NB This article contains words and concepts of a sexual nature that parents might not want their kids reading. Hopefully kids would be more interested in playing Minecraft than reading about this topic. Just in case, the complexity of the first two paragraphs should cure them of any desire to read further.

I came home last night to hear raised voices in the kitchen. It was two of my housemates arguing theology, an event not unknown but infrequent. I only wanted to have a hot shower and get to bed but as I passed, I was dragged into the debate, merely because I have some familiarity with the subject.

It was the old chestnut of sex before marriage. The guy in support of it used the two most common – and specious – arguments. The first was, “Your view is antiquated.” This a variation of the ad hominem argument, in which you seek to discredit the person and, by making them look foolish, uneducated and closed minded, you make their opinion seem foolish. In this variation, you say their opinion is outdated, which makes them seem uneducated and bound by tradition, and so their opinions are most likely wrong.

If the objection “Your view is antiquated” was a ball bowled in a cricket game, it deserves to be hit for six. It implies that we have learned so much since the ancient days when the “antiquated” opinion was widely held it can’t possibly still be true. Does time alone make the true false, or wisdom foolish? If so, how much time will pass before the current wisdom becomes foolish, and the current foolishness becomes wisdom? Why should the fact that something is old mean it must therefore be wrong? If it is wrong, give evidence for it.

The second argument that was dredged up was that “the Bible doesn’t explicitly say we shouldn’t have sex before marriage.” Strictly speaking, that’s true. Here are some of the other things the Bible doesn’t explicitly say we shouldn’t do:

be cruel to animals;
play with fire;
kick someone;
tickle a sleeping lion;
stay at home in spring while your army is at war (only applies to kings);
tease a prophet about being bald;
tell a foreign woman the secret of your great strength;
oppose Jesus in a theological debate.

The Bible doesn’t explicitly make statements about these things but whether we should do them or not, or whether it’s wise to do or not, is implied by what the Bible does say, and by the stories it tells of people who did similar things. As it relates to sex, the Bible also doesn’t explicitly prohibit masturbation, objectophilia, pederasty, or necrophilia. Whatever we might think of the first two, it should be obvious that Biblical morality unquestionably condemns the last two.

If the Bible did prescribe and proscribe every single possible act we should or shouldn’t do, it would fill a national library. But God gave us intelligence and reason, so we could extrapolate from specific examples and instances. Say someone hits a mango with a gold club. From the resulting mess, we can infer that if we hit something soft with something harder (allowing for speed, elasticity et cetera), the softer something will splatter. From this theory we can make the further inference that we shouldn’t use hard objects to hit other fruits, animals, people, Ming vases, and so on, if we want those things to stay intact. We don’t need a single law for every possible permutation.

There are two kinds of laws in the Mosaic covenant: apodictic and casuistic. Casuistic laws are laws for specific cases: murder, for example. If this, then that. Apodictic laws are more general: In this kind of situation, this is what you’re to consider. For example, Exodus 23:4 – “If you see your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, bring it back to him.” Does that mean if you see his sheep or goat fallen in a well, you can ignore it?

In the case of sex before marriage, we obtain the answer by inference. Exodus 22:16 states, “If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her [for the pedants among us, that means to have sex with], he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife.” There’s an exception, though: “If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins” (Ex. 22:17).

One would think that’s clear enough. Moreover, adultery (sex in any sense apart from between husband and wife) was punishable.

But, you might respond, the Mosaic Law talks about all the situations you shouldn’t have sex – between close relations, people of the same sex, people and animals (see Leviticus 20:0-21) – sex before marriage is such a simple issue to pronounce on. Why doesn’t the Bible just explicitly say, No sex before marriage?

I think there are two reasons. If there is general agreement about what was right and wrong, you don’t need a commandment about it. Jesus and his opponents never debated about whether or not adultery was wrong because all society agreed that it was. It didn’t mean that people followed Socrates’ dictum though (the man who knows what is good will do it.)

The second reason is physiological. There was no pill available to prevent pregnancy. (Condoms were known during the time of the Roman Empire, though I don’t know when or where they were invented.) Unlike today, procreation was more closely tied to recreation, so sex was more likely to result in pregnancy. The idea of intentionally raising children from infancy without both mother and father was a foreign concept. So, with the girl likely to get pregnant, and society seeing that children should be raised with mother and father, it was understood that sex should take place within marriage, where the child from the resulting pregnancy would have both parents to raise them – as well as any extended family and servants the couple had. (This is my inference at present.)

Sure, this second reason is complex, and it might be an attempt to justify a particular interpretation. Then again, simplicity is no guarantee of correctness. At one time, a wife who couldn’t conceive might allow her husband to impregnate her maid, and the child would be considered to be the wife’s. Abraham and Jacob both did this. What people would have disagreed on is who, or what, you could legitimately have sex with. That’s where the Mosaic laws do get specific (see Leviticus 20:10-21). Still it would have been easier for us if the Bible had explicitly stated, “No sex before marriage.”

But again, people might respond, that was the OT but we’re in the dispensation of grace: we’re free to do what we want. No, we aren’t. We’re free to live without fear of punishment, without having to keep the rituals of a law which pointed to the character of God and our inability to meet His standards. Since the advent of Jesus, who is the very impress of the invisible God, that has been shown with perfect clarity. The law was only a shadow of the the revelation of God that Jesus was. Nevertheless, the law in the OT still reveals the character and (moral) will of God. His attitudes don’t change.

As to whether the particular laws of the Mosaic covenant change in the post-Cross world, that depends on what the law it is. If it’s commanded again in the NT, it still holds for Christians. But if the NT is silent about it, that could be for two reasons. Either it is so obvious it doesn’t need to be restated – for example, “murder is wrong” – so that even Jesus and his most intransigent opponents would have agreed on it or, secondly, that commandment is no longer binding for citizens of the kingdom.

In the NT, the same attitude to sex and marriage remains. Sex was only to happen between a man and woman married to each other. That’s why there was such a scandal when Mary got pregnant before she and Joseph were married. That’s why Joseph was going to divorce Mary (divorce was the process even when you were engaged.) That’s why the woman at the well near Sychar was considered immoral – because she was a serial divorcee and was living with a man she wasn’t married to. That’s why the woman caught in adultery was in danger of being stoned. That’s why Paul wrote that it’s better to marry than to burn with passion.

But – again an objection – what if you really love the other person and they really love you? And maybe that the marriage ceremony doesn’t really change anything between you, and isn’t much more than signatures on a bit of paper and an expensive party? Leaving aside that issue, do you mean love, or being in love? Click here to read an article about the distinction between the two. If you’re just “in love” – can you distinguish that from lust? – did you know that feeling will disappear naturally after about six months to two years? Think about what this objection is saying: that your immediate feelings should take highest precedence over everything else.

On a solely practical level, waiting to have sex until you get married has benefits: no worries about sexually transmitted diseases, past pregnancies/abortions, emotional ties from past partners, children from previous relationships, and no worries about your performance being compared with another person. It shows your partner that you can be self-controlled and disciplined. It means that the intimate bond formed in sex – at moments when a women feels great intimacy, her brain releases oxytosin, a chemical that bonds her emotionally to the person she is with – will be shared with only one other person. Think of trying to re-use sticky tape or Blu-tack. The more you remove and re-stick it, the less it is able to bind to other objects, and it often carries with bits of what it previously bonded to.

Ultimately, people object to teachings like no-sex-before-marriage because they want freedom to do what they want and still believe they’re okay. They want the benefits without the sacrifice; the rights without the responsibilities, the security without the commitment. Is that the sort of person you want to build a relationship with?