How We Can Know Premarital Sex Is Wrong

Funky fresh
Funky fresh

I need to apologize. My post last week with the sensational title about the Bible being silent on premarital sex took my playing Confused Millennial Protestant Advocate too far.

As several readers pointed out in the comments, there are passages that, when properly understood, forbid premarital sex. While there is no explicit prooftext that says, “premarital sex is sinful,” most Protestants don’t require such prooftexts, being willing to take the preponderance of the evidence of the Scriptures as a whole as making a compelling case against premarital sex.

Knowing From the Natural Law

I’ll get back to that idea in a minute. But another argument made in the comments was also important: Brent brought up that the natural law itself reveals to us that premarital sex is wrong. I find this argument interesting for a few reasons. First, even when I was an atheist I believed sex was best saved for marriage. Second, if the natural law argument holds, it means that even without divine revelation in the Scriptures and Tradition we can know premarital sex is wrong.

Catholics (and some Protestants) accept natural law theory. God has written certain truths upon our hearts, and we can know them apart from revelation. Murder and stealing are wrong, for example.

One problem comes from the fact that many Protestants do not know or believe in the natural law. Instead, they hold to a sort of divine positivism where the only thing that is true is what is explicitly found in the Scriptures themselves.

Scripture and Tradition

The comments include various passages that can be connected and plausibly interpreted to forbid premarital sex. As a Protestant, I found these compelling. I think the Scriptural case against premarital sex is much stronger than the one for it, which mainly trades on ambiguities with word usages. Solid exegesis tips the scales heavily in favor of the traditional belief.

That said, the Scriptures are never interpreted in a vacuum. The person interpreting them is always bringing a tradition to the table: a lens or paradigm through which he interprets the meaning of the passages. The prevailing tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, on the question of premarital sex, has been firmly on the sex-within-marriage-only side.

So far, so good. But enter the millennials. The Christian principles which have undergirded our society’s culture have eroded away to a substantial degree. Those of us who grew up in the preceding generations did so in a milieu where traditional mores and norms were still widely accepted as right (even if people rebelled against them–they at least knew that they were rebelling). Millennials are growing up in a different environment. Those old ties are weaker. The power of the conservative Protestant denominations has waned, and affiliations with mainline and major Evangelical denominations has fallen by the wayside.

The pervasive Protestant paradigm that interpreted the Scriptures as forbidding premarital sex is beginning to lose its force. That is the cultural shift we are seeing, exemplified by young adults like my friend Brandan, who wrote the original article toying with the idea that sex before marriage is okay in some situations.

Those Darn Catholics

Why do the Catholics always have to be right? Good question. It’s enough to know they are. The best way back to sanity for Protestants is to consider the Catholic Church’s claims. She makes a multi-tiered appeal for traditional sexual morality: Natural Law plus Scripture & Tradition.

The correct lens for interpreting the Scriptures is the one that God Himself provides: sacred Tradition as authoritatively understood by the Magisterium of the Church. There is no ambiguity or question. And the Church goes on the offensive as well. Not only is premarital sex denounced, but the beautiful, amazing, incredible truth of why sex should be within marriage is unveiled. St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body is a powerful explanation of this truth. Notably, he drew from the philosophy of Natural Law, Scripture, and Tradition to make his arguments.

The Slope Really Is Slippery

I was a conservative/traditional Evangelical Protestant. So were all my friends at the time. So it would have been hard for me to fathom a Protestant like Brandan making an argument for premarital sex. Surely he is just off the deep end?

Yet, in the years since becoming Catholic I have been dismayed by even conservative Protestants arguing for all sorts of things: Contraception, sterilization, divorce and remarriage, and even masturbation. These are sola Scriptura Protestants who take the Scriptures seriously. Once sacred Tradition is jettisoned, and a faulty, human tradition put in place, the slope is greased up for a fast slide into sin and error.


The great thing is that, with Protestantism’s traditional and denominational ties loosening, Protestants like Brandan are becoming open to the Catholic Church. They don’t have the age-old grudges against the Church, and when they start to read the wisdom of the Church: the Catechism, lives of the Saints, the Church Fathers, the Councils, and so on, they are dumbstruck by its depth and beauty. God draws them to full communion.

