What Can’t Mormons Do? Part 2: The Law of Chastity

May 27, 2008

The second commandment or standard that I want to discuss is the law of chastity. Aside from the Word of Wisdom (a few posts down), I think this is the commandment that people outside of the church have asked me about most often.

The law of chastity is pretty simple: you don’t have any sexual relations with anyone besides your husband or wife. This means no sex before marriage, and complete fidelity after marriage.  Since I’ve never heard anyone question why the latter half is true, I think I’ll focus my comments on why we don’t have sexual relations before marriage.
The Ten Commandments
The basic reason, as with any commandment, is that God has said not to.  Repeatedly.  “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was one of the ten commandments (Ex 20:24). The apostle James commanded the early church to “abstain from fornication” (Acts 15:20).  Through Joseph Smith, the Lord gave the commandment “Thou shalt love thy wife with all thy heart, and shalt cleave unto her and none else.” (D&C 42:24).  The commandment is everywhere, more prevalent than the commandment not to lie or not to steal.  So how does everyone write it off so easily?
First of all, I think people have this idea that that particular commandment is outdated. Like sure, back in the old days it was wrong to have premarital sex.  But look, times have changed.  It used to be taboo and practiced in secret, now it’s flaunted everywhere and practiced by everyone.  Our society is “enlightened” and “liberated” and obeying that commandment is just not cool.  I think even most devoutly religious people feel like they need an explanation for why the Lord would command something like that. Which brings me to the question I want to address:

Why would the Lord command something like that? That’s a good question. The commandment against fornication is different from a lot of other major commandments in that sex isn’t an inherently evil thing (unlike killing or stealing, for instance). It’s good. It’s natural. We have powerful, inherent desires that make us want to. Those desires are usually accompanied by good feelings of love and companionship towards someone else. So why would God make us this way, and then command us to hold that back? Also, there are few immediate physical consequences to anyone, so it’s easy to say “hey, no one gets hurt. What’s so bad about it?”

This is an issue I feel pretty strongly about, because it’s a question that I think a lot of counselors and youth leaders of all faiths kind of scoot around. Pamphlets and lessons are filled with horrifying facts about AIDS and gonorrhea and lives ruined by unwanted pregnancies or abortions. While these things are definitely terrible side effects, they’re honestly not the reason. They can’t be! Even if you could ensure that you would never get an STD or an unwanted pregnancy, it still wouldn’t be okay.

This is where I think Mormonism has something to offer the world. For starters, I think we live it more strictly: in a recent study, only about 3-4% of unmarried students at Brigham Young University reported having ever had sexual intercourse (BYU Studies vol 46 no. 3), compared to the 20-35% reported from a study of two evangelical schools with similar moral standards. Both are way below the national average of around 70-80%, but I think the difference is worth noting. What is the difference? Having lived around a lot of devout evangelicals and devout Mormons, I’m going to say it’s not the level of “devoutness”. I think it’s a different understanding of why the Lord commands us not to, which is unique to Mormon theology.
Most of what I’m about to say comes from a talk given by an Apostle, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, entitled “Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments,” which can be found here. I suggest that you read it, because it’s a million times better than this post. It was given by a man who is set apart to be a spokesman for the Lord, and it’s one of the only such talks dealing with the doctrine surrounding sexual intimacy.

davinciThe body is sacred. Part of the reason sexual sin is so bad, is that we consider the body to be a part of the eternal soul. This was revealed to Joseph Smith in what is now D&C section 88: “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.” It may not sound like much, but it’s actually pretty earth shattering. Think about it.  The reasons I gather most people consider premarital sex bad (if anyone still does) comes from these old beliefs that the body is base and evil, while the spirit is high and noble. Physical desires are to be brutally subdued and mastered. Physical gratification is somehow bad. Celibacy is the high road. Taken to the extreme, people start whipping themselves or sit on poles for 37 years, trying to reach spiritual heights by degrading the physical body.

We reject this idea. The body is something to be treasured. When we are resurrected, it will be like Jesus, with a physical body (Luke 24:39). That’s why Paul wrote: “flee fornication…he that commiteth fornication sinneth against his own body.” Messing around with your body is messing around with your soul.

“Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s” (1 Cor 6).

It’s my body, right? Isn’t it my own business? Paul responds with a resounding no. Ye are not your own, for ye are bought with a price. The Savior has bought us–redeemed us with his blood, and that gives Him every right to command us when and how to use it. Our souls are his:  spirit and body both.

Total union. Sexual intimacy is one of the highest and most sacred forms of union between a man and a woman. It’s the symbol of the union of “their hearts, their hopes, their lives, their family, their future, their everything.” I can’t say it better than Elder Holland:

“But such a total, virtually unbreakable union, such an unyielding commitment between a man and a woman, can only come with the proximity and permanence afforded in a marriage covenant, with the union of all that they possess–their very hearts and minds, all their days and all their dreams. They work together, they cry together, they enjoy Brahms and Beethoven and breakfast together, they sacrifice and save and live together for all the abundance that such a totally intimate life provides such a couple. And the external symbol of that union, the physical manifestation of what is a far deeper spiritual and metaphysical bonding, is the physical blending that is part of–indeed, a most beautiful and gratifying expression of–that larger, more complete union of eternal purpose and promise” (Holland, Of Souls, Symbols, and Sacraments).

The Lord wants us to save that most precious and committed of physical unions for the only relationship committed enough to supply the corresponding spiritual and emotional bond: marriage. To those who ask “what about in a serious, committed relationship?” the answer is, “Absolutely.  And that relationship is marriage.” Really, the only reason I can think of not to get married is because you’re really not that committed. You’re not absolutely positive you want to be with that person forever, so you don’t want to take that final permanent step (which is fine; don’t rush it). But sex is a symbol of total commitment, and it’s not total commitment without marriage.
A good part of our society firmly believes that a couple needs to live together to “get used to each other,” or to see if they’re truly compatible.  Sorry, but that’s the opposite of commitment. And even though it sounds really reasonable, it doesn’t work, practically or spiritually. It’s well documented that cohabitation before marriage is correlated with significantly higher divorce rates (about twice as high in the above-linked study). You just need total commitment.

A sacred act. A third reason, and probably the most important of the three, is that sexual intimacy is not only a symbol of union, it’s a sacred act in and of itself. Again, I’ll defer to Elder Holland:

“. . .sexual union is also, in its own profound way, a very real sacrament of the highest order, a union not only of a man and a woman but very much the union of that man and woman with God. Indeed, if our definition of sacrament is that act of claiming and sharing and exercising God’s own inestimable power, then I know of virtually no other divine privilege so routinely given to us all–women or men, ordained or unordained, Latter-day Saint or non-Latter-day Saint–than the miraculous and majestic power of transmitting life, the unspeakable, unfathomable, unbroken power of procreation. . . I know of nothing so earth-shatteringly powerful and yet so universally and unstintingly given to us as the God-given power available in every one of us from our early teen years on to create a human body, that wonder of all wonders, a genetically and spiritually unique being never seen before in the history of the world and never to be duplicated again in all the ages of eternity–a child, your child–with eyes and ears and fingers and toes and a future of unspeakable grandeur.”

It cannot be said better. Sexual intimacy is the vehicle to create life, and as such, is one of the most sacred things we do on earth. Whether or not we actually create life with it, we still tap into that power, and doing so under any other circumstances than those for which it was ordained is a form of mocking the privilege God has given us. Would we run laughing into a sacrament service, overthrow the table, spill the bread and water on the floor and then run out? Of course not. So viewing the body as sacred, and sexual intimacy as a sacred act, why would you ever knowingly mess with that?

Just to conclude, I hope this helps to make a little more clear why Mormonism seems to be so strict when it comes to sexual intimacy. It boils down to a respect for sacred things. I also understand that the law of chastity sounds completely out of place right now in the world. But it doesn’t matter; it’s true. And that is why I follow it.

<<Part 1: The Word of Wisdom>>                   <<Part 3: The Sabbath Day>>

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25 Responses to “What Can’t Mormons Do? Part 2: The Law of Chastity”

  1. Jancisco

    Bravo. That’s why I keep it too. (well, the AFTER marriage part of it).

