Premarital Ethics
by David Sant

Related Articles:
Premarital Kissing
A Kiss Is Just A Kiss?

In this paper I will attempt to build the case from scripture for a Biblical ethic for premarital relations. By examining the case laws we can learn the Bible’s assumptions regarding marriage and the family which were given to us by God. From there we can build a logical distinction between moral and immoral behavior.


The Bible recognizes an inherent hierarchy in the family, wherein the husband is the covenant head over his wife and unmarried daughters, and has the authority to nullify any vows they make. God respects this headship of the father so much that He defers to the head of the household when a woman makes a vow. This is made explicit in Numbers 30.

"Then Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the sons of Israel, saying, "This is the word which the Lord has commanded. If a man makes a vow to the Lord, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. Also if a woman makes a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by an obligation in her father's house in her youth, and her father hears her vow and her obligation by which she has bound herself, and her father says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every obligation by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father should forbid her on the day he hears, none of her vows or obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her because her father had forbidden her.

"However, if she should marry while under her vows or the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day he hears, then her vows shall stand and her obligations by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if on the day her husband hears, he forbids her, then he shall annul her vow which she is under and the rash statement of her lips by which she has bound herself; and the Lord will forgive her.

[skipping to verse 13]

"Every vow and every binding oath to humble herself, her husband may confirm it or her husband may annul it. But if her husband indeed says nothing to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all her obligations which are on her; he has confirmed them, because he said nothing to her on the day he heard them. But if he indeed annuls them after he has heard them then he shall bear her guilt."

These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses, as between a man and his wife, and as between a father and his daughter, while she is in her youth in her father's house.

We see that this headship of the father, even applies to the vow of marriage, as in the case of "eloping". In Exodus 22:16 we read, "And if man seduces a virgin who is not engaged, and lies with her, he must pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father absolutely refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the dowry for virgins." (That law would certainly put a damper on fornication!) What we see here is that even a marriage vow can be annulled by a father when he first hears it, if it was taken against his will. This is very powerful, and sets the framework in which we should view courtship. A suitor should really be proving himself to the girl's father, for he is the final authority on whether he may marry the woman.

Further, a father has the authority to give his daughters in marriage or withhold them from marriage (1 Cor 7:36). When a man marries a woman, this covenant authority is passed from her father to him; hence, the ceremonial "giving" of the bride by her father in the Christian wedding.

It is worthwhile to point out that headship is not intended by God to be a tool for the tyrannical benefit of the father or husband.  Rather, as Jesus taught, Christian leaders are not to Lord it over others as the heathen do.  Christian men are to lead their wives and daughters by serving them for their benefit.  He is to sacrifice himself for her as Christ gave himself for the church.  This cannot be emphasized enough!  The Christian Patriarchy movement has sadly been plagued by buffoons who think it provides them with a divine justification for selfish tyranny over their wives and daughters, but this is not so!


The Bible condemns sexual immorality prior to betrothal (fornication) and after betrothal (adultery), although the civil penalty was different.  Scripture recognizes a difference between seduction and covenantal fraud (adultery).  God places the chief responsibility on the man in both instances.

A: When an unmarried man seduces or rapes an unbetrothed virgin, it is as if he "stole" her from her father, but he did not break a covenant; therefore the civil penalty is not death, he must pay the "bride price" to her father (50 shekels would put the boy in debt for many years, considering that a field went for 30 shekels), and can either be forced to marry the girl, or not allowed to at the father's discretion. (Deut 22:28, Ex 22:16).   It is interesting that the Scriptural assumption here is that in some cases the best solution to forceful seduction is to force the rapist to marry the woman; but God leaves the discernment of that to the girl’s father.  This is due to the fact that while rape is always morally reprehensible and violent, there are degrees such that in some cases the relationship is actually salvageable but in others it might require the death penalty.

B: In the case of adultery or sexual fraud, a mortally binding covenant has been broken, thus calling for the death penalty (Deut 22:12-23). In their marriage vows a couple takes the self-maledictory oath, "'Til death do us part." By taking this oath, there is an implicit invocation of death if either party should break the covenant prior to their natural death. This is why the vow was enforced with capital punishment. God takes marriage very seriously.

