Q: Thank you for this discussion regarding sex and it being appropriately confined within a "marriage". But you indicated that God views a couple as married once they have sex. So what happens in the case of premarital sex with multiple partners? Is a person only considered married, in God's eyes, to the first person they had sex with? What happens if someone, that's a virgin, has sex with someone that's not? Should the former consider themselves married while the later considers it an adulterous affair? There must be a Scriptural answer to this can-of-worms.
A: This question was pulled from the comments on the original post on Sexual Morality. If you haven't yet read that post, it is beneficial to give it a read to understand what ground has already been covered.
The commenter's questions are good ones, and they are right to point out that this is indeed a can of worms! Bucking traditional wisdom, however, we are in fact going to "open" this issue and see what happens! I should warn you ahead of time, that what follows is not likely to win me any popularity contests.
As mentioned in the previous post, the consummation of the physical act is what "marries" a man and a woman in the eyes of God. However, there is also a societal understanding of what a "marriage" is that is beyond simply the physical act, but includes much of what we'd understand to "constitute a marriage" in our own culture -- things like taking care of each other, living together, tax benefits, etc.
It becomes extremely difficult to keep these issues separated, but they are different and must not be mingled (pun only partially intended). Keeping God's view of the union between a man and a woman and societal views of that union must be taken separately to fully understand what the Bible teaches.
According to our current law in the United States, marriage is confined to one man and one woman nationally (with some States allowing for "marriage" or a "civil union" between partners of the same gender). Polygamy is currently illegal in the United States, too.
However, God is not bound by man made laws and you'll find that different places have different understandings of the "civil" or "legal" side of what does and does not constitute a "marriage." God's view is simpler and has already been covered -- the physical act of intercourse binds two individuals together spiritually for the duration of their lives (that is, the "bond" is cancelled once one or both partners dies; e.g. 1 Corinthians 7:39).
With that out of the way, let's begin tackling the questions that the commenter raised: So what happens in the case of premarital sex with multiple partners? Is a person only considered married, in God's eyes, to the first person they had sex with?
It should be stated again that "premarital sex" is only possible when viewed from the human perspective of marriage as a legal/civil union. As stated in the previous post, from God's perspective, there is no such thing as "premarital sex"! Therefore, when the physical act is consummated, the person is "joined" or "married" to their partner... this is both a physical and spiritual reality (although the spiritual reality endures far longer than the physical!).
God is not concerned about the ceremony, the dress, the tuxedo, and the cake. This is why, traditionally, the consummation of the marriage should take place after the ceremony! Regardless of the ceremony, the reality of this understanding is that you are spiritually joined to each and every person you have ever physically been joined to. This is why it is beneficial that you only be joined to a person whom you have made a commitment to stay faithful to 'till death do you part. The failure to keep the physical act safely within the context of a legal marriage results in complications and problems down the road as the fruit of this "sin."
While our man made laws do not recognize multiple spouses as being legitimate, the Bible has no problem referring to multiple "wives" in situations where the culture allowed for such (e.g. 1 Samuel 1:1-2; or Solomon and his many concubines). The cultural allowance for such a reality is really inconsequential -- God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman, so any variance from this design (whether legal or not) is "adulterous" and sinful.
God consistently emphasizes "holiness" and "purity" throughout His laws. If the male and female counterparts of our human race are designed to be joined together in a special way - For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh (Genesis 2:24, NASB) - and if this joining is permanent, then something gets defiled when this new entity is then joined with another.
Think of mixing two liquids together - one glass of blue liquid and one glass of yellow liquid. What happens is that when they are "married" they become something new: green. You can "divorce" this new creation by separating the liquid back into their original containers, but they are still green because they've been fundamentally changed into something different. If you mix this green with something else, it will change again as it is being joined with something else that will further change the substance again.
Consider now that only one partner (or glass from the above metaphor) is joined to another, then the defilement will alter the "mixture" and make it something less than pure. The more additions that are made to the mix, the less pure it is.
Many people struggle with intimacy in their marriages and are unsure of the root cause. Much of this can be traced back to "adulterous" relationships - either from the past or from the present.
Remember, that according to Jesus in Matthew 5:28, even looking with lust is committing adultery in your heart. This is why pornography is such a disastrous scourge - something that so many people think is "no big deal" and that is even acceptable among many who call themselves Christians!
God was not kidding when He warned in the book of Hebrews:
Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge. (Hebrews 13:4, NASB)
This may seem like a long answer to a short question, but No, you are not only viewed as married to the first person you had a sexual relationship with. In God's view, you are "joined" with all of them until death dissolves the bond!
Some may object to this saying, if this is true, then there are tons of people who are adulterers that don't even know it.
In fact, that passage from Matthew 5 teaches that people who have only had one sexual partner, and even virgins, can be adulterers!
In a culture where sex is used to sell everything from alcohol to lawnmowers, is it any wonder why the divorce rate is skyrocketing? We have failed to keep the marriage bed undefiled by allowing, at the very least, our eyes to feast on flesh, and the result is a diminished capacity for sexual fulfillment and intimacy within even the confines of "faithful marriages." God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16) and we should too. It's painful. It's disastrous. And we are fooling ourselves if we think it will get better by further joining ourselves to another partner and mingling more people into the mix!