  2. Diana

    That was very well written, and every bit of it is true. The talk you refer us to read is absolutely eye opening and wonderful too.

  3. sunlize

    Great post.

    Though I’ll disagree with the statement that “the only reason I can think of not to get married is because you’re really not that committed. You’re not absolutely positive you want to be with that person forever, so you don’t want to take that final permanent step.” I am totally committed to my relationship. Unfortunately my significant other and I live in different states since we’re finishing up school. There are also health insurance issues and financial issues. I think it is more responsible not to get married at this time due to those reasons then it would be to get married so that we could be sexually intimate within the bonds of marriage. Just my opinion.

  4. Mrs. Eliza

    If health insurance and financial issues are a reason not to get married then where is your faith? You are more worried about the what world wants you to do than you are about what God wants you to do. You need to trust in God not in man. Do you really think it is more responsible to trust in man and have sex before you are married than it is to trust in God and wait?

    It’s true, there may be some people who get married to have sex. But other people have done just as stupid things for sex. Sex is a part of marriage but it is not the reason every mormon gets married.

  5. sunlize

    Mrs. Eliza, I think you misinterpreted my comment. I was saying that there are other factors to consider besides total commitment when deciding when to get married.

    Also I’m not saying that because of these reasons, it’s ok to have sex before marriage. I’m just saying that some people choose to wait to get married even though they are totally committed to each other.

    And finally, in my situation, the primary reason that my boyfriend and I are not married is because we live in different states. And I don’t think God would want me to drop out of school just so I could get married. Just as God doesn’t want me to have sex before marriage.

  6. Pinto

    Cuz Dave ~ Nice to see re-iterations of that CURA paper. And nice to see you got it out of the writing funk you were in. Well done, ol’ chap.
    Makes my little theology-of-sexuality heart sing.

  7. This morman way of thinking actually relates alot to my beliefs being a christian,, a born again believer. what are the main differences between the two???

    My friend is morman but drinks coffee and tea, does this seperate you from the church??


  8. Dave


    Thanks for your comment! I have a lot of born again evangelical christian friends, and I know that the standards in terms of chastity are very similar. At the heart, I think we’re all just trying to obey the Lord’s commandments.

    As for theological differences regarding the law of chastity: I can think of a few (this is based on talking to other evangelical christians so you’ll have to correct me if you don’t consider them differences):

    1) Mormons believe that the spirit and the body together are the soul of man, and that man cannot be made perfect in Christ without a body.
    2) Mormons also believe that marriage itself continues formally after this life and forever. Marriage in the eternities is to be had only in the highest degree of glory in the eternities.

    I think that these doctrines are unique to LDS theology, and they definitely give us a slightly different angle when approaching the sacredness of sexuality.

    About the coffee and tea question: God revealed instructions on diet through the prophet Joseph Smith in what is now called the Word of Wisdom (which is part one of this 3-part “what can’t mormons do” series). It’s definitely a commandment not to drink tea or coffee. I’m not sure, though, what you mean by “separate you from the church.” You won’t be kicked out of the church. You’ll always be welcome at church, and you’ll still be considered a member.

    However, there are some definite privileges that you lose by not living the gospel the best you can. I’m thinking specifically of the temple. The temple is an especially sacred place, and there are restrictions on who can attend. In order to attend the temple, you have to be living the Word of Wisdom and the Law of Chastity, among other things. That shouldn’t be confused with church attendance, though. I hope that’s not too vague; does that answer your question?

  9. rebecca

    I am not trying to disprove this belief, but i disagree with it 100%. I have seen the best and most solid of relationships become tense and stagnant due to the tension this rule causes, and many people, including some of my own relatives, jump into marriage as early as 19 to avoid their relationships becoming so. Sex is needed in relationships, as you cannot truely know the person you are with until you have shared everything together. I agree, it is a spiritual, amazing thing to share with someone, and there is no way better to show love to another than to be with them physically. But love does not exist only behind the sanctity of marriage. Love can die between two people before marriage, or during, and so i believe that having sex with someone you love is not a sin, as love should be celebrated to it’s full extent while it is alive.
    The truth is, in todays society, 19 year olds are not finacially stable or emotionally prepared to commit to marriage. And i know that you will put a spin on it, saying that ‘the realatinships aren’t strong enough to withstand marriage, and if they’re not emotionally prepared for it then they shouldn’t be having sex’. All i can say is, i have been with my boyfriend for 3 years, i love him, i have slept with him, i will marry him someday…but i’m not ready for it at 18. I don’t believe i’m a sinner.

