Is Adultery Natural?

From time to time, I see conservative Christians argue that homosexual acts are significantly worse than other forms of sexual sin—like fornication or adultery—because at least those other sins are “natural.” Often the same argument is applied even at the level of temptation: temptation toward homosexual sin is worse than temptation toward heterosexual sin. (For example, Matt Moore recently made such an argument, despite arguing that it not sinful simply to experience temptation.) This argument seems to be based on an exaggerated conclusion from Paul’s use of the phrase “contrary to nature” in Romans 1:26-27.

William Dyce, "Francesca da Rimini." Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante's Inferno.

William Dyce, “Francesca da Rimini.” Based on the story of Paulo and Francesca in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno.

In order to evaluate this argument, it’s important to understand what makes something “natural” and what makes it “contrary to nature.” From a Christian perspective, this must come down to God’s intent when He created the world. Something is “natural” if it is in line with God’s created order, and “contrary to nature” if it rejects some part of that order.

Some people’s contention seems to be that the description of homosexual practice as “contrary to nature” is intended to set homosexual practice apart from other sins. However, I don’t think that Paul would describe as “natural” the more general “lust” and “impurity” in Romans 1:24, the idolatry in Romans 1:25, the various vices in Romans 1:29-30, or the judgment discussed at the start of Romans 2. And in the other passages where Paul addresses homosexuality, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-11, he includes it on a list with several other sins, including generic “sexual immorality.” Romans 1 is the only case where Paul singles out homosexuality as “contrary to nature,” but he does not say that it is unique in that category even there.

To understand what “contrary to nature” would have meant to a first-century Christian, and what is against the order God created, we must go to the same source Paul would have used for understanding God’s created order: the Genesis creation accounts. This also makes sense in light of Paul’s focus on God as Creator in Romans 1.

The first place that the sexes are mentioned is in Genesis 1:27-28, in which God references that male and female are created in His image, and gives the command to “be fruitful and multiply.” The discussion of the sexes continues in significantly more detail in chapter 2. God references Adam’s need for a “helper” (Genesis 2:18), and points out that none of the animals can serve such a role (Genesis 2:19-20). Then God creates Eve out of Adam’s side, and she can serve as his helper (Genesis 2:21-23).

From this passage, we see that females can play the role of “helper” to males. And based on the description in Genesis 1, procreation is a significant part of this role. So although there’s more work that needs to be done to argue that other kinds of sexual relationships are outside of God’s created intent, there’s a good start here. This is likely a large part of what Paul was referencing in Romans 1.

There is one large problem for people who want to single out homosexuality as uniquely contrary to this order. In order to argue that marriage is not similarly fundamental to God’s created order, you have no choice but to stop reading there. Here’s what the next two verses actually say (Genesis 2:24-25, ESV):

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Here we have the most direct reference to sexual activity in the Genesis account, with the discussion of “becoming one flesh.” And we see that God’s institution for sexuality indeed involves a man and a woman. But it’s not just an arbitrary man and a womanit’s a man and his wife. In other words, marriage is a fundamental part of the created order. The desire for adultery is therefore not “natural” at all.

This passage offers insight into what Paul described as “natural relations” in Romans 1:26-27. “Natural relations” must describe sex within the context of marriage. Sex that is fundamentally outside that context, including adultery, is similarly contrary to “natural relations.”

This is further confirmed by the way that Jesus uses the Genesis account in the New Testament. In Matthew 19, Jesus uses the creation account to argue that it is wrong for a man to be remarried after a divorce in most circumstances. In other words, Jesus teaches that the desire to marry someone other than the original spouse violates the creation order. This is a clear example that a desire can be heterosexual and yet violate God’s creative intent.

It’s worth noting that there is a difference in how remarriage is handled in Scripture and how homosexual practice is handled in Scripture. The Law of Moses explicitly accommodated divorce and remarriage, while homosexual practice has consistently been unlawful. A similar observation can be made about polygamy, although its accommodation is less explicit in the Old Testament. However, we ought to be careful not to take this distinction too far by denying what Jesus taught in the New Testament. Furthermore, this observation cannot be used to argue that adultery is less serious than homosexual practice, as adultery is condemned just as consistently and is in fact condemned much more frequently.

