Below is a guest article by a contributor who contacted me about this website. He and his wife are pastors of an evangelical church. In his opinion (which I don’t necessarily share) premarital sex is not a sin and we have forced a lot of Christian young people out of the church by demanding that they keep a command which is not in the Bible.
For my response to this, see the following post Christian Young People and Sexual Desire
“Show it to me in the Word!”
That’s what my pastor said that Christians should say whenever someone told them that they must or must not do something. I was a young Christian, a teenager who had just given his life to the Lord a few short days before, attending church for the first time and hungry for the things of God. As Christians, he said, we were given great liberty in what we could do, but there were many misguided or ignorant people who would want to infringe on our liberty by telling us that something was a sin. That’s when we should say, “Show it to me in the Word!” because if the Scriptures were silent on something, then we as Christians were free to do as we pleased.
As it happened, at almost the same exact time that I became a Christian, I got my first real girlfriend. Susie didn’t understand my new faith, but it was a wonderful feeling to have someone to kiss and cuddle and simply to understand my life as a teenager.
Susie wanted to have sex, and so did I: there was nothing wrong with my hormones. Physically I was ready and in fact, I had been waiting a couple of years for a girl to come along who was available and cooperative. Now I had one, and I would have happily have given her my virginity if it wasn’t for what I kept hearing at church: premarital sex was wrong. It was a sin, sex was only for married people.
So I went right to my pastor. “Show it to me in the Word!”
The pastor didn’t even pause. He smiled and opened up his Bible. He told me I had the right attitude about checking everything out by the Word, and then showed me a few Scriptures: “Flee fornication!” (1st Co. 6:18) was the first of many, including “abstain from fornication” (1st Th. 4:3), “The body is not for fornication” (1st Co. 6:13) and many others. Fornication, he explained unnecessarily, was sex between two unmarried people, which is exactly what I was contemplating with Susie. The clincher was the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, where the apostles and early leaders of the church got together to determine the rules that were binding on the new church. They gave Christians great liberty, laying down only three or four (depending on how they were counted): to abstain from idol worship, and from blood and the meat of animals that had been strangled, and from fornication. (Acts 15:20, 29) The pastor advised me to give up my non-Christian girlfriend and above all, to flee fornication.
This wasn’t the answer I wanted, but that is what the Word said and I accepted it. Not long afterwards, Susie and I broke up. I also bewildered the cashier at McDonalds when I asked if the cows they used had been strangled; she looked at me as if I had just arrived from another planet, which was approximately the way Susie had looked at me when I said we couldn’t have sex.
Pastor John had given me a list of scriptures to look up for myself, and I found that the King James word “fornication” was translated as “unchastity” or “immorality” in other translations. That gave some Christians I knew enough grounds to condemn almost anything else, from Playboy magazine to oral sex, as forbidden, but in my mind the Scriptures thundered in Pastor John’s preaching voice: “Flee fornication!”
I dated several Christian girls over the next couple of years, and I was still a virgin when I entered my sophomore year of college and met the girl who would become my wife. Our physical relationship developed rapidly, so rapidly, in fact, that as we started to see no way of avoiding sex, that is, fleeing fornication, without breaking up or getting married. We couldn’t bring ourselves to break up and as for getting married, there were issues. We came from very different Christian traditions (my church routinely called hers a cult) and besides, we were too young, still teenagers in fact. We loved God, prayed and read scripture together, went to each others’ churches, argued about religion and sex, made out passionately, and one night, after months of delaying the inevitable, we joyously gave each other our virginities with my shiny new engagement ring on her finger.
It was a wonderful, transcendent experience. The only thing I had to compare with it was the day I prayed to accept Jesus and He met me with a demonstration of his presence that left me overwhelmed, barely able to stand. I had just given my virginity to the girl I loved, and it was amazing. The feeling of the presence of God was again overpowering. Colors seemed brighter, all I could do was to praise God for the joy and wonder of this amazing thing he had created and this amazing girl I had just shared the experience with. I never felt closer to God.
The problem was, we had just committed sin! That’s what it said in the Bible, and that’s what both of our churches taught. So now we were in the position of having to repent of the most marvelous experience of our young lives.
We couldn’t do it. We tried; we both tried very hard, but it when I prayed, it was as if God suddenly left the room. What was wrong? Was God so angry with me that he wouldn’t even hear my prayer of repentance? Or was he trying to tell me that he wouldn’t hear my prayer because I had no reason to repent?
For Connie the answer was clearer. I called her the morning after, to find out that she like me had spent the night in prayer and repentance. But God had spoken to her. “He said that sex is a blessing, not a sin, and you don’t repent of a blessing!”
After that night, Connie and I continued to have sex whenever we could, and never felt a bit guilty about it. God had spoken, and that was enough.
