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Is Pre-Marital Sex Always A Sin?

By Reese Currie and Gary F. Zeolla

The article Pre-Marital Sex and Biblical Truth assumed the Bible teaches pre-marital sex is wrong. But there have been comments by Christians on the Internet that would probably surprise many readers. One young lady commented, "I don't think there's anything wrong with pre-marital sex as long as the couple loves each other."

Is this an accurate view of the Bible's teaching? It has been reported this view is actually prevalent among professing Christian young people today. Many churches even teach sexual sins are virtually without consequence. But is this what the Bible really says?

What the Bible Says About Sexual Immorality

The Bible's teaching concerning sexual immorality is rather plain. Ephesians 5:5 says, "For this you know, that no fornicator, unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God."

There are many other Scripture references one could use to show how sexual immorality is viewed by God. Some of these examples are: Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; Acts 15:20,29; 21:25; 1Cor 5; 6:8,9,13,18; 7:2; 10:8; 2Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Col 3:5; 1Thes 4:3; 1Tim 1:10; Heb 12:16; 13:4; Jude 1:7; Rev 2:14, 20; 21:8.

What is debatable, then, is whether the term "sexual immorality" includes pre-marital sex between people who have true, deep feelings of love for one another, and submit to consensual sex with one another.

A Biblical Definition of Sexual Immorality

The Greek word that is alternately translated as "fornication" or "sexual immorality" (depending on the Bible version) is porneia. Some claim this word only refers to prostitution and not pre-marital sex in general.

The word is defined by Louw and Nida's Greek-English Lexicon as, "to engage in sexual immorality of any kind, often with the implication of prostitution - 'engage in illicit sex, to commit fornication, sexual immorality, fornication, prostitution.'"(1)

Walter Baur's A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament defines it as, "prostitution, unchastity, fornication, of every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse."(2) Fritz Rienecker's Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament defines it as "Fornication, illicit sex."(3)

So the word does include the idea of prostitution. So "playing the harlot" could be a possible rendering. A harlot is a prostitute; so the term means, "acting like a prostitute."

However, porneia is not limited to prostitution as "fornication" also appears in the above definitions. The word "fornicate" in English, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Current English, is "(of people not married to each other) have sexual intercourse."(4) So the rendering "fornication" would correctly indicate prostitution is not all that is included in the Greek word. However, fornication would still not be completely accurate.

"Sexual intercourse" usually refers only to penetrative genital-to-genital contact, but this is far from the only service provided by a prostitute. "Playing the harlot" could involve any sort of sexual act, not just intercourse. So a word would be needed to indicate any acts performed by a prostitute but also if these acts occurred between any two persons not married to each other.

This information is important given current attitudes as to what constitutes sex. An interview was conducted on a secular news program with teenagers who had signed pledge cards in the "True Love Waits" campaign. The interviewer asked them exactly what they meant by sex. One of the teenage girls said she had promised not to have sexual intercourse, "But oral sex is okay since you can't make babies that way."

A person deceived into thinking sexual immorality is only unmarried sexual intercourse could reasonably make such a claim. But the lexical information above demonstrates such claims are not Biblically supported in the Greek text.

Moreover, consider Leviticus 20:17, "If a man takes his sister, his father's daughter or his mother's daughter, and sees her nakedness and she sees his nakedness, it is a wicked thing." If simply seeing the nakedness of a sibling is considered incest, then oral sex most definitely would also be considered "a wicked thing." And note, the Apostle Paul commands Christians to treat members of the opposite sex like brothers and sisters (1Tim 5:1,2).

Then there's 1Corinthians 7:1, "Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman." The context of this passage indicates "touch" refers to touching a woman in such a way as to "ignite" the man's or the woman's sexual passions (see verse 9). Oral sex would most definitely qualify, along with other forms of sexual touching.

Putting all of the above together, sexual intercourse, oral sex, seeing the nakedness of another, or even touching someone in a sexual way that "ignites" either person's sexual passions are all indicated as being wrong Biblically if the persons involved are not married. Unfortunately, there is no one English word that could be used to translate porneia which would include all of these concepts.

Can One Lover Make You a Harlot?

