Friday, August 25, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: The Christian View of Premarital Sex [Part 1]

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

In an article appropriately entitled “Premarital Sex: Is It A Sin Or Not?” Charles Toy of contends it’s … not:

“There is no passage of the Bible that references premarital sex as a sin against God. The association between sin and premarital sex is a new Christian idea. The only possible reference to premarital sex being a sin in the Bible is in the New Testament. This premise although, is generally dismissed by theologians because the Greek word pornei, or sexual immorality is commonly incorrectly translated into the English word fornication.”

Tom: Immanuel Can, what say you?

Getting to the Conclusions

Immanuel Can: Well, maybe I can tell you what I’m NOT interested in — chiefly, that is in speaking authoritatively about other people’s sex lives, either before or after marriage. Now, perhaps I’m being optimistic, but I think we all know what the Bible says about God’s ideal for these things, as well as how to get right with God if we’ve slipped on something. So far as I know, no one wants more preaching on that from me.

Secondly, I don’t want to talk about whatever personal motives Mr. Toy might have for fudging the question or for choosing to take up this particular topic in the first place. He knows, God knows, I don’t know.

Tom: Agreed.

IC: So with your permission, Tom, I’ll skirt both of those issues in favour of looking at his method of arriving at conclusions. What’s interesting to me is that Mr. Toy has decided not to know what most of us know. His method of reading and interpreting scripture and the facility with which he dismisses it is curious. Now admittedly, if I want to talk about that I may have to speak a tiny bit about what I think his conclusions should be, but only as an aside to investigating how Mr. Toy gets lost on the road to good conclusions. Moral preachments I will happily leave to others, if I may.

Tom: Fair enough, since you’re heading for my favourite territory.

Parsing the Method

What made me single out this gentleman is the fact that he’s far from alone. Whether the topic is premarital sex, divorce, abortion, homosexuality, or just about anything that fifty years ago was considered immoral in the broader culture, any number of people who profess to know Jesus Christ have published articles or whole books that all take a similar approach to scripture: they have “discovered” that all the translators of a multitude of different English versions of the Bible were wrong about this word or that word, or they have “discovered” a particular feature of Jewish culture or a neat rabbinical interpretation that nobody has ever heard of to which they appeal in order to convince us that a text we once understood to mean one thing now means its opposite.

Appeals to so-called authorities like translators and Jewish rabbis can be very scary for Christians who haven’t seen them hundreds of times so, yeah, let’s talk about Mr. Toy’s “method”.

IC: Well, let’s break his argument down into its parts so the relationship between his claims and his conclusion are perfectly clear to us. He says:
  1. There are no possible references to premarital sex outside the New Testament.
  2. Those there are depend on the word pornei.
  3. The word pornei does not mean “fornication”.
   Premarital sex is not a sin against God.

Is that a fair and accurate representation of what Mr. Toy says? If so which of his three claims shall we deal with first?

Premarital Sex in the Old Testament

Tom: Well, since you’ve broken it down so logically, let’s begin at the beginning: Is it true that there are no references to premarital sex outside the New Testament?

IC: Well, I think Mr. Toy is word-picking in an attempt to open up a hole in a very well-established principle in scripture. But it seems to me that the Christian way to proceed is not to go looking for exceptions, but to be preoccupied with pleasing God. And if that’s our goal, then instead of singling out one word, what we need to do is to grasp the broad concept of how sexual relations are described in scripture, and then try to apply it to the specific situation of premarital sex inside that context. If we then find that premarital sex is something in keeping with God’s whole intention for sexuality, we’d have to concede the point; but if it does not, then his redefinition of one Greek word won’t help.

Tom: So we need to begin at the beginning, not in middle of the New Testament.

IC: What I mean is that we start with what God thinks sex is. A couple of highly relevant verses have to be Genesis 2:24 in the OT, which says “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh”, and Mark 10:8 and 1 Corinthians 6:16 in the NT, which apply it.

Here we have both Christ and Paul quoting the OT to explain God’s view of what happens when two people join sexually: they become “one flesh”. And when two have become one flesh, no other such relationship ever ought to be allowed to “put asunder” that first relationship. If that’s the case, then Mr. Toy would have to admit that any first premarital sexual encounter was itself as morally binding as any marriage. And then, of course, any subsequent sexual relationship with a new partner — even one with all the rites and ceremonies of an official marriage — would then become adulterous.