  10. Bus Gillespie

    Rebecca, I guess that’s where you and Jesus Christ disagree. He would consider you a sinner. And if we want to consider him the author of truth then his truth holds a bit more credibility than your’s.
    From our current promiscuous cultural perspective it might seem pretty risk free to engage in premarital sex (that is if you don’t consider the rise of STD’s) but for generations young couples were able to get to know each other without having sex with each other until they were married and the divorce rates were much lower.

  11. rebecca

    I do not hold my beliefs as truth, only as preference and opinion. I believe that it should not be considered a sin to be with someone you love in the most intimate and beautiful way possible, even when you are not bound by a certificate.
    You are also forgetting, generations ago, divorce was percieved as ‘taboo’ and women held much less power in the household. Due to this, teenages were under greater control by their parents on who they were allowed to consort with, and even if a woman wished for a divorce, her social standing would make it difficult for her to support her family alone.
    And as for STI’s, yes the risk is growing…but this is because people choose to sleep with various partners, not one whom they are fully commited to.

  12. Dave


    I have a question for you: when you say you disagree 100%, is it because you don’t believe in God, or that you don’t believe He has really commanded this, or that you just think the commandment itself is a little misguided?

    Here’s the reason I ask: Obviously you’re not convinced by the reasons I’ve put down here. That’s ok; I don’t expect everyone to be. But you’re arguing a sociological point, where our reasons are spiritual.

    That being said, I also disagree with you on a sociological level. It’s not spin when I say I genuinely don’t think you should be having sex with someone if you’re not ready for marriage. I think they represent the same commitment, and should occur on a similar level of emotional maturity. I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever for financial arguments. For having children, maybe, but not for getting married. People have been doing this for centuries. People do this now. It works out fine.

    From what you have said, it seems like we have the same basic ideal: that of sharing that kind of relationship with only one person. Being totally committed to just one person. Because I follow this law, I am guaranteed that ideal, and that makes me happy. I hope you marry your boyfriend, as you say you will. For your sake, I hope it works out.

  13. rebecca

    If i had to classify my believes, i would put them down as agnostic. I believe in scientific evidence and fact when it comes down to creation, i think evolution is fact, but i also believe god may have been behind it. And i believe the 10 commandments are excellent set of rules to live your life by. However, i think the god that is shown in the bible is not true to what actually exsists. How can god be all loving and vengefull? (thinking back to the 7 plagues of egypt, i believe a god who kills innocents to punish the parents is not worth worshipping). How can He have given us the free will to choose what path to take with our lives, if He is all knowing? I believe many contradictions lie within the bible, and hence you and I believe in 2 very differnt versions of the same god.
    So when it comes down to it, i have both a spiritual and sociological point. If the god represented in the bible is the true representation, He is irrational. Hence, i believe it irrational of him to ask for two people who love each other to wait to have sex until a certificate is signed. Love should be expressed between two people in every sense while the love is still in exsistance, as love dies out of marriage and within, and is proof of gods irrationality that He does not seem to understand.
    While love must be nurtured to ensure its growth, the responsibility of running a house, paying bills and the general organisation that is required is on a completely different level of maturity. Because of this, the realisation of love and the readiness for marriage and the responsibility that comes with it are on two different emotional levels.
    And yes, i believe in being totally commited to one person. But i believe part of loving and being commited to that person is sharing everything with them, married or not. And if it doesn’t work out, i will regret nothing, because i celebrated love while it was alive.

  14. ceejay

    How does a Mormon define “sexual relations”? Would that include kissing? Homosexual kissing?

    Looking at cellphone photos from your girlfriend of her in a bikini? Long hugs?

    What if one person feels the relation is sexual? Does the other person necessarily then define it “as sexual”?