People often still try to argue that heterosexual desire is inherently natural even in cases where its fulfillment would be adultery. The basic argument is that if it’s someone of the wrong sex, it’s fundamentally wrong and could not be otherwise, whereas if it’s someone married to someone else, that’s just a result of circumstance. In other circumstances, desiring the same person could be good. But it’s hard to see how this distinction could really come from Scripture. It also seems like a rather problematic way to argue. For example, if we are not pacifists, we believe that there are circumstances when it’s appropriate to kill a person who is a danger to others. However, we wouldn’t say that the desire to kill your noisy neighbor is “natural” simply because you could kill him or her if he or she tried to kill your family.

Some state a similar argument this way: it’s always wrong for a man to have sex with a man, but not for a man to have sex with a woman. But this is just looking at the wrong level of detail. It’s also always wrong for a man to have sex with a married woman, other than his own wife. If you think the fact that it’s a man and a woman makes the desire natural, consider another approach. Is it always wrong for a person to have sex with another person? No, obviously not. Therefore as long as the desire involves a person and a person it’s natural, right? This argument makes the same error. Many of the arguments used to justify the desire for adultery as “natural” are too powerful; they can also be used to argue that nearly any sexual desire is “natural.” So we must reject these arguments.

Let’s put this in terms of an experience I sometimes have, but with fake names. I am friends with both Bob and his wife Alice. Both of them very attractive. If I’m honest with myself, I’m attracted to each in a way that includes a desire to have sex, if I let my mind go there.

According to the typical view of the “homosexuality is uniquely unnatural” crowd, my feelings for Alice are “natural,” even though acting on them sexually would be sin. However, my feelings for Bob are fundamentally unnatural. These feelings in particular must be fought or “mortified” in a way that my feelings for Alice don’t need to be.

Let’s contrast this with how I process the situation in practice. I often experience both attractions as largely the same phenomenon. Rather than having “heterosexual attraction” and “homosexual attraction” as different things, I just have “attraction” that is sometimes towards another male and sometimes towards a female. I don’t have some magic ability to control whom I experience it towards.

I don’t identify all aspects of what I feel towards either Alice or Bob as sexual desire. So I don’t believe I need to mortify everything about that attraction. And some of what gets into the category of sexual desire I see as just how my biology is acting in a fallen world, not really “sinful” in and of itself. However, I must mortify my inclination to take either attraction towards lust or sex. Bob is off-limits to me sexually both because he’s a man and because he’s married. However, Alice is no less off-limits to me sexually, because she’s also married. So both desires must be mortified, insofar as they are driving me towards lust or sex. And from what I understand, my feelings towards each of them become problematic at the same point.

There is no way of reading Romans 1-3 and thinking that homosexual sin is uniquely contrary to God’s plan. The point of Paul’s argument is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The proper way to understand Romans 1, along with the rest of Scripture, is to see the seriousness of all sin. It is a good warning about the way that many of my different feelings could lead me away from what is natural and from righteousness. It is not a way to argue that my desires for homosexual sin are worse than my desires for heterosexual sin, or that I don’t really need to worry about my desires for heterosexual sin.

19 thoughts on “Is Adultery Natural?

  1. Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, – 1Cor 11:14

    I’m not going to comment on the larger points (I think that would be fruitless). I would just point out that Paul uses the same “against nature” wording in his letter to the Corinthians to describe men with long hair. Surely hair growth is natural; so it’s reasonable to suggest that his perceptions are culturally conditioned. Considering the purpose of his letter to the Romans, it would seem that he was trying to conger self-righteousness in the minds of his audience by citing something totally counter-cultural as an example of unchecked immorality. Counter-first-century-cultural is not necessarily sinful much less a sin of a higher magnitude.

    • Yeah, that’s a good point. I considered saying something about the 1 Corinthians passage, but it’s a tricky one and I thought it would distract from my main point about adultery not being “natural.” I do think Paul was probably referring to something from the created order that was signified by hair length in that particular culture, but I don’t have a particularly worked-out view.

      And I fully agree with you about what Paul was doing in Romans 1, and think that does a lot to explain why he picked the particular example he did. (Although we disagree about whether the text still ends up teaching that homosexual practice is sinful.)

      • Say a man just spotted a woman. He doesn’t know she is married, there is no indication that she is, and he goes “wow! What a beautiful woman. She is definetly worth getting closer to. I would love to get to know her and let myself be known by her.” Is there something intrinsically wrong with this? Pay attention, I don’t ask if this is sinful, which is not, but just basically wrong. My answer is: no. But if the same feelings are directed towards another man then the situation changes and yes, there is something wrong right then and there at the very origen of the feeling. It is not sinful either but it is wrong in and of itself.

