Permissiveness with affection is the viewpoint with the greatest number of proponents in Western societies today. This has to do with sharing more positive feelings and emotional connection leading to sexual intercourse. This also implies a level of exclusiveness and mutuality in expressing affection as well as sex. Permissiveness without affection, which allows casual and recreational sex between two consenting adults, has been a standard in the past few decades, often referred to as “hooking up.” A study of 832 college students’ experiences with hooking up reveals that women
were less likely to consider it a positive emotional experience and that hooking up is a practice associated with “being white rather than a person of color, more alcohol use, more favorable attitudes toward hooking up, higher parental income . . . [and] having hooked up at least once in the past year” (Owen et al. 2010, 653).
We believe that Christians should celebrate their freedom in Christ and be bound by no rules other than those given in Scripture. Starting with the Ten Commandments, it is clear that the Bible holds adultery to be contrary to God’s will (DeYoung 2018). While the term adultery is usually defined as sexual intercourse between a married person and a person other than the lawful husband or wife, in his Sermon on the Mount Jesus Christ expands the meaning of adultery to include all lust (Matt. 5:27–30; DeYoung 2018).
The New Testament word porneia, which is translated “fornication” or “immorality,” has traditionally been interpreted as sex outside marriage. Those holding to the position of situational ethics (the guiding principle of which is to maximize love) argue that “fornication” refers to a depersonalized, body-centered sex. Such a definition promotes freedom to engage in sex if it is not depersonalized (love with affection). Although the word may have this meaning in some passages, porneia almost always refers to sexual intercourse outside the marriage union.
We interpret the Bible as upholding the restriction of sexual intercourse to the marital relationship. Depending on how engagement and betrothal are defined, specific application of this principle may vary from one society to the next. Historically, girls were often very young at the time of engagement. In contemporary society, however, the trend is to marry at a later age, making it more difficult for older single adults to abstain until marriage.
Another contrast with the past is that societal structures used to help young people meet the biblical standards, but in modern society people of all ages are bombarded with explicit sexual stimuli. The mass media sanction sexual expression before marriage. At the very height of their sexual urges, people who have committed themselves to abstinence before marriage are besieged by such messages.
To add to the confusion, singles must grapple with the gray areas of determining the amount of physical and sexual involvement they will engage in during dating and courtship. This can mean anything from merely holding hands to genital contact just short of sexual intercourse. While the Bible advocates physical affection between Christians in the form of greeting one
another with a holy kiss, it does not tell us what makes a kiss holy or how to express affection in a relationship that goes beyond friendship. It is indeed difficult to set up hard-and-fast rules regarding premarital sexual involvement since many factors enter into the situation, such as the couple’s age and maturity, the level of their commitment, the length of the engagement, and the closeness to the marriage ceremony.
It is natural and good for a single person to physically express affection for the one he or she loves. Touching is a means of communicating acceptance, love, and care. We learn this from children, who are free to express themselves through touch and open themselves up for expressions of affection. Single adults more often withhold expressions of affection, an important means of affirmation, out of fear of being misunderstood. Unfortunately, this leaves many singles longing for intimate relationships with others that are free of such sexual connotations. Singleness presents a wonderful opportunity for both men and women to develop deep friendships. Reaching an appropriate level of vulnerability in emotional and spiritual and physical relationships with others brings richness to one’s life.
Of course, when there is a sexual element to relationships, the couple must negotiate this. It is essential at this point for both individuals to determine to what degree they will be involved, what is appropriate in their relationship, and how to proceed in mutually agreed-upon goals, all the while submitting to the authority of Scripture to guide their discernment process. We present the following guidelines to aid in discerning the expression of sexuality outside marriage.
1. The degree of sexual intimacy should correspond to the degree of love and commitment present in the relationship. Where there is no commitment, a high degree of sexual intimacy is inappropriate. Where there is commitment, being with the person is more important than the pleasure derived from the physical intimacy. In covenant love, commitment to the person and the relationship takes precedence over sexual expression.
2. We tend to desire increased physical involvement in our lovemaking which progresses toward more stimulatation. The ultimate sexual expression is orgasm. The closer a couple gets to that point, the harder it is to retreat to a previous level. The couple needs to be aware of this fact so that they can determine appropriate limits for their physical involvement.
3. Both partners must test their personal motives for the physical involvement and activity. Is the motive for physical involvement to express
affection or to sexually excite one’s partner and oneself? It does something for the ego of both men and women to know that they can sexually excite another person. As the motive behind physical involvement, such ego gratification has a way of separating sex from personhood, since the goal is not deeper personal connection but satisfaction of one’s personal needs.
