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Why does God forbid premarital sex?

Published: 12 March 2016 (GMT+10)
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God only permits sex inside marriage. But why? Western culture largely doesn’t see a problem with premarital sex anymore. And if the couple consent, what’s the problem? J.B. from the U.S. writes:

I have been asked something that had me quite stumped. Someone was questioning why God does not allow people to have sex outside of marriage, claiming there is no good reason. I am not talking about homosexuality or anything like that, but like a man and woman having sex when they are not married. I saw one article that briefly touches around the subject, but my question is how should I answer this to an atheist?

CMI’s Shaun Doyle responds:

God forbids sex outside of marriage because outside of marriage there’s no public agreement in place stipulating that each party of the sexual relationship must care for one another and any children that might come from the sexual union. Sexual desire is an incredibly potent force, and sexual activity has massive implications—procreation being the most obvious (Genesis 1:28), but it also binds a man and woman together in a way that nothing else can (Genesis 2:24–25)—the two texts Jesus himself explained marriage from: Christ the Creationist. By forbidding sex outside of marriage (1 Corinthians 7:2) God is saying that we must publically acknowledge that we have a duty of care to our sexual partner before we get to have sex. Think about it; marriage constitutes a public agreement to care for any potential children from a sexual union, so it provides a level of accountability to parents for looking after their own children. Marriage thus provides a first line of defense against child abuse and neglect (Raising godly children). If sex is OK outside of marriage, nor do we have a publically acknowledged duty of care to the person we have sex with. As such, marriage is a first line of defense against sexual abuse.

Of course, we all know that child abuse and sexual abuse can occur within marriages. But this doesn’t happen because marriage itself is faulty; it happens because humans are slaves to sin (Ephesians 2:1–3). Is the idea of a car stupid just because my car is a lemon? Of course not! But if sex is OK outside of marriage, then sex and children happen outside of contexts where people have voluntarily acknowledged their duty of care to their sexual partner and their children. Does circumventing that public accountability bode well for lessening sexual abuse and child abuse? Of course not! And so it’s no surprise to learn that child abuse and sexual abuse (of both children and adults) are proportionately more common outside of marriage than within it.

But, people in our society today think sex outside of marriage is OK because we have decoupled sex from a duty of care for our sexual partner. Sex is now a game people play, not an expression of love people share. But if sex is a game people play, then why shouldn’t they be able to make money from playing it? After all, baseball, football, and basketball players make obscene amounts of money just for playing a game, and sex is in many ways more entertaining than any of those, so why can’t people make money from ‘playing’ sex? And if sex is a game, why can’t we change the rules as we feel like, and legitimize all sorts of sexual expressions? And if sex is a game, what’s the point of marriage? Why not redefine marriage to reflect socially acceptable sexual proclivities? And what do we see in the Western world? Homosexuality is now just a ‘sexual preference’, prostitution is legal in many places, and same-sex marriage is sweeping the Western world.

But notice in all this how children, as products of sexual unions, have been forgotten. Why? Western culture has (largely) managed to decouple sex from procreation. The original design of sex was ingenious—God made the most pleasurable human experience the means by which new life is generated; it puts an enormous responsibility on those engaging in sexual activity. But of course, the general availability of birth control has largely taken the fear of pregnancy away, so it makes it easy to treat sex like a game.

But even without the threat of pregnancy, promiscuity still has a major consequence—STDs (see Does it matter? for more information). STDs are clearly more prevalent in promiscuous societies. As such, even STDs are a reason to limit oneself to only one sexual partner at most, since then most STDs wouldn’t have a means of being transmitted. And health risks are included in any acknowledged duty of care to a sexual partner and children, so marriage again provides a means of curtailing STDs by binding a person to one sexual partner.