The Real Issue

Tom: As you point out, the Corinthians passage is particularly telling because Paul teaches there that the same kind of “one flesh” joining results from sex with a prostitute: “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” So the issue is not whether government, or society, or even the church formally sanctions it, the issue is whether the two parties have been joined together physically.

And the teaching of the Lord is that nothing other than death breaks that bond and everything else is adultery.

That is perceived as being “too hard” a teaching nowadays, but the Lord’s instruction on the subject of sexual fidelity was perceived that way in the time of Christ too. When he taught that marriage is a once-for-all deal even his disciples responded “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry”.

The idea that human sexuality is not some kind of buffet to work our way through in the course of our lives is unappealing to the natural man.

IC: Yes. What’s at stake here is not what Mr. Toy seems to imagine — namely the authority or relevance of a particular human or governmental tradition we call “marriage”, and the opportunity to have sexual relations prior to it — but rather the genuine condition of the individuals in question in the eyes of God. In point of fact, it really wouldn’t matter what THEY thought of the institution itself: for God is the decisive vote in who is “married” and who is not, and on what real “marriage” means. Convincing human beings of another personal view, as Mr. Toy is at pains to do is, well, really utterly pointless.

Flaccid, Chintzy, Ultimately Empty Faux-Polity

Tom: The interesting thing is that in attempting to give people this license to do whatever, whenever, even Mr. Toy feels the need to impose limits. He finishes with a long spiel about “love” in in the context of premarital sexual activity:
“Since the most important law in Christianity is the Law of Love this must apply to sex too. Don’t use people. Don’t hurt people. Don’t hurt their feelings. Don’t lead them to think you feel one way when you really don’t just to get sex. Don’t view them as an object. Don’t push them to do something they may not be ready for. Sex must be mutual.”
But the “limits” he offers are only his, not God’s; these few restrictions in the name of “love” are mere personal whimsy. Mr. Toy’s flaccid, chintzy, ultimately empty faux-polity does not remotely approach the Bible’s concept of real love. Real love “is as strong as death”. Real love can wait to gratify itself until it is with a person important enough to spend a lifetime alongside.

And in doing that, it (merely incidentally) also perfectly fulfills every one of Mr. Toy’s personal rules because it is greater and grander than all of them.

IC: Quite. Well, to quote Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it” once you’ve already conceded that you’re going to transgress the “one flesh” conception? Love of God is certainly no longer involved, because it departs from his conception of what it is you are doing. Love of each other is also off the table, since you’ve “mutually” agreed to do what is not God’s intention for your relationship and “consented” that your union will be temporary, exploitative and recreational, rather than permanent, cherished and spiritual.

A Failure to Distinguish

Tom: So he’s not correct about the Old Testament then. Genesis teaches that God intended the sexual relationship between man and woman to be singular (while both parties remained alive) and absolutely monogamous.

Mr. Toy has failed to distinguish between, on the one hand, what God intended and desired, which is laid out in Genesis and confirmed by the Lord in the New Testament, and on the other hand, what men actually did and the law God gave them to limit the damage of their excesses.

IC: It might be even more than just trying to figure out how to reconcile OT failures of the ideal with reality. Now as I promised, I don’t want to guess what his motives are. But the force of his argument seems to be to open up space for something that is clearly not God’s ideal to become permissible. It’s a “what-can-I get-away-with” kind of argument, not a “how-can-we-come-closer-to-God’s-best” argument. I think if it were the latter, he’d have spent more time asking “What is God’s best”, would he not?

Tom: Exactly. And citing examples of Solomon’s gross misbehavior (or even Abraham’s and Jacob’s lesser misdemeanors), does not remotely demonstrate that God condoned that aspect of their behavior, let alone that it was his “best”. They were sinning in that respect. They violated God’s intent and his purpose for them and for the women they were married to, and the natural consequence of their actions was unhappiness and more sin within their families.

Likewise, citing the limitations on abuses God prescribed under the Law of Moses also does not remotely prove that anything not explicitly proscribed was therefore not sinful, or that in limiting the financial damage men could do to the women they discarded, God was endorsing that act.

So, in summary, any sexual history that included a second woman while the first was still living was — and remains today — a sin against God, because the Genesis order precedes and trumps the Law, as Christ taught.

Let’s carry on with our second question on the subject tomorrow.

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