“But What About…?”: Challenges to the Church’s Ban on Premarital Sex

In Part 1 of this short series, I addressed the question of What Does the Bible Say About Premarital Sex? If you didn’t read that post, I encourage you to go there first. The conclusion we drew from a series of stories and passages is that God intends sex to occur within marriage.

But in today’s post, Part 2, let’s look at some exceptions to that sequence within Scripture and whether the typical biblical example still applies in our time and culture.

A Few Exceptions

Are there biblical exceptions to the sequence of get married and then have sex? Yes, there are.

For instance, among the Law of Moses is this passage:

If a man seduces a virgin who is not pledged to be married and sleeps with her, he must pay the bride-price, and she shall be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he must still pay the bride-price for virgins.

Exodus 22:16-17

Premarital sex is not given the same harsh punishment as adultery (death), and the wording of the passage even sounds like, “We expect this will happen.” But having sex before marriage is still considered an offense that requires correcting course and making amends. It’s missing the mark, which is one definition of sin.

Some also point to Ruth’s “seduction” of Boaz as an exception to the sequence of sex-then-marriage. In particular, the following passage:

When Boaz had finished eating and drinking and was in good spirits, he went over to lie down at the far end of the grain pile. Ruth approached quietly, uncovered his feet and lay down. In the middle of the night something startled the man; he turned—and there was a woman lying at his feet! “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are a guardian-redeemer of our family.”

“The Lord bless you, my daughter,” he replied. “This kindness is greater than that which you showed earlier: You have not run after the younger men, whether rich or poor. And now, my daughter, don’t be afraid. I will do for you all you ask. All the people of my town know that you are a woman of noble character. Although it is true that I am a guardian-redeemer of our family, there is another who is more closely related than I. Stay here for the night, and in the morning if he wants to do his duty as your guardian-redeemer, good; let him redeem you. But if he is not willing, as surely as the Lord lives I will do it. Lie here until morning.”

So she lay at his feet until morning, but got up before anyone could be recognized; and he said, “No one must know that a woman came to the threshing floor.”

Ruth 3:7-14

Certain scholars have suggested that “feet” is a euphemism for genitals; that is, that Ruth got really close to Boaz’s man-part. It does seem like actual feet would be a weird place to lie down, and Boaz’s reaction would be more understandable if he wakes up in the dark with an erection and a woman giving it to him. However, there’s insufficient reason to conclude that feet = penis.

What’s more curious is all the other behavior here: Why is she going to him at night? Why wait until he’s “in good spirits,” perhaps meaning he was slightly inebriated from the drink he’d had? Why be under the same garment? Why hide that she’d been there?

But I’ve looked at the arguments for and against from biblical scholars on both sides, as well as deep diving into the text itself, and I’m less inclined these days to believe they engaged in premarital sex. The evidence that they did is circumstantial at best, and other scriptures make it seem less likely, such as Boaz referring to Ruth as “a woman of noble character (3:11; see also 2:9, 2:22, 4:13).

Even if they did, this passage is descriptive, not prescriptive. We are told the story of Ruth, who embraced God and became part of God’s plan for a messiah, but that doesn’t mean that she always acted in keeping with God’s commands. The Bible is honest about God’s worshipers, sharing both their faith and their failings. Maybe this was a failing that God turned to good. Maybe a sexual encounter never happened at all. Regardless, this example isn’t nearly enough to conclude that God is okay with premarital sex.

Marriage Then and Now

Another objection raised is that people in biblical times slept together and then got married, because there are several examples of couples who were together but didn’t have a ceremony or license.

Let’s look at the first full description we have of a man securing a wife—the story of Isaac and Rebekah. The marriage goes like this:

Then Isaac brought her into the tent of Sarah his mother and took Rebekah, and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

Genesis 24:67 (ESV)

But if you read the whole chapter, you see that a servant negotiated for Rebekah and paid a “bride price,” a seemingly official act. (By the way, if you’re squirming at the idea of a “bride price,” by custom, some or even all of that became the property of the woman herself, thus giving her some means of her own.) Also, Rebekah was asked if she would go with Isaac and thus had a choice in the matter—her verbal consent being the equivalent of a marriage promise. This isn’t a wedding as we know it, but in the context of their culture, there’s a definable moment when these two agree to be with one another and then consummate the marriage.

