I spent seven years as a singles pastor. Can you imagine the issues I had to deal with regarding sex? How far can we go before marriage? What if we are engaged? What happens when we have already crossed that line? Is it okay to try living together if we don’t have sex? As well, I knew the issues of lust and temptation that come from magazines, internet sites, and promiscuous thoughts in general. While I was at seminary, I remember the head of the counseling department saying that by his estimation, half the male students were struggling with internet pornography. Half! If half this body of guys sold out to Jesus, selling everything they own to go to seminary, were this deeply involved in sexual struggles, how much more so the singles at my church?
Related Podcast Episode: Human Sexuality
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Many of these are difficult questions. More difficult than one realizes, until pushed for an answer. We are dealing with sexual sin among sexual people. We are bound to attempt to find as many loopholes as possible.
One day I was blindsided by a question that, before then, I had considered a softball. A man walked up to me after my lesson and said that he had some good Christian friends (and by “good Christian friends” I mean he considered these friends to be good Christians), who questioned him about the issue of sex before marriage. They had suggested to him that, contrary to popular thought, the Bible does not anywhere condemn what is known in our language as “fornication.” They said that the word “fornication,” when it is used in the Bible, does not mean sex before marriage, but sexual immorality in general. According to their studies, the sexual immorality condemned in the Scripture does not include fornication.
After some quick research, I discovered that what they said was true . . . at least part of it.
Now, let me be up front here. Before I married Kristie, I did not do to well in the sex before marriage department. I regret it quit a bit. I don’t think I ever actually committed adultery, but for the most part I worked on a “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” basis. I was a Christian at the time and the guilt was bad. However, I took some comfort in thinking that I had not crossed the actual adultery line (at least as far as I knew). Why? Because I knew that the Bible had a lot to say about adultery. You know, it was all that “take them out and stone them” stuff. But, while the guilt was bad, it was not as bad as it could have (or should have) been. After all, who was I hurting? God made me a sexual being. I was not coloring outside of the lines that much. After all, what does he expect? It is quite a killjoy to create sexual desire and then say, “You cannot touch.”
So, back to my question: Is fornication really a sin?
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It is true that in the Bible, the word for fornication does not necessarily refer to sex before marriage. The Greek word translated “fornication” by the King James Bible is pornia (from which we get our word “pornography”). It refers to any unlawful sexual activity. BDAG (the standard and best Greek Lexicon) defines it as “unsanctioned sexual intercourse.” The sanctioning of a sexual activity is defined in the Old Testament by what it is not more often than what it is. In other words, we learn what is lawful with regard to fulfilling our sexual desires by creating boundaries of foreign territory considered sinful. Much of this law is covered in Leviticus 18. Take notice of the boundaries here:
Leviticus 18:6-21, 23
6 “None of you shall approach any one of his close relatives to uncover nakedness. I am the LORD.
7 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.
8 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.
9 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your sister, your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether brought up in the family or in another home.
10 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your son’s daughter or of your daughter’s daughter, for their nakedness is your own nakedness.
11 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife’s daughter, brought up in your father’s family, since she is your sister.
12 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s sister; she is your father’s relative.
13 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s relative.
14 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt.
15 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, you shall not uncover her nakedness.
16 You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.
17 You shall not uncover the nakedness of a woman and of her daughter, and you shall not take her son’s daughter or her daughter’s daughter to uncover her nakedness; they are relatives; it is depravity.
18 And you shall not take a woman as a rival wife to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.
19 You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness.
20 And you shall not lie sexually with your neighbor’s wife and so make yourself unclean with her.
22 You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.
23 And you shall not lie with any animal and so make yourself unclean with it, neither shall any woman give herself to an animal to lie with it: it is perversion.
That pretty much covers the law with regard to sexual sin, right? After all, to “uncover the nakedness” of someone is a euphemism about sexual relations. However, one thing that is left out here is sex before marriage. It does not say, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of someone who is not your wife.” Yes, there are a lot of parameters, but it looks like we might have found ourselves a loophole toward a sexual revolution in Christianity! Not so fast, singles. While it is true that this particular passage does not speak specifically to the sex before marriage issue, sex before marriage is nonetheless condemned in Scripture as sin.
Fornication and the Old Testament
Let me be honest. From what I can see, the Old Testament does not seem to come down too hard on men having sex outside of the bonds of marriage. It is another story for women. Notice here:
Deut. 22:13-14 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,'”
This introduces a situation where a man finds out that his wife was not a virgin before they got married. If the charge was found to be true, then the women was to be stoned (Lev. 22:20-21). At the very least, this demonstrates that, for women, the laws against sexual immorality included sex before marriage.
Passages such as Lev. 19:20 further confuse the matter, giving males more liberty.
However, the liberty is not carte blanche for men. Notice here:
Deut. 22:28-29 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.”
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Here, either through rape or consent (this is debated), we have an unwed woman and a man who sleep together. The woman has lost her virginity to the man. Due to this, the man is forced to pay a “fine” or properly marry the woman to cover her shame and make sure she is provided for. This shows that sex before marriage for men was not without its consequences in the Old Testament.
Fornication and the New Testament
The issue of sex before marriage becomes much more clear in the New Testament, as it is more explicitly forbidden to both men and women.
(This is not the time to discuss why the Old Testament is not more clear on this issue. It is my assumption that, like with so many other things, God, in the progress of revelation, did not express his full ideal in the Law of Moses, but conceded to some cultural norms like he did with slavery and polygamy.)
The word “fornication,” as I said above, does not necessarily mean sex before marriage. However, I do believe it is implied many times for two primary reasons.
1. Christ’s Condemnation of Lust
Mat 5:27-28 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
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If sex before marriage was not forbidden, why does Christ say that lust is? Implied here is that everything from lust to adultery is forbidden by the sixth commandment. Sex before marriage definitely fits right in between.
2. Paul’s Admonishment to Marry Rather than Burn
1 Cor. 7:8-9 “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to stay single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
The idea of “burning” here has to do with sexual desire. Here Paul tells all unmarried people that if they cannot control their sexual desires, they need to get married. Why? Because Paul assumes that one cannot fulfill this sexual desire outside of the marital bed. While Paul would love for them to remain single (1 Cor. 7:7), he believes that sex outside of marriage is a destructive sin and cannot be used as a gratifying release of our sexual passions.
While there are other passages that can be used to build the case that sex outside of marriage is indeed sinful, I believe that these are strong enough to bind Christian consciences.
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God created sex. God created our sexual desires. Sex is good within the borders of marriage. For those of you who think that God is a killjoy for limiting sex to such a situation, please remember a couple of things:
- God created sex! How could he be a killjoy? Think about it. The very act about which you are complaining is an act he created.
- God knows better than you do what will satisfy you. It takes an act of faith to believe this, but it is not too big a step to take.
- Most married Christian men and women who, like myself, did not have a very successful single life would love to turn back the clocks and do it all over again. And this is not because we are not forgiven . . . we are. It is because we know the intimacy which is lost when you have already given yourself to another.
Our advice to you would be to wait. If it is too late, stop and wait. It is never too late to trust God in this matter. As cliché as it may sound, he really does know best. Fornication is really a sin.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]