Some modern versions often translate porneia much more generally as "sexual immorality" rather than fornication. Even this is a bit vague, but sometimes more specific translations are farther from the truth. Some versions translate porneia as "promiscuity." Such a rendering would leave open the possibility that "really loving someone" would allow the above mentioned actions outside of marriage.

On the surface, it seems quite reasonable that promiscuity is an accurate translation of a term that could be rendered as "playing the harlot." However, the Biblical definition of playing the harlot is far different. An excellent case in point is from Deuteronomy 22:13-21.

In this example, a husband claims his new wife was not a virgin when they were married. If the charge is found untrue, the husband has a price to pay for besmirching the woman's name.

The passage concludes:
But if the thing is true, and evidences of virginity are not found for the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel, to play the harlot in her father's house. So you shall put away the evil from among you (Deut 22:20-21).

So she is said to have "played the harlot" because she is not a virgin on her wedding night. The LITV renders the phrase as "to commit fornication." But however the phrase is rendered, the important point is what is not asked the woman.

Do they ask whether the young woman loved the man she had slept with before her marriage? No. Do they ask if the young woman slept with one other or many others? No. Do they even ask if her sexual acts were within or without prostitution? No.

The Bible makes no such distinctions. None of these things affect in any way the sinfulness of her pre-marital sexual activities. Even one sexual act before marriage makes her a harlot or a fornicator.

The only exception here would be if her lack of virginity had been the result of being raped. But if this had been the case the situation would had been known to the officials who had carried out the sentence against the rapist (Deut 22:25).

Is Sexual Intercourse Equal to Marriage?

Some people claim that an act of sexual intercourse between a couple automatically marries them in God's eyes. By this belief, what is going on in most people's lives today could be described as serial marriage, going from one spouse to the next, lacking only the marriage ceremony. By this logic, Deuteronomy 22:20-21 refers to an act of adultery against the woman's future husband, and the first sexual act itself was not necessarily sinful. But this is not the way God sees things!

Under the Mosaic Law, God expected an act of sexual intercourse that occurs before marriage to be followed up by restitution and marriage.

Deuteronomy 22:28-29 says:
If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days.

It is important to note that the passage does not say "she is his wife," it says "she shall be his wife." That effectively torpedoes the notion that an act of sex is officially marriage in God's eyes. Note also "seizes her" is not referring to rape as the language is different from the case of rape in Deut 22:25 (i.e. there it reads "forces her").

What's Love Got To Do With It?

This command that people should be married if they commit an act of sexual intercourse resurfaces later in the Bible, when Amnon slept with his step-sister Tamar.

Read this passage from 2 Samuel 13:11-16:
Now when she had brought them to him to eat, he took hold of her and said to her, "Come, lie with me, my sister." And she answered him, "No, my brother, do not force me, for no such thing should be done in Israel. Do not do this disgraceful thing! And I, where could I take my shame? And as for you, you would be like one of the fools in Israel. Now therefore, please speak to the king; for he will not withhold me from you." However, he would not heed her voice; and being stronger than she, he forced her and lay with her.

Then Amnon hated her exceedingly, so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her. And Amnon said to her, "Arise, be gone!" So she said to him, "No, indeed! This evil of sending me away is worse than the other that you did to me." But he would not listen to her.

Many things should be noted about this passage. First, it deflates the argument that love makes any difference whether or not pre-marital sex is sin. The Bible plainly states Amnon had loved Tamar, even if afterwards he did change his mind to hatred. This latter point should be noted. Many a woman has slept with a man because he told her she loved him only to see his "love" turned to hatred or at least loss of respect for her afterwards.

Further, it was a greater evil to send her away than to have sex with her in the first place, at least according to Tamar. And again, many a woman has been told to "Arise, be gone!" after giving in to a man's advances. Pre-marital sex simply does not improve a relationship; more often than not it does the opposite!

It should also be noted there are elements of force and incest here that make the act even more evil than an act of consensual pre-marital sex. Tamar could have had Amnon charged with rape; but for whatever reason she felt it would be better if they simply stayed together.

As for incest, Leviticus 18 gives an extensive list of people that are too closely related to be lawful, causing a condition of incest to exist. This chapter also identifies adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality as sins.

