Morality Ch. 10: Sex during Singleness

The rabbis, like most religious leaders, warned against masturbation. James Dobson, who has guided a generation of parents, regarded it as a merely the practice of releasing “hormonal pressure.”1 What does the Bible say? Actually, nothing!

I was watching Friends with my daughters when a great romantic moment occurred. Chandler, who had been living with his girlfriend Monica for several months, finally came to a point of commitment. For the first time in their relationship he declared: “I love you.” I switched to full alert as I realized this might be an opportune moment to say something like: “They’ve got it all backwards, haven’t they, girls? Love comes first, then marriage, and then sex.” Just as I opened my mouth, both my offspring turned to me and chorused: “Yeah, Dad, we know.” I guess I might have covered this subject before!

The boyfriend who doesn’t want to commit is not just a fictional stereotype; and since the advent of contraceptives, an increasing number of girls have comparable reservations. And this isn’t new. In first-century Roman society, young men tried to remain unmarried as long as possible. It wasn’t that they couldn’t decide who to marry – good parents chose a bride for them – they just wanted to avoid marital responsibilities and the obligations of fatherhood as long as possible. Shortly before Jesus was born, Emperor Augustus made laws that rewarded young Romans for marrying and having children. He wasn’t worried about the decreasing morals of the younger generation, but he was worried about the decreasing number of true-born Roman citizens.

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Brothels everywhere

Men had little incentive to marry, because sex was easily available outside marriage, and it wasn’t expected that you would be able to marry someone you were in love with. Brothels were numerous, though there’s some dispute about the numbers. Early excavators at Pompeii interpreted carvings of an erect phallus outside a building as an advertisement for a brothel. However, they found so many of these, along with extremely explicit erotic wall paintings, that the number of supposed brothels rose to one for every forty-five men.2 Actually, these symbols were probably considered good luck charms, so not all of them pointed to a brothel. But this symbolism is telling in itself: a society that pays artists to create such explicit images on their walls is clearly relaxed about sex.

Such sexual freedom was considered extreme sinfulness in the Jewish and Christian world, though they still faced just as much temptation. Paul warns the young Timothy to avoid shameful things and to “keep a strong curb … on your youthful cravings” (2 Tim 2:21-22, a great translation by Weymouth). He assumes that young women face the same temptations and that young widows will be particularly tempted because they aren’t restrained by having to preserve their virginity. He therefore encourages them to remarry to prevent them giving in to their sexual desires – that is, become pleasure-loving widows (1 Tim 5:6, 14).

Paul is often thought to have been against marriage, but this conclusion is based on only one passage (1 Cor 7), which includes an encouragement to delay marriage “because of the present crisis” (v. 26) – probably the worldwide famine that was under way at the time. As he reminds his readers, since marriage entails providing material support for your family (vv. 32-34), getting married and bringing children into the world during a famine was best avoided. Nevertheless, even in this difficult situation, Paul lists two reasons why it might still be better to marry your intended partner. First, you might feel that you are acting badly toward your betrothed – who might not be equally willing to wait for marriage (v. 36) – and second, your singleness might lead you into sexual sin (v. 9).

Paul wasn’t against remaining single – he himself was single and recommended it. Jesus, too, taught that singleness was a valued choice made by some people who wished to serve the kingdom in a special way (Matt 19:12). But Paul recommends singleness with an important caveat – he points out that it is a “gift” that only some people have (1 Cor 7:7).

Burning with passion

Paul speaks about sexual frustration in surprisingly vivid terms, saying, “It is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor 7:9). This probably reflects the belief of Greek doctors that if a man did not release semen regularly, it would cause a harmful rise of temperature inside him. Going to a prostitute was therefore regarded as a normal, and even healthy, thing to do. That’s why Paul not only warns Gentile converts against visiting brothels, but even has to explain why it is an unacceptable practice for a Christian (1 Cor 6:9-20). Even the author of the book of Hebrews, which was written to a Jewish congregation, reminds them that sex should only occur between married partners (Heb 13:4). Presumably the congregation was outside Israel, so they were constantly exposed to a culture that treated such things lightly.

Paradoxically, Paul didn’t have to remind his converts that the Old Testament forbids sleeping with a girlfriend or fiancĂ©e. The law demands “proof” that she is virgo intacta on her wedding night in the form of a bloody cloth. Lack of proof resulted in her death – her husband was unpunished because it was assumed he would not cause this, knowing the disastrous consequences (Deut 22:13-21). This may have reflected some inequality in cultural expectations, though warnings against extramarital sex were addressed to both sexes in Judaism. Paul didn’t need to remind his readers of this because even Romans knew that women had to come to marriage as virgins. Somehow Romans didn’t recognize the absurdity of expecting first-time brides to be virgins while grooms were expected to gain premarital “experience.” Of course, this same double standard often still exists today.

Biblical teaching allows sex only within marriage, so what should unmarried believers do if they don’t have the gift of singleness? This must have been a common situation among early believers because becoming a Christian made people unsuitable in the eyes of their intended in-laws. Even if they succeeded in finding a partner, they probably couldn’t afford to get married because their non-Christian parents were unlikely to pay the dowry and other costs of getting married.

