by Dr Meg Warner, Biblical Scholar in Old Testament Studies and the Hebrew Bible, affiliated with both Kings College, London and the University of Exeter
Does the Bible really say that sex outside marriage is wrong?
This question is a highly practical one for all Christians, but it has particular ramifications for different groups of people. If you are not heterosexual, for example, you probably find yourself in a double-bind. On one hand, the churches teach that the Bible says you must not have sex outside marriage. On the other, it won’t marry you (to your same-sex partner). Celibacy, it seems, is your only option.
If you are heterosexual and unmarried, celibacy will be your lot also, but at least you have the option of marriage.
If you are married, then you may not have sex with anybody other than your spouse.
If you are divorced, the church has traditionally taught that you may not remarry, and therefore that you are to be celibate.
This biblical teaching impacts heavily on the lives of Christians today, in a world that promotes values of a very different nature. Are the churches right?
In one respect, at least, the answer is easy. The Ten Commandments provide that a person must not commit adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). It can be said with some authority, then, that a Christian should not have sex with a person who is married to somebody else (no matter their sex or gender), or with anybody other than their own spouse.
Unfortunately, the Bible does not often clarify God’s instructions quite so helpfully(!) and so to answer the rest of the question it will be necessary to set out, briefly, a few essential principles of biblical reading and interpretation. They are essential because, if ignored, our interpretation is only too likely to do violence to the meaning of the biblical text and to the people whose autonomy and actions we seek to restrict by it.
1. The phrase ‘the Bible says’ is nonsensical.
There is no one thing called ‘the Bible’. In Greek the noun ‘bible’ (ta biblia) is plural (ie. ‘the Scriptures’). ‘The Bible’, then, is not a book but a library. The books that make up the library typically say many and varied things about any given subject. These are not always consistent and can even be in direct conflict. This conflict may represent a variety of biblical ‘views’ and may reflect development of views over time, even within a single book.
2. The Bible is not an ethical guide-book.
The biblical books represent many different genres and while some offer instruction for how to live, others comprise stories, letters, lists, poetry, proverbs etc., that may offer reliable ethical guidance, but equally may not. Stories, for example, can be opaque or suggest a multiplicity of meanings – as Jesus’ use of parables (and his disciples’ regular failure to understand them) demonstrates admirably.
3. Mind the Gap
The Scriptures are the products of their own contexts. Those contexts are typically very different from our own, so that it is not practicable or biblically faithful just to pick up a biblical idea and insert it into our own context. This point was made forcefully in Jonathan Tallon’s post in this series (17 May). As a further example, both Exodus and Deuteronomy make provision for the family of a single woman who is sexually assaulted to be married off to her assailant. At the time of writing these provisions functioned pastorally. Today, in the West at least, they would be considered abusive.
4. Cultural Borrowing
Not everything that is said in the Bible was intended by its author to indicate how God would have us live (whether during biblical times or today). Much biblical detail reflects the prevailing culture of the time and place of writing. For example, nowhere in the Bible will you find a definition of ‘marriage’. The biblical authors used, or ‘borrowed’, the concept of marriage as they knew it as a starting point for their writing about marriage. Sure, they proposed special marital rules that were to apply exclusively to Israelites and in these we can see reflected a sense of God’s particular intentions. However, the general models of marriage reflected in biblical books are not presented as being stipulated by God, but rather are ‘borrowed’, or assumed, from the surrounding cultures – Hebrew, Greek and Roman.
The combined effect of these four principles (there are others, but these will do for our purposes) is that it is not good enough (or safe enough) to take a single biblical verse, passage or story, and to maintain that it should be understood as authoritative for the conduct of our lives today. That does not mean that we cannot, or should not, attempt to take the Scriptures as a guide for living – we certainly should do so – but our approach needs to be comprehensive, critical and cautious if we are to avoid doing violence to the text and to one another.
The Bible and Sex Outside Marriage
Given the above, it may not be surprising that the Bible doesn’t offer us a single, clear guide to God’s views about extra-marital sex. Two things could be said in general. The first is that there is relatively little about extra-marital sex in biblical texts, when compared with topics relating to money and violence, for example. The gospels suggest that Jesus said very little on the subject (see Matt 5:27-32; Luke 16:18).
The second general observation is that the overwhelming impression of the various biblical references and allusions to sex outside marriage is negative. Extra-marital sex tends to be viewed in biblical texts as ‘A Very Bad Thing’. One thinks, for example, of the professed view of Paul ‘that it is better to be married than to burn’ (1 Cor 7:9).
In order to know whether, or how, the Bible’s references and allusions to extra marital sex ought to shape our conduct today, however, we need to look more closely.
The foundation for biblical views on this subject is found in Deuteronomy 22’s collection of law (or ‘instruction’) about sexual conduct outside marriage, which sets out a series of examples of proscribed behaviour. The collection provides, variously, that a single woman, living in the home of her father, should not have sex (so that she can present herself to her husband as a virgin – Deut 22:13-21), an engaged woman should not engage in consensual sex (Deut 22:23-29), and a married woman who has sex with someone other than her husband should die (Deut 22:22). Meanwhile, a man who has forced sex with a single woman will be required to pay a fee to her father, marry the girl and never divorce her (Deut 22:28-29), a man who has sex with an engaged woman should be put to death (Deut 22:23-27), and a man who has sex with another man’s wife should be put to death (Deut 22:22).
