In a recent thread on Facebook, Dr. Jerry Walls posted a discussion on the topic of premarital sex and the Bible. As expected, it got a lot of attention, but the comments that followed revealed a lack of understanding in the way of biblical marriage. The responses here from professors of Biblical Studies provide some important notes on the biblical texts and their world that serve as as a foundation for a biblical theology of sexuality and marriage. Some are to the point while others provide rich contextual insight into the texts that often get attention.
Dr. Jerry Walls:
Recently, one of my students raised some fascinating questions that more and more people today seem to be asking, namely, “Is premarital sex a sin, and whether the Bible is really clear on the matter. Here is how he posed the question:
“I will qualify this to say that my girlfriend and I aren’t doing anything; however, we were both fairly surprised to discover that the “sex in marriage only” thing is not really there. Everyone talks about it, but I have as of yet been unable to find it. It’s a particular area of interest for me, because if the popular Christian notion of abstinence is wrong, we have been mentally and emotionally abusing quite literally millions of people.
In the Old Testament, sex before marriage leads to marriage (Exodus 22:16). In the New Testament, we mistranslate the word porneos as “fornication,” which we take to mean sex before marriage, whereas this is clearly not the case. The Bible uses the same word talking about reasons for leaving a marriage, which sex with a woman besides your wife is clearly not premarital sex.
Most sites and sources I have found say that verses prohibiting “sexual immorality” are talking about sex before marriage, but the argument here is circular. What is sexual immorality? Sex before marriage. Why is sex before marriage immoral? Because the Bible prohibits sexual immorality. My aim is not to say that we should all just go off and have sex with whomever we please, but the supposed Biblical prescription simply isn’t there, and I’ve done a good deal of research and asked some very knowledgeable people.”
Dr. Ben Witherington III responds:
As ought to be clear from 1 Cor. 7, virginity in a woman was highly valued before marriage. In that text she is called both the betrothed and a virgin. In early Jewish law if you had sex with a woman you were considered married to her or you had shamed her. See the story of Mary and Joseph. Porneia can refer to all sorts of sexual sin including deflowering a virgin. What that whole discussion by your student ignores is: firstly, there was no dating or physical intimacy prior to an arranged marriage in the vast majority of cases. The notion of dating doesn’t exist in Jesus and Paul’s world. Second, honor and shame cultures placed a high value on sexual purity. Notice how prostitutes were stigmatized. Women were mainly blamed for sexual immorality. Finally Jesus gave his disciples two choices in Mt. 19—fidelity in heterosexual marriage or being a eunuch! This means no sex outside marriage.
Dr. Bill Arnold responds:
For the Old Testament side of things, it’s interesting that the only text your student interlocutor mentions is the Book of the Covenant stipulation that a man who seduces a virgin should pay her bride-price and make her his wife (Exod 22:16). What the student fails to observe is that the premise of this legal stipulation is that the man has, in fact, gotten the process reversed. He should have negotiated the bride-price, then married her, then had intercourse. The point of the law, as with many other laws in the Book of the Covenant, is that he has willfully done something wrong and must now make amends. The text the student is citing in your discussion actually supports your position, and not his.
Also, although perhaps not directly related to the question of premarital sex, the single most neglected datum from the OT related to marriage is Gen. 2:24-25. I never thought in my wildest dreams that this text would become controversial in our day, but it elevates the idea of heterogeneous marriage between one male and one female, regardless of how we conceptualize a state-defined and sanctioned certificate of marriage. The biblical concept is clear enough.
