When it comes to navigating Christian relationships, it’s not uncommon to be curious about how your Christianity applies to your sexual practices. You're a Christian, meaning you want to honor God with your life. You are seeking to understand how Jesus operated as a historical figure so you can imitate his behavior and character. I hope this also translates into active participation in community with other followers of Jesus, collectively listening for and responding to the Holy Spirit's promptings.
But living out this Christianity is not as simple as going to church and reading your Bible. You're interested in sexuality and you want to get it right… but how?
Sexuality is the part of you, deep inside, that aches to be known and to know another as related to instincts of attraction and intimate contact between individuals. Sexuality is more than sex. And sex is more than sexual intercourse! Sex is the physical, mental, or emotional act of engaging in an erotic way, while sexual intercourse is just about physical penetration.
Jesus wasn't married and we don't see him doing a lot of dating in the Bible. While there's lots of extramarital (outside of marriage) sex in the Bible, "messing around" is not really described and often intercourse is mentioned as a form of violence or political strategy. If you look to church to find answers, they often have very simplistic "heterosexual married intercourse only" policies, not giving you much detail to go on.
You want more.
You believe there's more.
And you don't want to do harm.
As a believer in Jesus, I want the same things as you. As a family therapist, it's my job to support people as they heal from emotional and relational damage. As a sex-educator, I teach how bodies and sexual relationships work so they can be enjoyed. Put all this together in a conservative culture and I often have people asking me, "What can Christian couples do sexually before marriage?" and “How far is too far?”
Let’s start with where we go wrong. I find that Christians tend to make two big mistakes in thinking about premarital sexual activity, both stemming from a heart of fear.
Mistake #1: You Can't Tell Me What to Do
The first mistake is one any human could make. When brought up in a hedonistic world that generally values reactive, animalistic behavior and dominance, Christians are just as susceptible to that greedy, unhinged mentality as any other human. They want what they want… as much of it as they can get… as fast as they can get it. When you're afraid there's not enough to go around, you can't help but operate in a scarcity mindset: I've got to take what I want (entitlement) because no one else is going to get it for me. Consent’s got nothing to do with it.
This breeds an insatiable hunger for more eroticism with little to no self-control in regards to how it hurts self or others. It's a wide-open, no-distance-is-too-far, no-behavior-is-too-wrong type of thinking. It's a survival mechanism for those feeling threatened and alone.
Practically, this looks like people arguing that there should be no rules. "I should be able to do what I want in my own bedroom. It's none of your business. It doesn't affect you." It's a misunderstanding about independence, as if we really can operate completely isolated without affecting the other humans around us. This is especially hard to understand for humans that grow up in individualistic cultures (like white Americans and many Europeans).
Mistake #2: Chastity is the Best Policy
The second mistake Christians make is a bit more particular to puritanical cultures. In fear of the scrappy greed manifested by individuals seeking only their own good, a reactionary mentality develops to clamp down on chaos. The "people in charge" enact overly rigid rules and judgmental, shame-filled policies to control the mob.
This argument (while much more subtle) sounds like, "You can't just let people do what they want! They'll get hurt! They'll abuse children! They won't know when or how to stop!" But this fear-mongering governance by humans almost always takes these mandates too far. Those in power wield way too much authority, giving unfair advantage to those with not enough accountability.
Practically, this can look like a hyper-focus on legalistic boundaries, "I kissed dating goodbye" extremes, strict heteronormativity and gendered roles, and shaming anything related to sex or sexual bodies. All this results in male-pleasure-centered sexual prescriptions, the idolization of marriage, and a giant pleasure gap (meaning men experience orgasm 95% of the time, while women only experience it 65%). It's Christians terrified of their own pleasure and even long-time married couples struggling to relax and enjoy their sexual engagements. (Remember those weird beds from two hundred years ago with a bundling board between couples to keep them from having sex?!?!)
These two arguments (for short: Everything and Nothing) go back and forth, and have been for centuries. Most recently you can see Nothing in the purity culture movement of the 90s and 00s, which was a reaction to Everything displayed in the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, which was a reaction to the cold war American pride and war-torn grief of the 30s and 40s, which was a reaction to the arrogant flaunting of lavish greed in the roaring 20s… It goes on and on. Pendulum swinging by the energy of fear, driven by a world dominated by the "not enough" narrative. From what I can tell, our current culture appears to be tipping the argument back toward the Everything side, but who knows.
