Another long post, but as a teaser to try to entice you to slog through the whole thing, I’m going to be answering this question near the end of it:
Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?
No cheating and scrolling down to find the answer – that would be less than loving and relational (because I work hard on these posts). 8)
Last week, I put up a post where I talked about a hermeneutic of love, that is to say, a way of reading and interpreting the Bible that always looks for what the text is saying about love in relation to God or neighbor. In that post, I talked about how reading through such a hermeneutic changes the way we understand what the Bible says about sexuality, such that the primary emphasis of the Bible in regards to sexuality is not about behavior (what’s right or wrong, permissible or impermissible), but about maintaining the proper place and purpose for sex (more on this later in the post).
There’s a reason I chose to use the example of sex in that post. It’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately.
The general topic I want to take on for my IP is developing a Christian sexual ethic that’s relevant for the church today. The topic is way too broad and I’ll need to pick a more focused area of research but in preparation, I’ve already started reading a bunch of books and watching a lot of online courses (I’ll post a brief list of what I’ve been reading/watching at the end of this post). And this is why I’ve been thinking so much about sex lately.
I ended the last post in this damage and desire series talking about pleasure as a potential way of bridging the sexual ethic of the Bible and the culture we find ourselves in today. However, after talking with some people (mostly offline) about it, I’ve come to see that pleasure (which should still remain a part of the conversation) is not an adequate basis on which to build a biblical sexual ethic.
Through these conversations, I came to see that appealing to an external, unmediated biblical ethic was unworkable (because of vast cultural differences between the world of the Bible and today), and appealing to an internal, person/pleasure-centered ethic was also problematic (because it can, among other things, justify cheating on one’s partner).
But if we can’t look without or within for a workable ethic (sexual or otherwise) then where can we find it?
I want to suggest that the beginning point of any ethical exploration should be in relationships. And this brings me back to the relational hermeneutic I outlined in my post last week. I’ve come to believe that the primary thrust and message of the Bible is about love in relationship – relationship with God and with neighbor. Now what happens when we try to build up an ethic from this idea of relationship?
There’s a common idea in Christianity that says, “sin is what separates us from God.” This is based on a moral hermeneutic that reads the Bible as saying that God hates sin so much that God can’t be in the presence of sin; thus, when we sin, we find ourselves separated from God. This leads to a way of life where people do their best to minimize doing things (sins) that will divide them from God and that leads to people reading the Bible to find all the things they need to not do so that they can stay on God’s good side. Thus, they read the Bible with a hermeneutic of morals.
Now what happens when we think about the Bible as being about love in relationship? Well then the phrase about sin and God gets flipped around so that “anything that separates us from God is sin.”
At first, that might seem like a distinction without a difference, but take a look at this passage in Mark 2:23-38. Here, we find a story where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field, picking grain off of the stalks, and eating. They’re doing this during the Sabbath and some religious teachers challenge Jesus on this because it’s supposed to be forbidden to do work during the Sabbath and picking grain is considered work.
Now let’s put this in some historical context. The idea of keeping the Sabbath goes all the way back to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). Basically, that commandment says, don’t do any work on the seventh day because it’s a holy day. For teachers of the Law, the question then became, “well, what’s considered work?” They were reading with a moral hermeneutic: God doesn’t want them to do work on the Sabbath so they need to figure out what kinds of actions are work so they can not do those things. That led them to create a huge list of actions Jews could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Picking grain (even if it was to feed your hungry self) was considered work and that’s why the Pharisees got all twisted up in a bunch when they saw Jesus and his disciples feeding themselves.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to read the Sabbath commandment with a hermeneutic of love in relationship. Read this way, the point of the Sabbath wasn’t about the not working bit, it was about the rest and remembrance bit – because a loving and relational God doesn’t want people working themselves to death. Living life according to some arbitrary set of behavioral rules is missing the point entirely because the Bible (and the commandments) aren’t about rules, they’re about relationship. That’s why Jesus can say in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” That’s what Jesus meant when he says, “I have not come to abolish [the Laws] but to fulfill them,” (Matthew 5:17). It’s also why Paul says that “the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit gives life,” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Okay, but what does all of this have to do with sex and sexuality?
Well in the first two of this damage and desire series, I wrote about how the ultra conservative churches I attended when I was younger taught that we should fear any and all sexual desire outside of marriage. One of the key passages they used to justify and instill this fear was Matthew 5:27-30 which has the line, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Read with a moral hermeneutic, you end up with a ministry that teaches people to go to any lengths necessary to avoid any kind of sexual arousal.
