The Bible on Pre-Marital Sex and Sexual Morality

Where does the Bible actually say that pre-marital sex is wrong? My parents have always taught me that the Bible commands us not to have sex before marriage. Now that I'm old enough to think for myself, I'm having serious doubts about this. I haven't run across anything in Scripture to support their views. In fact, I can't even find any biblical basis for "traditional" marriage! Isaac and Rebekah didn't have a church wedding. Apparently they just slept together and that was it! And what about Joseph and Mary? Why was it okay for them to travel to Bethlehem together before they were married?

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As you’ve discovered, it’s easy for critics and skeptics to argue that the Bible has nothing to say about pre-marital sex. That’s because they’re usually looking for negative statements. They want a “condemnation” or a “thou shalt not.” But the Bible expresses its perspective primarily in positive terms.

“Have you not read,” says Jesus, “that He who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?'” (Matthew 19:4-5; quoting from Genesis 1:27, 2:24). In this passage Scripture clearly states that sex is for marriage and marriage is for sex. Exclusively. That’s because sex is not just a matter of casual recreation. It’s not just a pleasurable way of expressing mutual love. It’s a question of two people becoming one flesh.

This fits in perfectly with the apostle Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 6:16: “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.'” The same concept underlies Jesus’ unbending position on divorce: “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matthew 19:6). It’s also implied in the commandment against adultery (Exodus 20:14). In the biblical view, adultery includes any sexual activity carried onoutside the bonds of committed marriage. This is why the writer to the Hebrews tells us that “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:4). This teaching explains Joseph’s certain expectation that Mary would be “exposed to public disgrace” when it was discovered that she had become pregnant “before they came together” in marriage.

We should add that God wants us to reserve sex for marriage not because it’s “bad” or “dirty,” but precisely because it’s such a unique, exclusive, and wonderful thing. Sex is a holy mystery. It’s a powerful bonding agent that shapes and affects the relationship between a man and a woman as nothing else can. To take it outside of marriage is like taking the wine consecrated for Holy Communion and using it for a frat house drinking party. This is why the writers of Scripture so often compare idolatry to the sin of fornication or adultery. It also explains why they use sexual purity and faithfulness between spouses as an image of our relationship with God (as, e.g., in Song of Solomon, the Book of Hosea, and the 16th chapter of Ezekiel).

Where Isaac and Rebekah are concerned, it’s important to remember that different cultures have different ways of arranging and solemnizing the marital bond. Biblical culture was distinct from our own in this regard. Not surprisingly, the Scriptures don’t require all marriages to be sealed in a church ceremony or a state-authorized license. That doesn’t change the fact that genuine biblical marriage always includes a distinctly communal component. This is implied in a couple’s decision to “leave” their parents and “cleave” to one another (Genesis 2:24) – in other words, to initiate a new family unit as a part of the larger community.

To express this another way, marriage involves a public commitment to build a strong and lasting relationship. This relationship is supposed to serve not merely as a foundation for the nurturing of children, but also as a building block of social stability. It’s the couple’s contribution to the well-being of the broader human community. In Bible times, the administration of this “communal” aspect of marriage was managed almost exclusively by the family. This is clearly reflected in Genesis 24’s description of the nuptials of Isaac and Rebekah. In 21st century America it also involves the state (and, for serious believers, the church).

Something similar can be said about Mary and Joseph. “Betrothals” in ancient Judaism were not like modern “engagements.” A betrothal did stipulate that the couple refrain from sexual contact until after the wedding ceremony. But aside from this, the relationship it established was every bit as binding and permanent as what we normally think of as “marriage.” This explains why it would have required something like a legal “divorce” for Joseph to break off his agreement with Mary and her family (remember, “he was minded to put her away secretly,” [Matthew 1:19] when he learned that she was “with child” prior to their “coming together” [Matthew 1:18]).

If you’d like to discuss these thoughts on love, sex, and marriage at greater length, call us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.


Resources

Sex Is Not the Problem (Lust Is)

Reclaiming Intimacy: Overcoming the Consequences of Premarital Relationships

Boundaries in Dating

Referrals
PREPARE/ENRICH

Boundless

Articles
Why Wait for Sex?

Copyright © 2010, Focus on the Family.

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