Does the abstinence doctrine really exist in the Bible?

I am often fascinated by tactics of the enemy. Satan is a master manipulator, who has been around a long time, but there’s this interesting tactic that he used in the garden:

God: “You may freely eat from any tree, except for the tree of Knowledge, otherwise you’ll die”

Satan: “Did God really say that you couldn’t eat from any tree?”

Eve: “We can eat from any tree, but we can’t even touch the tree of Knowledge”

Why was it important for satan to convince Eve that she couldn’t touch the tree? Why was satan trying to paint God as someone who was so rigid?

I can see this tactic applied in a myriad of ways. Religion itself is based around this simple manipulation tactic: add more rules than God did, and put words in His mouth. In this way, you can deceive mankind in two ways: first, his view of God will be shattered, and second, his view of himself will be shattered.

We need to be incredibly vigilant then, that we don’t “add or take away anything” from the Bible. And this is where pretty much every conservative church denomination would echo an “amen” and I’d get that approving look from a pastor — until you bring it uncomfortably home:

The Bible doesn’t directly forbid premarital sex.

That statement has been about an 8 month journey for me, and by far the most uncomfortable one I’ve come to believe. Before you assume, no, it didn’t come because I had an “oops” moment and had sex. It didn’t come because I’m wanting to justify myself and I gave myself a free pass. It didn’t come from doing some kind of “plug my ears and hum” routine. Quite the opposite actually…

One of my guy friends sort of rediscovered his faith recently. He grew up conservative, and legalistic, and recently made a huge lifestyle change. He told me that he wasn’t sure what the bible said, but that he prayed about having sex with his girlfriend and got a thumbs up.

Thinking that wasn’t a very thorough way to test whether or not God gave something a thumbs up — I went home and decided to do a full study in order to prove what I already knew: God wants sex to be within marriage alone. Here are the rules:

  1. Best argument wins. Doesn’t matter which side wins, I will go at this completely unbiased
  2. I will devote adequate energy to both sides.
  3. I’m not going to be having sex with anyone in the meantime

To be honest, I naturally had a little bias towards abstinence, because I was a perfect candidate. I had gotten a purity ring at 13. I had waited until 29 to have sex. I have seen what it’s like to wait, and what it’s like to “lose it”.

I had this great argument in my head: “it’s worth waiting for. I know what it did to me and the damage that it caused. I want to wait for my next girl”

I mean, it’s romantic, it’s idealistic, and it probably has potential to save you some heart ache.

While my backstory may not be incredibly important, I want to convey my state of mind here. I wasn’t coming at this wanting an excuse to have fun. I wasn’t wanting to go to great lengths to justify something. I went down this journey so that I could give a new believer some definitive scriptural ammo.

What the Bible says…

At first glance, it would appear that the Bible is pretty clear on it:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Flee sexual immorality. Every sin, whatever if a man might do, is outside the body, but the one sinning sexually sins against the own body” – I Corinthians 6

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” – Hebrews 13

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” I Cornithians 7

Awesome! Close up the book and end the argument! At least that’s what I wanted to do. But my rules were that I was going to devote adequate energy to both sides. So, as in most cases of the Bible, the original Greek and context make a world of difference. So I went to Blue Letter Bible and looked up the Greek word for “sexual immorality” and found out that it was this word called, “porneia”. A few google searches later and I found that “porneia” was a word that often meant “impermissible sexual acts” so fornication, adultery, pornography, and prostitution. Great!

But then I discovered that porneia was a word that had progressed throughout the years of the church. You see, like most words, there is a progression of the meaning throughout time. A word can start and end in two entirely different places throughout hundreds or thousands of years. Modern cuss words are a great example of that today. Ok, so here’s the million dollar question, where did that word start, and where did it end? More importantly, what did it mean in Corinth in 70 A.D?

