"My girlfriend and I have gotten sexually active. What should we do now? Have we already 'married' each other?" — Nicodemus

Hey, thanks for the slow-ball! Couldn't it be something safer, like bioterrorism?

You seem to be trying to apply to your relationship some ancient Israelite "sex equals marriage rule," which would make premarital intercourse a de facto wedding.

I've heard of several Christian leaders who do this. Here are several problems with that approach, followed by a better way to understand and respond to your situation.

First, it's risky to justify or condemn a particular practice just by appealing to a few biblical verses, as if they apply straightforwardly in every cultural context. Sex means different things in ancient Judea, first-century Galilee and Corinth, and postmodern America. A "sex equals marriage" rule may have applied here and there in ancient Israel's history, but not everywhere (for instance, see Ex. 22:17). Think about possible abuses, and you'll see why.

Furthermore, when you lift passages out of context, you change their meaning. And with so many texts to choose from, and a vested interest in the outcome, you have a lot of incentive to be self-serving in how you "read" the Bible.

Most importantly, we have it from Jesus himself that some of Israel's regulations guiding sex and marriage were concessions to sin rather than best practices (Matt. 19:1-12). The truest answer to your question will come from the life of Jesus as remembered in the Church.

In Jesus' exchange with the Samaritan woman at the well, he doesn't buy the "sex equals marriage" argument: "You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband" (John 4:18). But he also rejects the "sex is no big deal" argument. He is the one who first brings up the issue of her sex life (John 4:16), as if he has something he wants to contribute.

The exchange here is uncomfortable but powerful. Jesus' prophetic words ignite belief among the Samaritans (John 4:39-42). Their faith has more to do with Jesus' spiritual discernment than with his clairvoyance. His words bless this woman (John 4:29). It must have been an important issue after all!

Why does Jesus press the issue? What's wrong with cohabiting? Apparently it interferes with "worshipping the Father in spirit and in truth" (John 4:21-24).
Recall the original plan: "A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). For the prophets, this "two becoming one" describes God's eternal covenant with Israel (Hosea 1-3, here 2:19-20). For the apostles, it describes Christ's relationship to his Church (Eph. 5:21-33). (By the way, if that's not a claim of Jesus' divinity, I don't know what is.)

Along these lines, Paul can use what at first looks like a "sex equals marriage" argument to show that in fact the prior relationship between God and God's people makes casual sex -- here signifying any behavior that contradicts the Messiah's lordship -- a violation of the integrity of God's bride (1 Cor. 6:15-20). Christian sex is governed by an institution of marriage that images God's eternal engagement to Israel, which is Christ's eternal marriage to the Church. Christlike chastity mirrors the divine fidelity on which we all depend for our hope of salvation. In other words, Jesus won't leave us in the morning.

The problem with premarital and extramarital sex is that it breaks that mirror. A premarital sexual relationship acts at times like a marriage, but it is not yet a marriage. It takes marriage's risks without marriage's protections. It opens both partners to spiritual, emotional, physical, and parental investments without counting costs or marshaling resources. It contracts without covenanting. It is profoundly dangerous (1 Cor. 7:1-11). No wonder it's such an urgent spiritual issue for that thirsty Samaritan couple.

What if you find yourself in such a relationship? Should you get married? Break up? Go cold turkey and take cold showers? In certain circumstances, any one of these could be good advice.

However, this is "Nicodemus," not "Loveline." Seek an adviser who knows both God and you well enough to guide you. Look for age, wisdom, and discernment. Furthermore, consider bringing everyone's parents into the loop. That's something like the approach in Exodus 22:17. (Becoming a father is bringing me around to its merits!)

Under no circumstances is maintaining the status quo good advice. Run away from anyone with an exculpatory argument or prooftext that is too good to be true. It didn't work for a certain American President, and it won't work for you.

And remember, Jesus goes beyond formulas and prooftexts to the root cause. His advice to the woman is himself (John 4:26). Our commitments, whether in singleness or in marriage, only stand when they draw strength from the marriage that was arranged in eternity and funded at the cross (1 Cor. 6:19-20). That's a commitment I can recommend wholeheartedly.

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