Biblical Dating: Principles for Drawing Boundaries

Jan 18, 2007 |Scott Croft
Biblical Dating: Principles for Drawing Boundaries

If all sexual activity outside of marriage is a sin, is it also a sin to kiss outside of marriage?

Before continuing with this article, please review the preamble included at the beginning of Scott's first article in this series, "Biblical Dating: How It's Different From Modern Dating."

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PART 4: Navigating the Early Stages of a Relationship »

Quite a few Boundless readers asked questions or made comments about my statement in "Biblical Dating: How It's Different From Modern Dating" that "biblical dating assumes no physical intimacy" outside of marriage. Many wanted to know, did I really mean no physical intimacy? What about showing affection? Isn't it sex outside of marriage that Scripture explicitly prohibits? How can you say definitively that other things are wrong? What if we're in a committed relationship? Shouldn't our physical relationship "progress" as other aspects of our relationship deepen? In this day and age, how far is really too far? I understand most physical stuff is wrong, but what about just kissing?

All good questions. With respect to pre-marital, romantically oriented kissing, we're clearly talking about an area about which reasonable believers can (and do) disagree. Let me lay out what I view to be applicable biblical principles and passages on this topic.

I'll start by putting my position right on the line:

I believe the Bible to teach that all sexual activity outside of marriage is sin, and all romantically oriented physical activity is sexual activity. In my view, this includes premarital kissing.

As the questions above indicate, however, many single Christians have questions about whether premarital physical activity at some level beyond kissing is OK. We need to address the whole spectrum ("just kissing" included).

Let me offer a caveat or two at the outset. First, the fact that "romantically oriented" is in italics above is important. I am obviously not saying that hugs and kisses of affection or greeting to relatives and the like are out of bounds.

Another important point has to do with culture. In some cultures, kisses of greeting — between members of the same sex or of the opposite sex — as well as hand-holding and other forms of physical expression during normal, non-romantic social intercourse, are more common. Fine. You might even be able to talk me into the notion that brief, "non-leaning-in" hugs of greeting, sympathy, etc. between men and women who are not romantically involved are OK.

We all know what we're talking about here, and these are not the things I mean to address in this column. The game changes when two people are romantically involved or "semi-involved" (a fascinating phrase I recently heard).

All right. Before you start throwing things at your computer, let's go to Scripture. It is certainly true that no passage of Scripture says — in so many words, at least — "thou shalt not kiss before marriage." Having said that, I submit that there is a strong argument to be made from Scripture that there is no room for any sexual relationship outside of marriage. The argument becomes clearer when we look at some of what the Bible has to say about 1) sex, 2) our relationships with other believers and 3) sexual immorality itself.

The "S" Word

As a good initial principle here, we should affirm that sex itself (and sexual activity in general) is not inherently negative or sinful. On the contrary, in the proper context, it is a kind and good gift of God. Michael Lawrence and other able Boundless authors have written before about the wonderful gift of sex, so I won't belabor the point except to repeat that the Scripture passages on sex, taken together, make very clear that God instituted sex within marriage for purposes of procreation, pleasure, intimacy, holiness and — ultimately — for His glory.

God instituted sex within marriage as part of His design of the family (Genesis 1:28). In 1 Corinthians 7:3 and following, Paul says once we are married, our bodies literally belong to our spouse; he also instructs spouses to meet one another's sexual needs and to be together regularly so as to protect ourselves from falling into ungodly lust and extramarital sexual activity.

If you have any doubts about God's intention to give us sex as a wonderful, pleasurable gift, Song of Songs should put them to rest. In Song of Songs, God has given us a holy and beautiful picture of a marital sexual relationship, and everyone seems to be having an excellent time. Even there, however, God is clear that sex is uniquely for marriage: "Do not arouse or awaken love before it so desires." (Song of Songs 2:7). The orthodox interpretation of the book suggests both that an actual sexual relationship is part of what the narrative relays and a context (at the time of the sexual part of the relationship) of marriage.

Brothers and Sisters in Christ

So marriage is a unique relationship, and the good gift of sex is not only allowed but commanded within that relationship. Still, the overwhelming majority of believers will only share that relationship with one person in their entire lives. How are we to relate to everyone else (especially believers), and how does that question inform the topic of premarital sexual activity?

The simple answer is that every believer to whom I am not married is my brother or sister in Christ, and I am to act accordingly.