Dr. Lawson Stone responds:
The student’s claim that in the Old Testament it appears that, rather than sex being confined to marriage, it “leads to” marriage involves a number of errors, misinterpretations, and blind spots resulting from not hearing the OT in its own setting and voice. The fact in the OT is that a marriage was seen as naturally being “real” when sexual intercourse took place because sexual intercourse is the actual physical and emotional uniting of the man and woman. This is the origin of the tradition in the Roman Catholic church that a wedding not followed by sexual intercourse, i.e. not “consummated,” is incomplete and may be annulled. But this proposition is not reversible, that one can have sex and consider oneself married! The union created by sexual intercourse is real, and happens regardless of one’s legal state or even feelings of intimacy. This is why St. Paul warns that sex even with a prostitute still fuses the “john” to the prostitute as one flesh, and for a believer, implicates the Holy Spirit in an unholy union. The Bible sees sexual union as the vital core of marriage, but this in no way implies that no concern existed for making sure such a union was lawful, sanctioned and blessed by God.
The importance of marriage as a social, spiritual and public covenant or contract is pervasive in the Bible, especially the OT. The world of the OT was a patriarchal society based on land and agricultural production. In such societies, and definitely in the world of the OT, the title to the land follows the male line of descent. In such cultures it is unthinkable that they would be indifferent to being as certain as possible who the father of a child was. This is the economic basis (there are other bases, of course) for demanding a woman be a virgin when she marries, since her children have the legal right to inherit the family property only if they are of her husband’s descent, or are adopted or otherwise claimed by the husband. Likewise, a man who sired children outside of marriage created a confusing legal situation regarding land title and inheritance. In the OT, the land as the promised gift of Yahweh is the concrete center, the focus of God’s revelation and Israel’s faith. Given that in the OT the land was promised to Israel by Yahweh in perpetuity, and that this promise would be negated if through improper marriage or begetting, the land ended up in the wrong hands, the OT writers clearly would not sanction sexual activity except in the confines of a public, exclusive, permanent covenant between the man and woman: marriage. This reality does not allow us to say that, since we are not a patriarchal and agricultural society, that we may dispense with the importance of a public covenant of marriage. Rather, it rebuts the claim that the OT does not insist on marriage before sex, and it provides the human context out of which the OT demand for faithfulness in marriage and celibacy outside it emerged. The key point, here, is not just the agricultural or economic one, but the fact that sexual activity exists in a total weave of life, relationships, economics and community. Marriage recognizes this. Moderns, however, only think of sex individualistically as an act of pleasurable intimacy between the man and woman. They have no notion of sex as an act embedded in the social matrix, economic life, and trans-generational history of their community, to which they are accountable for all their actions.
The idea that extramarital sex is fine is only imaginable in the post-sexual revolution world of not just easy contraception and abortion, but a world in which no particular significance for society as a whole attaches to sex. In modern life, we don’t really have “intercourse” in the full sense of that word–we just copulate. Thus despite being a sexually saturated society, modern or post-modern life remains starkly devoid of sexual satisfaction. The nature of marriage as a covenant in the OT uniting a man and woman, in the context of family, community and God, calls for public recognition. Unlike the privatistic piety of contemporary life, biblical faith was communal and public. A covenant in the Bible whether with God or between human parties, always assumes a prior history among the parties, a clear set of expectations in the relationship to be consecrated, and always culminates in a vow which is witnessed by the community. Given that the NT sees marriage between a man and woman as exactly analogous to the relationship between Yahweh and Israel, and then, Christ and the Church, abruptly withdrawing marriage from the realm of public covenant making rips up the fabric of the biblical revelation.
