As I grew up attending church, the story of “The Adulterous Woman” from the Gospel of John was a familiar tale. Whether it was delivered from the pulpit by grave, serious pastors, grandmothers teaching Sunday school, or even a socially awkward youth volunteer trying but failing to appear cool by giving a devotional over pizza, the closing message “Go and sin no more” spoken by Jesus was invariably presented as a threatening mic drop.
I could almost hear in those final words the familiar menacing whisper of Dirty Harry, a gruff warning through clenched teeth intended to strike fear into the hearts of sinful punks like me.
Today, a new generation of scared and scarred churchgoers don’t see “Go and sin no more” much differently—they simply find such a command impossible to follow (if you don’t believe me, just Google the phrase).
Different Story, Different Message
Some crafty church leaders demonstrating a conspicuous poverty of insight have justified the systemic scare tactics of the adulteress’ tale by comparing it with Jesus’ advice in John 5:14 to a self-pitying man he had healed of a 38-year paralysis. And sure, out of context, Christ’s words to him could seem similar. However, not only are the stories vastly different, so is the message behind the words written in red.
At the pool of Bethesda, Jesus asked the paralyzed man if he wanted to get well. Immediately, the man began complaining about his disability. After Jesus capably healed his body, he later approached him in the temple.
“See, you are well again,” said Jesus. “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.”
Of course, that’s not actually a threat; Jesus was seeking to heal the man’s heart, emphasizing that there are disadvantages worse than physical paralysis. As a physician predicts the outcome of disease, Jesus volunteered the cure: he offered himself.
And unlike the narrative of the adulteress, I have no memories of churchy people spreading guilt using an example of Jesus schooling a paralyzed dude about the terrible, unnamable things that happen to rotten, unrepentant sinners.
More Than a Catch Phrase
Certainly, there remain a few well-meaning believers who desperately search within the story of the adulteress for some deeper meaning other than a stern order to never transgress again. And it textually exists: Not only did Jesus instantly reorient the burden of guilt away from the woman onto her accusers as he scribbled in the sand, after the murderous mob dropped their rocks and slipped away one by one, he stood to meet her gaze, and reassured her he did not condemn her either.
It’s not a great theological mystery: unlike the paralytic man, this story isn’t even really about forgiveness—it illustrates abuse of power. There is no condemnation in Jesus, but those who live by the sword stone will die by it.
His final message to the woman (while not an endorsement of adultery) was by no means a grim warning to shape up or else. The word printed in English translations of this passage as “sin” most technically means to “miss the mark.” The original Greek verb was commonly used in ancient times to depict an archer missing a target, as opposed to a similar but different noun that indicates some inward condition being off target.
Jesus was pointing the woman in a direction away from the aim of dangerous clusters of legalistic little men obsessed with religion and sex who like to throw rocks.
But There’s an Asterisk
Not that nuanced interpretation is especially crucial in this case, because this narrative is absent from the earliest and most trustworthy biblical manuscripts, making it highly unlikely to be an original part of the Gospel of John.
Contemporary commentators, textual critics, and scholars overwhelmingly agree this section is a later addition from an unknown source and strongly argue against its inclusion in the biblical canon. Modern translations like the NIV, NRSV, NABRE, NCB, NASB, and ESV place the narrative within brackets to signify its inauthenticity.
So, if it’s questionable that this story even belongs in the Bible, why do so many churches still love to talk about it?
Although a case could be made that the majority of traditional institutional North American fundamentalist churches have leadership whose thirst for biblical knowledge doesn’t always include a taste for critical scholarship, there certainly is a difference between wrong but debatable doctrinal interpretations (like complementarianism or creatio ex nihilo) and advancing extrabiblical narratives to put words in Jesus’ mouth. False teachers pose a clear and present danger to the Church when Jesus is presented as a puppet of fear rather than the author and finisher of our faith.
I believe many fundamentalist churches continue to teach “Go and sin no more” to promote the obedience of those who attend. And it’s good for business—the guilt business, that is.
Guilt, for lack of a better word, is good for institutional churches that have not yet fully committed to a completely celebrity pastor/free entertainment/attractional growth model. Salaries and facilities cost money, and guilting any person who has even the most tenuous church connection into attending and forking over tithes and offerings to fulfill a mandatory moral code certainly pays the bills (though admittedly much less year after year).
Of course, it may not be a completely deliberate choice—more like a multigenerational cycle of automatic behavior. Emotionally manipulating churchgoers isn’t a new sport, it’s been around for quite a while.
Fear and Loathing
Interestingly, over the past few decades, so many of these sort of churches have begun to struggle keeping warm behinds in pews and money in the bank because preying upon fears principally serves to weaken faith.
As each new generation abandons traditional churches in ever increasing numbers, the answer why seems counter-intuitive: according to a Gallup study conducted in 2017, churchgoers identified sermons as the leading factor that motivated them to attend church.
But that’s not particularly surprising, especially if you are used to hearing some authority figure proclaim “Go and sin no more.”