In this Case, Father Elfert Does Not Know Best. No, Fornication is Not a Great Idea.

So, on April Fool’s Day, there was an installment of Rev. Martin Elfert’s “Father Knows Best” column on Religion New Service that I originally hoped was a joke, but sadly was not. A young man (LC) wrote in confessing that he and his girlfriend had been engaging in premarital sex, but had recently confessed and decided to swear it off until marriage. Good for them. Now, the LC’s question is a typical, understandable. follow-up that just about any college or youth pastor has gotten before, “But does the other stuff (oral, manual, etc) count? Can I do that instead? Because, really, things are tough here.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten that question in the last 8 years.

What was Rev. Elfert’s answer? Well, at one point he very clearly and rightly says the other stuff is still sex. It’s in the technical names of the terms (manual sex, oral sex). Beyond that, the structure of the acts themselves as well as the results (orgasm, etc.), make it clear that these are species of sexual activity.

But that’s not the whole of his answer. This, actually, is his primary response:

My educated guess, LC, is that you are writing in the hopes that someone will give you and your girlfriend permission to have sex. If that guess is right then consider this column your official authorization to fornicate. Go forth with my blessing and hop into the bed or the back seat of the car of your choosing. I promise not to tell anyone.

He continues on:

The overwhelming majority of couples at whose marriages I officiate and/or for whom I perform premarital counseling are already sexually active and already living together. And for the life of me, LC, I can’t figure out why I need to be troubled about that. While I recognize that there was a time when the moral norm was to be — or at least was to be pretend to be — celibate up until your wedding day, I don’t find the arguments for preserving or restoring that norm persuasive.Indeed, I can think of at least two pretty solid reasons that being sexually active before a wedding is a good idea.

His two reasons? First, sex is important and you have to know you’re sexually compatible. You don’t want to live a life of sexual misery do you? Second, you can’t think straight when you’re horny, so you want to be sure your head is clear when you decide to get married. You don’t want to just get married so you can have sex.

Yes, apparently this man is ordained as a Christian pastor somewhere, in charge of caring for souls in the Church Christ bought at the cost of his own blood. Take a moment and grieve, if you need to.

Now, I’m not sure if LC will ever see this response, but I figured it would be worth my time to quickly respond to this little bit of silliness in hopes that he or someone else confused by Elfert’s piece might run across it.

Who Cares About Fornication? Jesus. Paul. Pretty much everybody in the Bible. 

First, why should Rev. Elfert be troubled enough about extra-marital or pre-marital sex to say something about it to the couples he’s counseling? Why should he not tell people to fornicate? Well, what does the Apostle Paul (guy inspired by God and personally knocked off his horse by the Resurrected Christ) say?

“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”—and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two will become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20 ESV)

Just to be clear, the term “sexual immorality” is the Greek term porneia.  Most New Testament lexicons and commentators will point out that the term includes a variety of practices including adultery, prostitution, unlawful sex, and certainly sex outside of marriage. Often it is translated “fornication.” So, the NRSV actually renders verse 18 “shun fornication!”

This kind of thing is apparently a big enough deal that Jesus himself condemns it (Mark 7:21) along with a laundry list of sins like theft, unclean thoughts, murder, etc. In fact, Jesus cites it as one of the only legitimate grounds for initiating a divorce (Matt. 5:32; 19:9). And Jesus really hates divorce.

So maybe, Rev. Elfert ought to be concerned because according to Jesus, fornication is a sin to be repented of, not to be encouraged. LC, your instinct to go to confession and then repent was the right one.

What’s the Problem? Sex is good. Sex is powerful. Sex works. 

