I swear, when I started this series, I thought there would be, at most, four parts. But here I am, 6 parts in.
Thank you all for your patience and for reading.
In this post, I want to address some questions/concerns that I think some may have about what I’ve proposed in this series of posts. If you have a question I didn’t address or if you have a counterpoint you’d like to make, you can comment below or email me at email@example.com (no really, that’s an address I own and use).
Yes or no: is it a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?
The first thing I would say is that there’s no way to answer that question with a simple yes or no.
And maybe that sounds like a cop out, but sometimes questions that used to be clear and commonplace become complicated and nuanced because of changes in society or technology or some other paradigm-altering event.
For example, the question, “how many miles per gallon do you get in that car” used to be completely normal. But, today, if you ask someone who’s driving a Tesla about MPG, they’ll rightfully look at you with befuddlement because the question just doesn’t apply.
Similar to the MPG question, because the way we talk, think about, and engage in sex and marriage today is so vastly different than any time prior to the late 19th century, the question, “is it a sin to have sex with someone before you’re married to them?” can’t be answered with a simple yes or no.
But that’s not to say there’s no answer to the question. Take away the yes/no constriction and here’s what I would say:
It’s a sin to have a sexually intimate experience with someone if the encounter lacks clear consent from both parties and if the relationship is not at a stage where such an encounter is warranted.
I know I didn’t mention sex or marriage in that statement, but that’s intentional because the context in which we understand sex and marriage today are so outside church tradition, those words are simply too vague and undefined to be of any real rhetorical, doctrinal use.
Isn’t softening the church’s stance on sex before marriage compromising the high morals of the church and succumbing to secular society’s norms?
A premise that drives this series is this: because the way we think about sex and marriage are so radically different than any time before the mid-twentieth century, we need to rethink how/if/why sex outside of marriage is sinful.
Thing is, the radical shifts in sex and marriage are not simply the product of an increasingly secular/liberal society. One of the primary drivers of these shifts was the (protestant)1 church. This happened in two stages.
First, the church severed the long-standing link between sex and procreation when it tacitly2 accepted the use of hormonal contraception (aka the pill) for married couples. Second, the church moved from the long-standing tradition where marriages were arranged by parents — usually on the basis of property-related (non-romantic) concerns (and least of all, love) — to the “tradition”3 we have today where people find their own partners on the basis of compatibility, attraction, and, most of all, love.
I’ve been doing a deep dive on the topic of how the church thinks about sex and relationships for years now and one of the things that blows me away is the fact that the protestant church went along with these monumental shifts regarding sex and marriage with almost no theological reflection or support.
Given all of that, I would say a pretty emphatic “no” to this question because I don’t think I’m “softening the church’s stance on sex before marriage.” What I am trying to do is reconcile the changes the church has already made to sex and marriage with the biblical text, theology, and a view of church tradition that goes back further than just the last few centuries.
And the goal of that reconciling work is to make the church relevant to the social world we live in today.
Does your work apply to the current church debate regarding LGBTQ+ marriage? If so, how?
A proper answer to this question would require a whole other series of posts, but in brief:
LGBTQ+ Christians and their allies often get accused of “redefining marriage,” but as I’ve tried to show, marriage was redefined decades before the question of affirming LGBTQ+ marriages took hold.
Because if the protestant church is going to say that compatibility and love are foundational to marriage (breaking from centuries of church tradition), how can they deny marriage to persons who are more compatible with and love someone of the same sex?
And the argument “LGBTQ+ partnerships are not a part of God’s design for marriage because they can’t have biological offspring” falls flat because of protestant’s acceptance of contraception.
All that to say, affirming the biblical, theological blessing of LGBTQ+ relationships was a given for me right from the start. Everything I said about a consent-based Christian sexual ethic applies to straight and LGBTQ+ relationships.
Is there anything distinctive about the Christian sexual ethic you’re offering? Because the consent-based approach to sex you’re proposing looks identical to the sexual ethic that many secular liberal/progressives groups are proposing.
First, I would cite Luke 19:40. If the people of God are silent, God’s truth will find another outlet and in a world where Christian university students “see religious views about sexuality (a least what they know of them, which is typically not very much) as outdated and irrelevant,”4 is it any wonder that God has allowed the world outside the church to take up the work of crafting a sexual ethic that is relevant and applicable?
That said, I do think Christianity adds features that secular sources lack.
