Sex before Marriage
In the last chapter we observed that sex within marriage is a magnificent act; that the sexual activity of marriage delights God; that the Bible's view of marital sex is positive, accepting and attractive.
But where does sex before marriage fit in? Pam felt confused about this when she started at university. She's attractive, and young men invited her out. She soon discovered that most of them expected intercourse in exchange for a coffee date. But Pam is a Christian. She doesn't believe in casual sleeping around and she felt isolated and lonely. Was she wrong to stick to her Christian principles? How long can she cope with being the only girl on her corridor who isn't sleeping with her boyfriend? What will happen when she finds herself overwhelmed by sexual desire?
Some student nurses known to us found themselves equally bewildered. Most of their colleagues, too, paired off and slept together. Some lived together. Should these Christians similarly indulge in free sex? Some did and they felt guilty. Others abstained and exposed themselves to cruel jibes. "You Christians are wet." "Are you gay?"
Such taunts sting. This hurt prompted them to organize a seminar in which they invited us to examine these pressing questions. "Is sex before marriage all right? If not, what biblical teaching is there? Is there anything wrong with sleeping around?"
In this chapter, I plan to answer those questions and to look at another. Does the Bible say anything about sex for the engaged couple?
I sometimes find myself hurting inside when I talk to young people oppressed by these problems. I am well aware that Christians are as sexually alive as their unbelieving friends;
that coping with powerful waves of sexual desire is hard, seemingly impossible; that the frustration sometimes seems intolerable. These reflections on the Bible's teaching and observations from counselling experience may seem like mere headlamps in the fog. Perhaps they will offer a glimmer of light, a degree of protection?
What does the Bible say about sex, unfaithfulness and casual sex?
As we have seen, the Bible finds no problem with zestful sexual activity when the context is marriage. Take Genesis 2:24-25, for example. When a man leaves his father and mother and commits himself to his wife, the assumption is that they will become one flesh.
Or take Proverbs 5:18-19: "So be happy with ... the girl you married ... Let her charms keep you happy; let her surround you with her love" (GNB). Satisfying sex and marriage are happy bedfellows. Paul underlines this biblical principle. When he addresses the promiscuous Corinthians, he does not disallow sexual pleasure but he does place it in context: "Let each man have his own wife and each woman her own husband" (1 Cor. 7:2 JB). The implication is that within the bond of marriage sex is permitted, indeed expected and encouraged.
Why this emphasis on marriage? Paul gives the answer to that question in Ephesians 5:32, where he suggests that this mysterious fusion of two persons is intended to reflect the permanence of the union which exists between Christ and His bride, the church. Contemporary observations about the sex act seem to be saying something similar. It is now widely acknowledged that sexual intercourse between married partners transforms the individuality of the man and the woman. It welds the "I" and the "thou" into a new entity, the "we", without cancelling out the "I" or the "thou."
This unitive act is a pale reflection of the oneness which has always existed between the three members of the Trinity and which exists between Christ and the church.
If this is true, if this merging of two bodies symbolizes such permanence and depth, what happens when people sleep around,
when married persons commit adultery?
In 1 Corinthians 6:13ff. Paul explains what happens to the Christian who prostitutes his / her body in extra-marital sexual activity. This person dishonours his / her own body, violates the sex act itself and defiles God's property. Sexual immorality is seen as a serious transgression.
The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, "The two will become one flesh." But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.
(1 Cor. 6:13-20)
How does sleeping around degrade your own body? It insults your body because you are not a toy, a thing to be used, played with and discarded. Your body is a part of the glory of God's creation, stamped with His hallmark, with dignity and honour. Moreover, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, the place where Jesus resides, which is sacred for His use (v. 19). Can a Christian therefore contemplate involving the indwelling Spirit in a disposable, incomplete, shallow sexual relationship? Isn't it unthinkable?
It is unthinkable until you find yourself powerfully drawn to a person of the opposite sex. Then what? What if the desire to give your body to another is strong? Paul's response to that problem is the reminder that "You are not your own property/ you have been bought and paid for" (v.20 JB). Our bodies are not ours to prostitute. They have been purchased by Christ's sacrifice on Calvary. For what purpose? "God did not call us to live in immorality, but in holiness" (1 Thessalonians 4:7 GNB).
