What’s wrong with premarital sex?
One of the questions I get a lot is the question about sexual morality as it relates to the Bible, and it’s one I have thought a lot about as well considering that I do quite a bit of marital counseling and also considering that I’m a guy and I think about these issues myself!
Of course, the biggest question about sexual morality is whether the Bible actually prohibits premarital sex, and if it does prohibit it, why?
I’m going to try to answer that question simply from three angles: What does the Bible teach about sex? What effect does sex have on people? Where should the limits be drawn (i.e. what is the Biblical definition of “sex”)?
What does the Bible teach about sex?
There are many passages in the Bible regarding sexuality and sexual behavior. Jesus talks about lust, the ten commandments prohibit adultery, Leviticus and Romans both explicitly address sexual behavior, and the prophets rail against “sexual immorality” repeatedly. However, in the midst of all the condemnation people throw around regarding “what the Bible says about sex” very few people seem to have an overall grasp of the topic. Let’s look at a few key passages.
Sexuality is God’s design.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number…” — Genesis 1:27-28
It’s important to remember, and we’ll come back to this later on, that sexuality inherently contains the power of procreation, but an even more powerful truth is that sexuality is wired into humanity so that humans can more accurately represent God in this world. There is something about “male and female” that can better represent God as his “image” than male or female could do on their own. The existence of two sexes is somehow an aspect of what it means to be made in God’s image. As God is neither male nor female, the fullness of the image of God can only be expressed in the harmony of male and female. Therefore, the sexual union of a man and a woman touches an aspect of the image of God in a way that no other human behavior can.
Sexual intimacy always assumes, requires, or violates marriage.
As a teenager, thinking through these issues, I realized for myself that the Bible carries very little instructions on the process of getting married. In fact, though there are a number of lessons on how husbands and wives ought to treat each other, there are no instructions on how a marriage union should be initiated or made official. It confused me for a while until I recognized that in the Bible, marriage was simultaneous with a couple’s first sexual encounter.
For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. — Genesis 2:24
Eve is called Adam’s wife, but there is no description of the marriage—only that they have left their families to be united and to become one flesh. The imagery of sexual union is clear and sexual union then becomes a metaphor for the unity of the rest of their lives.
Isaac brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he married Rebekah. So she became his wife, and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death. — Genesis 24:67
Isaac “brought her into the tent” and “she became his wife.” Even more explicit is this account of Jacob.
So Laban brought together all the people of the place and gave a feast. But when evening came, he took his daughter Leah and gave her to Jacob, and Jacob lay with her. And Laban gave his servant girl Zilpah to his daughter as her maidservant. When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?” Laban replied, “It is not our custom here to give the younger daughter in marriage before the older one. Finish this daughter’s bridal week; then we will give you the younger one also, in return for another seven years of work.” — Genesis 29:22-27
“Giving in marriage” is what happened when Laban gave Leah to Jacob and he slept with her. The bridal week began with the first sexual encounter.
Finally, the link between sex and marriage was institutionalized in the Mosaic Law:
“If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.” — Exodus 22:16-17
If a man slept with a woman who was a virgin and not engaged to another, he was required to marry her or at least pay whatever “bride-price” the father of the girl demanded of him. This same regulation was repeated in Deuteronomy 22:29, and in that context the additional command is given that “He can never divorce her as long as he lives.”
To put it bluntly, the command found in the Ten Commandments “You shall not commit adultery” is serious business. Deuteronomy 22 describes in detail other scenarios of extramarital sexual relations and the consequences:
- If a woman marries a man, and the man can find no proof of her virginity, the woman is to be stoned for promiscuity.
- If a man sleeps with another man’s wife, both of them are to be killed.
- If a man sleeps with a woman pledged to another man, both of them are to be killed.
Sexual passions have a place only in the context of marriage.
The Bible outlines a world of prohibited sexual behaviors, but they can nearly all be subsumed under this heading: marriage is the only place where sexual passions can find expression. The two places in the Bible where this principle is made most clear come from Jesus and Paul respectively.
But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. — Matthew 5:28
Jesus clearly outlines that a lustful gaze is equivalent to adultery. By implication, lust must be equivalent to sexual behavior and if the object of your lust is not your spouse, then it is adultery.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. — 1 Corinthians 7:8-9
Paul writes that there are only two options for those with “uncontrollable desires.” They can get married or they can “burn with passion.” In other words, there is no middle ground where sexual passions can be satisfied without getting married.
