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Sex & The Single Christian

Choices That Can Change Your Life

What The Bible Doesn't Say

Despite what you done heard someplace, what you assume or what your mother taught you, the bible never says, anywhere, that sex outside of marriage is wrong. Nowhere in the bible is that concept even modeled. It was simply understood: sex outside of marriage could get you killed. Men could defile themselves simply by touching a woman during her menstrual cycle. Since they had no way of knowing when a woman was menstruating, Jewish men tended to never touch women at all under any circumstances. While I imagine it did, in fact, go on, the notion of a romantic episode between unmarried people was culturally unthinkable. It is likely the Levitical code omits a specific, global declaration on sex between unmarried people simply because it was presumed to be understood. There is no instruction, after all, in my car's owners manual that says the right pedal is for "go" and the left for "stop." It is presumed that, if you are buying a car, that you know how to drive.

Thus, the word fornication, "sexual impurity," was never used generically the way we use it—to mean only and exclusively sex outside of marriage. Taken in proper context, the word is used in scripture to describe specific behavior. In biblical times, sex took place outside of marriage all the time. Within the Law, men could do pretty much what they wanted sexually, while women were held to a certain standard of purity. Girls married at around fourteen, their sexual awakening often if not usually occurring at the hands of some thirty-ish man she met for the first time on her wedding day. If a girl given in marriage was discovered to not, in fact, be a virgin (i.e. no bleeding, broken hymen, which can happen climbing trees and doing chores), the Law required she be returned to the door of her father's house and there the men of the town shall stone her—a child of fourteen or fifteen— to death [Deu 22:13-30]. And, mind you, this was done solely and completely on the husband's word. It was quite possible for a man, his lust having been satiated on his wedding night, to experience buyer's remorse (or believe she wasn't worth the money he paid in dowry), and return the girl to her father, claiming she was not a virgin. The groom got his money back, the girl got killed. This is the bible.

Rape was punishable by a fine of fifty pieces of silver paid to the girl's father [Deuteronomy 22:28-29]. There are numerous examples of Israelites forcibly taking virgin daughters (presumably twelve to fourteen years of age) of slaughtered peoples as "wives" [Judges 21:10-24], which kept what was certainly a traumatizing sex act upon a child within the covenant of marriage—something we'd hang soldiers for doing today. Moses gave captured Midianite virgins to his men [Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves. —Numbers 3:17-18 NLT]. Men practiced polygamy. While being ceremonially clean, a man could marry as many women as he could afford. He could take women as concubines, having limited obligations to them as they existed mainly to perform a sexual service. These men had religion, and they followed the rules of that religion precisely. And this nonsense is the law people today are afraid of, the thing they allow to separate themselves from God.

Abraham, the father of nations, slept with his maid and God didn’t condemn him but rather chastised Sarah, Abraham’s wife, for doubting Him [Genesis 18:13-15]. Lot offered his presumably early-teen virgin daughters to an angry mob to "do what you like with them," [Genesis 19:8] and later had sex with them himself [v.33-38], yet was considered righteous [2 Peter 2:7]. King David’s sin was not having sex with Bathsheba, but with committing adultery with another man’s wife. King Solomon had 700 wives and 300 girlfriends (concubines) outside of those relationships. And he is considered the wisest man who ever lived, blessed by God. This notion that God will strike us dead for having sex outside of marriage is completely manufactured: there simply is no scriptural foundation for it.

The Word of Paul

The commandments given Moses by God dealt mainly with selfishness. The Apostle Paul does, however, warn us to not have fornication named among us [Ephesians 5:3], which brings up areas important to understanding biblical teaching on sex. First: we must know the difference between the Word of God and the word of Paul. I have no doubt Paul’s words were inspired by God, but it is critical to understand Paul’s teachings, while universal and useful to the body of Christ, were said at specific times to specific churches concerning matters specific to those churches. The Ten Commandments, as delivered by Moses, had an unambiguous authorship and chain of custody: these were the words of Almighty God. Paul's letters, while certainly God-breathed, are Paul's words, Paul's teachings, often transcribed by others and subject to interpretation and debate. Paul's words cannot and must not be received at face value, but only in their proper historical and theological context. It is the brain-dead mainstreaming and universal application of ancient letters that transform the bible into an oppressive tome, burying God's people in the opinion of a cranky itinerant deacon.