4. The two people involved must continually communicate about all areas of the relationship. A couple should tread cautiously when the physical dimension develops out of proportion to the social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions. When the sexual aspect dominates, the other important dimensions are undernourished, and the relationship becomes lopsided, vulnerable, and weak.
5. Both partners should take responsibility for establishing guidelines and setting physical limits. Christian males must reject the societal norm that males should go as far as they can sexually, since it is up to the female to set the limits. Both partners are responsible for their sexual involvement.
6. The two people involved must agree to abide by the limits proposed by the partner with the more stringent standards. Such an attitude of respect and caring places the person above the desire for sexual activity.
To sum up our guidelines: the sexual dimension must be put in proper perspective. In 1 Corinthians 6:12–13, Paul says, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything. ‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food.’. . . The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” There are, then, no hard-and-fast laws to govern premarital sexual expression; rather, there is freedom in Christ to make responsible decisions that are in accordance with God’s Word up to the limit of sexual intercourse. We must bear in mind that not everything is good or beneficial for us; this is especially true of behavior that comes to have a grip on us. Once again, if sexual involvement becomes the overriding concern, it can lead to the demise of a relationship.
In thinking about premarital sexual involvement, a due amount of attention should be given to the matter of sexual lust and sin. We must neither ignore the subject nor overly concentrate on it. When Paul speaks out against fornication and immorality, he does so in a list of sins that includes greed and overeating. Some people make the mistake of magnifying sexual sin out of proportion. To them it is the great unpardonable sin, but this is not the biblical view. Others yield to the ethics of secular society and minimize
sexual sin. It is not easy being single in a sexually oriented society that promotes norms beyond biblical teaching. Single people need to be enfolded into family and community life in ways that accept them as sexual persons with needs for love and intimacy. In turn, they have much to contribute to the community, as they struggle along with everyone else to realize the full potential of their humanity, which includes their God-given nature.
In a mature relationship, there is a mutual responsibility for sexual behavior. This mutuality helps each partner set limits on sexual expression. Leaving the matter up to chance is irresponsible. Although chronological age does not guarantee maturity, it is a general indicator of one’s development and differentiation. The younger the person, the more underdeveloped his or her sexuality, and the more confusing sexual involvement can be. Few teenagers are mature enough to sustain a relationship as demanding as marriage. In fact, statistics show a high percentage of teenage marriages in the United States end in divorce. Many who engage in premarital sex do so for the wrong reasons, such as using sex as a substitute for emotional intimacy, to keep a relationship going, or to satisfy a partner. Although sex may offer physical pleasure, fixation on the external act does not satisfy the deepest internal cravings for an intimacy based on covenant love.
In contrast, mutual commitment allows single adults to respond to each other with maturity and respect. A mature sexual relationship incorporates the elements of covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy in an ever- deepening cycle that continues throughout life. People who achieve authentic sexuality do not separate sex and personhood but understand that their sexuality is an integral part of who they are. Lauren Winner (2005) argues for the importance of premarital sexual chastity by stressing that sex is communal rather than private—“doing sex in a way that befits the Body of Christ, and that keeps you grounded, and bounded, in the community” (123).
Masturbation Masturbation (self-pleasuring) seems to be a nearly universal practice for
both males and females. In the past, various attempts were made to discourage people from masturbating. Folk wisdom claimed that masturbation had unpleasant consequences: hair loss, warts, pimples, even blindness or impotence. Many young people live with intense guilt over this behavior.
How are Christians to view masturbation? What should parents teach their children about it? Obviously, parents should alleviate the fears and guilt that the myths of the past may have perpetuated. It is natural for children to explore their physical bodies and come to have an awareness of their anatomy. They need to feel positive about their bodies and the sensations they experience when they touch themselves. Healthy attitudes about sexuality begin in the home. Children who get a good start there will grow up with an appreciation of God’s gift of sexuality.
It is important to recognize that the Bible is silent on the topic of masturbation and that any case a person builds either for or against it is based on inference. There are three major opinions about the place of masturbation in a Christian’s life. The restrictive position is that masturbation under any circumstance is sinful. The permissive position holds that masturbation under any circumstance is healthy and morally permissible, harmful to no one, and a good way to be aware of ourselves as sexual beings. The moderate view holds that masturbation can be both healthy and morally appropriate but also has the potential to be unhealthy and morally inappropriate as well.