Wednesday, January 16, 2013

To Wait or Not to Wait?

This is a paper I wrote for my Ethics class at seminary last semester. We were supposed to pick and analyze an ethical dilemma the Church faces today. I chose pre-marital sex. This is an issue I feel pretty strongly about, but please know my intention is not to condemn those who disagree with me. 

True Love Waits: God's Design or Outdated Cultural Ethic?

For the last 2000 years, the general consensus of the Christian Church has been that sexual intimacy ought to be reserved for marriage. As one first-century Christian is said to have written, “[Christians] share their table with all, but not their bed with all.”1

From the very beginning, Christian discipleship has been characterized by the surrender of one's entire life – including one's sexuality – to the will of God, a will which is believed to require either complete chastity or covenanted fidelity for the disciple. Most Christian Churches today, particularly those belonging to the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Evangelical traditions, continue to affirm this view of God's design for sexuality. However, according to an article in the September/October 2011 issue of Relevant Magazine, young people who identify as Christians are, for the most part, not waiting until marriage to have sex. Citing a recent Gallup Poll, the Relevant article claims that approximately 80% of unmarried 18-29 year old evangelicals have had sex, which is only 8% lower than the general population. This is in spite of the fact that among Evangelicals as a whole, 76% believe that sex outside of marriage is wrong.

In the midst of these statistics, some evangelicals have wondered if the Church needs to reevaluate its view on God's design for sexuality. Is it possible that the Bible doesn't really oblige us to reserve sex for marriage? After all, times have changed. In Biblical times, people tended to marry shortly after the onset of puberty.2 In 2011, however, the average age in America for a first-time groom was 28.9 and the average age for a first-time bride was 26.9.3 This means that if Christians today are going to marry at the same age as their contemporaries, they will have to abstain from sex for 10 to 20 years during the time of life when their sexual drive is at its peak. This, some argue, is completely unreasonable. In light of this dilemma, what should the church do? Should it continue to affirm the traditional view of sexuality? Or is this position indefensible in the 21st century? This paper will argue that the Church should continue to defend the traditional view of sex as reserved for marriage because (1) it the Biblical perspective on God's design for sex, and (2) premarital sex has negative consequences for individuals and society. I will conclude with several suggestions as to how to decrease the prevalence of premarital sex in the Church.

The Biblical Perspective
What does the Bible have to say about premarital sex? In Scot McKnight's 2008 book, The Blue Parakeet, he says, “Most of us believe that premarital sexual intercourse is contrary to God's will. The New Testament doesn't say a thing about this.”4 Is McKnight right? Does the New Testament really have nothing to say about premarital sex? It is true that there is no New Testament verse that states explicitly “thou shalt not have sex before marriage.” However, the principle of premarital chastity is a very natural inference from what the New Testament does say about sex.

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.”5 The word that is translated here as marital unfaithfulness is porneia, a word that is translated as fornication in older English translations. While there is some debate over the precise meaning of porneia, it is typically understood to refer to any sexual relationship outside of a marriage covenant. When Jesus says that the only legitimate ground for divorce is porneia, he is revealing just how contrary to God's will sex outside of the marriage covenant is. Granted, he is not speaking specifically about the issue of premarital sex, but he is indicating the enormous significance of the sexual act, for it is the only act a woman can commit which gives her husband ground to divorce her. But why is the sexual act so significant? And why does it have the power to dissolve the wedding contract? The implication of what Jesus is saying is that there is something covenantal about the sexual act in God's design, and it is very hard to reconcile this view of sex with the notion that it has any acceptable place outside of marriage.

A more obvious example from Scripture that supports the traditional perspective is found in 1st Corinthians 7:8-9. Paul writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” Paul's statement that “if they cannot control themselves, they should marry” makes little sense unless we assume that he regards sex outside of marriage as inappropriate for followers of Christ. If sex outside of marriage is acceptable, then why not just satisfy one's passion outside of the marriage covenant? Clearly, Paul regards sex outside of marriage as a sin.

The New Testament repeatedly warns believers to avoid porneia. In Acts 15, when the Jerusalem council decides which parts of the Law the Gentile believers should follow, porneia is one of the few things they are told to avoid.6 Paul exhorts the Corinthians to “flee from porneia7 and tells the Thessalonians that “it is God's will should avoid porneia; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable.”8 Ephesians 5:3 even goes so far as to say, “But among you there must not be even a hint of porneia,” and in Corinthians Paul suggests that porneia is a unique and particularly dangerous category of sin when he says, “all other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who [commits porneia] sins against his own body.”

Those who desire to remain committed to Scripture but also want the Church to revise its position will argue that porneia does not refer to premarital sex but only to incest or union with prostitutes, but this is a difficult position to support. For example, it is hard to imagine what Paul could have meant when he exhorted the Thessalonians to have “not even a hint of porneia” if the word was only referring to incest and prostitution. The overwhelming impression one gets upon reading the New Testament passages about porneia is that the word refers to any sexual activity outside of a marriage covenant. This is particularly evidenced by the fact that in several cases when porneia is occurring or may occur, Paul advises lawful marriage as a way of dealing with it.9

In summary, the New Testament views sexual intercourse as a highly significant and even sacred act that is spiritually damaging unless it takes place within the confines of a covenant relationship.

