The Historic Stance
The traditional church call: “everyone should stay a virgin until marriage, and then have one and one only sexual partner from then on–and the sexual partner must be from the opposite sex.” The fact that this stance is out of step with our current, sex-obsessed, culture would be an extreme understatement.
The Historical/Biblical Context
Let’s go back and look at why girls (but not boys) had to retain their virginity before marriage in the times reflected in the earliest biblical books of history and law.
Please understand that wealth was in the land, not banks or stocks or in intellectual capital, which are far more expandable. When wealth is tied up in usable land, i.e., fit for agriculture or grazing, it needed to be kept intact as much as possible. From this comes the inheritance rule informed by primogeniture: the firstborn son retains the vast majority of the property upon the death of the father/patriarch.
This is the crux of the Esau/Jacob story: Jacob (the younger) stole that right from Esau, rightfully infuriating the elder son who was disinherited by Jacob’s trickery. Thus Jacob would become the rightful owner of all if Isaac’s wealth upon his father’s death. No wonder he fled when his dad died–Esau’s murderous rage makes a lot of sense here.
Now, when the eldest son inherited, he also became the one responsible for wellbeing of the whole larger clan, including his younger brothers and their families. If he died before having a son, his brother next in line had the responsibility to impregnate the older son’s widow for the sake of the inheritance.
It was absolutely essential for the birth of this oldest son to be legitimate. He HAD to be in the bloodline of the family, or the entire wealth of the family could land in the hands of an outsider, a complete disaster.
The only way to absolutely ensure legitimacy was to ensure the virginity of the bride. So, girls were secluded and often married off as soon as they showed evidence of being able to bear children. In addition, the bed-clothes were checked after the first marital intercourse to look for evidence of her virginity, i.e., blood upon the first penetration.
There is no equal emphasis on male virginity–it was simply no big deal, apparently. It was only the females who had to produce evidence of sexual inexperience.
Extra-marital sex took place all the time, just as it does now. Interestingly however, we have a similar situation now as they did then: we also need to know the identity of the father in order to hold him accountable for child support after he impregnates a woman.
In the early biblical context, sex, virginity and childbirth were primarily contractual and family survival matters—not necessarily romantic in nature. This is also the case in world political history. Our concept of “falling in love, getting married and living happily ever after” is much the product of fairy tales and media, not human history.
Love Stories Not the Main Emphasis
Of course we see biblical love stories. But they are not the driving force. Once we get to the time when much of our New Testament was written, we see a world probably equally as casual sexually as our times are now. We also begin to see more of a theology of sexuality emerge, particularly from the writings of Paul.
Nonetheless, there was still the absolute need to know the paternity of the children especially in landed and wealthy families.
Again, there is really no emphasis on sexual purity for men in the earliest writings—in fact, we see more the expectation that they would rape freely given the opportunity. I think that Jesus’ clear valuation of women helped enormously to address that double standard, which then brings the call to sexual purity for both men and women.
What We Face Today
Now, let’s look at our culture. Most of our highly educated young do not marry these days until their late 20’s and into their 30’s. The idea that they stay sexually chaste during that time flies in the face of every single thing that contemporary media and society teaches. The church is routinely ridiculed for even suggesting such an option.
That, however, is not reason not to suggest it. But we need to do so in a culturally astute way. The kind of shaming emphasis on female virginity that has often been taught by the church does no good—and often brings harm (see the Elizabeth Smart situation).
We need to teach what real holiness is: that we are stewards of our bodies as well as our souls and that God, as loving creator, expects us to use our physical selves to God’s glory. Treating sexuality as just an itch to be scratched damages the soul and often damages the body as well. I’ve expanded this thought here.
Church and the family are the places for this type of education. Not the public schools because they are constrained from bring spirituality into the discussion. We must reclaim the sacred here.