370. damage and desire (part four)


Another long post, but as a teaser to try to entice you to slog through the whole thing, I’m going to be answering this question near the end of it:

Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?

No cheating and scrolling down to find the answer – that would be less than loving and relational (because I work hard on these posts). 8)

(click here for part one, here for part two, and here for part three)


Last week, I put up a post where I talked about a hermeneutic of love, that is to say, a way of reading and interpreting the Bible that always looks for what the text is saying about love in relation to God or neighbor. In that post, I talked about how reading through such a hermeneutic changes the way we understand what the Bible says about sexuality, such that the primary emphasis of the Bible in regards to sexuality is not about behavior (what’s right or wrong, permissible or impermissible), but about maintaining the proper place and purpose for sex (more on this later in the post).

There’s a reason I chose to use the example of sex in that post. It’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about sex lately.

Here’s why: I have one year left in grad school and for students like me in the Master of Divinity program, the last year is spent working on what they call the Integrative project.

The general topic I want to take on for my IP is developing a Christian sexual ethic that’s relevant for the church today. The topic is way too broad and I’ll need to pick a more focused area of research but in preparation, I’ve already started reading a bunch of books and watching a lot of online courses (I’ll post a brief list of what I’ve been reading/watching at the end of this post). And this is why I’ve been thinking so much about sex lately.

I ended the last post in this damage and desire series talking about pleasure as a potential way of bridging the sexual ethic of the Bible and the culture we find ourselves in today. However, after talking with some people (mostly offline) about it, I’ve come to see that pleasure (which should still remain a part of the conversation) is not an adequate basis on which to build a biblical sexual ethic.

Through these conversations, I came to see that appealing to an external, unmediated biblical ethic was unworkable (because of vast cultural differences between the world of the Bible and today), and appealing to an internal, person/pleasure-centered ethic was also problematic (because it can, among other things, justify cheating on one’s partner).

But if we can’t look without or within for a workable ethic (sexual or otherwise) then where can we find it?

I want to suggest that the beginning point of any ethical exploration should be in relationships. And this brings me back to the relational hermeneutic I outlined in my post last week. I’ve come to believe that the primary thrust and message of the Bible is about love in relationship – relationship with God and with neighbor. Now what happens when we try to build up an ethic from this idea of relationship?

There’s a common idea in Christianity that says, “sin is what separates us from God.” This is based on a moral hermeneutic that reads the Bible as saying that God hates sin so much that God can’t be in the presence of sin; thus, when we sin, we find ourselves separated from God. This leads to a way of life where people do their best to minimize doing things (sins) that will divide them from God and that leads to people reading the Bible to find all the things they need to not do so that they can stay on God’s good side. Thus, they read the Bible with a hermeneutic of morals.

Now what happens when we think about the Bible as being about love in relationship? Well then the phrase about sin and God gets flipped around so that “anything that separates us from God is sin.”

At first, that might seem like a distinction without a difference, but take a look at this passage in Mark 2:23-38. Here, we find a story where Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field, picking grain off of the stalks, and eating. They’re doing this during the Sabbath and some religious teachers challenge Jesus on this because it’s supposed to be forbidden to do work during the Sabbath and picking grain is considered work.

Now let’s put this in some historical context. The idea of keeping the Sabbath goes all the way back to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11). Basically, that commandment says, don’t do any work on the seventh day because it’s a holy day. For teachers of the Law, the question then became, “well, what’s considered work?” They were reading with a moral hermeneutic: God doesn’t want them to do work on the Sabbath so they need to figure out what kinds of actions are work so they can not do those things. That led them to create a huge list of actions Jews could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath. Picking grain (even if it was to feed your hungry self) was considered work and that’s why the Pharisees got all twisted up in a bunch when they saw Jesus and his disciples feeding themselves.