The Negative Consequences Of Premarital Sex

Christians who believe that premarital sex is acceptable for a follower of Christ in the 21st century often argue that it is simply unrealistic to ask people to wait until marriage to have sex. While it is certainly true that remaining abstinent is a challenge, engaging in premarital sex and living in a society that accepts and practices premarital sex presents challenges as well. Recognizing and acknowledging these challenges can help us to understand why Scripture limits lawful sexual activity to marriage. I will identify three of them.

The first consequence that must be acknowledged is unintended pregnancy. In America, nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended. Of those unintended pregnancies, 40% end in abortion,10 and the vast majority (83%) of these abortions are obtained by unmarried women.11 What these statistics make very clear is that unmarried women who have unintended pregnancies are far more likely to abort their children than women who are married. There is, therefore, a clear link between premarital sex and abortion. To state the obvious, unintended pregnancies do not occur apart from sexual activity, and the vast majority of unintended pregnancies that are aborted are obtained by unmarried women. This is not to say, of course, that there aren't other ways of helping to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions besides encouraging abstinence. There is a case to be made for the value of sex education and the availability of contraception. However, the undeniable reality is that the vast majority of these abortions are the direct result of premarital sex.

What is especially alarming is that the incidence of unintended pregnancies among evangelicals is actually slightly higher than among the general population. 30% of all 18-29 year old unmarried evangelical women have experienced a pregnancy,12 and although it is undetermined how many of these pregnancies end in abortion, the Guttmacher Institute reports that 65% of the women who obtain abortions profess to be either Catholic or Protestant.13 Ironically, Christians – who are so known for fighting against abortion in the political arena – may very well be just as likely to have abortions as those in the general population. However, considering that Christian women are nearly as likely to engage in premarital sex as non-Christian women, this should not be very surprising.

Of course, the significance of this information is largely dependent on whether or not abortion qualifies as the taking of a human life. Regardless of whether one suspects that life begins at conception, at birth, or some time in between, Christians must acknowledge that there is a chance that abortion is, in a very objective sense, the taking of a life made in God's image. Therefore, we should not treat it lightly, nor the sexual act that leads to the life's conception.

A second consequence that must be acknowledged is that premarital sex reduces one's ability to bond to a particular partner and make a lasting commitment to that partner. During sex, both men and women release a hormone called oxytocin which functions as a bonding agent. Joanna Hyatt, the director of a sexual and relational health education program in Los Angeles, says, “Studies have shown that if you have multiple physical relationships that then break up, you damage your ability to form a long-term commitment. You train your brain to only do short-term.”14 This idea was supported by a book released in 2008 by two medical doctors, Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children,15 and it finds further support in the words of Anthony Paik, a researcher at the University of Iowa, who identifies key divorce determinants as “having more sex partners, premarital conceptions, and premarital births.”16 In addition to it's relationship to divorce, there appears to be a correlation over the last 50 years between America's changing attitude toward premarital sex and young people's tendency to commit to marriage. In 1960, 59% of people between the ages of 18-29 were married. Today, only 20% are.17 Although this correlation does not prove causation, it certainly fits with Joanna Hyatt's claim and the findings of the doctors who wrote Hooked.

Thirdly, whenever sex is not restricted to lifelong, committed relationships, there is always a risk of contracting sexually-transmitted diseases. There is no need to belabor the point here. As the Center for Disease Control and Prevention advises, abstinence and mutual monogamy are the most reliable ways to avoid infection.18

Addressing A Possible Objection

Christians arguing for a new definition of sexual morality will often say, “What the Bible really forbids is not premarital sex, but sex outside of a committed, monogamous relationship.” This, however, begs the question: if a man and a woman are truly committed to each other – that is, if they have chosen to forsake all others for as long as they both shall live – then why should they not be married? And if they do not want to identify as married, why? In most cases, the reason “committed” couples hesitate to marry is because they are not sure if they are ready to commit for the long-term to the other person. Evidence of this can be found in the number of couples who choose to cohabitate as a means of determining whether or not they should get married. For the Christian arguing for a new definition of sexual morality, cohabiting couples would almost certainly fall under the category of “committed, monogamous” couples who ought to be able to engage in premarital sex, but how committed are they, really, if their cohabitation is simply a means of determining whether or not they are truly right for each other? Their commitment is halfhearted. It is a degree of commitment that only pledges to stick around “if it works out,” or if no one better comes along, and therefore it is not a degree of commitment that permits a sexual relationship according to God's design.

Addressing the Problem

Even if the Bible really does prescribe that sex be reserved only for marriage, and even if premarital sex really does do damage to individuals and society, what can the Church possibly do to reverse these alarming statistics? I don't think there are easy answers, but I would like to offer a couple thoughts.

