Getting clear about sex before marriage

On occasion one hears it said: “The Bible never actually says ‘sex outside marriage is wrong.’” In many ways it is a statement similar to that of: “Jesus never actually says ‘I am God.’” Christians for two thousand years have held to the latter, even though Jesus does not make such an explicit statement, for two reasons: First, because Jesus’ divinity is implied by numerous texts which speak of him doing what only God can do and deserving honour that alone should be given to God. Second, because to the ears of his original hearers, Jesus did make direct claims that were equivalent to saying “I am God” (John 5:17-18, 10:30-33). Our failure to recognise this stems from our requiring Jesus to speak in the terms we would prefer today, when we should actually be seeking to understanding what the terms he used would have meant when he used them.

Well it is for these same two reasons, that Christians, ministers, churches and denominations have also, for two thousand years, held that sex should only take place within marriage: First, scripture implies it. Second, when you understand what the Bible’s terminology meant to its original hearers, scripture explicitly states it too. We will consider each reason in turn.

The Bible’s teaching implies sex outside marriage is sin

(1) Genesis 2:24 teaches the place for sex is within marriage:

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”

Jesus himself taught that this text refers to marriage (Matthew 19:1-9), and the apostle Paul teaches that the “one flesh” is indicative of sexual intercourse (1 Corinthians 6:16). The point Christian thinkers have always taken from Genesis 2:24 then is that the place for sex is marriage – after the leaving and cleaving.

David Atkinson comments on this verse:

“We can now see more clearly why the Christian tradition has reserved sexual intercourse for the one context of heterosexual marriage. For sex to symbolise a covenant commitment, and to deepen a relationship of faithful life, it needs a context of consistency and reliability – that is permanence.”[1]

(2) Deuteronomy 22:13-17 confirms and develops this understanding by stating that women (and by implication men too) should be virgins when they get married:

“13 If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and [then] turns against her, 14 and charges her with shameful deeds and publicly defames her, and says, `I took this woman, [but] when I came near her, I did not find her a virgin,' 15 then the girl's father and her mother shall take and bring out the [evidence] of the girl's virginity to the elders of the city at the gate. 16 "The girl's father shall say to the elders, `I gave my daughter to this man for a wife, but he turned against her; 17 and behold, he has charged her with shameful deeds, saying, "I did not find your daughter a virgin." But this is the evidence of my daughter's virginity.' And they shall spread the garment before the elders of the city. 18 "So the elders of that city shall take the man and chastise him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred [shekels] of silver and give it to the girl's father, because he publicly defamed a virgin of Israel. And she shall remain his wife; he cannot divorce her all his days. 20 "But if this charge is true, that the girl was not found a virgin, 21 then they shall bring out the girl to the doorway of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death because she has committed an act of folly in Israel by playing the harlot in her father's house; thus you shall purge the evil from among you.”

In processing our initial shock at the starkness of this passage, we would do well to remember that its primary intent is actually to protect a new wife from being falsely accused by a husband who just wants to be rid of her. We might also note that the extremity of the sentences God prescribed to Israel were because of the need to maintain the purity of the nation if it was to benefit from his protection and so survive.

Yet having said this, the passage is still clear that not being a virgin is to have engaged in “shameful deeds.” And this was regarded as such a serious sin, that the guilty party was to be put to death. Although the NT suggests that the sentence for equivalent sin in the church should be exclusion from God’s people in the hope of repentance (1 Corinthians 5:1-13), both Jesus and the apostles are adamant that the moral principles - i.e. the “commandments” or “righteous requirements” of the law - remain binding (Matthew 5:17-20, Romans 8:3-4).

Christopher Ash comments on this verse:

“Virginity was very important in Old Testament law. If a bride had premarital sex with someone other than her husband, her behaviour is described as ‘prostituting’ herself, whether or not this premarital sex was engaged in for money.”[2]

Raymond Brown also comments on the six regulations of which this requirement is one:

“They emphasize that God’s purpose is that sexual relationships are to be confined to marriage and to marriage alone…In today’s world, those who have ignored God’s law regarding sexual purity have more need to fear the onset of incurable disease than the pelting of stones. We live in a different world, but sin is no less serious in its ramifications and effects. God’s word makes it clear that all who are guilty can be forgiven immediately, but penitence must be genuine and the sin abhorred. All sins are offensive to God. Unlike us, he does not choose to grade them in order of seriousness. Sexuality is God’s gift. Within the marriage relationships it is to be valued and treasured as the deepest physical expression of human love. Tragically however, any of God’s gifts can be misused and diverted to evil rather than good purposes. Sexual sin (like any other kind of sin) needs to be seen for what it really us – a damaging power which grieves God, ignores warnings, ruins us and damages others. Nobody in their right mind can afford to be casual about such a sinister and destructive force.”[3]

(3) Matthew 1:18-19 suggests sex outside of marriage is sin:

“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”

Again we see the assumption that sex should take place in marriage, and evidence of having had sex outside of marriage leaves Mary open to “disgrace.” Here it was grounds for her betrothed – Joseph, to “divorce” her (the commitments of engagement in Jesus’ day were so strong that breaking it off was termed divorce).

