By L. Alfred James
I’ve had several conversations with young Christians who tell me they are puzzled as to why churches preach that premarital sex is wrong. They tell me that they’ve read through large parts of the Bible looking for passages that clearly condemn it, and they did not find anything. “So,” they tell me, “since the Bible doesn’t forbid it, and I don’t see how it hurts anything, I’m moving in with my girlfriend.”
In response, this week we are going to simply do some basic exegesis to see that this view is actually quite wrongheaded. Premarital sex is most definitely condemned in the Bible.
Porneia Frequently Means “Premarital Sex”
One reason for some confusion is the fact that the Greek word porneia which is often translated as “fornication” has a wide range of meanings. It does not always refer exclusively to premarital sex. It sometimes has a more generic meaning of “prohibited sex.” Of course, the question then becomes, “What kind of sex is prohibited?” So, for any particular passage someone can say, “Well, maybe porneia (in this verse) is just referring to adultery or homosexuality.” The ambiguity of the word therefore gives interpreters a lot of “wiggle room.”
But there are some passages that simply don’t allow for this wiggle room. For instance, it is almost certain that Jesus is saying that premarital sex is a sin in Matthew 15:19 when he says, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications [porneiai], thefts, false witness, slanders.” Here, Jesus is not using the word porneia as a generic term to refer to all immoral sex, since he makes a separate reference to adultery. If he were using porneia in the generic sense, he wouldn’t have added adultery to his list. This means that he is almost certainly referring to premarital sex.
A similar case could be made for Paul’s use of this same word 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. Paul simply takes this verb and makes it into a noun:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither fornicators [pornoi] nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10)
In this passage, it is virtually certain that Paul is using the word pornoi to refer to people who have premarital sex (and do not repent of it). Why? Because Paul is very specific about which kinds of sexual immorality get you damned. He articulates three different kinds: premarital sex (fornicators), extramarital sex (adulterers), homosexual sex (men who have sex with men). Look at the series of behaviors that are mentioned. It would be rather strange to think that Paul uses the word pornoi to refer to sexual immorality in general, and then mentions idolaters, and then gets back to referring to more sexual behaviors that are condemned (adulterers and practicing homosexuals). The mention of idolaters after pornoi, and the separate mentionings of adulters and practicing homosexuals, make it semantically impossible to interpret this word as meaning anything other than people (unrepentantly) engaging in premarital sex.
However, instead of depending solely on semantic arguments, I’d prefer to add a conceptual argument. This is because there are places in the New Testament that condemn premarital sex in a way that is logically inescapable.
Paul Rejected Premarital Sex As An Option
Think very carefully about Paul’s commands to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 7. Remember, the church was wondering if single people should never get married. Paul makes it clear that he believes singleness is a fantastic state to be in. Nonetheless, it has one major drawback: Sex is forbidden for single people. Specifically, look at what he says about single Christians in verse 9:
But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:9)
Notice that Paul says it is better to marry than to “burn with passion.” Here is an important question: Why in the world would anyone be burning with passion?
Because they want to have sex, and they can’t (since it is forbidden).
I know of no other interpretation of this verse that is as likely as this one. Nothing else comes close.
Let me say it another way. Why can’t these people have sex? Because they are not married. That’s all there is to it. According to Paul, there are only two options for single people who have sexual desire: get married (and have sex) or stay single and burn with passion. This means that having premarital sex is not an option under any circumstances. If it was, why would Paul say, “You either get married or you just burn with passion”?
Jesus Rejected Premarital Sex As An Option
Jesus also rejects premarital sex as an option. After Jesus’ teaching on the subject of divorce, the apostles responded by telling him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Then we read:
Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” (Matthew 19:8-12)
According to Jesus it is hard to accept a commitment to remain single (whether as a eunuch or simply by renouncing marriage). Why in the world would it be so hard to accept? The answer isn’t too hard to figure out: It means that you don’t get to have sex. Just like with Paul, notice that with Jesus there are only two choices: Either faithfulness within a heterosexual marriage, or a renunciation of marriage. This logically entails no sex outside of marriage. When Jesus says, “They have renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven,” there is no way any one listening to him could have realistically thought, “Well, if I were to renounce marriage I guess I could still have sex. I just couldn’t get married.”
Why can’t they have sex? Because they are not married.
There are times that the word porneia (or the corresponding noun pornoi) clearly refers to premarital sex, and this happens in passages that are explicitly condemning the behavior. However, there are other passages in the New Testament that logically entail that premarital sex is utterly forbidden for Christians.