Monday, January 15, 2007

The Moral Obligation of Chastity

One of the conundrums of Christian sexual ethics is that the Bible does not directly and explicitly forbid premarital sex, as it does, for example, adultery and homosexual activity. In my experience, most pastors argue that the Bible conveys a general sense that sexual activity is moral within marriage even though it does not openly condemn it prior to marriage, or argue that people and society are better off if premarital chastity is normative.

Joe Carter has laid out an argument that people have a moral obligation to refrain from pre-marital sex to honor their future spouses:

Of the specific obligations that spouses owe, some are shared by other people (e.g., parents) throughout a person's life while others are unique to the matrimonial bond. For example, a husband has the obligations to financially support and to remain sexually faithful to his wife. The financial obligation is one that is first met by the parents, and perhaps later by the woman herself. The future husband is not expected to provide for her materially before they have even met. The fidelity obligation, however, is a unique duty that is not shared by any other person. It is specific to the marital relationship and is therefore binding even before the two "soul mates" have found each other.

Consider this thought experiment. Imagine a man is to be married on February 14th and has sexual relations with a woman who is not his fiance on:

(a) The night before his wedding. (b) The day of his wedding. (c) The day after his wedding.
The action in each instance is the same but the term we'd use to describe the man would depend on when the event occurred: (a) would make the man a cheating cad, (c) and adulterer, and (b) either a cheating cad or an adulterer, depending on the time of day. Regardless of what we choose to call it, the consequence of the action is the same -- the man has been unfaithful to the woman. Notice that though the "temporal perspective" changes the semantics, it doesn't change the morality of the action.


The argument is limited. Here is my own thought experiment: Let us say that tonight, as a married man, I went out on a date with a woman other than my wife. We had a romantic dinner and a walk by the lake in moonlight. Would that be adultery? Yes. I would be violating the emotional boundaries of my marriage.

Now, let us say that this event did not take place tonight, but eight years ago, long before I had met Katherine. Would that be adultery? No, at least under any definition that I can understand. I was under no obligation to refrain from dating this hypothetical woman to honor an even more hypothetical future bride. In fact, if I viewed dating as adultery against a hypothetical bride, then I would never have gone on a first date with Katherine at all.

So Carter is incorrect: the temporal perspective does change the morality of an action. His example only seems correct because he has limited the time frame to immediately preceding and after a planned wedding.

Which is not to say that premarital sex is moral or wise. It is not. But Carter has failed to provide a complete argument to that effect.

UPDATE: In his comments, Carter responds to my argument that if I went on a non-sexual date with a woman right now, even though I am married, that it would constitute adultery:

No, it would not be adultery (Voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner other than the lawful spouse). Having emotional attachments are not forbidden nor would a person be (necessarily) morally obligated to refrain from forming such bonds.

I disagree. Marriage is more than a commitment to sexual monogamy; it is also a commitment to sharing certain feelings (like romantic love) only with one's spouse.

15 comments:

Keith Taylor said...

One of the conundrums of Christian sexual ethics is that the Bible does not directly and explicitly forbid premarital sex, as it does, for example, adultery and homosexual activity.

John, I think you are wrong here. I don't have chapter and verse, but extramarital sex is called adultery.

However, sex by single persons outside of the marriage covenant is called fornication and liscentiousness. That is called out specifically by the Bible. Did not St. Paul discuss this in his epistle on whether or not Christians should marry?

Joe Carter is right. I also think your own thought experiment is flawed. Yes, you are not guilty of adultery, however, you were were guilty of fornication.

John said...

John, I think you are wrong here. I don't have chapter and verse, but extramarital sex is called adultery.

Let me know when you have chapter and verse.

However, sex by single persons outside of the marriage covenant is called fornication and liscentiousness. That is called out specifically by the Bible. Did not St. Paul discuss this in his epistle on whether or not Christians should marry?

Chapter and verse, please.

Joe Carter is right. I also think your own thought experiment is flawed. Yes, you are not guilty of adultery, however, you were were guilty of fornication.

Taking a girl to dinner is fornication? Please explain.

Keith Taylor said...

John,

No, taking a woman to dinner is not fornication. However, taking her to dinner and to bed is. My mistake, I had just read Tom's hypothesis of having sex prior the night before getting married. I transposed that to your example of dating seven years prior.

However, the Bible is full of examples where sex outside of the marriage convenant is called sin.

You must first start with the definitions of the two words, adultery and fornication.

Main Entry: adul•tery
Pronunciation: &-'d&l-t(&-)rE
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural -ter•ies
Etymology: Middle English, alteration of avoutrie, from Anglo-French avulterie, from Latin adulterium, from adulter adulterer, back-formation from adulterare
: voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband; also : an act of adultery

Main Entry: for•ni•ca•tion
Pronunciation: "for-n&-'kA-sh&n
Function: noun
: consensual sexual intercourse between two persons not married to each other

Here are a few token examples (notice that they call out both fornicators and adulterers as distinct and different) A few folks like to say that the greek word pornia refers to adulterers. If that is the case then how can both be called out separately?

