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.)
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.