The Theologian - The internet journal for integrated theology


Couple KissingThe Issue of Pre-Marital Sex

by Lee Gatiss


Pre-marital Sex in the World

There is no longer any stigma attached to pre-marital sex in our society. Pop stars do it, sports stars do it, politicians do it. Hormone levels are raised by advertising, television, cinema, music and magazines.  What is discussed is not so much pre-marital sex, as non-marital sex, or even non- “heterosexual monogamous life-long relationship sex” such is the confusion and need for definition.  Pressure continues to be brought to bear upon the church to accept non-marital sexual relationships as a normal and acceptable part of modern life, especially in the context of cohabitation (as opposed to marriage).

In the world’s eyes, sex is seen in several ways:

1. Sex as "essential"

It is said that there is a natural instinct or need (akin to a hunger for food) which we all have, and that to repress it is damaging to physical and mental health.

2. Sex as "experience"       

It is said to be beneficial for people to accumulate as many different experiences of life as possible. Pre-marital sex with several different partners is said to be one of these experiences. Sex is "exciting" and is seen by some as an essential component of "a good weekend."

3. Sex as "experiment"       

It is no longer sufficient for a couple to be emotionally, spiritually or intellectually compatible. If they are really serious about each other they ought to discover whether they are sexually compatible too. In the context of cohabitation, this is sometimes seen as a "trial marriage".

4. Sex as "expression"

If two people love each other it is seen as natural for them to express that love through sex, regardless of their marital state.

5. Sex as “entertainment”

It’s free, it’s fun – let’s do it!  That seems to be the attitude many have towards “recreational sex.”

In response to these worldy attitudes, Christians can say:

Sex isn’t essential.  You’re not less than human if you are a virgin.  You’re not repressed if you wait until you’re married before sleeping with someone:  you’re sensible!  Jesus was born of a virgin, but he was also a virgin himself, while remaining a completely fulfilled and perfect human being.  And sex is not just another experience to add to one’s collection.  It’s not like going mountain climbing or sky-diving or bungee jumping – just another exciting way to spend a few hours, and nothing more.  And sex is too important to just be an experiment.  You don’t need to go “all the way” to know you’re sexually compatible with someone – if you’re a boy and they are a girl, and you’ve both got everything you’re supposed to have, then you’re compatible!  It’s not exactly complicated.

There are better ways to express your love for someone you’re not married to.  After all, it’s not very loving to have an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease or to make someone feel as if you just want them for their body.  It is not loving to engage in any activity that displeases God.  And sex is not entertainment.  If you’re bored go to the cinema or play a computer game or go for a run – don’t misuse something as important as sex just for a bit of mindless fun.  That would be like hiring a Rolls Royce car just to pick up some shopping – a waste, a misuse of something precious, something that is far more important if used properly.  Other people’s bodies are not just toys for us to play with and then discard.


The Limits of Sex in the World

There is a tendency for Christians to assume that the world is much more sex-crazed than it actually is. It’s not quite true to say that "everybody is doing it." There remain, of course, some taboos in this area. Pre-marital sex is acceptable only within certain limits:

1. Consent - Rape is seen as totally unacceptable.

2. Age - Paedophilia is despised in society generally; very large age gaps between partners are considered odd.

3. Availability - A sexual partner ought ideally to be single or "separated."

4. Free - There is still a stigma attached to prostitution.

5. Stability - High levels of promiscuity and "bed-hopping" are frowned upon.

6. Safety - Sex ought to be "safe" (barrier methods of contraception should be used) given the risk of disease and pregnancy.

7. Meaning - It is best if sex is "meaningful" in the context of a relationship, unless it is a one-night-stand or infidelity, in which case it ought to be meaningless!

These limits are widely accepted in society.  That there must be limitations on sexual activity is not at issue; what people object to is more specifically the limit (or context) which God sets for sex: it is only for a heterosexual, monogamous life-long marriage.  Or, we might say, it is God’s wedding present to husband and wife.


