Is Abstinence Before Marriage the Right Goal?

Welcome to the third installment of a series on premarital sex. In Part 1, we looked at what the Bible says about premarital sex. In Part 2, we addressed challenges to the Church’s ban on premarital sex. I intended the third post to be about how to maintain sexual integrity, but then I realized I needed a post to explain what sexual integrity is and how it blesses us. So, I’ll get to the practical how next week!

Does Abstinence Matter?

Teens and singles have often been encouraged to stay a virgin, maintain one’s purity, and/or practice abstinence. I’ve encouraged it too. It’s the biblical position that sex should be reserved for one’s spouse; thus, having sex outside of marriage is not God’s design.

However, a singular focus on abstinence before marriage has left a lot to be desired. It’s led to people erecting unbiblical boundaries to hold their virgin status—from doing everything but the deed to avoiding any physical contact with one’s intended, and many options in between. It’s left people feeling judged for past behaviors, current mistakes, or even stray thoughts. (See Where Purity Culture Got It Wrong, Let’s Get It Right.) It hasn’t always addressed other sexual sin, such as pornography and/or lusting. (See What Is Lusting?) And it’s put so much focus on what happens before marriage to the exclusion of what purity looks like in all seasons of life.

Thankfully, many Christian marriage writers and speakers have recently talked more about having sexual integrity. Why sexual integrity?

This one-minute video from the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas explains integrity well. (Please be sure to watch!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bD8Vc6Y6EIQ

Using the video’s main points, sexual integrity for a Christian might be defined, then, as:

  • Doing what’s right for the specific season they’re in, which could involve abstinence, engaging regularly and solely with one’s spouse, or showing self-control while working on healing and restoration.
  • Understanding, accepting, and choosing to live according to God’s design for sexual intimacy.
  • Avoiding corruption or hypocrisy (something too many believers haven’t done while yet preaching abstinence).
  • Following God’s plan for sexual integrity whether it’s easy or difficult and whether tangibly rewarded or not.

Doing What’s Right

For years before I did “the deed,” I was a technical virgin. That is, I had not had intercourse and presumably, therefore, retained my V-card. But I hadn’t avoided sexual activity altogether. Like many other teenagers, I wanted to know how far I could go and then put the tips of my toes right on that line.

If only I’d understood that “How far is too far?” is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask, “What’s right?” or rather “What’s righteous?” What really honors God?

Is Abstinence Before Marriage the Right Goal? "'How far is too far?' is the wrong question. Rather, we should ask, 'What's right?' or rather 'What's righteous?' What really honors God?" @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

Once we focus on doing what’s right, our choices become clearer. Especially when our views of righteousness are less informed by object lessons about “soul ties” (which I don’t believe, by the way) or strictures regarding modesty than biblical principles. For instance, look at these passages:

  • “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23).
  • “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).
  • “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

Based on those concepts, one can see that pushing sexual boundaries before marriage is not righteous, but withholding affection and intimacy during marriage is also problematic. Moreover, it’s not just what we do with our bodies, but with our minds, hearts, and eyes as well. Are we honoring God with how we look at others? How we treat them? How we demonstrate love? Such precepts can clear up a lot of fuzziness.

But as Christians in community, we should additionally ask: Are we honoring God to deny compassion, forgiveness, and support for those who failed but want to do better? Shouldn’t we be helping everyone, regardless of their current circumstance or past sin, to embrace sexual integrity?

Living by One’s Principles

Legalism has always existed among God’s people. Those wanting to know what’s okay and what’s not okay can find others willing to provide a ready-made list of dos and don’ts. Now, some of those dos and don’ts may indeed reflect God’s design, but even when they do, they can miss the main point.

Just look at what Jesus Christ said to the legalists of His time:

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.

Matthew 23:23

Jesus agreed there were rules, but He wanted the spotlight where it belongs: on living according to godly principles.

If there was a passage about abstinence in the same vein, we might imagine that Jesus would say that not having sex outside marriage is good but insufficient. Checking that box means little if we don’t also live out justice, mercy, and faithfulness. It isn’t simply what we do or don’t do, but rather who we are as people of sexual integrity before God.

When we live by godly principles, it’s easier both to follow the rules—the dos and don’ts that apply to all situations—and to discern what’s wise and good in specific situations where the answers may be less cut-and-dry.

Free of Corruption or Hypocrisy

Far too often, it comes to light that a pastor who preached abstinence before marriage is involved in a sex scandal himself. We can scream about the corruption and hypocrisy of such folks—and we should—but a lot of believers have engaged in their own secret sin regarding sexuality.

