“You shall not commit adultery.” (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18)
At first glance, the 7th commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” seems like one that only applies to married people (Jerry Seinfeld has a comedy bit where he says that in order to commit adultery, you have to be committed to marriage first), but upon further examination, this commandment has implications and applications for married and single people.
How Can Married Couples Obey This Commandment?
The root idea of this commandment certainly is that a married person should not have an affair or a sexual relationship with any person other than their spouse, as the marriage covenant is one in which “a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This idea is reflected in marriage vows that speak about forsaking all others and choosing to live until death does you part in physical and emotional unity with your spouse. The command for human sexuality to occur only within the context of a covenant relationship of marriage between a man and a woman is not because God or Christians are afraid of sex or think that it is dirty; rather, it has great power and unites two individuals together (1 Corinthians 6:16). This idea of union formed in this intimate act is why adultery is grounds for a divorce (see Matthew 5:32; 19:9; it must be noted that Jesus does not say adultery requires divorce but allows for it).
This commandment is not just broken when a married person has an affair, though, as Jesus says, “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28). Lustful looks – including, but not limited to, pornography – would be another way that this commandment is broken by a married person. Jesus also states that divorce, unless on the grounds of adultery, leads people to commit adultery when they remarry (Matthew 5:32; 19:9). The Apostle Paul also gives desertion as a grounds for divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7:15, with abuse falling under this principle; thus an unbiblical divorce would lead to a violation of this commandment.
How Can Single People Obey This Commandment?
This command has special importance for those who are married, but it also applies to the unmarried. The Westminster Shorter Catechism notes that this commandment “requireth the preservation of our own and our neighbor’s chastity, in heart, speech and behavior” (Q & A 71). Thus, singles are called to help married people around them to keep and fulfill their marital vows and also to behave in a way that promotes the values and meaning of marriage.
There are many ways a single person can encourage married friends and family and help them fulfill and maintain their marital vows; I’ll give a few concrete examples. Single individuals encourage married friends to spend time with their spouses and try to avoid creating any wedges or conflicts in the married couple. Instead of promoting and provoking complaints about one’s marriage or spouse, they can remind a married individual to give the benefit of the doubt and “cut them some slack” on matters that are not immoral, unethical, or grossly inappropriate. Instead of bragging about the advantages of being single to a married person – potentially making a married person wish to be in that state rather than the state of matrimony – one can discuss the challenges as well as blessings found in singleness and marriage. Above all, one should live in a way that does not “incite someone to [unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires]” (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 108].
Single individuals should also behave in a way that promotes behaviors that lead to healthy and flourishing marriages. This would include refraining from what both the Heidelberg Catechism and Westminster Shorter Catechism label “unchaste actions, looks, talk, thoughts, or desires” [Westminster Shorter Catechism 72; Heidelberg Catechism 108, which also adds “looks” and “desires”]. This includes refraining from sexual physical activity with any individual – single or married – since that is reserved for the marriage covenant (see e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8; Hebrews 13:4). Multiple dating relationships would also not seem to lead to a life of monogamy down the road. The Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 139 also notes that an “undue delay of marriage” is forbidden by this commandment as such a delay could lead one into temptation (which is unwise). It could also be seen as devaluing the sanctity of marriage – something that one seeks to avoid or views as primarily “fitting into their plan” rather than reflecting on God’s purposes in this world and making one more like Christ. God does not call all to get married, but He calls for all to honor marriage and to live in a way that reflects its design and purposes in this world and to live “decent and chaste lives” (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 108).
How All Promote It
While most of the Ten Commandments (including this one) are phrased as prohibitions (“thou shalt not…”), the best defense is often a good offense; we should think through what we should do that will lead us not to break a command and instead live “decent and chaste lives.” Since we live in a world that promotes and encourages a different sexual ethic, we need to be on our guard, to have “watchfulness over the eyes and all the senses” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 138). This includes watching out for what the writers of the catechism call “all corrupt or filthy communications” (Q & A 139) — something that seems even more relevant in the internet, text message, and social media age. Two other ideas that come from the Westminster Larger Catechism is to think about the company that we hang out with; do they help us fulfill this command or make it more difficult? We also need to perform “diligent labor in our callings” (Q & A 138) as idleness can lead us to fall into temptation. While we are called to rest on one day and should keep regular patterns of activity and rest, we should not overindulge in rest. For more thoughts on activities that are required and forbidden in this command, I would direct you to read Westminster Larger Catechism Q & A 138-39 for yourself and consider the words there. May all of us, both married and single, be people whose lives not only uphold this command, but help demonstrate its wisdom and goodness.
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