Does the Bible prohibit sex before marriage?

Jul 8, 2021 by

by Ian Paul, Premier:

Last week the Methodist Church affirmed the status of cohabitation. Many Christians have assumed the Bible forbids sex outside of marriage. But what do the texts actually say?

The wording of last week’s Methodist Conference motion is rather odd; it “recognises that the love of God is present” when people “enter freely into some form of life-enhancing committed relationship whether that be through informal cohabitation or a more formal commitment entered into publicly”. But it says nothing about how we know whether something is “life enhancing” and it makes no comment about the nature of “commitment”. The universalist assumption is that somehow God’s love is present, whether those involved are Christians, Muslims, or atheists.

But the implicit question it poses is: what is the Christian view of sex outside marriage? For those who are already married, the answer is clear: “You shall not commit adultery” is commandment seven of the Ten (Exodus 14), coming after murder and ahead of stealing. In its social context, where it was assumed all adults were married, and men were the main social agents, it was primarily a command to men not to have sex with another man’s wife. However, in the ‘casuistic’ regulations (dealing with cases, ‘If X happens, you must do Y’) of Deuteronomy 22:22, both parties to adultery are held to be equally responsible. None of these texts specify whether the man involved is married.

The main text in the Old Testament offering regulation of sexual activity is in the ‘epideictic’ passage (not dealing with cases, but in absolutes, “You shall [not]…”) in Leviticus 18. Sexual activity is prohibited with close relations, with a women during menstruation, with someone else’s wife, with other men, or with animals. But there is no explicit prohibition of sex before marriage.

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