Why Wait? An Analysis of Christian Ethical Perspectives on Premarital Sex

The traditional Christian injunction against premarital sex, writes C. S. Lewis, “is so difficult and so contrary to our instincts, that obviously either Christianity is wrong or our sexual instinct, as it is now, has gone wrong” [1]. Indeed, in an age where chastity is an outmoded ethic of a bygone era, in a culture where premarital sex is a perfectly acceptable and even celebrated practice for many, it is very tempting to dismiss the conventional biblical teaching that reserves sex as the exclusive privilege of the married. But Lewis continues: “Of course, being a Christian, I think it is the instinct which has gone wrong” [2]. Taking heed, we might ask: what if it is indeed our sexual instinct that has gone wrong? How has it gone wrong? Why does Christianity forbid premarital sex, after all? Is it ever possible for premarital sex to be permissible?

I will consider two arguments that Christian ethics might present against premarital sex. These arguments are from Lewis Smedes’ Sex for Christians and Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing. Let us begin by considering Smedes’ position on premarital sex. Smedes derives his understanding of the nature of sex from 1 Corinthians 6:16: “do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her” – which he observes to be a Pauline gloss on Genesis 2 (“the two shall become one”) [4]. According to Smedes, Paul’s “absolute no to sexual intercourse for unmarried people is rooted in his conviction that it is a contradiction of reality,” of the intrinsic nature of the act that “signs and seals – and maybe even delivers – a life-union; and life-union means marriage” [5]. Whether or not people are cognizant of it, sexual intercourse bears with it this inviolable “inner reality.” Premarital sex is thus wrong because it violates this inner reality, because “unmarried people thereby engage in a life-uniting act without a life-uniting intent” [6]. Smedes points out, however, that Paul does not expound on how or why “intercourse signifies and seals a personal life-union;” within the context of the epistle to the Corinthian church, he simply admonishes them that sex before or beyond marriage is “immoral unless it is joined by an intention to accept what the inner meaning signifies” [7].

While firmly believing that as a rule of thumb premarital sex is immoral, Smedes is by no means a dogmatic moralist. Instead, he works fundamentally within a framework of “creative compassion,” a sensitivity towards kindly understanding and reaching into the myriad actual situations that people inhabit. Smedes explains, people can be unchaste even while not engaging premarital sex. He also introduces the idea of creative compassion, which recognizes that

“unmarried people who do have sexual intercourse do it for different reasons, with differing motives, and under differing circumstances. Compassion sees these differences….Compassion does not change the moral principle; nor does it let us predict in advance those unusual situations when unmarried people might properly engage in intercourse.

Creative compassion is guided by moral law, but it evaluates people’s acts with an understanding born of ‘suffering with’ them and provides the power for dealing with them redemptively” [8].

The language of “suffering with” reveals the conviction that the nature of God as revealed in Jesus Christ is “Immanuel,” God-with-us – with us in our moral triumphs and ethical failures, in the grime and earthiness of our very human existence [9]. Choosing to focus on how to bring redemptive good out of a situation rather than designating ethical culpability, Smedes leaves open the possibility that there can be situations where “unmarried people might properly engage in intercourse.”

But what might these situations look like? It is not too difficult to imagine, for one, a situation even a mere hundred years ago, where a black man and white woman in America were deeply committed to each other and desired to get married. If racist civil and religious laws forbade such intermarriages, then what ought they have done? What if the rules set by the state are unjust, or if a couple is deprived of the opportunity to benefit from them? What if a couple were to be lynched for making a public declaration of their relationship, or if they are simply incapable of making the declaration? In order to delve into the implications of Smedes’ concession to “unusual situations,” we must probe the “inner meaning” of marriage. Smedes identifies two central features of an official marriage: “(a) whether [the couple] will play the game according to the rules set by the state; and (b) whether the couple is willing to begin a new relationship with a public declaration” [26]. The spirit of marriage at its most basic is a mutual love that “enriches” and “renews” the lives of two people, who enjoy “a shared intimacy of shared union that is profoundly loving” [27]. At the same time, we may discern an important caveat necessary for “qualifying” a couple for premarital sex: there must be something that prevents a couple from being married according to societal convention. Once this is established, the question then arises regarding the panoply of other things that “prevent” people from getting married. What ought we make of the numerous challenges that shackle the human spirit, like fear, insecurity, financial instability, ignorance, foolishness, or even lust? How different are these, qualitatively, from the desire to “dominate or exploit,” which Smedes frowns upon? Are not these misguided impulses often born too from the cradle of broken personal histories, broken in ways analogous to examples we have considered?

I am interested not in in pushing the boundaries of sexual “permissibility.” Rather, following Smedes, what I am concerned about are the ways in which a normative morality is applied to concrete human situations.  But taking heed of Marshall McLuhan’s well-known maxim – “the medium is the message” – I go further than Smedes in emphasizing the dynamic and contingent nature of sexual norms, probing the ways in which the modes and contexts of their application alter their basic content. To this end, we now turn to Ronald Rolheiser’s stance on premarital sex. There are two key aspects to his understanding of sexuality. First, he defines sexuality as a fire coursing within our ensouled bodies, “a beautiful, good, extremely powerful, sacred energy, given to us by God” [10]. Second, recalling the insights of Karl Jung, sexuality is inextricably linked to a profound sense of psychic incompleteness, by “an awareness of having been cut off” from someone or something, akin to “the separated white and yolk of an egg” [11]. Fascinatingly, Rolheiser observes that the word “sex” traces its etymological origins to the Latin secare, which literally means “to cut off,” “to sever,” “to amputate,” “to disconnect from the whole” [12].

