These verses stand as stark warnings against sexual sin. Doctrinally sound, they are foundational to what the Bible teaches about sexuality. However, there’s only one problem with them. God never used the term "sexual immorality." He used the word “porneia.”
What’s the big deal with that, you ask? Well, if trying to clarify the distinction between these terms feels like splitting hairs, then keep reading. Ephesians 5:3 puts forth the critical issue of whether Christians might have even a hint of sexual immorality in their own lives. But the relevance of that really hinges on what is meant by the idea of "sexual immorality."
What does it mean to you? Or, more importantly, what does it mean to God?
It is essential to know what God does and does not say about sexual immorality. To start with, he doesn't ever use the term. He's not that vague. The idea of someone being sexually immoral, as put forth by moralist teachers and Bible translators is incredibly different from what God prohibits throughout the Bible. To be clear, God himself never used the fuzzy notion of sexual immorality anywhere in his Word. It's a misleading phrase that Bible scholars have used, leaving the sin open to misinterpretation of the reader. We must be absolutely careful that we don't take what God doesn’t say is sin and confuse it with our own religious ideas.
What we tend to do is take certain parts of scripture, preload them with theological views, and if we repeat them enough, then they become our doctrine. This is the case with sexual immorality. It’s the most common translation of porneia, but it poses a terribly problematic understanding as a translation. Just what is porneia?
Well, what porneia is not is any of the following that sexual immorality might infer. It’s not the things we may think of such as lust (aka desire), sexual fantasy, or erotic stories. Neither is it viewing R-rated movies, tight clothes, underwear ads, lingerie, masturbating, or even simply watching porn. Porneia doesn’t refer to any of those things. Ever.
Porneia is also not anything we might think about that is devoid of intent. Sin requires action or at least intent to act, such as with coveting. Temptation to sin without the desire to carry it out is nothing more than just that - temptation. We know this because Jesus was tempted, yet he never sinned or intended to. In the case of porneia, without intention to sin, our sexual thoughts are not sinful.
However, what the Bible does refer to as porneia is a distinct category of sexual activity. The fact that it’s usually translated as "sexual immorality” infers a broad range of meaning. But that range does have its limits. Those terms woefully obscure its real connotations and understanding. Plainly stated, porneia was sexual relations with dishonorable women outside of marriage. Unlike today, it was not understood to be an entire subjective class of behaviors including mere visual or genital stimulation that are mistakenly considered by many to be sin.
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Sexual immorality is really a murky, junk drawer, catch-all term that encompasses all kinds of sexual activities, even activities that are not wrong. Most Christians simply accept the term as carte blanche dogma without question from well-meaning pastors or teachers they trust. Along with purity culture, our own morals, not God, then fill in the blanks of what acceptable sexual prohibitions are. And although there is agreement between some believers on more general principles, personal beliefs are still prone great subjectivism. These inconsistencies persist because many of these “standards” are a matter of personal conscience.
Consequently, countless men and women have imposed unnecessary prohibitions that generally assume one of two extremes. Either they battle against their God-given natural sex drives, failing to meet the standards given them and are racked with unnecessary shame, or they accept the conservative extreme, avoiding all sexual media, which is usually accompanied by the typical sexual dogma and religiosity. The latter is often what leads to the first.
Paul's command to flee porneia in 1 Cor 6:18, though absolutely essential, is misused frequently and egregiously to clobber potential offenders and beat them away from most any form of sexual desire. This is all done by Bible teachers who are apparently unaware of what porneia really meant in ancient times.
All of this can result in compromised marriages because if religiously moralistic wives typically follow the teaching of those who promote this ideology, it may cause unnecessary resentment toward their husbands. Husbands, in turn, then resent their wives who rebuff the way God made their male sex drives. This tragic course of events, by the way, can all be avoided.
We cannot accept religion's vague notion of sexual immorality and equate it with what the good Lord tells us in his Word about sex, namely in places like Leviticus 18 and 20, and 1 Corinthians. God is not that sloppy. He is not so indiscriminate as to use such a nebulous concept as "sexual immorality" when it comes to a topic of such great importance, and then relinquish its interpretation to human discretion. After all, would God really leave it up to people to decide right and wrong when it comes to sex?
Men, God does not castigate you for your sex drive or for appreciating female beauty by simply looking at women. He’s never communicated that in scripture. The message that appreciating beauty is wrong is actually a cultural condemnation. Instead, you are free to take that second glance and then another and praise him for giving you beauty to behold. Look and imbibe. Just don't stare and make it awkward.
As bad as sexual immorality may seem to some, what’s worse would have to be sexual moralism. Sexual moralism is little more than religious rule-keeping repackaged. There may be a component of good intention in it, but the end result is no greater freedom from sin.
Those that teach that we must remove all hints of “sexual immorality” or that we must fight a battle to have pure desires preach a false gospel. It’s not we who can purify ourselves. Only Jesus can. It’s only through his righteousness that we can know the Father. And it’s only by his great sacrifice that we are truly made pure.
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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.
"But among you there must not be even
a hint of
"But among you there must not be
even a hint of porneia"
1 Corinthians 6:18a
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
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By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
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