Adultery and Church Discipline

“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.


11 thoughts on “Adultery and Church Discipline”

  1. DM, there is a lot of grey matter in this scrpture.

    My STBX confessed to the eldership in our church including the minister.
    They then made him confess to me, It was then stated that no one should be told not even his own mother to avoid our girls 9 & 11 finding out, there was no such protection for our son14 as he was the one who came to me with information that lead to STBX being put out and his confession.

    Because STBX was willing to confess and submit himself to the disiplinary action of the church they closed ranks around him. No one spoke to me about what I wanted it was as if I became the third party in my own marriage. 10 months past his confession and he is still the same now as he was then. An arrogant man with a victim mentality ‘nothing is his fault’ there is no evidence of remorse of even an understanding of what he has done, but because he is still in our family church and I am gone, the notion is that some how I am at fault, which is an angle he is willing to exploit. The answer given by eldership when asked what the issue between us is ” they are having trouble agreeing on things at the moment”

    Yet in recent weeks a young woman in the church was found to be pregnant to her boyfriend and confessed to eldership asking for forgiveness, they insisted that she stand before the church and confess her actions and ask the church for forgivness along with ongoing councelling with an unqualified member of the church as a part of her disiplain, she refused and was promptly excommunicated from the church.

    As a good friend has always reminded me ” you shall know them by their fruit”

    1. Thankful- yikes, that sounds incredibly backwards, so many things wrong with the story you laid out. I’m sorry the church let you down. I wish I could fix that. You are not at fault. Your kids are not at fault. Everything is on your stbx for his adultery.

    2. Thankful,

      Sounds like a very backward interpretation of this Scripture. I suggest your STBX husband is FAR from being won over. This seems to be more like an image control interpretation as opposed to a godly interpretation of this Scripture. I had a situation like yours in mind when I wrote this thinking the silence in your case is exactly the WRONG thing for the church leaders to do. It does not protect you–the faithful spouse.

      Personally, if the STBX husband really listened, then he would be sensitive to how his adultery has made you and his family vulnerable to shaming in the church. He would “man up” and give the elders permission to share his sin with others in order to protect you and his family from the nasty rumors. He would own the consequences of his own sin–namely, that people will think less of him for committing adultery. That’s not justly yours to bear. That’s my take.

      Glad you have a good friend pointing you in the right direction!


  2. When the cheating spouse is the Minister and the whole church and Diocese want it swept under the rug and then turn a blind eye to the failed marriage it is hard to believe that anyone even cares any more.

    When the two married Ministera destroy their marriages and children’s lives in front of everything and not one person takes action – it is hard to understand.

    The relationship continues to this day – right out in the open. I will divorced soon and so will MOW husband.

    I ran out of people to tell. No one thought it was a big deal. When I realized that I might as well be talking to the wind – I gave up. Short of renting a billboard, there was nothing else I could do!!

    1. Lisah,

      My heart goes out to you! This is not what God ever intended. It appears you have had a front row seat to human wickedness…and in the church of all places!

      I would suggest NOT putting up a billboard. Sadly, we cannot compel people to act in a godly way as you have so painfully discovered in your situation. I am sorry you could not find any leader with the character and moral courage to do the godly thing. God sees all of this–is NOT pleased!–and His word says that He WILL judge the ones who defile the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4).


  3. Hi Lisah,
    when I find myself becoming over whelmed by the un Christ like behavour of those who claim to be his. I remind myself that God will not be mocked and that they will reap what they sow.

    Oh how I understand your desire to put up a billboard,(though I agree not a great idea) I would love to walk into to my old church and give a sermon on the reality of being a follower of Christ. Because in the real world christian or not, people should not behave the way these people do. But then I am remined that ‘one should not cast pearls before swine’.

    My STBX and yours are not the first in this situation and they will not be the last. But as I sit here a woman who has been shund by my church for not being willing to sit quietly under their self asserted authority while they fix the issue as they see fit. I am so greatful to God the he called me his own before I met my STBX or those in the church we fellowshiped in. I have my relationship with God now and I will have it long after all of this is a distant memory. It is up to me to retain my dignity and my relationship with God and in doing so I pray that I will be a witness to those around me especially my children.
    The sadest realisation was that the church has perfected the policy of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’. ignorace is not bliss it is just being lazy and those who claim that they would prefer to reamin ignorant on the matter to avoid judging the guilty party. in my opinion are just as guilty as the sinner for not acting as Christ has called them to.
    Harsh I know but it is just my opinion. So often in the past year I have heard that issues between a husband and wife are just that between a husband and wife. This is no longer the case when one or more additional partners have been brought into the relationship, unbeknown to the faithful spouse. Or when the church eldership jump into the relationship and treat the faithful spouse like a third party while they go about their business with the unfaithful spouse (damage control).

    Stay strong Lisah because above all the mess God is faithful.

  4. Hello DM,

    Question for you.

    At the start of his affair, I knew OW was an evangelical Christian. I asked what church she went to so that I could arrange a conference between my leaders and her leaders, but STBXH and OW refused to tell me, for no other reason than, “she doesn’t want to and she doesn’t have to.” They didn’t care about right and wrong. STBXH openly admitted that if her leaders knew of the affair, “she’d get in trouble for sure.”

    The OW dumped my husband on October 12th. She wrote a tearful post about their break-up on her blog which made it very clear that she’s a self-centered narcissist and has no remorse about helping to end my marriage.

    I’ve recently learned where OW goes to church. My divorce is set to finalize this upcoming Wednesday. I am disinclined to contact her leaders until after the divorce finalizes; I am getting a pretty good deal in the marital settlement agreement, and don’t want to incite STBXH to back out on anything (he still wants her back and will take her side in any dispute between us). But my question is: should I contact her leaders after the divorce?

    My inclination is to wait a month or two after the divorce, then contact them. What do you think?

    1. Ms. Jack,

      Unless the OW is in a place of leadership, I’d leave this one alone. She did something very wrong in committing adultery with your husband. If it was clearly ongoing, I might encourage you differently. Also, if you were a part of her church, I might counsel differently as well. As things stand, she has ended her adultery (reportedly), and I’d say you are better off leaving her alone. Why waste any more energy on someone who likely remains under the judgment of God as evidenced by her lack of repentance to the ones her sins harmed? Leave her to God. Speak the truth if asked. But you are NOT obligated to care for her soul by informing her spiritual leaders of her sin.

      1. Thanks, DM.

        She may be on the worship team (she’s a singer for a local band), but I sincerely doubt she’s involved in any ministry beyond that, and certainly don’t care to do the recon that it would take to find out.

        Why waste any more energy on someone who likely remains under the judgment of God as evidenced by her lack of repentance to the ones her sins harmed? Leave her to God. Speak the truth if asked. But you are NOT obligated to care for her soul by informing her spiritual leaders of her sin.

        Good advice. I will take it to heart.

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