If not having sex is the goal, then you can pride yourself on that achievement while still watching pornography, reading erotic novels, lusting after others, having a masturbation habit, or talking incessantly and vulgarly about sex. But by sexual integrity standards, that’s corruption and hypocrisy.

Then there’s the hypocrisy of saying that sex is a gift from God within marriage, then getting married and avoiding sex like it’s a white elephant gift you would happily dispose of. Or demanding sex with your spouse in a way that shows neither mercy to your mate nor faithfulness to God.

Do you “consistently demonstrate good character by being free of corruption or hypocrisy” in the area of sexuality? If that doesn’t describe you, you can find true freedom—in Christ (see John 8:31-36)—and instead live out true sexual integrity.

Regardless of Circumstance or Consequences

Living with integrity ensures a reward from God. Consider these verses:

  • “The Lord has rewarded me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands He has repaid me” (Psalm 18:20).
  • “One who pays attention to the word will find good, and blessed is one who trusts in the Lord” (Proverbs 16:20).
  • “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and follow it” (Luke 11:28b).

However, some have taken the truth that obedience brings blessing and implied that the reward is tangible and immediate. For example, some spouses were promised that waiting until sex for marriage practically guaranteed fantastic sex in marriage. And if/when that didn’t happen, they felt they’d been sold a batch of snake oil. To be fair, they kinda had.

While waiting certainly improves your odds of better marital intimacy, sex in marriage is a complex relationship! Just because the tab-A, slot-B mechanics are straightforward doesn’t mean the human dynamics are without challenges. Nearly every marriage will face a struggle in this area at one time or another.

You may experience blessings within your marriage for your faithfulness, or you may experience trials for a short or a long time. Still, as the video explains, “Integrity is revealed when people act virtuously regardless of circumstance or consequences.”

And the blessings God promises are more about who we become and how God reconciles us to Him:

  • “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ “(Ephesians 1:3).
  • “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him” (James 1:12).

Think about Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. You probably know them better by their Babylonian names: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These God-followers refused to bow down to an idol, but instead of receiving an immediate and tangible attaboy from Heaven, they got thrown into a fiery furnace so hot that it killed the guards who tossed them in. Before they were catapulted into the fire, however, they made this statement:

If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.

Daniel 3:17-18 (emphasis added)

Saved or not, they chose to do the right thing. That’s integrity.

Likewise, sexual integrity for the believer is doing the right thing whether it’s easy or difficult, whether it results in positive or negative (immediate) outcomes, whether it leads to sexual excitement the likes of which you cannot express or moments of loneliness and despair. THAT IS A HARD TEACHING, but it’s in line with how God has called us to live and serve Him in this world.

Sexual Integrity Comes from the Heart

I wish the word purity hadn’t been made, well, impure in its meaning for many Christians. In its best sense, pure means free of contamination or immorality.

Ideally, you never get tainted, but all kinds of substances that get contaminated can be purified. How much more can God return us to a pure state, no matter how little or large we failed! “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Before marriage, God’s Word offers this prescription for purity, or sexual integrity:

How can a young person stay on the path of purity?
By living according to your word.
I seek you with all my heart;
do not let me stray from your commands.

Psalm 119:9

The goal isn’t abstinence, or any other single checklist item, but living according to God’s Word, seeking Him with all our heart. Yes, we should do the right things. But ultimately, sexual integrity isn’t about what you avoid but who you pursue.

And it’s never the wrong time to run into the Father’s arms.

Is Abstinence Before Marriage the Right Goal?: "Sexual integrity isn't about what we avoid but who we pursue. And it's never the wrong time to run into the Father's arms." @hotholyhumorous Click To Tweet

If you need some inspiration, this song came to mind as I was writing: Constant by Watermark.

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11 thoughts on “Is Abstinence Before Marriage the Right Goal?”

  1. Another excellent article. Jesus wants our hearts, not just adherence to a list of rules. Those rules are for our benefit, but following them with our heart allows us to see how God protects us in our following them.

    Those who judge or are critical of those who failed in the past in this area, whether because of physical intimacy, dabbling in porn, or just letting one’s mind go where it shouldn’t, need to realize that God does not put different sins at different degrees of sinfulness. There are different consequences, but the smallest “white lie” is still enough to separate us from God for all eternity unless each one of us, myself included, place our faith in Jesus and the fact that He paid for every sin.

  2. Catholic speakers for the last several decades have generally talked about ‘chastity’ rather than ‘abstinence’. Chastity is less about “don’t do ” (i.e. abstinence) and more focused on sexual integrity in and out of marriage. Similar idea to what you are saying.