        It is like a person being born with two healthy hands or the same person being born with only one hand. There is nothing wrong in the first case but there is something wrong in the second case. There is no sin in either.

  2. There is a difference between sexual desire and lust. Lust is a sin even if only in the heart and even if it doesn’t materialize in the physical world. Lust involves making an object of the other person.

    “You have heard that it was said to those of old,[a] ‘You shall not commit adultery.’[b] 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

    He says “if you lust after a woman” not to actually just have sexual desire but to lust.

    Sexual desire between the two sexes is also a fundamental part of the created order. Sexual desire within ones own sex is not. Therefore sexual desire (not lust) between the two sexes is not a sin even when directed towards someone that’s not your spouse. But if you start indulging in this desire it becomes disordered and it becomes a sin. There is a extremely fine line between sexual desire and lust which is uncontrolled and disordered sexual desire. I think the best advice is: If you find yourself admiring someone that is forbidden to you avoid unnecessary contact with that person.

    • Fully agreed on the difference between sexual desire and lust. But I think the same distinction applies just as much in the same-sex case as the opposite-sex.

      I don’t believe that “between the sexes” is a sufficient condition for sexual desire to be part of the created order. I don’t think you really do, either. Would a 40-year-old man’s sexual attraction to a 2-year-old girl be within the created order? Clearly not, even though it’s between the sexes. So you’d include something about age as a necessary condition for sexual desire to be part of the created order. My argument in the post is that “ordered toward marriage” is a *necessary* condition for sexual desire to be part of the created order. Thanks to the Fall, almost everyone experiences unnatural desires that go against this order. But that was not God’s original design, and “between the sexes” is not restrictive enough to locate the distinction between natural and unnatural.

      • Say a man just spotted a woman. He doesn’t know she is married, there is no indication that she is, and he goes “wow! What a beautiful woman. She is definetly worth getting closer to. I would love to get to know her and let myself be known by her.” Is there something intrinsically wrong with this? Pay attention, I don’t ask if this is sinful, which is not, but just basically wrong. My answer is: no. But if the same feelings are directed towards another man then the situation changes and yes, there is something wrong right then and there at the very origen of the feeling. It is not sinful either but it is wrong in and of itself.

        It is like a person being born with two healthy hands or the same person being born with only one hand. There is nothing wrong in the first case but there is something wrong in the second case. There is no sin in either.

      • Actually, as you described it, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with having that reaction between men. There’s nothing inherently sexual about knowing and being known; it can also be experienced in the context of friendship. Same-sex friendship is a good thing. And while I don’t think it’s ideal for this feeling to be based on physical attractiveness, I’m not sure it automatically creates as big a problem as you think it does. (And I do think it’s legitimate to recognize the beauty God has created in both sexes.)

        I do think there’s a difference in terms of desire to pursue a marital/sexual relationship. If the man is single, then because he doesn’t know the woman is married, that desire may be directed toward marriage and is working as intended. But if he learns that she is married, or if he is married to someone else himself, then it does present exactly the same sort of temptation that is present when it’s between two people of the same sex. In fact, even the initial impulse to “know and be known” may be more dangerous in the man/woman with one of them married case, because if pursued it’s more likely to lead to sexual sin. (Just because a lot of times LGB people are attracted to straight people of the same sex.)

        I don’t think we were intended to experience temptation toward sexual sin, so I don’t think we were supposed to experience explicitly sexual feelings toward others of the same sex. But I also don’t believe we are supposed to experience those toward other people after being married, etc. In practice, in this fallen world almost everyone does. But looking at Scripture, to me the clear conclusion is that our sexual feelings are supposed to be directed towards marriage alone.So there is something wrong in almost every case, although the degree to which it’s wrong may vary from person to person. And it’s not at all clear to me that my being attracted to men makes my situation worse than that of numerous straight male friends who are addicted to pornography and have a warped view of sexuality because of it.

      • Well… In the biblical sense knowing and to be known has a clear sexual component and in my example I was also thinking about a sexual component to it (not just friendship).

        It is unfortunate that one has to spell out every single aspect of an argument every time one proposes one.

        As I stated before if they know of the impediment of one of them being married the PURSUE of the original feeling is wrong but not the original feeling and not even a posterior feeling of the same kind. The pursue of this feeling or indulgence in it can turn to lust very fast and thus into sin. But it of itself is not wrong or sinful. It is only wrong when they INDULGE in it and is even more wrong when they PURSUE it. This feeling is like having two working hands, it is good in and of itself. But if misuse it indulging in it or pursuing it further it is then distorted and wrong. Like if one uses ones hands to steal.