But again, I think that’s missing the point, because here’s the thing. If a man thinks that God wants him to avoid any and all sexual arousal, that can easily lead to a fear of women which can then lead to a (conscious or unconscious) hatred of women. At the very least, it leads to really awkward interactions between men and women.
Read through a relational hermeneutic, I think we begin to see the point that Jesus was actually trying to make. Looking at another person lustfully is equal to the sin of adultery because they both have the same end result: the rupture of relationship. Adultery breaks relationship because you’re sleeping with another person’s spouse. Lust breaks relationship because it objectifies (rather than humanizes) the person being lusted over.
All of this (finally) gets us back to the question I posed in the preface of this post: Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?
And the answer is…
The answer is irrelevant.
And it’s irrelevant because again, I’m arguing that the Bible is not a book about rules, it’s a book about relationships.
So the question, “is sex before marriage still a sin?” is missing the point. The question that should be asked is, “what is the purpose of sex in relation to… well, relationships?”
Now here we have to do some extrapolation, because as I explained in a previous post, the Bible never talks about the world of dating that we live in today. Almost all of the passages talking about sex in the Bible are directed at married couples (because in that society, people got married in their early teens and nearly everyone was married) and almost all of those passages basically say, “don’t sleep around.”
To me, that suggests that the Bible is saying two core things related to sex:
- the purpose of sex is to heighten and deepen intimacy between two people and
- people who are having sex should stay committed to one another.
Add those two things together and we find the helpful guideline (not rule): according to the Bible, there is no such thing as casual sex.
So then, the reason why I want to say that it’s irrelevant (missing the point) to come down on one side or the other on the sex-outside-of-marriage question is because the point about sex isn’t about when or with whom, it’s about intimacy and commitment (the “and” there is particularly important).
Now here’s where things get tricky for unmarried couples and their sexuality.
Because I’m arguing for a relational reading of the Bible, I want to suggest that couples need to decide between themselves how they want to explore (or not) their sexuality before they are married, and as they make this decision, they need to weigh their unmarried state with the guiding principles of intimacy and commitment. And casual sex should be out of the question.
But the relationship between two partners is not the only relationship at play.
Ideally, the couple should be a part of a church community that can give them the tools with which to make this decision. More importantly, the church should be a place that continues to accept the couple regardless of what decision they end up making. And perhaps most important of all, the church should be a place of unconditional love and acceptance in the case of couples who decide they had wanted to wait for marriage before having sex, but ended up having sex anyway. And I think a case can be made for the idea that a church that embraces a more relational (rather than behavioral) ethic will have an easier time creating a safe, loving space for such a couple.
I’ll end with this story which helps to illustrate this last point.
Many, many years ago, I knew this one couple. They were great together. They were both heavily involved in ministry, their goals and their callings both lined up well, they had been dating for months, and they were crazy in love – everyone knew they were headed towards marriage. And then late one night, they had sex. And then within a matter of days, their relationship was over. Just like that.
Now I didn’t know this couple super well so I don’t know the details of their split, but I can well imagine what went down. For one thing, they were probably riddled with guilt. For another thing, word got out. Fast. Again, I didn’t know this couple very well and I wasn’t seeking out the information, but somehow word got out on the grapevine and made its way to me. It seemed like everyone involved in this ministry was talking about it (albeit, in hushed, coded terms – winks, nods, and other stupid, subtle gestures). Intentionally or not, they were shamed. They were told by leadership that they needed to take a break from their relationship (for their own good and for the good of the ministry organization they were a part of). They split up and never got back together again.
I think that’s a really stupid and sad outcome.
Who knows what amazing things this couple could have done together. They were on track to getting married, why should the fact that they had sex derail their life together? If the Bible is indeed about love and relationship then the fact that the way this ministry handled this situation led to the couple breaking up and ostracized them from community (breaking relationship on multiple levels) is far more sinful than anything the couple did.
Sad and stupid. I’m sure that incident led to years of feelings of guilt and shame, longing and regret.
And the one thing they probably stopped feeling (from others, from themselves, and from the way they understood God)?
As always, I’d love to get feedback/comments/questions and especially critique.
Also, earlier in the post, I promised to list some of what I’ve been reading/watching as I research this topic.
- I think you need iTunes to get to the audio but if anything in this post interested you, you NEED to hear this presentation by Tina Schermer Sellers. She teaches at SPU, but this is from a talk she gave at The Seattle School. Highly recommended!
- God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael Coogan.
- A General Theory Of Love by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D.
(I’ll be adding to this list periodically.)