A friend who is a new believer asked me this question. He and his girlfriend were in a discipleship group my wife and I were leading, and both of them were getting more and more excited about their new life with Christ. My friend was also experiencing healing from past traumas, and his growth was so noticeable it actually made the group cheer. But he was living with his girlfriend and when he posed this question I knew it was going to be a dicey conversation.
Indeed, it was. He sent me 8 texts totaling 3 feet.
So what does the bible say about sex outside the context of marriage? First, it says at the creation of humanity in Genesis 2:24 â€œTherefore a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” This oneness is a spiritual, emotional, economic, and sexual oneness. It is beautiful. And it’s clear from the 7th commandment that this unity is meant to be exclusive and life-long. Jesus confirmed this understanding in Mark 10 and in passages such as Matthew 19:9 where he condemns divorce (with one notable exception).
But is sex before marriage OK?
Before I answer, let’s be honest about something. I know darn well young people leave churches when pastors take a hard line on this issue. I know darn well some people will call me a puritan and a shame-monger. And since I want a nice big happy church, I’m not going to touch this issue. I’m going to ignore it no matter what the cost. No matter if it ruins relationships and creates fatherless children. No matter if it leads to countless abortions. No matter if it leaves 1 in 4 American teenage girls with an STI (Steven Reinbend, MedicineNet). No matter if it displeases God.
On the other handâ€¦ maybe the price is too high if I don’t teach what the bible says.
So here goes. The first reference to this in the bible is Exodus 22:16-17: â€If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for the virgin.â€ In this scripture there is no punishment for the woman, only for the man. That seems unfair to men.
But another scripture on sex outside marriage punishes only the woman. It’s found in Deuteronomy 22:13-21. Here God’s word explicitly states that if a woman is not a virgin on her wedding night she is to be stoned to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel (v.21). Wow! The death sentence for not being a virgin? Really? To us this is a ludicrously harsh punishment. Can we argue, then, that the brutality of the punishment indicates how barbarous and outdated the ban on sex before marriage is?
No, we can’t. Jesus overturned these harsh punishments: â€œFormerly it was said to you â€˜an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.â€™ But I say unto you, do not resist one who is evil” (Mt. 5:38-39). And Jesus backed up his words with actions in John 8. When a woman was caught in the act of adultery and about to be stoned. he intervened on her behalf to stop the stoning. But importantly, he also said â€œGo, and sin no moreâ€ (John 8:11). So, though he overturned the punishment, he still called the behavior sin.
But have you seen the other problem with these two passages? And has it made you gag yet? In Exodus 22 the man who had sex before marriage only had to pay a fine; but in Deuteronomy 22 the woman pays with her life. How is that even remotely fair?
I’ll answer with this: how is it even remotely fair that men were expected to die defending Israel from attackers while women got to stay home and bake cookies? (Interestingly, even in today’s gender-blender culture — in which female warriors beat up men on TV with regularity — we don’t question that gender-biased expectation of men.) In other words, scripture assumes that men and women are physiologically different. Men are usually physically stronger, so they go to war and women don’t. When it comes to sex, men are usually sleazier (oops, I mean “more easily arousable”), so women have higher expectations of sexual self-control. Just as men are expected to exhibit the virtue of military courage more than women, so women are expected to exhibit the virtue of sexual temperance more than men. But remember: both men and women are expected to refrain from sex before marriage.
Sometimes men say with braggadocio, â€œNo way. Not possible.â€ But scripture teaches it is possible. Jesus says Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out (Mt. 5:29). But how we integrate this teaching is a topic for another day.
What does the New Testament say about sex before marriage? Jesus forbids fornication in Mark 7:21, and Paul uses the same language in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8. “Fornication” means sex between unmarried people. But wait — newer translations replace the word “fornication” with the more general term “sexual immorality.” Hmmmâ€¦. is there a loophole here that might allow sex before marriage?
The Greek work used here is porneia. It doesn’t mean “adultery,” because there’s a separate word for that. My Greek dictionary translates porneia as “all unlawful sexual practices.” That doesn’t really help us. It doesn’t specify sex before marriage. It could refer only to rape or hooking up or incest.
Let’s be honest and admit that some of us want to employ the least restrictive definition of porneia we can. We’d like it to permit sex before marriage.
But is that really what we want? To push the limit of allowable sex? After all, there’s no prohibition against sex with children in the bible. And there are increasing numbers of people advocating for pedophilia, by the way, so why not just let them have their wish? Then, having lowered the ethical bar, we can likewise have sex before marriage without shame.
But that puts us on shaky groundâ€”really shaky ground. We may want to dismiss an Old Testament prohibition on sex before marriage, but we have no grounds to do so. We can only dismiss what the New Testament overturns, namely the old punishments and ceremonial regulations like animal sacrifice. Overturning Old Testament laws like Exodus 22 and Deuteronomy 22 is like overturning the commandment â€œYou shall not steal.â€ Let’s admit it: it’s only our flesh that wants to argue our way out of prohibitions on sex outside marriage. Besides, can you really insist that the New Testament word porneia doesn’t rule out sex before marriage when there’s such an incredibly strong tradition against it from the Old Testament?
OK, OK. One more argument in favor of sex before marriage: let’s take a look at all the good that’s come from widespread practice of sex before marriage. It’s created such happy relationships for teens and young adults in our culture that we never see date-rape, porn use, 1 million unintended pregnancies annually, and broken hearts among the sexually active. And because of our enlightened approach to easy sex, divorce is at an all-time low. Moreover, people are so satisfied by the sex they’re getting before marriage that it leads them joyfully into marriage, right? They don’t even bother wasting years of their youth in co-habitation, they just go right into beautiful, life-long marriages. And don’t forget, easy sex is such a blessing for the children it creates. These children get two stable, monogamous, and happy parents for their entire childhood. There are virtually no single-parent situations, virtually no women abandoned by spineless men, and virtually no abortions or STIs in our society. Even our poor urban neighborhoods are blessed by how faithfully men live up to their obligations to the children they sire. Sex outside marriage has no negative economic consequence for women and children whatsoever. So given that evidence, maybe we should ease up on people who are having sex outside marriage. Family life in our country is stronger than it’s ever been.
And if you can’t detect the lies in the preceding paragraph, you certainly won’t be able to detect the lie our entertainment culture tells about how harmless sex before marriage is.