We can’t go through every marriage in the Bible here, but this pattern continues—husband and wife going from betrothal to marriage with some kind of recognition between the couple and from witnesses. Moreover, the New Testament references several weddings: A Wedding Song from Psalms, King Solomon’s Wedding, Jeremiah’s Prophecy on God’s Bride, Jesus’s First Miracle at a Wedding, the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb.

Marriage covenants have also been around a long time. The Istanbul Archaeology Museum houses a 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablet on which a marriage contract is recorded.

And look at this verse from Malachi:

You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.

Malachi 2:14

And the Levitical Law recorded in Deuteronomy shows that God’s people expected virginity up to the date of marriage.

So yes, engagements and weddings haven’t been consistent throughout history. But the examples we have all indicate that there was an oath exchanged and communally recognized—basically, a marriage.

You can read more about marriage customs in biblical times here and here.

Who Can Wait That Long?

As stated in my last post, I’d once rationalized that abstaining until marriage was an outdated expectation. Bible times and cultures were quite different, and both women and men tended to marry younger. When you have large families, shorter life spans, and no long-term education before entering an occupation, why wait?

Indeed, women in biblical times likely married in their teen years, but so did most men. Some men married when older, but often due to financial reasons or the loss of a prior wife.

Yet, I struggled to make excuses when I came to this passage:

Jacob was in love with Rachel and said, “I’ll work for you seven years in return for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “It’s better that I give her to you than to some other man. Stay here with me.” So Jacob served seven years to get Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her. Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife. My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”

Genesis 29:18-21

Go online and search for the age of Jacob at this time, and you’ll find varied answers, all the way up to age 84. I strongly doubt he was that old, but he was at least 17 years of age. And he waited for seven years before having sex, or he wouldn’t say, “My time is completed, and I want to make love to her.”

He was obviously expected to hold out until married … and he did. He was at least 24, and I’d barely turned 25 when I married. Moreover, I hadn’t dated my husband for seven eager years, but rather six months. (I’m not encouraging a six-month courtship—just telling y’all what happened.)

Undoubtedly, Jacob had self-control I didn’t display. But should have.

What’s Your View of the Bible?

If you read the Bible, front to back, Old Testament and New, all the varied stories, you really can’t walk away with the belief that sex outside of marriage was encourage or condoned by God’s people.

But believing that the prohibition of premarital sex still applies depends a great deal on your view of the Bible. Does it convey an accurate view of God and His will? Are its ethical commands based primarily on cultural understandings or messages from God? Are its moral principles timeless?

Personally, I believe that Word of God is the word of God. Yes, we have to use our noggins when we read, interpret, and meditate on Scripture. Not everything is literal (like your wife’s eyes are not doves – Song of Songs 4:1), but Scripture is true (she has beautiful eyes, right?).

If you also believe that Scripture is true, then read and think deeply about this passage:

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins, as we told you and warned you before. For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life.

1 Thessalonians 4:3-7

Please stick with me for the final installment in this 3-part series. Next time, we’ll talk about falling short, forgiveness and redemption, and maintaining sexual integrity, whether single or married.

22 thoughts on ““But What About…?”: Challenges to the Church’s Ban on Premarital Sex”

  1. Arguing that Ruth can’t have had premarital sex because she was a “a woman of noble character” only works if you already assume that premarital sex is always wrong. You’re Begging The Question here. Circular reasoning, in other words.

    1. Except that the laws and culture of that time did define a woman of noble character as being a virgin before marriage. For instance, Deuteronomy 22:13-19 says that a husband accusing his wife of not being a virgin when he married her was “slandering” her and giving her a “bad name.” Now, of course Ruth was not a virgin, because she had been married before, but it’s hard to believe that the standard of not engaging outside marriage is just thrown away because you were once married.

    1. Oh my goodness, thank you! What happens sometimes is I just so deep into making sure the concepts and quotes are right, I miss something really simple like that. I appreciate you pointing it out. I have fixed it!

  2. Apologies for the double post but,

    I have some objections to you using the example of Jacob to say that people really are expected to wait a long time.

    First, I have doubts that it was really seven actual years. The number seven is very often used in a symbolic fashion in the Bible, especially when referring to periods of time. The number 7 represents completion or fullness of time, in reference to the creation week of Genesis 1.

    If it really was 7 years then I don’t think Jacob was very smart to take that deal. No girl is THAT beautiful. The fact that he got tricked into working for 14 years kind of cements that.

