Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Kimberly:
Hi Lee! I was wondering if sex before marriage is forbidden in the Bible. . . and if it is, why? I have a hard time understanding what could be so destructive about two people who genuinely care about each other having safe sex. I’ve been leaning towards the thought that sin is anything that keeps you away from God’s love. . . if this is true, then how would premarital sex fit into the equation? If you’re not hurting anybody, can it be so wrong? What about having multiple partners?
Just for the record, this is the same Kimberly who posed the Spiritual Conundrum that I responded to in the article, “It’s not fair that God made some people incredibly beautiful, and others just average!”
Sex is a highly sensitive subject these days. Saying almost anything clear and definite about it is bound to offend somebody.
But . . . Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life is not designed to win any popularity contests. It’s intended to offer a deeper Biblical and spiritual understanding of many issues that we face in today’s world. So we’ll just charge right into it—and you, dear reader, can make up your own mind.
The reality is that the Bible is nowhere near as clear about sex before marriage as many Christians seem to think it is. In fact, though the Bible does generally condemn sexual immorality, there is no clear prohibition against premarital sex in the Bible.
So the short answer to Kimberly’s question is:
No, sex before marriage is not forbidden in the Bible.
No matter how upsetting this may be to some people with traditional moral values, that’s the fact of the matter
However . . . before you jump right into the sack, there’s more to it than that . . .
The Bible forbids adultery, and values marriage
The Bible simply doesn’t say much specifically about premarital sex. And some of what has been interpreted as applying to premarital sex doesn’t really apply to it.
What the Bible does condemn in no uncertain terms is adultery. However, even though premarital sex is traditionally considered fornication, it is not adultery. Adultery is when one or both of the people engaging in sex with one another is married to someone else. Strictly speaking, the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14) does not apply to sex before marriage.
The Bible presents marriage as a relationship that is sacred because from the beginning God created two human beings to be united into one. Based on this, we can conclude that:
- If the people engaging in premarital sex think there is nothing wrong with promiscuous and adulterous relationships, and just want to sleep around with no restrictions or boundaries, it is a serious issue.
- But if the people engaging in premarital sex value marriage and want to be in a committed, monogamous relationship, it is not such a serious issue.
Does the Bible give a green light to premarital sex, then?
No, it doesn’t.
But it doesn’t give a red light either.
Let’s take a closer look at the Bible’s yellow light on sex before marriage. Then we’ll look at some issues that are worth considering in making decisions about engaging in sex outside of marriage.
The Bible says that marriage comes from God
First, the Bible says that God created two people to be united into one, and that this relationship is to be honored.
In the first creation story, God creates man and woman together:
God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)
In the second creation story, God forms woman from a rib taken from the human being that God had created (in Hebrew “Adam” means “human,” not necessarily “man”), and brings her to him so that the two may become one:
So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,
This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
this one shall be called Woman,
for out of Man this one was taken.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (Genesis 2:21–24)
(On the two creation stories and what they say about the relationship between man and woman, see the article, “Man, Woman, and the Two Creation Stories of Genesis.”)
In the New Testament, Jesus refers to the second creation story in establishing marriage as a relationship created by God:
Jesus answered, “Have you not read that the one 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matthew 19:4–6)
And just one more for now. In the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament, it says:
Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. (Hebrews 13:4)
This should be enough to show that according to the Bible, marriage is created by God, and is to be respected and honored as a God-given relationship. (Assuming, of course, that the people in the marriage are living in a godly way.)
The real question about premarital sex, then, is whether it contributes to marriage or damages marriage.
But before we get to that, let’s look at a few places where the Bible talks about premarital sex. The clearest ones are in the Old Testament.
The Bible takes a pragmatic approach to premarital sex
Let’s be honest. The Bible is full of imperfect people who do imperfect things. The only person who is presented by the Bible as sinless is Jesus Christ (see Hebrews 4:15).
In the Old Testament, laws could be quite harsh against those who broke God’s laws. Adultery, in particular, carried the death penalty (see Leviticus 20:10).
What about those who had sex before marriage?
Here, the law was more complicated, and more pragmatic.
If a woman got married, and it was then discovered that she was not a virgin when she got married, her offense was punishable by death (see Deuteronomy 22:13–21).
Yes, this was sexist and unfair. The same rule did not apply to men. But that was an earlier and more brutal age. This law was their way of assuring a man that his children were his own.
By the same token, if a man raped a woman who was pledged to be married, he was subject to the death penalty, while the woman was not to be punished at all (see Deuteronomy 22:25–27).
What if the woman was neither married nor pledged to be married?
In that society, it was assumed that an unmarried woman (who wasn’t a prostitute) would not allow a man to have sex with her, because the consequences for her would be catastrophic. So if an unmarried man did have sex with an unmarried woman, unless there was some proof otherwise, it was considered rape, and the man was to be punished for it—but not by the death penalty:
If a man meets a virgin who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are caught in the act, the man who lay with her shall give fifty shekels of silver to the young woman’s father, and she shall become his wife. Because he violated her he shall not be permitted to divorce her as long as he lives. (Deuteronomy 22:28–29)
In other words, the man was subject to a large fine payable to the woman’s father (which was basically a bride price ) and to the ancient Hebrew equivalent of a shotgun wedding, from which he could not escape through divorce.
Of course, these laws are not in force for Christians today. We have made huge social, scientific, and spiritual progress since then—which is why most of those harsh Old Testament laws simply don’t apply anymore.
In the Bible, acceptable sex is connected to marriage
But consider the pragmatic meaning of that law about sex before marriage. If two people engaged in sex before marriage, they were required to get married in order to preserve the woman’s honor and hold the man responsible for his actions.
