The God of the Bible is definitely pro-sex. He invented it. He designed it. We are the beneficiaries of this magnificent gift. We can’t imagine God seeing the first humans having sex and saying, “I can’t believe they figured out how to do that?! Oh noooo!” Who are we kidding? God designed and invented sex to bring happiness, fun, and pleasure to humans.
In the original design, God encouraged the first humans to be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:28). Paul tells Christian married couples to “stop depriving one another” of sex (1 Cor. 7:5). Moreover, the Song of Solomon will make most people blush. Solomon tells his lover, “You are slender like a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters of fruit” (Song 7:7 NLT). Then he writes, “I will climb the palm tree and take hold of its fruit” (Song 7:8 NLT). To put this in modern terms, “Baby, I want to touch your melons!” Solomon and his wife enjoy making love all night long (Song 2:17). He even describes foreplay and “stimulating” his wife before sex (Song 2:6 NET). In the Proverbs, he writes, “As a loving hind and a graceful doe, let her breasts satisfy you at all times; be exhilarated always with her love” (Prov. 5:19).
Clearly, the Bible isn’t against sex.
Why does the Bible limit sex to marriage?
Musicians and artists in our culture subtly communicate a naturalistic or even nihilistic view of sex (see our movie, “Sex in Pop Music”).
Yet the Bible places restrictions on human sexuality, because it contends that sexuality is not a morally neutral subject. When you think about it, virtually all people place certain restrictions on human sexuality. Our sexuality has a higher moral value than just giving or gaining pleasure. For example, when a man cheats on his wife, the wife is never happy that her husband got to experience the pleasure of another woman. Why not? If sex was merely a non-moral act of personal gratification (like a massage or some other physical workout), then she would be pleased that her husband had a great night of physical pleasure and sensual experience. If sex was merely a matter of giving and receiving fluids, then a quick shower would solve the residual effects of an adulterous relationship.
Instead, when we reflect on our sexuality, we quickly see that sex needs moral boundaries. Therefore, the question is not, “Why does the Bible place moral limitations around sexuality?” Instead, the question is, “Why does the Bible place specific moral limitations around our sexuality?” The reason is simple: For our benefit!
Consider an illustration. Fire is a good thing, but it needs certain restrictions to be good for us. Without restrictions, fire could burn us alive. In the same way, the Bible teaches that sex needs restrictions, because it has the potential to deeply wound and damage us. Sex should be restricted to the safety and security of marriage. Without the deep commitment and trust of marriage, a beautiful and pleasurable act like sex can quickly become ugly and debasing. Thus God created the commitment of marriage to be the hearth around the fire, so that we can be warmed by it but not harmed.
What is God’s plan?
God created marriage to be between one man and one woman. God created us with gender (“male and female” Gen. 1:27), and he designed it so we would “leave our father and mother” (Gen. 2:24—both singular) and become “one” with our spouse. Sex outside of this context goes beyond (or against) God’s design. Jesus affirms God’s original design for sex by quoting these two passages in Matthew 19, and Paul quotes Genesis 2:24 to affirm God’s design for marriage as well (1 Cor. 6:16).
By contrast, the NT speaks against all other forms of sexuality as porneia. This is the Greek root from which we get our modern term “porn.” Paul writes about porneia often and with the strongest possible terms. Thus this isn’t simply a NT teaching, but rather, a NT emphasis:
(1 Cor. 6:13) The body is not for immorality [porneia].
(1 Cor. 6:18) Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body.
(Gal. 5:19) Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality.
(Eph. 5:3) But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.
(1 Thess. 4:3) For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality.
As those who know Christ, God’s will is to change us into people who have control over our sexuality, yet expressing ourselves regularly and pleasurably in marriage (1 Cor. 7:2). Resisting God’s design will depreciate your life. One author rightly said, “Nobody ever broke the law of God. You break yourself against the law of God… You don’t break the law of gravity. You break your neck.” Of course, God completely forgives believers for our sins (Rom. 8:1), but he doesn’t protect us from their consequences (Gal. 6:7; Heb. 12:14-17). When we live apart from our Creator’s design, we will expect to see negative effects in our lives.
The results of casual “hookups”
Secular researchers have noted the ways in which fornication and cohabitation affect us in negative ways. Melina Bersamin (Department of Child Development—California State University) writes,
College students who had recently engaged in casual sex reported lower levels of self-esteem, life-satisfaction, and happiness compared to those students who had not had casual sex in the past 30 days… College students who had recently engaged in casual sex reported higher levels of general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression compared to college students who had not had recent casual sex.