“But sex can still be an expression of love outside of marriage, right?” No. It can be an expression of infatuation, or romance, but not love in the biblical sense of actively putting another’s needs above oneself. “Oh, but I’m a generous lover!” In bed, maybe, but what about the rest of the day? The duty of care God says sex binds us to is not simply our partner’s sexual needs, but all their needs. Food, clothing, shelter, emotional well-being, spiritual well-being—all of it. When we view sex as an expression of that sort of love, then it’s plain that anything less than sex inside marriage cheapens the value of sex. If we are not willing to be so bound to someone that all their needs are largely dependent on us, then we shouldn’t be having sex. And if we are so willing, then we should make the public profession to such willingness (with our partner, of course; it takes two to marry!) before having sex so that everyone else can hold us accountable. For more information, please see Family/Marriage questions and answers.

Helpful Resources

Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Gary Bates, Lita Cosner
US $3.50
Soft Cover
Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $2.00
Kindle (.mobi)
Gay Marriage: right or wrong?
by Lita Cosner, Gary Bates
US $2.00
eReader (.epub)

Readers’ comments

Ken C.
For those who do not have the maturity to make a lifelong commitment to each other and their children, a public ceremony will unlikely make a difference as to whether or not a marriage will last, much less that a couple will be faithful to each other. Unfortunately, the need and desire for a public ceremony to make a marriage legal in the eyes of church and state is often indicative of a lack of maturity and faith on the part of either one or both individuals.

Marriage is the oldest institution known to man. Church and state have highjacked the covenant marriage for the sake of control and in many cases have made a mockery of it.

God forbade fornication out of concern for the stability of the family. He came to earth to reinforce the old covenant, with His new covenant of love.

When confronted with Mary’s pregnancy Joseph could have and would have been within his legal right to divorce her because of the contract (the ketubah) he had signed with Mary’s father, since at that point they were legally married.

Mary or any woman during that time would have been in a vulnerable and possibly a dangerous position because of her pregnancy before the consummation ceremony, (the chuppah). Adultery was a serious crime!

Joseph’s intent to divorce Mary secretly without making an accusation of adultery meant that he was required to return the inventory of assets and 50 shekel bride price that the bride had brought into the marriage and pay it back to her father. Joseph had everything to gain by openly accusing her and it would have cost him much to divorce her secretly.

Should we not indeed be guided by and freely respond to our conscience and a higher power, as Joseph did, rather then our selfish desires, or the precepts of church and state or tribe?
Karen G.
The article on pre-marital sex is good, but there is also a scientific reason for abstaining from pre-marital sex. During sexual intercourse the brain releases Dopamine, a powerful addictive chemical which makes the person want to repeat the action. A woman's body releases oxytocin, which helps her to become emotionally bonded to the partner. A man's body produces vasopressin which produces a similar response. When the couple break up there is a huge feeling of emptiness, and to fill the void they move on to another partner. Eventually they stop bonding with their partner.
Kim B.
Thank God for CMI! And thank you CMI for this article. Having been married for 27 years from the age of 19 (and at times having struggled with understanding marriage - to be with the same person for life, really?) I do know that the most important factor is the covenant we made with God when we married, even though we might not have acknowledged it at the time. There are 3 of us in the marriage (not including children) & this fills my heart with compassion & passion for my husband. The Lord knows us & He knows what's best for us. Everything that He has put into place is for our benefit.
Richard L.
The public-declaration dimension of the marriage act is clearly signaled in Genesis 2:24 in its opening element, "A man shall leave his father and mother...".

That action is--to a Middle-East (or Ancient-Near-Eastern/ANE) mindset--a shockingly controversial act. The ANE (and current ME) mindset is TRIBAL. A woman leaves her tribe and joins to the tribe of her husband. Her babies automatically belong to his tribe. If divorce occurs, she rejoins her tribe, etc. Thus, it was shocking to the original audience of Genesis 2:24 that the man also had to leave his tribe to fuse to his wife in marriage (with the ultimate expression of that fusion being the sex act).

Being controversial, this departure from parents and to the wife is a very PUBLIC ACTION / declaration of COMMITMENT by the husband. It will be gossiped about. It is impossible for this action to happen without it being witnessed by the local community.