Before you get mad at me (too late?), it is important to understand that Jesus taught this same principle to His disciples and they thought it was hard, too.
He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery." The disciples said to Him, "If the relationship of the man with his wife is like this, it is better not to marry." But He said to them, "Not all men can accept this statement, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother's womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it." (Matthew 19:8-12, NASB)
Jesus taught that re-marriage is adultery. The disciples said this was hard to accept, and Jesus responds by referring to three categories of "eunuchs." A eunuch is someone who is unable to engage in the physical act of sexual intercourse.
Some are unable to engage in this act because of some birth defect or trauma. Others are unable to engage in this act because they have been physically altered (i.e. via castration). The third category of eunuch is one who disqualifies themselves from ability to engage in intercourse for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (i.e. becomes celibate to not be an adulterer).
Jesus knew this was hard, so he finished by saying "He who is able to accept this, let him accept it." Jesus taught a lot of hard stuff ... very rarely does he add this disclaimer! This is one of his hardest teachings!
This truth can sometimes cause people to panic, especially those who have had multiple partners in the past and those who have been re-married. If that's you, you should take a moment to meditate on the glorious truth of Romans 8:1. It may also be helpful to read What is Salvation? Part 1, and thank God for His amazing gift of salvation from the penalty from our past sins!
Instead of trying to convince ourselves of our purity before God, we should rejoice in the fact that He did all the work to make us pure in His sight despite our disgusting mess:
For we also once were foolish ourselves, disobedient, deceived, enslaved to various lusts and pleasures, spending our life in malice and envy, hateful, hating one another. But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7, NASB)
God is interested in faithfulness and purity in His people - and He has saved us from the power of sin (see What is Salvation? Part 2 for more on this) so that we will walk in holiness now. This means that regardless of our past discretions, we should strive to walk in purity before Him now and for the rest of the days He chooses to give us by the power of His Holy Spirit.
This means that if you are married, you should remain faithful to your current spouse. You do not have less of a connection to them than you did to any previous sexual partners, even the "first." In fact, the Scriptures indicate that the mingling of your spirit and flesh with a new partner has "defiled" your previous spouse to you in the case of prior marriages (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4; notice that even if the subsequent marriage is dissolved via death, v. 3, still they should not come back together!).
If you are unmarried, you should consider staying that way as the unmarried person has advantages in their walk with Christ - see for example 1 Corinthians 7:1, 8, 32-35. This is especially true if you have had previous sexual partners and/or have been married previously.
As I've already said, this teaching isn't going to win any popularity contests!
Finally let's try and address the last two specific questions that were raised: What happens if someone, that's a virgin, has sex with someone that's not? Should the former consider themselves married while the later considers it an adulterous affair?
Really, the answer to the first question is simple: they are joined together just like anyone else. The problem is that there will be extra complications for the "non-virgin" partner, which will in turn affect their relationship with the "virgin" partner and make it difficult for them to find pure, unadulterated intimacy with each other as a result of the past "mingling" of spirit/flesh.
Anyone who has had multiple sexual partners or who has engaged in gratifying their various lusts through pornography or even romance novels can attest to the fact that these decisions do not simplify their life but rather complicate it! In addition, these things often cause dissatisfaction with our partners and a growing void that needs to constantly be "satisfied" (regardless of how fleeting and temporary these fixes may be) instead of fostering a sense of lasting joy and fulfillment (which is God's good design for the marriage bed).
Those who save themselves for marriage often find intimacy to be much easier, but pornography and other forms of "romantic/sexual" fantasies can breed the same problems as a result of adultery (of the heart).
Lastly, the person who wants to take the Bible at face value should view every sexual encounter as "marriage" regardless of the number of previous partners. The final question unfortunately mingles the categories of God's perspective and man's. An "adulterous affair" is any sexual relationship outside of the confines of a "legal marriage." Adultery from God's perspective is much harder to avoid.
The can of worms is really more complicated than it even seems, because each of these questions requires follow up questions, clarification, and qualifiers. Has the "virgin" also remained pure in their thought life? Have the hypothetical partners above entered into a legal "marriage" via a ceremony, or are these simply illicit sexual encounters? If these are simply examples of promiscuity then we have been discussing the wrong issue, since this is better described by "fornication" and not "adultery." Neither class of sexual sin is dealt with lightly in the Scriptures (e.g. both are listed in 1 Corinthians 6:9), despite their differences.
If this view that I'm presenting regarding adultery is accurate, then virtually no one can claim that they have kept the 7th commandment: Thou shall not commit adultery.
This is terrible news, because 1 Corinthians 6:9 states that no adulterer will inherit the kingdom of God!
Praise God for His amazing gift, that through Christ we may receive the righteousness that we need:
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB)
It is only by being rescued from our sins and walking in the power of the Holy Spirit that we can hope to walk in purity before our God. We have fallen woefully short, but His grace abounds!
The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 5:20-6:4, NASB)