I have received many varied questions about romantic and premarital sexual activity in the past. What is biblically allowed? How far can we go? If a single man and a single woman are in love, what are they allowed to do, and what must they not do? The Church (especially the Roman Catholic Church) has greatly influenced the answers to these questions, even to the extent that their rules cover much more than what the Bible actually states. I’ve literally witnessed debates about these subjects that went on for hours with no consensus being reached. Why?
Well, the biggest problem in solving this dilemma is one that few people realize — the Bible does not address the subject. Yes, that is correct; it doesn’t mention rules about sex between two unmarried consenting individuals. And why is this? That answer is also not understood by many; it is because the act of sexual intercourse is, in itself, the marriage contract in God’s eyes. Think about that for a moment.
To God, marriage is not applying for a marriage license and having a pastor, priest, rabbi, or government official perform a ceremony — a marriage is really the mutual decision of a man and a woman to join together in a sexual union. The whole idea of marriage is to reunite the two parts of the human being that God originally divided in creating Eve from Adam. In marriage, the female and the male are reunited into a single unit and this undivided union then displays all aspects of God’s character. So, it is the personal act of sexual intercourse that creates a marriage, not some church or civil ceremony.
This is somewhat confusing to most, because having premarital intercourse is an oxymoron. How can you have premarital sexual intercourse, if intercourse is what makes you married in the first place? But in some places in this article, I’ll use the term anyway because the majority of people believe that the marriage is created in the church or civil ceremony.
Our Lord’s idea of marriage was implied in the Genesis account of Adam and Eve, but is also reinforced in the New Testament when Jesus said: “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6, NRSV).1
When I performed wedding ceremonies, I would often quote C. S. Lewis about ‘oneness’ in marriage.2 He said that the Christian idea of marriage is based on God’s words that a husband and wife are to be regarded as a single organism – for that is what the words “one flesh” would be in modern English. Christians believe that this is a fact, just as when one says that a lock with its key is one mechanism, or that a violin with its bow is one musical instrument. The inventor of the human machine was telling us, that its two halves, the male and the female, were made to be combined together in pairs, not simply on the sexual level, but totally combined in every aspect of life.3
So, with the basis of marriage in God’s eyes established, we can now focus upon examining love and what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, concerning romance and various sexual activities before marriage. Regardless of what I write, many people will have a differing opinion; I may lose some subscribers because of my comments. The best I can do is not only give my beliefs, but also provide related content from religious leaders, biblical commentators, and authors, as well as information from the Bible. Hopefully, this insight will help you establish your own comfortable position on this subject.
Although we will examine aspects from the Bible, we are not even going to consider ancient traditions and customs for guidance in our search. Our 21st century culture is far removed from the early examples displayed in the Bible. At that time, daughters had a monetary value and remained the property of their fathers. We no longer live in a patriarchal society where marriages were, many times, just business or political arrangements.
And one must keep in mind that the Old Testament is concerned most with the Mosaic Law, whereas the New Testament is concerned most with the teachings of Jesus Christ. Christ’s law is simpler in detail, but more complicated in application. Christ’s law not only follows the Ten Commandments, but explains that the whole law of Moses depends upon the commands to love as Jesus loves us. Our Lord said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17-18). In other words, we are no longer tied legally only to rules, but must please God and show his love to everyone.4
A Brief Overview of Love in the Greek Language
Explaining ‘love’ is difficult in the English language. We have only one word to express it in many different ways, whereas in Greek there are seven words, each with a slightly different meaning. Since the New Testament was written in Greek, we can discern the various meanings to help in understanding the intended expression. This article relates mostly to three of those Greek words for man-woman relationships, but if you are interested in learning about all seven of them, see the article titled “Love — First Mentioned Fruit of the Spirit” listed in References & Notes.5
The first Greek word is ludus, a playful love. “It’s the butterflies in your stomach, the quickened heartbeat, the anxiety you feel when you’re waiting for your love interest to walk through the door. It’s the flirting and teasing and playing you do in the early stages of dating. The focus is usually more on fun rather than building a relationship.” You will find plenty of this kind of love in the Bible book Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon).6
Ludus is an uncommitted love (usually not married or engaged) and it includes seducing, but the focus is on fun (or conquest) with no strings attached. These relationships can be long-lasting, but generally are just casual. Many people (especially the young) confuse ludus for erōs, so one-sided mistakes can occur, therefore this type of love works best when both parties are mature.7
The second Greek word is erōs (erotic), that romantic love devoted to arousal; that intense sexual passion or desire expressed between people who are partnered, either married or engaged.8 Interesting is that in the Hebrew scriptures, a symbol for erotic love is the Mandrake plant.9 (For further information about use of the Mandrake plants in the Bible, and other drugs used in ancient days, see the article titled “Drugs & Medicines in the Bible” listed in References & Notes.10)
And the third Greek word is pragma, meaning the practical love shared by husband and wife over a lifetime. This is a mature and enduring love that grows and gets stronger, rather than a sexual passion that may decline.11 It is derived from prassō, meaning to practice or perform repeatedly or habitually; to commit or keep.12
In a growing relationship between man and woman, first comes acquaintance and friendship, which can grow into ludus, then erōs, and eventually pragma. In reality however, an ongoing and lasting relationship can provide all three types of love — an ebb and flow, so to speak — each at different times and intermixed throughout their life journey.
