The following question has repeatedly been asked in Usenet newsgroups devoted to the discussion of Christian life: When we accept that full sexual union is reserved for marriage, how far can we then go in a relationship which is not or not yet a marriage? What are the allowed boundaries for Christians? – Here are three fairly different answers to this question, and I (Helmut Richter) feel that together they shed more light on the question than each of them alone.
The scripture that comes to mind is Gal.5:16–26:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. […] But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. […] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Concerning¹) these things there is no law. […] Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. […]
Read the complete text. I have quoted those verses that emphasize that the question on boundaries may be a misleading one: there is no law that would set boundaries. However, there is God’s Spirit who works hard to keep us on track and thus also within boundaries. See the difference? Not the boundaries are important but the middle of the road.
Another scripture in this context is 1Cor.6:12–20. When you read it you should keep in mind that it deals with prostitution which is not your situation – you cannot just apply the words, but you can learn from that different situation a lesson for yours. Uniting (in the context: with a prostitute) is not forbidden but it is inconceivable by the fact that then they would become one flesh (V.20). Not law but spiritual fact is the reason why it is a good decision to stay physically virgin – irrespective of gender, of course – while unmarried.
But even these verses where Paul answers a question which looks bizarre to us today – who would ask his minister whether to go to prostitutes – emphasize freedom as much as the Gal.5 pericope:
“Everything is permissible for me” – but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me” – but I will not be mastered by anything.
and the “everything is permissible for me” is not contested. However, it is subdued to the Spirit.
You know that assuming wide boundaries can bring you in situations where “keeping in step with the Spirit” and “not being mastered by anything” becomes hardly feasible. It will therefore be wise to set the boundaries narrower. But this is entirely your decision. No law is forcing you. You have the full freedom and the full responsibility.
The NIV which I followed with all other quotes has here: “Against these things there is no law.” The version with “concerning” is re-translated from the German Bible I use normally. If both versions are compatible with the Greek original, I would find “concerning” better to understand because it squares with V.18 and nobody would have expected the law to be against peace etc. – A later discussion in August 1998 revealed that the Greek preposition “kata” has indeed both meanings, but its usage with the accusative in this verse makes “against” a more literal translation.
I would suggest another possibility. One might as well ask, is holding hands going too far? It may sound silly in today’s world, but from a Christian context it is a good question. If you learn to see the sexual union between a man and a woman as a whole, it is something much more than the physical sex act at the end. It is rather a step by step meeting, beginning with the slightest forms of physical affection which, when progressing in a loving and sensitive way, build up to the intimacy in which the marriage union is consummated. Holding hands and kissing are as much a part of the true loving act as physical intercourse, and to see them as something apart is to destroy something of the whole beauty and blessing of it.
In other words, when you begin the acts of physical affection, you have begun the act of union. It was not too long ago that a couple would share their first kiss, even hold hands for the first time, after marriage was proposed and accepted. The courtship might be long, but would take place in the sphere of mind and heart and soul as the two would learn to know each other and experience, each to him or herself, the awakenings of love in their hearts. Read the books of L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables series). I forget which volume it is where Gilbert proposes to Anne, but you get a wonderful sense of how their meeting and finally their union are realized. There is an old saying, long courtship, short engagement. In Anne and Gilbert’s case there is a longer time, but he has to go away to medical school. Only after he proposes to her and she says yes do they kiss, and they walk hand in hand. It is a wonderful scene. Then they have to part, and they pour out their love to each other, now pledged for marriage, in letters. The kisses, the holding of hands marks their betrothal, and from this point onward they know they must wait until their union is sealed with holy vows and rites, and it is for life.
Nowadays, when everyone wants to have experience before entering into a marital union, even committed Christians may find it difficult to think of a relationship in this way, but if you see the whole union between man and woman as of one cloth, from the kiss to more intimate caresses, leading to the physical sex act itself, the thought might arise that this “whole cloth” is like a beautifully woven and seemless fabric, and it should not be cut into pieces but rather preserved in its precious wholeness. I don’t suppose many people nowadays will see it this way, but wherever one chooses to “draw the line”, there is, I think, at least some truth in the idea that kissing or even holding hands are just as much a part of the sexual act as the naked physical union itself.
If you at least have a look at it in this way, then the meaning of marriage itself, and of the sexual activity (and its consequences) that belong to it can emerge in a beautiful new (but not really so new) light. It may not be clearly biblical, but it at least can be seen in terms of the scriptural admonition that our bodies are a temple and that the union in love of man and woman is something whole and something for life.
One attitude that is not compatible with the Bible is minimalism. This is a legalistic mind-set that tries to follow the rules the minimum amount necessary. Your question, “What are the limits, if any?” is the kind of question that tends to accompany mimimalism because this attitude tries to get away with as much as possible without crossing the line. Jesus preached against this attitude in the Sermon on the Mount. There are four examples given in Matt 5:21–26; Matt 5:27–32; Matt 5:33–42; Matt 5:43–48. These take the form, “You have heard that it was said X, but I say to you Y.” In each case, Jesus makes it clear that doing the right thing comes from the heart and goes far beyond the letter of the law.
So this issue is not a matter of figuring out a general limit for extra-marital touching and then getting as close to it as possible. It is a matter of discerning this specific situation.