It is interesting to note that pre-marital sex is not contained within the list of sins in Leviticus 18. This fact is sometimes used to claim Leviticus 18 is the complete Biblical definition of fornication, with the subsequent permission given for pre-marital sex by its omission.

Actually, Leviticus 18 is the definition of sexual perversion, not sexual immorality as a whole. Fornication, by its strictest English meaning, is the misuse of an act that God has ordained good within the confines of marriage. The acts described in Leviticus 18 are perverted in that they are not permitted inside or outside of marriage, and therefore it does not represent a complete set of acts that are sexually immoral. It only indicates acts that are perverted.

An Unqualified Example

In Revelation 2:14, Jesus makes reference to an incident that took place in the Old Testament as sexual immorality that is certainly not covered by Leviticus 18. The people involved are unmarried, and promiscuity is not involved.

The verse reads, "But I have a few things against you, because you have there those who hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols, and to commit sexual immorality."

The incident Jesus was referring to is documented in Numbers 25:1-9. It describes a situation where the Israelites "began to commit harlotry with the women of Moab" and worshipped the gods of Moab. As a result, "the anger of the Lord was aroused against Israel" and offenders were executed.

Afterwards, the following situation occurred:
And indeed, one of the children of Israel came and presented to his brethren a Midianite woman in the sight of Moses and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Now when Phinehas the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose from among the congregation and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her body. So the plague was stopped among the children of Israel. And those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.

Was this harlotry definitely promiscuous? No. The man above is described as only being with one woman yet Phinehas had justifiable cause to slay both of them.

Some may claim the word harlotry here is only figuratively referring to the false worship and not sex. It is true that throughout the Old Testament Israel is chastised by God for "harlotry" with other gods; but two points need to be noted.

First, it took only one spear trust to pierce both the man and the woman, going through the man first then the woman. This suggests the man was on top of the woman while in the tent. So something sexual appears to be going on.

Second, when Jesus makes reference to this incident in Revelation 2:14, He separated the sexual immorality from "eating things sacrificed to idols."

Some try to claim the sin of the Israelites here was engaging themselves with temple prostitutes; in which case the sin would stop being pre-marital sex and become prostitution. But temple prostitution is not mentioned neither in the passage in Numbers nor in the Revelation.

Given the above, Jesus specifically identified "monogamous" acts of pre-marital sex as sexual immorality, for a certainty, in Revelation 2:14.

Attitude is what Matters?

Some people have claimed it is not the sexual act itself, but the attitude with which it is committed that is sinful. This is to excuse the actions of those who engage in pre-marital sex with people they really care about.

Countering that notion is 1Corinthians 6:9,10, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God."

In this passage, "fornication" is listed among a group of sins which do not come from any sort of good motive; as such, it is identified as an act that never has a good motive behind it.

This agrees fully with the statement of Jesus, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man" (Matt 15:19-20).

In Conclusion

Pre-marital sex of any sort is identified as an act of sexual immorality in the Bible. There is simply no way to deny this fact. It is so basic that it was included in the list of minimums required in the Apostles' letter to the churches in Acts 15.

Acts 15:19-20 reads, "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood."

To conclude, the title of the article asks, "Is Pre-Marital Sex Always A Sin?" The answer to this question is an unqualified, "Yes."

An extensive treatment of the reasons not to engage in pre-martial sex is seen in the book Why Wait?, by Josh McDowell. Many other books on the subject of pre-marital sex are available.

All Scripture references from: The New King James Version. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1982, unless otherwise indicated.
1) Johannes Louw and Eugene Nida, eds. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Vol.2 (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), p.771.
2) Walter Baur. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. 2nd ed. Transl. and rev. by William Arndt, F. Wilbur Gingrich and Fredrick W. Danker (Chicago: University of London Press, 1979), p.693.
3) Fritz Rienecker. New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament. Transl. and ed. By Cleon Rogers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980), p.404.
4) The Oxford Dictionary of Current English (New York; Oxford University Press, 1996), p.344.

Is Pre-Marital Sex Always a Sin? Copyright 1999 by Reese Currie and Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this website September 12, 1998.

Ethics, Spirituality, Christian Life
Pre-Marital Sex: Ethics, Spirituality, Christian Life
Verse Evaluations and Word Studies

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