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How far is too far?

How much physical intimacy before marriage is too much? Where's the line?


I’m a Christian college student raised in a traditional Southern family, and maybe I have an old-fashioned idea of modesty … or maybe not. I’ve never dated and don’t know what things are like, but my best friend, who I’ve always respected as being a strong Christian, recently became engaged, and I just met her fiancé the first time a few weeks ago. All they did while I was present was stand around hugging each other and whispering in each others’ ears and kissing … and I was shocked!

How much physical intimacy before marriage is too much, biblically/morally/spiritually speaking? Am I just being a prude to think Christians (even engaged Christians) should show more physical restraint with each other, or does it just apply to intimacy … em … below the waist, I’ll say? I don’t really want to talk with my friend about this because I think she would take offense. Or should I?


First, to address this couple specifically, I would say that if what they’re doing in public seems inappropriate, then there’s no telling what’s going on in private. Generally, if it’s behavior that distracts or seems out of place, then from a mere social standpoint (much less, biblical) it’s probably inappropriate. As I will go into more detail below, the apostle Paul said (and I’m paraphrasing) that what is merely permissible is not the goal for Christian behavior. The goal is what is beneficial or constructive (literally, promotes growth in Christian wisdom, grace, affection, virtue, holiness, blessedness). There’s certain appropriate and inappropriate public affection, even for marrieds, and what benefits should be the target.

For example, it’s heartwarming to see an older married couple holding hands in the park or sharing a little kiss to express their affection for one another, what I would call non-sexual touching and affection. Seeing that, rather than emotional and physical coldness, encourages young couples. It’s beneficial to everyone. My wife and I make sure to appropriately express, both physically and verbally, our love for one another in front of our children as a model for them. It makes them feel secure and is therefore a benefit.

On the other hand, it’s disturbing when two people, whether married or unmarried (including engaged), are so physically engrossed in one another that it makes those around them feel awkward, which sounds like your friends. That’s not beneficial. In your specific situation, I would advise that you explain to your girlfriend that you are rejoicing with her in her excitement over her upcoming marriage, and that you’re not being a prude, but that their physical expression toward one another makes things awkward for you.

Now, to address the how far is too far issue in regards to physical expression outside marriage (we could also address appropriate and inappropriate non-physical expression, but one thing at a time). If Boundless had a list of top 10 questions, this would probably be in the top five at least. Everybody wants to know where the line is between “OK-with-God” and “not-OK-with-God” on the physical intimacy scale. Different Boundless writers have various opinions on it, but no matter where we draw the line, someone will want to know how close to that line is OK. If I say, for instance, no touching, em, below the belt, then someone will want to know how close to “the belt” is OK (and assume that “above” is fine). If I say, no passionate kissing, then someone will say, “define passionate.” If I say, no holding hands, then someone will say I’m crazy.

So, no matter what I say about specific, physical boundaries outside marriage, I’m caught in a swirling mess of degrees of physical touch that demands a finite set value. Can I go to first base? Second? Third? If not Home Base can I go three-fifths of the way between Third and Home? On and on it goes. We seem to be much more concerned about how close to “not OK” we can get and still “be OK.” We are obsessed with what can we legally get away with, how close to the line can we get, and that’s where we want to set up camp. I wish I could just say use common sense, but one reader recently sent us a note saying that although he and his girlfriend do not have sex, they enjoy cuddling nude with one another, so apparently common sense is not enough.

But we’re not asking the right question. The question should not be, “How far is too far?” but rather, “What builds up, honors and promotes growth?” If we would only ask and answer that, we’ll be so far from the lines we need not worry. The apostle Paul dealt with the same issues a couple thousand years ago. Christians in Corinth were wrestling over boundary lines about what food and drink and behavior was OK. As I mentioned above, Paul responded by urging the Corinthians to not be so concerned with what is permissible, rather, he said concern yourself with what is beneficial.

Obsession with degrees is immature. Christian maturity, as Paul describes it, is evidenced by concern with what is beneficial, what promotes godliness, what glorifies God, and with relationships what honor her and honor him and the community around them. If, he said, we would rightly focus on what benefits God and others rather than on how close to the line we can get and still not sin, we are mature Christians. The immature need lines, and lines around those lines. The mature are so far away from the lines, they’re not even thinking about the lines.

Lines are important, and we need them while we grow into maturity. I draw boundary lines for my preschool children because they’re immature; they lack knowledge. I have to tell them not to play beyond our driveway because the street can be dangerous, even deadly. My 4-year-old son is obsessed with how close he can get his toes to the street when he’s standing at the end of our driveway. “So where exactly does the street begin, Daddy?”

I’m trying to teach him about the danger of getting hit by a car, and all he wants to talk about is where the driveway ends and the street begins. He’s missing all the fun he could have on the driveway by obsessing over the line.

The Bible draws a bright line, as to physical touch, at sexual intercourse outside of marriage (and at lust, I might add). So of course, everyone wants to know what exactly is meant by sexual intercourse. Genital sex only? Vaginal? Is oral sex included? Mutual masturbation? Holding hands? Light kissing? French kissing? And once they get an answer to that, they’re off to see how close they can get to it without stepping over.

I’ll repeat what you’ve heard a thousand times: At a certain point of intimacy (physical and non-physical), the engine begins getting warmed up for sex. That place might be different for you than where it is for your mate and change depending on the circumstances. Wherever it is, the whole process is a progression toward sex. When the engine warms up, and you’re not married, you’re a 4 year old playing on a busy street — it’s only a matter of time. Draw lines where you need them and then strive to grow into maturity — where you and others are “built up” by your behavior, both sexual and non-sexual.



Copyright 2006 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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About the Author

John Thomas

John Thomas has been a Boundless contributor since its beginning in 1998. He and his wife, Alfie, have three children and live in Arkansas, where he serves as executive director of Ozark Camp and Conference Center, a youth camp and retreat center.


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