Pre-Marital Sex: A Christian Response

A Christian asks an older friend, "Does the Bible say I can’t have sex before I’m married?" They search through the whole Bible... Their conclusion is that there isn’t a verse in the Bible which says, "Thou shalt not have sex before marriage." So it’s OK? As with all theology and ethics, the case is not built upon one single verse or argument. We will spend most time on the Biblical arguments, since these are most often neglected in favour of the pragmatic and cultural ones in contemporary debate. For more on all these, see the Bibliography. These are the six main lines of argument:

1. Biblical

Given that there is no single text explicitly banning this activity, how do we know what the Bible says?

Genesis 2:24      

Marriage is instituted by God at the very start of biblical history. The order of this verse is important - leave, cleave then one flesh (which is physical and spiritual union - not just sex, but not less than that). The positive teaching is that the physical creation is good, sex is good (and pre-fall). Note that the cause of the Fall is not sex (it’s to do with the knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge of each other!).

Deuteronomy 22:13-29        

Several important things emerge from this chapter. First, virginity at the time of marriage is expected. Second, sex before marriage is termed "a disgraceful act" in verse 21 and is taken very seriously indeed. The verb translated "prostituted herself" is zãnãh (see below). Third, pre-marital sex, even if it is between two consenting adults, is considered wrong (verses 23-24) Notice that in this case the "engaged-married" distinction is almost non-existent. Fourthly, sex before marriage must lead to marriage (v.28-29).

1 Corinthians 6-7        

In 6:12-20 Paul combats a sharp dualism between body (which apparently doesn’t matter) and spirit (which is supposedly unaffected by physical things). Casual sex is definitely not as trivial as satisfying a physical hunger (verse 13). Bodies are important because God has bought them and will raise them. Note that pre-marital sex is not a mini-marriage, but it is encroaching upon the holy ground of marriage in an unacceptable way. Physical union should not take place outside of a “one flesh” (i.e. marriage) union.  The point is that to be united with someone other than one’s spouse (in this case, a non-Christian, and more specifically, a prostitute) is to tear oneself away from Christ with whom we are spiritually united as Christians; Paul is not intending to say that every illicit sexual encounter creates a new marriage (see Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 6:16).

But it is not just prostitution that is addressed here, or just dualism either. In chapter 7 Paul addresses the situation of two unmarried Christians who are burning with passion (7:8-9) who should either exercise self-control or get married (cf. verses 36-38). The underlying assumptions are the same as those in Deuteronomy 22.

zãnãh / porneia

It could be argued that the Bible never addresses the modern dilemma of two Christians who love each other and want to have sex before marriage, because these two significant words porneia and zãnãh actually refer to prostitution not pre-marital sex. Zãnãh is translated by porneia in the LXX, and they are roughly equivalent terms. These words are used in descriptions of prostitution (indeed zãnãh occurs most often in metaphorical descriptions of Israel’s “whoredom" with idolatry). However, they do not just refer to prostitution.

See the relevant dictionary articles for more details: Eg. in NIDOTTE: "In the OT, fornication describes illicit sex by a female that violates a relationship with a male, either a husband or a father... In many cases illicit sex, not sex for hire, is in view." and in NIDNTT: "In the Pauline writings the word group pornê denotes any kind of illegitimate sexual intercourse." (see bibliography).  See these verses (and contexts) for use of porneia: Mat 5:19; Acts 15:20; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; 1Thess 4:3; Rev 9:21.

The word “fornication” has gone out of fashion and is not in common use to describe non-marital sex.  However, it is an excellent translation for porneia, which basically referred to any kind of sex outside of marriage, be it gay or straight, prostitution, incest, or bestiality.  This has been contested (see the debate between B. Malina and J. Jensen in Nov.Test. 14 (1972) and 20 (1978)) but the overwhelming weight of scholarship and all the available evidence from the ancient world points firmly in this direction.  “Flee sexual immorality (porneia) and pursue self-control” (cf. 1 Thess 4:1-8) was the straightforward message to Christians in a sex-crazed world.

2. Theological

Theological arguments revolve around the covenant of marriage as the proper context for sexual activity and the parallel of marriage with the relationship between God and his people. Pre-marital sex is wrong, as Ortlund says, because "it toys with the biblical mystery" and violates it. (R.C. Ortlund, Whoredom, page 173). Roman Catholic arguments from natural law state that it is contrary to the purpose of sex (procreation, and education of resulting child).