Paul is not God. Does not claim to be God. Does not claim to speak for God. Over and over, Paul claims ownership of his words and his opinions. And, while he wishes all men were just like him [I Cor 7:7], he accepts different people are at different levels of spirituality.

It is the words of Paul, not God, that most oppressed women and, for centuries, blacks and other minorities. The context is also vital to understanding what Paul is saying and to whom. In 1 Corinthians 5, he is talking about incest. In Romans and other places he is talking about sex with prostitutes. It is important to study, beloved. To not only know what those words say but to know what those words mean. Too often, in our belief system, we Church Folk become Quotologists—quoting scripture all over the place without understanding the context in which those words were written.

The second thing we need to do is parse what the word “fornication” means. We find this word mainly in the King James versions of the bible, the version the majority of black churches continue to cling to despite there now being a wide variety of modern translations available. In my experience, black churches not only eschew translations other than the Authorized King James, they tend to read the KJV with a literal sense, misinterpreting the meaning of scripture by applying modern meaning to archaic phrases (i.e. Abraham knew his wife...). The KJV was largely translated from the Greek, those translators routinely using the (at the time) modern word "fornication" as a kind of universal catchall for a variety of bad behavior.

This is something I've struggled with for some time because I don't want to parrot the conservative party line about this, but saying things like "The bible doesn't say sex outside of marriage is wrong" can get a pastor beat up. People tend to stop listening beyond a statement like that, assuming you to be some kind of nut because they all know the bible surely does say sex outside of marriage is a sin, and these people—many of whom are on the celibacy seesaw—would rather cling to stuff they done heard someplace than spend even a few paragraphs examining it. The closest the bible comes to speaking on the matter is the word "fornication," which has become so commonly associated with sex outside of marriage that the word is almost never defined anymore. It's just dropped into discussions and definitions, taken at face value and never examined in any real context. And the bible's references to fornication are, likewise, not examined for their context. Which is typical of Christian instruction on sex: to not look too deeply at scripture but rather just kind of swallow it without chewing. Limiting the word fornication to mean only and exclusively sex outside of marriage is a perversion of scriptural intent:

From Strongs Concordance #4202, 4203, 4204, & 4205:

Greek4202. porneia, por-ni'-ah; from Grk4203;
harlotry (includ. adultery and incest); fig. idolatry:-fornication.

Greek4203. porneuo, porn-yoo'-o; from Grk4204;
to act the harlot, i.e. (lit.) indulge unlawful lust (of either sex), or (fig.) practise idolatry:-commit (fornication)

Greek4204. porne, por'-nay; fem. of Grk4205;
a strumpet; fig. an idolater:-harlot, whore

Greek4205. pornos, por'-nos;
from pernemi (to sell; akin to the base of Grk4097); a (male) prostitute (as venal), i.e. (by anal.) a debauchee (libertine):-fornicator, whoremonger

Hebrew2181. zanah, zaw-naw';
a prim. root [highly fed and therefore wanton]; to commit adultery (usually of the female, and less often of simple fornication, rarely of involuntary ravishment); fig. to commit idolatry (the Jewish people being regarded as the spouse of Jehovah):-(cause to) commit fornication, X continually, X great, (be an, play the) harlot, (cause to be, play the) whore, (commit, fall to) whoredom, (cause to) go a-whoring, whorish.

Neither Greek nor Hebrew translations of instances of this word suggest this sin is committed by single persons only. As a result, most modern translations use the phrase “sexual impurity” or “sexual immorality” in place of the less-accurate "fornication."

fornication (Modern Etymology)
c.1300, from O.Fr. fornication, from L.L. fornicationem (nom. fornicatio), from fornicari "fornicate," from L. fornix (gen. fornicis) "brothel," originally "arch, vaulted chamber" (Roman prostitutes commonly solicited from under the arches of certain buildings), from fornus "oven of arched or domed shape." Strictly, "voluntary sex between an unmarried man and an unmarried woman;" extended in the Bible to adultery.