I Cor. 6
v9: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,
v10: Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God

I Thes. 4
3: For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication:

Matthew 15 (the words of Christ)
v19: For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
v20: These are the things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashen hands defileth not a man.

Acts 15
v18: Known unto God are all his works from the beginning of the world.
v19: Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
v20: But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.

I Cor 7
8: I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I.
9: But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.


Rev 2
v20: Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols.
v21: And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.
v22: Behold, I will cast her into a bed, and them that commit adultery with her into great tribulation, except they repent of their deeds.

In the story of Jesus and woman at the well in Samaria:

John 4
v16: Jesus saith unto her, Go, call thy husband, and come hither.
v17: The woman answered and said, I have no husband. Jesus said unto her, Thou hast well said, I have no husband:
v18: For thou hast had five husbands; and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband: in that saidst thou truly.

It is clear in the last example that the Lord identifies the woman’s sin of having five husbands and also the fact that she is shacking up with the man she is currently living as all sin.

There are many more, and I didn't even have to go into the OT law.

I think you will be very hard to prove that the Bible does not forbid premaritial sex or sex outside of the marriage covenant in general

John said...

Keith--

You have provided English definitions from a general English language dictionary. These are not necessarily how these words are defined within the Bible. And as I have argued previously, even Biblical definitions can shift over time.

I agree that a Christian view of sexual ethics would conclude that pre-marital sex is immoral. But I argue that the Bible is less clear on this subject than on adultery and homosexual sex. Gay sex, for example, is graphically defined. But where is the specific definition of fornication as pre-marital sex? I agree with you that pre-marital sex is fornication; I disagree with your claim that the Bible says so directly. The verses that you have provided state that fornication is forbidden. Well and good. But they do not define what fornication is, as they do clearly define what homosexual activity is.

My impression is that the Biblical authors assumed that their readers knew what 'fornication' means. That's why there is no specific definition, as there is twice for gay sex. But after 2,000 years, we do not have that luxury. We cannot assume that words have the same meanings. Instead, we must carefully study the Biblical text to see how ethical concepts have changed over time.

Traditional American Christian sexual values are proper and wise. But we cannot say that they are Biblical unless we go back to the Biblical text itself.

I'm not at all advocating a libertine sexuality. But I do advocate that Christians question their own ethical presuppositions and carefully consider what our faith teaches about all ethical issues, including sexual ones.

Now back to Joe Carter's argument. If his reasoning is correct, then dating a woman (with no sexual contact) that you do not eventually marry is adultery.

So to sum up: I believe that pre-marital sex is sinful, but I do not believe that Carter has created a coherent argument to support this claim. I am in favor of pre-marital chastity; I am opposed to irrational arguments for anything.

Dan Trabue said...

I think a fair evaluation of what the Bible says and doesn't say about sexual relations would have to conclude that the Bible is all over the place and not at all clear on the topic.

Was godly Abraham right for taking Hagar as a mistress? Or was she a concubine or merely a baby-bearer? Nowhere is he condemned for having sex outside his marriage to Sarah.

Was Abraham right for offering Sarah as a sexual partner to some dude (I forget, Midianite maybe?) so that they might not be killed?

Were David and Solomon right for having dozens of wives and concubines? Nowhere are they condemned for doing this.

Was Hosea right to marry a prostitute? And keep taking her back after she returned to the job? God even told Hosea to do so, so I'm guessing that had to be right.

In fact, am I correct in remembering that the only time prostitution is condemned is in instances of temple prostitution?

Was Peter right to leave his wife (and kids? I forget) to follow Jesus? We wouldn't generally encourage pastors to do that today, right?

Other issues like masturbation, homosexuality, and what I'll politely refer to as "other forms of sexual positioning..." are not touched on or questionably touched upon in the bible.

Certainly, the Bible does seem clear in condemning bestiality. And sex within the family (although, for Biblical literalists, they must assume that sex was had within the family in the case of the children of Adam and Eve for a good number of years...)

And, as noted previously, the NT offers some more seemingly limited versions of what's good and not (no "fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind,"...whatever some of that means).

The point is, the Bible offers many ideals of sexuality and is a pretty vague and/or conflicted area. I think, if nothing else, the whole idea of polygamy must be noted to have had shifting popularity with the change of cultures.

All of this is not to say that I have loose ideals on the topic. I'm the husband of one wife and think that's a good model. I'm just not as willing now as I used to be to say that this is the only ideal the Bible endorses.

A fair reading of the Bible makes that difficult.

Anonymous said...

I admit to being a bit confused at this point... As an oft-ridiculed liberal, I maintain that I have this right. Nevertheless, I agree with John's thinking on this subject.

Richard H said...

You say: "So Carter is incorrect: the temporal perspective does change the morality of an action."

I think your argument would be stronger if you said, "the temporal perspective CAN change the morality of an action." Actions take place in the context of relationships. The nature of those relationships and how we characterize them changes over time. Some of these relationships will remain unchanged through time, simply by definition: a "woman who is not my wife" will always be a woman who is not my wife. By traditional Christian standards it is not ever acceptable to have relations with someone who is "not my wife." While the nature of my relationship with my wife is changed (or better, constituted) by being married, that change has no relationship with the generic person who is "not my wife."