A little Etymology…

Porneia was first recorded around 340 B.C. and it was originally “adultery with a female prostitute”. The context of it was “In seeking to discredit a rival, the Athenian orator and politician Apollodorus charged his enemy’s partner Neaira with being a porne” (more info here) — that is, someone who has sex with prostitutes. It was meant to be a jeer and an insult.

After 300 years to the time of Paul, the word progressed to be a bit more encompassing. Rather than just “adultery with a female prostitute”, it had a more general, “sex with a woman who has no status”.

To further understand this word, another word is helpful: “moichaō”

In ancient culture, a woman’s status was determined by men in her life — either a husband, a father, or a brother. Harsh, I know, but a woman who had no man, had no status. Additionally, if a woman’s virginity was taken, she lost her status and brought shame on her father or brother and she wouldn’t have any chance of marrying a man of good reputation.

So you see, whenever you see “adultery” in the New Testament, they are using the word “moichaō”. They are partially correct in this translation, but a more correct way to translate this word would be, “sex that hurts a male 3rd party”. Yes, I know, sexist and pretty horrible, but the Bible didn’t invent this word: Ancient Greek culture did, and Ancient Greek culture was pretty terrible. So, in that sense, moichaō would be “sex with another man’s wife”, but it would also include, “sex with a man’s virgin daughter” or “sex with a man’s virgin sister”.

Sex, for a woman in ancient culture, was all about status.

This wasn’t confined to Jewish culture. It was worse in Greek culture. The ancient Greeks wanted to stop their men from ruining women of status (and thus, hurting men), and could be summed up with the pithy statement: “forbid moichaō (sex that hurts a male 3rd party) by building brothels”. In that culture, sex with a prostitute was a way to “scratch an itch” and was considered a way to discourage you from having sex with your neighbor’s wife or virgin daughter. Wives had no say in that practice, and it was a way to say, “hey, we’ve created an alternative so that your animalistic urges don’t ruin a woman of status and thus, hurt another man”. It was allowed, but kind of mocked — much like pornography today.

Enter “porneia”. The word is the solution to moichaō. In 70 A.D. it would have probably been best described as “sex that doesn’t hurt a third party male and thus, is careless and meaningless”.

Ok, now with that context, let’s revisit those verses:

“Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Flee ‘porneia’. Every sin, whatever if a man might do, is outside the body, but the one sinning sexually sins against the own body”

Paul here is clearly talking about sex with a prostitute and he is insulted by the idea of making sex so cheap and meaningless.

“Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.” — For God will judge “moichaō” and “porneia”. He’s countering a very misogynistic culture that says that married men are allowed to partake in “porneia”.

Paul continues:

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’ But because of the temptation to “porneia”, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

Do you realize how incredible this statement is? It would have been shocking in that culture to say that a woman has just as much right over her husband as a husband has over his wife. And you notice that it’s “because of the temptation to porneia”. The context here cannot be understated.

The church gave the word a meaning of its own throughout the years

Throughout the years, the church adopted the word “porneia” to be a sort of catch-all for any kind of sex the church deemed immoral. It lost its context and became a “church word”. That’s why the meaning today is so confusing: most lexicons make it an all-encompassing word that includes “fornication”. However, we can blame the hundreds of years of church culture for where this word ended up.

Remember that tactic that I talked about outlined in the Garden of Eden? It is incredibly important that we don’t put words into God’s mouth. God didn’t tell Eve that they couldn’t touch the tree, only that they couldn’t eat from it, and satan was trying to get Eve to go even further to say “is it true that God doesn’t want you to eat from any trees in the Garden?”. So here are a few things that Paul (or any other New Testament writer) doesn’t say that he could have easily said:

“Any sex outside of marriage is a sin”

“Sex is meant for marriage”

With that said, the most convincing argument that I heard supporting sex within marriage was the part of the verse above: “But because of the temptation to ‘porneia’, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” — the idea being that the solution to wanting sex would be to get married. There is an implication here that Paul has three options:

  1. Abstain from sex entirely and be celibate (like him)
  2. Be tempted to have careless and shameful sex
  3. Get married

However, in that time period and culture, those were literally the only options. We’re talking about a culture that would toss a woman’s eligibility aside if she wasn’t a virgin, and a time period where they hadn’t invented birth control, so any sex outside of marriage ran the risk of leaving a woman alone and helpless with a child.

