Christian Sexual Ethics: Should the church permit pre-marital sex to avoid young-divorce?

Continuing my series of blogs I will today interact with one of the ethics that was suggested.  In short the argument was that the church should permit singles to be sexually active before marriage because maintaining our current ethic leads to too many young divorces, which is far worse than pre-martial sex.

“It’s better than young divorce”:

This is the introduction to one of the ethics that I interacted with:

It is my humble opinion that the evangelical church has –lightly put- dropped the ball on sexual ethics.  Our party line is sustained by habit, extreme cultural conservativism, and even intimidation and ostracization.  The problem is not well examined.  The prescription is legalistic.  The interpretation of scripture is frequently superficial.  Our collective assumptions on the matter are doubly ignored.  As is clear my opinion on this matter has changed significantly over the last few years.  This is due to a specific ethical framework, reflection on the various romantic relationships I have witnessed, and the general inability to reconcile the evangelical party line with any thorough and thoughtful, hermeneutic.

The consequences of this problem are serious.  We are attempting to maintain the following party line: virginity is intrinsically sacred and thus sex before marriage is intrinsically sinful. In attempting to do so we actually do damage to something far more important: the sacrament of marriage.  This may sound like a contradiction, after all, isn’t it two virgins on a wedding night that which sanctifies marriage?  Such could be the case, but it is also the longevity of a union that sanctifies a marriage.  While trying to maintain the party line, we encourage people to get married before they are ready and thus get divorced very young.  My position is this: Sex before marriage should be tolerated within evangelicalism in order to prevent premature marriages which end in the sin of divorce. In arguing this, I also will place the burden of proof on anyone who holds that virginity is intrinsically sacred.

The argument then unfolds like this…

The proponent stated they were a virtue ethicist.  As such his desire is to cultivate a good character in Christians (such as generosity), not give Christian rules not to break (always tithe 10% or your sinning). Marriage is a sacrament of the church is such a good thing to work towards.  Evangelical Christians have treated virginity as sacred this has caused them to view sex before marriage as sinful.  He refers to these as the “purity dogma” and “sex sin” respectively.  Fear-based tactics have been used to pass on these two beliefs to youths. This teaching has resulted in a negative attitude towards sexuality in general. The solution that is often offered to Christians is to marry young; Christians in love should marry, even marry young when they are young (and unprepared?), lest the Christians burn with lust.  This young marriage often leads to young divorce which is incredibly traumatic.

The proponent then suggests that virginity is not inherently sacred and pre-martial sex does not doom future marriages.  To the first point he suggests a huge cultural context needs to be understood.  Virginity was used in the Ancient Near East as an actual commodity as it ensured bloodlines along which property transferred.  The proponent argues that Paul’s condemnation of adultery is to be understood as actually against idolatry (as sex with cultic prostitutes was what he was addressing) and it should be remembered when he advised people to marry young to avoid burning with lust people were getting married at fifteen.  To the second point he suggests we need to listen to people who are not spiritually approved (those I assuming he means had sex before marriage and were condemned/ostracized).  They and their stories provide ample proof that virginity is not required for a healthy marriage later in life.  Even if people still held onto the purity dogma there is church precedent for allowing for a lesser evil to avoid a greater evil as Aquinas once, while suggesting prostitution was morally wrong, argued to allow it as he realized banning it would one day create more problems than it was worth.

My Critique of pre-marital sex to avoid divorce:  I should first say that I agreed with a number of the problems presented in this proponent’s paper.  Divorce is very bad and common among Christians.  Sexual sin is rated as worse than other sins and the church has done a poor job of extending grace to sexual sinners.  People who engage in pre-marital sin and have a child out of wedlock are at times ostracized or marginalized.  The sexual ethic has at times been taught with fear-based tactics (“Remain pure or the inevitable consequences of sexual sin will catch up with you…”) which results in a weak sexual ethic and can also encourage people to loathe their sexuality in general, not just their sexual sin.  These are all problems that I see that need correcting.

However, I disagree with the suggested solution.  In my critique I will generally try to follow the flow of his paper.

