Does premarital sex lay the foundations for marriage?

Over the weekend, as we wrestled with the Christian teaching on sexuality through the book of Genesis, I was asked this excellent question: ‘Can sex serve in the premarital cultivation of a relationship leading to marriage?’

While the answer to most questions to do with human nature are usually complex and nuanced, this is an exception.  The answer is: no way. Niet.  Nein.  Never.  You see, sex before marriage cultivates precisely those relational qualities that are inimical to a lasting, healthy marriage.  That’s not saying that marriages following sexual relations must fail; rather that they have a much greater hurdle to overcome.  Let me explain.

For the last 30 years, sociologists have been talking about something called commodification.  Commodification is a process by which social relations are reduced to economic exchange or consumer relations.   I exchange one thing, and in return receive something else.  It’s a relationship in which I am there for the product, not the person.  If the price gets too high or the quality drops, or I just decide to buy somewhere else, I am entirely free to move on.  Some years ago I stopped going to a local cafe because I decided I just didn’t like the coffee.

That’s not the way we’ve historically run social relations.  Social relations tend to presume a kind of commitment, which means I will stay in the relation regardless of whether it is meeting my particular needs at the moment.  However, in our culture, sex has been moved from the realm of social relations to the realm of consumer relations.

However, the bible says that you should never commodify sex.  A section of the book of Proverbs is a poem about male sexuality:

Prov 5:15     Drink water from your own cistern,
running water from your own well.
16 Should your springs overflow in the streets,
your streams of water in the public squares?
17 Let them be yours alone,
never to be shared with strangers.
18 May your fountain be blessed,
and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth.
19 A loving doe, a graceful deer—
may her breasts satisfy you always,
may you ever be intoxicated with her love.

Do you see what is being said here?  The author is saying that sex is not something which you just put out there.  Casual sex is out and sex with people outside of marriage is out.  You should never ‘commodify’ sex by abstracting it from the whole person.  You must never give somebody your sexuality, your body, without giving them your whole self. And you must never receive sexuality, someone’s body, unless you receive their whole self.

What do we mean by “receiving the whole self”?  We mean marriage.

If you’re having sex with somebody with whom you aren’t married, you have held onto control over your own life.  You’re not sharing control of your money, your space and yourself.  You have retained the right to make your own decisions.  And if you are not married, not only have you not given yourself, but you haven’t truly received the other person, either.  You’ve received their sex, but not all their problems, all their flaws, all their needs.  You haven’t sworn to make them your responsibility.

Do you see how this cultivates precisely the kind of selfishness that will weaken the character required to make marriage both delightful and lasting?  Sex before marriage trains us to receive those things which are easily and pleasantly received, without taking responsibility for those things which are hard.  It teaches us to expect benefits without paying costs.  How can that be good preparation for promising to love and cherish the other, as we promise at Barneys?:

For better for worse,
For richer for poorer,
In sickness and in health

(Some of this material is drawn from a sermon on sexuality by Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.)


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