Often, Everything and Nothing have been pitted against each other as if they were “pop-culture versus church,” but that story is just smoke and mirrors, distracting us from our similarities with other humans. In reality, pop-culture permeates the church and church exists inside culture. Both Everything and Nothing are used as sources of exclusive pride for whomever claims them.
Our Loving God
If Christians don't want to follow this worldly pendulum swing, what is better? May I first suggest a brief review of our loving God. The God we follow as Christians is a God who loves tremendously, without fail, faithfully, gracefully, and who demonstrates self-control and an ability to stop both in creating and in destroying. He creates for seven days AND THEN STOPS. He punishes the idol-worshiping Israelites AND THEN STOPS. He operates cyclically and remains constant in His own goodness and blessing. He is grace AND He is truth.
If this is the God we follow,
if He is actually with us,
we need not be so afraid.
Our first step then is to relax into His goodness. He is a good God who creates good things and manages those good things well. We can trust him with our bodies. We can trust the Holy Spirit inside of us. We can trust the community of followers He places us in. We don't have to be afraid, but we would do well to pay attention.
This may sound overly philosophical to you. You might be saying, "But Brandi, what do I DO???" And as unsatisfying as this directive might be, I really am saying that your first step ought to be putting practices into your life that help you know and follow the living God. Praying and reading your Bible are valuable elements of this, but just as much are consistent fellowship and community discernment. In other words,
Our first step is to remember regularly that we aren't alone.
That is what alleviates the tyranny of fear in our sexuality and in every other category of our life.
The Purpose of Sexuality: Intimacy and Knowing
For a second step, I suggest you consider the intended purpose of sexuality. Consider Genesis 4, where Adam knows Eve. Or the long communally-supported dance of Song of Solomon where two lovers are passionately getting to know one another. As God designed it, sexuality is a fabulous avenue for intimate knowing: knowing ourselves, knowing God, and knowing each other.
To do this safely, we need to consider that true intimacy and knowing require consensual vulnerability and the support of our larger community. Vulnerability can’t happen without a sense of safety. And safety doesn’t happen without the support of our broader community and a commitment of protection by the person you’re being sexual with.
Intimacy is a process of mutually knowing each other. It’s allowing yourself to be seen and seeing another in the deeper parts of who you are. The deeper you’re seeing, the deeper you’re knowing, the deeper the intimacy.
But who can relax enough to really allow themselves to be known vulnerably when they are feeling unsafe? In the presence of shame, fear, or hate, our bodies tense up and shrink away, our hearts close, and in the worst cases, we disassociate, losing connection with ourselves as a form of survival.
How can one feel safe? We need several things. It’s certainly easier to relax when the person you are with consistently behaves with integrity: showing up, following through, respecting your wishes and emotions, protecting you amidst threats, humbly apologizing when they’re wrong and actively learning to do better, not bad-talking you to others, serving you, giving to you—just generally demonstrating they’re a solid healthy human for a decent amount of time. The longer the track record of good, kind behavior, the easier it is to trust the goodwill.
The Role of Consent
Human bodies are wired for connection, meaning they bond, heal, and rest with those who care for us through hormonal and other physiological processes (I.e. eye contact, bodily contact, being physically near enough to smell one another). This means sexuality (which involves those same processes) is entwined with precious vulnerability. Vulnerability that needs to be protected. Practicing overly vulnerable behaviors in isolation with unsafe, uncommitted persons is a recipe for harm. So think twice about with whom and how you are practicing vulnerability.
Trying to force vulnerability is harmful. If someone doesn't want to be known, there is nothing that can force them to open up. While you could force physical engagement without consent, the emotional connection would be immediately broken—which won’t be satisfying for either of you. In the worst cases, it can be traumatizing as a person will often disassociate to manage the unwanted experience. Knowing and truly being known requires consent.
If a person feels like they have to go along with what’s happening, they aren’t consenting. Consent is only birthed out of a free choice, so make sure your partner knows they have the free choice to say no to any sexual advance without fear of harm, punishment, or passive aggressive jabs. In a world where women are often encouraged to be cooperative and go with the flow, there’s a risk she could agree to behaviors she isn’t really comfortable with just to avoid rocking the boat. Men can be pushed into unwanted situations as well.