So why is it a big deal? Not because God doesn’t like sex. Rev. Elfert had that much right. God created the original desires, instincts, bodily functions, nerve endings, and so forth that make sex pleasurable and a source of joy. He’s the one who say “Be fruitful and multiply”, knowing full well how that multiplication happens. But the reality is that he created sex to function within the context of marriage. This is what Paul is getting at in the passage above when he says,

“Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”

Quoting Genesis chapter 2, he notes that sexual intercourse is the process by which “two will become one flesh.” Jesus himself quotes this same text when teaching his disciples about the inadmissibility of divorce:

And Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mark 10:5-9)

This “one-flesh” the author of Genesis, Jesus, and Paul are talking about is the reality that sexual intercourse creates a bond between people at multiple levels: physical, emotional, and spiritual. It’s a deeply beautiful act, that in the context of a marriage, functions as a promise: I love you, I accept you, I will be faithful to you, and I will share my life with you. In the context of the Bible, it’s a covenant renewal ceremony, that’s why Timothy Keller has called it “covenant glue.”

Another way of putting it is that it’s a powerful commitment apparatus. Having sex with someone bonds you to them in a way that going to the movies, having long conversations, or even spending months together does not. Nakedness does something to the relationship.

This is why Elfert’s second reason for having sex with someone before marriage is beyond counterproductive and verges into the downright idiotic. Having sex with someone does not clear your head about them; it bonds you to them. This is at the heart of why God is against fornication. He made sex, he made it good, and he made it powerful. It works and it works great in the context of marriage. But when you have sex outside of marriage, you’re promising yourself, bonding yourself, and committing yourself to someone you’re not actually committed to. Sex divorced from marriage becomes an exercising in lying to yourself and your partner. Even though you may rationally not be promising something, your body and your emotions, in a sense, believe deeper than your mind.

Can you see how sexual engagement in -order-to-figure-things-out is just complicating an already complicated decision? Sex doesn’t clear your head so you can make a thoughtful decision. It fogs it up. This, by the way, is part of why you see so many confused relationships that last way too long, or those breakups that are inexplicably devastating. You’ve bonded to the person in a significant way, despite what judgment your reason might have made about the person and now its hard to think straight about them or let go when you need to. Certain sociologists have compared the process of ending relationships in which there has been sexual intercourse with a mini-divorce. So, having sex, breaking up, having sex, breaking up, and so on, until you find the right person can be the psychological equivalent of experiencing multiple mini-divorces, leading to serious consequences for your emotional health.

This is not a matter of being “sex-positive” or “body-positive”, either. It’s about being “sex-realistic.” Believe me, I’m quite positive about sex and so is the Bible. Just go read Song of Solomon. But just because something is good and positive, that doesn’t mean we can’t be wise about how we use or engage it. Sex is good and it is powerful. This is why God put the guardrails around it that he did with marriage vows of life-long fidelity and exclusivity. He’s not a prude–he’s a good Father who doesn’t want us getting hurt.

What About Sexual Compatibility?

I’ll try to be quicker here, but a few points. First, you need to remember that marriage is about far more than just sex. This is difficult to fathom in a culture that idolizes the experience of sexual fulfillment.

Second, if you’re not sleeping with a number of people, what’s your reference point to compare your spouse to? One chap put it this way: “sexual compatibility” as the culture currently defines it, ends up meaning that your bag of tricks you picked up from your partners along the way, and their bag of tricks matches up. But if you have no bag (or a smaller bag) to start? I’ve talked to a number of people who regret this aspect of their life before their marriage, precisely because they wish they only knew and grew with their spouses.

Third, sexual practice, style, and so forth, is not some static, unchangeable thing, like plastic Lego pieces you’re trying put together  You have your whole life to find out how to serve, love, please, enjoy each other better in your sex life. Practice makes perfect. (Also, there are such things as sex therapists. Help can be had here.)

Grace

My final point is to remember there’s grace. LC, if you’re reading, I need you to know that as serious as sex outside of marriage (along with a whole bunch of other activities) is, God’s forgiveness is greater still. Sexual sin is not the one, unforgivable sin out there. As Paul says just a few verses earlier,

“But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

The message of the gospel is that Jesus came to us while we were still doing everything wrong, in order to die on the Cross, remove our guilt, our shame, reconcile us to God, and give us the power to live new lives by the Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Finally, this is a set of somewhat silly practical tips I give to my college students for keeping a lid on things with your girlfriend before marriage. Most people have found them helpful.