There are too many passages to mention in this space that communicate God's command to live for God's glory and to "love" one another — defined as putting the spiritual good of others above our own desires. We are to do this in light of what God has done for us in Christ and in light of Christ's impending return. Just a few examples: Romans 12, especially vv. 9-13 ("Love must be sincere.... Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honor one another above yourselves."); Romans 13:8-14, especially vv. 9b and 10a ("Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no harm to its neighbor."); 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, especially v. 5 (love "is not self-seeking").

More specifically, 1 Timothy 5:1-2 reiterates the "family" metaphor among believers and instructs us about how we are to treat our fellow members of the body of Christ:

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (emphasis mine).

This is a didactic (teaching) passage generally instructing us about how to relate to other "family members" among God's people. We should note this analogy with care. With the exception of husbands and wives, there is no sexual dimension to "familial" relationships. Also, look at that phrase about how younger women should be treated — with absolute purity. As a lawyer, I almost never see absolute statements. It's the strongest possible language Paul can employ.

First Thessalonians 4:3-8 gets even more specific:

"It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong his brother or take advantage of him. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you. For God did not call us to be impure, but to lead a holy life. Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject man but God, who gives you his holy spirit."

Look closely at verse 6. Some translations render the word "wrong" as "defraud." To defraud someone is to deceive that person — in this context, to imply a commitment that does not exist by committing acts with someone that are appropriate only in the context of a particular relationship (i.e., marriage) to satisfy my own "passionate lust." To commit sexual immorality with and against someone, far from showing the "love" to which Scripture calls all believers, is to act like those "who do not know God," and this passage calls such acts "sin."

Now, one obvious counterargument to the point I intend to make is that the Scriptures I've cited above just beg the question of what behaviors violate those passages. The argument might run thus: "Of course I want to love to others. Of course I want to care for their spiritual good. I just think I can show genuine affection (short of intercourse) with someone I clearly care about and still obey those passages."

Fair enough. Let's explore that idea. Let's say for the sake of argument that it is theoretically possible to engage in extramarital romantically oriented physical activity and obey the above biblical standards while doing it. Have you ever met that mark?

Think about the times you have engaged in any type of romantically oriented physical activity with someone not your spouse. It might have been last night or last week or last year or back in high school or college.

Would you describe whatever you did as "holy and honorable," or was it done to satisfy the "passionate lust" of you or your partner or both (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5)? Were you honest with the person about making a commitment to him or her before the Lord, or did you defraud or deceive that person in some way? Was your purpose for doing what you did to build that person up spiritually — to make that person "more holy" (Ephesians 5:28-29)? Do you believe that you and your partner "honor[ed] God with your bodies" in doing what you did (1 Corinthians 6:20)? Whatever you did, did that interaction reflect "absolute purity" (1 Timothy 5:2)? Was there "even a hint" of sexual immorality in what you did (Ephesians 5:3-5)? Whatever you did, as you now think about it, does it inspire a comfortable peace or an uncomfortable shudder to remember that Father, Son and Holy Spirit observed it all? Do you believe God was glorified or grieved by what He saw?

How'd your answers come out? I can tell you from literally hundreds of emails and personal conversations that the only people who really attempt to justify premarital sexual involvement (with a few exceptions for "just kissing") are those who would like to engage in it in the future or who are currently engaging in it. I have never heard any believer, single or married, defend their extramarital physical relationships from a position of looking back on them.

Keep in mind that the idea of holy, God-glorifying sexuality is by no means an impossible standard once you figure marriage into the equation. While no person stops being a fallible, broken sinner just because he or she gets married, the context of marriage makes it possible — even normal and likely, in the case of two walking Christians — to answer well the questions I just posed. Sex within a godly marriage is holy and honorable before God (1 Corinthians 7, Song of Songs, Hebrews 13:4). It is part of the process of building one another up spiritually in marriage and should be done to that end. It is also meant, among other things, for sexual pleasure. And marriage — including the sexual relationship within it — reflects the covenant and the joyful, loving, intimate relationship between the church and her Savior. Not to put too fine a point on it, good sex within a godly marriage actually reflects God's character and brings Him glory. It meets the mark.

The Problem with "How far can we go?"

For those who have not thought about the passages above or who disagree with my argument from them, "How far is too far?" is still the big question on many minds. A brief tour of Christian blogs and bookstores will provide several different answers to the question, attempting to compose lines and boundaries somewhere on the sexual continuum behind which singles must stay. Some don't even draw lines beyond sexual intercourse, inviting singles to think it through and let their consciences guide them in the context of a committed relationship. I realize there's disagreement here.