At one level Deuteronomy 22 could be viewed as a code that forbids sex outside of marriage. However, I wonder whether you noticed something about the way these provisions are cast? Each one is predicated on the marital status of the woman. No concern whatsoever is expressed about the man. He is simply ‘a man’ in each case. Why the disparity?
It has to do with cultural ideas about men and women in biblical times.
Women were, in a very real sense, regarded as the property of the men to whom they ‘belonged’ – usually their fathers or husbands. In general, a woman was valuable to the man to whom she belonged, unless she failed to marry, in which case she became a burden. Marriage was in part a financial transaction, in which a girl’s father looked to receive a ‘marriage gift’ or mohar from her suitor. A father owned not only his daughter, but also her sexuality, and virginity was considered essential to what a woman brought to her marriage. Her husband could divorce her if he did not find evidence of her virginity (Deut 22:13-21), and if her family were unable to produce evidence of it she would be stoned to death for ‘prostituting herself in her father’s house’.
This idea, of women as the property of men, is reflected in biblical provisions about incest.
Deut 22:30 provides that a man should not marry his father’s wife, thereby violating his father’s rights. Similarly, Lev 18:8 provides, ‘You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is the nakedness of your father.’ In other words, a man should not marry his father’s wife because her sexuality belongs to him. Certainly, consanguinity is an evident concern in Leviticus 18 and 20, but a sense of women as property is also undoubtedly present.
I’ve referred a couple of times already to a provision that an unengaged woman who is sexually assaulted may, or must, be married off to her attacker (Deut 22:28-29; cf. Exod 22:16-17). This allowed a family to receive the mohar, and it saved the family the burden of shame of caring for an unmarriageable, non-virgin daughter. This provision stands behind the story of the sexual assault of Dinah in Genesis 34 (where the complicating factor was that Dinah’s attacker, and would-be suitor, was foreign). In its context, the provision was designed to be pastoral. In our context it would be considered anything but!
Not all biblical stories in which characters are portrayed having sex outside marriage depict the outcomes required by these provisions, however. For example, when Judah discovers (in Genesis 38) that Tamar, the widow of his deceased sons, has become pregnant, his initial response is to bring her out to be stoned, but when he discovers that he himself is the father of her child he praises her righteousness. Similarly, when Ruth scandalously lies down next to Boaz’s feet (note that the same Hebrew noun serves for feet and genitals) on the threshing floor in Ruth 3, Boaz praises her for her loyalty. In Matthew’s gospel, when Joseph discovers that Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant (and not to himself) he at first proposes to dismiss her quietly, but decides finally to marry her. Matthew tells the story in order to establish Joseph’s righteousness.
Sex Outside Marriage Today
It is one thing to assess a generalised biblical approach to extra-marital sex, it is quite another to claim that the same approach represents God’s will for us today. With an eye to the four principles of interpretation set out above, it will be evident that that are some matters around which we should exercise caution.
We no longer, in the West, consider women to be the property of men, and while marriage may still be a family concern, it is no longer essentially a financial transaction. The principles set out in Deuteronomy 22 are no longer needed to ensure protection from shame and financial loss. Further, if we were all familiar with Deuteronomy 22, and understood the social values that it upheld, we would likely be appalled, and perhaps choose to boycott behavioral patterns based upon those social values, rather than to compel people to follow them. (See ‘Mind the Gap’ – Principle 3 above).
Further, those social values are not clearly of themselves inherently biblical. The code in Deuteronomy adopts prevalent community standards and attitudes, and makes special rules and provisions for Israelites. Today’s prevalent community standards and attitudes are vastly different. The special rules and provisions put in place for ancient Israelites may not be helpful, and may even be harmful, in our context. (See ‘Cultural Borrowing’ – Principle 4 above).
Time to Re-think
It is time for churches to re-visit their teaching and rules about sex outside marriage. This is particularly pressing in light of the double-bind for non-heterosexuals that I identified at the beginning of this essay, but it is also an issue for divorcees and other heterosexuals. Some churches would likely change their views if they were seriously to reconsider the matter, especially given the pastoral ramifications of continuing to take the traditional line.
There is a world of difference between sticking with an outlook that is prevalent in the Bible, and being faithfully biblical.
About the Author
Dr Meg Warner is a Biblical Scholar specialising in the Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible, and is affiliated with both King’s College London and the University of Exeter. She is an LLM in the Diocese of London who she represents as an elected lay member on General Synod. She travels extensively and speaks at conferences, festivals and church events both at home and abroad. Her publications include Abraham: A journey through Lent (SPCK: 2015) and Re-Imagining Abraham: A Re-Assessment of the Influence of Deuteronomisim in Genesis (Brill, 2018).
For a full list of her publications and blogs please visit her website.
Cadwallader, Alan (ed.) Pieces of Ease and Grace (Adelaide: ATF, 2013).
Warner, Megan ‘Therefore a Man Leaves his Father and his Mother and Clings to his Wife: Marriage and Intermarriage in Gen 2:24’ Journal of Biblical Literature 113 (2017): 269-289.
Wright, Nigel (ed.) Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Sexuality (Adelaide: ATF, 2011).