The Danger in Immorality
Middle adolescence runs from ages fifteen to twenty. During this period of life, young people attain sexual maturity as well as a large measure of independence. So, the great crisis facing them concerns how they will behave toward the opposite sex. In contemporary society, which scoffs at restraint and encourages sexual license, it is difficult for them to make the right decisions. But they must make the right decisions or suffer the consequences.
Promiscuity puts them in danger of horrible, deadly diseases. Any immoral conduct might produce a child who will never enjoy a lifelong relationship with a real father; or, even worse, who will murdered by abortion. Or sinful experimentation might entangle a reckless young couple in a poor marriage, and from the poor marriage might come a broken marriage and failure in childrearing. Or it might lead them away from marriage altogether, dooming them to lives of transient bondings without real love. In all of these outcomes there is great unhappiness and regret.
Biblical View of Premarital Sex
The Bible absolutely prohibits premarital sexual relations. In Old Testament times this was a capital offense.
13 If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her,
14 And give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a maid:
15 Then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel's virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate:
16 And the damsel's father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her;
17 And, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a maid; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter's virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city.
18 And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him;
19 And they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days.
20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:
21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.
22 If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.
23 If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her;
24 Then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbour's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.
25 But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die:
26 But unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter:
27 For he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.
28 If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found;
29 Then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.
If a man found that his wife had engaged in sexual relations before marriage, he could have her stoned. The law permitted capital punishment, but did not mandate it. It permitted mercy. Nevertheless, the offense itself was considered serious enough to warrant capital punishment. The law was not gender-biased. Any man who had relations with an unmarried woman was subject to capital punishment if she was already betrothed to another man (the age of betrothal was very young). If not, he had to pay a heavy fine to her father and marry her, unless her father disallowed the marriage.
The harshness of the law concerning sex before marriage has two implications.
- In God's eyes, a woman belongs to a man even before she marries him, and a man belongs to a woman even before he marries her.
- Since you, if you are unmarried, do not know for sure who your mate will be until you marry that person, you must shun any sexually intimate relationship. If you do not, you will be guilty of a great sin, a sin known as fornication. Perhaps you will be guilty of adultery as well, because your sexual partner will likely not be your future mate. Such adultery will put a dark cloud over your wedding. If you are the bride, your white dress and the other symbols of virginity will be a sham. Such adultery will in important ways also harm your honeymoon and your marriage. Even fornication with a future spouse has negative consequences.
Biblical Standards for Premarital Conduct
Scripture condemns not only intercourse between two unmarried people, but also any lesser form of overt sexual love, whether real or fantasized. Four Biblical arguments support this conclusion.
- Paul exhorts Timothy, a young and perhaps unmarried leader in the church, to be an example of the believer "in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12). In particular, he must
1 Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren;
2 The elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, with all purity.
1 Timothy 5:1-2
Paul does not mean here to forbid the normal steps leading to marriage. He means rather that even a young woman who might attract Timothy's special liking should be treated as a sister only, without impurity. In other words, he should neither practice nor imagine forms of affection reserved for marriage. In both mind and conduct, he should give no room to lust.
- Paul says, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Cor. 7:1). Some commentators claim that the phrase "to touch a woman" is a euphemism for intercourse. Their attempts to find this meaning in ancient usage do not stand up to scrutiny, however (see Appendix). Moreover, they are insulting Paul, because euphemisms for intimate things are usually juvenile or vulgar in nature.
A better interpretation understands that Paul is answering the question whether it is good for a man not to marry. He replies by sanctioning a single life, which he defines as not touching a woman. One purpose of his wording was probably to prevent any unmarried man from viewing celibacy as a kind of holiness in itself, giving him a high enough standing before God to excuse dabbling in sex, including groping and other forms of lustful touching. The Holy Spirit guiding Paul was undoubtedly combating the licentiousness that, in later centuries, would sometimes infect monasteries and nunneries.
But in saying that it is good for a man not to touch a woman, the same Holy Spirit was by no means limiting the principle to men who never marry. His meaning rather was that it is good for every unmarried man not to touch a woman.
Although Paul presents a single life as a worthy choice, he by no means forbids marriage, for he goes on to say,
Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.
1 Corinthians 7:2
The application for a young man today is that until he marries, if marriage is God's plan for his life, he should refrain from touching girls in a romantic or lustful way. The comparable standard for girls is stated later in the same chapter.
- Scripture teaches that sexual love was created to join man and woman in an indissoluble union symbolic of Christ's oneness with the Church (Eph. 5:28-33). So, intimacy within marriage is both a cementing force and an instructive picture. Sexual love whether to a lesser or greater degree is grievously out of place between unmarried young people, where it cannot produce lasting solidarity or reflect the unbreakable love of Christ. In Christian experience, this divine love is doubly symbolized by intimacy in marriage and by the Lord's Supper. If misusing the elements of the Lord's Supper is a blasphemous offense (1 Cor. 11:29-30), then misusing sexuality must be a blasphemous offense also.