When couples wishing to marry within God's directives know this "cost" of marriage, they will inescapably have to FIRST truly "fuse" together emotionally, volitionally, in their dreams of the future, etc., gaining mutual trust--and, for true believers--spiritually. THEN, they will act out this existing fusion of spirit/soul through a public declaration (wedding act). And FINALLY they will act out this soulish fusion by physical consummation. This is the biblical order.

(Among other ways Satan tries to mess us up is to tempt us to keep all these elements--but in the wrong order.)

Another thought--for those reader couples who struggle with fertility, and who may be experiencing "salt in the wound" by this discussion primarily focused on children: As Trobisch points out, scripturally precious children are not mentioned in the Genesis 2:24 marriage definition.
Jesse H.
Unfortunately, I don't know if I'd call sex the most pleasurable human experience thanks to modern drugs like meth. It's probably the most pleasurable "normal" human experience, though, and probably was for much of human history.
Shaun Doyle
I suppose these things are to a certain extent subjective, but I think few would disagree that it's high on the list of pleasurable experiences, and that's sufficient for the argument to go through.
Gennaro C.
Thank you Shaun for your exposition of the matter. I think that apart of the social implications as well the morals etc. there is an important factor to be emphasized. God created marriage in Eden and then added sex as a bonding element of the couple, and it is fine because the two will become one with all the implications that this oneness entails. It seems to me that what is important is this oneness. Jesus asked the Father " ... just as you are in me and I am in you - the oneness of Godhead (John 17:21)" and Jesus added that all of us are one in Them. Now, God is the Authority and what the authority say must be done. And God gave also the authority to Man through the church (Mt. 18:18). So the Church has the role to deal with human's spiritual life. Could premarital sex be considered possible while the Church has not yet blessed the marriage ceremony?
Dion H.
I don't think God would recognize a pedophilia "marriage", and parents should teach their children not to marry each other.

I think some young people put off (legal) marriage because of the hassle they realise it will be which then may lead to the temptation of drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex. Maybe if Christian marriage could be simple Christians would be doing it younger, and avoid the temptations of those things. Thanks for the feedback.
Shaun Doyle
God obviously wouldn't recognize such 'marriages', but how to we make sure marriage and the people involved in it are not abused in these ways? God generally doesn't step in visibly to make sure these things don't happen; He gives us the responsibility to prevent these abuses. But that's precisely why witnesses are so important, whether the state is involved or not.

Marriage is no private 'just me, my spouse, and God' matter. After all, what about any children that might arise? What about the welfare of each partner? The people around the couple have a responsibility to ensure that those issues are handled properly in a marriage, so they have a right to bear witness to the couple's acknowledgment of their responsibilities before God to each other for the marriage.

This is even more the case for Christians. Before God the Christian is not simply a private individual—he/she is a part of the church, the body and bride of Christ. Christians who think their marriage commitment is irrelevant to the church fundamentally misunderstand the public nature of their relation to Christ and to others in Christ. In Christ, we are our brother's keeper.

Now, it may be that if we simplified the marriage ceremony, more would get married younger, and that would help alleviate some of the problem. But the causes for the current premarital sex epidemic in the church are multifaceted; the problem won't be solved just by lowering the cost of the wedding ceremony.
Dion H.

Here is a thread about the claim sex outside of marriage is prohibited in the bible

[link deleted per feedback rules]

To say to a young Christian to wait until they are "married" (meaning legal marriage) to have sex puts a burden on them, as it is saying-

Wait until age 29 (which is the average age of marriage), and spend 26-36,000$ (which is the average cost of a wedding in Australia), make oaths/vows (which goes against Mathew 5:37), stress for months planning, and leading up to the wedding (which goes against Matthew 6:25-34), and sign a legal contract between, you, the government, and a women, which has no meaning in the eyes of God (as homosexuals sign that same contract in some countries, and are legally married),and which in the event of divorce, will cost an average of 3600$ each, and at least 16 months to break (not including if things to to family court), before you have sex. This is nowhere in the bible.