So we as Catholics have the opportunity to invite them to read and listen to this wisdom, praying they will be able to see what we have seen, and that God wants them to see. The Church needs their gifts and energy to spread the Kingdom and become great saints.

As for the post from last week, mea culpa. I have a moderately large responsibility as a public writer to be careful in what I say. I got sloppy on that post and stretched the case against perspicuity too far.

When writing that post, I had Brandan’s new paradigm in mind more so than the old Protestant one, because Brandan’s world is the future of Protestantism. The two worlds have changed in hermeneutics.  The “old” model is more interested in the model of “interpret Scripture with Scripture” (which is how pornea’s use is rightly understood by the old Protestant traditions–the Greek most plausibly denotes “fornication” to include premarital sex), and the new model is more enamored by explicit proof-texts (which hinders Brandan’s paradigm from realizing that the Bible forbids premarital sex).

18 thoughts on “How We Can Know Premarital Sex Is Wrong”

  1. “The law is written upon our hearts.”

    We know what to do…and what not to do. The trouble is that we just flat out refuse to abide in God’s law…and prefer to become our own little gods and make our own rules.

    That’s our core problem.

    That’s why we need a Savior…and not a self-help guru.

  2. There is the fact that 80% of millennial evangelicals apparently disagree that there are powerful biblical arguments, and the writer you mentioned cannot seem to argue against them.

  3. I thot I finally figured out what was mean’t by the proper noun “Evangelical,” but now I’m a bit confused once more. I’m pretty sure the news media doesn’t know as they give that label out as if Gospel (pun intended). In this piece about premarital sex, I’ve always thought that the word used often in the Bible, fornication, was difficult to dismiss let alone misinterpret. But getting back to my point, when I read, “I was a conservative/traditional Evangelical Protestant,” I once again wondered: What is the difference between evangelical and Evangelical? As I thot I’d finally figured out that a upper case Evangelical was a non denominational Protestant, like the newer “church for the un-churched,” commonly called “community churches.” Is there a common thread here?

  4. I don’t particularly think you took it too far. In my own life, I was an evangelical (in the strictest sense) for just over 20 years. Even a virgin all the way when I married, as was my former spouse, and faithful until virtually the end of that marriage of over 12 years. It was when I re-read the “Bible only” and nothing else, without the context of Holy Mother Church and Sacred Tradition, that I really went another direction totally as you know. It ironically killed both my Christian marriage and any future chances at being a priest. The “bible only” thinking that I finally could use to my advantage, or so I thought, in essence nearly killed me on every level. It was the very reason I allowed myself, even after fasting and prayer, to believe that “gay was okay” and that fornication did not equate to adultery, that Jesus was silent about SSA issues, and that essentially sex outside of marriage was in fact not sinful in all circumstances. You said what I thought at that time, and what hundreds or thousands now have begun to believe since, even those who sincerely name the name of Christ. And all because I looked for the technical words and not the spirit of the Sacred Scripture as only the Church can bring to us. You were and are right on target and sometimes a little shock is good for us. Please do not apologize.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I would still maintain that the problem here is not “Bible Only” but rather, caving into the spirit of the age (zeitgeist). Otherwise, we have to explain why Protestantism was pretty united about all these sexual / family issues until the last 50-80 years or so. Even contraception was universally opposed until one denomination allowed it for hard cases only in 1930.

      Clearly, the dynamic cannot be totally explained by the sola Scriptura rule of faith. There are many other cultural factors in play.

      The only hot-button issue of today that was more or less compromised from the beginning in Protestant circles was divorce. But even the prohibition of that was nevertheless maintained in many sectors of the Protestant community until very recently.

      One must also recognize that there are very strong Protestant moral traditions as well, even though they may not be considered binding and infallible. They were strong enough to hold for over 400 years.

      Most of the “negative” trends toward sanctioning of sinful sexual activities come from theological liberalism, which is a corruption of historic Protestantism, and not of its essence or heart.

      It’s the same in Catholicism, in a somewhat different way. Those who reject traditional Catholic moral teachings also reject many Catholic dogmas, which must be held by any practicing Catholic, as part of the overall system.

