Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
-Matthew 18:15-17, KJV
The reality in this post-denominational world is that many people are not connected and committed to a church body. Or one spouse is and the other is not.
This makes following “Church Discipline” practices untenable in many–possibly even most–situations when a spouse is discovered cheating. If someone cares not for a specific church community, then urging them to repent or suffer the loss of said community is a rather impotent response to a dire situation.
So, how do we deal with these situations as pastors in such a fragmented and individualized world bereft of much community moorings?
It really depends on the details of the matter…
1. The couple coming to you as a couple for pastoral guidance.
In this case, I recommend a hard-line with the cheating partner. The Bible is crystal clear in not tolerating infidelity (see Deut. 22:22, Exodus 20:14, Matthew 5:27-28, and Hebrews 13:4). Illicit relationship(s) with third parties must stop immediately.
When infidelity is known, the focus needs to be on dealing with that sin. Do not be baited into a “There’s Two Sides to Every Story” song and dance with the cheater. Nothing justifies cheating on one’s spouse. Nothing. And we are fully responsible for our own sin as Scripture teaches (see 2 Corinthians 5:10 and James 1:13-15).
If the cheating spouse is unwilling to fully own and work on the wickedness in his or her heart that led to the cheating, a godly marriage reconciliation or restoration is not on the table. Do not serve as image management for the cheater who wants to look like he or she “tried” or wants you to support the marriage while the continue to cheat/hide the infidelity. Advising divorce for the faithful spouse is especially warranted and recommended in these situations where a cheater is unwilling to get serious about real repentance.
2. The faithful spouse is coming to you for advice.
I would recommend straight-forward and kind truth-telling to this individual. Real repentance is what God demands in these matters for a godly marriage to exist. Absent said repentance from adultery, God provides divorce for faithful spouses as a mercy (see Mt. 1:19, 5:32, 19:9).
The other part of the straight-forward and kind truth-telling is to tell the faithful spouse that they are dealing with a complete rebuild and not a remodel process in regards to their infidelity ravaged marriage. It will take a miracle or two as dead things usually stay dead. The natural course of things is not resurrection, and that applies to marriages ravaged by adultery/infidelity.
In both cases where cheater is refusing to repent, I would recommend the faithful spouse not keep the cheating a secret from everyone. Tell the kids in age-appropriate language focusing upon actions with zero editorial comments (e.g. “Mom is a whore” and “Dad has a wondering dick” are not appropriate expressions of the situation).
If a divorce occurs, I see no reason why the faithful spouse should not present it as it was to anyone he or she desires to tell:
“My divorce happened as a result of my ex-spouse’s infidelity.”
The unfaithful spouse who does not like this statement needs to be reminded that it is a simple statement of their actions and the biblical understanding of the spiritual consequences for said action. Divorce shame is not for the victim of their infidelity to wear. They took a righteous and courageous action in choosing to refuse to tolerate infidelity (see post here).
Some final notes:
-I do not recommend broadcasting to whole church in the Sunday bulletin or announcements regarding the infidelity and divorce in either case. Clear teaching on divorce from the pulpit ought to sensitize the congregation into realizing adultery victims exist and divorce can be caused by adultery alone according to God.
-I do recommend that the reasoning behind the divorce–namely, it resulted from infidelity on this spouse’s part–is not treated as a secret or something worth keeping hidden. It is important to teach pastorally that the faithful spouse has nothing over which to feel shame when it comes to a divorce following adultery. They did not drive or cause their spouse to commit adultery, and they are not responsible for the consequence of said sin–namely, the divorce.
Sometimes the best we can do is to accept the reality that some people prefer a life of sin over a righteous one. Jesus was clear about this truth in John 3:19b-21 (NLT):
“God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.”
These words are just as true today as when Jesus spoke them 2,000 years ago. Some spouses prefer the darkness and will refuse to walk in the light by repenting of infidelity. As pastors, we need to be wise and learn from this spiritual truth then advise accordingly.