Note, even without parsing the word, there's no global thou shalt not commit fornication command in scripture. Rather, there are lists of types of sexual immorality that are forbidden, something that would not be necessary if there were a simple law: No Sex With Anyone You Are Not Married To. This is a law our churches (allegedly) practice and enforce, but it a rule created during the Middle Ages by the Catholic church. Christian doctrine of premarital chastity—which precludes biblical norms like concubines and multiple wives—is largely a product of Catholicism’s adoption of The Seven Heavenly Virtues, a kind of counter to the Seven Deadly Sins. These virtues (chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility) were derived from the Psychomachia (“Contest of the Soul”), an epic poem written by Aurelius Clemens Prudentius (c. AD 410, and, hence, the Old French word prode, from which we derive our modern English word “prude”) entailing the battle of good virtues and evil vices. The intense popularity of this work in the Middle Ages helped to spread the concept of holy virtue throughout Europe. Practicing these virtues is considered to protect one against temptation from the seven deadly sins, with each one having its counterpart. Due to this they are sometimes referred to as The Contrary Virtues. Each of the seven heavenly virtues matches a corresponding deadly sin (Wikipedia).

The Seven Heavenly Virtues are derived from a play and should not be confused with scripture, although, in the New Testament (Post-Roman) era, there is an unquestionable presumption that sex before marriage is not only wrong but grievously so. Rightly interpreting the scriptures, however, there is no smoking gun: no global and unambiguous Thou Shalt Not Hit It. Celibacy before marriage, as we (allegedly) teach it, is a doctrinal conclusion. Our church, today, practices this rule while (to my hearing) almost never preaching about it or explaining its origin or scriptural context in any way. Our church tradition largely coasts along on a doctrine of assumption, assuming Everybody Knows The Rule while never explicitly teaching it. What little teaching on celibacy goes on usually involves the teacher using the word "fornication" incorrectly as a catch-all to mean any and all sex outside of marriage, and applying that modern re-defining of the word to archaic scripture, which warps the actual meaning of Paul's letters.

What little I've ever been taught, in 52 years in the black church, on Christian sexual conduct has been based on giving Paul's teaching a broad-based generic universality, which is both ignorant and stupid. As I've mentioned here many times, Paul was not Moses. Paul's words were not written to the air, to the general populace, to whosoever will. Moses' words had universal application. Paul, on the other hand, was always talking to somebody about something going on at some specific time when some specific business was happening at a specific place. Reading the Pauline Epistles is a lot like walking in during the middle of a movie or opening someone else's mail; you have to know who he was talking to, where they were at at the time, and what was going on in that place at that time.  But that's not what we do. Without giving Paul's words even minimal historical context, we simply take them at face value and presume he was talking to us. Beloved, write this down someplace: Paul Was Not Talking To Us. Paul would have no way of knowing what our specific set of circumstances are. We learn from and are guided by Paul's writings only when we study the actual who-what-when-where of his purposes for writing, and only if we apply the proper meaning to those words--words like fornication--and not force our 2013 modernism on them.

Teaching people the word "fornication," in the bible, means "(any and all) premarital sex" is just as bad as interpreting, "And Abraham knew his wife Sarah..." to mean the two were acquainted. We have, of course, redefined the word "knew" and thousands of other words, but when addressing scripture, we apply "knew" in its proper context, something we do not do with the word "fornication," to which we universally apply a modern definition even though we know it was used in scripture in its original archaic form. This practice is a selective manipulation of scripture, a doctrine used to define scripture instead of the other way around. The actual defining of biblical sexual conduct is much more complex.

