The promises made in marriage matter not just for the bride and groom. The promises matter for the sake of the children that they hope to produce and for the sake of the wider community that benefits when children are born in wedlock and raised by their two biological parents. Sex before marriage undermines all this. Fornication only “works” if sex can be divorced from the promises that constitute a marriage, divorced from the public dimension of marriage, and divorced from the children that normally come from marriage and flourish most in the context of marriage. The Bible teaches that premarital sex is personally selfish and publicly subversive of the goods that marriage is meant to promote and protect.
Not long ago, an American politician found herself in an awkward situation when she mentioned at a prayer breakfast that she was running late for the event because her fiancé wanted to have sex that morning. From her public admission, it was clear that the woman and her fiancé were living together and were in a sexual relationship. What was also clear is that the woman—a professing Christian at an evangelical church (with her pastor in the audience)—didn’t realize she had said or done anything wrong. She mentioned her reason for being late with a smile and with a chuckling assurance to her fiancé that she would see him in the evening and that he wouldn’t have to wait long for his desires to be fulfilled. Later, after getting flack for her risqué remarks, the congresswoman explained that she goes to church because she is a sinner, not because she is a saint.
I mention this story not to draw attention to this particular event or to pick on this particular politician, but to illustrate the reality that sex before marriage, even for many Christians, has lost any sense of stigma. Watch almost any television show or any movie that involves dating or romance, and you will find that sexual activity between non-married persons is completely normal and utterly pervasive. Christians may still get upset when the culture pushes an LGBTQ agenda, but most of those same Christians won’t even notice when popular songs, shows, videos, or movies routinely show, describe, or assume sex before marriage. If worldliness is whatever makes sin look normal and righteousness look strange (to paraphrase David Wells), then the routine acceptance of sex before marriage is one of the clearest signs of worldliness in our age.
Is It Wrong?
The title of this piece asks, “Is it wrong to have sex before marriage?” so let me start by showing from the Bible that such behavior is clearly a sin. “Fornication” is the (now rarely used word) for sex between two persons who are not married. In traditional terms, adultery has often meant illicit sex once married, and fornication has meant illicit sex outside of marriage. The word “fornication” is used in the King James Version in 1 Corinthians 6:18, but the Greek word there is porneia which includes every kind of illicit sexual activity, from adultery to homosexuality to prostitution to sex before marriage.
The Bible doesn’t dwell on the sin of fornication because such behavior was, in the minds of the biblical authors, clearly and obviously wrong. We see this assumption in several places. According to Exodus 22:16–17, the man who has sex with a non-engaged virgin, should make her his wife, indicating that sexual intercourse is a covenant-forming activity not to be entered into apart from the covenant bonds of marriage. Likewise, according to Deuteronomy 22:13–21, if a woman has sex before marriage, she is put in the same category as a prostitute. The Torah does not allow for sex before marriage.
The New Testament carries forward the same sexual boundaries found in the Old Testament. When Joseph sought to quietly break off his betrothal to pregnant Mary, it is obvious that Joseph considers Mary to have done something wrong and that the whole community will also disapprove of Mary’s behavior (Matt. 1:19). The Bible also considers it important for us to know that Mary really was a virgin (Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:34). Most clearly, the logic of 1 Corinthians 7—that it is better to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7:9)—only works on the assumption that sexual activity belongs in marriage and not outside of marriage.