Question: "What is an appropriate level of physical intimacy before marriage?"
Answer: The modern view of sex before marriage is quite lax. One study found that 75 percent of American teenagers have had premarital sex. By the time the unmarried turn 44 years old, that number climbs to 95 percent (Finer, L. Public Health Reports, The Guttmacher Institute, January—February 2007, vol 122, pp 73–78). Even among self-identified Christians, 57 percent of U.S. adults believe that premarital sex “in a committed relationship” is sometimes or always acceptable (Pew Research Center, https://pewrsr.ch/3lJyBBE, accessed 11/8/22).
Such statistics are alarming to Christians who take the Bible seriously. Passages such as Ephesians 5:3 give clear guidance concerning physical intimacy outside of marriage: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity . . . because these are improper for God’s holy people.” This command places the “guard rails” along a fairly strict path—not even a “hint” of immorality should be found among God’s people.
Determining an appropriate level of physical intimacy before marriage is something every unmarried couple must do. Fornication is categorized as sinful in the Bible, so sexual intercourse before marriage is definitely off limits. Other sexual acts, such as oral or anal sex, would also fall under the definition of fornication. But the boundaries must be even stricter than that: anything that even “hints” of sexual immorality is inappropriate for a Christian.
The Bible does not give us a list of activities that “hint” of immorality. Neither does it tell us what physical activities are “approved” for a couple to engage in before marriage. The idea behind the command is that sexual immorality should not exist among God’s people. Never should there be an occasion for observers to mention such a thing. Any accusation of immorality or inappropriate behavior in the church should be wholly untrue.
Where to draw the line? How much intimacy is too much, before marriage? Since the sexual act is wrong for an unmarried couple, behavior that leads to the act should also be curtailed. Thus, foreplay, which is the natural prelude to sexual intercourse, should be restricted to married couples. Anything that can be considered foreplay should be avoided until marriage. This would logically include fondling, nudity, and erotic conversations and behaviors.
An unmarried Christian couple should know their convictions and stick to them. Some couples may draw the line at light kissing. Others will stop at holding hands. Others will move the barriers even farther out, for conscience’s sake. The important thing is that the individual believer is allowed to live according to his or her own convictions. The conscience should not be violated. If there is any doubt whether an activity is right for an unmarried couple, it should be avoided, just to be safe (Romans 14:23). Christians have been set apart by God for His holy purposes, and we must take care to avoid immorality. Scripture gives strong warning on this matter: “It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong or take advantage of a brother or sister. The Lord will punish all those who commit such sins. . . . For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life” (1 Thessalonians 4:3– 7).
All sexual activity and foreplay should be restricted to married couples. An unmarried couple should avoid any activity that tempts them toward sex, that gives the appearance of immorality, or that violates the conscience.