One study found that having sexual intercourse with someone only once or having sexual intercourse with someone known for less than 24 hours was signiﬁcantly associated with feelings of sexual regret (Eshbaugh & Gute, 2008). Both men and women report sexual regret, albeit for different reasons, following casual sex encounters (Fisher et al., 2012). Feelings of sexual regret, and feelings of regret in general, have been linked to poor psychological out- comes, such as lower life satisfaction, loss of self-worth, depression, and physical health problems.
Likewise, Robert Durant notes that “adolescents who were sexually active had significantly higher depression scores than nonsexually active subjects.” He adds that depression was “positively correlated with the number of partners in the previous 3 months.” He also points out that having a strong sense of “purpose in life” was “significantly negatively correlated with… the number of sexual partners in the previous 3 months.” In other words, people that sleep around are not happier, but sadder. Moreover, people who feel that they have a purpose to their lives don’t feel the strong desire to sleep around.
What about Cohabitation?
Divorce rates are higher than ever in American culture, and people seem cynical of being able to have a successful marriage. As a result, many have turned to cohabitation (i.e. living together without being married), as a means of easing into marriage. According to a 2011 Pew Research Study, roughly two-thirds of Americans believe that cohabitation is a good step toward marriage. Therefore, most young people believe that cohabitation is not only morally harmless, but actually helpful in preparing for marriage. And yet while our culture believes that this is a good idea, social scientists have revealed that this isn’t helpful in the least. In fact, the literature demonstrates that cohabitation has a number of negative side effects.
Lower levels of spousal dedication
When people sleep and live together without getting married, it leaves the backdoor open for one of the individuals to have a ready escape plan for the relationship. This leads individuals to have less dedication and commitment with their future spouse. Galena Kline Rhoades (professor of psychology; University of Denver, et al.) writes,
Men who lived with their partner before engagement were significantly less dedicated than men who did not live with their partner until after engagement… When we averaged across all available time points, in 44.9% of couples who cohabited before engagement, the wife had a dedication score that was at least one half of a standard deviation above her husband’s score. The same was true for only 31.9% of those who cohabited only after engagement… On the basis of our findings, that ‘something’ seems related to whether cohabitation began before or after engagement.
Higher levels of depression
Popenoe and Dafoe of Rutgers University write, “Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married couples.”
Higher levels of alcoholism
Qing Li (et al.) from the University of North Dakota writes, “Our evidence suggests that cohabitation is an important risk factor for hazardous drinking worldwide, not just in afﬂuent areas of Europe and North America, and thus it should receive closer attention in global prevention and public health efforts.”
Higher levels of spousal abuse
Popenoe and Dafoe of Rutgers University write, “Women in cohabiting relationships are about nine times more likely to be killed by their partner than are women in marital relationships.”
Higher levels of suicide
Arne Mastekaasa writes that the correlation between suicide and failure to marry is global, and it has “striking regularities across studies and… across national and cultural boundaries.”
Higher risks for children
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 40 percent of women gave birth to their child out of wedlock in 2011. Sadly, this state of affairs is unhealthy for little children, who need the support of a mother and father. Popenoe and Dafoe of Rutgers University write, “Fully three quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age sixteen, whereas only about a third of children born to married parents face a similar fate… Several studies have found that children currently living with a mother and her unmarried partner have significantly more behavior problems and lower academic performance than children in intact families.”
Higher risk of divorce or separation
Hall and Zhao (from the University of Western Ontario) studied 8,177 individuals who were ever-married. They write, “Premarital cohabitors in Canada have over twice the risk of divorce in any year of marriage when compared with noncohabitors.”
Manning (et al.) writes, “Over 50% of cohabiting unions in the US, whether or not they are eventually legalized by marriage, end by separation within five years compared to roughly 20% for marriages.”
Daniel Lichter and Zhenchao Qian (from Cornell University and The Ohio State University) write, “If serial cohabitors married, divorce rates were very high—more than twice as high as for women who cohabited only with their eventual husbands.”
General problems with cohabitation
The 2009 Encyclopedia of Human Relationships states,
Many studies in the United States… find that couples who cohabit prior to marriage are more likely to have difficulties in their marriages, and to divorce. This phenomenon has been somewhat of a mystery for social scientists, and something that is barely believable to the average person. After all, most people, especially young people, assume that trying out living together should improve the odds of doing well in marriage. Yet no study supports this idea. On average, those who cohabit prior to marriage are more likely to divorce, are less happy in their marriages, have higher levels of conflict, and have less confidence about their futures.
