If marriage is a public matter then so too is adultery

Yesterday I wrote about the breaking news concerning the then Health Secretary, Matt Hancock and an alleged affair.  Hancock has now resigned from the government but as I wrote in the article, the focus was primarily no breach of COVID rules. People have tried to play down the moral side of things by insisting that if there was an affair then it was about Hancock’s “messy personal life.”  In my previous article I wrote that this was to minimise the seriousness of adultery. Adultery is harmful because it destroys relationships and families. Still, some people have continued to suggest that these things are private.  As one person put it on twitter “what happens in my marriage is no-one else’s business.”

Now, let’s be clear, the tabloid media has an insatiable desire for gossip and want to know and publish all the lurid details. Furthermore, there is something about sinful human nature that draws us in and wants us to know too, We should be alert to that danger within our own hearts. However, we can distinguish the sinful need for detail to satisfy curiosity and intrigue from the question of public v private.

What this comes down to is that there are two elements to marriage. Marriage is both about public commitment and private intimacy.[1]  The tweeter is right, there is a private and exclusive dimension to marital intimacy and that should not be anyone else’s business. However, the other crucial dimension to marriage is that it is more than just a romantic engagement between two people. Marriage is marked by a public ceremony with vows, witnesses, signatures and rings.  It is something that happens (from a Christian perspective) in front of God, it is he who joins us together but it is also something that is legally binding. 

The reason for this is that marriage is itself a public good. It is for the good and well being of the whole of society.  This means that divorce is also a public and legal matter too. This protects people from being exploited and discarded, particularly women so that they are not treated as chattels. 

It is exactly through being a  public matter, a covenant not just a private agreement that wives are protected.  The witnesses, the community and the law step in to say that a man cannot just go around taking advantage of whoever he desires. He has made commitments, he has responsibilities to his wife and his children and the marriage ceremony says that there are people willing to step in and hold him to them. A society that no longer takes responsibility for holding people to their vows is less loving not more.

Furthermore, the public nature of marriage means that there is some responsibility in wider society for what happens within the marriage and the home. Those words to the effect that what happens in the marital home are no one else’s business sound mighty fine until you realise that there are so many, too many wives being told that by abusive partners who are violent, emotionally cruel and demeaning, who are willing to beat, imprison, use as slaves and even rape their partners.

Marriage is a public matter and so adultery is a public sin. It means that a pastor cannot hide beind the excuse that these are personal and private sins when caught in unfaithfulness. It means that churches have a responsibility to enact church discipline against unfaithful and abusive husbands.

So, yes, we do not want to and do not need to know every little detail of gossip but no, these things are not simply private and personal. The affect of the sin of unfaithfulness is damage to those caught up in the sin, to their families and to the wider community. The breaking of public vows is public sin.


[1] If I remember correctly, this is the phrase that Christopher Ash uses in his book “Marriage, Sex n the service of God.”

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