Adultery: Grace or Gossip?

The distressed parishioner had a sad, even pathetic, story to tell, one the Rev. C. Welton Gaddy had heard before.

The man confessed that he was an adulterer, but that wasn't the worst part of his predicament. His boss had heard about the affair and fired him, starting a chain reaction that struck his wife and two children.

Both the husband and his wife wanted to try save the marriage, said Gaddy, in a case study in his new book, "Adultery & Grace: The Ultimate Scandal." But with the husband's sudden unemployment, she was forced into the job market. Along with the crushing blow of his infidelity, this stress weakened her already fragile health. The children's educational plans were in jeopardy. Now, the husband needed to know if his pastor could help with their most pressing concerns -- money for marriage counseling and groceries.

Friends pleaded with the employer on behalf of the wife and children. Gaddy remembers the response: "They're not my problem. He should have thought of what he was doing to his family before he started screwing around."

The boss wanted to punish the adulterer, but crushed a family. Worst of all, said Gaddy, this approach often serves as a death sentence for weakened marriages, creating more broken homes. Truth is, many people relate to adulterers and their families with a mean-spiritedness that is just as sinful as acts of adultery.

Most Americans have a "love-hate relationship with adultery and adulterers," said the Baptist writer and ethicist, who currently leads Northminster Church in Monroe, La. "People flock to movies to drool over stories of heroes and heroines caught in adulterous relations. Scores of readers go through stacks of romance novels detailing extramarital erotica. Tell these same individuals about two people they know ... in an adulterous relationship, however, and watch out for a severe response of righteous indignation mixed with moral outrage."

A similar tension exists in churches. Most religious people act as if adultery is the worst of all possible sins, a scarlet- letter offense that's impossible to forget or forgive. Yet clergy rarely, if ever, use the pulpit to offer advice on how people can avoid adultery or recover from this sin. Few churches dare to offer programs that help save broken marriages.

Yes, a few liberal churches have even made news by saying that sex outside of marriage is not always sinful. But it may be even more newsworthy that so many conservative churches have become timid or silent. The result is a worse-case scenario. Instead of guidance, churches offer gossip; instead of proclaiming the need for repentance, forgiveness and restoration, most church leaders, by their silence, promote secrecy, vindictiveness and divorce.

The silence may be linked to darker truths about church life in this era of high divorce rates in pulpits and pews. Gaddy noted that numerous studies indicate "religious people who regularly worship in a church or synagogue are as prone to marital infidelity as the rest of the population. Their views on sexuality reveal a conservatism not shared by society at large, but their behavior differs little from the social norm."

The first step to healing is for religious leaders to talk openly about the multigenerational havoc that adultery causes in the lives of husbands, wives and children, said Gaddy. After breaking the silence, clergy can discuss practical ways that the church can people recover from adultery.

In one encounter with a woman caught in adultery, noted Gaddy, Jesus delivered a delicately balanced message. He did not condemn her, but his final words were clear: "Go, and sin no more." The church must deliver a similar message, and then its deeds must match its words. The goal is to save souls and then save marriages.

"Either you believe in grace and redemption or you don't," said Gaddy. "I believe that adultery has become, for the modern church, the ultimate test of this reality. ... I am convinced the church can denounce sin, while also being aggressive about telling people about forgiveness and grace."