Also, check out Timothy Keller’s book The Meaning of Marriage for some helpful insights into marriage, sex, dating, and so forth.

13 thoughts on “In this Case, Father Elfert Does Not Know Best. No, Fornication is Not a Great Idea.

  1. Hi Derek.
    I did some research on what the bible says about sex a couple years ago. After reading Divine Sex: Liberating Sex from Religious Tradition (Philo Thelos) and Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and Their Implications for Today (L. William Countryman) I seriously struggle seeing any explicit condemnation against sex (man-woman) before marriage in the scriptures.
    The argument above for example rests on rendering porneia to suit pre-existing belief. Its argued sex outside marriage is wrong because we choose to render porneia as fornication. Both these books above have reasonable arguments against that method. The guys above argue words should be defined by their common use and their contexts. Both define it as ‘sexual immorality’ (as does ESV). i.e. The whole range of sex acts condemned in the scriptures. Which leaves people having to find an explicit condemnation against sex before marriage or an instance where it is done and then condemned.
    The creation scripture Gen 2. Husband wife, leaving cleaving, Holding fast, joined certainly commends marriage and sex. It does not condemn sex outside marriage. Jesus refers to the verse in the context of divorce (Mk 10). Paul (1 Cor 6) is the context of prostitution and foreign worship.
    One should also provide reasonable interpretations of scriptures which seemingly have no problem with sex outside marriage. e.g. Gen 22.15-24 (Abraham blessed by way of his union with a concubine), Dt 22.28-29 (Sex before marriage not requiring a sin offering).
    Have you read the books above? Can you find reviews of them which interact with their scriptural arguments for sex before marriage and refute them?

    • Hey, thanks for the comment. Very briefly, I do agree with the linguistic theory about deriving meaning from common and contextual usage. The dictionaries that I’ve seen, including the BAGD have defined it the way I have here. Also, the work of certain recent scholars (Robert Gagnon and others) has suggested (or, rather, shown) that porneia in 2nd Temple Jewish texts functions as a sort of short-hand referring to the sexual prohibitions in Lev. 18 and elsewhere in Torah. Beyond that, looking at Jesus in his 1st Century context, we see that in every place he speaks to sex, he actually always tightens the restrictions compared to his contemporaries. So, with divorce, he generally takes the hardline response of ruling it out in almost every case. What’s more, his ethic in the Sermon on the Mount proscribes not only physical adultery as out of bounds, but even lust as adultery in the heart. It’s a bizarre, unhistorical reading that would imagine Jesus restricting divorce, condemning lust, and then being perfectly fine with premarital sex.

      What’s more, with Paul, yes, the context is Temple Prostitution, but if you go read Thiselton’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, you’ll see the argument’s implications and conclusions are far broader than simply avoiding cultic idolatry. Beyond that, 1 Thessalonians 4, which similarly rules out porneia is not limited to a cultic context.
      For the OT text, Abraham’s narrative is not always normative. There is no praise of Abraham’s marital practice in the OT. The patriarchal period is an interesting one in that respect. On the Deuteronomy text, I’ll have to get back to you, but there is a clear sense of violation.

      Finally, on those books, no, I have not. If I happen to run across reviews, I’ll be sure to link it here.