Understanding and teaching what the bible actually has to say on these matters is a lot tougher and more complex than simply using the inaccurate lie No Sex With Anyone You Are Not Married To, behavior that was neither practiced nor modeled in scripture, though, certain prohibitions, limits, and cultural accretions were in fact recognized and written into the Law. In the bible, every instance of the use of the word "fornication" relates to specific practices and specific kinds of sexual immorality. The word is never used as a generic catchall.

Beyond that, we’re not talking about screwing or not screwing but giving or not giving ourselves to God. God does not demand celibacy; He desires purity, which is impossible to achieve if you’re giving up the drawers willy-nilly. In our Christian walk, we are not actually talking about celibacy but chastity—a rejection of lust and impure thoughts and deeds. Chastity helps us purify ourselves and moves us closer to God in a way celibacy, in and of itself, simply cannot. Celibacy is functional: stop screwing. Chastity is transformational, born of a desire to see and know and please God.

A Question of Morality: Morality is subjective. God's word is not. Celibacy is not God's standard: Holiness is. The real question is, what do you want out of your relationship with God? How do you integrate your unmarried sex life into that relationship?

Sexual Morality

The term "sexual immorality," substituted in most modern translations, presents a different problem. Immorality suggests a moral standard. A moral standard, by definition, is subject to terms and conditions of the society to which that standard applies. The only way to judge something immoral is to test it against a moral standard, which is where this question of sex becomes even more confused. Sex outside of marriage was considered immoral in biblical times. It was also, usually, unnecessary as polygamy was the moral standard of the day. That's why there's all this emphasis on adultery moreso than fornication, as men routinely married pubescent virgins as they wished, made concubines of sexually experienced women, and did pretty much as they pleased. The more common problems were men lusting after other men's wives (adultery) or men turning to prostitutes and other immoral acts (fornication) because they either didn't want to be married, or couldn't afford to be married. Paul’s admonition that pastors should be the husband of one wife [1 Timothy 3:2] was not a moral edict for men to stop practicing polygamy (or sleeping with concubines) but was rather a warning against the distraction of too large a familial obligation on behalf of pastors. Over time, however, we have muddied those words to suggest the bible teaches against polygamy (it doesn’t) and that the bible holds up a moral standard (it doesn’t).

In today's society, premarital and, in some cases, extramarital, sex is no longer necessarily considered immoral. So, in order for God's word to be relevant, do we dial back the clock, like many conservatives do, wishing our way back to the 1950's or even to biblical times? If the word "fornication" requires a moral benchmark, what is that benchmark? Folks like to say, the bible! But the bible itself cannot be used as a moral standard because the bible was never intended to be used for that purpose. Different Christians interpret the bible in different ways, yielding different moral benchmarks. Morality is subject to the person or persons, to the community and the state. Just because we are moral does not make us spiritual. Just because we are spiritual does not mean we're always right morally. This is my main problem with Christian conservatism, which portends to impose a moral standard on society and claims the bible as that standard.

Equating spirituality with morality is entirely wrongheaded. Morality is dictated by the generally accepted tolerances of a given society at a given point in time and enforced by the state. Morality (the quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct) has no external or infallible truth to it. Theology (rational inquiry into religious questions), ideally, should be based on eternal truths, which have nothing to do with morality per se, other than that our adherence to these eternal truths forms opinions we express as guidelines governing our moral conduct. Spirituality and morality are hardly one and the same. A decent and moral idea, rule, or concept can still, in all its purity, transgress the holiness of a divine God. As such, our sense of morality is of not much use to God [Isa 64:6]. Churches relying on their sensibilities of what is good, right, and moral to dictate their interpretation of scripture is, in and of itself, faulty exegesis. The Church should not be in the business of dictating morality, but should be proclaiming truths both eternal and infallible. We, as individuals, having been presented with these truths, are a people at liberty to embrace or reject those truths, and our sense of morality is the expression of that decision.

Christopher J. Priest
14 September 2008  Original
11 April 2013  Updated

Part 3: What The Scriptures Actually Mean

Sex & The Single Christian   Intro   The Song   American Gothic   Part One   WHAT THE BIBLE SAYS   What The Bible Means   The Secret Garden   Teens & Sex