Q & R: Let’s talk about premarital sex

Here’s the Q:

Hi Brian, I hope you are well. Before anything, I just wanted to say that you and your writings have been an enormous inspiration to me. Looking back, I feel that the introduction I had a while back to the content and perspective from which you write came at a very good time for me, and acted as a natural step forward within the process of my faith being challenged and invigorated. Thank you for that.
This may be a question you have been posed many times over, so I apologize if that is the case. I strongly admire your views on sexuality and how the topic ties in so strongly with how we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves and, above all, love God. I also admire the lense through which you address the many aspects, both positive and negative, about our modern-day disposition on sexuality and sex-related topics and how those relate back to following Christ.
My question is this – what is your take on the view that pre-marital sex is sinful?
I have been hard-pressed to find legitimate passages within the Bible that address this specific issue except in chapter 13 of Hebrews, verse 4, which states that “marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” Even within this passage however, the context seems to be more about maintaining fidelity within a marriage scenario as opposed to engaging in sexual experiences prior to marriage. I understand the psychological and emotional impact that pre-marital sexual activity could cause for a spouse who is aware that their significant other had engaged in sexual activity before they were married, but where exactly is this addressed in Scripture as a sin? Particularly if it is consensual and legal, where is the basis for total abstinence in the Bible? Part of me feels that the topic has slowly evolved over time through more of a hand-me-down, Moral Majority-esque type of mindset, as opposed to its basis and subsequent progression of belief stemming from a biblical context.
Now, I should also say that I speak to you as someone who feels I went a little “too far” in the relationship with [the wonderful woman I am engaged to marry in a few weeks]. Yet she and I will both tell you that the supposed onslaught of guilt, shame, condemnation, etc, that many churches and church leaders claim comes instantly after engaging in premarital sexual activity was virtually non-existent for a good while after we began doing so. To be honest, we both felt incredibly connected, vulnerable yet simultaneously protected, intimate, and in some ways close to God. There was a freedom in experiencing what we were engaging in and not having to contend with the “wrath of God” as so many fire-breathing preachers had claimed would be the case. For the past five months however, we both felt it was best to put a temporary halt on those things until marriage, as we realized the pressure and strain it was putting on our relationship was beginning to increase more and more.
This is where the root of my question lies. In our case, it was more for the health of our relationship and future marriage that we stopped engaging in sexual activity as opposed to feeling we had been sinning against God. Although we realize the huge importance in honoring God with our bodies, when we first started being sexually active, it felt more freeing and cathartic than anything. We felt that we were able to not only have a close relationship with God, yet in being sexually involved with one another, we were, in some ways, proving wrong what we had once believed and had been taught about pre-marital sexual activity. Basically, our abstinence came after sexual pleasure became an idol in our relationship, as opposed to coming from a sudden realization that we were breaking some sort of moral law that we had been taught was a direct command from God.
All of this to say, I could be totally wrong about everything I’ve just mentioned, and maybe I need to do some more research. This topic/question though has fascinated and also confused me for some time, so I throw it out to you to see if you can offer any insight. Anything you have to say is valuable to me and extremely appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

Here’s the R:

First, I’m sorry for the long delay in posting this. I think you have been married for close to a year now – so congratulations! Also, I want to thank you for raising this question, because as I suggested in A New Kind of Christianity (under “The Sex Question”), I think a good percentage of our angst about homosexuality is related to a deeper angst about human sexuality in general and premarital sex in particular. The issue becomes even more interesting (and complex) when you read a book like Jennifer Wright Knust’s Unprotected Texts or Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History or Ryan and Jetha’s Sex at Dawn.
The standard way of engaging issues of sexuality seems to focus on “Where is the line? What is sinful, and what is not?” Then we engage in theological football – playing this verse and and that, seeing how one set of down turns out, followed by the opposing side lining up their verses and playing them. Over time, one side gains yardage and scores, and the game continues. Often (as I also discuss in NKOCy), this approach serves to strengthen what I call a constitutional reading of the Bible, and in that way, whichever team wins, we all lose – if (as I suggest) the constitutional approach is itself problematic, morally compromised, and in need of revision or replacement.
You and your (now) wife, it seems to me, took a more Pauline approach: instead of focusing on what things were lawful, you focused on what was expedient (1 Cor. 6:12 – the language sounds a bit clinical in this setting, doesn’t it!). Your approach was also highly Jamesian … focusing on wisdom (James 1) and “the royal law” of love (James 2). You monitored what was happening in your individual souls and the soul of your marriage, and when you felt that what was happening was obsessive and therefore “unfree” and not flowing from good faith (I think this is what you meant by idolatrous?), you changed course.
You didn’t find a verse to justify what you were doing, and then conclude, “Now we have no more moral responsibility,” but instead you tried to live in sync with the Holy Spirit and ultimately chose to be abstinent until your wedding because your heart and conscience made you want to do so.
I must add, though, that you and your fiancee sound like mature people. I don’t think a thirteen-year-old boy, driven partly by hormones and partly by a desire to have a good conquest story to tell his buddies in the locker room, could be trusted to exercise that kind of maturity. Which raises the coming-of-age question – how do we help adolescents become mature enough morally to handle the sexual maturity that arrives at younger and younger biological ages (for reasons not completely understood)?
There are surprisingly few places where this kind of thing can be discussed openly and honestly. I feel terribly sorry for youth workers and college ministers who have to face these realities day after day without a safe venue for honest dialogue among professional colleagues. (Maybe these venues exist and I’m not aware of them – perhaps some resources can be shared over at my facebook page? http://www.facebook.com/pages/Brian-D-McLaren/65814657989?ref=ts)
One reason for the scarcity of safe spaces for dialogue will probably be demonstrated in the ways a sentence or two from this reply to your question will be lifted and spread around the internet … “Can you believe what McLaren said (or didn’t say) this time?” I believe emergentvillage.com is planning a gathering to engage in this important conversation soon … I’ll post info as soon as I get it, but anyone interested should check in at emergentvillage.com.
Anyway, I wish I could wrap everything up here in a nice tidy box, but sexuality refuses that sort of treatment in nearly all our lives – individually and as communities. Thanks for sharing and getting this important issue on the table.