3. Traditional

If we are left unconvinced by biblical and theological arguments then the fact that pre-marital sex has always been held to be wrong by Christians through the centuries must have some weight in our thinking. Whilst it is dangerous to believe something simply because it is the traditional view, the burden of proof is upon anyone who would challenge the consensus of several millennia.

4. Societal

Since pre-marital sex is not part of God’s design for the universe, and marriage is a creation ordinance (i.e. not just for Christians), it follows that avoiding pre-marital sex is not just the best way for Christians but for non-Christians also. Biblical arguments to this effect will probably not convince the non-Christian mind, but there is a great deal of evidence that pre-marital sex undermines the foundations of a stable society, for which trust, stability, marriage and family, equality and self-control are vital. The emotional strain of "serial monogamy," the risk of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, for example, show the rational nature of the argument against pre-marital sex.

5. Pragmatic

Any Christian argument against pre-marital sex ought to start from the Bible and not from pragmatic concerns. Pragmatic considerations can, however, play a part in the persuasive presentation of the case.

A. Consequences

What if you get pregnant? What about sexually transmitted disease? Note however, that this is a limited argument given the widespread belief in "safe sex". It must be pointed out that even if the unpleasant consequences of pre-marital sex can be avoided, this does not determine whether it is right or wrong: otherwise we may as well argue that stealing is OK as long as you don’t get caught!

B. Emotional Strain   

Sex is an emotional activity, and it hurts to be often breaking-up with sexual partners. For engaged couples who have waited this long, it is better to wait until you are married for sex, because you never know what might happen before the "big day."

C. Baggage    

How would you feel if they ended up married to someone else? Or if you do? How would you feel if you had to confess to several previous partners when you get married? Pre-marital sexual experience can lead to unhealthy memories and comparisons in marriage. It may also lead to lack of trust in marriages during periods of sexual inactivity (pregnancy, enforced separation due to work etc.) as couples wonder whether spouses will be able to resist temptation, when they failed before.

D. Apostasy    

There are countless anecdotes of Christians who fell away from the faith because of pre-marital sexual activity. This may be for many indirect reasons: a faulty view of the Bible which led to a wrong view of sex and other doctrines; a lack of self-control in this area which infected the rest of their Christian life; a hardening of the heart due to the inability to desist from behaviour they knew to be wrong; an unhealthy preoccupation with sex or sexual partners at the expense of the nurture of their faith. It is untrue that pre-marital sex will inevitably lead to backsliding, but it is dangerous.

E. Sexual Evangelism

One argument for dating non-Christians is that it may predispose them or help them to become Christians. Dating non-Christians can involve pre-marital sex, as they do not necessarily share the same view of sex, and they do not have the same reasons or strength for resisting the temptation in any case. Sexual evangelism is never taught in the Bible! And notwithstanding the occasional anecdote, it hardly ever works.

F. Self-Control

Self-control is something we must exercise in all things, sexual and otherwise. Self-control in this area may well be the litmus test of how well we are doing in others.


6. Cultural

In a Christian sub-culture, such as seminary / theological college, or a Christian family or a Church Youth Group, it can be a powerful argument against pre-marital sex that no-one in the group is doing it (or at least, talks about it). When pre-marital sex is spoken of in other contexts with no holds barred and with little restraint on its practice, the alternative atmosphere of such a sub-culture can be a welcome example and a motivating factor in resisting temptation. It may also indicate that there are other more important things to consider in relationships: which the world is only dimly aware of sometimes. We must not mistake the absence of "chatter" (or boasting) about pre-marital sex with the absence of its practice: in many Christian sub-cultures it can and does thrive under the surface while a superficial veneer of piety wards off prying eyes. We must not be naive about this - it does happen. Single seminary students have even been known to sleep with the wives of other students.  Even ministers have to resign every year, sadly, because of sexual misconduct.  But a Christian atmosphere can provide a way of bringing such activity out into the open or at least of convicting those involved of their sin and bringing them to repentance.


