What is the moral status of sex outside of marriage?


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


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.

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