      • Thanks for your reply. I appreciate your concern for your readers and I’m sorry to ask for more. Obviously I’ve gone against traditional thinking. Id sit a lot easier if I could see clear biblical teaching against it and I think many others would profit for it. Okay, behaviours like adultery are always sinful because Ex 20.14 is really clear. The scripture says so. Where are similar statements against male-female unmarried sex? I don’t see any. Basically I’m saying the emperor has no clothes. Which means the beliefs of many Christians on this topic are unbiblical. By interacting with you I learn more too.
        I would tend to agree with recent scholars defining porneia along the lines of Lev 18. Yep.
        Jesus tightens up rules on divorce. Yep. Giving equal rights to women. Divorce is wrong, yep.
        Lust as adultery of the heart. Specifically adulterous lust means earnestly desiring (‘lust’ cf. 1 Cor 14.1) another mans wife. Adultery concerns breaking covenant vows. Yep. Sinful. But I don’t think Jesus is speaking about singles here because he mentions ‘adultery’. Jesus is against lust leading to adultery here. Not every kind of sex or even physical attraction to a member of the opposite sex who is not married. You’ll encounter varied interpretations here I suspect.
        Brian S Rosner (JSTOR 1 Cor 6.12-20 Temple Prostitution) seems to think Paul’s audience engaged prostitutes outside foreign temples. The language is corporate and symbolic of worship. I’ll check out Thiselton. Thank you.
        Abraham is praised in the context of the passage I quoted. Abraham’s narrative depicts an instance where the product of his union with his concubine is seen as part of God’s blessing (because you have done this I will multiply your offspring). God never sins. Ever. If God is seen to be blessing Abraham through this union then how can be sin? ‘Not always normative’? God never sins. How could this ever be sin?
        Dt 22. Yes the man did not pay the father the bride price. Violation of his property rites over his daughter. However sexual sin is repeatedly given the death sentence in the law of Moses. Sin generally requires a sin or guilt offering. Neither is required here.
        Thanks for future links when you can. 🙂

      • In the longest version of Jesus’s teachings on marriage and divorce (Matt 19), the disciples say “well, maybe men shouldn’t get married.” Jesus says it’s not for everyone, but “some people become eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.” Taken in context, this is clearly a metaphor for abstaining from sex. Also, Derek’s point is that Jewish culture frowned on premarital sex and when Jesus pushes sexual ethics farther in every other case, it doesn’t make any sense to suppose would have been okay with fornication.

        1 Cor 6 talks about prostitution because that’s the kind of non-marital sex in which most people would have engaged at the time. Paul’s logic pretty clearly extends beyond that immediate situation, just like his statements on the believer’s conscience aren’t just limited to the particular case of idol meat. His point is that because sex is a profoundly unitive and self-giving two-become-one-flesh act, it should only take place within a lifelong commitment of unity. This line of thought picks up right from Genesis and Jesus, by the way. Shortly after he talks about getting married instead of burning with passion, which makes it especially clear he didn’t see non-marital sex as acceptable.

      • WashingJ:

        Where in the Ancient World was Pre-Marital Sex present and permitted? Why do we automatically assume the parameters of our tech that make sex non-procreative are good or just? And where in this conversation are questions of child-birth, familial ties, social existence, and fidelity? These are lacunae that need to be addressed before your argument assumes any mantle of credibility. As Joel said, you can take clobber texts up against the wall and gun them down, but you need to address the deeper themes and logics at work.

        cal

      • for washingj

        >Abraham is praised in the context of the passage I quoted. Abraham’s narrative depicts an instance where the product of his union with his concubine is seen as part of God’s blessing (because you have done this I will multiply your offspring). God never sins. Ever. If God is seen to be blessing Abraham through this union then how can be sin? ‘Not always normative’? God never sins. How could this ever be sin?

        Genesis 22 has nothing to do with hagar or ishmael. It’s all about the binding of Isaac. Why are you interpreting this as a divine sanctioning of hagar? Indeed in genesis the hagar events are shown to be bad. There’s the strong parallels with genesis 3 (a woman offering a man a gift, man putting himself under woman and accepting it), the nature of the act (a lack of faith in not trusting in God to provide a child – faith being the main emphasis in genesis), and finally the silence from God following the act for years (which in genesis is how God shows his approval/disapproval).

        >Dt 22. Yes the man did not pay the father the bride price. Violation of his property rites over his daughter. However sexual sin is repeatedly given the death sentence in the law of Moses. Sin generally requires a sin or guilt offering. Neither is required here.