  3. I agree that it’s nice to have “abstinence” and sexual purity placed in its larger context rather than presented as an end in itself. Like many others the message I received as a teenager in regard to sex was mostly silence except for “Don’t do it, for reasons x, y and z.” And I myself didn’t need much convincing as I always wanted to live life “correctly” and my take-away (intended or not) was that premarital sex would ruin my life, even if I didn’t get pregnant as I would still be tainted. But in retrospect I wonder why it is that most societies have traditionally placed pre-marital chastity on a pedestal at the expense of other virtues such as justice, mercy and faithfulness which as you point out are just as or more important. For girls my age it seemed not to matter if some were mean or snobbish as long as they did nothing more than hand-hold (and perhaps kiss) their boyfriends. In the vein of “no contact whatsoever” I had at least one stranger make his own assumptions after seeing my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I make physical contact in public (“Excuse me, are you married? Are you married? Are you married? Are you married?”) I certainly understand the need for protection from emotional baggage in addition to pregnancy and STDs; but does sexual activity before marriage really have higher repercussions later on than other behaviors – e.g., bullying, exclusion, addiction? I certainly don’t regret waiting but I have to wonder if my outlook as an adult is not more impacted from “mean girl” syndrome than it would have been if I’d been sexually active and otherwise fit in.

    Maybe it’s because sex is an external behavior (however private) that’s easy to throw a lasso around so we can point to it and say “don’t do this,” whereas meanness is harder to pin down as an attitude of the heart (although this also manifests in behavior). But if so, why is recovery from past addiction (an external behavior) celebrated openly while a promiscuous past, however forsaken, is swept under the rug? The best answer I can think of for the world’s emphasis is the importance men have traditionally placed on their brides’ virginity, which in turn is a reflection of the Church’s response to the biblical analogy of physical sex being a picture of our faithfulness to God, or lack thereof.

  4. J, this is an excellent post. I especially like:
    “If not having sex is the goal, then you can pride yourself on that achievement while still watching pornography, reading erotic novels, lusting after others, having a masturbation habit, or talking incessantly and vulgarly about sex. But by sexual integrity standards, that’s corruption and hypocrisy.” I would also add to that judging the behaviors of others when you privately have a lot of work to do in your heart.

    I know that you didn’t include modesty in your post. How I was brought up modesty was tied in with some of the virginity talks. I know I am not alone, but some of the chatter behind closed doors was very cruel and it was very much a “the end justifies the means” delivery of the topic.
    I’m not sure why we are averse to finding kinder, gentler ways of discussing these topics.

    As to some of Terry’s points—-I think at least when we teach topics of virginity etc. in such an extreme way it can pit some girls/women against each other. I personally see shades of this in how some Christians write about this today. I think God meant us to keep track of our own journey—and pay less attention to how “loose” or immodest we might perceive others to be. Also I believe God meant for both women and men to bear the burden of sexual integrity. But we still today will shame women more than men, for example, when an unmarried woman becomes pregnant.

      1. Nope, they sure don’t. But I don’t find them all that attractive, so there is that. Grin. Men can chose to sin regardless of what a woman is wearing and men can chose not to sin regardless of what a woman is wearing. Just thought I would answer the question.

        Also, it is sad that we shame one side more than the other as it takes two. It is also sad that people are shamed at all when they have turned away from their sin in any area, not just sexual immorality. God chooses to remember our sin no more. He has every right to remember, but offers complete forgiveness. I am certainly not more righteous than God, so who am I to shame a person for their past? And frankly, I don’t want people to dig into my past either.

        1. God’s in the clean-slate business! And we have plenty of work to do by focusing on people who need to understand God and His holiness better, to challenge those in unrepentant sin, and to help people heal from their past.

    1. In regard to Denise’s comments on conflict between girls, there did seem to be a dichotomy in the messages we received back in the day, i.e., that on the one hand abstaining from sex made a girl a “prude” (as in my case), while too much sex (or a reputation thereof) made her a (ahem) “slut”. We may see less of this today with the backlash against “slut-shaming” and the assumption that every teenage girl is having sex, but in the absence of a how-much-is-too-much definition the effect was/is that there is no way to avoid girl-on-girl hazing of one form or another.

  5. As in all parenting, teaching our children the “why” is often much harder than just enforcing rules. Some kids listen to reason and some…..not so much. That’s why it’s so important to allow children to suffer (small) consequences of their actions as early as possible so they begin at an early age to understand that there are usually good reasons behind a parent’s warning. (Yes, I had to find out for myself that the iron was too hot to touch! That blister that resulted was a great reminder that my mom knew what she was talking about!) I see the same principles in what you are saying J and aplaud you. There’s a whole lot more to why God asked us to avoid sex outside of marriage than just to avoid single parenthood. But also, as in most things, hindsight is 20/20 right? Keep up the great work in helping to give that 20/20 sight beforehand!

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