The Bible does not ban sex before marriage. At minimum, there is enough ambiguity in the scriptures to warrant more nuanced conversations about pre-marital sex than simply “It’s wrong because the Bible says so.” That said, the Bible does prescribe the purposes of sex and, when its guidance is followed, makes sex a healthy and beneficial act in both Christian and secular contexts.
Let’s start with what the Bible does prohibit. Quick note, I’m using the New International Version. The book of Hebrews states, “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (Hebrews 13:5). From this line we understand that adultery entails the dishonoring of marriage — cohering with our modern definition of adultery. What, then, counts as sexual immorality? The book of Leviticus offers us the most information with its long lists of sexual relations that violate God’s laws. Unlawful relations include incest, adultery, and bestiality, but the book does not mention pre-marital sex (Leviticus 18–20).
One might point to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians as proof that sex before marriage is a sin. Paul recommends that the members of the church at Corinth remain celibate, like him, in order to “live in a right way in undivided attention to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35). However, Paul recognizes that “sexual immorality” is occurring within the church, so he tells the congregation to channel their sexual urges through the institution of marriage. Paul dictates, “each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband…do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves in prayer” (1 Corinthians 6:2–5). By relieving their sexual urges within the bonds of marriage, church members can then refocus on God and ensure “Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 6:5). Paul concludes, “if a virgin marries, she has not sinned,” but he still maintains that it is better to remain celibate outright (1 Corinthians 7:28).
Paul’s advice seems like an open and shut case against sex before marriage, and it is. However, it is important to remember that Paul was writing to a specific congregation in a specific cultural context. For example, many Christians today soften Paul’s injunction in his letter to the church in Ephesus, that women should “dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds” (Timothy 2:9–10). Many Christians read that verse as influenced by the culture of Ephesus, where braided hair was a status symbol available only to the wealthy. These Christians do not interpret Paul’s words as a directly transferable ban on braided hair in our modern society, but rather as a general prescription for modesty and a focus on Christian living rather than outward appearance. We should apply the same type of analysis to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.
Okay, let’s look for the general principles the Bible lays out about sex. God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve reveals the first purpose of sex. God tells them, “Be fruitful and increase in number” (Genesis 1:28). For the purpose of generating new life, sex is justified. This principle helps explain why God punished Onan for refusing to impregnate Tamar, the wife of Onan’s dead brother, Er. After Er’s death, Judah, their father, instructed Onan to impregnate his sister-in-law so Er’s line could continue — and presumably to give Tamar security in a deeply patriarchal society. Onan had sex with Tamar multiple times, but every time he “spilled his seed on the ground to keep from providing offspring” (Genesis 38:9). Onan did not have sex for generative purposes, and he failed to fulfil his familial duties. The sex was out of bounds, and God punished him.
If this is getting a little too in the weeds, let’s also justify sex for generative purposes from a secular perspective. The benefits of high birthrates are multitude. Young people bring the energy, adaptability, and new ideas that are critical for overcoming stagnation in society.
The Bible’s first description of sexual activity reveals the second purpose of sex. Genesis states that a man “will be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This idea of becoming “one flesh” is so important, both Jesus and Paul quote it in the New Testament (Matthew 19:5 and 1 Corinthians 6:16). Sex is justified as a unitive act to strengthen the connection between partners. Science backs up this purpose. Orgasm raises the level of oxytocin in a person’s brain. Oxytocin increases feelings of trust, and it is associated with feelings of love, desire, and bonding between partners.
The unitive purpose of sex also helps explain why adultery is a sin often spoke of as worse than other forms of sexual immorality. Jesus states, “anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matthew 19:8). Jesus also states, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5: 28). From these verses, we learn that sex with one’s partner within the institution of marriage can sometimes still be wrong. In this case, it is because the sexual impulse broke up the union of the first marriage. Unlike other forms of sexual immorality, adultery not only harms an individual, but it also breaks up a community. Sex should bring a couple together, not tear apart relationships, families, or neighborhoods.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians reveals the third, and final, biblical purpose for sex. Orgasm relieves us of our burning desires and allows us to refocus on God. The concept of post-orgasm “clarity” is well documented, as sex releases hormones in our brain that put us in a better mental state. Sex is justified insofar as it puts us in a better mental state to turn away from ourselves and towards serving God. In the book of Numbers, some Israelites “began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods” (Numbers 25:1–2). This sexual activity was unjustified because it turned people away from serving God.
In short, sexual activity needs to be about more than just the sex. Sex solely for the purpose of physical gratification or boosting one’s ego is unjustified. Considered in light of the rising cases of debilitating pornography addictions, the biblical guidelines on sex prove well-founded. When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, the cultural institution for channeling sexual urges into positive effects was the institution of marriage. Marriage is still an important institution today, but there are other institutions — such as domestic partnerships or long-term cohabitation — that can prove equally effective at accomplishing the generative, unitive, or refocusing purposes of sex.
I write this article because I think blanket bans on conduct usually cause our thinking about that conduct to atrophy. For example, if somebody under 21 opposes drinking alcohol simply “because it’s against the law,” but he doesn’t understand the negative effects of alcohol, then he will have a harder time justifying himself when surrounded by underage drinkers. He could more easily succumb to peer pressure. On the other hand, by exploring the complexities in the Bible about pre-marital sex, Christians can better understand why they believe what they believe and can better justify their conduct as beneficial by both Christian and secular standards.
I also think that a blanket ban on pre-marital sex drives away potential young members of the church who feel judged for their natural desires. Explaining the specifics of the Bible’s guidelines about sex and offering more flexibility could be important to reversing the worrying drop-off in church membership in the United States. Finally, the “purity culture” practiced by some Christian sects may play a role in engendering toxic masculinity, depression, and burdens that fall unequally on men and women.
I want this article to be relevant to folks who are neither Christian nor have an interest in Christian ethics. Therefore, let me briefly examine sex from the more individualistic ethic of our modern society. The existentialist philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev argued that sex is actually one of the least personally affirming actions a person can do. The sexual impulse is not based in one’s individual personality, but rather general to almost all humans — and most animal species on top of that. Someone who believes they are affirming their individuality through sex is actually just following the same rut — pun intended — that their parents, and their parents, and their parents did before.
Instead, Berdyaev recommends finding a partner — or multiple partners — who compliments every part your unique personality. Find someone who fulfils you emotionally, intellectually, morally, and spiritually, who jibes with your quirks, and who satisfies your body. As Berdyaev wrote, “Sex is the impersonal in man, the power of the ‘common,’…love alone can be personal.” In short, the most individually affirming action a person can do is to find true love.