Sex without marriage: What does the Bible say?

ANNE ASKS:

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

THE GUY ANSWERS:

The questioner lives outside the U.S., 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.”

(Currently there’s far more heated debate over the traditional belief that the Bible disallows homosexual relationships. On that, see “Religion Q and A” items from last March 29 and April 4 on patheos.com.)

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.


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