive.
God hates divorce – and everything else that destroys the relationship between husband and wife (Malachi 2:15,16). Yet divorce is never actually forbidden in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 24:1-4); it was permitted as a concession to our sinful natures. “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Matthew 19:8) For marriages do sometimes go seriously wrong – even amongst believers – and there has to be some form of escape route for the abused or betrayed partner. The problem is that the escape route can be mis-used, simply because it exists. In contemporary Western society, divorce has become the ‘solution’ to any and every form of marital disharmony.
To split a married couple apart is like performing a major operation: it can’t be done without a certain amount of trauma, emotional (and financial) pain, and lasting damage. It is allowable only as a ‘lesser evil’. The amputation of a leg, for example, can be life-saving in cases of cancer or gangrene; but no reputable surgeon would recommend it as treatment for an ingrowing toenail. So although there may be some reasonable grounds for divorce, such as adultery (Matthew 19:9) or abandonment (I Corinthians 7:12-16), it must be seen as a ‘last resort’.
Nobody embarks on a marriage with the intention of wrecking it. Yet the break-up rate is high: in the UK, 42% of marriages will end in divorce (and half of these within 10 years). http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/divorces-in-england-and-wales/2011/sty-what-percentage-of-marriages-end-in-divorce.html So no-one can say smugly, “It won’t happen to us.”
It has been said that there are a hundred ways to destroy a marriage, and that adultery is only one of them. We need to be honest with ourselves: should we marry in the first place? Are we being wise in our choice of partner? (I Corinthians 7:1-9) Those of us who are married need to nurture our marriages, and continually work on our relationships with our partners (Proverbs 5:15-20). Our churches need to uphold marriage (Hebrews 12:4) – not by being critical of those who have failed, but by preparing couples for marriage, offering help to those who may be struggling, and trying to bring about reconciliation whenever possible.