Taking the discussion out of the area of sexual relations (where other issues might impact some people's thinking), let's try this. One night last semester, I asked my students: "Suppose I walk out into the parking lot and see a car I like. So I take it. I just get in and drive off. Is that ok?" The students brave enough to talk, said, "No. That would be stealing." I said, "But it's my car. Why can't I drive off in my car?" What they lacked was an adequate understanding of the relationship between me and my car. Whether I drive off in this particular car or not, depends on whether I have become its owner. Ownership status can change over time. It is not right, however, to simply drive off in "not my car" (I recognize that we have recognized social conventions that specify situations when it IS appropriate to drive off in "Not my car," but I'm not considering them right now).

Another way to pursue the question is to use Carter's example that you mention, but instead of talking about having relations with another woman, talk about having relations with the one who will be your wife. According to traditional Christian morality, the temporal shift clearly does change the moral quality of the action.

Anonymous said...

Dan,

You have correctly noted that scripture does not explicitly condemn certain sexual practices, including concubinage, polygamy and prostitution. What I mean here is that the Bible doesn't come right out and say, "Thou shalt not commit bigamy" or "The man who takes a concubine shall be smitten with boils." But it seems to me that you have missed the forest for the trees. Genesis 1 & 2 sets the foundation of human sexuality when God made male and female for each other, an event which Jesus endorses in Matthew 19:4: "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. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate." (see also Mark 10:6-9)

In the stories you mention (Abraham, Solomon, etc), the Bible simply reported these events. Quite often scripture will tell a story of misguided or sinful human behavior without commenting on it. However, this doesn't mean that sexual ethics are relativistic.

Anonymous said...

Basically, in John's case as a married man if he has sex with another woman or lusts after another woman in his heart (I.E. desires a sexual relationship with another woman), then he has committed adultery.

If he has a female that is a friend and he goes to dinner or does other non romantically involved things then he has done nothing wrong.

Of course if he does anything without telling his wife he is an idiot because if she finds out, she may come to the wrong conclusion.

We can't exclude friendships with people of the opposite sex after we are married. We just have to be honest with our spouses about the friendships we have.

John said...

I don't think that anyone is arguing that one isn't allowed friends of the opposite sex.

I am arguing that a romantic relationship with a woman other than one's spouse, even if it does not involve sexual contact, is adultery. There are emotional as well as physical boundaries that can only be crossed by one's spouse.

Richard H wrote:

I think your argument would be stronger if you said, "the temporal perspective CAN change the morality of an action." Actions take place in the context of relationships.

True. The temporal location of an event can change its morality, or it can not change its morality, varying with the event in question. The fallacy in Carter's argument is that he says that the temporal location never changes the morality of an action.

Anonymous said...

Haven't you heard the commandment:

Men & women can't be "just friends"?

Dan Trabue said...

"Genesis 1 & 2 sets the foundation of human sexuality when God made male and female for each other"

That's one interpretation of that. Not the only one.

As you note, the bible doesn't come out and condemn concubinage but we infer that, based upon other criteria (not wholly biblical).

Similarly, the Bible doesn't explicitly say, JUST male for female. Some are inferring the only "correct" sexuality is male/female within the context of one marriage of one man and one woman. Gay marriage is nowhere condemned or endorsed. Nor is gay polygamy or other approaches.

My thought is that culture matters. What was okay for David (a man after God's own heart) in his setting is not okay for us today.

But now I'm wandering into heretical waters again...

Kenny said...

As has sort of been mentioned, the English word "fornication," which is the traiditional translation of Greek porneia does (or did when it was part of everyday speech - I'm of the opinion that it's a bit archaic today, at least in most American dialects) in fact mean something like "consensual sex between two unmarried persons." However, the word porneia doesn't have any meaning so specific as this. It simply means "sexual immorality," which is now what some translations say. So prohibitions on porneia are very difficult to interpret. What would the original audiences have understood by this word?

I think a more important argument is that the reason fornication isn't mentioned is that, in the cultural contexts and the theology of both the Old and New Testaments, fornication created a marriage. That is, the socially acceptable thing to do is to have a ceremony of some sort first, but if you have sex it doesn't matter that there hasn't been a ceremony, you are now married. This cultural assumption is dimly alluded to at Deuteronomy 22:29. More importantly, Matthew 19:3-9 quotes the "two shall become one flesh" passage (Genesis 2:24) and comments "what God has joined together, man must not separate." Paul then applies this to the physical sex act, even when performed with a prostitute, at 1 Corinthians 6:16, which very strongly implies that the physical sex act is sufficient to constitute a marriage from a Christian perspective (and there is no "no fault" divorce).

Soman said...

No individual can rise above the level of animals if he/She is not able to controll all the emotions which can hurt a fellow human being- I am removing the animals form the list otherwise the non vegitarians’ll make a hell out of my life- and I sincerely believe that ideas like Himeshism (Unimatism) and omows (one man one woman) failed to gain any ground in this world due to the fact that not many human beings are able to conquer the animals in their mind which control their sexual urges!!!

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