I suspect the title of this blog post caught your attention right away! Why would someone ask such a strange question?
Paul did in the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians. He ranted about this situation for the entire chapter and told the Corinthians to expel the man who was living with his father’s wife.
I have always found Paul to be judgmental. He was Jewish and married to the laws of Judaism—all 613 of them. Furthermore, he was a well-trained Pharisee, part of a group that believed in strict adherence of the Law. 1 Corinthians was penned in the early 50s CE, when the Jesus movement was still a sect of Judaism. Despite becoming a Follower of the Way, Paul was still a legalist at heart.
I suspect Paul thought of himself as a progressive Jew. For example, he argued that gentile converts did not need to be circumcised. Good idea! On the other hand, he wanted to keep women oppressed and gay people excluded. That’s not very progressive!
I become nervous when Paul makes strong judgments. I wonder if he condemned the couple in 1 Corinthians because he thought a man sleeping with his stepmother was totally outrageous or because does he felt he had to condemn them as a legalist. My immediate question is this: Did Paul know why the man was having sex with his father’s wife?
My ethical system is situational, which means I want to know what was happening in the father’s home that resulted in his son becoming sexually involved with his wife. When I know the whole story, then perhaps I can make an educated statement.
Here are some examples.
Suppose the father simply “bought” (as a slave or by paying a dowry) a young woman to keep the house clean, put food on the table, and help run his business, but he had no other interest in her as a wife. Would that put a different spin on the situation?
Now suppose the woman fell in love with her husband’s son, who was closer to her age. Would that change your thinking?
What if the dad was totally bedridden, had lost his memory, or was on his deathbed, and his wife and son comforted each other. Would that make a difference in passing judgment?
Years ago, an older woman came to my office and shared her story. Her husband, who had been unfaithful to her throughout their marriage, was in an assisted living facility. She visited him daily even though he had no idea who she or anyone else was. At the assisted living facility, she met a wonderful man whose wife was in the same condition as her husband. This woman and man spoke daily, shared their pain, went out together, and eventually began a sexual relationship. The woman felt terrible guilt and wanted to know what I thought.
There was no way I could condemn either of these people even though they were committing adultery. This close, intimate relationship brought new meaning to their lonely lives and made them feel needed and loved. Unfortunately, because of documents they signed over fifty years ago under entirely different circumstances, many would label them as adulterers.
This is what situational ethics is all about. One has to see the whole picture before one makes any judgments. What can appear to be evil, bad, or immoral can really be the opposite depending on the circumstances.
Jesus practiced situational ethics—see John 8:1–12 for the story of how he defended an adulteress.
What think ye?