- An impure relationship between two unmarried people violates another Biblical principle.
He that saith he abideth in him [Christ] ought himself also so to walk, even as he walked.
1 John 2:6
There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.
1 Corinthians 7:34
Two young people infatuated with each other may sincerely hope to be married someday, but in most cases they are destined to be mated with other partners. So, if a nonpermanent couple engage in fond touching, or if they fantasize sexual intimacy with each other, they are, in a sense, committing a juvenile form of adultery. A parent who respects the law of God will therefore seek to prevent an immature child from playing around with love. By appropriate policies and rules, he will keep such a child from romantic involvements.
A distinction should be made between romance and friendship. Friendship in itself is never a sin. But parents would be wise to suspect that a very special friendship between an adolescent boy and girl is sexual in nature. Whether or not a friendship forged by an immature teenager appears romantic, parents unquestionably have a right and a duty to stop it if they see a danger of sexual infatuation. Indeed, they have a right to stop any friendship.
But parents are usually reluctant to interfere with a boy-girl friendship that might bloom into love and then into a desirable or at least unobjectionable marriage. After all, is it not true that God sometimes brings future mates together at an early age, and is it not likely that, having met, they would feel the beginnings of permanent attraction? Yet, with the aid of honesty and good sense, we see that most relationships springing up in junior or senior high school do not last. An unusually strong relationship may persist beyond graduation, but when either party leaves home for college or for another place of beginning adulthood, he or she commonly finds that a bevy of new faces surpass the old familiar one. The boyfriend or girlfriend from high school is then rejected and, perhaps, cast into devastating grief, self-hatred, and bitterness. A young person who has invested unbounded love and hope in a special friendship of many years, only to be cruelly jilted, can undergo terrible suffering. Anyone who has seen an utterly shattered victim of adolescent inconstancy must doubt the parental wisdom in allowing juvenile love affairs. In most youthful alliances, the girl is at greater risk, because she is more sincere and mature. Yet, if her boyfriend is very desirable, her parents may be too flattered to raise an objection to the alliance, and the parents of the boy, seeing that he is having a good time, are not likely to raise any, even though they may sense that his interest in the girl is essentially lustful and unstable, and even though they may realize that the alliance holds little prospect of marriage.
The best course is to discourage special friendships until a young person is old enough to fix his love irreversibly upon one person. The age of readiness varies. For a few, it is eighteen or nineteen; for most, it is older. After this age has been attained, a friendship based on sexual attraction is appropriate only if the parties are well-matched, if parents approve (this condition may be waived if both the boy and the girl are no longer minors and if parental opposition arises from clearly unspiritual motives), if both the boy and the girl are in good faith seeking God's will concerning the possibility of future marriage, and if they are careful not to overstep friendship into impure desire or conduct.
Desire crosses the line when it longs for or imagines sexual intimacy. The line for conduct is given in 1 Timothy 5:1-2, quoted earlier. If a couple wishes to act in a Scripturally correct manner, their expressions of mutual fondness must never exceed what is appropriate between a brother and sister. Moreover, they should never go off by themselves. When a couple find themselves free from the prying eyes of other people, the force of attraction jumps several levels in strength and easily overpowers better judgment.
Adults with responsibility for supervising boy-girl relationships need to set down rules of two kinds: first, rules that forbid personal contact with romantic motivation, and, second, rules that forbid couples from going into seclusion. Total seclusion of any kind should be banned. So also should specific kinds of seclusion, such as parking in a car. In their overall effect, however, the rules should not be so rigid and stringent that they prevent people of marriageable age from dating and getting to know each other.
The most difficult questions concern couples who are approaching marriage. Obviously, all communication of special regard cannot be held off until the wedding day. Actual marriage must be preceded by betrothal, and betrothal must be preceded by courtship. Along the way, the hearts of the boy and girl must be warmed by enough love to bring their relationship to a happy fulfillment in marriage. Sufficient fuel for love is, however, provided by mere sight of the beloved, and by being close enough for intimate conversation, spanning the great field of hopes and values that they must search in order to develop a common mind. Romantic touching before engagement is not appropriate. In the eyes of Scripture the couple remain brother and sister until they enter a betrothal acknowledged by the church. (Ordinarily, parental blessing is mandatory as well.) Only then may they become more demonstrative. But to preserve the sanctity of marriage and to maintain a good testimony before an immoral world, an engaged couple should restrict themselves to hand holding, kissing, and similar tokens of affection, all of which might occur between members of the same family. They should absolutely renounce necking and petting, which are by nature manifestations of sexual love.
