Monday, July 20, 2015

Part 4: Must Infidelity be Confessed to a Spouse? A Rebuttal to Questionable Counsel from Russell Moore

Part 1, here
Part 2, here
Part 3, here

My Observations and Considerations

My hope, here, is to more effectively qualify a response to this issue for my readers. I have no doubt that numerous believers face, to some degree, the dilemma of sexual sins of thought, word and/or deed and having read the kind of counsel offered by Dr. Russell Moore, they instinctively come away from his prescription knowing that something isn’t quite right but have not been able to identify and articulate their concerns. 

However, permit me to add that I am certain Russell Moore is both earnest and genuine in his guidance. As well, I believe he demonstrates a seriousness in his desire to orient people toward what he believes is Godly thinking and acting, though I regularly find myself at odds with his theological products and certainly here. Hence, I do not want anyone thinking my objective is a caricaturization of Moore. Nevertheless, his advice on the matter reflects a commonly sloppy and overly pious approach which has inflicted needless collateral damage to the lives of faltering humans and particularly Christians.

Marital infidelity

God is absolute and clear in his Word. Marriage is intended to be that of a man and woman being faithful in every manner possible, to one another. This, especially, includes sexual fidelity. Adultery is shameful and sinful. Proverbs 6:29 states regarding the one that goes to his neighbor's wife and commits adultery:

29 So is the one who goes in to his neighbor’s wife;
Whoever touches her will not go unpunished.
That passage has in view two kinds of suffering from this level of transgressing, both human and divine. Thus, it is clear that not only are there human consequences but divine ones as well. Of course not every single person and every single violation are equal and God deals with each one of us in particular (as do humans). But even so, we will be corrected and reproved by God, even if human disclosure does not occur. Proverbs 3:11-12 states:
11 My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord
Or loathe His reproof,
12 For whom the Lord loves He reproves,
Even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.
Therefore, let me be clear. In no way am I minimizing deleterious effects of this sin and its violation before God. However, how it is resolved with respect to human relationships and to whom we own a confession has an extended Biblical consideration and is not left up to our rationalizations which seem sanctified and spiritual but which may be, in fact, creating further and gratuitous conflict and injury in a marriage.


First and foremost, when you commit marital infidelity where the other spouse does not share such knowledge, there is no absolute counsel from the Scriptures or practical Biblical wisdom which demands and treats as the highest order of conduct, the disclosure of such a sin. The book of Proverbs contains a very weighty principle regarding our sins
. Proverbs 12:23 share this wisdom:
23 The prudent keep their knowledge to themselves, but a fool’s heart blurts out folly.
Now it is true that revealing an offense is not necessarily equal to blurting it out but the Proverb treats keeping knowledge of something to one’s self as “prudent”. Prudence is the practice of perspicacity regarding what we reveal to others and what we do not. We use forethought and consider how it will affect the person(s) with whom the information is revealed.

When we accept Dr. Moore’s prescription, that we are always obligated to confess infidelity, we do so in the absence of prudence. Prudence considers the damage to the relationship and the spouse, who at the moment may be very contented and who, through this knowledge, may receive an injury from which he or she cannot recover, which brings me to my next point.

Exacerbating the damage through confessing to a spouse

When someone is unfaithful they have damaged themselves. As well, their marriage will experience some by-products of unfaithfulness such as the offending spouse having created an appetite for intimacy with foreign parties. However, the faithful spouse has not received a personal offense. The integrity has failed on one end and needs resolved on that end.

So when a spouse has been unfaithful but repented and returned as a faithful party, while there may be by-product(s), the re-invested spouse will, as time increases, regain matrimonial momentum in their repentance and renewed faithfulness. Thus, the institutional effects may be minor, if noticeable at all to the innocent party.

Why, then, would there be a compelling interest in revealing the episode of infidelity to the innocent spouse, particularly if one has confessed their offense to God and returned to fidelity with the marriage developing positively as it should? 

The truth is, we often are only furthering the damage of our offense when we confess it to the unknowing party. We are, in effect, generating a greater problem where one need not be. There is no default Biblical mandate to confess our sins of thought, word and/or deed to our spouses, even infidelity, only to God.

This is not to say disclosure is never necessary but it unquestionably should not be assumed as essential any time a Christian is unfaithful. What benefit comes from pulling a spouse into such a matter, particularly when there is no real threat of disclosure by other parties? You actually rend the marriage further and enlarge the bruise which I dare say may be a sin, in and of itself.

