So far, I have defied Catholic and Orthodox teaching by saying that the primary purpose of sex is conjugal love (rather than procreation); and I have gone further than most Protestants are willing to go by saying that gay and lesbian relationships can be a faithful expression of this love.
No current discussion of sexuality would be complete, however, without talking about premarital sex. When we look at this, we once again see a big paradox in the church.
On the one hand, church tradition is pretty consistent here. I haven’t been able to find any church writing, prior to the 1960s, which approves of premarital sex; and even today, most ministers and theologians are hesitant to affirm it.
Yet when it comes to practice, we see something different. The overwhelming majority of American adults, regardless of church tradition, have had sex outside of marriage.
Studies show that even among conservative Christians, as many as 75% had their first sexual experience in a non-marital context.
Evangelical culture, with its purity rings and slogans like “true love waits,” is commonly mocked by the broader American culture; and it’s no secret that the majority of Christians in this country don’t live up to their own standards.
It would be easy, of course, to accuse American Christians of hypocrisy. But perhaps it would be better to take a fresh look at what Jesus actually has to say about this.
Does Jesus really say that sex should only be practiced within marriage? Or is premarital sex “okay” as long as real love is involved? Answering this question isn’t as easy as it might appear.
A couple of things should be mentioned from the beginning. It’s worth noting, for example, that the New Testament never mentions premarital sex directly.
While many English translations of the Bible have Jesus and the apostles condemning “fornication” (Matt 15:19-20, Mark 7:21-23, Acts 15:19-20, 1 Cor 6:12-18, Gal 5:19-21, 1 Thess 4:3-8, 1 Tim 1:9-11, Heb 13:4, Jude 1:7, etc), this is a mistranslation.
The word used in these passages is the Greek porneia, which literally means “whoredom” or “harlotry.” If used in a broad sense, it can refer to any sexual activity that is promiscuous or exploitative; but it does not mean “all sex outside of marriage,” as many conservative preachers claim!
We should also note that the idea of a long-term, loving, sexual relationship outside of marriage was almost completely unknown in the biblical world.
In the Middle Eastern world in biblical times, there were basically only four options for sex – marriage, sex with another’s spouse (adultery), sex with a male or female slave, or prostitution.
Most marriages were arranged, and women who weren’t “pure” (that is, who had slept with a man other than the one they were betrothed to) were considered whores. The idea of a modern dating relationship, where a man and woman might “try out” a sexual relationship and see if it sticks, was simply unheard of.
That said, there are some good biblical and practical reasons to save sex for marriage. For me, the number one reason is to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
I feel that children deserve to be raised in an environment marked by lifelong commitment; and since no form of birth control is 100% effective, having (vaginal) intercourse outside of such a commitment seems irresponsible to me.
But what about other forms of sex? Is it wrong for an unmarried couple to engage in oral sex, or mutual masturbation, or other non-procreative sexual acts? After all, no children can be conceived in these ways. As long as no one’s getting hurt, why not?
Before giving approval too quickly, however, we should note that there’s another reason to save sex for a lifetime commitment: it creates spiritual and emotional bonds that can never completely be erased.
In a discussion about marriage, Jesus says that when a man and woman come together sexually, “they are no longer two, but one flesh,” and that “what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matt 19:4-6).
Jesus is not so much laying down a law as He is describing an eternal reality. It’s not so much that no one should dissolve a marital union as it is that no one really can. The bond created is never really broken; neither adultery, nor divorce, nor even death can completely undo the unity created by the conjugal act.
Furthermore, this “one flesh” union is created whenever two people have sex, whether or not they are married. This is why Saint Paul can say that “whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body” with her (1 Cor 6:16).
In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Wherever a man lies with a woman, there, whether they like it or not, a transcendental relation is set up between them which must be eternally enjoyed or eternally endured” (The Screwtape Letters).
While bad sexual memories can be repressed, they can never be completely erased from a person’s soul. In some way or another, we remain connected to all of our sexual partners forever.
Does this apply to non-procreative sexual acts as well? Do they create the same sort of “one-flesh” union that vaginal intercourse does? My experience suggests that they do.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all sex acts outside of a lifetime commitment are bad or harmful. Indeed, many people have experienced profound love in sexual relationships that nonetheless came to an end (whether through divorce, a breakup, or the death of their partner).
The fact that those relationships didn’t last forever (in a bodily sense) doesn’t invalidate the love that was present; and once the initial pain of the loss is overcome, many people are able to look back on such relationships with fondness and no regrets.
But while not all premarital sex is harmful, it’s risky at the very least. This is true of marriage, too; indeed, no human relationship is free from emotional or spiritual risk. But it seems to me that sex within marriage is less risky than sex outside of such a commitment.
So while I can’t say that premarital sex is always bad (any more than I can say that marital sex is always good) I can say that it’s probably not the wisest choice in most cases.
The important thing to remember is that sex was created to bring people together, not to split us apart.
Before engaging in any sexual activity, then, we should ask ourselves an important question: am I willing to be attached to this person, in some way or another, for the rest of my life (and beyond)?
If we can honestly answer yes to this question, then I don’t see any problem with sex. The marks of a true love commitment seem to be there, regardless of how long the people have known each other or whether a marriage certificate is involved.
If the answer is no, however, we’re treading on very slippery ground. In this case it seems pretty clear that we ‘re using another person for our own temporary gratification; and the chances of both people walking away from this unharmed are pretty slim!
This is not to say that the church should treat sexual purity as if it were an easy thing to accomplish; nor is there anything to be gained by punishing people who fall short of the ideal (which all of us have in some area of our lives).
What we should be doing is picking each other up when we fall, and helping one another show forth the love of Christ. The good news is that we are not alone in this journey; and it’s never too late to start fresh.
(Coming Next – Jesus and Sex, Part Six: Flying Solo? Masturbation, Pornography and Lust in the Life of the Single Christian)