This week's question comes from a Monroe resident who wrote, "My girlfriend told me that President Clinton said he didn't commit adultery because he didn't know Lewinsky in the biblical sense of the word. Is that true?"
Unfortunately, the Bible can be one of the most dangerous swords in the hands of those who wield her without respect. With a little study one can prove or justify nearly anything by using one verse or another in cock-eyed configurations. The recent political arena is one of those cases.
The definition of adultery, in a literal sense, is the sexual union of two people at least one of whom is married, but not married to their current sexual partner. In other words, it's when one person "cheats" on their spouse. However, according to the law in the Old Testament, adultery was much more narrowly defined. A married woman who engaged in sexual activity with anyone besides her husband was guilty of adultery. On the other hand, a married man was guilty of adultery only if he had sexual relations with a woman who was married to someone else. If he had relations with a single woman or a prostitute, and if he compensated the father or the woman, he was innocent of wrongdoing. If our president lived in 1000 BCE his actions would have been acceptable.
But we don't live in that world, we live here. And much has changed, not only in our culture, but even in scripture. Although the Old Testament allowed sex outside of marriage for some, by Jesus' day this was no longer the case. Indeed, even in the Old Testament there is evidence that what was accepted as common practice was frowned on by the religious world. In Numbers 15 we read that a blue tassel should be sewn on the "corners of their garments" (the lower hem) so they will "remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of their hearts" (15.39). The Hebrew word used for lust in this passage suggests that the fringes may have been reminders to maintain marital fidelity.
In any event, by the days of the New Testament the definition of adultery had narrowed considerably. By then anyone who had relations outside of marriage was considered an adulterer in some respect. But this didn't really cover acts of sexual union beyond intercourse.
But never fear, the Bible doesn't leave us bereft in a sea of ignorance. Paul writes "It is well for a man not to touch a woman" (I Corinthians 7.1). This extended passage suggests that those who serve the church, if they have the gift of celibacy, should remain unmarried. On the other hand, Paul goes on to say, "It is better to marry than to be aflame with passion" (7.9b). In the extended passage (7.1-9) he clearly implies that any act of sexual passion beyond the bounds of marriage is wrong. But in the end, it is Jesus who said it best: "You have heard it said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at another with lust has already committed adultery in their heart" (Matthew 5.27-28). And apparently our president did a whole lot more than just looking.
Clearly, any sexual relationship outside the bounds of marriage is untenable. In the end it generally hurts everyone involved -- the two who engage in a sexual act, the spurned partner(s), the family, and in this particular case, a whole nation (for another story of how a leaders' sexual addiction can hurt a whole nation read the story of David and Bathsheba in 2nd Samuel 11-12). So, to adapt a famous tennis-shoe's proverb "Just don't do it."