This past Sunday our sermon series “Strength For the Broken Places” focused on the sin of lust. The common imagery found in pop culture from mop commercials to Viagra, sitcoms to talk shows, is the image of sex. There is the image sold that to be of value one must be sexual. People no longer look forward to a goodnight kiss, they hope for a night of sensual pleasure.
Is this a surprise? I doubt it. However, within the community of those who claim to be Christ followers I see less and less clarity on the subject of premarital sex and more and more confusion and doubt on what the Old and New Testament have to say on the matter. I was pleased to see that some of my former professors in seminary were having a discussion on Facebook on the topic of premarital sex raised by one of their students.
Because the following words are not my own, I need to take a moment and introduce these theologians and give them credit. At the end of this blog I will provide some links to where you can find out more about them and some of their publications. Please check out the links associated with their names and you will find they are highly respected in their field of study. I have had the pleasure of sitting in lectures with each one of them and found them all engaging, challenging, enlightening, and eye opening. One of these men made the book of Leviticus feel like the Lord of the rings. Simply put, their words carry weight and should not be easily dismissed.
Dr. Jerry Walls, Ph.D., Notre Dame. Author, speaker, and professor of Philosophy.
Dr. Ben Witheringtom 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.
IS PREMARITAL SEX REALLY A SIN?
Dr. Jerry Walls:
Recently, one of my students raised some fascinating questions that more and more people today seem to be asking, namely, whether premarital sex is really 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. Jerry Wall’s response:
Not being a biblical scholar myself, I consulted some of my good friends who are, indeed, all of them, are distinguished and well published. They are: Ben Witherington, Bill Arnold, and Lawson Stone, all of Asbury Seminary. I found their comments insightful and very helpful, and given the large interest in these issues and their importance, I thought others might benefit from them as well, so I have pasted them below.
Here is what Dr. Ben Witherington III had to say:
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 etc. 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.
Here is what Dr. Bill Arnold had to say:
On the NT, see what BW3 said.
For the OT 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.
By the way, 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.
Here is what Dr. Lawson Stone had to say:
The student’s claim that in the OT 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. So Paul even warns that casual sex with a prostitute still fuses the “john” to the prostitute as one flesh.
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 of 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.
Cultures such as that seen in the OT will closely regulate sexual intercourse and limit it to marriage. The key point, here, is not just the agricultural one, but the fact that sexual activity exists in a weave of life, relationships, economics and community. Marriage recognizes this. Moderns, however, only think of sex as an act of pleasurable intimacy between the man and woman. They have no notion of sex as an act embedded (pun intended!) 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.
Exegetically, the appeal to Exodus 22:16 can’t be interpreted as friendly to premarital sex merely because it only demands marriage or, alternatively, levies a fine. 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 who naturally consummated their relationship on the way to getting married; 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 clearly cannot be trusted.
A second point on Exodus 22:16 is the penalty, which means the man 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 fornicating seducer, 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. Of course Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa tried to claim this in one culture, but her research was subsequently shown not just to be in error, but to be false.
It is true, and important, to agree, that fornication is not punished as severely as adultery in the OT. From this we cannot conclude that fornication is somehow “okay” but adultery is wrong. Even though a less heinous offense, it clearly remains a serious sin. Christians today, especially younger ones, have trouble with the idea of a scale of moral offense. They will claim that some sin, usually sexual, is “just as bad” as some other sin, often economic. They tend to think all “sins” are the same, based on a skewed reading of some of Jesus’ statements in the Sermon on the Mount. They also assume that since there are no degrees of “lostness” that there are therefore no degrees of moral offensiveness in various sins. This of course is incoherent. Sound moral reasoning and scripture clearly 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.
Last, but probably most fundamental: sexual identity and conduct is wired directly into the central reality of human existence in the image of God. In Genesis 1, we have no explicit explanation for what the “image of God” actually means except for the fact that in one verse, a quasi-poetic passage puts in parallelism “in the image of God created he him (Adam); male and female created he them.” By paralleling “image of God” with “male and female” and by using the word “create” twice (not used often in Genesis 1 btw) the writer clearly exalts human sexuality to a central place in human nature and links it to humanity being in God’s image. 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. 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 is the strategic entry into the most intimate center of human truthfulness and fidelity.
This is just a sampling; as a colleague of mine likes to say at the end of class sessions, “Much more could be said!”
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to see this dialogue on Facebook and even more grateful that each of these professors care enough to take the time to write about this subject and gave me permission to re-print their dialogue. Over the next few days, I will share a few more post from this discussion that I believe you will find helpful and wonderful.
Click the Professors Names below for links to some of their books and writings: