You want to know if you’re allowed to have sex with your future spouse. After all, a few months isn’t that big a deal. Being engaged is part of being married, right? Well, if that’s your thinking, you’re actually more correct than you might know.
Let’s take a look at what the Bible has to say about this subject. A quick survey of relevant passages will help us answer this question with a Christian worldview in mind. We’ll take a look at the difference between engagements in modern and ancient times, examine the betrothal of Mary and Joseph, and reflect on the importance of marriage.
Modern-Day and Ancient Engagements
In modern-day romance, engagements are a promise to become married at a future date. This arrangement serves some practical purposes. It allows the couple to schedule a date on the calendar that provides their friends and family members ample time to plan to attend the wedding. It also provides each partner time to prepare for their new role as a husband or wife by setting their affairs in order and/or cutting ties with unbeneficial hindrances. It’s a time of planning and preparation, but it’s also a time of final decisions.
With that in mind, let’s look back in time from our modern-day to the ancient era of Jesus. This is the time period that the New Testament was written within, and it also specifically mentions a particular engagement. However, it wasn’t called an engagement back then. Rather, the Bible calls an ancient engagement a betrothal, and there are some similarities and differences between these final stages of a romantic relationship.
In ancient romance, betrothals were a contract to be married. Sometimes, in the case of arranged marriages, they even happened without a prior relationship. A dowry or bride-price was usually exchanged during this timeframe (Exodus 22:16), and among other uses, it served to strengthen the bonds between the merging families. If either person violated or broke the betrothal, depending on who it was, they would forfeit or pay back the dowry/bride-price and face the cultural norm of shaming.
As you can see, there are some similarities between the two eras but also quite a bit of difference. They both allotted time for planning and preparation, but an ancient betrothal was a more serious agreement than a modern-day engagement. During an engagement, the decision process is still ongoing and the relationship can be terminated with relatively minor consequences. However, during a betrothal, there is no turning back without massive repercussions for the person and their family.
The Betrothal of Mary and Joseph
The story of Mary and Joseph’s betrothal is such a case and worth examining. From this ancient engagement came a pregnancy that would change the world. However, the pregnancy wasn’t brought about through the act of sex.
The Bible recognizes Mary to have been a virgin before the birth of Jesus and for a period of time afterward (Matthew 1:18-25 cf. Isaiah 7:14). In verse eighteen, we learn that the Holy Spirit is the One who caused this miraculous conception. In verse nineteen, naturally presupposing Mary to have been unfaithful during their engagement, the NIV states that Joseph “did not want to expose her to public disgrace” and decided to “divorce her quietly.”
How many of you would be willing to do that for the person you’re engaged to? Yea, I’m not so sure I would either. I can almost imagine Joseph responding to Mary’s pregnancy with something along the lines of, “Yea, well, unless that angel visits me too, there’s no freaking way we’re staying together!” See Luke 1:26-38 for the fulness of that joke.
As far as I’m concerned, that statement was the reason for the angelic visitation to Joseph in verse twenty. He chooses to remain with Mary only after that dream. Nevertheless, as written in verses twenty-four and twenty-five, he didn’t have sex with her until after their marriage and the birth of Christ.
If Joseph thought sex was allowed during the betrothal process, he would have never questioned Mary’s pregnancy. After all, it could just as reasonably be his own child. There would’ve been no need for an angelic dream or spiritual convincing. However, Joseph and Mary both knew sex was prohibited before marriage.
The Importance of Marriage
It’s important to understand that the Bible envisions the purpose of sex very differently than secular society. To them, sex is a form of pleasure and procreation that might get casually mentioned as transcendent. On the other hand, Biblically speaking, sex is the unification of man and woman into “one flesh,” and it’s been so since the beginning of creation (Genesis 2:21-25).
That understanding is incredibly important to the Christian worldview. It underlies and supports the biological and psychological purposes of sex, especially as related to reproduction and family. Sexual unification before marriage can cause catastrophic damage to a multitude of categories. This metaphysical merger of two bodies into one is not meant to be taken lightly; it’s meant to link people together for life.
Of course, I’m failing to discuss the Scriptural references that regard sex before marriage as sinful (1Corinthians 6:9-10 & 7:1-2, Hebrews 13:4). I just thought a practical reason might be more profitable for this topic. There is no question that sex is reserved for marriage only.
The bottom line is this: you or your potential spouse could still pull the plug on the marriage. After all, the engagement process allows for it. God forbid that happens, but if it unfortunately does, you don’t want to be metaphysically united with someone that won’t be with you for life.
Take heart, you’re almost there! Finish this final lap of the Date-ona 500 with a win. You’ve got a lifetime to enjoy the gift of sex as your heavenly Father intended. Don’t let “close enough” be the substitute for “well done.”
May God bless you and give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
Written By: Nicholas Lakin
Nick is an academic scholar, budding theologian, and thoughtful teacher of the Bible. He has a passion to see others grow in their knowledge of God for the purpose of glorifying Christ. He’s also a graduate of Liberty University and a former United States Army soldier.
His academic works range from commentaries and exegetical analyses to nuanced details regarding the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible. His future endeavors include Chaplaincy and founding a nonprofit organization that’s conducive to ecumenical orthodoxy across Protestantism.