Jesus, on the other hand, seems to read the Sabbath commandment with a hermeneutic of love in relationship. Read this way, the point of the Sabbath wasn’t about the not working bit, it was about the rest and remembrance bit – because a loving and relational God doesn’t want people working themselves to death. Living life according to some arbitrary set of behavioral rules is missing the point entirely because the Bible (and the commandments) aren’t about rules, they’re about relationship. That’s why Jesus can say in verse 27, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” That’s what Jesus meant when he says, “I have not come to abolish [the Laws] but to fulfill them,” (Matthew 5:17). It’s also why Paul says that “the letter [of the Law] kills, but the Spirit gives life,” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Okay, but what does all of this have to do with sex and sexuality?

Well in the first two of this damage and desire series, I wrote about how the ultra conservative churches I attended when I was younger taught that we should fear any and all sexual desire outside of marriage. One of the key passages they used to justify and instill this fear was Matthew 5:27-30 which has the line, “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Read with a moral hermeneutic, you end up with a ministry that teaches people to go to any lengths necessary to avoid any kind of sexual arousal.

But again, I think that’s missing the point, because here’s the thing. If a man thinks that God wants him to avoid any and all sexual arousal, that can easily lead to a fear of women which can then lead to a (conscious or unconscious) hatred of women. At the very least, it leads to really awkward interactions between men and women.

Read through a relational hermeneutic, I think we begin to see the point that Jesus was actually trying to make. Looking at another person lustfully is equal to the sin of adultery because they both have the same end result: the rupture of relationship. Adultery breaks relationship because you’re sleeping with another person’s spouse. Lust breaks relationship because it objectifies (rather than humanizes) the person being lusted over.

All of this (finally) gets us back to the question I posed in the preface of this post: Given the vastly different social context we live in today (compared to that of the Bible), is sex before marriage still a sin?

And the answer is…

The answer is irrelevant.

And it’s irrelevant because again, I’m arguing that the Bible is not a book about rules, it’s a book about relationships.

So the question, “is sex before marriage still a sin?” is missing the point. The question that should be asked is, “what is the purpose of sex in relation to… well, relationships?”

Now here we have to do some extrapolation, because as I explained in a previous post, the Bible never talks about the world of dating that we live in today. Almost all of the passages talking about sex in the Bible are directed at married couples (because in that society, people got married in their early teens and nearly everyone was married) and almost all of those passages basically say, “don’t sleep around.”

To me, that suggests that the Bible is saying two core things related to sex:

  1. the purpose of sex is to heighten and deepen intimacy between two people and
  2. people who are having sex should stay committed to one another.

Add those two things together and we find the helpful guideline (not rule): according to the Bible, there is no such thing as casual sex.

So then, the reason why I want to say that it’s irrelevant (missing the point) to come down on one side or the other on the sex-outside-of-marriage question is because the point about sex isn’t about when or with whom, it’s about intimacy and commitment (the “and” there is particularly important).

Now here’s where things get tricky for unmarried couples and their sexuality.

Because I’m arguing for a relational reading of the Bible, I want to suggest that couples need to decide between themselves how they want to explore (or not) their sexuality before they are married, and as they make this decision, they need to weigh their unmarried state with the guiding principles of intimacy and commitment. And casual sex should be out of the question.

But the relationship between two partners is not the only relationship at play.

Ideally, the couple should be a part of a church community that can give them the tools with which to make this decision. More importantly, the church should be a place that continues to accept the couple regardless of what decision they end up making. And perhaps most important of all, the church should be a place of unconditional love and acceptance in the case of couples who decide they had wanted to wait for marriage before having sex, but ended up having sex anyway. And I think a case can be made for the idea that a church that embraces a more relational (rather than behavioral) ethic will have an easier time creating a safe, loving space for such a couple.

I’ll end with this story which helps to illustrate this last point.

Many, many years ago, I knew this one couple. They were great together. They were both heavily involved in ministry, their goals and their callings both lined up well, they had been dating for months, and they were crazy in love – everyone knew they were headed towards marriage. And then late one night, they had sex. And then within a matter of days, their relationship was over. Just like that.