Here is another article on marriage

[link deleted per feedback rules]

A Christian marriage is just the man prays over him and his future wife and they are married. No cost, no stress, no planning, no government involvement. Of course Christians should wait until they are Christian married until they have sex, but Christian marriage is easy, and can be done at any age, so it's not a problem.

I think anti Christians like the non biblical phrase "it is a sin to have sex outside of marriage" because of the burden/guilt it does put on Christians.

Matthew 23:4King James Version (KJV)

4 For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
Shaun Doyle
Your invective is aimed at a strawman; I never said that all the bells and whistles of the modern marriage ceremony are required to legitimize a marriage (though nor do I say that they're inappropriate; to single out different aspects, like the rings or the wedding bouquet, as having pagan origins commits the genetic fallacy, since their prescribed meaning in a Christian context has nothing to do with paganism). I can personally testify that my wife and I did not participate in much of that expensive rigmarole (we didn't want to, and even if we did, we couldn’t afford to!). Nor did I say that people should wait until their late twenties to get married. But what my article points out the need for is a public acknowledgment of one's responsibilities to one's spouse before entering into a sexual union with them. In terms of strictly biblical requirements, that doesn't need a judge, minister, or priest to MC an elaborate ceremony (or even a simple one); but for the acknowledgement to be public it does need witnesses.

Consider your alternative: "A Christian marriage is just the man prays over him and his future wife and they are married." Without witnesses, this is so ripe for abuse that I'm amazed you would suggest it! Imagine a 14-year-old boy doing that with his younger sister. Or an old pervert doing it with a 7-year-old girl in the schoolyard. Does the old man have a right to violate that little girl then and there just because he uttered a prayer over her that nobody else heard? You need witnesses to make sure the marriage is legitimate (e.g. that a prepubescent girl is not being coerced into something she is too young to grasp, or that a brother and sister are not marrying each other), to ensure that both parties fully understand the responsibilities they are entering into, that the couple is willing to fulfill the responsibilities of marriage for each other, and to hold the couple publicly accountable for their commitment.
Deon B.
I have a relative who supplied her daughter and her grand daughter with the pill to prevent the "scandal" of pregnancy in the family. My perception is that a free license for pre-marriage sex was established! Perhaps thousands of "caring mothers" are at present doing exactly the same shameful act to prevent unwonted pregnancy. May GOD have mercy on this kind of conduct.
Richard L.
Thank you, Shaun, for this article, and for the reference to CMI's "Family/Marriage Q&A". (Much of what I now say is covered in that reference.)

An atheist (obviously!) has no obligation to the bible, and you, Shaun, in your response, have thus focused on the pragmatic concern of the welfare of children made in a sexual union. A concern which an atheist should acknowledge.

An atheist might still have a question about a pre-marital-sex (PS) ban (or any other morality/lifestyle insistence of a Christian): "Is this something only incumbent on you, as a Christian, or is it somehow incumbent on all people, according to your beliefs?"

We need to make it clear that the case is the latter.

We need to remind the atheist that God really exists and is the creator. That as the creator, he makes the rules. That Adam and Eve really lived on the earth (and still live). That all humanity came from them. That the ban on PS comes out of God's creation/marrying of Adam and Woman.

In other words, that our insistence on the PS ban is NOT a particular feature of our Christian sub-culture. That it is, instead, a necessary feature of what we have to proclaim--to all people--if we are to maintain our integrity as Christians.

We need to present God as our manufacturer, one who knows the operating specs of our soulish machinery. He is the one who knows that PS abuses our machinery and takes it "way out of spec". In kindness and compassion, he insists on this ban--for all humanity, not just for Christians.

(And, of course, there are more aspects to this ban than pragmatic concerns about offspring protection and avoidance of STDs. Marriage has a limited parallel to the Trinity. The distortion caused by PS is PERSONALLY painful to God. PS puts the nails into Jesus on the cross, etc.)
Margaret L.
I was talking to an atheist friend about this subject. He, being anti-marriage, was surprised I didn't agree that couples were always brought closer by sex. He hadn't realised that sex could often bring real intimacy to a halt. The relationship foundations we build with another person, like voicing our dreams, fears, life-goals, spiritual beliefs etc. can come to a full stop when sex starts to happen. Sex can take the place of real intimacy. So better build your relationship and make your public commitments beforehand. If your partner doesn't want to marry it may be because they want a way out.
Ken C.
Genesis 2:24 states, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”.