Today, too, many Christians find themselves unmarried – as do non-Christians. Romeo and Juliet’s generation commonly married during their early teens, but today marriage takes place ten or twenty years after sexual maturity occurs. In this situation, it is not surprising that many non-Christians have sexual partners during those decades of singleness. What is surprising is that many young Christians succeed in heroically standing against this cultural expectation. It is very difficult to withstand sexual temptation at an age when your body is screaming for fulfillment and everyone around you is “doing it.”

What about masturbation?

The earliest suicide counseling service, the Samaritans, was founded in 1953 by a London Church of England minister, Chad Varah, after conducting his first funeral service. He had to bury a fourteen-year-old girl who committed suicide after her first period, which she interpreted as a sexual illness. He vowed that he would provide help for all those whose ignorance about sexual matters caused severe suffering. This controversially included counseling masturbation for people who were overwhelmed by sexual frustration.3 In today’s secular society this advice is largely unnecessary, but is it appropriate for Christians? Some Christian leaders have bravely pointed out that “masturbation is not much of an issue with God” (James Dobson) and that “when someone is under pressure to the point of distraction … it is often better that they relieve themselves” (Gerald Coates), though they also warn against letting it become a compulsion rather than just a periodic release.4

The Bible says absolutely nothing on the subject of masturbation, though most people assume it is banned. This silence is in contrast to the ancient rabbis, who even warned men to take care how they touched themselves while passing urine.5 The story of Onan is often cited as forbidding masturbation because he “spilled his semen” (Gen 38:8-10). However, this Bible text criticizes Onan’s refusal to carry out the ancient law that said that if a man died, his brother should help his widow conceive a son to look after her in her old age. Onan wanted to keep the whole family inheritance for himself, so he “spilled his seed” to prevent fathering a new heir to share the inheritance with.

What the Bible does warn against is fantasizing about someone. Job says, “I made a covenant with my eyes, not to look lustfully at a young women” (Job 31:1), and David’s experience with Bathsheba shows what that can lead to. Jesus probably refers to this in his warning, “if your right eye causes you to stumble …” (Matt 5:29). These and other warnings against fantasizing are given because it can lead to immorality, though there is no specific warning against masturbation.

Delayed marriage

The Old Testament did not have to give much warning against premarital sex, because there were no reasons to delay marriage. We have no accurate figures about actual practice, but later rabbinic culture probably reflects ancient practice. Most fathers arranged for their daughter’s betrothal (a legally binding form of engagement) before she gained legal adulthood, at age twelve, to ensure she couldn’t object. This was so common that the rabbis had to make a rule that girls could not actually be married before the age of twelve – so engagements tended to occur when they were eleven and the marriage a year later.6 Boys didn’t marry until a little later, but the longer they waited, the more dangerous it became. There was a saying: “He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin.”7 One rabbi said: “The reason that I am superior to my colleagues is that I married at sixteen. And had I married at fourteen, I would have said to Satan, An arrow in your eye” (i.e., Satan couldn’t have tempted him at all).8

The commands against sexual encounters outside marriage are unchanging from Old to New Testaments, though they are only countercultural in New Testament times. Ancient Near Eastern societies around Israel had just as strict laws forbidding adultery as Israel did, and they would have encouraged early marriage for similar reasons: to secure inheritance issues and to have maximum control over their children’s choices. However, the rule of abstaining from sex before marriage was extremely countercultural for members of the early church and clearly caused a lot of problems. That this rule was nevertheless insisted on makes it clear that this is a timeless command.

Ideally, any believer who does not have the “gift” of singleness (as Paul puts it) should be able to marry someone whom they love and who will support them in the faith. But modern lifestyle for young people interposes a prolonged period of education, and possibly occupational training, before marriage becomes practical, and many believers also have difficulty finding a suitable spouse. Many Christian men and women therefore find themselves living what is, for them, a difficult and far-from-ideal life as a single person.

If someone is full of adrenaline from pent-up anger we might counsel them to hit a punching bag. Others have so much physical energy they need to go for regular runs to achieve any sense of calm. What should we say to those singles who suffer so much pent-up sexual energy that everyone they look at becomes an object of desire? Scripture warns us against acting on such desires, but does not condemn the release of such tension by masturbation. I realize that this is a difficult conclusion for many Christians who would regard masturbation as giving free rein to passions that they feel should be subdued by other means. But for some of those believers who do not have the gift of singleness, it may be a way to release their sexual frustrations while living a life honoring to God.

1^ See
2^ See David Fredrick, ed., The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 151.
3^ See, for example,
4^ These and others are cited at
5^ Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who lived just after Jesus, said: “He who holds his member while passing water is [as sinful as] one who brought a flood upon the world” (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 41a []; Niddah 13a; 42b []).
6^ If she was married before, she could annul the marriage when she became twelve (Mishnah Yebamoth 13.1 []; Niddah 5.6 []).
7^ Babylonian Talmud Qiddushin 29b (, attributed to Rabbi Huna in the mid-third century AD.
8^ Babylonian Talmud Qiddushin 29b–30a (, attributed to Rabbi Hisda in the late third century AD.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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