Although I grew up in the evangelical church, I don’t recall ever being presented with a robust theology of sex. In my church, sex just wasn’t discussed, although the unspoken assumption seems to have been that premarital sex is always sinful.
Before I go any further, a caveat: this post is not didactic. I’m exploring an important topic that I feel is poorly examined by my fellow evangelicals, rather than taking a stand. My own view on these matters is not fully formed, I’m not sure I’m right, and the last thing I’d want to do is lead someone astray with false convictions. At the same time, these questions need to be asked; these ideas need to be sifted.
Thankfully, I was never subjected to the “purity culture” that has damaged so many Christians, but it took decades for my Christian sexual ethics to be shaped by more than the assumptions I inherited. Eventually I came to accept that while the word “adultery” in modern English usage refers to cheating on a spouse, the biblical prohibition against adultery, as specified in the sixth commandment, forbids any non-marital sex – including, but not limited to, cheating on a spouse.
Exception Clauses to the Premarital Sex Prohibition
But this theology of sex also seems potentially too simplistic for our very complicated world.
In fact, the complications of this world can result in what you might call exception clauses. Consider how some of the other 10 commandments direct us in the following scenarios:
You shall not steal. So if your family is starving and you have no money, and no other way to legitimately obtain food, is it sinful to steal it?
You shall not murder. So is it sinful to plan the assassination of a murderous dictator, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer did?
I could keep going or perhaps think up better examples. My point is that God’s law seems pretty straightforward. Until it’s not. “You shall not steal” and “You shall not murder” ultimately come with exception clauses, particularly for highly irregular situations in which we face competing ethical dilemmas.
To that point, the Bible itself is replete with examples of sex that occur outside the marital norm and are not otherwise condemned by God.
Tamar: Righting a Wrong through Illicit Sex
No one ever preaches on Tamar. She never comes up in discussions of biblical sexual ethics, at least not that I’m aware of, which is interesting. Not only does God not condemn Tamar’s illicit sex act with her father-in-law, Judah; God directly blesses this act with the provision of two sons. Indeed, Tamar’s twin pregnancy would have been seen as an extraordinary mark of God’s blessing and favor on her.
Now, one might object that Tamar was effectively entitled to act as she did because Judah both refused to fulfill his levirate obligations through his son, Shelah, whom he withheld from her, and to free her as a widow to marry again.
Yet, even if Tamar and Judah’s union could theoretically be justified under the levirate system, her actions still flouted ethical standards. Yes, the sex fulfilled an unmet levirate obligation, but it also occurred in the context of prostitution and deceit, which is certainly not how the levirate system was supposed to work. Moreover, at this time in Israel’s history, there was probably some kind of incest taboo, formalized later in Leviticus, rendering a sexual union between a woman and her father-in-law potentially controversial, if not yet formally prohibited.
But God blesses this questionable sexual union – and blesses it dramatically, with absolutely no caveats and no purity reminders! Instead, Tamar’s story actually calls us to reconsider what kind of sex is ethical. Tamar’s marriage to Onan was under the law, and he gave himself to her sexually, as under the law; yet, he cheated her sexually through coitus interruptus, fearing that any heir produced by their union would reduce his inheritance, per levirate custom.
Hence we have a striking reversal of sexual mores, where sex that appears lawful is not ethical, and sex that is ultimately deemed ethical (and blessed by God) does not appear lawful. While there’s no endorsement of sex outside of marriage, Tamar’s story presents a situation in which God does not condemn, but rather blesses, sex that falls outside the marital norm.
So where does that leave Christians struggling with sex in 2023?
Tamar’s story doesn’t give us license to do whatever we want to do sexually, but it does invite us to consider that there may be limited circumstances under which some aspects of normative Christian sexual ethics may be – and perhaps even ought to be – abrogated. If we reject that idea, would we also condemn Tamar, a hero of the Old Testament and one of four women distinctly called out in Jesus’ lineage?
The Lord judged Tamar’s actions for himself and blessed her. Are we better judges of his law than he?
A refusal to concede to the exception puts us in peril of legalism.
In reading Jewish commentary on the meaning of the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” biblical scholars have noted that while adultery theoretically includes all non-marital sex, the “sin of adultery,” when mentioned in the Bible, always refers to the breaking of a marital covenant bond.
So, my old assumption that the prohibition against adultery includes premarital sex perhaps needs to be attenuated, since in practice, the prohibition is always leveled at sex that breaks a marital vow; premarital sex is implied only by technicality.
We see this distinction at work in many Bible stories, perhaps most famously in the life of David. While Nathan the prophet blasts David for his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 12: 7-10), he is absolutely silent on sexual ethics when it comes to David’s concubines (2 Samuel 16: 21).
Of course, one might argue that these concubines were just “a reflection of the times” and a feature of kingly authority in those days.
But if that’s true – then how compelling are arguments against premarital sex in our time? If God makes exceptions for certain male/female sexual relationships according to the times, we are now indeed in extraordinarily challenging and unprecedented times sexually. The average age of marriage far exceeds sexual maturity, and the moral demands imposed by rigid interpretations of Biblical sexual purity (that seem to exceed what God himself accepts in the Bible?) are difficult if not impossible to fulfill, especially for individuals with healthy sexual appetites. Yet evangelicals love to rail on about porn, purity, temptation, etc. I wonder how much of that sexual dysfunction could be mitigated by an acceptance of sex in committed relationships, if not marital ones?
I’m not denying that marriage is the most appropriate place for sex any more than God did in his treatment of Tamar – but like Tamar, we’re in a very messed up situation. In our very messed up situation, which sexual path is the most pure?
God knows his own law, but he also knows Tamar. He sees her pain and the injustice and cruelty of her circumstances, and in his comprehensive knowledge, God’s response is not to buckle down on legalities but to grant an exception to the legalism threatening both this woman individually and Israel itself, as her progeny.
If God can grant a sexual exception for Tamar, why would he not grant an exception for us?
I wonder if evangelical leaders could really see the struggles that unmarried people are having with sex, the way that God saw Tamar struggle with sex – and recognize that God grants exceptions in truly exceptional circumstances – how might their attitudes toward premarital sex change?
Breaking a marital bond through adultery is wrong. David’s story, and many others in the Bible, illustrate how much God despises that. But since sex in the absence of marital covenants is not always called out as sinful, perhaps condemning premarital sex as “adultery” – especially in our times – is missing the point. Perhaps we, like Judah and Onan, are too complacent with the shiny veneer of what seems “legal”. So complacent that we fail to dig underneath the law and into the messiness, where what is “legal” sometimes collides with what is ethical.
Premarital Sex in the Song of Songs (?)
The Song of Songs, at the center of the Bible, is an all-out love fest celebrating the physical ecstasy of sex as a metaphor for the unity of God with his people. Yet some of the sexual experiences described seem to occur before the couple is actually married.
If it’s so important not to have sex before marriage, why would the Song of Songs – as representative of the ideal – blur the lines? And potentially violate norms? While some evangelicals present the Song of Songs as an example of what great marital sex can look like, they gloss over those instances in which the sex described may not strictly be marital.
Towards a Biblical Sexual Ethic
The exceptions to marital sex illustrated in these biblical stories don’t give us remit to do whatever we want to sexually with our bodies. Rather, we are called to consider what a biblical sexual ethic looks like in our time. The foundation story of Adam and Eve makes it clear that sex is intended within a committed relationship, but how we define and caveat that commitment may not be static from generation to generation, as changing circumstances present new ethical challenges.