“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” -Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17, NIV
How many churches make announcements about adultery in the membership? I bet the number is fewer than the numbers needed to be exposed after following the steps outlined above. Certainly, it is fewer than the number of actual cases present in the pews.
Why does this matter?
It is a violation of our Savior’s teaching on the matter.
And that alone ought to trouble all Christians greatly. But we have even more reason it ought to be followed.
Not following Jesus’ teaching on exposing the adultery harms the faithful spouse, the family, and the adulterous spouse. It harms the faithful spouse by making it look like they are to blame for his/her family’s implosion, which was actually caused by the unfaithful spouse’s adultery. This is not the faithful spouse’s shame to bear. It harms the children who watch a church not take the sin that exploded their family seriously enough to address it directly and Biblically. They need to see a church strong enough to follow Jesus’ words with integrity. Finally, it harms the adulterous spouse as the church is signalling to him/her that adultery is not a big deal. God thinks otherwise, and it is best to realize this in this life.
This passage from Scripture teaches us direct communication and reminds us that sin impacts a community.
1) It tells us to name fault to the one who sinned against us. That is the stage where it is appropriate to not broadcast the sin to anyone else. Tell the adulterous spouse that he/she has wronged you and needs to stop immediately and address the harm done by his/her sin.
2) If the adulterous spouse refuses to stop, then it is time to bring two witnesses to the confrontation. This is where having pastors or elders willing to follow Scripture on these matters can be helpful. (***Warning: they may be hard to find as I discovered in my sad experience.***). If that fails to win the adulterous spouse over from changing his/her ways, another more public step is proscribed.
3). The adultery is to be announced to the church! That’s what Jesus says. Sounds harsh, but it is Scriptural. Do you think adulterous spouses everywhere might think twice about crossing the line and not stopping if this was a real and consistent threat in the church? I suspect it might help lower the number of cheaters a little.
Plus, announcing the sin after steps one and two protects the innocent spouse and family who are having their family blown apart by this serious, unrepentant sin. The announcement ought to serve as a way for them to gain emotional and spiritual support from the Christian community as opposed to ostracism which too often comes with a divorce necessitated by the adulterous spouse’s sinful, remorseless behavior.
4) If the public exposure in the church does not work to win back the adulterous spouse for his/her sinful ways, one last step is proscribed. We are to treat the person as a “tax collector” or “pagan.” Tax collectors were seen as traitors for they often exploited their positions to get rich off their fellow Jews while serving the occupying force–i.e. the Romans. Think about what sort of feelings the Jews would have towards such individuals. Jesus is calling his people to treat the unrepentant adulterer/adulterous from that place. Rather stark and harsh, but that is Scripture.
These steps are often given under the title of “Church Discipline” and have been abused. I am not suggesting we ought to use these steps to manipulate or control people. However, I am suggesting that serious sin–like adultery–needs such a strong response. It protects the faithful spouses, encourages repentance in the adulterous spouses, and teaches everyone that fidelity in marriage matters greatly to God. I think those are messages worth sending!
*I realize in many situations the spouses are no longer in the same church. This is hard (if not impossible) to follow if one spouse is not a member of the same church or is not a Christian. But I believe, too often, that this teaching is not followed even in the case where both spouses are members in the church.