Now I didn’t know this couple super well so I don’t know the details of their split, but I can well imagine what went down. For one thing, they were probably riddled with guilt. For another thing, word got out. Fast. Again, I didn’t know this couple very well and I wasn’t seeking out the information, but somehow word got out on the grapevine and made its way to me. It seemed like everyone involved in this ministry was talking about it (albeit, in hushed, coded terms – winks, nods, and other stupid, subtle gestures). Intentionally or not, they were shamed. They were told by leadership that they needed to take a break from their relationship (for their own good and for the good of the ministry organization they were a part of). They split up and never got back together again.

I think that’s a really stupid and sad outcome.

Who knows what amazing things this couple could have done together. They were on track to getting married, why should the fact that they had sex derail their life together? If the Bible is indeed about love and relationship then the fact that the way this ministry handled this situation led to the couple breaking up and ostracized them from community (breaking relationship on multiple levels) is far more sinful than anything the couple did.

Sad and stupid. I’m sure that incident led to years of feelings of guilt and shame, longing and regret.

And the one thing they probably stopped feeling (from others, from themselves, and from the way they understood God)?



As always, I’d love to get feedback/comments/questions and especially critique.

Also, earlier in the post, I promised to list some of what I’ve been reading/watching as I research this topic.

  • I think you need iTunes to get to the audio but if anything in this post interested you, you NEED to hear this presentation by Tina Schermer Sellers. She teaches at SPU, but this is from a talk she gave at The Seattle School. Highly recommended!
  • God and Sex: What the Bible Really Says by Michael Coogan.
  • A General Theory Of Love by Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Amini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D.
  • (I’ll be adding to this list periodically.)

    18 thoughts on “370. damage and desire (part four)

    1. I have come to a similar conclusion as you did. I believe that it is the act of sex is what constitutes or consummates biblical marriage. And biblical marriage is about intimacy and commitment, you can’t have one without the other. In God’s eyes 2 people are married, become one flesh through sex (even the hymen in a woman is designed to break and bleed once- blood being the sign of a covenant between God and God’s people in the old testament). So in essence just like you say casual sex is completely out of question, and we live in a sex saturated culture where casual sex is the norm. So the distinction has to be made in conversation, without judgment or condemnation, in our churches and especially with youth and young adults. We need to make sure that sad stories like the couple you mentioned don’t happen. I have friends who were engaged and had sex, they were told to break up and luckily they came back together and got married but that’s ridiculous when 2 people are forced to break up like that. I have experienced that in my recent past within the church and the feelings of guilt were immense. It sucked! And it tore apart a relationship. If all of this is part of an open and honest conversation where 2 people are accepted and men and women are taught how valuable we are as human beings it would make an impact that would, I think honor, the sacredness of sex in our communities.

      • Much of your reply I like, but I had to address this: “even the hymen in a woman is designed to break and bleed once- blood being the sign of a covenant between God and God’s people in the old testament”

        Actually, no. The hymen is a bit of tissue in the vagina which tears with rough handling, but heals. It doesn’t break only once. If two inexperienced people are having intercourse, it’ll probably tear, but as the couple gains experience, the chances of the hymen tearing again go down because of gentler handling. That’s probably why people think it “breaks” and then it’s gone. (If you’re curious, here’s a short video on the hymen- it’s NSFW, but interesting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qFojO8WkpA)

        The metaphor is lovely, but based on a misunderstanding of female anatomy. :/

    2. Love your thoughts and writing style, Randall. Similar to your upbringing, I, too, was saturated with “it’s just wrong,” but no discussion of why. Luckily, the feelings of guilt and sin kept me far away from the dangers of sex (the real, lifelong ones) as a youth, but I (and much of my family) feel that these messages with no discussion yields young adults who are AFRAID of sex to the point of being weird about it even in marriage. Or, young adults that have tons of friends who are “doing it” with no feelings of guilt which is confusing and piques curiosity. Both of those scenarios are not fruitful. Just like any other “forbidden” act in the Bible, we need to be able to discuss it and understand why the Bible says this (and then, maybe it’s relevant to us now, or not and that’s an important discussion too, obviously).

