Fornication

Question

Is the Bible clear in its teaching on premarital sex? It seems very specific in terms of homosexuality, incest, bestiality, etc. But what about premarital sex?

Answer

The Bible commonly uses terms such as "knowing," "lying with," "uncovering nakedness," "immorality," and "adultery" to refer to a variety of sexual sins (e.g. Matt. 15:19; Acts 15:20,29; Rom. 13:13; 1 Cor. 6:13,18; 7:2; 10:8; Gal. 5:19; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3; Rev. 9:21). These broad terms tend to include all sorts of different types of sexual activity, including premarital sex, sex between people who are married to others, rape, etc. That fornication is included in these terms is illustrated in many translations which actually use words like "fornication" rather than "immorality" in many passages. For the most part, the biblical writers and their original audiences understood what these terms included, and that premarital sex was prohibited when these broader categories were condemned.

For the sake of comparison, you may recall former U.S. president Bill Clinton claiming that he did not have "sexual relations" with Monica Lewinsky. Most people in the U.S. believed that Clinton should have known that "oral sex" (in which Clinton and Lewinski engaged) was included in "sexual relations." To be fair, Clinton later admitted that he had "misled" his country by this denial. In the same way that "sexual relations" includes "oral sex" in modern English, "fornication" (a.k.a. premarital sex) was included in the Hebrew and Greek terms for "immorality" and other sexual sin.

There are also explicit teachings in Scripture that indicate to us that premarital sex is a sin. Perhaps the passage that deals with this subject in the most depth is Deuteronomy 22. In Deuteronomy 22:13-21, we find the statutes regarding women who lose their virginity before marriage. When they marry and it is discovered that they are not virgins, they are liable unto death. In verse 21 we are told that the non-virgin's sin is zanah, sometimes translated with the force of committing harlotry, sometimes with the force of being promiscuous. From the context, this law applies to all premarital sex regardless whether or not it involves prostitution. It is possible, however, that in the Israelite mindset prostitution would have been the most likely way for them to have lost their virginity. The verse offers no alternative by which such women might be exonerated, indicating that under no circumstances were they permitted to engage in premarital sex.

Scripture does not explicitly prohibit men from all premarital sex, at least not in statutes that describing fornication specifically. However, it implicitly condemns all male fornication in its other specific prohibitions, and it generally condemns it in all its general condemnations of immorality. Scripture explicitly prohibits married and unmarried men from having sex with anyone else's wife (Lev. 18:20), with betrothed virgins (Deut. 22:23-24), with other men (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; 1 Cor. 6:9), and with prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:15-18). The only ones left with whom to have sex are single women who are neither prostitutes nor betrothed. But these women cannot have premarital sex (Deut. 22:13-21); by implication men are forbidden to have sex with them (Matt. 18:7; Luke 17:1-2).

So, whereas we have no single verse that explicitly says, "All forms of premarital sex are forbidden," we do have many verses that, taken together, demonstrate rather clearly that the Bible teaches precisely this idea. We also have many verses that condemn all sexual immorality in general, and we know from the rest of Scripture that these refer to fornication as well as to other sexual sins.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.