The Purpose of Confession and using your Spouse as your Personal Priest

While I may be pressing this point with multiple references, I believe it warrants emphasis. What is the ultimate purpose for confessing marital infidelity to a spouse who does not know about it and likely will not know about it? It surely cannot be for their sake, particularly if they are happily invested in the marriage. As Russell Moore suggests, it is to somehow restore integrity to the relationship (my paraphrase) and to complete one’s repentance. However, the truth is, the irreconciliation only failed one way and only needs corrected on the end where it failed. I believe that frequently, such a confession is a selfish act to relieve a person of guilt by using their spouse as a personal priest instead of turning to God for absolution. 

Moore refers to the removal of the guilt which is present when one is unfaithful. His view is that this guilt cannot be relieved unless the innocent spouse is informed and offers forgiveness. Your spouse cannot forgive you unless they know about your infidelity and unless they know about it, they are not injured. In other words, until you disclose your infidelity your spouse is not offended, they are innocent. Only you are the injured party, injured by your own sin. Your remedy is repentance before God and a re-commitment to your marriage.

Bearing your own Burdens

As Christians we ought to learn to bear our own burdens. We should not draw others into our internal and private failures and demand absolution and unconditional love as if they are God. In my view, the selfishness of this kind of approach is understated.

It is the child who uses other people to assuage their guilt when disclosure of personal failures and a guilty conscience are not needed. It is the adult who accepts the conscience which comes when they commit offenses and it is the adult Christian who believes God’s promise of forgiveness (when they name their sins) and moves on in life.

Are you saying there never is a time to confess to others, particularly marital infidelity, to your spouse?

I am not suggesting that we never have to confess our sins to others; this would violate what I pointed to in James. However, context and its variables are part of the consideration and as we see in James, Matthew and in the passage in 1 Corinthians, these have to do with people denying sins of which they are being confronted by others. For a few specific cases, but not limited to these, I offer two concrete occasions where I believe it would be unprincipled to fail to disclose infidelity to your spouse.

First, in the case that the innocent party is very likely to have this information shared to them by a party outside of the marriage. This is when we should use wisdom and control the event of the disclosure to the innocent party and offer whatever information is necessary. This is a prudent confession and cares for the innocent party so that they are not blindsided by the information from transient parties and humiliated.

Secondly, we must confess our offenses if our actions produce consequences of which our spouse needs to know because it will directly affect the marriage such as getting another person pregnant, getting an STD or an affair which will cost the offender his or her employment and so on. Again, this keeps the innocent spouse from being blindsided, humiliated and even further injured.

Concluding Comments

In most cases of marital infidelity I believe there to be few absolutes which can be broadly prescribed when it comes to admitting unfaithfulness to a spouse. Some spouses can handle such admissions, forgive in a timely manner and move on to a renewed and healthy marriage. Others, however, would be crushed and permanently debilitated by such a discovery, even though it may have been a single and isolated event and many years ago.

Treating your spouse with the assumption that he or she can deal with this information, will be willing to forgive you and that your marriage will become stronger and healthier than before is an assumption no one, particularly a Christian, can afford to make. Every case has its own set of variables and everyone is different. This may seem like obvious advice but it appears to me that the obvious escaped Dr. Russell Moore in his broad and indiscriminate prescription of confessing infidelity to an unknowing spouse.  

Qualifier - I do wish to be emphatic here. I have no desire to prescribe to anyone's conscience before God the idea that it is foolish and weak to offer such a disclosure to your spouse. It can be, in some of the instances I have pointed out, but if your conscience is inconsolably torn and you find yourself with no sufficient remedy to your betrayal other than confessing this to your spouse, forbid me from being the dictate of your conscience. 

However, this is precisely why I have written this four-part response, because sometimes a person's conscience is fraught with guilt based on false concepts. My encouragement and instruction is a biblically perspicacious handling of such failures and a conscience which is strengthened by truth, not weakened by errant absolutes.

Maybe you believe it is noble to make such confessions but you may do more damage than good and there is nothing noble about that. It may end up being a greater act of love to keep such indiscretions to yourself and bearing this privately, before God, as a failure but one in which God has forgiven you instead of dumping this onto your spouse to deal with. Keeping them innocent may be the greater virtue.

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