      In the end, it comes down to good vs. bad exegesis for everyone. I agree that Catholics have a very helpful “check” in the magisterium and the notion of “Catholic orthodoxy.” But I disagree that, therefore, no one can arrive at the various doctrinal and moral truths of Christianity by recourse to the Bible itself, without the aid of the magisterium. If one has a basic understanding of exegesis and hermeneutics, the historic doctrinal and moral truths of Christianity can be found in Scripture without too much difficulty. If not, then we get all kinds of goofy lousy exegesis (which is really eisegesis).

      The prohibition of premarital sex in Scripture is one of these issues, of many I think one would have to say that the sort of issue where it is very hard to find direct proofs in Scripture, would be, e.g., the Assumption of Mary, or her Immaculate Conception. But even in those cases, many indirect, implicit arguments can be made, and those doctrines do not contradict Scripture at all. They simply aren’t explicit in Holy Scripture.

      But neither is, e.g., the canon of Scripture, and no passage in Scripture demands that all Christian doctrines be absolutely clear and spelled-out in the Bible, so this is not the “knockout punch” that some folks think it is.

      1. Dave said,

        I would still maintain that the problem here is not “Bible Only” but rather, caving into the spirit of the age (zeitgeist)….

        It is both Dave. The two problems are not mutually exclusive.

      2. Hi Dave,
        I tend to agree with Richard that Devin didn’t take things too far. Perhaps “tellingly silent” was too extreme but generally I think Devin was spot on.

        You wrote: “Most of the “negative” trends toward sanctioning of sinful sexual activities come from theological liberalism, which is a corruption of historic Protestantism, and not of its essence or heart.” You also asserted that this liberalism is just giving in to the cultural trends and that all Protestant denominations agreed on the general sexual/family rules until recently.

        The reason for the agreement until recently is that Protestantism carried on the traditional teaching of the Catholic church. Protestants may have believed that they held to these sexual values teachings because it was a matter of good exegesis, but in reality, it has simply been a carrying on of the teachings handed down from Catholicism. Theological liberalism, rather than being an aberration or departure from the essence of historic Protestantism, is simply carrying it to a natural end, opening up further questions about things handed down and discovering that in fact they really aren’t all that clear from the so-called sacred writings. Protestantism in its essence is about each individual being free to decide the truth for himself and theological liberalism is simply that idea taken to a point beyond which conservative Protestants tend to go…but it is well within the “essence.” Without the strong moral teachings taken from the Catholic church (often without acknowledging the fact), Protestant denominations would have devolved into these same mistaken sexual ideas much earlier…if it were simply a matter of how clever one is at exegesis.

        You wrote: “In the end, it comes down to good vs. bad exegesis for everyone. ” On the contrary, the teachings came first and the exegesis is guided by the teachings. Exegesis does not determine what the teachings are. We can argue about masturbation or contraception from Scripture a lot, but like with Richard, even well intentioned Christians can read the relevant passages and not come away with a sense that it’s really that clear…there are other interpretations that are valid. All this is true unless of course there is an infallible teaching authority which provides the lens through which all exegesis must be seen. That’s the only sure way to obtain the truth on these sexual/family issues.


        1. Hi Jeff,

          If you grant that my assertion that Protestantism only changed its sexual teachings, by and large, in the last 50-80 years, then you concede that it held to moral tradition in these areas for 420-450 years of its existence, or 84-90% of its time being around. Yet you want to argue that the 84-90% of the time it held to correct sexual teachings, it was not being itself, and only became itself in the last 10-16% of its total time of being around.

          That would be like arguing that the United States is still merely continuing the English legal and cultural tradition and has not yet figured out (after 238 years!) the essence of its own, so that it can truly be itself.

          To compare that to the scale of time of Protestantism, we would have to go for 420-450 years, or until 2196, or another 182 years, or until 2226 (212 more years), before we are finally consistent with our own ideals. As of now, we’re still just sort of floating or living off the “fragrance” of English tradition (to use a word picture of Francis Schaeffer), and really have none of our own.

          Does that make any sense? I say not. Since that is absurd by direct analogy, I say that the primary dynamic is (as I have argued), a willingness beforehand (usually unconsciously and not deliberately, at least at first) to cave into the secular / relativistic / subjective sexual zeitgeist of our times.