    Finally, I’ll point out that in Ancient Near East culture virginity before marriage was only expected for women and not men. For that matter, the concept of virginity was kit even applied to males. You’ll even find this in the Mosaic Law. You’ll find a lot of gender based double standards in that culture. (The biblical definition of adultery is a whole other can of worms) Men do not have to provide evidence of their virginity before marriage. There is no mention of a scenario where a woman seduces a virgin boy and then has to pay his father a “groom price” and marry him. Nor is there a mention of a scenario where a married woman accuses her husband of not being a virgin before marriage. Virginity simply didn’t matter for men. In a culture where polygamy was common, a man who had been married more than once would by definition not be a virgin any more. Prostitution was also legal in ancient Israel. It was considered a shameful profession, but tolerated under the logic of “its a dirty job but someone’s got to do it”.

    Was Jacob still a virgin when he married (who he thought was) Rachel? Who knows. The text simply doesn’t say. But male virginity before marriage was not a default expectation.

    1. So let’s say it wasn’t a full 7 years for Jacob. (I disagree with that take, but for the purpose of argument, let’s roll with it.) He still waited, and it was a long enough wait that Jacob put in some real labor, was antsy to be with Rachel, AND asked to be given his WIFE so he could make love to her. That is, Jacob still didn’t have sex before he and his bride were married.

      On whether men were expected to be virgins, there was simply no way to prove that, whereas there was for women. However, every prescription in the Bible (not description, but prescription) is that sex happens within the context of marriage. The default expectation was a covenant promise between husband and wife, then consummation.

      As to your comment, “No girl is THAT beautiful…” Honestly, sir, men who say things like that probably will have a hard time finding a wife. I’m not that beautiful, but my husband has sacrificed a lot to be with me, and I him.

    2. “There is no mention of a scenario where a woman seduces a virgin boy…”

      We do find many warnings in Proverbs for young men about older women (whom we might refer to today as “cougars”) who would seduce them, either for money or out of loneliness while their husbands were away (Proverbs 2:16-19, 5:3-6, 6:24-29, 7:6-23). The writer (Solomon, presumably) was apparently aware that this was a common problem and mentions several consequences, including physical danger to the young man should the woman’s husband find out (6:30-35), as well as wasting his money and energies on a strange woman (5:10) or contracting a venereal disease (5:11). He also acknowledges the emotional connection that happens even for men during sex that may not easily be broken (4:23, 6:27-28), and overall indicates that it is simply better for a young man to save himself for his bride (5:15-20). It might be argued that these verses address adultery more than fornication but a) this is advice being passed from father to son, the latter of which is presumably unmarried, and b) the reasons given for a young man to save himself are equally valid whether he is married or single. It may have been less common for men to enter marriage as virgins, but God’s standards were the same for both men and women, young and old.

  3. I was trying to use a little humour to make my point. I think Jacob was suffering a bit from what they call Oneitis. If I was told I had to work what turned out to be fourteen years just to marry someone I would probably take my chances elsewhere. Plenty of fish in the Euphrates, as they might have said back then. But that’s just me. Maybe I could have found someone for only 3 and 1/2 years’ work.

    1. Given your tone, it wasn’t clear that it was humor, and I sorta wonder how many women will laugh at that. Just a thought.

    2. You clearly don’t understand that entire passage. Jacob didn’t have God’s blessing to marry just anyone. He was in a foreign land and Laben’s daughters were potentially his only choices.
      In my opinion, J is right on with this post. Although, most people agree that he did not wait 14 years to have Rachel. After receiving Leah, he was also given Rachel and then worked 7 more years for Laben, while having both wives.

  4. Good points, as usual, J!
    You mentioned Genesis 24, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, the first complete record of a marriage in the Bible (unless you count Adam and Eve). Let’s notice that there was no clergyman or public official involved. Marriage was then a covenant between two families. Rebekah’s part in this was those three precious words: “I will go”; and once there, to sleep with Isaac.
    The translators of the New International Version (NIV), however, have added “and he married Rebekah” to Genesis 24:66, words that do not appear in the Hebrew text. However, several of the translators of the NIV are from denominations that hold that marriage is a church “sacrament,” a position not held by Baptists (I’ve been a Baptist pastor). But to put this on the church causes confusion, IMHO. Christian parents need to take more responsibility to rear their children in “the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
    I’ve also seen another extreme, in which a pastor (in a non-sacramental church) required a couple to confess in front of the congregation after the girl became pregnant, if they wished to remain in fellowship. This seems unduly harsh to me. Did they sin against the congregation (adultery, which you’ve mentioned, is another issue)? Or against each other and perhaps against their parents?
    The bottom line is, marriage is a covenant, and sexual relations between married Christians is intended as a model of God’s spiritual relationship with his church, Christ’s bride, as I understand Ephesians 5:31-32. As for premarital sex, chastity is at the center of holy living, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5. A word here from Elisabeth Elliot’s PASSION & PURITY: “When you can’t keep your hands off each other, get married.”

