Adult about adultery

Don't count on the rules-but don't discard them, either

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

It's fascinating these days to see how smart and enlightened people have become about sexual sin. It may take the near collapse of the U.S. military command to make the point, but we seem to be catching on. Maybe it's not as necessary as we thought, many are saying, to link a quaint idea like sexual fidelity to other kinds of honor-and maybe we don't need to impose old-fashioned ideas of morality on the sophisticated young people now in charge of our nation's defenses.

Or, as Daniel Schorr said a few days ago on All Things Considered, it's probably time for our society to "get adult about adultery." It appears to have grown up quickly: Only a couple of days later, a poll suggested that most Americans think the military should "update" its ideas about such matters. And "getting adult" certainly sounds very progressive.

The problem is that neither Mr. Schorr nor anyone else was helping us by suggesting exactly what code of ethics or honor we might substitute now for the old one. Nobody was spelling out the details of a system that would let you betray your spouse without tending also to betray your country. Maybe for Mr. Schorr and others like him, "getting adult" about adultery means not actually coming right out and saying these things are suddenly OK, but carefully giving ourselves a few years to let a federal commission study the matter objectively, with full confidence that we'll come up with the requisite wisdom on the matter in the next decade or two.

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So it will be fascinating in the days just ahead to discover whether the military establishment will now follow the entertainment industry, the news media, academia at every level, and even the mainline churches in moving from an official condemnation of adultery to a position where they piously say: "Well, you know, that's really none of our business." USA Today reported just last week, for example, that big business has also tended to make that transition in the last year or two. Only a short time ago, a company executive might well have expected to be sacked, or at least find his career slowed down, if an adulterous relationship became public information. Now, companies employing such people are discovering they must keep their hands off.

Not that any of us pretend that all was pristine and pure just because there were rules against sexual misbehavior. Pull back the covers on any of our institutions, even with behavior handbooks in place, and things won't typically be pretty. We know how dark and sinful we are, even with high standards in place. But it's still a huge step then to move from saying that a significant behavior is wrong and will be punished to saying that we no longer have any opinion about that behavior.

Yet we have devoted much of this 20th Century in Western society to precisely that kind of shift in many facets of life. We've moved from a general public commitment to the monotheistic God of the Bible to a general acceptance of practical polytheism. We've long since thrown away a commitment to honoring the Lord's Day. We've moved from "don't" to "choice" on killing our littlest babies. We used to outlaw homosexuality, but now we protect it. Coveting, once frowned on as rude, is now subsidized by the government.

Even many Christians who are serious about the Bible argue that the main way to change behavior is not with heavy-handed laws and rule books, but by bringing the gospel to bear on people's hearts. Change them from inside, such people argue, for change on the outside produces nothing but pious-or maybe even bitter-hypocrites.

That's true, of course, and we'll never put our dependence on rules to make us over in Christ's image. Only God's wondrous grace does that.

But along the way, there are two good reasons to keep some of the major rules in place. First, rules reduce damage during that time when we're still waiting for hearts to get changed. An Army colonel whose only motivation for avoiding adultery is that he wants to get a promotion in a few years will still have a happier home life-even if his motivation is wrong. God will protect his wife and his children from devastation that might otherwise destroy them.

Second, God himself still uses rules. Always, he wants us to remember that rule-keeping doesn't make us good enough for him. But that doesn't mean there's no place for rule-keeping. Rules protect us, and society, from our worst excesses. Rules remind us, and society, what God's perfections are like.

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