First,  the proponent suggests he is a virtue ethicist so my natural inclination is that, given the scriptures condemnation of sexual immorality and admonition to uphold marriage (such as Heb 13:4), he would seek to encourage chastity (for single persons) and fidelity (for married persons) possibly through a non-fear based approach to teaching scriptural truth regarding chastity and fidelity.  He does quite the opposite and I fail to see how permitting pre-marital sex promotes either of these two values in the lives of Christians.  To flip the anti-war slogan around, this is like launching a pre-emptive strike for peace.  One does not encourage generosity by permitting hoarding and greed.  One does not encourage honesty by permitting lies.  One could teach on generosity, and bear with Christians as they continue to fail to be generous, but this is not the same thing as permitting greed and avarice. While I do not believe sexual sin before marriage categorically precludes someone from a healthy marriage in the future, or that people who are caught in sexual sin before marriage should be shunned or ostracized I fail to see how permitting sex before marriage is a solution to these problems. The solution to these wrongs to me would be Christians in the church extending grace towards one another and a sexual ethic that is taught from scriptures, not anecdotes.

Continuing on, the proponent suggests marriage is good object that should be worked towards.  He writes, “The sacrament of marriage works well within a paradigm of virtue ethics.  Marriage, of course, is a good end to be pursued.”  However, instead of suggesting a sexual ethic where single persons could work towards this good end he highlights how evil and traumatic divorce is.  Because divorce is clearly so bad and traumatic, we should permit for other sin(s) in order to avoid it.  This is inconsistent within the paradigm he presented as he wrote, “Virtue ethics, without fail, always aim at a good as opposed to avoiding evil. The focus of a virtue is to hit the mark –the very opposite of sin.  The emphasis is never on how much evil I must avoid, but rather what good I can do.”  I fail to see how avoiding the sin of divorce by permitting another sin works towards hitting the mark of developing good Christian marriages.  Furthermore, this smacks of the very fear-based tactics he previously condemns.  Where people on one side would say “Pre-marital sex will cause you so many problems don’t do it!” he would say “Divorce is so evil and wrong, do anything you can to avoid it (including allowing pre-marital sex)!”

I hit a wall of confusion on how to write about his main argument until I realized what was present in the paper.  There is not one main argument but two.  The first is basically a teleological argument that divorce is so bad, we should allow for the sin of pre-marital sex to avoid it.  This is the stated argument of the paper.  The second argument, the one that was unstated while representing the bulk of the paper, is the proponent’s argument that pre-marital sex is not sin.  I will treat them separately in an attempt to be as clear as possible in my critique.

To the first argument, that we should allow for sexual sin to avoid the evil of divorce, I couldn’t disagree more.  A friend of mine, Craig Ford, in response to this said simply “No, because one doesn’t always lead to the other and the bible condemns both.”  While simple, these are my basic objections as well.  As stated this argument is primarily teleological in nature; this argument that is it looks at the end without a primary concern for the means.  It is an argument that rests on accurate scales to determine which evil is greater and then goes with the lesser one. It aims to avoid a greater evil by tolerating a lesser evil (again, not in line with the virtue ethics paradigm). For this argument to be true we must know that the sexual ethic presented is being taught in numerous churches, is solely (or primarily) responsible for young marriages, young marriages always (or often enough) end in divorce, and the sin of divorce is tangibly greater than the sin(s) of pre-marital sex.  All or most of these assumptions are not true and are not evidenced in this paper.  Not every young marriage ends in young divorce; some do make it.  People marry, and even marry young, for many different reasons outside of the Evangelical sexual ethic.  I have yet to encounter a couple who has said to me “Kevin, we decided to marry young because we wanted to have good sex and the church encouraged us to marry rather than burn with lust.”  I simply do not see causal relationship between the various factors that are required to make this argument to be convincing to me.

Furthermore, the “ends justify the means” approach to life is not part of scripture.  I nowhere find Jesus suggesting we should accept a lesser sin to avoid a greater sin, nor do I find in scriptures a point value for sins with which we can accurately judge which sins are greater and which sins are lesser.  If we begin to say divorce is a greater sin than pre-martial sex (which we don’t know for sure) this opens up many questions that are unanswered in this paper.  For example, how many instances of pre-marital sexual sin are more offensive to God than one divorce?  Sin is to be avoided as we continue our sanctification, not managed on some man-made ledger.  Any ethic that is based on a teleological management of sin is not Christian and I am not surprised this argument is not sufficiently backed up by sociological data, scriptures or even anecdotes.