  15. Bus

    20 years ago the church authorities were a little more specific in their questions when they interviewed members regarding their worthiness for temple recommends or priesthood advancements. The question was have you had sexual intercourse with anyone other than your spouse? But as the society got increasingly perverted and lascivious the leadership realized that they needed to broaden the question to the more encompassing “sexual relations”. Once they did that many members wanted a list of activities that would be deemed inappropriate. That kind of reasoning can be likened to the ancient Jews preoccupation with what was and wasn’t allowed on the Sabbath.

    Personally I think everyone knows very well what the term sexual relations refers to but my explanation to some of the youth of the church was that if the activity is using your partner to provide you with sexual stimulation then it is not only sexual relations but selfish relations. The church doesn’t want to get pulled into a Sadducee discussion of which side of the line each action happens to be on. Their approach is to teach people how to behave in a proper and positive manner toward each other and if the person feels that what they are doing is wrong the spirit will guide them to seek clarification and direction from their local bishop.

  16. Linda

    It’s really quite simple: you don’t have any sexual relations with anyone besides your husband or wife. Why? Because God said so! There are consequences for every choice that one makes. Our body’s are sacred to God. It would be very wise for you to go back and read this article in it’s entirety. Don’t just read the words, read to understand 🙂

  17. C. R. H.

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m new to this all still though I’ve been baptized a few months back and this really helped me. My boyfriend and I have been struggling with sexual urges and unfortunately, though we never had intercourse, did explore more than reasonable. Though I knew it was bad logically and I pledged chastity, I don’t think the solemnity of this really sank in until I read this. He was born and raised LDS so I suppose this reflects more upon him than me (or so he seems to think), but I was not and frankly used to see nothing wrong with sexual relations before marriage. I still tended to fall into that thought pattern when with him, but this has made me so much more aware of what I’ve been doing. I know now that I haven’t tried enough to prevent such things and I’m very ashamed to learn it now. We’re going to be talking with our bishop on how to rectify this as we wish to be married in the Temple sometime in the next year, any suggestions? Once more, thank you so much. I understand now. And I feel it.

  18. Thaddeus

    CRH, thank you. Nothing makes me happier than reading something like this. I’m glad our humble website has played a small role as an instrument in the Lord’s hands.

  19. C.Marie.11.23

    I’m confused. I was very spiritual when I was younger, and Baptised into the Methodist Church. I lost my faith when things got bad and turned to agnostic beliefs, extremely similar to what rebecca wrote above. I have no trust or faith anymore in anyone or anything at almost 17 years of age. I have had sex before, more than once. But I love the person who I have these relations with. My family is thinking about converting to become Mormon and renewing our faith.

    We believe that we baptised into the belief of God, not into a specific church, but other members of my family believe that you’re not to be baptised more than once in your life. (Such as my grandparents, who would keel over dead if they knew we were considering another religion.) Can I be baptised again into the Mormon religion?

    I will admit that at this point, my boyfriend and I are not planning on getting married anytime soon since we’re just 17 but we have been together for a while and have a serious and committed relationship. Since I’ve had sex before, will it affect my conversion?

    Also, I’m addicted to Dr.Pepper and I DO drink alcohol and smoke. Will I have to stop all of this to convert?

    I know that I seem like a pretty messed up kid, but I just need my questions answered.

  20. Bus

    You are going to be alright CMarie. Once you learn about the Mormon take on baptism it will make sense. It all centers on being baptized by someone with the proper authority to perform God’s ordinances here on earth. When done with proper authority baptism has the power to cleanse a person from any previous transgressions. It is the ultimate method of repentance.
    As for your other issues, keep in mind that the church is for the perfecting of its members. If they were all already perfect they wouldn’t need to be in the church. Remember Jesus said he came to work with the sinners. Part of the repentance process which is what you are doing as you prepare to be baptized and come into the church of Christ will include living what is known as the “word of wisdom” which includes giving up alcohol and tobacco, but as everyone knows in the educated world giving up those things is good for you at so many levels. I personally like a Dr. Pepper once in awhile and try not to let that become an addiction, but the Lord hasn’t said anything specific about it, I think he trusts us to realize that any addiction has a negative effect on our lives.
    I wish you good luck as you learn the gospel and strive to understand what the Lord wants you to do.

