Sometimes the church can be self-righteous and condemn a sinner in the name of holiness, ignoring mercy. Or it can be permissive in the name of mercy, ignoring holiness.
Too much mercy can turn us into fools and pushovers. Too much holiness—yes excessive holiness is possible—can make us cold and detached. The extra-holy may stone sinners with their words and sneers. How do we strike a balance? How do we forgive a sexual offender like an adulterer?
The New Testament, specifically the teaching of Jesus, provides us with guidance.
How Jesus fulfills the law
If we do not understand the teaching of Jesus, we may err in reestablishing harsh punishments for adultery. Sadly, this has been done in church history.
First, Christians honor the Old Testament, but they also take this multifaceted document in its historical context. The Torah was part and parcel of its culture. It either reflects its culture (like some architectural features of the tabernacle), or it improves on its culture (ethical monotheism). Not all of the old law applies to today’s world. Second, Christians look back at the Old Testament through the vision of Jesus. It is true that the Old Testament endorses the stoning of adulterers (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), and other punishments for fornicators, including a monetary fine and stoning, depending on the circumstances (Ex. 22:16-17; Deut. 22:23-26; 28-29).
Moreover, it should be pointed out that even the Old Testament itself is silent on the actual carrying out of the punishment of stoning adulterers and fornicators, though it does cite an instance of stoning a man for blasphemy (Lev. 24:10-16) and of executing some ancient Hebrews for mixing sexual immorality with the worship of false gods (Num. 25:1-16) and of stoning a man who carried wood on the Sabbath (Deut. 15:32-37).
Blessedly, Jesus came to fulfill the law, not to abolish it (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus fulfills the law by taking on himself the penalty for our sins, taking away the law’s severe punishments. The Torah is filled with specific punishments for specific sins, but his death on the cross satisfies and propitiates divine wrath that is directed at our sins—this is the Christian doctrine of the atonement. It is for this reason that a Christian could never give up this doctrine. Christ’s death is God’s gift to us. We are saved and on our way to heaven, not based on our own works, but on Christ’s good work on the cross. Those who trust in Christ do not have to pay the penalty for their sins. Therefore, for Christians, Jesus’ interpretation of these laws is final. He takes away their sharp sting with his death on the cross and by his sinless life and divine love.
For more information on the interrelations between the Old and New Testaments, go to these two articles:
How Jesus forgives sexual sins
One aspect of the old law that Christians take seriously is its morality. The Old Testament says that adultery and fornication are sins, and so does the New Testament. So what is the policy of Jesus on stoning or flogging sexual sinners? Of course, Jesus emphatically says that adultery and fornication are sins (Matt. 15:19; Mark 7:21), but they are no longer crimes as the Torah implies by its stern punishments. He also shows a new path in dealing with sins. This clear and better path goes to the human heart, the root of the sin.
In the famous Sermon on the Mount he says this about adultery and lust.
Matt. 5:27-28 says:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Immediately, this raises the stakes so high that all corporeal punishment is removed; otherwise, all of humanity would kill each other with legalized stoning. These two verses say that sexual sin is no longer a civil crime or any kind of crime. Adultery and other sexual sins begin in the mind, so the solution to them must also begin in the mind. He goes beyond pointing out the spiritual root cause, and offers a spiritual solution.
One day a certain Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus into his large house for dinner. Suddenly a “sinful woman” (read: local prostitute) crashed the dinner party and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them off with her hair, and poured oil on his feet. The Pharisee became indignant and said to himself that if Jesus really were a prophet, he would know who was touching him and not allow it, for she was unclean. Jesus pointed out to him that Simon had not offered him the customs of hospitality, but this sinful woman was doing this. “Then Jesus said to her, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ The other guests began to say among themselves, ‘Who is this who even forgives sins?’ [This is another New Testament hint of Jesus’ divinity.] Jesus said to the woman, ‘Your faith has saved you; go in peace’” (Luke 7:48-50).
This true account shows that Jesus did not order prostitutes and other sexual sinners to be hunted down and flogged or burned alive, even though this one was living in Israel, the Holy Land, and even though the Torah says specifically that a prostitute must be burned with fire (Lev. 21:9). Instead, Jesus looks at the heart and sees a diamond in the rough. He knows that with his love and power, through the Holy Spirit, sexual sinners of all sorts can be changed. Sexual sin is just that—a sin; it is not a crime in the new era of salvation that Jesus has ushered in.
