The Bible does not condemn premarital sex. I was surprised to learn this, after a lifetime of reading verses that clearly said that sex outside of marriage was wrong — but then I began to study the text more deeply.
According to Jennifer Wright Knust, author of “Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire“:
“The only way the Bible can be a sexual rulebook is if no one reads it.”
Yet, when Christian leaders present reasons why we should wait until marriage to have sex, they often start with the Bible.
I revisited all the verses I had ever associated with Christian purity, and dug up translations to see if I could gain some clarity.
There are many Bible verses that warn against promiscuity. But, because the Bible was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic, the translation matters.
In the Old Testament, marriage is described as a business transaction in which women did not have consent, so virginity is highlighted as a matter of monetary value, not morals. It’s safe to skip those verses on virginity.
The following New Testament verses are the ones I most often heard in church to condemn premarital sex.
1 Corinthians 6:9
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men
2 Corinthians 12:21
I am afraid that when I come again my God will humble me before you, and I will be grieved over many who have sinned earlier and have not repented of the impurity, sexual sin and debauchery in which they have indulged.
The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery;
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
These verses refer to sexual immorality, sometimes also translated fornication. If you grew up in a conservative Christian church like me, you might take it at face value that premarital sex is what’s at stake here. But both the translation from the original Greek, and the culture in which these texts were written, matter.
The Greek word “porneia” is what is being used here, and it refers to slaves being sold for temple prostitution. There’s a lot going on there, but suffice it to say, our present culture would have a problem with both slavery and sex without consent, not to mention the issues Christians would have with worshipping other gods.
Even “immorality” is relative: Regardless of religious beliefs, most people have an internal compass of what they regard as OK, and what crosses a line of ethics and morals. Sleeping with someone else’s spouse, and rape, are both widely regarded as immoral in today’s culture. Sex before, or in between marriages, is not mentioned by name.
That’s not all the Bible has to say. And listing sex before marriage off as a sin doesn’t explain the depth to which I internalized the message. I believed having premarital sex once would forever impact my future marriage, even if I married the person who I slept with.
This came from the original chastity verse, Genesis 2:23-25, also quoted in Mark 10:6-9 and 1 Corinthians 6:16.
Genesis 2: 23-25
23The man said,
“This is now bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.”
24That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.
25Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
6“But from the beginning of creation, God MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE. 7“FOR THIS REASON A MAN SHALL LEAVE HIS FATHER AND MOTHER, 8AND THE TWO SHALL BECOME ONE FLESH; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9“What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.”
1 Corinthians 6:16
Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.”
Here, the discussion of flesh is evocative of a sexual experience that bonds two bodies together. The text’s proximity to the line that references Adam and Eve being naked without shame bolsters the idea that there are guidelines around what kind of nudity can withstand shame.
Two becoming one flesh sounds pretty permanent, and is perhaps what I inferred to be so binding about sex (and terrifying about uniting oneself with the wrong person). Here was a union that could only be broken through death.
Restricting intimate activity because God said that’s what we should do brings up a greater question of who God is. I believe God loves us. If God didn’t want us to have sex, it would be because this was the better option.
Just like the translation of the Bible matters, the cultural context matters, too.
In the culture the Bible was written, women were not able to own property, or receive a family inheritance. They were often married in their early teens. Money, instead, passed from male to male. Thus, a woman could not conceivably take care of a child on her own. Becoming pregnant outside of marriage might also ostracize her, preventing her from being able to marry. Not having sex before marriage, in that time period, seems like a great plan — it was a safety measure to ensure a woman’s basic needs could not be taken away.
Today, women in many parts of the world are able to be financially independent, plan pregnancy with birth control, and prevent disease. Today’s consequences for sex outside of marriage are far from destructive.
Plus, instead of getting married around the time their sex drive wakes up, many women today spend 20 years unmarried, post-puberty (although the female sexual peak is thought to be later in life).
The Bible does not define sex before marriage as a sin, but even if it did, there are grounds that following such a rule to be following the letter, not the spirit, of the law.
A God of love, who wants people to live life to the fullest, would want a 1st century girl to abstain from sex until marriage, and would need to require boys to do the same. But would a God of love want a 21st century woman to avoid physical intimacy until she finally is married, perhaps in her mid-30s, or even later?