The other night, my wife and I caught an episode of “Parenthood” on Netflix before bed. If you know the show, it’s the episode where 16-year old Haddie admits to her mother that she and her 19-year old boyfriend are having sex. Mom panics. Mom tells Dad. Dad panics. Dad and Mom agree that Haddie needs to be warned to use contraception (“not just the pill, but condoms as well”).* See Note at the bottom.
Then Haddie’s parents, Adam and Christina, look at each other and say “What else can we say to her?” In their minds, they both remember they had sex the first time before high school was over and it didn’t kill them. So they decide to give Haddie the ‘responsible warnings’ and move on past it.
I told my wife that many Christians we know would have been scandalized by that episode. They would have risen up out of their chairs, incensed that the parents did not offer any moral assistance or guidance. They would have observed it is difficult for parents to give children a moral compass when they didn’t have one at the same age.
But I’ve been wondering lately at some of the messages we send single Christians about sex. Many Christian book authors and bloggers are wondering the same thing. For instance, Sarah Bessey in an article titled “I am Damaged Goods” tells about a Church youth rally she attended:
I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.
And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.
Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.
He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”
And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!
At the end of the article, she concludes:
“No matter what that preacher said that day, no matter how many purity balls are thrown with sparkling upper-middle-class extravagance, no matter the purity rings and the purity pledges, no matter the judgemental Gospel-negating rhetoric used with the best of intentions, no matter the “how close is too close?” serious conversations of boundary-marking young Christians, no matter the circumstances of your story, you are not disqualified from life or from joy or from marriage or from your calling or from a healthy and wonderful lifetime of sex because you had – and, heaven forbid, enjoyed – sex before you were married.”
If you’re like me, you start to respond “yeah, but…” and then trail away.
If the statistics are correct, 80% of Christians have had sex before marriage. And if the anecdotal evidence from many Christian counselors is accurate, pre-marital sex does not ruin your sex life in marriage; and conversely, maintaining virginity does not guarantee you will have an enjoyable sexual relationship with the person you eventually marry.
Here is the bottom line: God-followers are running out of the stock answers for why Christians shouldn’t have sex before marriage. For the past twenty centuries, we have fallen back onto these:
1. No one will want to marry you if you’ve had sex before marriage (almost always applied to women).
2. God will judge you for having sex.
3. You will open yourself up to demonic attack.
4. You can get pregnant (women), STD’s (men and women), mental illness.
5. Society will reject you (once again, women).
6. Your future marriage will be doomed to failure before it starts.
As you can see, most of these no longer apply in the twenty-first century. Contraceptives have gone a long way to eliminate the scare of pregnancy and STD’s. Western society no longer punishes or segregates those who have sex. Marriages don’t seem to be ruined by people who have premarital sex (any more than those who got married as virgins). And perhaps most noticeable, Christian singles have sex and no lightning from the sky falls to smote them. Indeed, it seems like most of the reasons we have told each other for abstinence no longer seem as scary or applicable.
Chanel Graham, writing on her experience with Christian singles in New York City, observes,
When I moved to New York City in the years following college, I was devastated to learn how many of my Christian friends were regularly hooking up at bars and sleeping with boyfriends and girlfriends with no plans for marriage. And more than that, they didn’t seem to feel bad about it. The sub-cultural sentiment was that abstinence is worth preaching through the college years as parental influence wanes and students bumble through the early years of adulthood. But for twenty and thirty-something Christians, for mature adults who had yet to find the one and had been battling hormones for a decade-plus, waiting was child’s play. Celibacy among my Christian peer group was viewed as cute and commendable, but certainly not crucial.
Since few single Christians are willing to abstain from sex forever, what should be the next dialogue for the Church and single Christians?
I had a close friend tell me a few months ago that there are no valid reasons and we should give up telling them to abstain. I didn’t agree with him then or now, but I admit the reasons are not as obvious as they used to be in days gone by.
The easiest way to put this is we should not have sex before marriage because God does not want us to. That’s the easy answer. But that just begs two more questions:
1.What does God say in the Bible about pre-marital sex?
2. What happens to unmarried Christians if they do have sex?
So let’s dive into these two incredibly relevant questions.
So when did God first address issues concerning pre-marital sex? God didn’t say anything to Adam and Eve or their children. This is noteworthy, since it is obvious there was a lot of sex taking place in the early days of man’s existence: There was a whole lot of begetting going on…and apparently, it was all okay. God never mentioned sex to Noah before the flood or to Noah and his family after the flood – other than “Be fruitful and multiply”. And apparently, all this was okay too.
We see the same pattern with Abraham. Abraham even engages in extra-marital sexuality (see the relationship between he and Hagar, his wife’s maid). God never says a word about Abraham’s sex life. Nor does God intervene with Isaac and Jacob. Jacob married a couple of sisters and has sex with both of their maids as well (with his wives’ permission…they had a little bit of a sibling baby competition going). Still, God does not say anything.