Or was it? After all, the assertion that God had spoken to us was subjective and seemed to contradict the clear direction of his Word. If we went to our pastor, we knew what he would say: we were deluded, we were only trying to justify sin, the Word of God takes priority over any feelings or so-called “words from God” that we might have. So we didn’t tell the pastor or anyone else; we just continued doing what we were doing and were blissfully happy about it.
Intellectually, though, I was bothered. Why did the Bible say one thing, and our experience and prayer and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit all say another? It was a contradiction I couldn’t reconcile. For the first time I understood why so many Christian kids leave the church when they run into something in life they can’t reconcile with the Word. For whatever reason, it never occurred to us to stop going to church. We loved God, we loved his Word, we loved the church, and there was no contradiction for us to hold hands in the third row back, listening to a sermon on purity, knowing full well that we had shagged each other silly the previous night and fully intended to do it again as soon as we got home. I still wanted to be a preacher or missionary some day, and Connie still wanted to be married according to the ritual of her faith.
Then one day I found a book in the university library. It was a bound volume of Baptist theological journals from the 1950s, just the thing that a nerdy, intellectual Christian kid with a call on his life might pick up. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone else ever leafing through such a volume for fun, but that was the way I was back in those days – or else, as you might believe, God was leading me to a certain article.
The article in question was a detailed word study of “porneia,” which is the Greek word often translated as “fornication.” That got my attention, and I read the article carefully, minutely, and repeatedly. The first big point was this, and I’m going to give it its own paragraph and bold letters to make sure that no one misses the point:
Porneia – the word translated as “fornication” or “unchastity” or “immorality” — does NOT, repeat, NOT mean “premarital sex!”
I’ll repeat that. Porneia does not mean “premarital sex.”
Instead, porneia has a specific meaning. It means “prostitution.”
The translators of the King James Bible knew this. When it translated the related words “pornos” and “porne,” which mean, respectively, a man or a woman who commit porneia, “porne” was never translated “fornicator:” it was always “harlot” or “whore.” And “pornos” was translated as “fornicator” only half the time: the rest of the time the word was translated as “whoremonger!”
Furthermore, there was an even more specific meaning of the word. In the twentieth century, I had come to think of prostitutes as the sad women who shivered in revealing clothing on the sidewalks near the hotels downtown, trying to make a few dollars to feed a family or buy a fix. But prostitution in that meaning of the word was unknown to the early Christian world. Instead, the kind of prostitution that Paul and the Jerusalem Council both condemned so forcefully, was of a different character entirely. In the eastern Mediterranean of the first century, prostitution was a religious obligation!
Pagan temples of the ancient world had deities that promoted fertility, the fertility of the fields that all depended on. Keeping the fertility deities happy was serious business; if the crops failed, people starved. These deities were worshiped by having sex: many cultures have festivals where worshipers have sex in the fields in an effort to encourage the gods to give abundant crops. Priestesses in temples allowed men to perform such an act of worship in exchange for an offering to the temple, although it may be sheer cynicism to suggest that many men may not have been thinking primarily about crop yields and appeasing the gods when they visited temple prostitutes.
That was the kind of prostitution that Paul was familiar with, that flourished throughout the Eastern Mediterranean world and especially in Corinth where Paul admonished the early Christians to flee fornication.
Sex is indeed a holy act, an act of worship – my experiences with Connie had proven that much to me. To take a holy act such as sex and bend it toward worshiping idols – that was the sin that so bothered the writers of the Bible.
So since the word translated “fornication” doesn’t mean simple premarital sex, what does it say in the Bible? Show it to me in the Word!
There were actually other stories in the Bible that seemed to say that God approved of sex, even premarital sex. We had put those stories aside because the clear message of scripture had seemed to be “flee fornication!” but now we took a closer look at some of the other stories.
There is the story of Ruth. Ruth is a young widow at a time when a woman without a father or husband to provide for her could be in dire circumstances. A wealthy landowner named Boaz, who was a relative of Ruth’s late husband, seems to be the answer to the problem, if only he would take more than a passing look at Ruth. How would Ruth get the attention of Boaz, to make him take an interest in her?
Here is what Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law, Naomi, suggested: “Wash therefore, and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. But when he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (Ruth 2:3-4, RSV)
So that is what Ruth did; and it is recorded that when Boaz awakened in the night to find Ruth, he spread his cloak over her, thanked her for her kindness in coming to the bed of an older man such as himself (as someone who is now a little on the older side himself, I could appreciate such kindness also!) and observed that Ruth was a “woman of noble character.” (3:11, NIV)
Does the Bible really say that a woman of noble character would sneak into the bedroom of a man she barely knew? Not only is that exactly what it says, but Ruth is extolled as one of the great women of Bible history, the grandmother of King David and one of the women listed in the lineage of Jesus!
But it could be said that Boaz and Ruth could have slept together that night without sex. That is true, the Bible doesn’t specifically say what went on under that cloak, even though the very idea of an unmarried couple sharing a bed is enough to make most modern preachers think twice about letting the couple teach Sunday school. God’s ideas are very different from man’s.