Another aspect of adultery that most people do not consider is that there have always been fatal sexually transmitted diseases, syphilis being the most dangerous prior to the discovery of antibiotics, though AIDS and Hepatitis are the most notorious today.  Adultery can be a form of attempted murder if the adulterer is still having sexual relations with his spouse.  In fact, in some parts of the United States if someone knows they are infected with AIDS and deliberately has sex with someone who doesn’t, it is treated as attempted murder by the courts.


Betrothal is when THE binding covenant is made between a man and woman (through her father as mediator). This is evident because:

A: The Mosaic Law prescribed death to any betrothed man or woman who had sexual relations with someone other than their betrothed, thus treating it the same as adultery (Deut 22:22-23).

B: Joseph planned to "divorce" Mary, after discovering that she was with child, indicating that their betrothal covenant was already considered binding before the actual marriage ceremony had taken place (Matthew 1:18-19).


People hold a wide range of opinions on what constitutes improper sexual behavior prior to marriage. The hinging point of the debate concerns the intended definition of "sexual immorality", or "to lie with". There are essentially two positions, one considering "to lie with" to mean exclusively intercourse, the other considering "to lie with" to be the entire spectrum of sexual activity or any part thereof, ranging from kiss to intercourse. I will call these two cases the minimal and maximal positions, respectively.

I hold the maximal position, which I believe accurately reads the principle underlying the case laws. God made us as whole beings, in His image. Our sexuality is a part of the whole, and any attempt to dice it up into forbidden and un-forbidden parts does violence to the nature of sexual intimacy, forcing us to stop five yards short of a touchdown, in a game that was designed to be played from start to finish by husband and wife.

To continue with the football illustration, the minimalist makes the arbitrary distinction that everything up to the X-yard-line is OK for two people who are not formally playing the game (i.e. unmarried), but everything beyond that line is verboten. You can run a couple of plays, but you had better not make a long pass, because you might cross the invisible line onto the fornication side of the field. Finding two minimalists who agree on the same limit is nigh unto impossible; one says its the thirty-five yard line on your side, another says it is the thirty-five closer to a touchdown. There is no consistent underlying principle by which the minimalist sets his limit, except that it has to be one that keeps the couple from becoming pregnant, i.e. it must fall short of intercourse.

In practice the Christian couple playing the minimalist games almost always finds themselves arriving at the X-yard-line and then saying, “Well, five more yards would be ok,” until they find they’ve scored a touchdown.  Oops.

By contrast, the maximalist says that if you aren't married, you have no right to be on the playing field, at all. This position makes intuitive sense, when one considers how a woman would feel if her husband engaged in hand holding, caressing, kissing, et cetera, with another woman. The woman intuitively knows that the covenant between them has been infringed, although by the minimalist definition, her husband has not committed adultery. (This isn’t to say that this intuition cannot be suppressed.  In today’s culture by the time the average person graduates from college they have been reconditioned to be “cool with it” since everyone knows that jealousy is “uncool.”)

We all know this is true.  If someone walks into the church office and finds the pastor necking with his secretary, it is automatically understood that they are in a sexual relationship including intercourse.  They don’t have to be caught having sex by a hidden camera in order to have the proof of adultery.  When it comes to human sexuality, where there is smoke, there is also fire, or there soon will be.

IF this kind of "light" sexual intimacy with a non-spouse is evidence of adultery for a married person, then why is it not considered to be fornication or evidence of fornication when practiced by an unmarried couple? American Christians seem to live in a land of make-believe where unmarried couples can make out and still keep the marriage bed pure. This is a double standard that is tolerated in almost all churches today.

Let me clarify the difference, however, between appropriate displays of familial affection and inappropriate displays of sexual affection. The best way to explain it would be to say, if it would be appropriate with your sister or your aunt, it is not unreasonable. That is to say, an embrace or a kiss on the cheek in greeting, a hug in parting are not necessarily signs of sexual affection and are therefore not under consideration here.


The next point of discussion is the status of a betrothed couple before the public oath and consummation of their marriage. Since, the Bible clearly considers them to be covenantally bound, what is the proper attitude for them to display toward each other? Joseph was planning to divorce Mary even though they had not yet been wed. But Mary asked the angel how she could have a child when she had no husband. Clearly betrothal was considered the beginning of the binding covenant, but they were not considered husband and wife until the wedding ceremony.

