Playing with fire: The pre-adultery steps of covenant-breaking

adulteryHave you heard the news story about the male dentist in Iowa who fired a female employee of ten years because he was afraid he was going to have an affair with her?

Does that seem prudent? Perhaps. Does that seem fair … or legal? Perhaps not.

The fired employee would have preferred to keep her job. The dentist, however, preferred to save his marriage — from himself!

Here is an excerpt from the CNN coverage of the story:

[Melissa] Nelson worked for James Knight in 1999 and stayed for more than 10 years at the Fort Dodge business.

Toward the end of her employment, Knight complained to Nelson her clothing was tight and “distracting,” the decision read. She denied her clothes were inappropriate.

At one point, Knight told Nelson that “if she saw his pants bulging, she would know her clothing was too revealing,” the decision read.

At another point, in response to an alleged comment Nelson made about the infrequency of her sex life, Knight responded: [T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.”

During the last six months of Nelson’s employment, Nelson and Knight, both married with children, started sending text messages to each other outside of work. Neither objected to the texting.

Knight’s wife, who was employed at the same dental office, found out about those messages in late 2009 and demanded he fire Nelson.

In early 2010, he did just that. In the presence of a pastor, Knight told Nelson she had become a “detriment” to his family and that for the sakes of both their families, they should no longer work together, the decision read. Knight gave Nelson one month’s severance.

Nelson filed a sex discrimination suit against the dentist, and the case went all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court. In December, the court handed down a ruling against her claim, concluding:

“[T]he issue before us is not whether a jury could find that Dr. Knight treated Nelson badly. We are asked to decide only if a genuine fact issue exists as to whether Dr. Knight engaged in unlawful gender discrimination when he fired Nelson at the request of his wife. For the reasons previously discussed, we believe this conduct did not amount to unlawful discrimination…”

Leaving the sex discrimination legal debate in the lawyers, this story also has many implications for the pastoral shepherding of men and women in a modern society. Although the report indicates that no physical adultery occurred, the lead-up to the firing serves to illustrate the principle of sexually “playing with fire” through Knight failing to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries — in his mind and with his communication.

Hear the words of Scripture, warning about the destructiveness of adultery:

Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? So is he who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.

People do not despise a thief if he steals to satisfy his appetite when he is hungry, but if he is caught, he will pay sevenfold; he will give all the goods of his house.

He who commits adultery lacks sense; he who does it destroys himself. He will get wounds and dishonor, and his disgrace will not be wiped away. For jealousy makes a man furious, and he will not spare when he takes revenge. He will accept no compensation; he will refuse though you multiply gifts. (Proverbs 6:27-35 ESV)

Breaking one’s marital covenant involves a series of sinful steps — a downward grade of compromise. Though we can be thankful that Knight (or more specifically, his wife) put the brakes on his lust, he should have done so himself right from the start.

If you are a pastor, do you know your sheep well enough to know the various slippery slopes of sins they are skirting? There is likely a “Dr. Knight” in your flock, how are you lovingly but firmly confronting him?  Knight’s actions and behavior toward Nelson reveal a moral failure to guard his mind and his words — this simply cannot be denied but in a real Christian community ought to be confronted. Christians have historically called this practice “regular discipline” and it is sorely lacking in the common life of the church today.

Again, the point is not to argue the legal case here, but instead to ask the question: Can Knight’s lustful thoughts and inappropriate comments toward Nelson be excused away? Does his inappropriate talk to her find some valid excuse in his claim that she allegedly wore tight-fitting clothes? The answer is an unequivocal “no.”

Adultery runs wild throughout our land. Marital vows are forsaken in the pursuit of momentary pleasure. People are morally confused in no small measure because the Church has forsaken her own moral authority.

How is your local church dealing with the roots of impurity and sin? How are you actively seeking to help men and women establish and maintain firm boundaries for mental monogamy?  Neither fornication nor adultery happen in one giant leap of indiscretion. As James reminds us, “after desire is conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15, NIV). Sexual sin is a walk down a sordid path one step at a time.

Everyone in this story “lost” something. Nelson lost her job. Knight lost his “best employee.” Every wife knows that Mrs. Knight lost something too, albeit intangible, her loss is real.

The marriages were saved, for which we can be thankful. But would it have not been better still for us to have never heard of these people in the first place? If fidelity to Christ and wife had ruled Knight’s tongue and soul, how many of us would ever have known the name of a dentist from Fort Dodge, Iowa?

Christian husbands and wives, take this story as a wake-up call to stop all pre-adultery steps toward covenant-breaking.

“Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?” No.


Here is a link to the PDF of the court’s decision: )

“Iowa Supreme Court: OK to fire ‘irresistible’ worker,” By Dana Ford, CNN, Sat December 22, 2012.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge