A member and friend of the church I pastor– Hope Pres– recently emailed me this question: “What is your take on answering someone (a believer) that pre-marital sex is not specifically prohibited in scripture and therefore is permissible if two people are in love?”
Being someone not known for brevity (I have what Ulysses Everett McGill calls “the gift of gab”), I began thinking and writing. Below is my first shot at answering her question…
I would want to know what they mean by “not specifically prohibited in scripture…” Do they mean that nowhere in the Bible do you see the actual words “premarital sex is prohibited”? Do they mean that Scripture is silent regarding the specific words or idea of “pre-marital sex is permissible if the people are in love…”? I ask that because many people view the Bible as this rules manual and thus strip away context as they go in to look for “proof” which gives them warrant to do what they like. For example, there’s nothing in the Bible regarding timeouts for kids, or math, or toilet paper… however, the Bible does gives us an interpretation of the world or of God’s holy, compassionate, and just character which creates the context by which these good things find purpose and meaning within a Christian framework, even though there are no explicit words “permitting” or “not permitting” their existence. There are commands to raise our kids in the faith and to disciplines, and there are principles that show examples for how these commands are “fleshed” out. The same is true for mathematics as well as toilet paper— bodily care, prevention of disease, and care for the creation are all themes within the Scriptures, most significantly in Leviticus as the Lord constitutes a people who are different from the pagan nations who denied the goodness of human physicality and the “earthyness” of creation in favor of degrading the value of humans and the world as things to be worshiped.
So. How does this person view Scripture? And, do they see their incorrect view and use of it?
Second, they need to doubt their instinctual desires. One of the reasons why they, and others like them, are so insistent upon this view is because it just “feels right” for them. Yet, this perspective disregards the fact that every human capacity is touched/marred/vandalized by sin. Every capacity. This includes our view of money, our views on sex, and our understanding of our very own understanding…
…our own hearts are deceived.
And, so we should, in some degree, be suspicious of our feelings because our initial reactions are so often the product of our distorted views. Read the Proverbs– “All the ways of a man are pure in her own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit… the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man (person) of understanding will draw it out… every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the heart…” If this friend is a Christian they automatically ought to be wary of unreflective reactivity to their initial desires, and seek counsel from more mature Christians who can point them to the Scriptures as our only rule for faith and life. The Scriptures are our authority, not our feelings and desires.
Third, they’re just wrong regarding the Bible’s perspective on premarital sex. The pagan nations were the ones who had no notion of marriage. It is only in the Judeo-Christian tradition where a single man and a woman are joined together in a spiritual/emotional/physical union by God himself, called a “covenant”. It is our tradition that affirms the goodness of the created order, and thus the goodness of God’s intent with marriage, a covenantal pattern which points to God’s own fidelity toward his people. Thus, the view of this friend is not Christian at all, it’s actually very pagan. When God inspired the writing of the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the OT), the people were used to the very sort of perspective on sex as your friend, and many in our culture today hold— this was the Egyptian way of life. This is why there are so many specifics regarding sexuality in the book of Leviticus. It isn’t that God didn’t want his people to have any fun. Instead, he is showing them a way of life that is holy— it demonstrates his own character— and thus, is utterly different from that of the pagan nations. This is why Genesis is so subversive— Adam and Eve are joined together as one flesh. And, before this happens, God fully forms them as complete beings— they don’t find their sense of fulfillment/purpose/identity in the other— there is no co-dependent relationship between Adam and Eve because they were already whole people. After this, God joins them together in a covenantal relationship: committed, faithful, public, before God and others. And, always in the covenantal pattern in the OT, as well as in the New, there is a public profession/display/symbol. This public covenanting is the very pattern that circumcision, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper follow. This is the very pattern that Christian marriage today takes. You don’t need all the bells and whistles of a $30k wedding. But, you do need a wedding, a public display of vows to one another and to God, and this needs to be sanctioned by God’s own authority through the church and under his authority delegated to the state. This is called “marriage.”
So, every conception of sexuality in the Bible flows from this initial precedent of covenantal marriage we see between Adam and Eve. Marriage is assumed. It’s a given. This is why one of the most potent images of God’s faithfulness and intention toward the church is that of “bride.” Jesus gives his life for his bride, to wash her and purify her for her beautification and his glory (Eph 5), at the entry of the life of the world to come, the church is as a bride prepared for her bridegroom (Rev 21-22), believers dine with King Jesus at the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (Rev 19). Marriage is the pinnacle metaphor for God’s commitment of steadfast love and faithfulness toward his people. And, adultery is a prime metaphor for his people’s lack of faithful commitment toward him (see Hosea).
When we see examples of people engaging in sex outside of marriage in Scripture, it’s not because the Bible is permitting anything else, but because the Bible is honest about human sin. People don’t follow God’s expectations, even his own people don’t adhere to the ethics he commands for his people. So, these aren’t examples of how we should live, but examples of human brokenness and rebellion that are all redeemed by Christ, and which God’s people are called to turn away from.
This is why, throughout the Bible we see words and phrases like “adultery,” and “sexual immorality.” These words are referring to sexual intimacy (this would include intercourse as well as other non-intercourse related acts) outside of marriage. “Adultery” doesn’t just mean cheating on your current spouse, but giving yourself sexually to a person who is not your spouse, and thus breaking the vows of covenantal commitment sealed by your sexuality for the person you will one day be joined to.
We view things so “presently”, while we should be viewing things with a more wholistic temporal view.
This is why, when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, he made plans to “divorce her quietly.” Wait. But, they weren’t married yet. Exactly. They were engaged to be married, and because Joseph thought that Mary had had sex with some other man (thus, her pregnancy), this was viewed by Joseph, and God’s Law, as infidelity, adultery. But, because the pregnancy was of the Holy Spirit and not from a man, Mary remained faithful to her purity before God for the sake of her future covenant marriage. So, when Joseph joined himself to her in marriage, he was doing an incredibly brave and humble (even humiliating) thing. Everyone else in their community saw Mary as “sexually immoral” even though she wasn’t. The act of premarital sex is adultery. This is why it is so essential in pre-marital counseling for a couple to confess prior sexual relationships— so the other person knows of this infidelity, they can work through it, seek and give forgiveness, and rely on God’s grace for healing.
The power of sexuality is something that God has designed as a very good thing for a married man and woman to enjoy, to seal their covenantal commitment, and to treasure as their own private delight, pointing them even to the commitment God has made with his people. Sex is not an allegory for the church’s relationship with Christ, but it is a sign or symbol of it. Which is why Paul makes use of it as such in Eph 5– “husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church…” The power of sexual intimacy is also something to be guarded and held off until marriage because once it’s unleashed in a person’s life, it is so powerful that it can scew our view of self, others, and even of God and his Word. This is why Paul sees distorted sexuality as the pinnacle of human rebellion to God’s Law in Romans 1, and this is why the writer of the Song of Solomon warns on several occasions: “do not stir up or awaken love until it pleases.” This entire book is about sexual intimacy between a bride and her husband, it is potent and powerful, and one of the main themes is to treasure our sexuality as a gift for our spouse alone because our sexuality is indeed a treasure that is meant for only one other.
At the same time, I would also be considerate of a few other things:
- Sexual fulfillment is not a requirement for a person or a relationship to be “legit” “complete” “actualized.” This is a myth that our culture pushes again and again. Yet, there are many people who live full and complete lives in loving relationships with others without having this dynamic fulfilled. Look at Jesus himself. Or, Paul.
- If one is giving themselves sexually to another, or has in the past, the temptation will always be toward self-justification. This is the case with every sin, not just sexual sin. We look for, reason toward, and appeal to cultural ideas in order to justify our behavior and desires. Doing this is a natural part of being “in the flesh,” however this does not mean it is good. Being a Christian means that we see sin as sin, we are broken over our sin, we confess our sin, and we look to God’s grace alone for forgiveness and renewal. And, we do this not only with the particular sins that we commit, but the way our entire dispositions are directed against God in autonomy, rebellion, and resistance to his Word. So, we confess and turn away from all the ways we try and justify ourselves by being really really good, as well as the ways we reject God and try to justify our lives to ourselves and others by self-indulgent and irreligious lifestyles.
- If there is a Christian man and woman who are in love, and they desire to express this sexually, they should be married! Of course, this will take a bit of a process, but it ought to so that the people can more fully understand what God’s purposes with marriage are, so they can explore their own and one another’s hearts, including shining the light of the gospel on past sin, and so they can come under Christ’s authority which he has delegated to the church, and to the church alone. Ultimately, it is not the state who marries Christians, but it is God who unites people in marriage, the state merely recognizes what God has done through the ministry of the church. This “waiting” part is another essential theme of the Christian life, and requires one to rely more fully on the Holy Spirit for self-control, patience, and growth in wisdom in the process.
So. Sex. Clear cut, and complex. This is yet another example of how Christian ethics must be approached with a desire to submit to God’s Word as well as a willingness for deep reflection and application of the gospel to the very deepest places of our hearts.