(4) In Matthew 19:9-12 Jesus assumes that the only alternative to marriage is celibacy:

“9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery." 10 The disciples said to him, "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry." 11 Jesus replied, "Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven (the literal greek: see NIV text note). The one who can accept this should accept it."”

Our purpose here is not to consider divorce and remarriage per se. We need simply note Jesus’ argument: Jesus’ disciples comment that the restrictions on divorce and remarriage are so severe that it would be better not to marry at all. Jesus’ response in verse 12 only then makes sense if he is talking about the alternative to marriage, and there he seems to consider three possibilities: Those who are eunuchs and so unable to have sex by birth, those who have somehow been made that way by others, and those who have effectively made themselves Eunuchs by choosing not to be married in order to serve the kingdom. The implication is clear: The alternative to marriage is celibacy.

Don Carson writes:

“The latter is not a commendation of self-castration but of renunciation of marriage in light of the disciple’s remark… Jesus, like Paul after him (1 Cor 7:7-9), is prepared to commend celibacy “because of the kingdom.”[4]

(5) In 1 Corinthians 7 Paul assumes that the only course of action when desiring sex is to get married:

“2 But since there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.”

“36 If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin--this man also does the right thing.”

Verses 36-37 are difficult to translated from the Greek, but there seem to be three implications for our subject: First, the assumption that the Christian is engaged to a virgin. Second, that the temptation to act “improperly” towards her means that they should get married. Now we are not told what the improper action is. But the context strongly suggests it is sexual. It is contrasted in verse 37 with not controlling one’s will, and it is difficult to see what other lack of control but a sexual one should be met with getting married. Moreover, as verse 2 makes clear, Paul has the problem of sexual immorality in mind. Third, by equating sexual immorality with acting improperly to one’s fiancé, Paul shows clearly that the term “sexual immorality” (porneia – see below) does not refer only to having a number of sexual partners, but to any sex outside of marriage – even if only once and with one person.

John Richardson applies these verses to those who are suffering difficulties of self-control but listing reasons why they are not ready to marry:

“The rebuke the Bible gives to all these reasons is the same, ‘If you’re not ready for marriage to one another, you’re not ready for sex with one another.’ In the Bible sex without a marriage covenant is fornication… The time to marry is when sex becomes an issue and before it becomes a problem.”[5]

The Bible explicitly condemns sex outside of marriage.

The term we must consider here is “sexual immorality” (Greek: porneia) – something that as far as I can see, is condemned on 24 separate occasions in the NT alone (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, Acts 15:20 (cf. v29, 21:25), 1 Corinthians 5:1, 9-11, 6:9, 13-18, 7:2, 10:8, 2 Corinthians 12:21, Galatians 5:19, Ephesians 5:3-5, Colossians 3:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:3, 1 Timothy 1:10, Hebrews 12:16, 13:4, Revelation 2:14, 20-21, 9:21, 14:8, 17:2-5 (cf. v15-16, 18:3, 9, 19:2), 21:8, 22:15).

Now in understanding the term, we cannot make it mean what we might mean by sexual immorality today. We live in a culture that is morally far looser than that of first century Judaism. We therefore consider sexually immoral people to be only those who are promiscuous, who sleep with numerous people. We do not generally use this term to refer to those who have just one or two committed sexual partners. Yet as we have already seen from the OT, Judaism saw all sex outside marriage as serious sin. When Jesus and Jewish converts to Christianity like Paul therefore used the term “sexual immorality,” they effectively meant by it “all sexual acts that are forbidden by the OT.” That would include all extra marital sex, but also adultery, homosexuality, incest and even bestiality.

In explaining Paul’s condemnation of porneia in Ephesians 5:3-7, Peter O’Brien writes:

“The porneia word-group was employed in the LXX [the Greek translation of the OT current in Jesus’ day] to denote unchastity, harlotry, prostitution, and fornication (Gen 34:31; 38:15, Lev 19:29, Deut 22:21). In later rabbinic literature the noun was understood to include not only prostitution and any kind of extramarital intercourse, but also all marriages between relatives forbidden by rabbinic law and all unnatural sexual intercourse were regarded as fornication (porneia).”[6]

The most respected theological dictionary of NT words agrees, defining porneia as an:

“unconditional repudiation of all extra-marital and unnatural intercourse.”[7]

We could go on, with commentator after commentator and dictionary after dictionary. The point is simple. When we understand what was meant by “sexual immorality” in the first century, we realise that sex outside of marriage is explicitly condemned on 24 separate occasions in the NT alone.