  21. sasha

    sunlize says ”I am totally committed to my relationship. Unfortunately my significant other and I live in different states since we’re finishing up school. There are also health insurance issues and financial issues. I think it is more responsible not to get married at this time due to those reasons then it would be to get married so that we could be sexually intimate within the bonds of marriage. ”
    I believe what the Elder meant when he said that the only reason he could think of not to get married was lack of commitment, was that he could think of no reason someone would desire to have sex before they were married. He could think of no other reason someone who was ‘ready’ to have sex with their partner would not be ready to get married was that they were not ready to truly commit.

  22. Ben

    The illegitimacy of the LDS Church is proven in the bold assertion that they are led by a prophet of God, yet anyone with independent thought (denied to Mormons who would be excommunicated if they dared) and common sense knows that however sweetly their leadership of elderly, white bigoted men proclaim that committed gay relationships are less legitimate, natural or healthy than their heterosexual counterparts, they are turning their backs on reason, on science, psychology, and basic equal human rights.  They attack the dignity of people born differently than the majority.  They conveniently got on board with the idea that black people deserve equal rights, but if they were led by a prophet they should have figured that out much earlier.  History repeats itself and people continue to be duped by a particularly idiotic religion.  

  23. Thaddeus

    Ben, you are saying that the LDS position on homosexual behavior is proof that the LDS apostles are not God’s true spokesmen because the position is clearly contrary to the findings of science. This makes you angry because so many people are unable or unwilling to concede your point. Is that true?

  24. Kelseyanna

    I used to believe very strongly in chastity. I waited until marriage, hard as that was, and was a faithful wife in thought and deed. When my marriage fell apart through his infidelity and financial recklessness, I was devastated. I had done everything “right”, remained virtuous, guarded my modesty and was a happy rule-follower.
    When the marriage died, I went through a spiritual crisis that extended to questioning every doctrinal or dogmatic requirement for being a “good Christian.” I had equated being a good Christian with being a good person, and I was questioning that logic.
    I strayed. And strayed. And strayed and strayed and strayed. I learned to cuss. I slept with dates. I bought clothes I never would have before. In an effort to be open-minded and hip I kept company with people who made me uncomfortable.
    And no lightning bolt smote me. But I lost my joy in life. I felt like I had lost my SELF.
    I’ve pretty much come full circle. Except I am a more humble person. I have far fewer judgements of others. My reasons for behaving/dressing/keeping company as I do are based in practicality and personal preference more than in doctrine and dogma, but they are essentially the same as before my divorce: chastity, modesty and wholesomeness.
    I’m going to an LDS church this Sunday with my neighbor. I know they can not see my past, but I feel hypocritical going to church with these people when I know I have not lived the life I am living now. I am not a Christian anymore… or I am not a Christian by Christian definitions, perhaps.
    Do you think it’s ok for me to go to church when they don’t know I had a 5-year lapse in my behavior? What do Mormons think about divorce? I’m getting cold feet about accepting this invitation to their church.

  25. Thaddeus

    Kelseyanna, you have wandered into a sinful existence and now you are worried whether God and his children will ever accept you again. You are afraid you are a lost cause. This fear is familiar to Mormons and probably is commonly felt throughout Christianity. I know this fear myself.

    I have a few things to say about this fear:
    1. These feelings are not from God. The legions of Lucifer are concerned they might lose their grip on you. They tell you to beat yourself up as a last-ditch effort to keep you in their power. They know how close you are to escaping. Don’t listen to them!
    2. We love you. God loves you and anyone worth their salt as a saint loves you, too. God rejoices in the sinner that repents. Read Jesus’ story of the prodigal son and notice the father’s reaction when the son returns (verse 20).
    3. You are in good hands. Mormon congregations are known as “wards” and I like to think of them as hospital wards. We are all recovering from something. Come to convalesce. Jesus came not to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.
    4. There are others who may be about to walk your same lonely path. You can help them. Testify to them that happiness isn’t found there; it is found with God.