First, Christian theology provides biblical grounding for an ethic of consent. It teaches that all people are created in the image of God and thus have an inherent worth that needs to be honored. Thus, as Margaret Farley puts it, non-consensual sex violates a person’s God-given worth, reducing them to an object or a means to an end.5
Second, the journey to find one’s unique, God-gifted sexuality can be difficult, confusing, painful, and mistakes will be made along the way. Christian community, at its best,6 provides a place to receive guidance, to wrestle with questions/situations, and to provide refuge and healing after harm has been done to self or other — a place of unconditional love and acceptance.
Contrary to some strains of (especially purity-based) Christian theology, moral missteps do not disqualify anyone from being a part of the Body of Christ (Romans 8:38–39). If there is a boundary to this bounty of grace, it would be acts that intentionally violate love of God and neighbor as self (which is akin to the incurvatus in se view of sin discussed back in this post).
If you allow for people to have sex before they’re married, won’t that just give Christians license to just have a boatload of sex?
First off, the fact of the matter is Christians are already having sex before they’re married.7 Will even more Christians have pre-marital sex if the consent-based Christian sexual ethic is adopted?
Studies have shown that in societies where comprehensive sex ed is taught to young men and women, teens tend to delay their first sexual experience and when they do have sex, it tends to be healthier and safer than in societies where comprehensive sex ed is not taught.8 That seems to suggest that if the church were to be more open and honest about the unmarried sex that’s already taking place, that it would help her members steward their sexuality in a way that is more embodied.
And it’s not like the message I’m promoting is “sex before marriage is okay so have all the sex you want!” The Bible makes clear that sex is something that needs to be taken seriously because it is a uniquely intimate embodied act.
There’s an amazing chapter in Nadia Bolz Webber’s book, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation, where she talks about the balance between indulgence and denial and how a theology of pleasure might actually help us navigate between the two.9 Indulgence and denial can both lead to a kind of numbness whereas an attention to pleasure (especially its absence) can help keep us in a healthier, God-and-other-honoring space between the two.
So there’s still lots for the church to preach and teach about when it comes to people loving God and their selves as they love others. Just as purging all sexual thoughts and actions can lead to harm, an reckless overindulgence can do the same.
My hope is that this series of posts can be the starting point for new conversations about sex and the church. I don’t know if I’m right, but we have to start somewhere.
I’ve tried to address questions and concerns that I imagine people have but self-interrogation can only go so far. Like anyone else, I’m inherently biased to my own ideas so the likelihood that I set up straw man objections/inquiries here is high.
So as I stated at the top of this post, I welcome your questions, comments, objections. You can put them in the comment section below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- In part 3, I talked about how the Catholic church links sex with procreation (which is consistent with the church’s understanding of sex for millenia) while the protestant church, early/mid 20th century, accepted the use of contraception in married relationships. This is significant because in doing so, the protestant church severed the long-standing link between sex and procreation. ↩
- While the (protestant) church never explicitly condoned the use of contraception, statements condemning or limiting their use were tepid and widely ignored. See Adrian Thatcher, God, Sex, and Gender: An Introduction (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 215. ↩
- I put tradition in quotes because I think we are still in the midst of establishing traditions that are in line with how people in the church today think about marriage. One example of this is how many marriage ceremonies today omit the bit where the priest asks, “who gives this woman away in marriage?” — a relic of a time when women were understood to be property and the marriage ceremony was about solemnizing the exchange. ↩
- Donna Freitas, Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America’s College Campuses (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008), 196. ↩
- She writes, “to treat another human person as a mere means is to violate her insofar as she is autonomous; it is to attempt to absorb her completely into my agenda, rather than respecting the one that is her own.” Margaret A. Farley, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group), 212. ↩
- Unfortunately, there are some segments of the church that do not provide this sort of grace-filled, unconditional love. ↩
- ”Those who claimed no religion on average lost their virginity at 16.4 years old, while those with a Catholic affiliation were 17.7 years old and those with a fundamentalist Protestant affiliation were 16.9 years old (Daugherty and Copen 2016, 8). Similarly, according to this research, while conservative Christians might believe that sex before marriage is wrong, of people who actually were virgins at marriage, 12 percent had no religion, 15 percent were Catholic, and 17 percent were fundamentalist Protestant (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, referenced in Russell 2006).” Tina Schermer Sellers, Sex, God, and the Conservative Church (New York, NY: Routledge, 2017), 13. ↩
- ”A sexual ethic built on the values of love and justice, combined with the 100 one-minute conversations of a comprehensive sex education over a child’s developing years, can help an adolescent to feel confident about themselves. Research shows that these kids make safer choices, become involved in sex later in their development than other kids, and describe themselves as closer to their parents overall (Martino et al. 2008).” Ibid., 92. ↩
- Nadia Bolz-Webber, Shameless: A Sexual Reformation (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2019), 143. ↩