Does the Bible Really Say That? Part 1: Abstinence

–Daniel S. Ferguson

True Love Waits. Abstinence Only. Purity Rings.

Church kids of the 90s probably remember all of those things. Statistically speaking, they probably also didn’t live up to any of them. A whopping 95 percent of Americans admit to intercourse before marriage, according to Public Health Reports. For all those people who think that this is a phenomenon new to the American public, the same report indicates that these numbers have been stable since the study began in the 1950s. The only real difference, the study finds, is that people are waiting much longer to get married now than they did 60 years ago.

Just because something is nearly universal doesn’t make it right, but the numbers do make me wonder: Does the Bible really say that we should remain abstinent until marriage?

Short answer: Sort of. Long answer: Not really, no. Let me explain.

There is no specific verse that indicates that anyone should remain abstinent until married, except for a handful of Levitic laws that value a woman’s virginity on her wedding night as something over which a marriage can be nullified. But given the context that marriage in that timeframe was a contractual agreement, this doesn’t seem to be so much a command as it is an understanding what that contract entails.

Not only is that removed from any present-day understanding of marriage, it is also removed from today’s reality of the age of marriage. It was not at all uncommon for young Jewish girls to be married as early as 10 or 12 in order to maximize their reproductive output. Similarly, as soon as a boy was bar-mitzvahed at 13, he was free to marry, unlike today. This is all normal when the average lifespan is south of 40.

Based on the normal course of how being 12 and 13 works, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask those people to remain abstinent until marriage at that age. They’ve barely had the inclination by that time, much less the opportunity, not to mention that there were serious economic, social, and familial consequences, particularly for the girl, if she gave in to any potential urges before her wedding.

None of that is the case today. The average age of marriage has jumped up a full decade, long into sexual capability and maturity, and there is no longer an economic incentive to wait, except perhaps the overwhelmingly cheap price of birth control. (In historical context, that stuff is basically free.) Similarly, sex no longer comes with a serious social or familial impact, at least nothing like it did in the Old Testament. A daughter having sex before marriage now might be cause for parental concern nowadays, but it’s no longer the sources of public shame or economic ruin that it was to the Israelites.

So, given all of that, what does the Bible have to say about sex before marriage?

Frankly, not much. The above is all that’s really mentioned. Purity in the Biblical context almost universally applies to people already married: avoiding adultery, not coveting your neighbor’s spouse, etc. Toward that end, the Bible takes a strong stance on lust, best defined as an unhealthy fixation on sexual thoughts, particularly where the subject is treated like an object. (And yes, lust towards your spouse under that definition is still sin.) Jesus and Paul both discuss that, and admittedly, they both seem to think that marriage is the best protection from that lust.

All that is good advice. A monogamous marriage is certainly the Bible’s point of view. But it stops short of being an all-out command. Our point is valid, but perhaps we should and could be less dogmatic in our approach to the subject.

As a rule, it’s usually wise to err on the side of caution than desire, but there’s a reason I bring up this topic: The church has been absolutely on the wrong side of this issue for as long as I can remember. The church isn’t necessarily wrong that abstinence is the best moral path, even if the Biblical foundations are a bit shaky, but it is wrong on its presentation of that virtue as shame-oriented.

Many of us remember the passionate sermons we heard on the issue. We heard that sex before marriage was shameful, wrong, sinful, and even gross. We heard that the natural result was STIs, almost no matter what (even though that’s patently false). We heard that virginity was an ideal, but that once it was given away, our value to our future spouses became substantially less, or even none (again, crazy false). We were asked (sometimes it felt like forced) to sign pledges, wear rings, or make promises, adding extra shame to the issue if we happened not to live up to it.

Then enter the other side of the equation: the world outside the church that shows what seems to be a lot more grace on this issue, and it has more verifiable facts to show regarding it and safe ways to conduct sexual behavior. It’s all too easy to see the church as oppressive, regressive, and just plain wrong on this issue, especially when doing something is a whole lot easier and more fun than not doing it.

Growing up, the biggest lesson I learned about sex was NO. Don’t do it. Avoid it. Run from it. Don’t even think about it. Deny your body every inclination at every time and in every place. Do not even set one foot down the path towards sex.

And you know what tended to happen to people who slipped up and put one foot down the path? They often went the whole way, far past where they may have gone if the lesson had been more than simply No. Once they had crossed the first boundary, they had no idea where the other boundaries should be, or that they even existed.

The church is right to teach that there are barriers to put up to have healthy sex. Marriage is a great marker for that. Perhaps it’s not Biblically commanded that way, but it’s still the safest context we know of, and it fits in with the Bible’s teachings on the issue as best we understand it.

But all talk of shame has to end. Now. Jesus is not about shame. Jesus took our shame, died in it, and rose again to destroy it. There is no shame in Jesus, so we must stop preaching it. I’m not saying we can’t discuss the issue or talk about healthy boundaries or even preach that marriage is the best context for sex. But I know way too many people who have carried way too much shame for way too long because the church told them to.

That has to stop. Today.

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