Everyone has had to ask or answer the question at one time or another: When it comes to the physical component of a dating relationship, how far is too far? Can we hold hands? Can we kiss? Can we do a little bit more than kiss? Should we even explore the physical relationship a little bit to ensure we are compatible?
I am accustomed to giving the easy answer: “It’s not about how far can we go, but how holy we can be. You are asking all the wrong questions!” That may make me feel smart and a little bit godly, but it’s not exactly a satisfying or helpful answer.
In their book Sex, Dating, and Relationships: A Fresh Approach, Gerald Hiestand and Jay Thomas offer an answer. They are aware of the long history of legalistic answers and the many slippery slope or fear-based approaches that have more to do with avoiding sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancies than pursuing holiness. They do not want to create a new law, but draw out an implication of the deepest meaning of marriage. They are convinced that the Bible offers us exactly the answer we are looking for. How far is too far? “Contrary to popular opinion, the Bible does speak with clarity—objective clarity—about what is physically appropriate between an unmarried man and woman in a pre-marriage relationship.”
They premise their answer on the fact that the marriage relationship, and hence the sexual relationship, is meant to be a portrait of the relationship of Christ and his church. (Click here to read about the gospel and marriage.) In that way they begin not with law but with gospel.
The authors say there are three God-ordained categories of male-female relationships and believe “understanding these distinct categories is the key to overcoming much of the subjectivity surrounding sexual propriety, helping us to build proper boundaries of sexual expression.”
The Family Relationship. God’s guidelines for sexual expression between blood relatives evolved over time. Adam’s children had no choice but to have a sexual relationship with a sibling, but when God gave the Old Testament law he forbade any kind of incestuous relationship. While the reasons for God’s ban are not made clear to us, the command is: “no sexual activity is to occur between blood relatives.”
The Marriage Relationship. A second category of male-female relationship is the marriage relationship and here God commands that there must be sexual relations (see 1 Corinthians 7:3-5). There are at least two reasons: a healthy sexual relationship guards against infidelity and, more importantly, “the physical oneness that results from sex between a husband and wife is an image of the spiritual oneness that results from our union with Christ.” Sex is a necessary component of the deepest meaning of the marriage relationship.
The Neighbor Relationship. The third category is the neighbor relationship. This category uses the term “neighbor” as Jesus did, to include all those who are not blood relatives and not a spouse. “And it is here the Bible resolves for us much of the ambiguity regarding sexual purity between unmarried men and women.” The authors look to 1 Corinthians 7:7-9 to show how Paul states without ambiguity that “the marriage relationship is the only legitimate context for sexual relations” for if a person has strong sexual desire, he or she is to marry rather than succumb to sin. “What is plainly stated here in this passage is the assumed standard of sexual propriety seen throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Thus, the Bible’s perspective on sexual purity within the neighbor relationship can be detailed as follows: sexual relations are prohibited.”
At this point I think most of us will agree. The Bible teaches there must be sexual relations between a husband and wife and there must not be sexual relations between anyone except a husband and wife.
But a question remains: What constitutes sexual relations? What exactly can a boyfriend and girlfriend or an engaged couple do in that pre-marriage state? The authors say, “Too often we limit our understanding of sexual relations to only sexual intercourse. But is such a narrow understanding of sexual relations legitimate?”
There is little doubt that some activities constitute sexual activity. Once clothes are removed and genitals are fondled, it is clear we are into the realm of sexual activity and, therefore, beyond what is acceptable outside of marriage. But what about kissing? Isn’t this what Christian couples really want to know? They want to know whether they can kiss. And whether they can really kiss, whether they can kiss passionately. “Answering the kissing question is not as difficult as one might think. Clearly some forms of kissing are nonsexual; we kiss our children and our mothers. But there are some forms of kissing that we reserve exclusively for our wives. And the reason we do so is precisely that those forms of kissing are sexual.”
Considering an activity against the backdrop of the family relationship is immeasurably helpful in clearing up nearly all of the confusion surrounding the question, “How far is too far?” If a man would not feel comfortable engaging in a particular action with his sister because doing so would be sexually inappropriate, then that action is of a sexual nature and is to be reserved for the marriage relationship.
Thus passionate kissing, the kind clearly inappropriate between a brother and sister should be resolved for marriage. 1 Timothy 5:2 appears to back up the authors’ point by explicitly tying together “the familial treatment of the opposite sex with absolute purity,” instructing Timothy to treat “older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” In other words, Paul tells Timothy to treat women who are not his wife in the same way he would treat his own sister. Would you kiss your sister on the cheek when you say goodbye? Then kiss your girlfriend on the cheek when you say goodbye. Would you give your sister a long and passionate kiss before you walk away? Of course not, so don’t kiss your girlfriend that way either.
Where so many people today err is in creating a category that fits somewhere between the neighbor relationship and the marriage relationship and this is exactly where the authors want to challenge the reader. “As far as God is concerned, all unmarried people are bound to the standards of purity he has defined in the neighbor relationship … We are not sanctioned to invent a new category of male-female relationships, only to remove ourselves from God’s guidelines in the process.” If she isn’t your wife and she isn’t a blood relative, she is your neighbor. If he isn’t your husband and he isn’t a blood relative, he is your neighbor and needs to be treated as such.
- Sexual relations are to be reserved for the marriage relationship.
- There’s more to sexual relations than sexual intercourse.
- Any activity that is sexual in nature must be reserved for the marriage relationship.
- Some forms of kissing are sexual in nature.
- Sexual forms of kissing must be reserved for the marriage relationship.
As I considered the authors’ perspective I noted my changing perspective on this issue. When I was a young man pursuing a wife, I wanted license. I wanted to convince myself that I could go far beyond what my conscience was screaming. Now that I am a little bit older and have children who are marching toward the age where they will begin to form relationships, I am very eager to adopt a position like this one (and, more urgently, to have my children adopt it!). I continue to ponder it, but have initially found it consistent with biblical principles and appreciate that it brings objective biblical truth to bear instead of relying on cultural norms or personal preferences.
What do you think of the authors’ take on the question?