While it is true that Jesus was not an official judge, he still could have dragged the sinful woman into a Jewish court at the time and demanded that the judge or judges carry out the letter of the law of Moses. This is seen in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, not long after the Resurrection of Jesus. The opponents of Stephen dragged him before the Sanhedrin; and after a lengthy speech that stung the authorities and the crowds, he was dragged outside of Jerusalem and stoned to death (Acts 6:8-8:1). Jesus could have done the same thing to the sinful woman. But, again, he rose above such superficial solutions to the deep problems of the heart, in order to find a deeper and lasting solution. Matt. 5:27-28 were designed to clarify problems and solutions for the early Christian community. Leaders should not stone or flog the sinner, but instead forgive him or her and offer a path of help and healing.
According to Matt. 18:15-18, Jesus said, first, to show a brother his fault. But if he does not repent, then the early Christians were to take two or more brothers with them to show him his fault. If he refuses to listen, then the Christians were to tell it to the church; and if he still does not repent, then he is to be removed from fellowship. These are practical and down-to-earth steps that Christian churches may follow with variations that relate to specific facts. These principles behind the steps are found not only in the Gospels, but throughout the New Testament. Therefore, early Christianity has a lot to offer society.
How the early Church followed Jesus
The earliest followers of Jesus needed some guidelines as they lived in Christian communities, first in Jerusalem and Judea, and eventually throughout the Greco-Roman world. For this reason (and many others), the New Testament came into being. The Christians wanted to know what Jesus may have said or thought about this or that problem like dietary restrictions or the Sabbath. We can be certain that the church was also working out the problem of sexual sins in their communities. We can get a view of how the church worked out their policies, under the leadership of the Spirit of Christ.
In Paul’s first letter to the Christians living in Corinth, Greece, a city renowned for temple prostitutes, we listen in on the middle of a conversation (1 Cor. 5:1-12). Apparently, a young man is living with his father’s wife (likely his young stepmother), and the Corinthian church is proud of him, rather than rebuking him. Aghast, Paul reacts firmly and sternly. He tells the leaders of the church to remove him from fellowship or community life until he repents. The church follows his instructions, and the story ends happily. From Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians we learn that the sinner repented “with excessive sorrow” and was welcomed back into fellowship (2 Cor. 2:5-11). Says Paul: “If you forgive anyone, I also forgive him” (v. 10). He seems to have followed the guidelines Christ set out in Matt. 18:15-18, though in a compacted way, since the young man’s sins were in its advanced stages. But how much Paul knew of the Gospel of Matthew or this specific oral tradition circulating around the early church is unclear.
It may be argued that the crowds in the various cities throughout the Mediterranean world did not have the authority to stone people. However, this did not stop a mob in Lystra from stoning Paul without permission from the Council or the Assembly (Acts 14:19). It is entirely possible that the authorities in Corinth would have looked the other way, when a social group took matters into their own hands. However, even if Paul knew that the church in Corinth could have stoned the errant young man to death without a challenge from the authorities, Paul still did not endorse this punishment simply because he knew the Spirit of Christ—this Jesus whom Paul argued was resurrected (1 Cor. 15).
How Christianity changes society
Should New Testament Christianity impose its rules and ways on the larger society?
Jesus’ mission was to look beyond establishing a worldly government, but to provide the true path of salvation by his atoning death on the cross. He knew that wandering messiahs and prophets tried to establish their credentials by military and political means around the greater Middle East, before and during his time, so he avoided a military and political Messiahship. Besides, he was destined to fulfill Old Testament passages that describe a spiritual Messiah, such as Is. 53. When he comes back a second time, he will fulfill the role of a Messiah that is both military (one word will eliminate all enemies) and political (he will rule on earth peacefully and without opposition).
Later jurists and legal scholars, long after the New Testament was written, take from the Christian sacred text (and from the Old Testament) some moral principles. But their efforts to codify these principles have produced only mixed results. Sometimes they would in fact flog the adulterer, or sometimes even impose the death penalty. For example, in 1650, the Puritans (extra-strict Christians), during the few years of a Republic in England when they were in power, passed the Adultery Act, which called for the death penalty for adulterers. But how did any of these policies purge society of this sin? Though law may curtail sins and crimes, so we should not have antinomianism or opposition to the law as such, no evidence suggests that when the church controlled the details of society, the society was even close to being purified. Living under such severe strictures, people are forced to fulfill their lusts in more secretive ways. But people must be allowed to choose holiness freely and voluntarily and without harassment if they take another path.
When masses of individuals in western societies (Christianity and western civilization are not identical) finally allow the Holy Spirit to cleanse them from the inside out, then society can make external improvements naturally and gladly. Christians preach the gospel of good news to get people to join their cause and allow the Spirit into their lives, one soul at a time. They do not and cannot impose the sovereign Spirit on to people. And they certainly do not hit them with whips and stones. Christianity seeks to improve society by spiritual means, by seeing the heart change.
If the church can not strike the perfect balance between forgiveness and righteous standards, it is better to err on the side of forgiveness, but a balance of both is the ideal.