With Jacob’s children, a lot of extra-marital sex happens. Probably the strangest incident involves Judah and his daughter-in-law, who gets pregnant by him by pretending to be a prostitute. At this point, God is still silent over the entire issue of what sexuality is allowed and what isn’t.
Thrown into the mix however, is a poignant scene where Sodom and Gomorrah are incinerated…most likely because of their homosexuality. However, we’re not even sure if that was the entire issue (Ezekiel also points out the sin of greed as the partial reason for Sodom’s demise).
So where does God start talking about extra-marital sex? In the giving of the Law to Moses, God begins to lay down some boundaries regarding sexuality. In Exodus 22, Leviticus 19, the same set of limitations are placed on sex. They were not to have sex with relatives. They were forbade from homosexuality and bestiality. They were not to engage in sexuality related to idol worship or group sex. But in no case is premarital sexuality addressed. Nowhere in the Mosaic Law is there a prohibition against premarital sex.
If you peruse the rest of the Old Testament, there is a complete absence of prohibition on pre-marital sex. In fact, there are many commentators who point to the Song of Solomon as a tacit endorsement of enjoying sex before marriage. I do not agree with most of their assessments, but it is clear that Song of Solomon does nothing to show the dangers of sex outside of marriage.
In the prophets, however, we get the first glimpse into God’s true heart on the matter. I need to qualify this to point out we only get a glimpse of God’s biggest purposes in sexuality. All of the relevant passages say the same general thing, so I will just deal with one of them.
Isaiah 23:17 (NIV): “At the end of seventy years, the Lord will deal with Tyre. She will return to her lucrative prostitution and will ply her trade with all the kingdoms on the face of the earth.”
The word for “prostitution” here is a word which refers to “fornication”, most commonly defined as sex outside of marriage. In every case where the prophets mention this word it is in reference to two things: People having sex related to idol worship (forbidden in Deuteronomy) or as a picture of nations courting other nations for protection.
In other words, there is no absolute verse in the Old Testament that does more than hint that sex outside of marriage is wrong. However, the references made to this sexual practice through the prophets do show that God does not think highly of sex outside of marriage. I can just see some Christian singles wanting to stop right there and be satisfied that their sex life is just fine as far as God is concerned. But please, keep reading.
There is much in the New Testament that is worthy of study. But it is not as straight-forward as parents might like when talking to their kids. Take for example,
Matthew 15:19: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
The inner heart of man can conceive of many shades of evil thoughts…one of those is called “immorality”. It is a Greek word that sometimes means adultery. However, because “adultery” is used right before it in this list, it cannot mean that. The other meanings of this word include fornication, group sex and idol/temple related sex. There is no reason to believe that Jesus would be referring to either group sex or pagan temple sex, for neither of these were practiced in Israel at that time.
Therefore, he is referring to sex outside of marriage in whatever form it happens. And in this verse, Jesus is not talking about the act, but the heart that conceives these things. The core of a heart that wants sex outside of marriage is called “Evil”. The Greek word there is Poneros. Though it means ‘evil’ the root of the word means “that which causes pain”. These are painful things. It is not that a person is called evil at their core, but that these thoughts lead to pain. Murder is obvious, as is adultery. But Jesus lumps immorality in with the rest. Why? It doesn’t say here. But it is pretty clear this is not God’s best plan.
Years ago, I had a couple of parents drag their 16-year old daughter in to see me so I could “talk some sense into her”. She had just admitted to her mother that she had sex with her boyfriend. She had not become pregnant and didn’t know why her parents were making such a big fuss. I was furious inside that they would totally shame their daughter in front of me. (Later, I did sit them down to tell them how much they owed their daughter an apology). But the conversation I want to relate at this point happened with the girl.
She was 16. She admitted the details of the sexual encounter and how badly she felt about it all. In fact, she looked sick as she told me what happened. What began as a make-out session quickly led to sex. Her boyfriend talked her into going “all the way”. She was not sure what was happening; and then it was all over.
She felt horrible and hated her boyfriend. It ruined their relationship from that point forward. Most of her questions for me had to do with why anyone would ever want to have sex. It hurt, she felt betrayed and everyone “hated” her afterward – including her boyfriend.
I assured her she had experienced one of the worst-case scenarios regarding sex. If she were to sit down with 100 women who have had sex before marriage, most would have related a better story than hers. Most would also have said that the experience was not everything they had hoped for.
But the key thing she realized after several counseling sessions is her early entrance into the sexual arena was painful in so many ways. This is the idea inherent calling extra-marital sex “poneros”…it can be very painful at so many levels. In order to see what this really means, we need to look at the most detailed explanation of God’s view on sexuality, found in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7.
First, it is no surprise that a letter to the Church at Corinth should contain clear teaching on sexuality. Even by the somewhat “loose” moral standards of the ancient Greek and Roman world, Corinth stood out as an extreme place. Any and all sexual practices were flouted by the Corinthians. Orgies were relatively common and temple prostitution abounded. Women who went out in public usually had to cover their entire head so as not to be confused with a temple prostitute. (Note: This is the point Paul will make in 1 Corinthians 11 when he warns Christian women not to go out with their heads uncovered).