What is Fornication?
Before medical and drug technology produced the birth control pill, there was always a high probability of sexual intercourse leading to pregnancy. The Church taught and controlled their flock with strict rules to avoid such problems; they preached that any sexual activities before marriage is a sin. But if an out-of-wedlock pregnancy did occur, there was an avenue prepared to bring everything back into conformity. Since abortion was a sin and having a baby out of wedlock was also a sin, the only appropriate avenue was to legally get married.
In our modern world, there are now ways to have intercourse but avoid pregnancies, the most popular being the birth control pill. Although very helpful for married couples to use in planning their families (or planning to not have a family), it has provided people the freedom to have sexual relations without marriage and still have no fear of producing children. Since early marriage is the number one predictor of divorce, young people can avoid that disastrous thought, which would make them a part of the statistics.13 The ‘pill’ has actually decreased marriages in general.
Even so, most Christian churches continue to preach that premarital sex is a sin, for they can still control some, if not most of their congregation, in that area. So, when a pastor says to me “sex before marriage is a sin,” I sometimes ask, “Okay, can you show me the scripture to backup your claim?” They can’t, so they always point to several Bible references describing fornication as a sin. But is that the same thing?
As far as God’s word goes, the Bible does speak of sexual morality. For instance, Jesus said, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person” (Mark 7:20b-23).
There are two terms in this scripture that directly have to do with sinful sexual activity. First is adultery, which in general terms is forbidden by the seventh commandment (Exodus 20:14). It usually denotes sexual intercourse of a married woman with any other man than her husband, or of a married man with any other than his wife. And the second term is fornication, which is the usual term that currently is interpreted as a catchall phrase for several popular sex-related activities at odds with church opinion, including premarital sex.
Originally, fornication meant prostitution in the Old Testament,14 but was also frequently used symbolically as forsaking God and following after idols.15 (An interesting side note is that while prostitution was considered an unforgivable evil in the Hebrew scriptures, in the New Testament Jesus went against Jewish tradition and forgave prostitutes which opened the way for them to enter God’s kingdom through faith [Matthew 21:31-32; Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25].16)
Later, illicit sex — sometimes translated as fornication — included sex with a blood relative, another’s wife, or with a menstruating woman (Leviticus 18:1-30), as well as homosexual relations and prostitution.17 The most common term translated as fornication in the New Testament is the Greek porneia, and its related forms pornos and porneuo (the term ‘pornography’ derives from these Greek words). These words are many times translated into English as meaning fornicator or sexually immoral, but the term really refers to a man who engages in copulation with a porne, or female prostitute.18 As one commentator stated, fornication implied being unfaithful to a marriage commitment and usually meant prostitution (Judges 19:2).19 Therefore it is important to understand, fornication is not biblically applicable to premarital sex.
What can we do before marriage?
In light of this information, what should be allowed an unmarried couple in the way of consensual romantic advances? We are talking about mature adults, not possible indiscretions of inexperienced youth, who may be just testing the waters because of newly discovered surging hormones. That is a completely separate issue and should be directed/restricted by loving parents, until their children have reached maturity.
As acquaintances turn into friendships and both parties feel comfortable in the presence of each other, and there appears to be a sharing of similar societal and religious beliefs, there is no reason not to sit close, hold hands, hug, and kiss. If the couple wishes their relationship to advance further than this, they must be mature enough to know the difference between ludus and erōs. As they transition between them, they must have the strength to bridle their passion and desire, for those are very strong forces. Remember, in God’s eyes, once intercourse occurs, they are no longer single individuals, but a married couple.
