What does the New Testament say about sex outside of marriage?
Part 1-the gospels
As a Christian wife, mom and youth minister I’ve been particularly interested in the debate going on in our churches, seminaries, and social media regarding what the Bible really says about sexual intercourse outside of marriage. There is even a discussion about its definition of marriage. Two weeks ago the Presbyterian Church USA opened the doors for clergy to perform ceremonies to unite same-sex couples. Some are saying that Jesus was ultimately about love and grace. Surely he would not subject Christian singles and homosexuals to a life without sexual fulfillment and that kind of intimate companionship. Lately the assertion that the Bible actually does not condemn homosexual practice has been in the spotlight. Some say that “justice-love” trumps all else. Others believe Scripture clearly shows a comprehensive sexual ethic that should be graciously taught as a unique union between one man and one woman within the covenant of marriage. They believe the unbroken teaching of the Christian Church for over 2,000 years remains in line with biblical teaching. As we open the Scriptures, we must do so prayerfully and humbly. As difficult as it is, we must try to remove our own agendas and avoid manipulating the text to say what we want it to say. What did the original author intend for his audience at that time? How is this text relevant today?
I decided to do a sweep of the gospels to get a renewed sense of what Jesus’ message was all about. Jotting down verses (New International Version) as they popped out in my mind, I was struck most by a recurring theme. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matt. 20:26-28; Mark 10:43-45 “The last will be first and the first will be last.” Matt.20:16 “The greatest among you will be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled. If anyone would come after me he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Mark 8:34-36” If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” Mark 9:35 “For the one who is least among you all- that person is the greatest.” Luke 9:48 “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:11; Luke 18:14 The message was loud and clear. It’s not all about me. Life is not about my happiness. Following God requires major sacrifice – not a popular concept today.
Next, I was hit by Christ’s compassion. “When he saw them he had compassion on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Matt. 9:36; Mark 6:34 When he saw Mary weeping at the death of her brother Lazarus he was “deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (John 11:33) In the parable of the lost son Jesus highlighted the extravagant mercy of God. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Luke 15:20
One of the biggest surprises in reading the gospels was the fact that Jesus never used the word “grace” (“charis” in Greek). Somehow, in all of my fervor for the Reformation, I had never noticed this. Certainly he lived a gracious life and his actions embodied the offer of unmerited favor. Jesus told us in John 3:16 of God’s amazing love and the gift of eternal life for those who would believe in his only son. He demonstrated his love in action. He healed. He forgave. Ultimately, he sacrificed his life on a cross.
When asked about the most important commandment, Jesus responded “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”(Mark 12:28-31; Matt. 22:34-40) He also said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35) “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” John 14:15 “Whoever has my commands and obeys them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. …Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. ” John 14:21-24 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.” John 15:9-14
Jesus called people to faith, to love for God and humanity, and to obedience. He told them to repent and believe. (Matt. 4:17; Matt. 21:31; Mark 1:15) Obedience must follow repentance. We must know his teachings in order to obey them.
What did Jesus have to say about sexuality? “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell. Matthew 5: 27-30 Here Jesus used hyperbole to show the serious nature of sin and the fact that his followers must go to drastic measures to avoid it.
When asked about inheriting eternal life by the rich young ruler he quoted several commandments including “Do not commit adultery.” (Matt. 19:18; Mark 10:19; Luke 18:20) The definition of adultery has not changed. It was sexual intercourse between a married person and another who was not her/his spouse. The Greek word “porneia” is often translated as “fornication” or “sexual immorality” and usually means “illicit sexual intercourse” or “sexual intercourse between people who are not married to each other.” This included premarital sex.
Teaching that it was not food that made a person unclean Jesus said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:20-23) Each of us is guilty of something on this list. Not all have been sexually immoral but we have been greedy or arrogant.
In the story of the woman caught in adultery Jesus told her accusers “if any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7) After the men walked away he told the woman “then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 5:11) He forgave her and challenged her to change.
When asked about divorce Jesus said, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning 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’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6; Mark 10:5-9) Quoting Genesis 2 Jesus clearly reminded the Pharisees of God’s intent in creation. This sacred oneness of a man and wife being joined sexually is a divine and wonderful gift.
It should be noted that Jesus never said anything about homosexual behavior. We can’t make an argument from silence. Jesus did not mention pornography, rape, or child abuse but we would not take his lack of such statements as tacit approval. Monogamous homosexual relationships were celebrated in some of the literature of Jesus’ day. Sexual promiscuity was rampant. In the midst of this, Jesus spelled out God’s intention for marriage as a union between one man and one woman and repeatedly warned against adultery and fornication, or sex outside of marriage.
Let me end this section about the gospels with a passage that contains the verse possibly most taken out of context in our day. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Matt. 7:1-6 This is a warning about the standard to which we will be held when we judge the actions of our sisters and brothers. First we must take the big plank out of our own eye before we can remove the tiny speck from our sister’s or brother’s eye. We see her/his speck and it dims in comparison to our plank. How can we take the speck out if we are blind to or don’t judge her/his action to be bad? The focus, however, is on the enormity of our own sin. This should be our primary concern.
The concepts of correction and accountability are increasingly unpopular in today’s culture. The New Testament is full of examples of what was once called church discipline. We each should have at least one Christian who will speak the truth to us in love. This person should help with our speck removal. “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Prov. 27:17