We all have our own opinions on porn. But defining what it is and finding out what God says about it is not as easy as you may think.
Sexual self-pleasure is a gift from God. Yet many Christians continue to condemn the practice. Why?
Porneia is not porn. Learn what it is and is not, what you can and can't do, and get all your questions answered. At least the big ones.
Sound Bible translation is so important to understanding scripture because it both helps keep us from sin and it aids us in understanding our freedoms in Christ. It also helps protect us from useless man-made religious standards that others would try to impose and shame us with.
The problem arises, however, that when such meaningless and nebulous terms like "sexual immorality" or "sexually immoral" are used, they wrongly justify and fuel the harmful theology of purity culture. And since these terms are so prevalent, they actually cause significant damage to those they were meant to help.
The expression “sexual immorality” is a terribly vague Bible term that’s been used and abused to shame countless Christians. It’s typically a careless translation of the Greek word porneia (πορνεία) and could refer to just about anything sexual. It is this careless translation, which gives many Bible teachers license to ultimately make sexual prohibitions to be whatever they like. In fact, entire faulty theologies have been built on the vague concept of sexual immorality.
This concept of sexual immorality found in the Bible is quite difficult to define from context. It’s like trying to understand something through deduction or reverse engineering, and then make application of that crude knowledge. It just doesn’t work. You can’t make good application of anything without first understanding it well. Only then can you begin to apply that knowledge.
The basic idea of morality itself is subjective in its own right and subject to one's culture. The root word "moral" is derived from the Latin term “moralis” and is related to the Greek word “ethikos,” referring to mores, customs, manners, and ethics. Culturally moral standards are relative, in contrast to scriptural standards which are absolute. Scriptural references to sexual sin are very specific. And to the surprise of some, indistinct concepts such as "morality" or "immorality" and their use in sexual contexts, are never found anywhere in the Bible. The one exception to this is in poorly translated scripture.
Most Bible translations of the word “porneia” just make a mess of it. Among Bible versions, the phrase “sexual immorality” is the most common translation. Nevertheless, we’re not so concerned with what certain Bible translators think porneia might mean. And it certainly doesn't matter what purity culture thinks. We need to know what God says about porneia.
In Ephesians 5:3, the apostle Paul says there must not even be a hint of porneia in the lives of God's people. Most Bible versions translate porneia in this verse and others as "sexual immorality," which is quite problematic since it can be interpreted to fit one's own moralism.
Sexual Immorality: A Terribly Problematic Translation
This one mistranslated term has been the cause of so much angst and anguish for Christians, all of which is so avoidable.
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The concept of sexual immorality is a poor representation of porneia. Scripture translators must do better. The term suits a moralist agenda and as such, is dangerously misleading. Equally dangerous are those who try to define the ambiguity of it. That’s why it is critical for believers to have a sufficient understanding of the original texts. Translation which leaves room for such vague understanding inevitably allows its meaning to become a subjective interpretation for the reader's own misuse.
Furthermore, since translators have taken liberty with their own biases, countless men and women have become slaves to moralistic sexual prohibition. The meaning of sexual immorality then becomes whatever suits the liking of the interpreter, usually resulting in unhealthy and unnatural legalistic restrictions (like no R-rated movies, masturbation, unfiltered internet, and so on). This doesn’t have to be.
Translators, however, are not the only ones in question. Many Christians live as if personal morality is their highest authority at times, not scripture. Instead of living by faith, they follow moralism, their feelings, and the limitations of experience. This is contrary to the gospel. Human morality has very little to do with God’s absolute standard of right and wrong. The reason something is a sin is simply because the Bible tells us so.
Scripture is our standard for truth about sexuality, and sound translation is central to that. It helps keep us from both sinful shame as well as worthless moralism. We need not be bound by sexual "addiction" or man-made religious rules. They just make the matters of conscience we wrestle with even worse. For those who know Christ, there is no longer any condemnation because now we are new creations. It is Jesus’ righteousness that once and for all frees us from sin.
Matthew 5:28 is a notoriously misinterpreted verse with a complicated history, and a reputation of being a marriage killer.