Unlike the lower animals, God has given humankind the ability to act contrary to our desires. In the New Testament, the Corinthians were confused about their standing in Christ and Paul preached that their new freedom did not mean they could sin with impunity. He explained that the temptations that seized them were like those that all people always face. But they could be met and endured or rejected by depending upon God.20
The Corinthian’s problem was that in the face of temptation, many were not looking for a way out, but for a way in to partake of an indulgence. Paul told them, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).21
Self-control in response to one’s sexual desires, Paul taught, could and must be learned. One avoids sexual immorality by learning how to control their own body with its passions. Christians cannot be victims of circumstances or of their fleshly passions. Sexual desire can be controlled by the Christian through God’s power.22
Physical and emotional intimacy is considered an important aspect by couples once they reach a threshold of trust and understanding with each other.23 But there are ways to learn sexual opinions and preferences from your partner without physically making love through copulation. Honest conversation is one way; discussing these topics will give you deep insight into your partner’s feelings and comfort zone. If you can’t bring yourself to talk about it, you may not, yet, be ready for a marriage commitment.
But physically sharing amorous fondling and caressing (petting) or reciprocal masturbation, and oral sex (cunnilingus, fellatio) if you are so inclined, are other ways to learn, too. You will become more comfortable through repeated activity.
This would be the last step in any compatibility testing and, I would imagine, there should be a cooling off period before making any final leap to consummating your marriage with copulation, for it will be a lifetime commitment. You know, “until death do us part” and all that stuff. Also, be aware that your journey may not be a smooth one. Stress from the pressure to please your partner may cause one or the other (or both of you) to faultier at first.
So, with all this in mind, what is my opinion of so-called premarital sexual intercourse — is it a sin? (1) Yes, it is a sin if your only interest in sex before marriage is to pleasure yourself and have a fun time — you know, like a ‘one night stand’. (2) No, it is not a sin if both of you are serious enough in your relationship that you have decided to pursue marriage with the possibility of becoming husband and wife for life. In that case, having complete intercourse would seal that biblical contract and join you (for life) with your chosen mate. You need not have any guilt or shame, for this is a sacred/holy event between you, your partner, and God.
In our modern world, sometime after that loving event, it would be logical to apply for that marriage license and have a ceremony. That way you will have the legal protection that a government documented marriage affords. The fact that you were already married through a private act (just you, your spouse, and God) can be kept private, if you wish. By then you deserve to celebrate, so have a party after the ceremony and share your joy with friends and family.
But what if it doesn’t work out?
What if a couple are sincere about marriage, have sexual intercourse, then decide not to stay joined? In God’s eyes that is not possible, unless one of the marriage partners has committed sexual immorality of some sort, then a divorce is allowed. Jesus said, “I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery — unless his wife has been unfaithful” (Matthew 19:9, NLT).24
In today’s world, where women have full divorce rights, that would probably read “whoever divorces their spouse and marries someone else commits adultery, unless the other spouse has been unfaithful.” But, that doesn’t mean they can’t have a marriage separation. And with enough time, one estranged partner may very well provide a reason for proper divorce.
What if you really screw-up and divorce anyway? Well, God does forgive any sin if a person sincerely repents. Truly repent and confess your sin to God and ask him to forgive you for your error, but remember God knows what is in your heart. “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). That is a very powerful gift.
There is so much more that could be added to this treatise, but it is way too long already. To get more information, just use the references to dig deeper. However, I must add these few comments. This article isn’t meant to influence any denominational rules, regulations, or opinions, and I’m not out to forcibly change anyone’s mind. It was written only to present biblical evidence and logic, and I’ve attached some of my personal opinions concerning questions I have received (and continue to receive) about what the Bible has to say about romance, love, and sex.
I realize most of what I write is contrary to popular current denominational thought and you had, most likely, never heard these opinions taught in any church. I welcome comments, one way or the other. I pray that my perspective will be helpful in choosing a comfortable level of acceptance for pre-marriage romantic behavior. In any case, pray to our Lord for guidance, if in doubt.