When you are tempted to sleep with your partner before you are married, will you remind yourself that to do so would be to defile your body, God's property; to act contrary to God's love?
Sexual intercourse seals the permanent union contracted between husband and wife. It illustrates, in a physical, biological way, the unity to which they have committed themselves socially, spiritually, emotionally, in relationship to one another and the community. It is also symbolic of the eternal union which exists between Christ and the church. Are you prepared to mock this rich symbolism by indulging in the one-night stand, casual sex, intercourse as a thank-you for a happy evening? You may try, but if you do you attempt the impossible.
As Paul emphasizes in 1 Corinthians 6:15, sexual intercourse unites persons in a deep, inextricable, irrevocable union. There is, therefore, no such thing as casual sex. Even if you "use" a prostitute, you become one with her.
These are hard sayings for Christians living in the West today. They were hard, too, for converts living in Corinth and Thessalonica in the first century. How were they to move into a new gear when all around them promiscuity was accepted as a normal way of life? Aware that sexual immorality incurred the wrath of God (1 Thes. 4:6), they refused to take their standards from contemporary society. They knew that sexual vice was to be shunned (1 Thes. 4:3; 1 Cor. 6:18); that they could be free from sexploitation (1 Thes. 4:6); that they must pursue a higher calling: to love and to serve. Did this come easily? I doubt it. Freedom from slavery to sex rarely does. Do you want to base your code of behaviour on society's clamour for free sex or on the Bible's teaching? Will you keep sexual activity for marriage: Will you control the sexual side of your relationship in order to bring pleasure to God? (See 1 Thes. 4:6).
Where will you erect your boundaries?
Paul and Wendy really wanted to enjoy sex within the security of marriage. But they were medical students. After they'd been going out together for two years they got engaged.
They looked forward to marriage with eagerness. Then Wendy's parents withheld their permission to allow Wendy to marry until both she and Paul became doctors. They would be engaged for another three years.
Paul and Wendy already felt that they had been growing in their commitment to each other. They felt deeply united in spirit, soul, mind, emotions. Why not become sexually one, then? Surely God was not such a kill-joy that He would expect them to wait? Surely they would not be sinning? They were deeply in love, sincere in their commitment and could not be accused of behaving promiscuously.
Does the Bible say anything about sex for the engaged couple?
The honest answer is "No!" The Bible has no word for engagement as we know it today. The nearest parallel is betrothal. But betrothal was a far more binding contract than engagement. Matthew 1:18 illustrates this, where we read of Joseph planning to "divorce" Mary. To back out of the commitment of betrothal was as complicated as divorce used to be in our day.
So how does the Bible view sex for betrothed couples? It still demands virginity. Take Deuteronomy 22:13-21. This passage describes what sometimes happened to a bride on her wedding-night. She was compelled to prove her virginity. If she could not do this, her husband acted within his legal rights if he chose to divorce her forthwith. Or take Matthew 1:18-19. The secrecy, shame and embarrassment with which Mary's pre-marital pregnancy was handled surely point to the same fact. Sex before marriage, even between couples who were legally committed to one another in betrothal, was illicit. Sex is for marriage.
Jewish custom seemed to have exercised strict control over women, while ignoring male promiscuity. But this sexual license was ruled out of court when the Christian church formed its own moral code of behavior. As early as Acts 15:20, we find James writing to new converts forbidding any indulgence in sexual immorality.
Jesus Himself encourages us to think seriously about our
sexual activity. He condemns adultery, and warns against the unfaithfulness which expresses itself in subtle ways. "Anyone who looks at a woman and wants to possess her is guilty of committing adultery with her" (Matthew 5:28 GNB). It was not that Jesus was an anti-sexual ascetic. If this were true He would not have reiterated God's creation plan. "Haven't you read ... that from the beginning the Creator "made them male and female", and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh"? So they are no longer two, but one" (Matthew 19:4-6). Clearly Jesus approved of sexual fusion when the context was marriage.