        Maybe it is more dangerous to have two hands because it is easier to steal with two hands than with one, but I still one to have my two functioning hands.

        You say: But I also don’t believe we are supposed to experience those toward other people after being married, etc.

        This knowledge of a person being married comes strictly from an intellectual level while the attraction comes from an instinct. Thus the problem with thinking that we are not supposed to feel attraction towards a married man or woman is that God didn’t make us with markers of any sort (or at least I don’t know of any such marker be it hormonal or otherwise) to be able to instinctively tell when another person is marry. This tells me that God intended for us to submit instinct to intellect but the instinct that He himself created is good of its own right and becomes vicious only when not aligned to the intellect.

        Of course I’m talking of the instinct of men towards women and women towards men and under any circumstance whether married or not because of the fact (again) that God did not create us with some automatic/instinctual mechanism to “detect” marriage. This knowledge is intellectual.

        Your situation is not worse with respect to sin. Your situation is like being born with only one hand. I have my own disabilities with which I was born by God’s grace and that I must gracefully bare .

      • So my current thinking is that the inability for our desires to respond to intellect is itself one of the biological realities of living in a fallen world. Like aging, it’s a universal fact of life, but I don’t think it was God’s original intention. Although this is based on some inferences from Scripture that could easily be wrong, so I understand if you disagree.

        There is another case that should be easier to reason about, though, and that’s the case of a married person who continues to experience attraction to others outside the marriage. I believe that if our desires were working properly, we’d naturally be satisfied by spouses and wouldn’t continue to experience desire for others. If I were married myself, I probably would have written this post comparing attractions to men and women other than my wife. But I’m not, so I used the example that is applicable to my actual situation.

        When I talk to straight married male friends about their sexual attractions, they more or less universally find them to be a continual source of temptation. I don’t think this is fundamentally a different species of temptation from what I feel regarding both men and married women. And given that the Creator’s intent was one man and one woman for life, and that these attractions pull in a different direction, I believe them to be unnatural, disordered, and fallen. In an unfallen world, we were meant to be satisfied by our spouses alone.

        When it comes to the myriad of healthy ways we can connect with people that don’t involve sex, the corresponding desires are not disordered when directed to either sex.

      • I can actually agree that maybe it is a disconnect between our instincts and our intellect that is the source of the problem. This can also explain why original sin involved eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil forbidden by God. Knowledge always involves the intellect. But no one is allowed to call what is good bad or what is bad good, not that we truly know what is good or bad but only through the Spirit.

        The instinct between a man and a woman is not bad at its origin. Many problems arise when people start calling what is good bad. For instance, you say “When I talk to straight married male friends about their sexual attractions, they more or less universally find them to be a continual source of temptation”. Some men blame women for this temptation, some blame them for being the source of their temptation. When this happens impossible situations arise some as extreme as the Taliban and the burkas. Because men think that women are somehow “bad at their core” and a source of their temptations these type of situations arise. It has happen throughout history, sadly it will happen again. Until we stop calling what is good bad. There are perfectly good things that can contribute to temptation, such as women arousing sexual instincts in men. But women by themselves are not “bad” in any shape or form. Actually they are very good just like men. Thus a perfectly normal instinct between a man and a woman is not “bad” at its origin (even if one or both of them are married). However I think you are into something when you say there might be a disconnect between the intellect and the instincts.

      • To be clear, I’m definitely not at all saying that women are bad, or that temptation can be blamed on them. Certainly not. All I’m saying is that a man’s desire to experience sexual satisfaction outside of his marriage is bad, and makes it more difficult to avoid both the sin of lust and the sin of adultery. It’s the way that a man’s sexual desire isn’t satiated by one woman that is the disordered, unnatural thing. The problem I’m pointing out is a problem with how male sexuality works, not with women. (And if I get married, I expect I’ll experience the same thing with both men and women as objects of desire.)

      • You are missing the point.

        What I’m saying is that when you call something that is good, bad then bad things start to happen. Thus the example of some men (not you) trying to control women because of their perception of women being “bad” because they see them as the source of temptation and at some level they are the source of temptation.