  5. Without getting into creation vs evolution too much, 7 days in creation means 7 days “and the evening and the morning were the … day”
    Back to topic, most Bible scholars and pastors agree that Jacob worked 7 years, was tricked into marrying Leah, complained to Laban who said that he could have Rachel after giving his full attention to Leah for a week, if he would promise to work another 7 years. He promised to do that but he got Rachel a week after marrying Leah and THEN worked the other 7 years.
    He didn’t have to wait for 14 years for Rachel. The Bible just says he worked for another 7 years after marrying Rachel. See Gen 29:25-30.
    To the point that prostitution was legal does not mean it was not wrong or sinful for a man to lay with a harlot. God accuses Israel of playing the harlot when He references their idolatry. And there are many other instances that say it is wrong for a man to lay with a harlot or for a woman to play the harlot. See the Proverbs, 1Cor 6:12 and 15

  6. Marriage in general is missing divine perspective which includes children. The Romans of Paul’s day believed sex was exclusively for procreation, catching the drift of Paul’s letter about both the women and men turning from the “natural function of woman.” Today we focus on gender attraction, but the Romans 1 fulcrum was childbearing. The lyrics from a 70s song comes to mind: “You’re havin’ my baby. What a lovely way of sayin’ how much you love me.” It used to be common in literature and movies to express the desire for children in the same breath as marriage. Today a purposely childless marriage is normal. Not to imply that sex is solely for procreation – what about sex after menopause? – but children should be integral to the thought.

    1. The idea that Romans believed sex was exclusively for procreation isn’t consistent with history. Moreover, Paul was well-aware of the Scriptures that showed sex being more than childbearing and designed in part of marital intimacy. Besides, he didn’t say in 1 Corinthians 7, “For it is better to marry so that you can have a child if you want.” He said, “For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” So HE KNOWS sex is about passion between man and woman as well!

      That said, yes, children are an important aspect of sexual relations within families, churches, and societies. It’s a pretty amazing thing that God could have chosen for us to reproduce in any number of ways, but He went with a way that feels really good and makes us feel especially close to our spouse.

  7. J, you’ve mentioned that teens have powerful sexual urges, but that it’s not possible to express those urges morally, since state laws and the need to set up a household make it impossible for most to marry. I was a public school teacher in Indiana in 1971, and a 9th grade girl of 15 in one of my classes was big PG by Christmas break. She didn’t return after Christmas, and another girl told me that her wealthy parents had gone to a judge, a family friend, and he’d married the girl to her boyfriend. I’ve often wondered what happened to that couple.
    That said, most states now require a youth to be 16 to marry with parents’ permission; 18 to marry without. My mother was 19, as was my paternal grandmother (1938 & 1891). Both married farmers. My wife’s paternal grandmother was only 14 in 1898 when she married a man of 21. They were together until he died in 1938 (she lived until 1963, only weeks after I married her granddaughter). We’ve been together for more than 58 years! I do realize that yesterday’s agrarian society made early marriage much easier. But it seems to me that many parents could help their teens marry early and enjoy sex, if the parents themselves were willing to let go of a little cash and help a young family out. Maybe a rent-free apartment in the family home. A good used car. Pay their health insurance. Right now there are plenty of jobs out there, and most anyone who’s finished high school (and many who haven’t) can work full time for $22/hr. here in the upper Midwest.
    I’ve heard it said many times that early sex cuts a kid out of teen life and high-school, etc. Does this really create such a hardship? Why do kids have to sin, then bear the shame, when they could marry and sleep together? A final thought: a couple I knew well, both now with Jesus, married when she was 16 and he was 17. Both dropped out of school, and he found steady work as a store clerk. He later got his GED and took a couple of years of college, got a good job. They reared a large family and enjoyed a middle-class lifestyle for most of their 60+ years together, which included church every Sunday and family vacations.