The minimalist usually would claim that some degree of sexual intimacy is warranted for a betrothed couple, but draws the line somewhere before intercourse. This line varies arbitrarily from person to person, and is usually relegated to "a matter of conscience". Making out isn't sinful unless one or both parties are secretly "lusting" after the other in their heart. The difference between an "affectionate kiss" and a "sexual kiss" is the heart attitude.

This position is an oxymoron, yet I have heard it defended adamantly on many occasions. The question arises, that if they aren't "lusting" while making out, what exactly are they doing, engaging in a platonic pharyngeal examination? Defenders of this position maintain that the desire to kiss between an emotionally intimate couple can be non-sexual. These people clearly belong on a Star Trek episode! True, it may not necessarily lead to sexual intercourse, but it is undoubtedly an integral part of human sexuality.

To use a more vivid analogy, engaged couples that who allow themselves some physical intimacy but try to stop before going “all the way” are not unlike two people looking at a ten-ton boulder at the top of a grassy hill.  “Wouldn’t it be fun to roll the boulder down the hill?”  “Yes, but, we mustn’t let it reach the bottom until we are married.”  “Ok, let’s just roll it half way down.”  One cannot fault two virgins for some degree of naivety but the fact is that human sexuality is a powerful thing.  This is why Song of Songs warns not to arouse or awaken love until it so desires.  Once aroused and awakened, true love desires and craves complete sexual intimacy.  One the boulder is rolling down the hill the momentum will easily overpower anyone who tries to stop it from reaching the bottom.

True, the above argument is the classic “slippery slope” argument.  But we have already shown from Scripture that sexual intimacy before the wedding is Biblically out of bounds.  The boulder analogy merely demonstrates the absurdity of trying to play with the fire of sexual passion without being consumed.

The maximalist would hold that it is immoral for the betrothed couple to consummate their vows in any way until the pair have taken their vows before witnesses. Thus the maximalist holds premarital physical intimacy to be like unto fornication. It is akin to stealing fruit from an orchard for which you have a contract to buy. You are bound by your contract, but until you pay for it, it is not yours, and you have no right to its fruit. A contract gives the holder the exclusive right to buy, but in the case of a marriage contract, it also mutually prohibits both parties from making any other contracts. Stealing fruit from the contracted orchard is still theft, even though you intend to buy it. "Intend" is the key word. Men see the future as through a fog, we cannot predict it absolutely, as God does, having written it. Thus a man may not partake of the fruits of marriage until he and his wife have taken their public vows, because he cannot foresee with 100% certainty that the marriage will take place in the future.

Millions of instances of practical experience have demonstrated the “maximalist” to be correct in the sense that premarital sexual intimacy of any degree bestows sexual hang-ups upon women especially that prove to be troublesome later in marriage.  Given that we are creatures of habit, is it not unlikely that trying to make out without having sex, when reinforced by guilt, might cause someone to associate sexual intercourse with guilt?  The heathen respond to this by trying to jettison guilt altogether, and yet the incidence of mental illness, anorexia, and bulimia among young women has skyrocketed in response.  Obviously the association of later guilt-related problems to premarital intimacy is not a perfectly one-to-one relationship.  Some consciences are more tender than others.  However, the only way to totally avoid debilitating sexual guilt is to keep the marriage bed pure by not partaking in sexual intimacy in any degree before the wedding.  Once wed, the Christian couple can rejoice in the fullness of sexual intimacy in perfect conscience.


We can conclude that Scripture teaches that Betrothal is where the marital covenant is made; and the Wedding Feast is where the marriage covenant is fulfilled and then consummated.  We have seen that the Bible treats infidelity during betrothal as legally and morally equivalent to adultery.  We have set forth the case that pre-marital physical intimacy in any degree is like unto fornication even for a betrothed couple.   Therefore, it would follow that the same would hold true for a couple that is just “dating” or “going steady” but are not engaged to be married.

For a far more thorough treatment of this subject through a woman’s eyes I highly recommend the book “A Return to Modesty” by Wendy Shalit (Touchstone Books, 2000). It is a fascinating read. Also, “And the Bride Wore White” by Dannah Gresh is an explicitly Christian examination of this subject.

Have some thoughts about this issue?  Give us your FEEDBACK.

Go to the related article, Premarital Kissing.



Patrick L. Hurd
Weatherford, Texas

EST. 01/01/01