Another way of saying this is that in Old Testament times, the laws about sex were aimed primarily at enforcing the sanctity of marriage.
In the New Testament, there are no such detailed laws about how to handle various cases of sex before marriage. Instead, there are more general injunctions to avoid fornication and adultery, and to honor marriage through faithfulness and purity in one’s marital life. (And purity did not mean abstinence from sex.)
From this brief survey of what the Bible says about sex and marriage, we can draw two conclusions that support the ones I stated above:
- Promiscuous and especially adulterous sex with no intent to marry is forbidden in the Bible.
- Premarital sex that leads to marriage, though not ideal, is tolerated in the Bible, and is handled in pragmatic fashion to preserve social order.
This is what I meant when I spoke earlier of the Bible’s yellow light on sex before marriage. The Bible does not forbid premarital sex as many Christians claim. But it does consider it non-ideal, and either requires or encourages those who engage in it to move toward marriage.
In short, the Bible generally teaches that sex should be connected with, or lead to, marriage.
What about premarital sex today?
We are no longer living in the ancient Biblical cultures that existed two to four thousand years ago. At least in the West, premarital sex no longer carries the stigma for women that it did in those days. And the standards for men are, if anything, even more relaxed.
Is that good or bad?
That’s for you to decide.
However, if, as Kimberly says, two unmarried people who genuinely care for each other choose to engage in safe sex with each other, is that really so bad?
Of course, in some families and in some segments of society, there are still major stigmas attached to sex before marriage. Those who engage in premarital sex will have to deal with the attitudes of their families, their friends, and their community.
Beyond social strictures, though, is sex before marriage really so bad?
These days, many people are sexually active from their teenage years onward, and still go on to get married and have good marriages. Yes, I know, many also get divorced or have unhappy marriages. But that also happens to people who don’t have sex before marriage. The point is, engaging in sex before marriage doesn’t necessarily destroy the hope of entering into a long-term, faithful, and happy marriage.
It all depends on your attitude toward commitment and marriage.
Multiple partners or faithfulness to one partner?
Despite today’s freer sexual atmosphere, the Biblical and spiritual ideal is still a long-term, committed, monogamous relationship. Most commonly, this means committed and faithful marriage. For more on marriage and its spiritual source and foundation, see the article, “How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?”
It’s just as true as it ever was that if you sleep around and engage in promiscuous sex with many partners, you’re heading for trouble both spiritually and in your prospects for genuine romantic and marital relationships. Marriage is based on mutual love, commitment, and trust between two people. It cannot coexist with promiscuity and casual sex with multiple partners.
In other words, as I said earlier, if you think there is nothing wrong with promiscuous and even adulterous relationships, and just want to sleep around with no restrictions or boundaries, that’s a serious issue. It will ultimately destroy your prospects for a real marriage.
However, as I also said earlier, if you value marriage and want to be in a committed, monogamous relationship, sex before marriage is not such a serious issue. Your longing for a real marriage relationship will move you in that direction if you remain committed to it.
Does this mean that there’s no problem at all with premarital sex from a spiritual perspective?
No, it doesn’t mean that.
Both spiritually and socially, premarital sex still carries risks.
For one thing, though you may be clear in your own mind that you want commitment, and eventually marriage, how can you be sure that your partner feels the same way? Regardless of what he or she says, it’s quite possible that the two of you have very different goals for the relationship.
Since sexual intimacy is very pleasurable in itself, and often creates strong bonds between two people, it can easily mask major differences between you and your partner at the deeper level of love, common values, and long-term commitment to one another.
Sometimes these differences don’t come to the surface until one of you starts talking about marriage. If serious differences do come out at that point, it can lead to a traumatic break-up, and a sense that you have just wasted many months or years of your life on a relationship that was nowhere near as real as you thought it was.
It works much better to start the relationship from the inner levels of finding out whether you truly belong together than it does to start it from the outer levels of physical sexual intimacy. For more on this, see the article, “Beyonce and Jay-Z Reveal the Secret: How to Start a Lasting Marriage”—and if you’re not into Beyonce and Jay-Z, just scroll down and start at the section titled “Top-down vs. bottom-up marriage.”
Of course, marriage is no guarantee either. But if your partner is willing to take that step with you, it does give greater assurance that he or she is just as committed to the relationship as you are.
It’s still your choice
So is sex before marriage forbidden in the Bible?
No, it isn’t.
Is sex before marriage recommended in the Bible?
Not at all.
The Bible simply presents some of the issues and consequences involved in sex without the intent to marry vs. sex within marriage or with the intent to marry.
It’s still your choice.
That’s as it should be. These are very personal issues, and very personal choices. No one else can make them for you.
However, before you decide to go all-in physically, do consider what you want from the relationship.
If you simply want to enjoy sexual intimacy with someone you feel close to, that is quite doable. But that may be all you’ll get out of the relationship. If you’re good with that, then you can at least go in with your eyes open.
However, if what you really want is a long-term, committed, faithful marriage, consider the possibility that starting out with sexual intimacy early in the relationship may make the kind of marriage you long for less likely rather than more likely.
If you spend the time to find and create an inner connection with your partner before fully engaging your physical drives and hormones, you’re more likely to start the relationship on a solid and lasting foundation of inner oneness. That inner oneness is at the heart of every true and lasting marriage.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
- Beyonce and Jay-Z Reveal the Secret: How to Start a Lasting Marriage
- How does Marriage Fit In with a Spiritual Life? Is There Marriage in Heaven?
- How to Know if Mr. or Ms. Right is Right for You: Pointers from Gloria and Emilio Estefan
- “God Hates Divorce” vs. “Do Not Be Unfaithful to the Wife of Your Youth”
- How to Attract the Opposite Sex—and Keep ’Em