Flee fornication. Every sin that a man
doeth is without the body; but he that committeth
fornication sinneth against his own body. —1 Corinthians 6:18 (KJV)
This, and scripture like it, is the gold standard of the church's teaching regarding celibacy before marriage. Here is the same verse in context:
Your bodies are created with the same dignity as the Master's body. You wouldn't take the Master's body off to a whorehouse, would you? I should hope not. There's more to sex than mere skin on skin. Sex is as much spiritual mystery as physical fact. As written in Scripture, "The two become one." Since we want to become spiritually one with the Master, we must not pursue the kind of sex that avoids commitment and intimacy, leaving us more lonely than ever - the kind of sex that can never "become one." There is a sense in which sexual sins are different from all others. In sexual sin we violate the sacredness of our own bodies, these bodies that were made for God-given and God-modeled love, for "becoming one" with another. Or didn't you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? Don't you see that you can't live however you please, squandering what God paid such a high price for? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body. —1 Corinthians 6:15-20 (The Message)
The Apostle Paul, in the above passage from I Corinthians, is
trying to explain to the new converts in Corinth why the routine
practice of hetero and homosexual intercourse with prostitutes
working at Corinth’s temple of Aphrodite violated not only their
relationship with the one true God in Jesus Christ, but violated
their own selves. During the Roman period the temple had more
than a thousand sacred slave-prostitutes, many of them young
girls dedicated to Aphrodite by their fathers or slave-owners.
In this passage, Paul does not mention marriage, neither is he
condoning casual, uncommitted sex or sex, in general terms,
outside the covenant of marriage. He is speaking to a specific
group of people who lived in a specific place at a specific time
about specific behavior—having sex with temple prostitutes. This is
true of virtually all of Paul's writing. None of it should be taken
at face value, as global or universal instruction, but rather it should
be studied and placed in proper historical and biblical context in
order to know not only what Paul said but why he said it, to whom
he was speaking, where that person was, and what was going on at the time.
I imagine most black churches today use I Corinthians 6 (“flee fornication”) and other passages like it, mostly written by Paul, as a foundation for our doctrine of celibacy before marriage. They use the word “fornication” in its Catholic (universal), modern etymology to mean any and all sex before marriage, which was not how the word was used in the archaic text. Much like the word “knew,” which, in biblical times meant, “had sex with,” the word “fornication” meant primarily sexual violations of the Levitical Holiness Code, where the word “fornication” is found in more than a dozen iterations to mean specific sexual behavior condemned by God (and, yes, there’s a list). If God meant “any and all sex before marriage,” He would surely have said so. But the bible never says that, anywhere in it. The church says that, as a doctrinal conclusion. I have no argument with the conclusion itself, but I maintain the church’s rationale for the conclusion is faulty. It is taking scripture out of context and putting words in God’s mouth by equating Paul’s pastoral teaching with the unequivocal Word of God, which by the bible’s own testimony, Paul’s writings are not (I Corinthians 7:SCR). This misappropriation of scripture also deprives us of the privilege of making a sacrifice of ourselves to God (Romans 12:1-2) by insisting celibacy is God’s standard, rather than our gift back to Him. Proper doctrine teaches us God’s standard is not celibacy. God’s standard is Holiness. In that context, what we do or don’t do with our bodies matters a great deal, and it refocuses the debate into a more coherent, Kingdom view of human sexuality.
The rule, as everybody knows, is No Sex Until Marriage. Nothing I say here is intended to undermine or eliminate The Rule but to better and hopefully more accurately explain the scriptural intent and provide a better rationale for Christian celibacy than our simple Doctrine of Assumption. Most of us have no idea whatsoever why The Rule exists, only that it does and, if we violate it, we are going to Hell. That is precisely what I was taught. No one opened a bible, no one showed me a scripture, no one explained why God insisted on celibacy before marriage—something He never asked of Adam and Eve or anyone else in the bible. They just wagged a finger at me, warning, if I had sex and died in my sin I would go to hell. Well, guess what? I had sex. We all did. And many if not most if not all of us suffered tremendous guilt and fear and even stigma around that choice. Not because of anything the bible actually said but because of Stuff We Done Heard Someplace.
In Matthew 19:11-12 Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Those who can. That is a long way from a command or a Law. Some scholars accept this as a commandment to celibacy for unmarried persons. Others see this as Jesus describing sexual abstinence as a precious gift we can offer God, “…for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
In I Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul spoke about marriage and celibacy. It is a much different tone and carried a much different intent from the previous chapter about prostitutes. To Paul, marriage was a social obligation that had the potential of distracting from Christ. For him, celibacy was the single life, free from such distraction, not a life of saintly denial. Sex, in turn, is not sinful but natural, and sex within marriage is both proper and necessary.
“Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.” —I Corinthians 7:1-2 While not making a specific statement or commandment, Paul is clearly referring to sexual relations only within the covenant of marriage (which, in biblical times, included multiple wives and concubines). He is also speaking in monogamous terms—not “his own wives” but “his own wife,” which represents a paradigm shift in terms of Jewish tradition. There is no reference to polygamy in the New Testament, which leads many scholars to suggest the practice had been discontinued by the coming of Jesus. However, polygamy in Judaism was still being practiced as late as 212 A.D., when the lex Antoniana de civitate gave the rights of Roman Citizenship to great numbers of Jews, and it was found necessary to tolerate polygamy among them.
Jesus taught a rather sexist Parable of the Ten Virgins, which is about one bridegroom and ten virgins. [Matt 25:1–13] This has been interpreted by some Christian sects as a plural marriage. Indeed, copyists of the New Testament manuscripts added “and bride” to a number of manuscripts at the end of Matthew 25:1, presumably because they were disturbed by the implications. However, knowing that women in Antiquity often carried out public functions as a group, it is possible that the virgins are the bridesmaids. Even so, no single bride is mentioned in the story and the group of ten virgins are acting in reference to a single groom and not to a single bride.
Catholicism defines chastity as the virtue that moderates the
sexual appetite. Unmarried Catholics express chastity through
sexual abstinence. The view of the Church is that celibacy is a
reflection of life in Heaven, a source of detachment from the
material world which aids in one's relationship with God.
My argument, here, is to reframe the discussion from one of legalism (this is God’s Law, violate it and you die) to one of proper doctrine (we should remain pure so we can please God and serve Him effectively).