First, I do think the Church needs to acknowledge that the tendency to delay marriage in our time and culture makes it especially difficult for people to remain abstinent until marriage. There are two primary ways that I think the church should respond to this problem. The first is to be willing to be counter-cultural when it comes to the age that our children marry. I don't think that we should put undue pressure on our kids to marry young, but I do think we should hold fast to the historical Christian sexual ethic, and if that leads some of our kids to marry younger than their contemporaries then we need to support them in that. We need to create a culture in our churches that allows people under 25 to feel like they can consider the possibility of marriage seriously. The second primary way that we need to respond to this problem is by emphasizing the idea that there is an inherent value in the restraint and character that one builds by choosing to be abstinent. As disciples of Christ, the main objective of our lives should be to be conformed to the likeness of Christ, and the ability to subdue one's passions for the sake of what is good is a great example of what it means to be Christ-like. Practicing such restraint is good in and of itself, but it also has value in that it equips the individual with the resources of character necessary to have a healthy marriage should he or she ever get married. We need to learn how to communicate this mentality to our congregations.

I also think the Church must make it a point to talk regularly and openly about Christian sexual ethics and the heart behind them. It is not enough to just reiterate the rules; we also need to talk about why the rules are there and how they reflect the goodness and beauty of God's design. If we do not do this, the people in our congregations will not be able to navigate this area of their lives well. The cultural pull away from God's design is simply too strong. We need leaders who are not afraid to speak, with grace and honesty, about the challenges we face and how to handle them, day by day, as we walk with the Lord. Avoidance of the issue will not suffice.

Also, I think that if the tide is ever going to turn, one of the things that needs to happen is that the generation that has already fallen needs to realize that they can choose to begin living in a chaste way today. As Joanna Hyatt says, “I absolutely think we should encourage 'renewed abstinence.'”19 Unfortunately, many Christians who fall in this area of their lives feel like chastity is an all or nothing thing, and once they've lost their virginity they don't think they can be chaste anymore in any meaningful sense. If the next generation is to have any hope of not repeating the mistakes of the last one, we need to encourage the current generation by emphasizing God's grace and His ability to give us a fresh start. If we do not do this, I think the current generation will just continue engaging in sex outside of marriage, figuring they have already struck out in the game of chastity. This will continue to affect them negatively, as well as having adverse effects on the following generation.

Lastly, I do think it's important for us to recognize that even if the statistics don't change, we still need to be faithful to proclaim and practice God's design, no matter how unrealistic the world at large – or even the Church at large – may think it is. “Wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,” Jesus said, “But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life.”20 When it comes to sexual ethics, the way to destruction is broad and the way to life is narrow. We may never see the majority of people walking the narrow path, but that doesn't mean we should surrender to the broad way. Sometimes, we have to say things that lead others to say – just as the disciples did to the Lord – “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”21 Many cannot, but that doesn't mean it isn't the right teaching.

1“Power, Change, and Money: a Pamphlet on Radical Christian Generosity.”
2McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, 120.
3“Age at first marriage.”
4McKnight, The Blue Parakeet, 118.
5Matthew 5:32 (NIV)
6Acts 15:29 (NIV)
71st Corinthians 18 (NIV)
81st Thessalonians 4:3-4 (NIV)
91st Corinthians 7:1-2; 7:8-9 (NIV)
10“(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.”
11“Abortion Facts.”
12“(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.”
13“(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.”
14“(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.”
15Hooked: New Science on How Casual Sex is Affecting Our Children by Joe S. McIlhaney Jr, MD and Freda McKissic Bush, MD.
16“Women Who Lost Virginity Early More Like to Divorce: Behind the Story.” (Note: Paik was not commenting specifically on the bonding affect of oxytocin, but simply on the factors that seem to be predictive of divorce)
17“Marriage Rate Fall to Record Low in U.S., Pew Says.”
18“Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Prevention.”
19“(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.”
20Matthew 7:13 (NIV)
21John 6:60 (NIV)


ABC News. “Marriage Rate Falls to Record Low in U.S., Pew Says.” Last modified December 14th, 2011. pew-says/.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Prevention.” Last modified November 8th, 2012.

Generous Giving. “Power, Change, and Money: A Pamphlet on Radical Christian Generosity.” Accessed December 14th, 2012.

Huffington Post. “Women Who Lost Virginity Early More Likely to Divorce: Behind the Story.” Last modified August 24th, 2011. divorce_n_882681.html.

Jensen, Joseph. "Does porneia mean fornication : a critique of Bruce Malina." Novum Testamentum 20, no. 3 (July 1, 1978): 161-184. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 15, 2012).

McKnight, Scot. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How Your Read the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008.

National Abortion Federation. “Abortion Facts.” Accessed December 14th, 2012.

Relevant Magazine. “(Almost) Everyone's Doing It.” Accessed December 14, 2012.

Wikipedia. “Age at first marriage.” Last modified November 19th, 2012.


  1. Really interesting read, Ryan. I think the final section really drives it home, especially your two closing sentences. So many of us are challenged by Christ's teaching and, in turn, find ways to blur the lines to suit our own needs.

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