      As a teacher, I love the idea of shifting the discussion from “what can I still do and not sin?” to “when are you ready for sex, what does it mean to be in a relationship, what is love, and what are the real pros and cons of sex with your dating partner?” The are questions that kids (religious or not) need to be able to ponder and answer. I read an article in the NY Times earlier this year about a health curriculum in a NY charter school where the teacher somehow gets the kids to look beyond awkwardness of sex and really discuss being in healthy relationships, honoring your partner (rather than just doing it for yourself), communication and love. I wish I could have taken that class. I’d still probably learn many things!

      • Thank you for your kind words, and yes(!) the question as you so eloquently posed it, “when are you ready for sex, what does it mean to be in a relationship, what is love, and what are the real pros and cons of sex with your dating partner?” is a much more fruitful, useful, and relational way of approaching the topic of sexuality.

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    4. I’ve read this post several times now, and I feel like I could read it several times more and still not fully grasp everything you’ve said.

      However, I really, really like what you’re sharing here. Thanks for putting words down, Randall!

    5. I really liked what you said as well Randall. Your views are very close to what I have been thinking for the last couple years or so, as I started navigating through moving out, college, and finding my “own” relationship with Christ (apart from my family and home church). I have seen a lot of my close friends struggle with whether or not to take their relationships “to the next level” and I always hated the straight out “NO!” answer they were almost always given by our church leaders.

      When I started leading my own bible study group about a year ago, I promised myself I would try to have real conversations about sex before marriage with the girls in my group (many of who were college freshman, entering this new “unsupervised world” for the first time). And while I often felt like the blind leading the blind, I loved how my girls responded to our conversations.

      One thing I always tried to get through to my friends and bible study girls was that no one else can make this choice for you. YOU are the one in the relationship, YOU are the one having sex. Are YOU ready? Why are you wanting to take this next step? How will you feel when it is over? Will you have wished you waited? Those are questions I always encouraged my group to ask themselves (and hopefully not in the heat of the moment haha). I loved what you said about there is not such thing as “casual sex”, I 100% agree with that, and I think it is something that needs to be remembered, especially by those that will want to use this way of thinking to justify having sex before being married.

      I guess I just really liked seeing thoughts/opinions similar to mine written out eloquently and in a way I can go back to and say “HA! YES! Look at this here!” :).

      Well done!

    6. I’d like to push back a bit. Sex isn’t only relational – it’s also procreative. Now, I’m all for birth control. 100%. Put it in the water. However, the reality is that separating sex and procreation entirely is a function of great priviledge. For half of all children born in this country, the reality is that sex without commitment means growing up without both parents. For hundreds of thousands of women each year, sex without commitment means obtaining an abortion. I think that any discussion of sex outside of marriage which doesn’t include as a central issue the needs of a potential third party to the relationship – that being a child – is wildly irresponsible.

      Of course, for people working from a position of priviledge, this largely isn’t an issue. Out of wedlock child birth and even abortions are overwhelmingly problems of lower classes. As long as that is the case, I think that viewing sex as seperate from procreation is a lot like Mario Andretti claiming that it’s OK to drive 180 on the expressway because he can do it successfully.

      What I have found in discussing this issue with people is that there are those who believe that the problem of single parenthood is one of economics. Economics is absolutely a driver which is causing the epidemic of single parenthood, but it’s the actual effect of being raised without both parents which makes it so destructive and so important to do something about. At any rate, I need to get going, so I won’t go into it further, but if you’re interested, I did write about this very subject about a year ago:

      • I totally agree that teachings on birth control should be a part of any discussion on sex, even (maybe especially) in the church.

        I think it’s awesome that you’re working to combat the problems related to single parenthood and systemic poverty. Blessings in your endeavors.