How are you feeling about Jesus' standards?
The Bible, in my opinion, leaves us in no doubt that the gem of intercourse has one setting, marriage. It implies that if you remove sex from marriage you distort both the act and the relationship. It nowhere gives even a hint of a clause permitting sex outside the marital relationship. Why?
Why keep sex within marriage?
Isn't it unreasonable to ask a couple like Paul and Wendy to wait for three years before they can enjoy sexual oneness? Yes, it is unreasonable. I ached for them when they came to talk to me. But this unreasonableness must be laid at the parents' feet, I feel, not God's. Society is quick to blame God, quick to turn the God of love into a tyrant. This tendency is not new. It first appears in Genesis 3:1. "Did God really say ...?" How unreasonable! We sin most easily when we are tempted to believe an exaggerated view of God's harshness which Satan, the world, or our own rebellious feelings whisper to us. But those of us involved in the caring ministry, who see the casualties extra-marital sex produces, know the subtle injury which the act often inflicts. We see the wounds, sometimes deep, often permanent. To us it is more clear why God circumscribes our journey through life with rules. They are for our protection. As one man put it to me once, "Starting from the reality of my pain it became clear that God's law was not an arbitrary imposition, but, like all good laws, a protection against the inevitable consequences of crime
hurt, division, betrayal. Faced with this overwhelming desire to sleep with Joan, I suddenly saw that law is a loving thing. God's law is eminently sensible. It prevents people getting hurt."
If you've heard someone admit, "I just cannot forgive myself. I can't forget," you will know how crippling a guilt-ridden memory can be. This guilt separates a person from God. It then turns to fear, anger or anxiety. It sometimes develops physical symptoms, but more frequently results in depression. Of course, I am not saying that all persons who indulge in pre-marital sex will automatically nose-dive into depression at some point. I am saying that it is a common phenomenon. God wants to protect us from this emotional pain. Will you place yourself under His protection?
God also wants couples to enjoy sexual activity when they are married. It frequently happens that those couples who enjoy sexual experimentation before they are married, lose interest in the sexual relationship after they have been married for a few years. Again, this does not always happen, but it occurs frequently. As one woman put it, describing her premarital sexual experience, "It was all so furtive. I hated it." This hatred spilled over into her marriage after her children were born. Her husband feels cheated. God would save us from this ruination of sexual pleasure.
And He longs to rescue Karen from the frigidity which is the physical handicap pre-marital sex left her with. Before Karen and Graham married, they enjoyed sex. Graham brought Karen to orgasm frequently. But now frozen guilt holds Karen in its grip. Disappointing sex spoils their relationship.
It seems, then, that Walter Trobisch is right. Pre-marital sex is rather like picking blossoms in spring. It seems beautiful, right and natural at the time. But when autumn comes, there is no fruit. Sexual pleasure in marriage should become better and better. God longs to prevent us from spoiling that wonderful prospect.
I am aware that for every reader who has experimented with pre-marital sex and suffered the pain, disillusionment and dismay I have described, there will be another who was
not left feeling empty, disappointed or isolated. Some people behave promiscuously and appear to bear few lasting scars. Does that make sex outside marriage right? I don't think so.
Sex, as we have seen, belongs in the context of committed love. This love involves a permanent commitment to the well-being of the loved one. As John Powell reminds us, "Love rejects the question 'What am I getting out of this?' "1 In fact, "Love immediately challenges me to break the fixation I have with myself...... Love demands that I learn how to focus my attention on the needs of those I love.'2 Or as the Bible puts it, "You must love.... your neighbor as yourself" (Luke 10:27 JB).
People who love themselves accept responsibility for themselves: they avoid unnecessary pain or needless injury. So they pull their hand out of the flame or jump out of reach of an oncoming bus. If you love yourself as God loves you, you have to inquire, before indulging in extramarital sex, "Will I get hurt?" Supposing a child is accidentally conceived? Supposing I catch V.D., syphilis, or AIDS? Supposing this act, which is so much more than the mere biological joining of two bodies, unleashes dependency feelings in me which I didn't know existed, which I can't control? After all, two people who fuse their bodies with abandonment and trust cannot expect to be the same afterwards. They are one flesh. Sex is the language of intimacy, of commitment, of passion. It affects not just my body but the whole of me. Am I likely to get hurt if I sleep with my partner? How do I feel about confiscating my wholeness which Christ died to secure?