        Just to readdress this. The verses you are referencing are about rape. 13-21 is about premarital sex. If there is evidence of it, the penalty is death. 22 is about consensual sex between a married woman and a man. The penalty is death. 23-24 is about consensual sex between a betrothed woman and a man. The penalty is death. 25-27 is about non-consensual sex between a betrothed woman and a man. The penalty for the man is death. 28-29 is about sex between an unbetrothed woman and a man. Now it might not be clear whether it’s consensual or not initially as there’s no mention of being in the city or the country (the test for consent, as there is a responsibility to cry out). However, there is language in the passage of being seized, and violated. So it doesn’t imply consent. And then you look back and realise every other case is covered. Premarital sex is already covered in v13-21, so this must be referring to rape.

    • >Dt 22.28-29 (Sex before marriage not requiring a sin offering).

      Wait – what about verses 13-21? Your verses specifically are referring to rape… 13-21 are the verses on pre-marital sex

      • The only reason I bristle against 28-29 being a case of rape is that the man is then instructed to take her as his wife. What is the difference in the language between ‘forcing’ her and ‘seizing’ her?

      • Cal

        The rape of Tamar by Amnon in 2 Samuel 13 is instructive here. Amnon forces himself on Tamar, despite much protest on her part. Then the bible says his love turned to hate and he sends her away. And to quote 2 Samuel 13:16:

        But she said to him, “No, my brother, for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other that you did to me.” But he would not listen to her.

        In her eyes not marrying her after that is more wronging her than raping her. The marriage is a matter of justice for the victim.

        I think it’s also helpful to read Ruth and see exactly what living husbandless for a woman at the time was like.

        I don’t know what you mean by seized and forced, but it’s worth pointing out the deception of the act in verse 25 (which is unambiguously rape) is the same as in verse 28

  2. Just out of curiosity, I checked to see where he is ministers. It’s Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, which describes itself as “a diverse, progressive, intergenerational, and queer affirming church in the Anglican tradition.” So, yeah, I wouldn’t expect a different answer. Heck, nearly all of the “moderate” mainline Prots that I know do not preach or teach against premarital sex.

    • One of the reasons I don’t find progressive reconstructions of homosexuality convincing is that they’re so squishy on sexual ethics as a whole. Maybe you can line up the “clobber passages” against the wall and shoot them one by one. But the New Testament consistently sees sexual morality and chastity as a mark of faithful Christian discipleship, and not just in Paul. So beyond inclusion of gays, what does the Christian sexual ethic actually look like, and does it have any difference at all from the contemporary ideals of consent and autonomy?

      A common response at this point is “Well, what about justice and helping the poor? And what about all these stupid things Republicans support?” However valid these things might be, it’s not an answer. In fact, the Bible frequently uses sexual immorality as a metaphor for injustice.

  3. Thank you Derek for writing this article. As someone engaged, and also talking with guys of varying ages and walks who struggle with this, this article is definitely something I’ll be using as a resource!

    However, one major presupposition that makes this discussion and debate so much more difficult is that we’ve swallowed particular cultural definitions of marriage. Victorian standards still rage and make marriage impossible and difficult for the poor. The sad thing is that many churches have propped up this definition, allowing cultural conservatism, instead of biblical admonition, to run the show.

    Maybe we need to get tough in some regards. Do we really need to spend so much money? Do we really need massive ceremonies? What happened to the allowance of ‘common-law’ definitions of marriage? In the Roman world, if you moved in with someone, the Census considered you married. Can we expose such realities? Maybe young men need to be told to put their professions and careers on hold, because faithfulness is more important.

    Fr. Elfert’s advice is terrible, deplorable, and irresponsible. But he’s attempting to navigate through a problem. Telling people (especially men) to just be disciplined and making sure people are “compatible” is not helping either. Paul admonitioned husbands and wives to love one and submit to one another in a culture of arranged and communal marriages. Our dating culture is a liberal acid-drip on mankind’s ability to remain sane. Courtship culture is equally toxic and reactionary. We need to get back to the notion that our church-community is our family and the warp-and-woof of our social existence.

    cal

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