By Caroline Madison, Crosswalk.com
There are so many different stages in a relationship that pass unacknowledged.
When my now-fiancé first asked me to date him, I fled with all the conviction of my muddled church past snapping at my heels.
When he asked again, a whole six years later, I agreed, but held him firmly at arm’s length.
I didn’t have walls, I had a bunker.
A year later, we kissed for the first time. At this point, some of you are breathing a sigh of relief and thinking you’re not so bad for kissing your significant other after all. And then, some of you are glaring in disapproval.
But this is not an argument for or against kissing before marriage. It is simply an acknowledgment of a step in a journey—a journey that morphed again when he asked me to marry him.
To many, this will be a radical idea: but maybe some (not all) boundaries are meant to shift over time. And maybe allowing them to within the context of God’s purpose for intimacy is a vital part of a developing relationship.
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Why Is There So Much Confusion with What Good Boundaries Are?
1. Even Good Intentions Can Be Poorly Executed
Sadly, the origin for much of the confusion around this topic is the church (or other well-meaning spiritual leaders in our lives).
I grew up among Christians who firmly discouraged teenagers (and even many adults) from closeness of any kind with the opposite sex: hugging was frowned upon, long conversations on topics other than the weather and sports were warned against, and the young man at camp who wanted to sit on our cabin steps and get to know us was warded off like a plague-carrier.
The church leaders had taken the command “Flee sexual immorality” (1 Corinthians 6:18) and transformed it into “Flee most physical contact and don’t talk about sex.”
They wanted to protect us. But in the process, they hindered us from effectively learning how to develop a healthy, romantic relationship.
2. The Bible Is Not a Manual on Physical Boundaries
Inconveniently, the Bible doesn’t spell out every subtlety involved in puzzling this out. We are given a few crystal-clear commands, but most of our more specific queries are not addressed.
It’s not a Magic 8 Ball we can shake and whisper “should I kiss Jim tonight?” Because, for better or worse, God gives us the freedom to make choices in some areas.
3. People Can Only Give Advice from Their Own Experiences
Anyone approaching this topic, myself included, can only do so in the context of their own experiences. We write articles, give advice, and try to answer questions, but if you’ve lived a vastly different life and have a different relationship with a different person (which is most likely true) then you might walk away from conversations or reading articles like these and remain thoroughly confused.
And experiences change, don’t they? People have written entire books on this topic and then changed their minds later due to a different experience.
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What Does the Bible Say about Purity?
In 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5, we read, “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.”
Two terms in this verse are often misunderstood and need to be defined:
1) Sexual immorality, in Scripture, is an umbrella under which we find adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality. Jesus expanded on the traditional, physical understanding of adultery in Matthew 5:28: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
2) Lust is “a strong, inordinate desire for sexual relations.” It’s a hunger for something forbidden that has swelled to almost unmanageable proportions due to lingering and dwelling on the desire.
While often used synonymously with sexual attraction, sexual immorality and lust are not the same thing as sexual attraction,
God made us to have physical desires. Without them, His command to “go forth and multiply” wouldn’t have gotten very far. And contrary to popular belief, the Bible’s commentary on lust doesn’t mean that any activity (holding hands, hugging, etc.) that encourages sexual attraction is out of bounds.
The desire itself is not wrong, but we are told to discipline our bodies and have control over our desires:
“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:27)
The core of biblical instruction then is to remain master of our own bodies by exercising discipline and to honor God with the choices we make.
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What Is God’s Purpose for Physical Intimacy?
1. Eternal Union
First and foremost, God intended sexual intercourse as a manifestation of the union between two people. It allows a man and woman to draw as close to each other as is physically possible and demonstrates the covenant between them.
“Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Genesis 2:22-24)
Jesus also elaborates on this in Matthew 19:7 when answering a question about divorce: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Another often overlooked purpose for physical intimacy (especially today) is reproduction.
“God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.’” (Genesis 1:28)
Children were always intended to be the result of sexual intercourse.
Finally, God designed sex to be thoroughly enjoyable. He gave us desires and formed the opposite sex to satisfy those desires.
“May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer— may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be intoxicated with her love.” (Proverbs 5:18-19)
It’s why the principles of discipline, restraint, and not allowing our bodies to govern our decisions make up the core of biblical instruction regarding sex.
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What Does That Mean for Us?
Our boundaries regarding physical intimacy should be formed with these intentions in mind.
Since God’s intention for sex is eternal union, making the choice to join with someone in that way before a covenant has been made is treacherous: you can’t possibly become one with multiple people without leaving bits of yourself behind.
Since God’s intention for sex is reproduction, engaging in sexual intercourse before you’re ready or able to have children is a recipe for disaster.
And since God’s intention for sex is pleasure, then all the scriptural guidelines governing our desires apply here as well:
“‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but I will not be mastered by anything. You say, ‘Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.’ The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. Your bodies are temples…honor God with your bodies.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
So, as you set your boundaries or allow them to shift, follow these guidelines:
- Pray, pray, pray (together and individually) about what God’s will for your relationship is. Invest in your relationship with Him and pay attention to whatever checks and guards He might provide. If you grow uncomfortable with something at any point, God might be urging you to step back and rethink a boundary.
- Set the boundaries before temptation arises, not as a response to it. Talk about what they are, not just once, but throughout the stages of your relationship. What becomes a stumbling block for you may not be a problem for someone else, and vice versa.
- If at any point you become uncertain where the lines should be and why, bring it up. And never allow previously agreed upon boundaries to shift without discussion.
- Let unselfish love be the foundation for every decision you make (1 Corinthians 13).
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Allow Your Relationship to Change, but Do So Purposefully
Many happily married couples will say that everything changes after marriage. But hasn’t the relationship been changing all along? I hope so, because it should.
Relationships are as varied as the people who have them. Often, we try to take one rule or principle and apply it to every situation, but that usually brings confusion and frustration. There are precious few decisions that we can copy from other relationships and paste into our own; boundaries must be set with more awareness and purpose than that—specifically, awareness of and allowance for the differences in people and the naturally progressing stages of a relationship.
This doesn’t mean that any development in physical boundaries is acceptable. We cannot place every change beneath the umbrella of natural development and let it pass, unquestioned. Our desires (especially in this area) can be incredibly intense and disorienting and require more active discernment from us.
Each couple will experience different temptations, and boundaries that change in certain relationships should remain fixed in others. For some, when their relationship first began, spending time alone in a quiet room proved too tempting. But as they grew in discipline and matured together, seeking God’s will, they were able to enjoy the benefits of that time with less physical provocation.
Another couple in a similar situation might need to make a different decision.
Maybe you choose to kiss before your wedding day because it happens naturally in the development of your relationship (or, like me, you don’t relish the thought of kissing for the first time in front of a crowd). Maybe that causes too much temptation for one or both of you.
Maybe you enjoy cuddling in front of a movie and it doesn’t strain boundaries, or maybe it’s something you’ve agreed to avoid until after you’re married.
Whatever your decisions, make sure they are honoring God and not merely gratifying yourself. Let respecting, protecting, and loving the other person be your goal (Philippians 2:3-5), and always be aware of how your choices affect the people around you (1 Corinthians 8:9-13).
Caroline Madison is a freelance editor and writer with a passion for the written word and a special interest in telling and reading stories that present biblical truths in fresh ways. She also enjoys writing flash fiction, drawing pencil portraits, and playing piano.
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