Paul didn't speak a lot about sex outside of marriage because, culturally, it was generally understood to be shameful. When he used a word like fornication, he was usually speaking of specific immoral acts rather than what we now interpret as speaking in universal and general terms about any and all sex outside of marriage. Abstaining from sex shouldn’t be about some moral law; it should be about sacrifice, about giving a gift back to God and about keeping ourselves pure. My rationale for policing my own behavior is not fear of judgment but an act of love. To love God more than myself means I want to please God more than I want to do what I want to do.

No Green Light

As I told a young friend the other day: there is no scripture that says sex outside of marriage is wrong. That’s not what the bible says. It is, however, what the bible means. Which is why it’s more important that we know what the bible actually means than that we be quotologists. The bible never says sex outside of marriage is wrong, mainly because, in those times, it really didn't need to be said. It was a morally reprehensible offense to even touch a girl or a woman intimately unless you were married to her. Joseph offered to send Mary away so she wouldn't be shamed by her premarital pregnancy. But, per that example, the shame fell mostly on the women, as men could either pay a fine, marry the girl, or enlist the woman as a concubine. Joseph could have broken off his engagement and had Mary stoned to death. So even the morality of that day was problematic. One way of moving away from a moral argument is to substitute the subjective word "fornication" with the more objective word "purity." There's so much less to argue about with the word "purity," because, while not problem-free, this is a word that need not pass a moral test. We should remain pure. Purity is surely a desired component of holiness, which IS something God demands of us [1 Peter 1:15-16]. Again, this is not a specific law against sex, but it is a component of a sound doctrine of sexual purity.

It’s not the sex act in and of itself that disturbs our covenant with God, but rather the impurity of that act, of joining ourselves with another person [I Cor 6:15] outside of a covenant God can bless and ordain. Celibacy outside of marriage should be a product of our choice to follow Christ, not an edict from City Hall. Not a law to transgress, but a sacrifice of our bodies [Romans 12] and our hearts to God. This is what the bible means, which is equally as important as knowing what the bible says. God wants us to keep ourselves pure and untainted by the world’s values and customs [Philippians 2:15] so we can be effective for His purpose and so we can know Him better (the word "purity" often referring to sexual chastity but also meaning pure motives and pure of "heart").

Biologically, abstinence is tough. It’s no joke. Most of us simply can’t do it. Many of us stopped trying. Our moral failure in this area becomes our stumbling block. We never reach our full potential. Pastors are brought low by sexual immorality. And the whole deal—Christianity—becomes a tough sell because the world sees us as hypocrites, holding up a "biblical moral standard" that is so high not even the "moral" Christians themselves can sustain it.

I like Holman (see sidebar in Part One). I use the Holman Bible dictionary most every day. But here, again, he uses the word "fornication" as boilerplate and suggests the bible instructs us to have monogamous married relationships, which the bible does not. He also quotes several scriptures regarding fornication out of context, places where Paul wasn't talking universally about sex outside of marriage but incest and sex with prostitutes. Paul didn't speak a lot about sex outside of marriage because, culturally, it was generally understood to be shameful. When he spoke of fornication, he was usually speaking of specific immoral acts rather than what we now interpret as speaking in universal and general terms about sex outside of marriage. It is important the seeker understand Paul almost never spoke universally: he was usually speaking to somebody about something. His teaching is God-inspired, God-breathed and useful for God's church, but we simply must take the time to understand who Paul was talking to and what was going on in that place at that time so we can put an end to our tradition of misusing the Pauline epistles by insisting on a Ten Commandments-style universality those letters never claimed to have. By trying to make Paul's letters be more than what they were, we actually diminish what they are.

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As Bishop Shelby Spong said, “To treat the words of Paul as if they were the inerrant Word of God... presents us with far more problems than it solves. Such a claim suggests that to be a Christian requires the abdication of the mind to cultural patterns long since abandoned.” He continues: “Because I believe those words to be in touch with something eternal, transcendent, and holy, I want to rescue them from the hands of those who by claiming too much will finally accomplish too little. If the words of Paul cannot be broken loose from the cultural accretions and presuppositions of a first-century mindset, they will never speak to this generation.” This Paul-as-God business is the bedrock of some of the church's more oppressive dogma, including the continuing oppression of women and the black church's romance with the year 1965. Elevating the words of Paul to the Word of God is incredibly bad doctrine. Holman's summary is generally useful if, in my opinion, flawed by using the word "fornication" as boilerplate without parsing it properly.

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