We live in a world that’s obsessed with virginity. Secular culture views losing it as a rite of passage. Wait too long to lose it and people will wonder what’s wrong with you—just ask The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
The church, on the other hand, has taken a more positive view. It has generally celebrated virginity in the traditional sense (abstaining from sex) as the natural outcome of practicing Christian sexual morality before marriage. And, at least in the last several decades, it’s used virginity’s lost-innocence paradigm as a framework for thinking about nearly every aspect of sex, relationships, and romance. In fact, I’ve even heard pastors warn about the dangers of squandering your “emotional virginity” by falling in love with someone you don’t end up marrying.
But just because virginity is taken for granted by our churches doesn’t mean it’s biblical. In fact, while virginity in the traditional sense is celebrated in a handful of biblical passages, I don’t think it gets nearly as much focus in scripture as we might assume—the New Testament doesn’t even mention it! More importantly, when the logic of virginity is used as a lens to think about sexual morality in general, it begins to contradict some of the most basic claims of the Christian faith.
Let’s consider each of those points in turn, as we try to make sense of what the Bible says about virginity.
The Bible Does Celebrate Virginity
It’s obvious that scripture is familiar with the concept of virginity. It famously records the virgin birth of Jesus, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah. And the word “virgin” appears dozens of other times throughout the Bible’s many books.
This implies that there are aspects to the traditional concept of virginity that are undoubtedly biblical. I take it for granted, for example, that scripture forbids sex outside of marriage (e.g., Matthew 15:19). If a single Christian is following this rule faithfully, they’re likely to be a virgin.
Moreover, the Bible celebrates the beauty of newlyweds enjoying a first sexual experience secure in the knowledge that it has never and will never be shared with anyone else. We see this in Song of Solomon 4:12-5:1. In that text, Solomon describes his bride using the following imagery.
“A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed.”
Gardens and fountains are frequently used as images representing the bride’s sexuality throughout Song of Solomon. Solomon is therefore praising his bride’s virginity. Her sexuality has been locked and sealed away. And she responds to his praise by inviting him in.
“Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.”
This passage is therefore a clear celebration of the bride’s commitment to sexual exclusivity with her husband and the couple’s shared enjoyment thereof. (Broader questions about the relationship of the bride’s virginity to Solomon’s notorious non-monogamy will have to be a discussion for another time.)
The Bible Doesn’t Obsess Over Virginity
But, while it’s true that certain aspects of virginity are celebrated in scripture, it’s also surprising how infrequently it appears in passages teaching on sexual ethics. For example, I was shocked to learn that the New Testament doesn’t contain a single passage in which virginity is discussed in the context of sexual morality!
A quick word study is enough to prove the point. The Greek root for “virgin” appears 16 times in the New Testament. Three of those are references to the virgin Mary. In five cases, such as the Parable of the 10 Virgins in Matthew 25, it’s simply used to denote young women. (The Greek word can also mean “maiden.”) In two cases, it’s a metaphor for the spiritual holiness of the church.
The remaining six occurrences are in 1 Corinthians 7, which is the only time the word even appears in a passage discussing sex or relationships. But even then, it’s still used as a generic descriptor for someone who’s engaged to be married. In fact, the ESV chooses to translate the term “betrothed,” while the NRSV chooses “fiancée.” And it’s clear from the text that Paul is making a point about the relative benefits of singleness and marriage, not articulating a framework for understanding sexual innocence.
It therefore seems to be the case that Jesus and the apostles made it through multiple major teachings on sex and relationships (e.g., Matthew 5, 1 Corinthians 5-7, Ephesians 5) without relying on the concept of virginity. That’s striking, to say the least.
(And if you’re wondering about the Old Testament, the story is similar but more complex. While most of the references to “virgins” are again generic descriptors, the books of the law do contain a couple of discussions of virginity in the context of sexual ethics, most prominently including Deuteronomy 22. While these passages do seem to assume the value of virginity, they’re fraught with difficulty in interpretation. Moreover, their applicability in a modern context is caught up in broader questions surrounding the relationship between the Christian and the law.)
Virginity and the Gospel
The last thing we need to say about virginity and scripture is that the narrative framework of virginity tends to cut against the grain of some of the most important gospel truths in the Christian faith.
Consider the logic of virginity. You’re born innocent, you’re assumed to be capable of maintaining that innocence, and there is no possibility of restoration if you fail. The only way to go is down.
In the story of the gospel, on the other hand, you’re born into sin (not innocence), you’re fundamentally incapable of keeping God’s law, and redemption through the death and resurrection of Jesus is nevertheless available to you if you seek it. The only way to go is up!
These are fundamentally incompatible trajectories! So if the church wants to be faithful to scripture in its application of the concept of virginity, it must grapple with the apparent discontinuity between the narrative logic of virginity and the story of the gospel.
Keeping Virginity in Perspective
If we consider all the biblical evidence discussed so far, I think we can conclude that the church is on firm biblical ground when it affirms virginity in a limited sense. Our actions have consequences and, while we affirm the redemptive power of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we also recognize that those consequences don’t always magically disappear in this life. A murderer who repents can’t bring back their victim, for example.
It’s therefore perfectly legitimate to recognize that a bride and groom sharing their first and only sexual experiences with one another is a beautiful and God-honoring thing. It’s legitimate to emphasize that sex before marriage undermines that ideal. And if we want to use the word “virginity” to describe this reality, there’s at least some biblical precedent for doing so.
Problems will start to arise, however, when we put disproportionate emphasis on these warnings, or fail to situate them within the broader gospel framework of redemption. After all, while our sins have consequences in this life, those harsh realities are subsumed within a broader story about a savior who came to “bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61). The gospel promises not only forgiveness but also restoration.
Moreover, we must remember what Peter writes about human love in 1 Peter 4: “keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” In describing our love for one another in this way, Peter emphasizes two things. First, the reality of sin doesn’t go away just because we love one another. But second, love covers over the sin, burying it away from view underneath a beautiful pile of self-sacrificial devotion.
This reality is nowhere more apparent than within Christian marriage. Literally millions of people have engaged in all sorts of sexual sin and then gone on to have wonderful, god-honoring marriages. We need not deny the reality of the sin to affirm the beautiful truth that love can cover it over.
Moreover, we must not forget that all of us are sinners and all of us have been sinned against. While virginity can be a lens through which we view one dimension of holiness, we shouldn’t treat it as the only one that matters. Two virgins that marry must still wrestle with their anger, or their pride, or the hurt they’ve received from others in the past. There will still be challenges, but love can cover those things over as well.
Discussing virginity in a biblical way is ultimately a matter of emphasis. Yes, there’s truth to the idea. Yes, scripture affirms it. But scripture doesn’t make it the end-all be-all framework for understanding sexual and relational ethics. And so we shouldn’t either.
Instead, I’d argue that we’re much better off viewing sex and relationships through the lens of God’s love or his bride, the church. Unlike virginity, the bride-of-Christ metaphor comes up in multiple New Testament discussions on sex and marriage (Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 6, John 4). So there’s strong biblical precedent for understanding human relationships through comparison with that idea. Moreover, while virginity cuts against the grain of the gospel, the story of God’s love for his bride is not only compatible with the gospel, it is the gospel. I can think of no better foundation for human relationships than the gospel itself.
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