I have a friend who claims that only virgins can get married. If a couple is were not virgins at the time of their marriage, he says it is not a legitimate marriage and they must separate. His reasoning is that a marriage begins when a man and woman have sex. Therefore, the first person you have sex with is your spouse so long as both of you live. I think he is crazy, but how do I prove this from the Bible?
People have a tendency to assume that when two things repeatedly happen close together in time then one of those two things caused the other to happen. For example, a person could argue that because the roster always crows just before the sun rises, therefore the rooster's crow is causing the sun to come up. We know that this isn't true, but such doesn't stop us from making other cause-effect connections that are not based in fact.
"Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Since God only permits sexual intercourse in a marriage, it is not surprising to learn that shortly after a wedding, most couples have sex. But is it the sexual intercourse that makes the marriage? We even have a special word for it: we say that after a couple has their first sexual intercourse that the marriage was consummated (made complete).
First, the Bible is clear that marriage is formed by the covenant between a man and a woman. "Yet you say, "For what reason?" Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Malachi 2:14). A covenant is a solemn agreement between two parties. It is somewhat similar to our idea of a contract but carries a deeper meaning and weight than our modern-day contracts. (See the sermon outline "Covenants" for more details.) One aspect of the marriage covenant is that God serves as a witness to the covenant. Jesus alludes to this when he said, "Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). Thus it is the vows made by a man and woman which join them together into a new unit. "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). Notice the steps: 1) a man leaves his parents, 2) a man joins (marries) his wife, 3) the two individuals become one. The last step includes the concept of the act of sex, but it is so much more than just sex. The two bond so tightly that they behave as one person, a person different from either of them individually but which doesn't exist without them both.
But notice that the passage says, "and the two shall become one flesh" and does not say they are one flesh. It is a process that begins after marriage and continues through marriage.
The act of sexual intercourse is a trigger for the bonding of two individuals. In recent news articles, there is talk about the discovery of the role oxytocin plays in human relations. The hormone is released during childbirth, breastfeeding, and orgasm during sex. According to Wikipedia, "In the brain, oxytocin is involved in social recognition and bonding, and might be involved in the formation of trust between people." That should not be surprising to Christians because long ago Paul stated, "Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For "the two," He says, "shall become one flesh." But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him" (I Corinthians 6:15-17). Paul's point is that the act of sexual intercourse creates a bonding between the two individuals involved. It makes no sense for a Christian to be making ties to a sinner through an act of sin when he should be bound spiritually and emotionally to the Lord. It makes no sense to create contrary ties. "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will dwell in them And walk among them. I will be their God, And they shall be My people." Therefore "Come out from among them And be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you."" (II Corinthians 6:14-17).
Therefore, sex is a mechanism helps create a bond between individuals, but the act of sexual intercourse is not the marriage. Married couples have sex, which facilitates the two becoming one, but sex does not create the marriage. This is one reason why God restricted sex to married couples. You don't want people forming intimate bonds without a prior commitment to remain with each other.
We can see this throughout the Bible. In the story of Shechem and Dinah, we find that Shechem went about finding a wife the wrong way. "Now Dinah the daughter of Leah, whom she had borne to Jacob, went out to see the daughters of the land. And when Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, prince of the country, saw her, he took her and lay with her, and violated her. His soul was strongly attracted to Dinah the daughter of Jacob, and he loved the young woman and spoke kindly to the young woman. So Shechem spoke to his father Hamor, saying, "Get me this young woman as a wife." And Jacob heard that he had defiled Dinah his daughter. Now his sons were with his livestock in the field; so Jacob held his peace until they came. Then Hamor the father of Shechem went out to Jacob to speak with him. And the sons of Jacob came in from the field when they heard it; and the men were grieved and very angry, because he had done a disgraceful thing in Israel by lying with Jacob's daughter, a thing which ought not to be done" (Genesis 34:1-7). Shechem had sex with Dinah and by doing so violated her. In the Hebrew, the word is 'anah which means to lower or to humble. In other words, his action reduced Dinah's position in society, yet it did not create a marriage. In fact, notice that Shechem didn't even feel love toward Dinah until afterward (here is an example of sex creating a bond). He wanted his father to negotiate a marriage but did not realize why Dinah's father and brothers were so upset with what he had done. It was a thing that ought not to be done. Sex was to come after marriage, not before. But for our point, it demonstrates that sex did not create a marriage.
The marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is another example, "Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent; and he took Rebekah and she became his wife, and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death" (Genesis 34:67). We are not told the full marriage ceremony -- there is no reason to assume that all of it was recorded for us -- but it appears that a part of their marriage customs was the bringing of the bride into the chambers of a man's mother. (In fact, it is from this that we get the custom of a man carrying his bride across the threshold.) But notice the order: Rebekah became Isaac's wife and then he loved her. This particular Hebrew word has a similar broad meaning for love that our English word has. It is both a general love between two individuals, but when used between married couples it can include the idea of lovemaking, or sex.
Judah gives us another example, "And Judah saw there a daughter of a certain Canaanite whose name was Shua, and he married her and went in to her" (Genesis 38:2). There is a distinct timeline being given: 1) Judah met Shua, 2) Judah married Shua, 3) Judah had sex with Shua. The function of the word "and" is to show the sequence of action and not to indicate simultaneous action.
Hebrew law did not require that a man and woman be virgins in order to get married. As an example, "If a man finds a young woman who is a virgin, who is not betrothed, and he seizes her and lies with her, and they are found out, then the man who lay with her shall give to the young woman's father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife because he has humbled her; he shall not be permitted to divorce her all his days" (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Another verse tells us that the woman's father had the right to reject the marriage (Exodus 22:16-17), thus young people couldn't use sex as a means of forcing a marriage to take place, but a father could use the fact that his daughter was having sex to force the couple to get married. For our discussion, though, it is important to note that the two getting married were not virgins.
David married Abigail after her husband died (I Samuel 25:39-42). Neither one were virgins, but they had a marriage. David also committed adultery with Bathsheba, and after arranging the murder of her husband, married her as well (II Samuel 11:27). What David did was wrong on multiple accounts, but it still shows us that virginity was not required for a marriage.
One final example is Hosea. "When the LORD began to speak by Hosea, the LORD said to Hosea: "Go, take yourself a wife of harlotry and children of harlotry, for the land has committed great harlotry by departing from the LORD."" (Hosea 1:2). Hosea was commanded by God to marry a prostitute. God wanted him to do this so that his own life would illustrate the problems God was having with the people of Israel. God knew that a woman who was a prostitute was unlikely to remain faithful to her marriage and thus make Hosea's marriage a type of God's dealings with the Israelites. Yet notice again, she wasn't a virgin, but Hosea still married her.
Thus, we have shown that there has never been a requirement that couples be virgins before marriage, though that is the ideal for which everyone should strive. More marriages would survive if those involved would be faithful to God's laws prior to their marriage.
One unintended consequence of this belief is that the sin of fornication would not exist. If sex created a marriage, then the first person you had sex with would be your spouse. Sex with anyone else thereafter would be adultery. Yet the Bible talks extensively about the sin of fornication (sex outside the bonds of marriage), so therefore sex, once again, does not create a marriage.