Exegetically, the appeal to Exodus 22:16, suggesting that sex “leads to marriage” rather than coming after, and thus not posing a barrier to a man and woman committed to each other exclusively, but not united by a marriage covenant, to have a sexual relationship is a strained and perverse reading of that passage. Exodus 22:16 can’t be interpreted as friendly to premarital sex merely because it only demands marriage or, alternatively, levies a fine on a man who has sex with a virgin before marriage. The Hebrew term translated “seduce” (NASB) is crucial. The Hebrew פתה patah means “entice, seduce, persuade with hypocritical appeal, take (someone) for a fool, persuade by flattery, etc.” and the related noun is the word often used for the (morally censured) fool in Proverbs. If sex prior to marriage was legitimate, the law certainly would not describe it with a Hebrew term uniformly used for illicit persuasion. So this was not just a guy and girl or an engaged couple who naturally consummated their relationship on the way to getting married. The text notes that the man “made a fool” of the girl. Nothing good there. This is why the law also provides for the possibility that her father will not allow the man to marry her, since he evidently does not constitute a suitable mate. A second point on Exodus 22:16 is the penalty. Penalties mark violated realms. The man of Exodus 22:16 has in fact seized a privilege to which he was not legally entitled, took what was not legally his. He must therefore either marry the woman or, if the (wise!) father doesn’t want to marry his daughter off to a man who “made a fool” of his daughter, a monetary penalty is levied. Clearly this text has no idea of justifying or legitimizing any kind of sexual intercourse prior to marriage, but is a sanction enforcing marriage as the only setting for sexual union. For what it is worth, I have for 35+ years informally looked for solid evidence of any culture that does not regulate sexual behavior in terms of marriage, and so far have not found one unless you count late 20th century USA. If one exists I would like to know about it. Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa famously tried to claim this in one culture, but her research was subsequently overturned. It is true, and important, to recognize, that fornication is not punished as severely as adultery in the OT. However, we cannot conclude from this that fornication is somehow “okay” but adultery is wrong. Even though a less heinous offense, it clearly remains a serious sin.
Christians today, as heirs of a shallow, “cheap-grace” piety, have trouble with the idea of a scale of moral offense. We often hear the claim that some sin, usually not sexual, is “just as bad” as some sexual sin, and conversely, that sexual sin must be no worse than, say, breaking the speed limit. They tend to think all “sins” are the same, and assert a false moral equivalence among things thought to be sin. Thus, the church’s emphasis on sexual sin appears selective, harsh and hypocritical. This view, however, is based on a skewed reading of some of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount in which he probes the motives of various acts, showing how one might avoid a technical infraction but still possess the unclean motivation that drives the act. This is not to assert moral equivalence between “thinking it” and “doing it.” This false equation of sins actually mirrors and distorts another truth. Theologically, there are no degrees of “lostness.” Scripture clearly divides between life and death, following Christ and not following Christ, a narrow way and a broad way. We also rightly assert the futility of works to attain justification, thus all deeds are equally ineffective in securing our salvation. That fact, however, does not in any way imply that there are therefore no degrees of moral offensiveness or harm in different sins. Scripture and plain reason show that different sinful actions cause differing levels of harm. The fact that adultery draws the death penalty and fornication does not still doesn’t change the fact that it’s seen as a very serious sin. The very existence of the Ten Commandments, separating out a set of offenses from the other hundreds of laws and prohibitions we find in the Bible, implies gradations of harm and offense.
But why would sexual sin occupy such a central place in biblical ethics? This point is most fundamental: in scripture, sexual identity and conduct is wired directly into the central reality of human existence in the image of God. The text of Genesis 1 gives us no explicit explanation of what the “image of God” actually means, beyond the definitions of the terms employed and the fact that in one verse, the author uses the Hebrew device of parallelism to elaborate on the statement, “in the image of God created he him (Adam)” with the statement, “male and female created he them.” By paralleling “image of God” with “male and female” and by using the word “create” twice (which is not used often in Genesis 1, by the way) the writer exalts human sexuality to a central place in human nature and links it to humanity being in God’s image. Thus sexuality unites humans both to the animal world in its reproductive function, but it also points to the uniqueness of humans, since for us, sexuality is tied to our being in God’s image (unlike the animals). This declares human sexuality to be sacred territory.