    1. I agree that marrying younger could be a good idea. Yet, I think a lot would have to change for this to be a viable option in our culture. I will say that results would have been disastrous had I married anyone I was dating in my teens! Not that there weren’t some good guys among them, but we were nowhere near ready and I had quite a bit of baggage. Anyway, I think we could at least encourage people not to do everything else first—school, career, travel, etc.—before considering marriage. I don’t particularly want 15-year-olds marrying, but waiting until one’s 30s (becoming more common) may not be the best idea.

      So what’s the ideal age? I think that varies from person to person, but with greater family and church support, we could help individuals mature faster, prioritize marriage, and stand steady once they say their I Dos.

  8. An excellent write up. I believe scripture is, in its original form, without error and can be fully trusted. Yes, we can have some varying opinions, but scripture is rather clear that we are to wait until marriage. It doesn’t matter if I agree or not because God doesn’t ask my opinion but tells me what is best for my life. I have to change my opinions to align with God’s word, not the other way around. The great thing is though, that once we marry, God tells us to fully enjoy the sexual freedom with have with our spouse. He gave us sexual intimacy as a precious gift to strengthen marriage. Your write up honors God by holding on to the great value He has placed on sex.

  9. “The great thing is though, that once we marry, God tells us to fully enjoy the sexual freedom with have with our spouse”.

    The standard church message. Sex is great and beautiful and should be engaged in regularly … But only if you’re married.
    If you aren’t married you can go kick rocks.

    I’m really tired of that message and this bizarre feast or famine approach to sexuality.

    1. I suspect your view represents a lot of people out there, Raphael. I do think there are some assumptions here that I’d like to address.

      1. Yes, it is “the standard church message,” born of centuries-long study of Scripture and God’s design. Not to say that the church gets everything right, but the core features are consistent across time, including a belief that sexual integrity matters. Not because God is a restrictive tyrant, but because He understands the power of this intimate act and wants it to bless His children.

      2. As to “If you aren’t married you can go kick rocks,” I believe there’s a lot more compassion out there for people who are not married but want to find love and be sexually intimate. There’s also a lot of compassion for those who have been sexually active outside marriage, while also wanting those people to enter a better way. I don’t know anyone in the field I’m in who has the cavalier attitude you describe. But what we won’t do is confuse compassion with license.

      3. I’m sure you are tired. This road can be wearisome. I don’t deny that it’s a tough calling. But as Galatians 6:9 says, “Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up.” Yeah, yeah, I can hear someone saying, but when is my “proper time?” I don’t know, and it’s frustrating not to know. Yet this is also where faith enters: “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrew 11:1). Believing God will make good on His promises requires that kind of confidence, even when one doesn’t understand where, when, or how.

      4. You call this approach “bizarre.” Yep, it is bizarre by many people’s standards. Frankly, the whole of Christianity is somewhat bizarre. But 1 Corinthians 2:12-14 says:

      What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may understand what God has freely given us. This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual realities with Spirit-taught words. The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.

      Now that passage is specifically about the crucifixion, but it might well pertain to a lot of other concepts within Christianity, including the call to keep sex within the bonds of marriage.

      5. It’s a mischaracterization to say that sex in marriage is a feast. Yes, it would be lovely if it was feast-time all the time in marriage, but most couples know that’s not at all how it goes. Sex can be challenging to get right, even in marriage, and struggles are common. Thus, my ministry! You could still say that a morsel is better than nothing, and I would mostly agree. But to describe the comparison as feast or famine just isn’t quite accurate.

      Once again, blessings to you! I am prayerful that those who long for relationship and physical intimacy can and will find it.

      1. Your wisdom and thoughtfulness in this response and in so many others is admirable. I praise God for what He has given to you…. and that He has made you into a person of integrity that searches His Word deeply, chewing and meditating on it in order to supply living words to the body of Christ. God bless you for your faithfulness.

    2. Not necessarily a feast, but that is our own fault, not God’s. You see, we live in an imperfect world, where sin impacts God’s perfect plan. That doesn’t make the plan wrong, it simply makes us (and by that I mean me) imperfect. It means my wife and I did not fall right into His plan but tried to do things our own way. We looked for our own needs instead of each other’s needs. We allowed our sinful past to impact the feast that God desires for us. It is a daily battle, submitting ourselves under the authority of God. But on those days we get it right, and yes there are days I fail miserably and have to rely on God’s grace, but on the days we get it right, it is an amazing feast.

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