Make sure you ask your partner directly if they’re comfortable with whatever it is you’d like to do together moving forward. And even then, pay attention to body language cues (like a stiff body posture or sudden silence) that could indicate discomfort. DEFINITELY respect their no whether they say it out loud or not.
The Role of Commitment and Community
To feel fully safe, we also need the support of a loving, protective community. If you’re isolated trying to navigate a relationship secretly without anyone else knowing about it, you’re already in a risky position. If your community doesn’t really know you or is so big it’s ignorant of your needs, they can’t care for you the way you need them to. No single human is capable of noticing and warding off all threats. Not only can a healthy community notice when things seem a bit off, they can also help you follow through on big commitments you’ve made when you’re tired or getting a bit self-centered.
We also need to know that the person we’re with isn’t going to drift away once we’ve started to show them who we are. If we reveal a bit of ourselves and then that person responds with indifference or shame, it’s harder to open up the next time. I’m not a big fan of labels, but I do love a good “define the relationship” talk once things start to get more vulnerable. It’s important that both partners understand who’s committed to what before stepping forward. There are fewer things more painful than thinking your relationship meant more than it really did.
As commitment builds over time, so does the potential for vulnerability and intimacy. If you want to protect that, once you get to a point where you’ve established trust and you’ve both proven your character, it’s time to decide if this is the person you want to entwine your life with permanently. A BIG way to provide an environment of safety for a sexual relationship is to show up and help pay for a serious ceremony surrounded by your friends and family while you promise to love and protect for the rest of your life. If at this point something else is holding you back from that serious of a commitment, there may be a deeper issue telling you it’s time for the relationship to be over (rather than to move forward sexually). Long-term deeper intimacy without a marriage commitment is a recipe for heartbreak.
At the same time, just like sexual vulnerability shouldn’t be rushed into, neither should marriage. It takes quite a bit of time and investigation to figure out if a person is a good long-term match for you. I suggest at least a year of time together. If you’re struggling with the temptation of quick sexual intimacy, you need to connect more thoroughly with your community, increasing your honesty about this struggle (confession), practicing self-discipline, and not putting yourself in situations that require you to white knuckle it. (Paul says this in one word: flee.)
But What About Now? How Should a Christian Relationship Progress Before Marriage?
While this might be a fabulous argument for keeping highly vulnerable acts (like nakedness and orgasm) behind serious walls of commitment, it may still not be clear what you can do in front of that wall. What's allowed? What's not allowed? I can’t answer those questions specifically for you because I’m not in your body, I am not the Holy Spirit, and I am not in your immediate community. I don’t know your relationship or your heart. Following Jesus is a minute by minute venture, dependent on a living, moving God. He wants deep connectedness with you: your attention, attunement, and commitment to being with him, rather than an obligatory, emotionless, dutiful legalism.
But I can suggest you match your level of sexual vulnerability with any particular partner to your commitment level to that person (and their commitment level to you). Work on knowing one another in a cognitive way. Figure out how they think, how they organize their life, what makes them tick. Get to know them in an emotional way. How do they feel about life, what do they enjoy, what really pisses them off?
Slowly integrate them into your community (and join theirs!), listening to your community’s insight about the relationship. Learn how to love them with respectful physical affection without intentional eroticism. Take your time in these categories of knowing, allowing your physical intimacy to match pace with the rest of your relationship. Keep yourself in check not to over-share before it’s safe, and practice vulnerability in small bites so you can get better at opening up.
And if things are getting squirrely and you’re really not feeling sure about any of it, it’s time to check in with yourself, your partner, your God, and your immediate community.
For more information on this topic, consider Brandi’s online course, The Truth About Holy Sex.
Reflection Questions in Navigating Intimacy in Christian Dating
Are you actively involved in a loving community that knows you? How could you allow your relationship to be better known by this community?
How could you seek to know God deeper and listen better to the Holy Spirit?
Check in with yourself: Do you find yourself making decisions on this topic from a heart of trust or fear?
How could you practice being a safe person to be in relationship with, consistently showing up with integrity and respect? Is your partner a safe person?
How could you practice safe vulnerability relative to you and your partner’s level of commitment to each other?