Likewise, in Genesis 2, while the animals presumably were made with sexual natures for reproduction, the whole story stresses the peculiarity of human sexual differentiation, involving a kind of dialectic of sameness and difference, a “helping/saving” relationship. Tellingly, Genesis 2 makes no mention of reproduction in connection with human sexuality. The stress falls entirely on partnership and intimacy. Most important for the discussion of premarital sex, Genesis 2 serves in the Bible as the foundation text for marriage, what we call an “etiology.” The woman is “presented” to the man, who declares her unique fitness for him, (“bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh”). The inspired author then declares the sequence of a man leaving father and mother, clinging to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh. Vital to this verse is realizing that “cleaving” or “clinging” does not refer to sexual intercourse. A survey of the occurrences of this word reveals that, when used of personal relationships, refers to a commitment that forges a relationship that is virtually one of kinship. It can refer to any such committed personal relationship, whether with other humans or even with Go., So the sequence is one of a man separating from his family, forging a “virtual kinship” bond with the woman, and then they two become one flesh in sexual union. The most natural implication of this text is that sexual union follows a clear act of dedication that involves families (“father and mother”) and which forges a new kinship-like bond. To assert that sexual union apart from a public demonstration and pledge of unbreakable loyalty is to make a hash of this central passage in the biblical presentation of marriage.
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This is why the Bible treats sexual sin as qualitatively different from other sins. Sexual sin alone is used as a metaphor for idolatry/apostasy. No other sin is regularly used in that way. Just as apostasy/idolatry tear at the core fabric of humans in relationship with God, so sexual sin tears at the very fabric of human intra-/inter-personal relating. Not even oppression of the poor, horrible sin that it is, is used as a metaphor for apostasy, but sexual sin is. One powerful illustration of this centrality of sexuality is in the “holiness code” of Leviticus. Most people find Leviticus 19:1-20:9 to be a very lofty moral statement. It contains some of the most elevated ethical teaching in the entire OT, including the “second” commandment. But it is bracketed both fore and aft with a series of forbidden sexual relations. Lev. 18:1-30 speaks of prohibited sexual relations as the cause of the land “vomiting them out.” Then at the other end of the holiness code is Leviticus 20:10-21 we find yet another such series. The point there is that the social and personal integrity called for in Lev 19:1-20:9 is not possible if sexual integrity does not exist. Sexuality as the strategic entry into the most intimate center of human truthfulness and fidelity.
Somewhere in a discussion about these matters, someone protested that this was “the ‘least sexy’ conversation” about sex that they had ever participated in. This remark seemed to me emblematic of the whole problem. Sexuality divorced from every other reality than the most obvious ones of attraction and pleasure. After much thought, I replied: Sex is about SO much more than “sexy.” Sex is about helping your wife recover for months from a very difficult delivery of a baby you sort of had something to do with; sex is about loving the wrinkles and grey hair or thinning hair. Sex is about sitting by the bed wishing you could be the one suffering instead of them. Sex is about still feeling off balance when you have to go without your wedding band for some reason. It’s about staying together through times when you don’t feel in love, don’t feel dedicated, don’t feel “committed” but remember that before God and his church you made a promise, a covenant, and you’ll honor it–and discovering that those who keep faith with that formal, so-called legalistic boundary enter a garden of joy known only to those who surrender. “Sexy” in our culture is a sad, pale cartoon made up of too much cleavage, too little self-respect, too much butt-crack and too many tramp-stamps, and over-tight clothes. “Sexy” testifies to our emptiness, a hunger, but not real desire. Lots of energy, but is it really passion? Lots of smoke, but not a fire to light your life, warm your soul and nourish your heart. The eyes of the goddess are painted, but the eye-holes are empty. The courtesan looks alluring, but the heart is stone-cold. As long as we keep chasing “sexy” we’ll never find the real thing. Instead, we get Madonna and Lady Gaga. And we deserve them.
Used by permission.
Dr. Jerry Walls, Ph.D., Notre Dame. Author, speaker, and professor of Philosophy.
Dr. Ben Witherington III, Ph.D., University of Durham in England. Author, speaker, and professor of New Testament and Biblical Studies.
Dr. Bill Arnold, Ph.D., Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Author, speaker, and professor of Old testament and Biblical Studies.
Dr. Lawson Stone, Ph.D., Yale University. Author, speaker, and professor of Old testament and Biblical Studies.