Most Christian denominations do teach that sex before marriage is always a sin, and the importance of chastity is a common theme in Christian literature at least as far back as St. Augustine. I don’t take lightly the weight of tradition in this matter, and the purpose of this blog is not to set my own views up as being authoritative over those of other Christians. However, this blog does aim to honestly confront the issues that might be decisive in driving large numbers of people away from Christianity, and it must be admitted that this is one of those issues. It has been reported that in present-day America, most people have sex before marriage (~95%). So do most conservative Protestants who are active in their faith (~80%). It is not unusual that something said to be sinful by most Christians is also something most Christians have done. Central to Christianity is the acknowledgement that we are all sinners, none of us is perfect, all have fallen short, and each of us should seek the forgiveness of God just as we forgive one another.
What is unusual here is that most Americans today (~60%) don’t consider premarital sex to be morally wrong. This puts it in a different category from actions everyone or almost everyone would acknowledge as sinful, such as murder, theft, or cheating on one’s spouse. It is also worth noting that sex before marriage, if a sin, is not a particularly subtle one. One can be in denial that one is being greedy or mean-spirited or lazy, but generally one knows full well if one is having sex. So this issue is perhaps unique in that it causes almost everyone to confront their behavior, their conscience, and church teaching head-on.
Let’s consider the conservative view first, as concisely articulated here (for example). This particular author is strikingly honest in the initial sentence, admitting: “There is no Hebrew or Greek word used in the Bible that precisely refers to sex before marriage.” If there were, you can be sure it would be pretty widely quoted, but there isn’t. Instead, the author gives a long list of biblical references which criticize sexual immorality and endorse marriage. If you take care to look each of them up, and read a few different translations, it is not clear whether any of them refer to premarital sex. The Greek word used in almost all of these verses is porneia, which is related to the English word pornography but has a first-century context that is notoriously unclear. If you Google the term, you can read a very wide range of opinions on what the word means in context. Premarital sex is just one of many possibilities, including adultery, prostitution, idolatry or some combination of these. Pagan worship involving ritual prostitution was widespread at the time, while dating and cohabitation wouldn’t have been common in a culture where marriage happened very young and was often arranged by parents. There is clearly a risk that we read something into these texts that is not meant for us.
King James typically renders the word porneia as “fornication”, while the mainstream New International Version uses “sexual immorality”, which does seem to acknowledge the imprecision of the word. I suppose “sexual immorality” is by definition immoral, but if you are looking for an explicit and detailed list of do’s and don’ts to guide your decisions, I do not recommend the New Testament. (You could try Leviticus, but that’s the same book that asks you to keep kosher; I explore related issues in some detail here and here.)
In any event, even if we could discern the specific meaning of the word in one or more of the New Testament letters, it might still not be clear exactly how to apply it to our own situation. I don’t believe that every word of the Bible is free from error, nor do I believe that parsing words is the right way to approach God. The Bible points to God, but He is a person, not a book (see John 5:39-40). One can “prove” almost anything from the Bible with enough creativity, but it’s easy to miss the big picture. God is love. And God’s only “rule” for us is love. Now I don’t know much about the “Internet Church of Christ”, but I do think their pastor has summed it all up pretty well here, and hopefully I’ve lifted up the same idea throughout this blog.
Perhaps there are situations where sex before marriage can be in accordance with the law of love. However, there are other times where it can hurt or exploit or pressure a person, where craving for it can lead someone to act immorally in other ways, or where (in the absence of perfect contraception or a willingness to start a family) it can be irresponsible. It is impossible to make a list of which situations are morally acceptable and which are not, and I don’t think the New Testament writers set out to do this. More important than any rulebook, each of us does have a couple of guides in these matters – reason and conscience. God’s law is written in our hearts, and our heart knows when our actions are or are not loving.
The first letter to the Corinthians is the source of a couple of the warnings against sexual immorality commonly cited by those who suggest that St. Paul was at least implicitly forbidding premarital sex. It’s worth noting the context, however. One particular slogan is highlighted twice in the letter: “All things are lawful for me”. It sounds to me as if that would have been a core statement of early Christian doctrine, something Paul himself would have used extensively in teaching, given that a large part of his letters are about how Christ makes us free from the legalism of most religious systems (exemplified by the detailed laws of Moses in the Pentateuch). Paul affirms and repeats this teaching twice, but each time adds a caveat, lest the Corinthians abuse the principle. The first time he writes:
“All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be enslaved by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food” — and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.
— 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 (ESV)
The passage above is vivid and densely packed with metaphors. To those looking for condemnation of sexual immorality there is plenty of ammunition here, and for those looking for spiritual support in practicing chastity there is plenty of inspiration here as well. But it’s worth noting that Paul is appealing to general principles here, not a list of rules. If there is any specific practice condemned here, it’s prostitution (and the buying more so than the selling). But even that is not labeled “unlawful”; it’s simply an example of something unhelpful, something that can enslave someone (as an addiction). It’s also understood that when Christians engage in behavior that is overwhelmingly seen by people as disreputable (whether technically “lawful” or not), they bring disrepute upon the name of Christ. Too many times has a sex scandal involving a Protestant evangelist or Catholic priest has helped drive someone away from Christ altogether. Concern for making sure Christians set a good example to the world in their personal behavior is also reflected in passages such as Titus 3, Philippians 2, and Romans 13.
The second context of “all things are lawful” is regarding food. At the time there were those in the Christian community who still clung to the Jewish food laws of their upbringing, feeling in their hearts this was important to God despite what the Apostles were teaching.
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?
So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.
– 1 Corinthians 10:23-32 (ESV)
The same idea is present in the preceding chapter of Corinthians (origin of the phrase “all things to all people”), and expanded further in Romans 14. Neither of those passages is directly related to sex but they are very illustrative of Paul’s thinking, especially about how to deal with those moral issues where people’s consciences are not in agreement. Premarital sex, at 60%/40%, is currently one of those issues, but the references to food might not be as anachronistic as they first seem. If sharing a meal with a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, or any kind of vegetarian, the Christian thing to do might be to skip the baby back ribs (or in the Hindu’s case, the burger), remembering that everyone has their own struggle between instincts and conscience. An old proverb comes to mind: “to live a moral life, you must do more than required, and less than allowed.” (Various unauthoritative Internet sources attribute this to Plenides, a Greek statesman c. 400 B.C.)
To summarize, I would suggest that Christians should consider their own conscience (as honestly as possible, keeping in mind our temptation to rationalize) in dealing with premarital sex and similarly unclear issues. Christians should also consider the consciences of others, both in terms of how their behavior reflects upon their commitment to Christ and in terms of the effect of their actions on others’ spiritual health. If chastity resonates for you as the right thing in your own situation, Christian tradition provides encouragement for it, but trumpeting your choice to the world might make it difficult for weaker wills to approach the Lord (and keep in mind His guidance here).
If, on the other hand, you honestly feel that nothing is inherently wrong with sex before marriage, then don’t let that stop you from following Christ, but take note that centuries of saints understood the allure of sex to be a source of great potential danger to the spirit. Also, be careful not to let “all things are lawful” become an excuse to treat people with disrespect or enslave yourself to any kind of passion, and don’t trumpet your choice either, out of respect and care for the consciences of others.