In my view, the problem with asking, "How far can we go?" is that if we want to positively pursue godliness, it's simply the wrong question. What that question really asks is, "How close to the line (sexual sin) can I get without crossing it?" The problem is that Scripture explicitly tells us not to try to "approach" the line at all, but to turn and run from it.

The Bible and Sexual Immorality

"Flee from sexual immorality" (1 Corinthians 6:18).

The Greek word for "flee" in this passage is an exaggerated form of the word "repent" that means (roughly) to turn and run from something. I once played golf on a course in Florida that was home to many large alligators (don't get distracted — my lack of judgment is not the point here). Every hole had big blue and white signs on it that said (I'm paraphrasing): "DANGER: ALLIGATORS PRESENT. DO NOT FEED OR APPROACH ALLIGATORS. IF YOU ENCOUNTER AN ALLIGATOR, FLEE IMMEDIATELY."

Now, we could quibble about exactly what "flee" means here. It might mean "run in the other direction." It might mean "walk in the other direction." What it certainly does not mean is "attempt to carefully indulge your interest in alligators by taking your 5-iron, walking up to the alligator, and seeing how many times you can poke it without becoming its mid-afternoon snack."

Scripture is replete with statements that sexual immorality leads to death, that it is idolatry and that those who are characterized by it will not enter the kingdom of heaven (check out 1 Corinthians 6:12 and following, among many others). In addition to 1 Corinthians 6, other passages explicitly tell us that sexual immorality is not something to flirt with. Romans 13 (right after speaking positively of how and why to selflessly love one another) admonishes us not even to "think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature." Ephesians 5 tells us that there must not be "even a hint of sexual immorality" among the followers of Christ. If you want to think through this idea well, take your concordance and look at what the Bible has to say collectively about sexual sin of all types. It's intensely sobering.

The question is not "How far can I go in indulging my desires for sexual gratification or intimacy without getting too close to this thing the Bible utterly rejects?" The question we should all ask — in any area of our lives — is "How can I best pursue that to which God in His Word has positively called me?" He has called us all to pursue holiness and purity in our personal lives. That leaves little room for intentional flirtation with any sin, sexual or otherwise.

"Just Kissing"

Let's talk about two practical arguments that have implications for "just kissing." The first is that all sexual activity is sex. I believe God's design of sex doesn't merely include the act of sexual intercourse. It's also everything that leads up to that act, and everything on the sexual continuum is meant to end in that act. It's called foreplay, and I think it's a fundamental part of God's design for sex. To borrow (and embellish) an analogy from Michael Lawrence, sexual activity is like a down-hill on-ramp to a highway. It's one way, you gather momentum the second you enter it, and according to the Great Engineer's design of the highway system, there's only one reason to get on it.

This truth bears itself out not only in our emotions, desires and common sense, but literally in our physical bodies. The moment two people begin kissing or touching each other in a sexual way, both the male and female body — without going into unwarranted detail here — begin "preparing" for sex. God has designed us that way, and when we begin any sort of sexual activity, our bodies know exactly what's going on — even if our self-deluding minds deny it.

I'll simply call the other argument the "wisdom argument." Even if we assume for a moment — just for the sake of argument, mind you — that kissing without doing anything else isn't sex and is therefore OK, when two people care for one another, it is natural to want to consummate that affection physically. In the right context, those desires are good and right and God-glorifying. In any context, they are some of the strongest desires known to human kind. Kissing will often make you want to do more than kiss. It will likely make you want to indulge in sin. That desire will be strong enough in both of you without blatantly tempting yourself by trying to put just one foot on the on-ramp. If courting such spiritual danger is not sin itself, it is, at the very least, an unwise invitation to sin, what Proverbs calls "folly." Why put someone you claim to care about at spiritual risk?

Remember the Gospel

I'll be the first to admit that this article has been a pretty rough slog through a type of sin many of us (myself included) have fallen into at one time or another in our lives. Let me close by reminding us all that while God hates sin, and while sexual sin — like all sin — is destructive to us and grieving to God, there is hope and forgiveness in Jesus Christ. If we truly repent of our past sins and turn from them and believe in the atoning blood of Christ, we are not "damaged goods," but new creations. What was red as crimson has become white as snow.

"If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

PART 6: Growing in Intimacy »

Copyright 2007 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.

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