Therefore, the only place for sexual passions to be expressed is in the context of marriage. However, no one should get the idea that sexual passions are in and of themselves wrong. Quite to the contrary, Paul himself says in the same chapter:
But since there is so much immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband. The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. Do not deprive each other except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. — 1 Corinthians 7:2-5
This is a clear teaching that sexual expression in the context of marriage should be free and encumbered only by one’s consideration of the needs and desires of the spouse. The husband and wife give their entire bodies to each other, and deprivation of any sort is to be intentionally avoided except in cases of mutually determined times of spiritual focus. In other words, it appears that there are to be no limits for marital sexual expression except for concern for the needs and desires of each other.
What are the social implications of premarital / extramarital sex?
I don’t want to spend all my time here, or even a great deal of time here, but I will address what I believe to be the three fundamental truths of sexuality and the implications these hold when taken outside of the context of marriage.
1. Sex has life-creating power.
Undeniably, human sexuality has the power of creation wired in. Every sexual act IS a reproductive act, and though I am not opposed as others are to the use of contraception, though I might oppose certain forms of contraception, it cannot be denied that sexual behavior is a reproductive behavior with the power to create life. It’s life-creating power is so great that we must engineer methods to bypass it.
This is a sobering reality, and I cannot stress enough that the context in which sexual behavior is found must also be a context where the creation of life is held to be something sacred and welcome. Furthermore, that kind of context is rarely found without a lifelong commitment between two people. In our language, we call that lifelong commitment “marriage.”
2. Sex has life-unifying power.
Way back in Genesis, the sexual / marital union was described as a “one-flesh” relationship because it carries the power to unify not just two bodies, but two lives as well. Men generally feel that a commitment to a woman without accompanying sexual freedom makes the commitment hollow, and women generally feel that sexual freedom without an accompanying commitment is artificial. Despite what TV tells us about sexual promiscuity, most men and women are inherently aware of the unifying power of sexual union.
3. Sex has life-destroying power.
The sad reality is that many of us have seen first hand the life-destroying power sex has. Nearly all of us know someone who has been through sexual abuse of some kind or another, and we can see the results it has. Just one inappropriate sexual encounter can require a person to go through years of psychological counseling to find healing and future sexual health.
However, divorce or promiscuity before marriage can be just as destructive.
It would be naive of me to claim that because sex has this kind of power, we should therefore conclude that all sex outside of marriage will destroy people. That is the claim made by many advocates of teen abstinence; however, there are many people who seem to think that sexual promiscuity has not destroyed them but has instead made them stronger and better able to determine with whom they are “compatible.”
I won’t get into all that here. I’ll simply say that because sex has such life-changing power, we should treat it with a sense of sacredness. Keeping sex exclusively within the context of marriage preserves its sacredness. Freeing it from marriage, on the other hand, allows it to become something as casual as going out to dinner or enjoying a cup of coffee.
What boundaries should we draw?
Before I address any of these boundary questions, I need to be very clear about one thing. If you choose to reject or deny the Biblical teaching on sex as I’ve outlined above, then my only advice to you is to keep sex “sacred.” But since “sacred” can mean anything to anyone, that’s not saying much. Honestly, you’re on your own, and you don’t have any reason to follow my suggestions.
However, if you accept the Bible’s teaching on human sexuality, there are some nearly obvious boundaries that you should draw for yourself.
I will not view, listen to, or read explicit material.
Lust for men is often found in the domain of the eyes, but lust for women is often in the domain of the imagination, but since the admonition is against lust, those things which enflame sexual passions are to be thoroughly avoided.
The only exception to this, as we shall see below, is in the context of marriage where the husband and wife together agree on what they watch, listen to, or read. However, I still maintain that explicit material of any sort has crossed the line if it brings to mind lustful thoughts about anyone other than one’s spouse. Specifically, I’m convinced that strip clubs, adult films, and explicit romance novels are never acceptable, nudity on film or in print (even if “tastefully done”) is rarely acceptable, and even “love scenes” and TV commercials have the power to take the mind away from one’s spouse.
Integrity in this matter in our culture requires vigilance.
I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a girl. — Job 31:1
I will not give or receive sexual pleasure.
Of course, this eliminates all behavior involving the major reproductive organs, but careful consideration should also be given to kissing and “making out.”
I will express sexuality fully, freely, and exclusively with my spouse.
For the unmarried, this is a promise made to a future spouse, but for the married, this is a covenant of freedom and joyful expression with each other.
One More Thing: What about love?
To conclude this whole article, I want to address briefly the single most prevalent argument in our society for premarital and even extramarital sex: “We love each other!”
My response is this: Do you love Jesus? (Profound, I think.)
You see, loving Jesus doesn’t imply sexual behavior with him. Of course not! Love does not imply sex. Love implies commitment and sacrifice.
If you love Jesus, you will remain committed to what he taught and the values he held.
If you love Jesus, you will sacrifice your own passions and desires for his will.
And, if you really loved each other, you’d get married.