Is Premarital Sex a Sin?
Another day, another Facebook post. And another blog post. A friend referred to an article on The Christian Left’s website. The article asked if premarital sex was a sin.
The author goes into great detail, spanning some seven pages of text, to argue that premarital sex is not a sin. He says that the Greek word we use to translate fornication does not mean premarital sex. He says that the Biblical references that speak of fornication actually address rape, adultery, and prostitution. He concludes,
Since the most important law in Christianity is the Law of Love this must apply to sex too. Don’t use people. Don’t hurt people. Don’t hurt their feelings. Don’t lead them to think you feel one way when you really don’t just to get sex. Don’t view them as an object. Don’t push them to do something they may not be ready for. Sex must be mutual. …
The author’s conclusion insists that, as long as sex is expressed in a loving context, and as long as it’s consenting adults and nobody gets hurt, premarital sex is not a sin. I beg to differ, however.
The author uses several “manners and customs” resources written from a rabbinic perspective, to make his point. However, he does not address the concept of how words and customs change over time (see Note 2 below). Also, he never cites lexical (Hebrew or Greek dictionaries) resources (see my notes below); and this is unfortunate. He is correct in pointing out cultural differences between Biblical times and modern times. However, he does not address the fact that modern (especially Western) conventions of courtship and post-teen marriage was unknown in the Old and New Testament times. Therefore there would be no need to address the modern concept of premarital sex in the Old Testament or New Testament. In other words, in Biblical Times, about the time they reached puberty, young men and women would enter betrothal, leading to marriage. Also, verses like Genesis 24:67 describe that marriage occurred with act of intercourse; in other words there was no courtship or prearrangement at all. The author speaks of how the Bible treats multiple wives and concubines, however he fails to differentiate between those things described (i.e., the things that happened) and those things prescribed (i.e., the way things are supposed to happen) in Scripture.
For example, in the story of Abraham, we are told that Abraham had intercourse with Hagar (described), though God did not prescribe that Abraham to do it. In the case of Solomon, we are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1Kings 11:3 described), yet God distinctly tells the Hebrews to not marry foreign wives (Exodus 34:16 prescribed). In fact, we are told that his downfall was that over time, Solomon’s wives distracted him into following their gods (1Kings 11:4 described).
Another important description/prescription can be seen in the Old Testament descriptions of polygamy, and the New Testament prescriptions that church elders and deacons must be a “one-woman man” (1Timothy 3:2, 12).
The author is correct in pointing out that the term fornication includes rape, adultery and prostitution and that most of the OT “fornication” passages refer to those definitions. However, the New Testament Greek word (from which we also get pornography) includes all sorts of sexual immorality, not excluding premarital sex. He also neglects to address another Greek word used in the New Testament to describe sexual sin: licentiousness. Between these two Greek words, pretty much all non-marital sexual activity is covered.
Finally, in a most offensive, presumptive comment, the author reveals his bias:
Many of the sexually repressive teachings that developed in the middle ages are still being followed today. These teachings are based on oppressive Christian traditions that have no biblical basis other than ignorance.
In contrast to the authors comments, the New Testament is very “un-oppressive” and has a great deal of descriptions and prescriptions painting women in a very positive light, as they are given new freedoms in the New Covenant (Galatians 3:28). Women are the first people to see the Empty Tomb (Luke 23:55). Women are very active in the early church. Acts 2:17-19 — quoting Joel 2 — even says that with the Holy Spirit’s anointing, women would prophesy). Also, Romans 16 mentions the deaconess, Phoebe (Romans 16:1) and the apostle, Junia (a legitimate translation of Greek in Romans 16:7). Any “oppressive” Christian traditions do not find their foundation in the inspired, progressive Biblical revelation.
We often come to wrong conclusions because we ask the wrong questions. “Is premarital sex sinful?” is one of those wrong questions. If the Greek word for fornication means “sexual immorality”, we must ask, “Does premarital sex fall under the category of sexually immorality?” Corollary questions are, “What is sexually moral?” and “What is prescribed (not just described) in Scripture?”
The foundational question we should ask is, “Biblically speaking, what is the purpose of sex?” I think it’s safe to say that the first Biblical purpose of sex is procreation Genesis 1:22), though it is not limited to just procreation. Paul says that sexual oneness is a mysterious model of Jesus and the church. (Ephesians 5:31-32) Thus, Paul’s prescription for Believers seeking to obediently follow Christ by the leading of the Holy Spirit is: Celibacy outside of marriage and fidelity in marriage. (Galatians 5:16–17)
Paul acknowledges that we have sexual desires, but says that there is a proper context for expressing those desires. “Because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.” (1 Corinthians 7:2 ESV) Note that Paul prescribes a one-man, one-woman marriage union.
In relation to the paragraph above, the right question is, “What is right about premarital sex?” Does premarital sex model the mysterious union between Jesus and the church? It does not. God’s prescription of the “Law of Love” does not negate the law of God’s righteousness. Biblically based sexual expression is within the confines of God’s righteousness. And God prescribes it as “very good”. (Genesis 1:31, 2:24) Paul goes on to say that married couples should regularly engage in this pleasurable activity. (1 Corinthians 7:5)
So to answer the question, “Is premarital sex sinful?” the Biblical answer is, “Yes. Sexual activity outside the confines of marriage is sin.”
1. πορνεία [porneia /por·ni·ah/] n f. From 4203; TDNT 6:579; TDNTA 918; GK 4518; 26 occurrences; AV translates as “fornication” 26 times. 1 illicit sexual intercourse. 1A adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc. 1B sexual intercourse with close relatives; Lev. 18. 1C sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman; Mk. 10:11,12. (Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon 2001 : n. pag. Print.)
2. Later Judaism shows how the use of porneía broadens out to include not only fornication or adultery but incest, sodomy, unlawful marriage, and sexual intercourse in general. (Kittel, Gerhard, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey William Bromiley. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 1985 : 919. Print.)
3. πορνεύω [porneuo /porn·yoo·o/] v. From 4204; TDNT 6:579; TDNTA 918; GK 4519; Eight occurrences; AV translates as “commit fornication” seven times, and “commit” once. 1 to prostitute one’s body to the lust of another. 2 to give one’s self to unlawful sexual intercourse. 2A to commit fornication. (Strong, James. Enhanced Strong’s Lexicon 2001 : n. pag. Print.)
4. ἀσέλγεια (sensuality/licentiousness)
In some languages the equivalent of ‘licentious behavior’ would be ‘to live like a dog’ or ‘to act like a goat’ or ‘to be a rooster,’ in each instance pertaining to promiscuous sexual behavior. (Louw, Johannes P., and Eugene Albert Nida. Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains 1996 : 770.)
New Testament Prescriptions Regarding “Fornication”
Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality (Galatians 5:19 ESV)
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV)
But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2 ESV)
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