        In your case, instead of blaming the woman, you are stating that the instinct of a man towards a woman is bad if one of the parties is married. I’m saying this is not the case. The instinct is just as God intended. I’m saying that the problem could be a disconnect between the instinct and the intellect but never the instinct itself.

        You should never call something good, bad.

        Calling this natural instinct, that is always good, bad, leads to problems too. This view, that a natural instinct is bad if one of the parties is married can and does lead to ultra-strict rigid moral norms, that tend to overly restrict sexual expression and where the sexual impulse is tabu

      • There are definitely ways people have mishandled sexual attraction. And while there’s danger in calling good things bad, I think there’s at least as much danger in calling bad things good.

        To be honest, in my case I’ve often twisted the idea that heterosexual desire is always good/natural into an excuse to lust after women. It’s easy to tell myself, “oh hey, this is way better than if I were having these thoughts about a dude, so I guess they’re OK!” And I’ve watched way too many friends struggle with pornography addiction to be naive about the dangers presented by heterosexual temptation. Even the book of Proverbs talks pretty extensively about this danger.

        Now these problems don’t necessarily follow inherently from the believe that heterosexual attraction is always hunky-dory, but neither do the problems that you reference coming from the other view. Let’s look at it a different way. From reading Genesis, the most obvious examples of bad and unnatural things are death, pain in childbirth, and the need to toil for food. I think the way the body degenerates with aging is another one that fits naturally in that category. In a fallen world, we have to learn to live with these. As much as we can, I think it’s good to work against these things, but we need to learn to be faithful in the midst of a fallen world and not just get down on how fallen the world is. We should celebrate birthdays even as we mourn the breakdown of the body, and we should value a hard day’s work even as we mourn living in a fallen world where we must toil. We should value faithfulness in the midst of sexual temptation, and should celebrate the gift of marriage for those to whom God has given it. And we should be realistic about acknowledging the ways the Fall has impacted our sexuality, recognizing that we’re all in this together.

        I think this does come down to having a disagreement about whether this class of attractions is good or not. And there are dangers to being wrong in either direction, and I hope we can recognize that. I think we’re probably at an “agree to disagree” point here.

    • It is clear to me that no matter what you will insist that heterosexual desire is bad under certain circumstances.

      May God lead you towards true freedom.

  3. If one is going to parse between ‘desire’ and ‘lust’ (which is certainly doable), then there’s a burden of proof to be met that the Bible has a concept of “unnatural desire”. And frankly, the Bible doesn’t. I suspect that’s a cultural filter. Romans 1 does talk about “vile passions” and “unnatural use” but not “unnatural desire”. We see the word ‘natural’ and we think ontology (created essence). It never means that in the New Testament. It always has to do with a formative pattern of behavior and customs. And good certainly has ordained one of those (as Jeremy has described). “Unnatural desire” is a heteronormative fantasy.

    • Hi Aaron,

      I never (or almost never) use the words natural or unnatural. They are confusing to me. I use the words good, bad, right, wrong and maybe wholesome and unwholesome. And these not necessarily in the moral sense.

      Having two eyes is good and right. Having one eye is bad or wrong. Neither is morally right or wrong, good or bad. Thus having ones sexual instinct pointing towards the opposite sex* is good because it is what God intended and having it pointing towards the same sex is bad because it is not what God intended. But in not talking about moral good or bad here.

      *pedofile excluded. Opposite sex attraction with someone of age, of course.

  4. In the Orthodox Christian tradition, nothing we do is “natural” – because we, as humans, are fallen. It is that restoration in Christ, that healing from “fallen-ness”, that enables us to be as God intended (i.e., natural).

  5. The sex act in adultery as an act of authentic human sex as willed by the creator is natural.

    It use with a person other then one’s lawful spouse is not.

    At least according to a Catholic perspective via Aquinas.

  6. Must those who wish to single out homosexual behavior as especially unnatural and hence uniquely morally objectionable, defend adultery as natural? I don’t see why they should.

    Aaron Silver’s comment (above) is correct: Romans 1 only condemns homosexual acts and relations as “contrary to nature”, never (at least not directly) homosexual desires.

    Similarly, Matthew 19 makes no comment about heterosexual desires, natural or otherwise. The v.9 teaching states that anyone who divorces and remarries, for reasons other than sexual immorality, commits adultery. This is a direct comment on the morality not of the desire but of the act. And the preceding vv. 4-8 claim only divorce, not remarriage, to be against God’s original intent. As such, the passage says nothing about the naturalness of remarriage or the desire to remarry.

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