It has been a while, but it is time to draw to a close my series on Searching Issues, loosely following the questions identified as the most common by the Alpha course (but subtracting a couple and adding one). This final question is, in my opinion, the hardest one: is there anything wrong with sex before marriage?
Here are the main reasons why I think it is so hard:
The Bible says little to nothing directly on the topic. It is often stated that the Bible is clear, but I have never heard anybody be able to back that up. Church tradition does condemn pre-marital sex often and very clearly, but as a Protestant, that comes second to Scripture as a source of authority.
There is a wide range of positions between the extreme of “nothing remotely sexual before marriage or it is sinful” and the extreme of “anything goes.” Some condemn sex between teenagers before marriage but don’t see a problem with sex between two committed consensual adults before marriage. Some think that there are precise rules that apply for everyone while some think that the “how far is too far” can rightly be answered differently by different couples.
Defining sex is not even that simple. Is sex only vaginal intercourse? Does oral sex count? Does anal sex count? Does nipple stimulation (which can cause orgasm) count? I’ve heard some Christians say that only vaginal intercourse counts as sex. I’ve heard some caution against even kissing or holding hands before your wedding day. Most are somewhere in between.
Many people, including Christians, don’t have any more of a clue how to understand the meaning of marriage than they do the meaning of sex.
For many people, it is just plain awkward. That’s a big part of why I like to write on topics of sexuality. Culture often encourages us to embrace everything sexual without thinking. The church has often encouraged us to flee from everything sexual without thinking, and even when it is approved for marriage it just is never talked about. My main goal from this post (as with many others) is not to sway you to any position but to get you thinking.
The Real Question
So, where should we start tackling this question which I’ve just stated is very hard to tackle? I think we need to get to the real question. The real question is not simply what is allowed and what is not. To answer that surface question we need to look at much deeper questions of the meaning of sex. We need a theology of sexuality, not just a list of do’s and don’ts. What follows is an introduction to one theology of sexuality which to me is probably the most holistic. I’m going to provide a general principle and then 3 different dimensions or purposes of sex from which we can begin to form an answer. As usual, I am primarily addressing Christians in this conversation. I do still think these guidelines would be helpful for anyone, but I don’t run around claiming that everybody has to follow a Christian theology of sex.
The Principle of Proportionality
The general principle is this: the level of sexual activity should move no faster than the level of intimacy on the dimensions that are often a lot harder to cultivate. I’ve thought of three dimensions, or alternatively framed, purposes of sex, which can be used for understanding this. When the sexual dimension goes faster than the consequential, spiritual, or emotional dimensions, somebody will more often than not be hurt. I believe that we were designed to have holistic romantic relationships, culminating all of these dimensions, but as a culture we tend to focus far more on the sexual than on the others (and yes, I could write a blog easily about how dangerous it is to overexaggerate the other dimensions, but in general we tend to underestimate them).
The Consequentialist Dimension
First is the obvious-but-occasionally-overlooked consequential dimension: sex is for procreation. Our Catholic brothers and sisters do the best of emphasizing this aspect, although I would respectfully disagree with them on how they extend the principle to oppose birth control techniques. When seeing the popular wedding/sex text “the two shall become one flesh,” this can be applied to the beautiful result of new creation that is brought about through sex. It is pretty clear from natural law that one of the purposes of sex is procreation, so I don’t need to expand that any farther.
We could also look at this practically if, like me, you do not support abortion (I stay out of the political debates but if asked what I think is right for the Christian, I would say that abortion like any other violence is not an option). Even with birth control, there is a slight possibility of pregnancy, so not only is procreation a purpose of sex, it is a very real consequence. I’m staying away from scare tactics of how you don’t want to get pregnant or STI’s because I really don’t think those are helpful, but we do need to acknowledge this purpose as well as this potential consequence.
So here’s question number one: are you willing to have children? I’m not saying as far as wanting to have children orplanning to have children (that’s why I’m still ok with birth control), but in the scenario of pregnancy, are you prepared to follow through with the birth and love that child? If you aren’t willing to do so, you are not only risking the consequences but you are neglecting one of the purposes of sex.
The Spiritual Dimension
Second is the spiritual dimension which is often emphasized in Protestant circles: sex is for spiritual union. Using the same text that I cited above, Protestants typically emphasize that in marriage and in sex, two people become spiritually united together. This union is not casual or temporary, but is something that is committed to for life. When Jesus speaks on this text in Matthew 19, he says that “what God has put together, let no person tear apart.” So there is something deep going on with marriage that bonds together two people before God and before the spiritual community.
So question number two: are you spiritually united? For the Christian, to me this means that you are moving in the same direction spiritually, both working together toward embodying the Kingdom. Ask more specific questions like: is this union one that you have committed to before God and before your community? Do you go about your day with the other half of your union in your thoughts or do you regularly live as if you’re single in many respects?
The Emotional Dimension
Finally, we should also include the emotional dimension: sex is an incredible act of vulnerability. There’s a reason that we often consider rape the most heinous crime to commit, arguably only second to murder. There is an inherent vulnerability required in the sexual act, especially for women who would be the ones to bear the physical consequence of pregnancy as well as much more often pain in the act itself. Less obviously, there are a whole slew of neurological changes that happen to both men and women during sexual activity. Most of us understand this intuitively even when we are regularly told that it is no big deal.
So here’s another question to consider: are you so emotionally entangled that before and during the act you are able to think about what your partner needs rather than what you need? If you are finding yourself wanting sex because of what it can do for you with little thought about what it can do for your partner that may be another warning sign that you are not being emotionally vulnerable. Karen Lebacqz puts it this way in her essay for Sexuality and the Sacred: “Any sexual encounter that violates appropriate vulnerability is wrong” because sex can and should be an antidote to the common attitude of demanding control over the other. As Jesus modelled vulnerable service, we are supposed to as well, and sex should be the most powerful example of this principle.
Before I can get to a conclusion, we need to take a quick detour from the meaning of sex to the meaning of marriage. I believe that marriage for the Christian is a statement of commitment before God and community to live interdependently with another person for the rest of your lives. Not surprisingly, this definition lines up a fair bit with the dimensions of a relationship and the purposes of sex.
So, what’s that mean with regards to the original question: is there anything wrong with sex before marriage? I have a hard time going as far as to say that sex before marriage is always inherently a sin. In general I have a hard time saying that any action is always a sin unless I see clear Scriptural reasons for it and I don’t see those Scriptural reasons the way I can for such things as idolatry, greed, or violence. I am also most definitely not supporting the “anything goes” mentality of the Sexual Revolution.
Inevitably some on each extreme will therefore feel like I’m wimping out by saying this, but I think the best answer is to say that waiting for marriage is never a bad idea. Marriage in many ways is the declaration of your willingness to bring new life into the world, of your spiritual union, and of your vulnerable servant attitude toward each other. Yes, many marriages are lacking these things and those marriages should work on strengthening them. Will I go so far as to say that these things are not ever possible without formal marriage? Not quite, but I would still be very cautious in that situation that you aren’t fooling yourself. Some of these questions could easily be answered in the spur of the moment emotionally and regretted later. Maybe you think this is a cop-out, that I’m not really answering the question, but I think far more important than answering that surface (albeit common) ethical question is getting at the real question behind it, and that is what I hope to have done with this post.