        Thanks for reading and writing. 8)

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    10. I don’t yet have a response on your ideas about premarital sex – though I think you are certainly on to something in your thought process on this and your efforts to I believe rightly divide the word in this area in the realm of relationship. But I wanted to add that the church putting the Matthew verse as to looking at someone with lust is committing adultery, or like the rich young ruler you need to give up all possessions to actually follow God, I could go on there are many, but these many famous lines stated by Jesus are completely taken out of context! They are NOT guidelines for Christians as far as behavior and sin. Jesus was brilliant, he was in a lot of areas (especially in Matthew to Jewish audiences, and more particularly to the Pharisees) a one-upper. One has to understand that the Jews actually thought that they could follow the law perfectly! The whole point of Christ coming to earth and his death is that everyone needed his blood as cover, everyone needed God’s grace, everyone was a sinner in need of redemption, even those Jews that thought they had followed the law to the letter. Thus when Jesus says you have committed adultery by just having a lustful look at a woman, this wasn’t about Christians, this wasn’t about pointing out sin and a behavior we need to avoid, I argue with you this wasn’t about relationship. This was one-upping! Many Jews, especially the Pharisees, thought they were in no need of a savior or redemption, they followed the law perfectly, it was Jesus’ point to them in this scripture in particular that yes, just lusting after a woman with your eyes is adultery! Yes, they were sinners, they had violated the law. And Jesus knew that this would put these legalistic Jews in their place because no one can say they haven’t had lustful thoughts, they are pretty much uncontrollable and even biological (part of our sin nature), no person could say they followed the law as to adultery when Jesus placed this on them. But it wasn’t to point out that our behavior needed to change, it was to point out that we needed HIM. We sin in ways we can’t even control, we sin all the time, it isn’t just following a list of rules, we are by our nature sinful and there is no way we can be perfect. Now the church has completely perverted this teaching, when it should be something that humbles us and brings us closer to God’s grace because we are hopeless sinners, it is in our freaking biology and body and is inescapable like with a lustful thought, but instead they teach that this is another rule Jesus put down for us to follow! Which is crazy because no one can follow that rule, and that was the point of Jesus’ words in this scripture. So now we have Christians that are seriously fighting a hopeless battle because they think that Jesus expects this kind of perfection from us, and worse when we are not achieving this perfection we are separated from God. Words from Jesus meant to bring us closer to him to understand our need for him are turned by the church into words that put us forever out of his favor because we can never live up to them. I really like where you are going with your thought process on this and it is important, but in verses like this so is context, so is audience, and especially to learn is what was the point of what Jesus said. What was the outcome in the listeners he was trying to bring about, what was he trying to get them to understand, it certainly wasn’t that they just needed to try harder to follow the law more thoroughly, which is strangely what a lot of churches today teach as to this verse.

      • Thanks for reading and responding (here and in other posts)!

        You’re right that context is really important when interpreting scripture. In the Matthew (5:27-30) passage about lust, we have (at least) two contexts to keep in mind. First, this passage comes within the context of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). I think the key verses in terms of understanding the SOtM are found in 5:17-20. Here, Jesus says that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill them and the question of how we understand that word “fulfill” has a profound impact on how we read the rest of the Sermon.

        If we read that as Jesus “one-upping” the law, then you’re right, this passage is all about showing how impossible it is to live up to God’s expectations and driving home the point that we are all sinners in need of redemption. That’s a totally plausible reading of the SOtM and it’s a really popular one.

        I base a lot of my understanding of what Jesus is trying to say in this Sermon on the passage about the greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). Jesus lists the two greatest commandments as loving God and loving neighbor as yourself. Jesus ends this passage with this radical statement: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (22:40).

        If the SOtM is Jesus teaching us what it means to fulfill the law and if all of the “law and prophets” hang (depend) on loving God and loving neighbor as self, then I don’t think the Sermon (and the whole of Jesus’ ministry) is about one-upping. I think it’s about teaching us that the law is there to teach us how to live in loving relationship with God and neighbor as self.

        Not committing adultery isn’t enough because one can not commit the act of adultery but still objectify people and objectification is not a loving stance towards one’s neighbor. The Pharisees were missing the point by thinking that living by the letter of the law was enough. Jesus’ ministry is about teaching us what it means to fulfill the law – to see the law as teaching us how to live in loving relationship. Much of Paul’s ministry also centers around this teaching (Romans 8, for example).

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