Q&R with Brad – “Is sex before marriage a sin?”


I have a question. Is sex before marriage a sin? It seems it is best to wait considering the risks. But, the Bible isn’t clear on this. The word fornication comes from the Greek word, porneia which means whoredom, harlotry, idolatry, and selling off sexual purity, or marital unfaithfulness (adultery). However, what about in committed relationships where people are not married?


This is such a poignant question in this sex-positive, post-“purity culture” era. It seems like a risky question to address … almost a lose-lose as we straddle 21st-century reality and yet hope to stay anchored to some sort of sex ethic that says more than “anything goes.” I will dare a few tentative contributions by way of response.

As you point out, it’s not quite so simple as “the Bible says so.” We might start by recognizing God’s default intent in these words of Jesus Christ (citing Genesis 2:24): “For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:5).

If we read Jesus’ description carefully, it doesn’t align exactly with Western cultural norms. Weddings were celebrated (John 2), and seem to have been a community event. But the idea of a state wedding license or a religious church wedding would only arise much later (probably centuries later). The actual words that Jesus quotes from the Torah only require (1) leaving parents and (2) joining a spouse (however you did that, depending on the particular region and culture.

By the time the Torah was written, the Hebrew culture also included “certificates of divorce,” which implies some sort of formal recognition of a legally binding marriage covenant. Likely, marriage at that time consisted of two or more people who (1) cohabited, (2) had a sexual relationship, which (3) established the conditions for a household/family. Sexual activity outside those parameters was probably seen as irregular (maybe fornication? … certainly grounds for divorce or stoning). We should add that Torah law also saw unfaithfulness as a metaphor for and slippery slope toward idolatry, which normally made inter-tribal marriage taboo under that law (yet see the story of Ruth!).

On first reading, Jesus seems more conservative than most Evangelicals in his interpretation of the Law concerning divorce and remarriage … the spirit of his strong warnings is likely that he saw how some men used loopholes in the law to justify serial adultery. If you used Moses’ laws of divorce just to trade your wife in for a new model, Jesus says you’ve missed the heart of the matter. Elsewhere, Paul warns the Corinthians against sexual “joining” outside of marriage (casual or transactional), as with pagan temple prostitutes or the port city sex workers.

I say all this to emphasize that the Bible is not a univocal legal textbook that is easily transposed to our culture. In my nation (Canada), not all churches recognize all state-sanctioned marriages. For example, the state holds “common law” couples to specific marital responsibilities after cohabiting for one year, without any wedding, state or civil. It’s complicated!

But rather than doubling down on legalistic fences OR throwing up our hands in defeat to promiscuity, might we apply some Christian principles to marriage and sexuality in terms of a foundation? This can’t be done in the confines of a blog, but here are some puzzle pieces that might contribute to the conversation:

First, could we agree as Jesus-followers that our relationships (including sexual relationships) should be respectful, responsible, and relational? This says much more than the common free-for-all described as “mutual consent.” In fact, these are very high standards that escape many heterosexual marriage beds, but I would think they comprise a Christlike approach to sexuality. They also pose important questions to those who describe themselves in a “committed relationship”: how committed? Enough to share all that you own? Enough to make choices together? Enough to have children? And so on.

Second, could we agree as Christ-followers that marriage does include cohabitation with a partner where, when sex is possible, also may create the conditions for a family (even if they cannot or do not have a child, or if they opt for adoption)? That is, the default model for marriage (acknowledging real exceptions) will include cohabitation and sexual intimacy … and that as Christ-followers, this will include a commitment to faithfulness.

Third, could we agree as Christ-followers that a marriage covenant is the best context in which to practice respectful, relational, responsible sexuality and that faithfulness to that covenant is prophetic imagery that God has chosen to reveal his covenant love toward us?

Given these ideals, are there exceptions that diverge from Jesus’ default description? And how do we regard these exceptions?

Here’s a surprise: God himself is an exception! In the Hebrew prophetic tradition, we are told that God is a jealous husband, abhors the idolatry of his people, and hates divorce. On the other hand, Jeremiah tells us that God in fact had two wives (Judea and Samaria) and that he had divorced them (a picture of the exile) but that he would also establish a new covenant (second marriage) with his people in which the whole world could be grafted in. This is comforting for those who have gone through the deep grief of divorce … God knows just how you feel. But within the chaos of bereaving a broken relationship or wayward spouse who gave herself to harlotry (Hosea), God’s response is grace and reconciliation, even before she returns. In other words, God’s response to sexual and marital brokenness is not condemnation nor even just ‘conceding to sin,’ but goes further to extend the scandalous grace that transcends the law.

Now to the original question: is sex before marriage “a sin”? Having come to some tentative conclusions about what constitutes a default marriage, and more than that, healthy Christ-following sexuality, we can now ask about exceptions. When we engage in sex outside those boundaries, is it “sin”? (And remember, even married couples operate outside of respectful, responsible, relational sex INSIDE their marriage) … If sin is missing that Christlike mark, the answer is “Well, of course! In fact, all have sinned, haven’t we?” In other words, acknowledging imperfection is not an admission that we are lowly pieces of sh*t, unworthy of love, rejected by God. Rather, it’s another invitation to God’s lovingkindness and mercy.

If we can concede that God’s intent for sexuality was to “house” it inside of a marriage covenant, then the fact that many of us were sexually active prior to such a commitment is not solved by condemnation and shame NOR is it to wash away healthy boundaries. Rather, the first steps seem to be:

(1) to honestly address how or why we’ve transgressed the more Christlike Way,
(2) assure one another that grace transcends our missteps, and then
(3) invite one another onto a redemptive path toward healthier sexual practices.

In other words, the Christlike parameters of love and marriage are not laws to be obeyed “just because God said so.” They describe God’s path to human flourishing to which we’re graciously invited. And when we step outside the bounds of sexual wholeness, God responds, “When you see how cold it is out there, step back inside.” And in my experience, the sooner the better, given the risk and range of damage we see “outside” and the deeper, higher love available “inside.”  

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