          This, in turn, adversely affects exegesis; therefore, we see what we see today, up to and including sanction of abortion (which Luther and Calvin would have thought absolutely unthinkable evil) and contraception (which both of them thought was an extremely bad sin; basically murder of a sort).

          I agree that the Catholic magisterium is the only SURE way to obtain and know the truth in both morality and doctrine. I disagree that it is the only possible way imaginable. God has given our Protestant brethren a lot more common sense and common Christian heritage than that. We belittle them to think as you think about their own past tradition.

          With regard to these issues, it’s not so much that they have not been Catholic enough; they have ceased even being Protestant, insofar as they ignore the established moral tradition there, which was largely synonymous with ours.

          I have argued that people interpret within a grid, or larger framework of presuppositions. Those were [Protestant] Christian premises, in Protestantism, till the last roughly 50-80 years (depending on the moral issue) — though theological liberalism dates back to the 1700s. Now they are increasingly secular, which, again, is of the essence of religious liberalism, a corruption of both Protestant and Catholic tradition.

          That’s the source of this, in my opinion: not the system of sola Scriptura. Again, I am not defending sola Scriptura per se. I’ve written two books against it and more articles on the topic (uniformly opposing it) than anything else in my large collection of writings.

          But I won’t blame it for things, where it is not to blame, as far as I can see, per the arguments I have been making.

          What we see today in watered-down sexual teachings in Protestantism is the outgrowth of two principles or proverbs:

          1) “The frog in boiling water” (the frog being Protestants and individual Catholics, and the water being secularism).

          2) “We are what we eat”: the more we “hang around” those who do not think “Christianly” (in this instance, in a Protestant sense), the more we think like a secular relativist (and the more that adversely affects our exegesis). Zeitgesit, fashion, trends, fads . . . every move against Christian tradition (whether the weak form of Protestantism or the strong form of Catholicism) is a move towards anti-Christian secularism.

          1. Dave said,

            If you grant that my assertion that Protestantism only changed its sexual teachings, by and large, in the last 50-80 years,….

            I don’t.

            According to his interpretation of Scripture alone, Luther said,

            “It is not in opposition to the Holy Scriptures for a man to have several wives.”[De Wette, Vol. 2, p. 459]

            And how about this nugget:

            “If the husband is unwilling, there is another who is; if the wife is unwilling, then let the maid come.”[Ewald Plass, What Luther Says II:901, footnote 20]

            Luther is the Father of the Reformation and we see that his teachings on human sexuality began to devolve as soon as he rejected the Magisterium and Sacred Tradition.

            That would be like arguing that the United States is still merely continuing the English legal and cultural tradition and has not yet figured out (after 238 years!) the essence of its own, so that it can truly be itself….

            No, your position is like arguing that a partial lie is as good as the fullness of truth.

            Does that make any sense? I say not. Since that is absurd by direct analogy, ….

            Your arguments make no sense. Protestantism has been drowning in secularist water from its inception. The Catholic Church and those who follow Her Teachings are sailing safely on the Barc of Peter.

          2. Hi again Dave,
            I certainly appreciate your concern to be fair and not assign blame where it isn’t justified. And I do recognize the faithfulness of many Protestants in carrying on the tradition they inherited, even if they don’t realize that every good thing they inherited ultimately came from the Catholic church. I was a Protestant for 47 years, ranging from Pentecostal (Assemblies of God) to LCMS Lutheran to very staunch Reformed.

            Regarding your analogy, I don’t think it really applies. A plane can lose its pilot and continue flying in a straight line for a long period of time. Similarly, Protestantism inherited the stable course of teaching on sexuality set by the Catholic church and even when they jettisoned the pilot so to speak, the tradition could safely maintain course, depending on what obstacles or headwinds were encountered. Such obstacles could occur in 10 minutes or 10 hours…the time scale isn’t important. What’s important is that ultimately without the pilot, the plane WILL fail…it is fundamentally without the element of guidance which can keep it safely on course regardless of the obstacles.