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"If we fail to study the meaning of the words of Scripture, then we will be in very serious danger of making Scripture mean what we want it to mean, and not what God wants it to mean."
William Barclay, Daily Celebration
Many argue that sexual sin includes what we think, but thoughts alone are not wrong. It's the vague term "sexual immorality" that causes problems.
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"But let sexual immorality (porneia) and all impurity or covetousness not even be named among you, as also is proper to saints"
The issue with sexual immorality is that it’s so vague in meaning that it could really infer just about any sexual behavior you want - including things that God never even calls sin. This is why the ambiguity of the term is so confusing and so dangerous.
Some Bible versions, like the New International Version, are painfully inconsistent in their translation of porneia and its variations. This creates subtle problems for the reader. Take a look at 1 Corinthians 6:15-18. In these verses we can easily see the inconsistencies. Every underlined term in this passage is a variation of the same Greek root word.
“15Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute (pornes)? Never! 16Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute (porne) is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. 18Flee from sexual immorality (porneian). All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually (porneuon), sins against their own body.”
In verses 15-16, the translated word used is "prostitute," which is a fair rendering. However, verse 18 uses both the phrase "sexual immorality" and "sins sexually" to render the variations of porneia. So, why the inconsistency? This begs the question of why did the translators just not use terms like "Flee from prostitution" and "commits prostitution" instead? Maybe these terms were too limiting, or perhaps they’re not general or vague enough. Just what was the translator’s agenda? Why do the translators start haphazardly interpreting scripture instead of translating it consistently? Is this too much to ask?
Variations of "prostitute" did not work as well in verse 18, nor did the meaningless terms in that verse have enough substance to communicate verses 15-16. If one variation of porneia means "prostitute" in verses 15-16, then porneia in verse 18 must also logically refer to "prostitution" and not "sexual immorality." This is key. If porne is translated as "prostitute," then the only option porneian could mean would be "prostitution."
According to the NIV, it would seem those who commit sexual immorality must be different enough from prostitutes to warrant a distinction, but that’s not the case in the original text. So, why create unnecessary confusion? Now we can begin to see how it's difficult to conclude that "sexual immorality" is a good translation because it's so broad in scope, whereas God in his Word is very exacting about what kind of sexual sins are prohibited.
Another problematic translation is found in 1 Corinthians 6:9, referring to various sexual violators. This is what the verse looks like with some of the original Greek words.
“9Or do you not know that the unrighteous ones will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither pornoi, nor idolaters, nor moichoi, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai, 10…will inherit the kingdom of God.”
Now, here is the passage as translated in the New International Version.
“9Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10…will inherit the kingdom of God.”
In the NIV, the sexually immoral people are in a different class altogether from both “men who have sex with men” and the adulterers. So, who exactly do the first two categories describe? It may seem evident, but we need to be more precise. Does “sexually immoral” refer to people who wear tight clothes or read steamy romance novels? And why were two specific terms that refer to men made indistinguishable? We can try to venture our best guess, but in the end, it's nearly impossible to conclude the NIV does a good job translating this passage because it’s so unclear, whereas God is highly specific in naming each of the offenders listed.
Again, the four sexual violators Paul names are pornoi (men who sexually violate dishonorable women), moichoi (men who sexually violate honorable women), arsenokoitai (homosexual men who instigate sex), and malakoi (effeminate gay men who agree to it). If the "sexually immoral" people in verse 9 already refers to those involved in any kind of sexual activity outside marriage including homosexuality and adultery, then why would God choose to list each of them separately in the original Greek?
The answer is that pornoi doesn't ever mean "sexually immoral" but rather, it’s a different classification, distinct from each of those listed. Singling out and warning the sexually immoral separately from other sinners is similar to saying that Jewish law prohibits eating all kinds of pig - as well as ham, bacon, and pork chops. The statement is so obviously redundant that it's suspect. God is not that sloppy.
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
Christiansexdeception.com (via web.archive.org)
By: David J. Ley, Ph.D.
Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.
By: Andrew David Naselli, Ph.D. and J.D. Crowley, MA