Then there is the Song of Solomon, an erotic love poem that is so potent in its imagery that generations of theologians interpreted it as an allegory when they couldn’t ignore it altogether. On a non-allegorical level, and read literally, it is too explicit for most Christians to be comfortable.
The Song of Solomon is a story of a young couple, a girl known as the Shulammite, a title that suggests that she was of the household of Solomon. I think a reasonable guess is that she was Solomon’s daughter or granddaughter. Solomon is not her lover; a literal reading of the poem suggests that the object of her affection is a young shepherd boy. How young? Perhaps shockingly so; one scholar who studied Hebrew customs of the time suggested that the boy is about 15 and the girl “not a day over 13-1/2”! At face value, it is a love song of two unmarried teen lovers “persuading each other that they should sleep together.” The boy admires and praises his fiancee’s breasts and vulva (Song of Solomon 7:1-3). Oral sex is alluded to in 2:3 and 7:2, his fingers slip into her opening at 5:4, and at 7:8 she finally climbs his palm tree, to speak poetically. And this, two scholars note with wonder, is done without guilt and with the apparent blessing of God!
But, of course, the Song of Solomon is only an allegory of Christ’s love for the Church, right?
So let’s look at another story, one that is familiar to every Christian, told at every Advent Season: the story of Mary and Joseph: the story of a young, unmarried and very pregnant couple, traveling a long way from home and refused room at the inn. I emphasize “unmarried” because the Bible does: the word “espoused” in the King James Version at Luke 2:3 is better rendered in other versions as “engaged,” or “betrothed.”
Some commentators have tried to soften the fact that they were unmarried by emphasizing that they were betrothed, a word that meant something rather more than simply being engaged would today. Yet, these same commentators insist, sex was still off-limits until the actual wedding day. Just because the ring is on the finger doesn’t mean the panties can come off.
The problem with this theory of betrothal and chastity is that it is not well-supported in scholarship. But rather than get into the game of dueling footnotes, I’d rather say this: Show it to me in the Word!
The Word says: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18-19, NIV)
There is a lot to unpack her. First, although the couple were engaged or betrothed, Joseph is called “her husband.” That’s an interesting translation, although most versions will use it: the Greek word literally means “her man.”
Second, Joseph didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace. But consider this: what is the public disgrace Joseph is shielding Mary from? The fact that she is pregnant and therefore, presumably, had premarital sex? This cannot be the case, because it is soon going to be obvious to everyone that Mary is pregnant and she would be subject to public disgrace anyway. The real problem is that Mary is pregnant and Joseph is not the father – the scripture clearly says that this was “before they came together.” Since the only people on earth who know that Joseph cannot be the father are Mary and Joseph themselves, the public disgrace would be if Joseph publicly accuses Mary of cheating on him. But Joseph is a righteous man who won’t do that to Mary, and decides to put her away quietly.
In other words: the sin was not that Mary had (as would be presumed) had premarital sex; the sin was that Mary had broken her covenant with Joseph and had sex with someone else. The fact that Joseph would contemplate breaking the engagement with Mary without causing a scandal, indicates that for engaged couples to have premarital sex and fall pregnant as a result, was neither scandalous nor particularly unusual.
Although I wonder what would have happened if Mary and Joseph told their modern-day pastor that it was OK because they had been told in an angelic visitiation. He would have said they were deluded, or merely trying to justify their sin, and that the Word of God takes priority over any so-called “words from God!” But God’s ideas are very different from man’s.
For a betrothed woman to fall pregnant was not scandalous or unusual. Premarital sex simply wasn’t considered a sin under such circumstances !
So in conclusion: one cannot argue against premarital sex based on the scripture verses that warn Christians against fornication (or whatever word is used to translate “porneia”) because fornication does not mean premarital sex. In fact, there are several biblical passages in which premarital sex is permitted, and in the case of the Song of Solomon, it is even presented in positive terms.
Martin Luther was one of the great Christian leaders to study the scriptures and come to this same conclusion himself. Sex between two persons “in anticipation of betrothal” – that is, before they were even engaged! “cannot be reckoned fornication,” he said.
In short: there is nothing in the Bible that forbids premarital sex. If anyone disagrees, I’ll respond the way my first pastor taught me: “Show it to me in the Word!”
Lawrence J. Friesen, Sexuality: A Biblical Model in Historical Perspective (D. Min thesis, Fuller Theological Seminary, 1989), 28.
Helmut Gollwitzer, Song of Love: A Biblical Understanding of Sex (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 18.
According to G. Lloyd Carr, The Song of Solomon: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England & Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984), 157, the phrase translated in the NIV as “graceful legs” refers to the labia and the Hebrew “sarr” or “navel” (NIV) refers to the vulva.
Friesen 173, Gollwitzer 29-30.
In Mark Ellingsen, “Luther on Human Sexuality,” Dialog 32 (Winter 1992):69-75, 72.