Mark 10:7-9 states, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no man separate”.

And 1 Corinthians 6:16 states, “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh”.

Is it not the conjugal union between a man and woman that initiates or defines a marriage?
Where does it state in scripture that a man and woman shall publically proclaim their vows before a priest, minister or judge and they shall be pronounced man and wife? Indeed are they any more married then a man and woman who make a private commitment to each other before God and who have gone on to bring nine children and many grand children into the world?

My intent in querying you on this topic is not to denigrate or negate the value of a public ceremony but rather to demonstrate a truth, that marriage and the commitment that goes along with it is more based on the moral integrity of the couple and their relationship to God rather then a legal document signed in public. Now, if only people, church, and state held to the view that marriage is in fact a result of the conjugal union between a man and a woman?

Human beings tend to quantify moral behavior based on their political, religious, or scientific perspective.
Indeed, as Martin Luther King, Jr. stated “Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness.”
Shaun Doyle
The formal recognition of a human law, and the presence of some official representative of a church/state, are not required by Scripture for a marriage to be binding before God. Nonetheless, some sort of public acknowledgment of the couple's responsibilities to each other is required to legitimize the marriage. Otherwise, why did Paul say: "To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion." (1 Corinthians 7:8–9)? If the sexual union of itself legitimates a marriage it makes no sense for Paul to instruct betrothed believers to 'marry rather than be aflame with passion'. Rather, if sex itself legitimizes marriage, he would've just permitted them to have sex. These verses clearly imply some sort of public acknowledgment of the couple's responsibilities to each other is required to legitimize the union as a marriage. If the couple have sex before then, it is sin.
Thomas M.
Is it not remarkable that the questioner was so sure that homosexulal activity between consenting adults was wrong but the morality of fornication between consenting heterosexuals was different. CMI's response was perfect and it applies to both homosexual and heterosexual sex, namely, procreation, although not intended or even possible with every sex act, is naturally tied to the purpose for which God gave us that desire. It is the separation of the procreative meaning from the mutual self-giving that debases sex acts.
Christopher S.
I really like the way Mr. Doyle handled the question. He did so in a very mature way, and I don't think it could have been more appropriately answered. Praise God for the work CMI is doing.
Geoff C. W.
This has profound implications for abortion, too.
Jack L.
I guess I am too old. Things like child abuse and neglect weren't even subjects in the 1970's - they seem like trendy things, simply appearing and given vast attention because attitudes shift. As such, I cannot accept the answer given.

Back in the 1970's the answer was simple, sex was reserved until marriage and your partner was the only one you were allowed to have sex with. This was because of pregnancy and needing to raise a child in marriage, indeed that was the purpose of marriage (to have a family), thus that is the only place for sex.

My how things have changed!
Philip S.
Marriage depicts the relationship of God with his Church.
Gian Carlo B.
Excellent article once again, Shaun. I really appreciate you guys addressing even premarital sex, as it is still an issue today, even in my country, in my university, a lot engage in such unholy union. Although many had the honor of caring for the baby instead of aborting it (in that sense, they have reaped what the sowed and accept the weight of the consequences). Nonetheless, biblically speaking, such honor is not enough to excuse the act anyways, so it is important we teach the importance of the Judeo-Christian/biblical marriage as taught in the Scriptures along with the strict principles taught, unlikely emphasized in secular marriage institutions where marriage is simply a social construct to 'protect a private property'. The JC biblical marriage is strakly different. Spouses are not mere properties, they are your life mates and life companions, they are your love allies and brothers in Christ, equally.

I really thank you for addressing this issue, guys. You guys are prominently creation focus but marriage is arguably part of this debate. Keep up the good work. ;)

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