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Pre-Marital Sex & The Christian Gentile

Dear M

Thank you for writing asking whether Gentile-Christians are prohibited from premarital sex judged by the Law God gave Moses, in particular the laws in the book of Leviticus.


Analytical Premise How To Construe Law's Scope on Gentiles


To construe commands in the Law, whether they apply to Gentiles, James in Acts 15 provides an example on how to analyze this. James was construing (see Acts 15:2 - the issue presented) the command on "sons of Israel" to be circumcised in Leviticus 12:1-3. James did not extend this command to Gentiles. James was obviously interpreting "sons of Israel" as strictly as possible. Thus, this is a standard of construction for us to apply. (See our article The Law Applicable Today.)


Your Question

Do the Levitical commands on illicit sexual practices apply to Gentiles in the community of Israel under the Law -- and thus by extension to the spiritual "kingdom of God" on earth today?

The section of the Law dealing with illicit sexual practices is in Leviticus 18 and 20. These practices are referred to as "detestable things," such as incest, adultery, and bestiality (Uggh!) 

This section clearly prescribes that in its entirety it applies to Gentiles:

But you must keep my decrees and my laws. The native-born and the foreigners residing among you must not do any of these detestable things. (Lev. 18:26 NIV from Biblios.)

The question you present is whether the Law prohibits premaritial sex upon a Christian Gentile in the community of Israel under the Law, especially the book of Leviticus.


Deuteronomy 22:20-21

The answer is there is no strict command prohibiting premarital sex in Leviticus or anywhere in the Hebrew Bible.

However, there are potentially severe optional consequences in Deut. 22:20-21 at the election of a new husband to protest over discovering another must have slept with his new bride. In that case of effectively a fraud against the groom's expectations, the woman is put to death after a trial of the evidence (in which the husband cannot testify against his wife) but again only if the husband protests.

(Incidentally, because of the procedural safeguards for such trials, such legal penalty is rare. The Mishna records Rabinnic views in the first century thought once in 70 years to have a death penalty imposed was the preferred norm. See "Capital Punishment in Judaism," Wikipedia -link. )


In other contexts, there are legal consequences for premarital sex, summarized below, but there is no per se prohibition on premarital sex.


This Deut 22:20-21 passage is a command on Gentiles because verses 1 and 4 of the same chapter specifically limit the commands in those verses to "sons of Israel" as part of each command. However, this is not repeated in Deut. 22:20-21. Instead, this reads in an open ended manner in verses 20-21. See Deut. 22 (NIV). Hence, it should be construed as applicable to Gentiles.


Advice To Gentile-Christian Woman


This means for a Christian Gentile woman who is propositioned by someone other than her anticipated husband, she should always decline for fear of the right of judgment by a future betrothed that she was not a virgin.


At the same time, if a man and woman are betrothed, and they have premarital sex, such a man cannot claim he was defrauded by believing his betrothed wife was a virgin, and there is thus no legal consequence upon either of them for such pre-wedding activity. (Jews call this crime "deceiving a husband as to her chastity." See link.)

This is not to say it is necessarily wise even then for the woman, as a wedding can be called off. The woman would then be in the same position with the next betrothal as if the first never happened. The next betrothed husband could stand in judgment against her, if he chose, in which case she can be under potential judgment of spiritual death before God and man. A woman would prevent doing wrong by telling her next betrothed of her prior relations, and wisely would do so in front of witnesses.

All of this is to say, the woman who says 'yes' is taking risks of judgment by a shocked betrothed husband if she keeps it a secret. If that risk never materializes, her action, while unwise and imprudent, did not lead to a judgment punished in the Law by man or God. Yet, it is certainly risky behavior, on more than one level.

Potential Legal Consequences Elsewhere For Premarital Sex

Now in other sections of the Law, premarital sex has other legal consequences. Hence, the mere act of premarital sex is again not treated like adultery is treated --- adultery is subject to a death-penalty in court (civilly then, spiritually now). Rather, pre-marital sex is treated as an action that incurs legal consequences. It is not prohibited per se.

These rules quoted next apply to Gentiles because in the Exodus 20:16-17 passage below, each verse leading up to verses 16-17 has said "anyone" doing x, y, and z is subject to the command. And verses 16-17 themselves says it applies to "a man" -- which is consistent with it being "any man." And the Deuteronomy quote below is from chapter 22 where verses 1 and 4 was excepting out those commands as applicable only to "sons of Israel," thus leaving the other verses to be evidently applicable to everyone including Gentiles.

Anyway, in these two passages, we are told that if a man seduced a woman who was not betrothed or married, he was forced to pay the bride price and marry her, unless her father withheld his consent:

And if a man entice a virgin that is not betrothed, and lie with her, he shall surely pay a dowry for her to be his wife. If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him, he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins. [Exodus 22:16-17. Emphasis Added]

If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, that is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he hath humbled her; he may not put her away all his days. [Deuteronomy 22:28-29. Emphasis Added] 

Hence, if the father withheld consent, there was no consequence prescribed for pre-marital sex.




Pre-marital sex under the Law is not treated as incest, adultery or bestiality -- a per se wrong. Those actions that are per se wrong are also known as acts of fornication (illicit sexual acts). Therefore, pre-marital sex is not prohibited per se as a form of fornication (contrary to popular misconception including my own).

Rather, premarital sex is deadly only when a newly betrothed husband legitimately raises a complaint of fraud. If verified by the lack of blood-evidence and other proof, this would lead to her death as punishment under the civil Law of Israel (and spiritually in the kingdom of God) at the new husband's election. Obviously if the new husband was the one with whom the woman shared pre-marital sex, he should not be permitted to raise the complaint of fraud to man or God. Thus, in that circumstance, it is implied that there was no punishment for premarital sex between them. (Deut. 22:20-21.)

This completely matches Exodus 22:16-17 and Deut 22:28-29 which provides that if a man lies with a woman outside marriage, the man must pay a dowry and marry the woman unless the father refuses. Obviously, if the father refuses, there is no other prescribed consequence to the woman or the man who engaged in premarital sex.

Thank you for asking because I never studied this before. I had a complete misconception that premarital sex was per se a sin just like adultery, incest or bestiality.