I have this huge question that's been bugging me ever since...well, ever. I'm a 19-year-old Christian. I was saved a bit over five years ago, and I'm on fire for God. I'm a counselor, a street evangelist, and I do what I can to spread the Word.
With the introduction out of the way, I have I Thessalonians 4:3 memorized, where it says "For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality." I know Ephesians 5:5 says the sexually immoral or impure doesn't inherit the kingdom of God. And I can go on and on about how sexual immorality is forbidden in the Bible, also known as fornication, adultery, etc. Whatever. I've used those verses with my friends to preach about not having pre-marital sex. I've always disdained that, and I would hate to marry a person who is not a virgin. I saw the duct tape analogy on your website, and I think that's so true.
But ... let's say I'm in a relationship with a girl. It will be over four years until we get married, but we're going to get married for sure. I know that's "irrational" and "illogical" to assume, but just for kicks and giggles, let's assume that's the truth. I'm getting married to this girl in the far future. Paul said (not sure where) that people wishing to be pastors, or work for the church, must be a one-woman man. I haven't ever had sex, I promise you that. I've never been with a girl where I felt that was reasonable; I don't want to destroy someone else. But what's wrong with sexual acts with a partner you know you are going to marry? I haven't read anything in the Bible about marriage, per se, as in why you have to be married the way we think of marriage. Is there a set of things the pastor says for people to be "officially married?" Aren't those man-made things to set before God? What if you're never around a pastor for the rest of your life, but you commit yourself to your partner before God Almighty?
I'm going to take your car because I absolutely know for certain that I'm going to pay you for it in just over four years. By then I'll have a good job and will be able to afford to pay you. I know I didn't ask you for the car yet, but that's OK, I am going to pay you ... eventually. Now calm down, I know I dinged it up a bit, but it is as good as mine anyway because I will pay you.
Imagine if that happened to you, what would you call it? Theft? I would say you are right. Does the "intention" to pay change matters? Clearly, "no!" If the intention was really there, a contract would have been drawn up to state that there was a sale first before the car was taken.
You say you know for certain you are going to marry the girl. But that very statement is a lie. "Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit"; whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, "If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that." But now you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil" (James 4:13-16). No man has control of the future, so no man can make absolute guarantees about what he will do in the future.
You said you have held off from sex because you didn't want to destroy someone else. But you don't realize the nature of sexual sin. "Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body" (I Corinthians 6:18). The nature of fornication is that it destroys the fornicator. See Counterfeit Sexuality: Sexuality as Reduced to Animal Impulses.
Marriage, in the simplest terms, is a covenant. "Yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant" (Malachi 2:14). A covenant is a solemn vow made before God and formally witnessed by others. "Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth" (Malachi 2:14). You say that marriage is a man-made thing, yet Jesus said it is God-made. "And He answered and said to them, "Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:4-6). Marriage doesn't arbitrarily happen. God does the joining. There is a state where people are married and there is a state where people are not married. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Hebrews 13:4). Sex is undefiled in the state of marriage. It is a sin when two people are not married.
As a side note, this means that sex doesn't create a marriage. Fornication, a sin, does not produce something that is holy, a marriage. "And why not say, "Let us do evil that good may come"? --as we are slanderously reported and as some affirm that we say. Their condemnation is just" (Romans 3:8).
You are right that God did not specify exactly what is needed in a wedding ceremony. People are mentioned as getting married, but the details of the ceremony are never given. I assume that means that God doesn't care about the exact words or customs used, thus giving men some freedom. However, there are numerous pieces mentioned that do need to be met. For example, a part of the vow is that marriage is for life. "For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man" (Romans 7:2-3). The need for witnesses is to establish the truth of the marriage. "By the mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established" (II Corinthians 13:1). See: Marriage Covenants, Can a couple get married by simply taking a personal vow between them and God?, and Scriptural Marriage, Traditional Customs, and Civil Laws for more details.
One does not need to be married by a preacher or someone in the church. One of Paul's arguments is that a marriage remains valid even after a spouse converts to Christianity. "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy" (I Corinthians 7:14). A couple getting married at the courthouse by a justice of the peace has just as valid marriage as someone getting married by a preacher in a church building. Who officiates and where it takes place makes absolutely no difference. However, one needs to be married and a private commitment is not a marriage. See: I don't need a piece of paper to say I'm married.
Finally, notice how in playing word games you admit that a commitment is not a marriage. You admit that there is a way that people accept as marriage, but for whatever reasons you don't want to do that. You want a non-marriage marriage, which cannot exist. And the really foolish thing is that you can get married at a courthouse in very little time and almost no expense. There is no real reason not to do it -- except that some people want to avoid having a record of their vow to be married for the rest of their life. They don't really love the other person because they don't want the world to know.
We come back to the original point: "What's wrong with sexual acts with a partner you know you are going to marry?" If for no other reason, God said it is a sin. "Going to be married" is not "married." Fornication is having sex when you are not married. Lewdness is doing sexually related acts when you have no rights to another. Having sex without being married is no different than taking a car without buying it. Intentions and claims that it is "good enough" don't make it so.
I'm sorry I haven't had time to respond any earlier, but I immediately read your email as soon as I got it. I can't thank you enough for your thorough and speedy answer. That's exactly what I needed to hear.
I knew most of those verses. I didn't really know the Old Testament verses, but you pulled them all together in a great way. I wanted to be proven wrong, and you did that for me. Now I have something for myself, and to tell other people, if they're thinking what I was thinking.
Thank you again. I loved how it was all Scripture-based, which is how I knew it was the truth.