Taking these two aspects together, sexuality is thus “experienced in every cell of our being as an irrepressible urge to overcome our incompleteness, to move toward unity and consummate with that which is beyond us” [13]. At its most elemental, this movement is about “overcoming separateness by giving life and blessing it;” far from being limited to the erotic passions, it encompasses a totality of expressions that include, for instance, “community, friendship, family, service, creativity, humor, delight, and martyrdom” [14].
It is within this existential structure that Rolheiser argues that sex “builds the soul as a sacrament,” as the Eucharist does, so long as it is experienced within a “committed, loving relationship” [15]. But lest it be taken that mutual affection and sincerity are enough to qualify a couple for sex, he affirms that sex cannot be divorced from monogamous marriage and covenantal commitment.

In this light, what is essentially wrong with premarital sex is that it is a “schizophrenic act:”

By its very nature, sex speaks of total giving, total trust, and total commitment. There is an unconditionality inherent in so // intimate a sharing in one’s soul. Thus, if real trust, commitment, permanency or unconditionality is not present within the wider relationship, sex is partly a lie. It pretends to give a gift that it does not really give and it asks for a gift that it cannot respectfully reciprocate[16].

Here, Rolheiser approximates Smedes’ position: both rest their case on how premarital sex goes against the inherent nature of sex. But compared to Smedes’ concern about the immorality of premarital sex, Rolheiser demonstrates a deeper concern for theological anthropology. While still believing that premarital sex does violate God’s moral law, he chooses to place more emphasis on the effects that the act has on human well-being, arguing that it will “harden the soul, trivialize it, and work at disintegrating its unity” [17].

While it is beyond the ambit of our discussion to delve into the familiar tension between love and justice that hovers in the background, it seems that this tension reveals another inescapable eschatological tension for the Christian, rooted in the tragedy of living in the era of “already-but-not-yet.”  The “already-but-not-yet” dynamic in the New Testament recognizes that Christians live in a dual reality, on the one hand “already” experiencing a foretaste of God’s presence, but on the other hand frustrated by eager longing to see God after death, in his full glory, face to face – the “not yet.” Rolheiser’s arguments present a fertile ground for connecting these eschatological reflections to the nature of premarital sex. He writes:

To live in the interim eschatological age is to be like a couple waiting to get married who, for a good reason // have chosen to postpone their marriage for a period of time. There is a certain frustration in that, but that // frustration is offset by the clear knowledge that it is only a temporary delay, soon to be overcome. Our essential inconsummation in life must be understood in this way [31].

To this we might add that the existential “inconsummation” that the unmarried and sexually inactive experience mirrors the very eschatological tension that Christ himself endures, as he eagerly awaits the consummation of the ages, when he is able finally to draw his beloved virgin bride, the church, into the bosom of divine eros [32].

We have considered two different positions on premarital sex, considering the different emphases and conceptions that each of them takes toward the nature of God and humanity. On the one hand, as a Christian, I am committed to submitting to the authoritative wisdom of Scripture, guided and enriched by tradition. I am, however, keenly aware of the contribution of what is often called cultural hermeneutics, that is, the recognition that the biblical writers may themselves have been working with presuppositions particular to their cultural-historical situation, presuppositions that should not be taken to be transhistorical, absolute, and normative. The task, as I see it, is to uncover the spirit behind a particular concept found in the Bible, then to apply it allegorically to a contemporary situation. Thus, I wholeheartedly applaud Smedes’ distinction that “weddings are inventions of cultures,” reflecting the legal and social conventions of a certain context, whereas it is marriage – its transcultural meaning manifest in concrete cultural forms – that is an “invention of God” [19]. Furthermore, I affirm Rolheiser’s bent towards seeing divine ordinances as natural laws that best make for human flourishing and spiritual wholeness, rather than abstract, impersonal, moralistic standards that we ought to attain to, failing which leads to condemnation.

We return to the original question: what are we to make of premarital sex? One may argue, and with good reason, that “today’s young people cannot be [held] responsible within Abraham’s culture,” or even Jesus’ or Paul’s for that matter; “they can be [held] responsible only within their own” [20].

And yet, ultimately, the ethical norms of the Bible are indeed a revelation of God’s constant nature and character; they have been given to us for our good and for God’s glory. Instead of answering this question for you, I instead ask you to consider one last thing. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” [21]. By the same measure, may we not say that the traditional Christian proscription against premarital sex was made for our sakes, and not the other way round?


1]  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 95.

[2]  Ibid., p. 95.

[3]  Lewis Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1994), pp. 107-108.

[4]  Ibid., p. 109.

[5]  Ibid., p. 110.

[6]  Ibid., p. 110.

[7]  Ibid., pp. 117. 114.

[8]  Ibid., p. 126.

[9]  Matthew 1:23.

[10]  Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing (New York: Doubleday, 1999), p. 196.

[11]  Ibid., pp. 193-194.

[12]  Ibid., p. 193.

[13]  Ibid., p. 196.

[14]  Ibid., p. 198.

[15]  Ibid., p 199.

[16]  Ibid., pp. 199-200.

[17]  Ibid., p. 199.

[18]  2 Cor 3:6.

[19]  Smedes, Sex for Christians, p. 122.

[20]  Ibid., p. 123.

[21] Mk 2:27.

[22]  2 Cor 1:3.

[23]  Mt 9:13.


A graduate of Princeton University and Fuller Theological Seminary, Teng-Kuan Ng is currently pursuing an MTS in East Asian Religions at Harvard Divinity School.

Photo credit: lufra from morguefile.com

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