Amato, Booth, Johns, and Rogers write,
Recent studies, however, indicate that the increased risk of divorce associated with premarital cohabitation has remained constant across recent decades. Individuals who cohabited with their spouses before marriage, compared with individuals who did not, reported more marital conflict, marital problems, and divorce proneness… Something about the experience of cohabitation lowers subsequent marital quality.
Thomson and Colella (of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) studied 13,000 adults in a nationwide study. They write,
Couples who cohabited before marriage reported lower quality marriage, lower commitment to the institution of marriage, more individualistic views of marriage (wives only), and greater likelihood of divorce than couples who did not cohabit. Effects were generally stronger for those who had cohabited for longer periods before marriage.
David Popenoe (from Rutgers University) writes,
No positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has been ever been found. The reasons for a negative “cohabitation effect” are not fully understood. One may be that while marriages are held together largely by a strong ethic of commitment, cohabiting relationships by their very nature tend to undercut this ethic. Although cohabiting relationships are like marriages in many ways—shared dwelling, economic union (at least in part), sexual intimacy, often even children—they typically differ in the levels of commitment and autonomy involved. According to recent studies, cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples in their dedication to the continuation of the relationship and reluctance to terminate it, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy. It is reasonable to speculate, based on these studies, that once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating is learned, it becomes hard to unlearn.
After 5 to 7 years, 39% of all cohabiting couples have broken their relationship, 40% have married (although the marriage might not have lasted), and only 21% are still cohabiting.
Scott Stanley (research professor of psychology; University of Denver; et al.) writes, “Cohabitation prior to marriage has been consistently associated with poorer marital quality, lower marital satisfaction, higher levels of domestic violence, and greater probability of divorce.”
Won’t marriage make me unhappy?
Many people in our culture believe that marriage will ruin their life. But the research denies such a fact. Even with the awful state of marriages in the United States, married people are still consistently happier than singles. Psychologist Martin Seligman writes, “Unlike money, which at most has a small effect, marriage is robustly related to happiness.” He notes that the National Opinion Research Center interviewed 35,000 people over 30 years, finding that 40 percent of married people considered themselves “very happy.” Only 25 percent of single people could say the same thing. According to Waite and Gallagher:
Married people have both more and better sex than singles do. They not only have sex more often, but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally, than do their unmarried counterparts… 43 percent of the married men reported that they had sex at least twice a week. Only 26 percent of single men (not cohabitating) said that they had sex this often… 39 percent of married women had sex two or three times a week or more, compared to 20 percent of single women.
Susan Brown (from Bowling Green State University) writes, “Marital status is a key determinant of psychological well-being… Cohabitors report higher levels of depression than their married counterparts.”
What about taking her for a “test drive” before you marry her?
People in our culture often note that you would never buy a car without giving it a test drive. In the same way, you shouldn’t commit to marriage without sleeping with your spouse first. While this view may seem appealing, as we can see in the research above, it actually produces the opposite results. In fact, it is the kiss of death! As Solomon writes, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death (Prov. 14:12 NIV).
This is, no doubt, because many illustrations work for objects that don’t work well for relationships. For instance, it would make sense to sell or throw away your television, if it wasn’t working properly. But, it wouldn’t make sense to sell your children, if they were misbehaving. This illustration reduces marriage with a woman (a beautiful act) to buying a car from a used car salesman with pit stains in his shirt (an ugly act). When you’re buying a car, it makes complete sense to haggle and get what you want for cheap. However, this ethic does not work when applied to forming a healthy marriage. Putting someone “on probation” for a couple of years gets your marriage off to a bad start. Instead of beginning it on the basis of commitment and trust, you begin instead on the basis of hesitation, suspicion, and doubt.
Do you really want an “experienced” sexual partner?
When people say they want an “experienced” mate, they often don’t know what they’re asking for! Imagine preparing for marriage, and your fiancé embarrassingly says, “I’ve never slept with a man before…” You tell her, “It’s okay, honey. How about you go out to the bars and sleep with a half dozen men before we get married—so you can get some sexual experience. I probably wouldn’t enjoy our honeymoon, if you’re inexperienced.”
This would be insane! Instead, figuring out sexual problems as a couple in the context of a committed relationship is the better route—far superior to passing your mate around to several other people first. Sexual problems are best dealt with in the context of a committed and safe relationship. Besides, having an immoral sexual experience with a woman really doesn’t tell us much about what our future sex life will look like for the next several decades of marriage anyhow.
In counseling many college-aged people over the years, we’ve found that people don’t get “sexual expertise” by sleeping around with multiple partners. Instead, they incur many scars, insecurities, and regrets. When you’re having sex, you’re baring your full body intimately with another person. Insecurities can run high. Without the commitment of marriage, this can either be a highly pleasurable and unifying time, or a highly hurtful and embarrassing one. It’s sad to see young believers throw away their vibrant walk with Christ for ten minutes of awkward and uncomfortable sex…
Marriage is well worth the wait!