I’d like to suggest two articles I have written that may help shed more light on the subject. One is “Love — First Mentioned Fruit of the Spirit” which is already referenced at the end of this article. And the other is “Romance, Passionate Love, Sexual Pleasures—What Does the Bible Say?” which I have listed in References & Notes.25
For a music video relative to this article, I’ve chosen the contemporary Gospel love/wedding song “Carry You Through” featuring Jade and Adriana Wales. It was filmed in Brisbane, Australia. Selected lyrics are below and a link to the music video is listed in References & Notes.26
The seasons come and go
But my love for you does flow
And by the grace of God
Who gave his life
To you, I give my own
When the sun is shining
When the leaves are falling
When the winter comes
I’ll carry you through
Our springtime love
Copyright © 2022, Dr. Ray Hermann
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References & Notes
- Unless otherwise stated, all scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989). Used with permission.
- Lewis, C. S., Mere Christianity, (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1952), chapter 6, p. 95.
- Hermann, Ray, “Did God Really Make Eve from Adam’s Rib?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 23 December 2018), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/did-god-really-make-eve-from-adams-rib/
- Houdmann, S. Michael, “Is the law of Christ different from the law of Moses? If so, what is the law of Christ?” (Compelling Truth, Got Questions Organization, retrieved 11 August 2022), https://www.compellingtruth.org/law-of-Christ.html
- Hermann, Ray, “Love — First Mentioned Fruit of the Spirit”, (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 24 February 2021), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/love-first-mentioned-fruit-of-the-spirit/
- “The 7 Types of Love in the Bible”, (Steppes of Faith, 18 February 2020), https://medium.com/@steppesoffaith_56895/the-7-types-of-love-in-the-bible-71dfc57b6d7b
- Burton, Neel, “These Are the 7 Types of Love”, (Psychology Today, 25 June 2016), https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201606/these-are-the-7-types-love
- Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
- The NET Bible First Edition Notes, [New English Translation], (Nashville, TN: Biblical Studies Press, 2006), Song of Solomon 7:11–13.
- Hermann, Ray, “Drugs & Medicines in the Bible: Are they Related to Witchcraft & Sorcery? — and What about Those Miracles?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 28 January 2020), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/drugs-medicines-in-the-bible-are-they-related-to-witchcraft-sorcery-and-what-about-those-miracles/
- “The 7 Types of Love in the Bible”, (Steppes of Faith, 18 February 2020), see above.
- prassō: Strong’s Greek #4238.
Strong, James, The New Strong’s Complete Dictionary of Bible Words, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1996).
- Regnerus, Mark, “The Case for Early Marriage: Amid Our Purity Pledges and Attempts to Make Chastity Hip, We Forgot to Teach Young Christians How to Tie the Knot”, (Christianity Today Magazine, 2009, vol. 53, no. 8, p. 25.
- Poucher, John, in A Dictionary of the Bible: Dealing with Its Language, Literature, and Contents Including the Biblical Theology, (Ed.) James Hastings, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1911–1912), vol. 1, pp. 520-521.
- Easton, M. G., Illustrated Bible Dictionary and Treasury of Biblical History, Biography, Geography, Doctrine, and Literature, (New York: Thomas Nelson, 1893), p. 265.
- Hardin, Gary, in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Eds.) Chad Brand, et al., (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), p. 597.
- Fröhlich, Ida, in The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, (Eds.) Angela Kim Harkins, et al.(Minneapolis, IN, Fortress Press, 2014), p. 15.
- Harrison, R. K., in Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, (Ed.) Walter A. Elwell, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1996), p. 370.
- Hardin, Gary, in Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, see above.
- Lowery, David K., in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (Eds.) Walvoord and Zuck, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), vol. 2, p. 527.
- Constable, Thomas L., in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, (see above), vol. 2, p. 701.
- Pace, Rachael, “Is Sex Before Marriage a Sin?” (Marriage.com, 28 December 2021), https://www.marriage.com/advice/physical-intimacy/premarital-sex/
- Holy Bible: New Living Translation, (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2015). Used with permission.
- Hermann, Ray, “Romance, Passionate Love, Sexual Pleasures—What Does the Bible Say?” (The Outlaw Bible Student, OBS, 16 July 2019), https://outlawbiblestudent.org/romance-passionate-love-sexual-pleasures-what-does-the-bible-say/
- “Carry You Through”, Artist: Jade Wales, featuring Adriana Wales; (published by One Glory, 2017; no copyright or licenses listed). Used under ‘fair use copyright’ for teaching under Section 107 of United States Copyright Act of 1976 — MUSIC VIDEO: https://youtu.be/_KiPzwgZUdE