The second argument, that pre-martial sex is not sin, is a subtle and unspoken but important shift in the paper.  Originally I believed the proponent still affirmed that pre-martial sex was a sin but divorce was so costly it should be permitted so that the greater sin could be avoided and this was stated as such in the introduction.  In the course of his paper, however, the proponent began attacking the belief that pre-marital sex is sinful.  Maybe the proponent wasn’t even convinced by his own teleological argument that started this paper, and felt the need to shift focus.  But this is of course speculation and probably wrong.

He begins this re-definition of sin with a deconstruction of a straw man argument.  The proponent suggests that the Evangelical church believes, “virginity is intrinsically sacred and thus sex before marriage is intrinsically sinful.” The proponent then argues against this ethic (in my opinion ineffectively) by pointing out the differences in the role of virginity in the Ancient Near East and today and suggesting that at least in one area the scriptures condemnation of sexual immorality (in Paul’s passage in Corinthians) is really about idolatry (as it is concerned with cultic prostitution.)  This causal relationship between the sacredness of virginity and the condemnation of pre-marital sex was a surprise to me as I have never encountered it before in my life.  No one has ever advised me that “Kevin, virginity is so sacred that you should avoid sex before marriage.” Pre-marital sex has been defined as sin because it is condemned in scripture.  Virginity, if anything, was a sign that one had abided by this moral truth despite temptation.  Often though I was thought that while desirable for a marriage, the lack of it was not something that couldn’t be worked through in a marriage.  The condemnation of pre-marital sex that I’ve experienced came from the many scriptures that condemn sexual immorality, not some argument regarding the sacredness of virginity. The proponent seems to be aware of this as he alludes to the “superficial” use of scriptures in his introduction and argues for a re-interpretation of one passage condemning sexual sin (which the church has historically understood as including pre-marital sex.)

While arguing about the cultural relevance of virginity might be somewhat effective in arguing against his straw man argument, where the sacredness of virginity is paramount, it is insufficient in regards to redefining sexual sin.  First, it fails to wrestle with the condemnations of sexual immorality where virginity and marriage are unmentioned.  Apparently sexual immorality was to be avoided and chastity sought after for their own sakes as well.  For his argument to work wholesale one must believe that scripture only condemned pre-marital sex in order to preserve the role virginity played in the cultural context of the Ancient Near East. I do not believe this is the case and have not encountered scholarly works towards that end.  I believe pre-marital sex was and is to be condemned because the boundary for sexual intercourse was and is a man and a woman who have entered into marriage.  The role of virginity in any culture is a moot point.

Overall I think this proponent does not effectively match his problems with his solutions.  Where singles are ostracized for their sexual misconduct grace should abound, but we do not re-define sin to make sure no one ever gets their feelings hurt.  Where fear based tactics have been misused we should replace such a teaching with a holistic teaching from scripture, not a teleological argument with a subjective appeal to “the greater good” or “the lesser of two evils.”  To promote healthier marriages I would assume a better teaching (to singles) on the purposes of the sacrament of marriage and a renewed emphasis on premarital counseling would be more effective.  My home church requires six months of pre-marital counseling (along with many churches in Modesto) in a desire to avoid divorce and has support groups for people struggling with sexual sin and classes that teach financial management skills.  As sex and money are the two biggest things married couples fight about I think my church is doing a lot to work towards the good of marriages.  These methods of solutions make more sense to me and do not require a more permissive (unorthodox) sexual ethic to be espoused from the pulpit.

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About Speakfaithfully

I am figuring out life and faith and taking other people along with me on my journey. Sometimes as fellow travelers, sometimes as hostages.
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One Response to Christian Sexual Ethics: Should the church permit pre-marital sex to avoid young-divorce?

  1. Ken says:

    Just some quick thoughts… if God calls us to purity then that should be our baseline. We should not sacrifice our values HOPING it might fix later issues/problems in life. There are also statistics to prove that sex before marriage, especially among younger couples is more likely to break up a relationship than strengthen it. If anything, we simply need to be more understanding of our sexual needs, and move from a shame-based approach to a grace-based approach… the whole idea of grace and truth. We should never approve of sin, but sinning doesn’t necessarily mean that we are doomed to a horrible life.

    Good post, and good thoughts… the challenge is to always stay Scriptural as we process these things, and in light of what we know biologically, physiologically, emotionally, socially, etc., always take these things into consideration before making “logical” stances or opinions. Sometimes only the most truly ignorant have the strongest opinions. Wisdom would in humility say, “I don’t really know how to fix this problem (e.g. divorce), but we sure need God’s help and grace to lead us through.

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