Pastoral Responses

1. Pastoral Preaching and Teaching

We cannot assume that the biblical and theological understanding of sex, and of the body generally, is properly understood by everyone. In the pulpit, and in marriage preparation, such teaching must be positive as well as negative. Sex is a good thing, created by God to be enjoyed in its proper context - it is not intrinsically evil or “un-spiritual.” This is a prophylactic against a wrong view or use of sex. It is also vital that our teaching is sensitive to human frailty and weakness. Christians are not spiritual superheroes who can rise above any and all temptations in the blink of an eye. We must be careful not to foster the notion that we are beyond temptation or that we do not sin.

2. Self-Justification

The in-built capacity we all have for self-justification is particularly evident in the area of sexuality. The counsellor must be aware of several self-justification techniques often used by Christians, and develop ways of addressing them:

Blind-spot tactic: "The Bible isn’t clear on the issue."

Minimizing tactic: "Sex before marriage isn’t the unforgivable sin!"

Presumption tactic: "God will forgive me - that’s his job."

Sola Scriptura tactic: "Where’s the verse that says it’s wrong? It’s just tradition!"

Super-Spiritual tactic: "I am free to live as the Spirit leads, and he hasn’t told me this is wrong."

Antinomian tactic: "I don’t live by Law anymore."

Self-Pity tactic: "I’m so weak! I can’t help it!"

Evasion tactic: "Well, we’re all sinners aren’t we? What makes me any worse than you?"

Blame-Shift tactic: "I was seduced!" or "God didn’t give me the strength to resist."

Dualist tactic: "It doesn’t matter what I do physically. It’s the Spirit that’s important.

I still go to Church, read Christian books, and evangelize my friends..."

Several of these tactics are, at root, theological problems which need to be dealt with on a theological as well as a pastoral level. Indeed, to persuade someone that pre-marital sex is wrong but to leave them with a dualistic theology of the body, would be bad pastoral practice, as the theology will inevitably cause more problems in the future.

3. Forgiveness

It is important to teach the doctrine of justification clearly, so that a Christian who sins in this area is aware of the offer of forgiveness. We must help people to avoid superstitious notions about God "punishing" Christians who sin sexually. Christians must know how to repent, and be assured that there is real forgiveness. New Christians need to be aware that they have been given a completely fresh start and that their slate has been truly wiped clean.

4. Wisdom

Some Christian groups have rather tight rules and regulations for dating couples, which can become legalistic. While wanting to avoid the burden of asceticism (which can be counter-productive), there are various ways in which dating couples can be advised to "flee fornication." Specifics will depend to some extent on cultural norms (chaperones are unusual nowadays). It is always good to encourage the development of elements in a relationship other than physical.

5. Discipline

What can a pastor do to discourage immorality? Church discipline is a difficult practice, which must be handled very carefully. Temporary excommunication of the unrepentant can backfire. Church discipline cannot be exercised in isolation from good biblical teaching, sensitive pastoral care and the possibility of complete restoration to fellowship.  That being said, however, to implicitly sanction ongoing pre-marital sexual relationships (e.g. by accepting cohabitees into full membership or even leadership within the local church) would be a serious error, likely to lead in the medium to long-term to the liberalisation of sexual standards throughout the fellowship.

6. Consequences

Sin always has consequences, and in this area they can be very serious. The counsellor who wishes to avoid abortion (for example) must be aware of the problems associated with unwanted pregnancies, and if we are to encourage marriage then we must be sensitive to the cultural pressures of widespread cohabitation. Rape counselling can be especially difficult if there is a baby involved as well as the emotional and physical distress of the crime itself. Though less serious, there are also issues relating to sexually transmitted disease to think about. Even when there are no physical consequences to worry about, however, there may be spiritual and emotional scars to deal with.

7. Marriage Problems

Research shows that couples who engage in pre-marital sex are more likely in the long-term to divorce, although there is not necessarily a direct causal link (see Kahn and London, "Premarital Sex and the Risk of Divorce" in Journal of Marriage and Family (1991) 53:845-855). For Christians there may be problems associated with regret or guilt, or emotional difficulties as a result of the honest disclosure of past transgression. These are potentially easier to deal with in the context of a loving Christian marriage, but may not disappear overnight.

Lee GatissAbout the Author

Lee Gatiss is the Editor of Theologian and author of Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism and From Life's First Cry: John Owen on Infant Baptism and Infant Salvation.