            I don’t agree that all the moral teachings were held until recently…there were groups early in the Reformation era that broke off into all sorts of sexual license, justified by Scripture (consider various Anabaptist groups, John of Leiden, etc). Whether they would be regarded as fringe groups or not doesn’t matter…they fundamentally anchored their beliefs in exegesis. It’s the exact same thing Irenaeus argued against in the 2nd century…if the basis of truth is exegesis, there will be as many “truths” as there are men.

            I think Devin’s post resonated with me because as a diligent Protestant, I was very keen to understand Biblical teaching on fornication, masturbation, contraception. But taking the texts by themselves without recognizing the strong lens of (ultimately Catholic) tradition behind their interpretation, there are so many nuances and exceptions that could legitimately be argued (was Onan really about masturbation per se or just familial responsibility?), that I found it very unsatisfying and difficult to convince non-Christians. Only with the comprehensive teaching and tradition of the church do I find an argument can really be made.

            I do appreciate your willingness to be fair, as I said. I would just tend to disagree that ultimately this isn’t something inherent to Protestantism, regardless of how long it took to fully reveal itself.


  5. Hi Dave and yes I agree “fundamentally” (pun intended!) with what you are saying. I share my own experience as an example though of a person who, while far from being the Biblical scholar that you or many others who have come from either Catholic or classical Protestant traditions have come from, definitely had several years of theological training and background as a minister within the Assemblies of God for 12 years before leaving that era of my life.

    I can again only speak for myself but I attempted to use every tool at my disposal, whether lexicons, books written from both “pro and con” LGBT-friendly theology, and a lot of prayer, to say nothing of reading and re-reading the passages that do directly mention homosexuality as well as fornication without eisegesis. I think that in reality is what at least kept me from going further into that world, although I went plenty far, than I did. But, and again I can only speak for me, while not deliberately doing so, it is still very easy to read passages of Sacred Scripture and turn them on their heads if you truly believe you are the final interpreter of them. And that was missing in my life for 35 years. So while I knew that the traditional interpretations of both Catholics and most Protestants disagreed with me, I frankly did not care about tradition because I had long quit believing that it mattered.

    I know now that it does matter, and hugely. But I think that I am most likely not alone in my ability to be mislead, and I did not begin living the “LGBT lifestyle” with a conscious intent to be evil. I truly believed it was who I was and where I needed to be. So, and again I can only speak for me, it was indeed the Traditions, the “big T” ones particularly, that directed me home.

    My only point is that many are misled in exactly the ways I was, and hopefully we do not vilify them or assume we know their hearts. Only God can see what is within us. And I am thankful He saw that I wanted to serve Him, confusion and all. That was all I meant to say, and I must stand with that. God bless.

  6. One postscript I might add…I am not in the least saying that my attempt at exegesis was not flawed–it obviously was. All I am saying is that it was not deliberately so, and, even when using the best tools of study, we can miss the Truth by several hundred miles. And, as you rightly say, that may be indeed because of the spirit of the age we live in. But had it not been for the Magisterial understanding of sexuality I might never have come fully home to Catholicism. My mentality had to change from “I can interpret the Bible as best I understand it” to “what has the Church through the ages said about passages that are less than clear,” for whatever the reason, to many of us. Couple that with the other factors and we can indeed be misled, particularly after our understanding is truly darkened, as mine was, and still is at moments (just as with most of us). We all go to Sacred Scripture with biases, and it takes the Magisterium to override those at times. At least it did for me in the area of sexuality, and I am pretty sure I am quite far from alone in that. Again God bless!

  7. We preach God’s law…HARD!

    That is, we don’t talk about our individual sins and how to become ‘better’.

    We speak of our CONDITION. We say (every Sunday, every worship service) that “we are in bondage to sin and cannot (‘will not’) free ourselves. We also say, that “we have not loved God with our whole heart, nor our neighbors as ourselves.”

    So what then?

    Then we flee to His mercy and grace for He loves and died for REAL sinners. The kind we know we are.

    Radically different…no? Than the ladder-climbing, self-ascendant religious project found in the vast majority of churches.

    1. Yes, Steve. Protestant error is radically different from the Fullness of Truth taught by the Catholic Church. What you call, “ladder climbing” we call “obedience of faith”.

      One problem, it is Protestants who proclaim themselves saved by their own faith. Therefore, it is Protestants who are self-ascendant. Catholics humbly submit to God’s Judgment.

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