I recall my time as a university chaplain when I was in pastoral ministry many years ago. I loved the conversations with students who tested so much with curiosity and creative humour. We had many chats about sex and relationships, with students testing what they believed were the historic mandates of the Church. This was certainly one of them.
Why this commandment is bundled into the Ten is a wonder, making me think, like other Laws in the Torah, that it was designed to protect people. Keeping clean at certain times, not eating some foods, observing certain behaviours were far more about keeping humans safe than they were about honouring God. What would adultery have damaged – a lineage? Access to inheritance? Pride? Whatever it was then, the commandment has become weaponised in the move from then to now. Adultery is criminal still in many countries, with stoning, particularly to women, being done in the times we read this reflection. It is an agreed reason for divorce. I speculate anew. Why is it a problem to be made a crime? What is damaged? Why is it written this way around rather than You shall honour your relationship?
I often spoke in student conversations about sexual relationships as ultimate vulnerability. To expose one to another in profound intimacy is not a light-hearted thing, but a deep, personal, trusted thing, sealing a relationship in a singular way. Adultery reveals things about trust and expectations, about aspiration and greed. It speaks of prior decisions made well or badly, painful relationships escaped, hope for a new relationship to work. It is not neat or easily explained, and, I believe, not criminal. Adultery. Mostly, it’s human. God’s part is in holding and loving us as we struggle to love God and as we struggle deeply to honour our relationships with each other.
God of all relationships, open our hearts to understand and our minds to listen. Fill us with grace to see relationships in human context, more complex than legal boundaries. Give us good judgement and open hearts. Be with all of those whose relationships are or are made to be vulnerable because of betrayal of trust. Restore and heal, make us wise in our choices and loving in our care for others. Amen.
The Revd Elizabeth Gray-King, URC Education & Learning Programme Officer, member St Columba’s URC Oxford