I know I won’t change anyone’s mind with this post. When I was a Christian, nothing could have swayed me from my deeply held conviction that sex was for marriage. I would have avoided and prayed for anyone who tried to tell me otherwise. This post is for the after-Christians, the doubting Christians, and the current Christians who are attacked for embracing their sexuality. Premarital or not.
The youth groups of my teenagehood made premarital sex seem like the greatest sin one could commit. The message drilled into me over and over was, “It pains Jesus’ heart when we desecrate what God made holy. God designed sex for a man and woman within the sacred bounds of marriage. When we take advantage of his grace, we hurt God. We make a mockery of Jesus’ sacrifice. The Bible says that sex is a gift God intended for the married couples who honor him.”
The Bible can be interpreted to say that. Here are a couple of the oft-cited ways:
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.”
“Now to the unmarried and widows I say this: It is good for them to remain unmarried, as I am. But if they cannot control themselves, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.”
There are many more verses where these came from. Let’s stick to this sampling for now.
Actually, before I go a step further, I’d like to make an important acknowledgment. I’m going to be twisting God’s word. I’m going to be interpreting the Bible against popular understanding. Therein lies my emphasis: popular understanding. My interpretation is no more or less an interpretation than those who have come before me, and will undoubtedly come after. Popularity does not equate to truth. Who knows what the authors of the Bible really meant? And so I offer this bold statement.
The Bible can be used to justify any argument. But Jesus himself never said, “Don’t have sex.” [Click to Tweet]
He didn’t. Not unmarried sex, married sex, or homosexual sex. The New Testament verses condemning sex outside of heterosexual marriage mostly come from the apostle Paul, an allegedly celibate single who didn’t think anyone should be having sex. That’s why he relented in the verse above that while he wished people could live as he did, if a person’s sex drive was too great, it was better for them to marry than to burn with lust. As for Jesus’ actual words?
When I was a liberal Christian, who no longer even liked calling myself a Christian and preferred the term “follower of Christ,” I decided to focus my faith on the red-lettered words of Jesus. Not the apostle Paul, who authored half of the New Testament and who I had decided was a sexist douchebag. While I found some of Jesus’ words startling, discriminatory, and un-loving (see ‘Christian-Lite: Selective Christianity’), I tried to focus on living out the verses of kindness, peace, and forgiveness he talked about elsewhere. I wanted to practice Christianity in the purest way I felt I could: by following the actual words of Christ. And Christ never said sex was a sin.
Lust might be a sin. (Matthew 5:27-30) Sex usually comes with lust, so some argue that here is where Jesus implies sex is a sin. But notice he doesn’t specify only unmarried lust/sex. He says, “I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus didn’t say anyone looking at an unmarried woman. He wasn’t addressing only unmarried men. Did Jesus mean for us all to stop procreating?
Jesus also alludes to sex in Matthew 19:4-6. “At the beginning,” Jesus says, “the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh…’ Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
This verse is sometimes used to justify Jesus being for marital-only sex and against homosexual relations. You’ll notice Jesus is echoing Genesis 2:24 here. The liberal Christ follower I was wrote off this verse as Old Testament - not as an original statement from Jesus and therefore not applicable to my new take on Christianity. Even if Jesus agreed with the Old Testament teaching, it applied to married folks in the context of divorce. Jesus wasn’t talking about unmarried singles. (Told you I’d be twisting.)
For reasons I’ll have to get into in another post, I eventually lost my faith altogether. I use the word ‘loss’ because that’s what it was to me. I didn’t want to stop believing in God, or Jesus. I just reached a point where I simply couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I don’t think everyone’s lying about their faith. But I was. It devastated me when I lost the ability to do so.
Enter: Religious Trauma Syndrome. RTS is a condition closely resembling complex-PTSD and other mental health disorders. It affects many people who question or leave their faith. For me, RTS manifested in panic attacks out of nowhere and anxiety attacks triggered by very specific instances. One of my triggers was… sex. Evangelical Christianity’s biggest no-no.
I never told my boyfriend at the time about the intense bouts of fear that sometimes plagued me after we slept together. I didn’t know how to explain the moments after he left my apartment that I crumpled into a ball, shaking with tears and haunted by the fear maybe God was real and I would burn in hell for forsaking him and becoming a fornicator. The only thing that calmed me down was reading the Bible. I know. It was an irony lost to me at the time. I read the Bible to remind myself its authors never fully explained what fornication was.
Many Biblical scholars say the word ‘fornicate’ was translated from the Greek word ‘porneia.’ Some say porneia means harlotry, or prostitution. Others say it refers to incest. For every definition I found, a new definition was needed. If one academic article I read claimed the apostle Paul was talking about sexual immorality when he wrote about fornication, I had to look up sexual immorality. Which led to adultery, which led to either cheating on one’s spouse or illicit intercourse, which led to sexual impurity, which led back to fornication. All of the terms were frustratingly vague. Modern dictionaries define fornication as, “Sexual intercourse between people not married to each other.” But back in the day, ‘porneia’ and its Hebrew equivalent, ‘zahna,’ meant everything from temple prostitution to bestiality.
I couldn’t find a single verse in the Bible where Jesus said in explicit terms that unmarried people were forbidden from having consensual sex with each other. Again, almost everything in the New Testament on the topic of sexual purity was written by the apostle Paul. He was the one who wrote that women should be quiet, dress modestly, and never instruct men. He also told slaves to submit to their masters. If those teachings were “outdated,” as many Christians agreed they were, why weren’t all of Paul’s instructions outdated? If some rules written by a man almost 2,000 years ago were “for that time and place,” why would any of them be valid today? [Click to Tweet]
Back to Jesus. He spoke against lust, infamously saying we were to gouge our eyes and chop off our hands if they caused us to lust. Jesus didn’t specify if we were to self-mutilate if we lusted over our spouses or only if we lusted over those we weren’t married to.
My final takeaway as a post-Christian dealing with Religious Trauma Syndrome? If Jesus was real, and if he really didn’t want unmarried people having sex, he would have made it clear. If premarital sex was such a grave sin, God would have used explicit words to describe the act like he used to vividly describe everything else from butchery to warfare.
Today I find it amusing that reading my Bible was what helped me move on from the damage it also inflicted. I found peace from the book I didn’t believe in anymore because it was the very book that gave me such lasting complexes. I wished I had taken the time to study the literal translations of the Bible’s original texts sooner. It might have spared me some suffering, both as a Christian and after.
If you have triggers surrounding sex, I hope perhaps you can take some comfort from this research. And if you think I’m just justifying and being legalistic, I don’t blame you. I would only say that every interpretation of the Bible can be labeled as justifying and legalistic.