David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University.
According to their introductory comments: “The National Marriage Project is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian and interdisciplinary initiative located at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. The project is financially supported by the university in cooperation with private foundations. The Project’s mission is to provide research and analysis on the state of marriage in American and to educate the public on the social, economic and cultural conditions affecting marital success and well being.”
David R. Hall and John Z. Zhao, “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada: Testing the Selectivity Hypothesis,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (1995): 421-427.
W. Bradford Wilcox. “The Evolution of Divorce.” National Affairs. Fall 2009. 81-94.
Scott Stanley. “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006). Blackwell Publishing. National Council on Family Relations. 2006. 499.
Jay D. Teachman. “Premarital Sex, Cohabitation, and Divorce: The Broken Link” published in the National Council of Family Relations (May 2003) issue of Journal of Marriage and Family.
Galena Kline Rhoades (et al.). “Pre-engagement Cohabitation and Gender Asymmetry in Marital Commitment.” Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 20, No. 4, 553.
I am indebted to my friend and mentor, Dennis McCallum, for many of the insights and the research in this article. See his lecture on Matthew 19 for additional information.
 Havner, Vance, and Dennis J. Hester. When God Breaks Through: Sermons on Revival. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2003. 42.
 Melina M. Bersamin (et al.). “Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults?.” Journal of Sex Research, 51(1), 43–51, 2014. 48.
 Melina M. Bersamin (et al.). “Risky Business: Is There an Association between Casual Sex and Mental Health among Emerging Adults?.” Journal of Sex Research, 51(1), 43–51, 2014. 49.
 Robert H. DuRant et.al., “Exposure to Violence and Victimization and Depression, Hopelessness, and Purpose in Life Among Adolescents Living in and Around Public Housing,” Development and Behavioral Pediatrics, Vol. 16, (1995) p. 233-237.
 See Pew Research Center. “Cohabitation a Step Toward Marriage?” January 6, 2011.
 Galena Kline Rhoades (University of Denver, et al.). “Pre-engagement Cohabitation and Gender Asymmetry in Marital Commitment.” Journal of Family Psychology. Vol. 20, No. 4, 557, 558.
 David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University. 7.
 Qing Li (et al.). “Cohabitation, Gender, and Alcohol Consumption in 19 Countries: A Multilevel Analysis.” National Institutes of Health. Vol. 45, No. 14. Dec, 2010. 2493.
 David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University. 7.
 Arne Mastekaasa, “Age Variations in the Suicide Rates and Self-Reported Subjective Well-Being of Married and Never Married Persons,” Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology 5: 21-39.
 Joyce Martin (et al). “Births: Final Data for 2012.” National Vital Statistics Reports. Volume 62, number 9. December, 2013.
 David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University. 8.
 David R. Hall and John Z. Zhao, “Cohabitation and Divorce in Canada: Testing the Selectivity Hypothesis,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 57 (1995): 421-427.
Wendy Manning, Pamela Smock and Debarun Majumdar, “The Relative Stability of Cohabiting and Marital Unions for Children,” Population Research and Policy Review, 23 (2004): 135-159, 137.
Daniel Lichter and Zhenchao Qian. “Serial Cohabitation and the Marital Life Course,” Journal of Marriage and Family, 70 (2008): 861.
 Reis, Harry T., and Susan Sprecher. Encyclopedia of Human Relationships. Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2009. 229.
 Amato, Paul R. Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2007. 10-11.
 Elizabeth Thompson & Ugo Colella, “Cohabitation and Marital Stability: Quality or Commitment” Journal of Marriage and the Family. 54. May, 1992: 259.
 David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University. 5.
 David Popenoe & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead. “Should We Live Together? A Comprehensive Review of Recent Research.” Second Ed. The National Marriage Project. 2002. Rutgers University. 6-7.
 Scott Stanley. “Sliding Versus Deciding: Inertia and the Premarital Cohabitation Effect.” Family Relations, 55 (October 2006). Blackwell Publishing. National Council on Family Relations. 2006. 499.
 Emphasis mine. Seligman, Martin E. P. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. New York: Free, 2002. 55.
 Waite, Linda J., and Maggie Gallagher. The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially. New York: Doubleday, 2000. 79.
 Susan Brown. “The Effect of Union Type on Psychological Well-Being: Depression Among Cohabitors Versus Marrieds.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 2000, Vol. 41 (September): 241.