Paul doesn’t just simply say (as he could have), “If you can’t be celibate, you should get married” — he includes, “because of the temptation to ‘porneia’”. In other words, “let me give you reasons that are culturally relevant”.

So where does that leave us? Let’s compare cultures:

Ancient Greece

  • A woman’s status was defined by a man
  • A woman’s virginity dictated her value in society
  • A sexually active woman always ran the risk of getting pregnant and having no means to raise a child alone

Modern Culture

  • A woman has all of the same status as a man
  • A woman’s virginity makes no difference in society
  • A woman’s chances of getting pregnant can be nearly zero, and she has all of the financial opportunities as a man, even if she were to be a single mother

What Paul is saying would be akin to:

“It’s good to have a furnace, and it is good to have a wood burning stove. However, because of Y2K, you should get a wood burning stove”.

If we read that today, we’d be like, “well since I don’t have to worry about Y2K, I’m pretty sure a wood burning stove isn’t 100% applicable here”. Now take that example and apply it to “because of the temptation of porneia, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband”

So it is essentially this:

Romans and Greeks saw sex as a cultural construct. Everything is fine unless you hurt another man by sleeping with his wife, daughter, or sister.

An ancient group of “Stoics” saw anything resembling sex as “sensual” and “to be avoided” to find true enlightenment (sound familiar?)

Paul started a sexual revolution by saying “sex is sacred and significant”

The history of the morality of ancient culture is too expansive a topic to be fully touched on here, but it’s worth noting what Roman historian Kyle Harper said on the topic:

“Moving in a society where it was totally unexceptional—and casually expected—for men to indulge their sexual desires with prostitutes, slaves, and others who lacked social honor, Paul forbade it. Not only that, he proclaimed sexual congress to be a mysterious union of the flesh, something of transcendent significance. The body is a temple, a site of sacred communication. Sexual sin, therefore, is a kind of pollution, as scandalous and disruptive as the desecration of a holy sanctum. We are a long way from the rigorous but pragmatic counsels of Epictetus. The Stoic urged self-control, on the grounds that physical pleasure was a dangerous distraction from the virtuous life. Paul does so because sex implicates us in something with sacred significance.”

So by taking all of that into account, here’s what I can say about sex from a biblical standpoint — this is my version of: “You may eat any fruit in the Garden, but don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge, otherwise you will die”…no more, no less:

  1. Sex is never meant to be casual, meaningless, or to “scratch an itch”. It is a deeply personal experience that makes you “one” with a person and you should treat it as such. You can offend the Holy Spirit within you, as well as betray your own body by having careless and meaningless sex
    1. “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body”
    2. “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.'”
  2. If you are married, sex with someone else is never ok. This would include open marriages, etc
    1. “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.”
  3. Illicit and shameful sex is always wrong. There was a word for this in Greek “aselgeia” and it meant a shocking and filthy kind of sexual act. Unfortunately, this word is often just translated as “sensuality” in the bible, which is infuriatingly inaccurate
    1. “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality (aselgeia), not in strife and jealousy.”

That’s what the bible says. No more, no less.

This isn’t a license. It’s not a black and white, “oh this means that now I can have sex with whomever I want” and it’s a free for all. There are clear guidelines and those include taking sex seriously. I can’t understate that. Sex is incredibly powerful and the bible reinforces that.

However, the whole abstinence and purity movement hinges on black and whites that the bible never drew up.

I personally believe that this issue is gray in the bible for a reason. And for whatever reason, God didn’t choose to include the abstinence doctrine in the bible, despite 2000 years of church tradition making that a topic so engrained that we wouldn’t even question it. Whatever you do with that fact from here is up to you and God.