What is the moral status of sex outside of marriage?

ANNE ASKS:

Do we have to get married to have sex? What does the Bible teach?

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The questioner lives outside the United States, reminding us this affects all devout Christians and Jews (also adherents of Islam and other non-biblical faiths) coping with the “new morality” promoted in entertainment media and western society more generally. The discussion typically treats “premarital sex” among teens and young adults, but Anne is a “mature woman” who believes the Bible teaches sex without marriage is sinful but asks whether that’s true.

The New Testament writers “regularly advised chastity,” writes Yale Divinity School’s Harold Attridge. A couple dozen passages denounce “porneia,” the Greek term for sexual misconduct. We know this identifies behavior apart from adultery (in which one or both partners are wed to others), because 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Hebrews 13:4 separately assail both adultery and “porneia.” The term is crucial because shunning “porneia” was one of the minimum Jewish moral laws applied to new Gentile converts by Christianity’s first policy council (circa A.D. 50, depicted in the New Testament Book of Acts, chapter 15).

In classical Greek texts, “porneia” typically refers to prostitution. However, experts on New Testament usage tell us it covers a wider range of misdeeds that they translate as “fornication” (sex between unmarried partners), “unchastity,” or simply “sexual immorality.”

Since Christians’ Jewish heritage underlies the Jerusalem Council and the many New Testament condemnations, the Hebrew Scriptures (that is, Christians’ “Old Testament”) and Jewish tradition undergird the experts’ interpretation. Whatever we make of a thorny legal passage like Deuteronomy 22:13-29, it means “consensual sexual intercourse between singles is censured,” according to Conservative Judaism’s “Etz Hayim” commentary. Notably, sex without marriage was deemed so momentous that the couple was required to wed.

The rules became stricter and more detailed in rabbis’ later applications of biblical law assembled in the Talmud.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs observed in “The New York Times Library of Jewish Knowledge” series that “the Rabbis sternly disapprove of extramarital sex. The sex relationship between a man and an unmarried woman is called ‘fornication’.”

Many Talmud dictates regulated physical contact between unmarried Jewish men and women in order to avoid such temptation. A modern-day ruling from the rabbinical conference of Judaism’s liberal Reform branch affirms that “sexual relationships between single adults were prohibited” throughout Jewish history, so despite contemporary “loose standards, it would be appropriate to do everything within our power to encourage higher standards.”

Religious tradition continues to shape behavior. A survey for “Premarital Sex in America” (Oxford University Press, 2011) found that among white, unmarried U.S. college graduates under 23 who consider themselves “religious,” 63 percent of women and 52.4 percent of men said they were virgins, compared with 14.5 percent and 15.4 percent respectively among those who were not religious. The book’s co-authors, Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas and Jeremy Uecker of the University of North Carolinia, remark that most young Christians recognize “even a generous reading of relevant biblical texts won’t favor having a series of non-marital sexual partners.”

No doubt the traditional morality is highly counter-cultural, ridiculed, widely ignored, and difficult to observe.

A May Gallup Poll showed 63 percent of adult Americans deem relations between an unmarried man and woman “morally acceptable” (which contrasts with the mere 6 percent who find adultery acceptable). Yet an Old Testament professor, the late Canadian Anglican R.K. Harrison, insisted that God provided the Bible’s strict sexual morality in order to ensure humanity’s “physical, mental, and moral health.”

QUESTIONS FOR THE GUY? Leave them in our comments pages.

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.

  • kmbold

    Did you get someone to pose for the accompanying photo or just happen to come upon such a sight and click away?

    • tmatt

      tmatt here:

      I did a very cautious search for the term “premarital sex” in Google images

  • Robert Landbeck

    It is the single assumption of the entire marriage debate that ‘strait’ marriage, contained within a ‘marriage contract’ either religious or secular, has moral value in itself. Even while the act of coitus remains outside the volition of a man. Male sexual response is the unquestioned elephant in the room of moral discussion. I think Shakespeare got it about right. Quoting from his poem Venus and Adonis:

    Call it not love for Love to heaven is fled
    Since sweating lust on earth usurped his name.
    Under whose simple semblance man has fed,
    upon fresh beauty blotting it with blame,
    which the hot tyrant stains and soon bereaves
    as caterpillars do the tender leaves.

    Love comforteth like sunshine after rain,
    while lusts effect is tempest after sun.
    Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain,
    lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
    Love surfeits not, lust like a glutton dies,
    Love is all truth, lust full of forged lies.

    http://www.energon.org.uk

    • n_coast

      Living on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I think you meant “straight.”

      • Robert Landbeck

        No I meant ‘Strait’ as a pun on “narrow is the Way’ from Matthew 7:14

  • Dingo Dongo

    The headline asked about morality, but the text is all about what the Bible says. Unless you make the far-fetched assumption that the Bible has authority on moral questions, the headline and the text don’t match each other.

  • Jeff

    My goal is to set believers free from
    FALSE GUILT caused by COUNTERFEIT SIN.

    This is the most detailed answer you
    will ever read that the idea of PRE-MARITAL SEX as a sin does NOT
    exist in the Bible. There are not even rules that require a ceremony,
    a minister nor a written agreement to establish marriage, certainly
    not a requirement for any government to issue a license. Pastors and
    Preachers will NEVER teach this to you, because it would cause the
    congregation to divide and their salary to dry up. It would also
    cause loan payments to the bank for the church building to go into
    default.

    It’s too long to post here- the blog
    will not allow it. But I guarantee if you read it you’ll be
    astonished and won’t be disappointed by the peace it will bring.

    Please read here:

    http://counterfeitsin.tumblr.com/post/54067457887/if-all-lust-is-a-sin-stop-looking-at-your-wife


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