The Church.

Though it is clear that the Bible teaches that sex should be kept for marriage, it is also worth noting that this is the view of the Church of England as a denomination. Agreeing with our findings Resolution 1.10 on 'Human Sexuality' from the Lambeth Conference 1998 states:

“In view of the teaching of Scripture, [this conference] upholds faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman in lifelong union, and believes that abstinence is right for those who are not called to marriage.”

A possible objection.

Having established all we have, it is of course still possible for someone to respond: “Yes, but the Bible never actually condemns my particular situation of long term cohabitation, or as someone the church forbids from being remarried.”

These arguments are of course pedantic to the extreme if coming from Christians, for the Bible just does not teach in this way. Indeed, if it had to mention every possible circumstance its principles applied to it would probably be a hundred times as long. The simple answer is that if the Bible teaches that sex should be in marriage and you are not publicly married in a manner consistent with Christian teaching, then you must refrain from sex. Moreover, the Bible’s teaching is that “there must not even be a hint of sexual immorality” amongst God’s people (Ephesians 5:3). The Christian is one who “hungers and thirsts for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). They are not therefore those who seek to get away with what they can, but those who pull back from any act that might verge on sin. So even if the Christian finds the biblical answers above unconvincing, they would respect the heritage of interpretation the church has on this issue and refrain from sex outside marriage on the recognition that in the light of such a consensus, they are probably wrong and the church is probably right.

The testimony of society.

Though the Bible does not depend on observation to support it, we might nevertheless add the supporting testimony of experience to our findings. The breakdown of marriage and the moral acceptance of extra-marital sex over the last century has undeniably led to loneliness, pain and insecurity in those involved, instability, psychological and emotional distress for their children, and social fragmentation in all sorts of forms - not to mention the increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Bearing this abundant evidence in mind, it is in fact astonishing that the need to keep sex within marriage actually needs justification at all.

A final reminder.

Having said all we have, we must not conclude until we have remembered grace. On coming across the woman caught in adultery, Jesus did not condemn her, but did command her to “go, and from now on, sin no more” (John 8:11). The intention in this paper is not to break people under the weight of their guilt, but to bring them to sincere repentance and so into peace with God and his church. The apostle John writes in 1 John 1:

“6 If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. 8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.”

These verses are both deeply challenging and deeply encouraging. Those who “walk in darkness,” by continuing to live in disobedience to God’s commands (1 John 2:3-6), show that they do not believe the truth and so do not know Christ at all. Yet those who “walk in the light” show that they do, and are therefore cleansed from all their sin. We must be clear about the implications of how we respond to the Bible’s teaching on moral matters. Jesus does not offer forgiveness despite our response to him, but he does promise it to those who turn from their sin out of trust in him. To them he grants acceptance from God and with it everlasting life: They are justified and so free from condemnation – treated as if they had lived perfect lives.

Conclusion

We have seen that the Bible assumes, implies and teaches throughout that sex is for marriage alone, and we have seen that this is not only the position of Bible scholars but of the Anglican Church itself. We might add that this has been the position of all mainstream Christian denominations for the last two thousand years, and that the light of nature itself affirms the correctness of this position when one considers the fallout the alternative brings.

Those who wish to argue that Christians are not required to abstain from sex outside of marriage therefore have a considerable burden of proof upon their shoulders and should be honest about the motives with which they so fervently hold their position. More than that, even if they do choose to esteem their own view above two thousand years of Christian understanding, they are still required to abide by the wishes of those who pastor the church they choose to belong to (Hebrews 13:17).

If their clergy therefore require celibacy in all who are unmarried, then Christians who attend their church must comply with that requirement or seek an alternative church.


[1] Atkinson, David. The message of Genesis: The Bible Speaks Today, (Leicester, IVP, 1990), p.77

[2] Ash, Christopher. Marriage: Sex in the service of God, (Leicester, IVP, 2003), p.213

[3] Brown, Raymond. The message of Deuteronomy: The Bible speaks today, (Leicester, IVP, 1993), p.217-219

[4] Carson, Don. The Expositors Bible Commentary: Volume 8, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984), p.419

[5] Richardson, John. God, sex & marriage: Guidance from 1 Corinthians 7, (London, St Matthias Press, 1998), p.65

[6] O’Brien, Peter. The letter to the Ephesians, (Leicester, Apollos, 1999), p.359, f.n.2

[7] Hauck and Schultz “porne” in the Theological dictionary of the New Testament: Vol VI, ed. Gerhard Kittel, translated and edited by Geoffrey W Bromiley (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964), p.590