But in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul has several points to make about immorality of all kinds. We can safely assume this includes all types of extra-marital sex. Here are the highlights of what he says:
1. The life we live in the Kingdom of God does not fit well with sexual immorality. - 1 Cor. 6:9-10,
“Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”
All of these activities hinder the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives and stunt our spiritual growth. The verb tenses here mean that each of these sins are ongoing problems, not just one-time experimentation. This verse isn’t talking about someone losing their virginity but rather a person who has sexual encounters as a regular part of their lives. The more someone indulges unhealthy, painful activities the more it blocks the work of God in their lives. The Kingdom of God is not primarily about salvation but more about the Sanctifying work of the Spirit.
So the first thing we learn here about immorality is it blocks the work of the Spirit and thus the working of the Kingdom of God in our lives. Sexual immorality causes a person to walk more and more focused on pleasure and renders them less capable of seeing the godly path in front of them.
2. Our physical bodies are not the only part of us involved with the sexual act. In 1 Cor. 6:13-17, Paul says,
“ You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, 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! 16 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 whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit”.
Even though Holy Spirit is spirit, his presence in our lives affects our bodies also. Romans 8:11 affirms this:
“And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.”
Our bodies are somehow affected by sexual immorality. I do not know how or to what extent this happens. This is not judgment per se. No one should say that God sends disease or disaster on us because of sexual immorality. More to the point, the act of sexual immorality blocks the healing flow of the Spirit and therefore blocks some of that life he is giving to our mortal bodies.
Also, we are reminded that our lives are given over to Christ when we become a Christ-follower. In these verses, Paul wonders what happens if a person joined Christ to a prostitute. This person is reminded that we are one with Jesus in spirit. Therefore, there is some connection deeper than the physical that goes on between two people when they are sexually joined.
This perhaps is a hint toward the deeper meaning of sex and the deeper danger of sexual immorality. If the physical joining is also the beginning of a deeper connection between two people, then casual, flippant sex is dangerous. It potentially creates bonds between people that are harder to break than non -sexual friendships.
3. Sexual immorality causes us to sin against ourselves: 1 Cor. 6:18-20 puts it this way:
“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.”
If you commit sexual immorality – i.e. sex outside of marriage – you probably hurt no one more than yourself. It doesn’t describe how we hurt ourselves, but I think we can imagine. Our lives are a delicate balance of the physical and spiritual. We know that any kind of psychological pressures and failures can wreak havoc on our bodies. When someone is involved in sexual relationships that are less than God’s ideal, it will have some emotional effect. And this emotional effect will take some type of toll on the body.
I’m not talking about superstitious things like hair on your knuckles. I am not talking nonsense like those who claim AIDS is a judgment for homosexuality in our world. I think we rob our bodies of energy and compromise our immune system by creating deep sexual bonds with other people before we’re ready.
All of this is saying that sex is more complicated than two people joining their reproductive organs together. You don’t even have to be a Christian to know that. Our emotions are so heightened when sex is involved. When a couple goes from being friends to being sexual, immediately the stakes are higher. What might have provoked mild jealousy in the friendship stage, now causes huge emotional reactions in the sexual stage. How many people can handle that kind of stressor in a relationship that has yet to be fully defined?
The value of waiting until marriage for sex is that it brings those stressors under the boundaries of a covenant relationship. At least in theory, two married people are required to work through any problems they have in their sexual relationship. That is not the case with teenagers. Haddie and her boyfriend had sex and their relationship inexorably changed (as it always does). Eventually, the escalation of their relationship into sexuality was a prime factor in why they split up a few months later.
Paul in Chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians concludes the discussion on premarital sex this way: “Now for the matters you wrote about:
“It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.
Paul does not see sex as inevitable. There is nothing in God’s mind or Paul’s that concludes everyone has to have sex. It is not a right or an absolute need. However, Paul also recognizes that some people will go through life eternally distracted by the opposite sex if they don’t get intimate. So he proposes this is why God created marriage. It is a place where sex can be bound to a covenant. It makes life a little less complicated, a little less painful and somewhat sexually satisfying.
I qualified all of the above statements because as long as sex exists in this world, it will be the point of so many problems and contentions. That’s why Paul probably advises to stay away from it if you can. If you can’t, help sexual pressures out by putting it in the boundaries of marriage. This is the better way.
If you have had sex before marriage, you have not necessarily ruined a future marriage. You have not become a candidate for God’s wrath. You are not a dirty person. You have not given away your best gift. You simply have a choice what you want to do from here.
I believe there is a best way. Most people today are not finding that way…getting lost in the vagaries of sexual experimentation. But, if you don’t find it at first, keep looking for it. Certainly, don’t allow the enemy to our souls to discourage you if you are no longer a virgin. Virginity is not the point at all. The point is that we have to choose each day how we want to walk with God.
The Bible and the Spirit of God will help you.