The notion that Paul's expression "to touch a woman" is an indirect reference to sexual relations rests on modern lexical authorities, such as Arndt and Gingrich. Under the verb apto ("to touch"), Arndt and Gingrich give as illustrative of the use of apto in a literal sense the expression gunaikos . . . a. ("to touch a woman," the abbreviation a. representing whatever form of apto follows the other words). To confirm that the expression speaks "of intercourse with a woman," they cite six other texts in ancient literature that supposedly exhibit the same usage: one by Plato, one by Plutarch, one by Josephus, one by Marcus Aurelius, and two in the Septuagint.1
A user of ordinary modern dictionaries naturally assumes that Arndt and Gingrich are giving a meaning that often attaches specifically to the words gunaikos . . . a.—a meaning inherent and recognizable in them but not necessarily in denotatively similar words, whether of Greek or another language. For example, one English dictionary defines "find oneself" as "to learn what one's real talents and inclinations are, and begin to apply them." The reader, understanding that this is a meaning peculiar to "find oneself," would not extrapolate the same meaning to such expressions as "locate oneself," "discover oneself," se trouver (French), or sich befinden (German).
But investigation of the citations following Arndt and Gingrich's definition of gunaikos . . . a. reveals that the definition is explaining not these particular words but the idea they convey. The passage from Plutarch involves a different verb altogether, the verb thiggano, which means "to touch."
Alexander [the Great], . . . , neither touched ["ethigen," a form of thiggano] these women, nor did he know any other before marriage, except Barsiné.2
The passages cited in the Septuagint are merely faithful renderings of the Hebrew.
And God said to him in sleep, Yea, I knew that thou didst this with a pure heart, and I spared thee, so that thou shouldest not sin against me, therefore I suffered thee not to touch her.
And God said unto him in a dream, Yea, I know that thou didst this in the integrity of thy heart; for I also withheld thee from sinning against me: therefore suffered I thee not to touch her.
So is he that goes in to a married woman; he shall not be held guiltless, neither any one that touches her.
So he that goeth in to his neighbour's wife; whosoever toucheth her shall not be innocent.
It is clear, then, that the question of what Paul means by the expression "to touch a woman" transcends the meaning of particular words or the usages of a particular language. Thayer cites several texts exhibiting comparable use of the Latin verb tangere ("to touch").4
Since our basic interest is to take guidance from Paul, we need to know whether the expression "to touch a woman" is intended literally or figuratively. If it is a figure of speech, it might be a euphemism, a synecdoche, or a hyperbole. A euphemism is the substitution of a more delicate word for one more explicit and embarrassing. Perhaps for the sake of decency, "touch" takes the place of more graphic words. A synecdoche is a substitution of the part for the whole, as when Jesus says, "The Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20). Perhaps "to touch a woman" is a synecdoche built on the premise that touching is part of sexual relations. A hyperbole is an exaggeration for the sake of effect, as when the lover in Canticles exclaims, "Thy neck is like the tower of David" (Song of Solomon 4:4). Perhaps Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:1 is exaggerating the distance a man should keep from a woman in order to stress the evil in fornication.
But we must remember that Paul's dictum, "It is good for a man not to touch a woman," is in answer to a serious ethical question submitted to him by the Corinthian church. His answer is certainly less than helpful if it is cloaked in a figure of speech which is not meant to be taken literally.
Perhaps the meaning he himself attached to these words is suggested by the paraphrase, "It is good for a man to keep his distance from women—to stay so far away from them that he will not be tempted to marry." In other words, "It is good for a man not even to touch a woman."
It follows that what Paul is using here is a rhetorical device. This device lacks a name, but we will call it extreme proof. Some cases of extreme proof can be taken literally: for example, "It was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop." Others cannot. "He was so tall that his head scraped against the clouds." Any nonsensical case falls in the category of hyperbole. But all cases of extreme proof, both literal and nonliteral, share the feature that they either contain the word "even" or allow its insertion. "It was so quiet, you could even hear a pin drop." "He was so tall that his head even scraped against the clouds."
An example of extreme proof similar to Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 7:1 is the following: "Don't worry about the threats against your life. I won't let anyone touch you." In the context, touch evidently refers to some form of touching that seeks to do harm. Is the promise meant to be taken literally? We must assume that it is, since the literal meaning entails no impossibility. Interestingly, a parallel use of touch occurs in 1 John 5:18. "That wicked one toucheth [a form of apto] him not." Arndt and Gingrich translate this passage, "The evil one cannot harm him (or cannot even touch him)."5 Yet they do not recognize that 1 Corinthians 7:1 demands the same treatment. "It is good for a man not even to touch a woman," the touching understood as that motivated by sexual desire.