How far is too far? Where are the boundaries for physical contact prior to marriage?
Christianity has always held fast to the idea that sexual intercourse is reserved for marriage. Outside of marriage, it is always a sin - either as fornication or adultery. Not many people, especially those in the evangelical community, dispute this notion. However, how should a Christian think about conduct that may be sexual in nature, but isn't sexual intercourse? The Bible isn't clear on that and we each figure it out individually, right?
Exactly. We need to remember that while Scripture explicitly reserves sexual intercourse for marriage, it is silent about a whole host of other things that are not confined to marriage, and demonstrating their separation from the marriage covenant is a rather trivial task. Let's start with a simple example.
We certainly wouldn't find fault with a husband or wife taking an innocent walk with the neighbor as they strolled through the neighborhood hand-in-hand. This simply isn't covenant-confined behavior; hand-holding is an expression of closeness that doesn't necessitate marriage and should not be confined to marriage.
Similarly, what husband would take issue with a few innocent kisses between his wife and some guy from the gym? Only someone ridiculous enough to restrict this kind of behavior to a husband-wife relationship could possibly object.
As another example, everyone knows that most Christian couples will engage in "making out" at some level before taking any vows, and none of us would expect this type of kissing to be confined to marriage. In fact, we know this behavior doesn't require a marriage covenant because we know it's perfectly acceptable for a married man to engage in this same behavior with a female co-worker.
None of these behaviors should surprise us outside the context of marriage, right?
Of course, everyone of us knows that these expressions of affection and sexuality would evoke feelings of jealousy and even rage if we were to witness our spouse engaged in even the least of these activities with someone else, and we would expect a spouse to respond in kind. (In fact, we would question their love if they did not.) Yet, we somehow fail to make the connection that perhaps these expressions should only find a suitable home within marriage. We're often confused about expressions of affection and sexuality before marriage because we're often unclear on the nature of marriage as a covenantal relationship.
...for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God... Exodus 34:14 (ESV)
We often consider jealousy to be a negative emotion, closely tied to coveting. We shouldn't be jealous of the co-worker who receives the promotion we desired. We tell an older child not to be jealous of the attention given to a new little brother or sister. Yet right here in Scripture, God is not only described as jealous, but He tells us it is such a part of His identity, it's His very name. Is this one of those rules that's good for the kids to obey, but it doesn't apply to the parents? Is God allowed expressions of jealousy while denying them to those created in his image?
We first encounter God as a "jealous" God back in Exodus 20 as Moses delivers the Law establishing God's covenant relationship with Israel.
And God spoke all these words, saying,
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
“You shall have no other gods before me.
“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God,”Exodus 20:1-3 (ESV)
It's this covenantal relationship that legitimizes God's jealousy. In Exodus 2, the Israelites are laboring under the yoke of Egyptian slavery and cry out for deliverance. We are told the Lord "remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob," and because of that covenant, the Lord acted on Israel's behalf, rescuing them from their oppressor and declaring his everlasting love for them. As their God, He calls them to a singular devotion, which rejects any other gods. The Israelites had seen God's power over the Egyptian "gods" as He sent plague after plague upon the Egyptians. To turn away from Him and pursue other gods - or even to pursue other gods alongside Him - would be to scoff at His love as though it were insufficient. When the covenant was presented to Israel, they willingly accepted it. "All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do." (Ex. 24:3)
Jealousy is an appropriate response when a covenant is forsaken, and marriage is used repeatedly in Scripture to depict God's covenant with Israel (Jer. 31:31-32; Hos. 4:15; Eph. 5:31-32). This same type of jealousy is fitting in the context of a marriage that is overtaken by adultery or the threat of it (Prov. 6:32-35), but such jealousy is inappropriate where there is no covenant. The Lord was right to be jealous over Israel and He is right to be jealous over us as Christians, because He has given Himself on our behalf with a covenant promise secured in the death and resurrection of Jesus. We, in turn, have pledged ourselves exclusively to Him. As Paul tells the Corinthians,
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. 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (ESV)
For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 1 Corinthians 7:22-23 (ESV)
Just as the Israelites were redeemed from Egyptian slavery, we have been redeemed from the world and our bondage to sin. As a result, we are not our own, but belong wholly to God and our proper response is to yield ourselves wholly to Him. When Paul considers the marital covenant in the same letter to the Corinthians (right between the previous verses), he writes,
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. 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 (ESV)
The same language and attitude govern both covenant relationships, and understanding the extent of God's covenant relationship with us helps us understand the extent of the covenant relationship of marriage. We sense an appropriate jealousy when a spouse - husband or wife - begins to engage with someone else in acts that we know should not occur outside the marriage covenant.
Understanding that the covenant of marriage is intended to depict a greater covenant, we can go back to our earlier question by posing a related one. Questions about the limits of physical contact prior to marriage should be preceded by determining what acts should appropriately evoke jealousy after marriage. Whether we want to approach it from this angle or not, aren't we provoked to jealousy by those things that deep down we know should be confined to marriage? When we detach even a simple lovers’ kiss from the covenant relationship of marriage, we do not leave ourselves much room for jealousy or charges of unfaithfulness when a spouse shares those kisses with someone outside of marriage. We can't honestly say before marriage, "This is permissible outside the covenant of marriage," and then reverse ourselves after marriage and say, "This is only permissible within the covenant of marriage." Has the nature of the kiss and the relationship it implies somehow changed? Similarly, we can't suggest that a couple that is open to the possibility of marriage "some time in the future" is free to experiment with those joys that will later be guarded tightly within the bounds of marriage. There would seem to be something self-serving in advocating for such duplicities.
It is accurate to say that Scripture does not give explicit guidelines on pre-marital physical contact - at least not in the sense of providing an itemized list of things to avoid. However, Scripture is very explicit in its teaching that the covenant of marriage is a reflection of the covenant relationship between Christ and the church (Eph. 5:31-32). We uphold the sanctity of marriage because God has ordained it for this very purpose. When we consider the blessings and privileges that a husband and wife grant one another in marriage and the jealousy that is appropriate to that relationship, we should understand that those blessings, privileges, and jealousies belong uniquely to the marriage covenant. When they exist outside of marriage, something is amiss.
Unfortunately, American culture attempts to enjoy the covenant privileges of marriage without engaging in the covenant promises of marriage. A young man wants to demand exclusivity without guaranteeing it himself. He wants the right of jealousy when a love interest looks elsewhere, without bothering to offer the ring that secures that right. Our cultural progression has eroded marriage to the point that it has lost much of its covenantal character. It need not be permanent, exclusive, sacrificial, fruitful, or pure. If we want to serve as salt and light in a culture that is growing more and more confused about marriage and sexuality, we need to consider how our own views of marriage and sexuality reflect the God who ordained them. It is not merely the act of intercourse that God has confined to marriage, but all those acts of love and affection that should make the marital relationship distinct among all others.
Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled. Hebrews 13:4 (ESV)