Martin Luther famously said that we’re all like drunk men on a horse, falling off to the left or to the right of the narrow path—the path of grace and truth—Jesus has paved for us. The fall to the right represents truth without grace, or religious moralism. The fall to the left represents grace without truth, or ethical license.
In the 1990s we might say that Western evangelicalism tended to fall to the right. For that decade and the few years that followed, the “Christian right” emphasized purifying society through strategic, largely law-based posturing in the culture wars. If enough Christians were in positions of power, the thinking went, society’s laws, norms, and values would eventually become more “Christian.”
The drift has reversed course ever since. If Christians could just forget the culture war mentality and focus on engaging culture, nurturing friendship, and being winsomely persuasive, the thinking goes, a better society would emerge.
Both approaches assume some risk. Falling to the right risks becoming alienated from culture due to a morality-based, us-against-them approach that emphasizes rules and rights over love. Falling to the left risks becoming so friendly with secular culture that we cease to be countercultural at all and instead become just like the culture.
Everyone’s Litmus Test
Interestingly, a chief litmus test for faithfulness to both right-leaning and left-leaning sensibilities is one’s position on—and practice of—sexuality. Culture warriors demand chastity and protection of historic definitions of marriage. Culture lovers demand relational engagement and a non-judgmental tone, often at the expense of any discussion about sexual ethics.
My focus here is on what happens on the left side of the horse, where professing Christians don’t just avoid discussing sexual chastity outside of marriage, they increasingly avoid practicing it.
Over the past decade, I’ve noticed a growing trend inside the church: unmarried men and women professing Christ are becoming more sexually active than ever. They see nothing wrong with sex before marriage, especially when coupled with love and commitment. The justifying logic, as you might imagine, is more worldly than biblical. They appeal more to changing times than to the ancient text once for all delivered to the saints.
Here are the appeals I hear most often.
1. “If It Feels Right and Nobody Gets Hurt, What’s the Big Deal?”
The answer to this question—and your willingness to receive it—depends entirely on your belief about the role of Scripture in the bedroom. If you’re a Christian, I’m assuming you embrace the Bible as the final word for all of life—including sexual ethics.
Far from being prudish, the Bible envisions a robust, God-fashioned, life-giving eroticism between a man and a woman within the covenant of marriage. The Song of Solomon, not emphasized in most children’s Bibles, pictures a husband and wife in the bedroom, singing songs and reciting poetry to each other, adventurously enjoying each other’s naked bodies. Paul, writing to the Corinthians, presents this experience as normative within marriage between a husband and wife. His body belongs to her and hers to him. Except for brief seasons of prayer, spouses should be intimate often (1 Cor. 7:5).
Paul also tells the Corinthians that uniting one’s body with a prostitute—also a biblical metaphor for sex outside the lifelong marriage covenant—does violence to the souls of both parties. Sex, like fire, is life-giving—but only within boundaries. Let it go uncontained and a wildfire erupts, then burns, then permanently scars.
So the simple question is this: what will our source of wisdom and authority be when it comes to sex? God’s Word or our personal feelings and the support they receive from popular culture? Proverbs tells us those who choose God’s Word are wise and those who don’t are fools. Scripture is relevant to this issue precisely because Scripture shows no interest in relevance—that is, it shows no interest in accommodating or affirming the shifting sands of feeling and culture.
“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death” (Prov. 14:12).
Does sex feel good outside of marriage? Of course, in the same way cocaine feels good to the addict and the ring of power felt to Tolkien’s Gollum. Scripture is a safeguard. Surrendering our feelings and instincts to biblical truth will always protect us from unforeseen wounds and dehumanizing consequences.
2. “We’re Committed to Each Other!”
This is what I hear most from sexually active, unmarried professing Christians. They “feel married” to each other because they’re in a monogamous, committed relationship. Because their relationship is exclusive, marriage norms like sex and living together feel like the sensible way to deepen and solidify the relationship.
When this logic is used, I usually ask the couple why they feel the need to “solidify” a relationship with someone they’re not sure they’ll marry. Will they be glad about having solidifed the relationship with sex if the quasi-union comes to an end? Will they feel good about sharing the details of their current arrangement with a future spouse? Will they feel good about looking “the one” in the eye and telling them how they gave their body and soul to others? I finally ask if they, as professing Christians, ever feel compelled to thank Jesus—the creator of sex—for their unmarried sex lives. This question, more than others, is often followed by the “deer in the headlights” look.
3. “We Are Engaged to Be Married”
Isn’t being engaged more or less the same as being married? At first blush, the reasoning makes sense. Since it’s established we are going to get married, why not get a head start?
As usual, our response must go back to Scripture. Wise and faithful Christians will wait until they’re inside the covenant before they start enjoying the unique benefits of the covenant. Until then it’s playing house, but it’s not marriage. Remember Joseph. He “knew not Mary” during their betrothal (engagement) period.
So, when this appeal arises—usually in premarital counseling—I’ll suggest one of two options: either we can find some witnesses and have the wedding now (to sanctify the current sexual activity) or the couple can refrain from sexual activity until marriage.
In going over these two options, I’ll offer a rational reason in addition to the biblical one: statistically, couples who are chaste during engagement are much less likely to divorce or be unfaithful than couples who are not. I’ll then say, “Engagement is your opportunity to build a history of self-control and trust, to prepare you for seasons of temptation that will occur when you are married. Faithfulness to Scripture now will provide needed assurance in the future—especially during the harder and drier times—for faithfulness to each other. Protecting your sexual chastity now will help prepare you for your sexual bond later.”
No couple has yet chosen the “Let’s get married today” option. All have gladly chosen the “Let’s build trust through faithful celibacy now” option. An as I understand it, of the hundred or so couples whose weddings I’ve officiated, none has regretted taking this preemptive path.