"You must love your neighbor as yourself." If this is true, you will have to ask yourself these questions:
What is this extra-marital sex act going to do for your partner? Will he / she be hurt?
To love is to bear responsibility for the loved one. Supposing a child is accidentally conceived? How will your partner feel? How would the unexpected child feel?
If you sleep together now, how will it affect your partner's view of himself / herself? How will it affect his / her future?
How will the memories further marital happiness? Might they destroy it?
Will sleeping together deepen your partner's relationship with God or ruin it?
Will it enhance his / her view of sex, God's symbol of permanent love, or cheapen it?
Are you using your partner's body to give you quick thrills? Is that love or the abuse of love? Do you really want to trivialize sex and your partner?
How do you feel about engaging in pre-marital sex with your partner? How do you feel about discussing these questions with him / her?
If you decide that the world's standard, sexual license, is not compatible with the Bible's standard, you must ask another question: how will we abstain?
Anyone who claims that this is easy is not speaking the truth. It is difficult, but not impossible.
Sex is a hunger. It clamours to be fed on demand. Shall we then be manipulated by screaming feelings? Sexual feelings are like petulant children. Does a wise mother always give in to her child's demands? Loving parents learn when to refuse a request, when to say "Wait." Likewise, as adults, we must learn to discipline our rebel emotions.
Discipline? Isn't this harmful? No! Discipline is not harmful. It is not the same as repression. Repression harms people because it means pushing feelings firmly into the subconscious, then living as though the feelings do not exist. This pretense is short-lived. These feelings will spring out again, but in a disguised form. Clearly repression is unhealthy.
Discipline, on the other hand, never involves sweeping feelings into a dark corner. Discipline is seen when the understanding adult listens to the complaints of unhappy children, interprets them accurately and meets the real rather than the expressed needs. In other words, when you and your partner discipline yourselves, you listen to your own feelings with sensitivity but you do not give in to every desire. That is a travesty of love, not its full expression.
This discipline need not be mournful. It can be exciting, like deciding not to peep inside parcels until Christmas Day.
This discipline is healthy, joyful, balanced. It adds dignity to yourself, your partner and your sexuality. You are no longer enslaved by sexual desire. You control it.
God does not ask you to control it alone. He gives the Holy Spirit to strengthen our moral fibre when resolve is weak. I think this is what Paul implies in 1 Thessalonians 4:8. It is only the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who enables us to walk unscathed through the heat of passionate desire. He is the one who cultivates the patience we need to receive God's gifts in God's time, including the gift of sexual fulfillment in marriage. He is the one who produces the self-control which dogged determination on its own fails to produce. And He is the one who causes the fruit of gentleness, kindness and responsible love to grow within us; those qualities which refuse us permission to abuse our own body or the body of another. When the strength of sexual desire renders us helpless, it casts us back on God's unfailing help. Then in our weakness we become strong. For discipline shot through by the grace of God results in joyful obedience, in sexual battles won.
For thirty years Augustine refused to avail himself of this supernatural help. Then he had an encounter with God. Reflecting on his life of promiscuity he lamented this dead-end seeking in this way, "Too late have I loved you, O Lord, too late have I loved you. Memory is indeed a sad privilege."
What sacrifices are you prepared to make to ensure that you master sex rather than allowing sex to master you?
In chapter 9 we return to this subject and consider how to express affection responsibly. But maybe you feel daunted by what I have just written? What if it is too late, if you have already indulged in extra-marital sex? Have you committed the unforgivable sin? Of course not. The next chapter spells out the good news. In Christ lost virginity can be restored.
Chapter 8 || Table of Contents
1. John Powell, Unconditional Love, Argus, 1978, p.56.
2. Unconditional Love, p.88.