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Why are these distinctions important? Again, the reason why this matters is because sex is the joining of one individual to another, be it a spouse, a prostitute or someone else. It is an intimate relationship, similar to believers who are joined to God in spirit (1 Cor 6 17). God says that whoever joins or unites (genitals) with someone through sex becomes one with them in body (1 Cor 6:16). This is what definitively makes two people physically one. It's not dating, kissing, fantasies, watching porn by yourself, or any kind of one-sided sexual activity. If sex with a prostitute is considered porneia, then porneia cannot possibly be as innocuous as something like viewing sexy panty ads.
The meaning of porneia is indeed broad in the sense that it includes all male sexual relations with women except those who are married. That includes prostitutes of course, but also escorts, swingers, friends with benefits, significant others, fiancées, family, etc. It covers a great deal of sexual interaction, and it is always (even metaphorically), without exception, a reference to sexual interaction. That means porneia is also not anything such as sensual temptation, appreciation of beauty, sexual attraction, masturbation, or merely viewing porn.
It’s important to know too that every time the New Testament uses the word porneia, it's also alluding to Old Testament prohibitions about sexuality. We can be confident of this because there are no other contradictory prohibitions anywhere in the Bible.
Hebrews 13:4 tells us that God will judge the pornous and the moichous, usually poorly translated as "sexually immoral" and "adulterers” referring to all those who have sex outside of marriage. Also, premarital and extramarital sex would have to fall into these categories, which is why it too is a sin. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 6:9 effectively condemns all gay sex, and Romans 1 indicts lesbians specifically.
Between moicheia, porneia, and homosexuality, God essentially covers everyone you can’t have sex with. The only category left for which to permit sex is marriage, which is the one Paul instructs us toward and tells us should be honored by all. Unfortunately, though, that means everyone who is sexually active outside marriage stands condemned before God. That’s the bad news.
Make no mistake. God is serious about sin. He tells us not to commit porneia (1 Cor 10:8), and to also flee from it (1 Cor 6:18). He says that there must not even be a hint of it in our lives (Eph 5:3). As well, he tells us that the source of sexual sin is really a heart issue. Mark 7:21 says "For from within the hearts of men come evil thoughts, porneiai, theft, murder, moicheiai." The sin of moicheia in Matthew 5:28 is not a problem with our eyes, but rather with our hearts. Otherwise, could a blind person be in violation? Or could two single people ever be guilty of it?
If these instructions are so important to God, shouldn't it be possible to clearly identify what porneia is? Thankfully, we can. Once we understand what porneia is and is not, and that God meant sex to be for marriage, then we will be able to better discern the good things he would have for us.
Perhaps the greatest reason though, to wait and save sex for marriage, is out of response to what Jesus has done for us. Despite our faithlessness to him, he has been faithfully waiting, patiently pursuing each of us so that we would know him. That’s the good news. Saving sex for marriage is a picture of his faithfulness to us. And for that, we can trust him.
"Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept undefiled, for God will judge the pornous and the moichous"
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Why is it so important to clearly understand key Bible terms having to do with sex? In case you’re wondering, the Church has dropped the ball on this one. As well, why is understanding Greek words like “porneia“ even relevant to the average believer? If those of us in the Church are to avoid sin, then that makes these questions incredibly important. Some think porneia is synonymous with pornography, which it is related, but the Bible never once refers to that.
It is absolutely critical to know what the meaning of porneia is and is not. Again, why? Because if you are in Christ and you don't know what it is, you may unknowingly be doing it. Or you may have the wrong idea about it, and you might suffer unnecessary guilt, shame, and heartache, like countless many others.
If there is something, anything at all that displeases God, wouldn't it behoove us to know just what exactly that is? In the same way, if there's something we believe is sin, but is not, and which is also causing us shame and guilt, shouldn't we rid ourselves of it? Porneia is one of those things.
Perhaps the best description of porneia comes to us from Kyle Harper, PhD, historian and Professor of Classics and Letters at The University of Oklahoma. In his article Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm, he says porneia is "sex with dishonored women” and that it’s a specific sin the apostle Paul warns against. Harper concludes with the following.
Porneia & Sex Outside Marriage
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.
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The primary term for sexual offense in Greek culture was actually the word moicheia (μοιχεία), which was the violation of a respectable female. The law of the Athenians was such that a male was not a moichos (μοιχός) or violator of a respectable woman if he had sex with one who worked in a whorehouse or who offered herself freely. This exception from the law of adultery, which was similar to Roman law, more sharply divided the ideological difference between reputable ladies and promiscuous women.
Moicheia (Μοιχεία), then, refers distinctly to a male's violation of an honorable woman. The standard translation of the term in English is "adultery." However, it would be more accurate to give emphasis to the violation of female honor, given that the connotation of the word refers especially to the offense itself. This shows up also in later Jewish and Christian usage. Moicheia also includes sex with respectable women outside of marriage such as virgins and widows. A moichos (μοιχός) is one who violates an honorable female and not necessarily his actual marriage covenant.
A basic principle of early Greek heterosexual beliefs and practices was the fundamental difference between women who were eligible for marriage and those who were not. The reputable female was expected to keep her virginity until the time of marriage and then remain faithful while married. A respectable woman was, literally, a "free woman" as contrasted with those who were slaves or who were otherwise dishonorable.
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"The category of πορνεία (porneia) is the cornerstone of a distinctly Christian sexual morality. The usual translations - "fornication" and "sexual immorality" - reflect the breadth and flexibility of the term's meaning, but they obscure its actual content and connotations... (porneia) was the act of selling oneself, not a whole class of actions categorized as immoral."
Porneia is a specific sin and does not include things like vague “sexual immorality” or solitary masturbation or porn. Neither is porneia to be found on a swimsuit rack, as a sexy audio recording, or by viewing R-rated films with nudity or the like. All of these examples occur outside and apart from one’s body. Sinning against our own bodies as mentioned in 1 Cor 6:18 is a matter of sexual interaction with someone else, not merely looking at sexual images. What porneia specifically refers to is illicit sexual relations with another person. In cases like Revelation 17, it’s used metaphorically to describe God’s people as a spiritual slut. Otherwise, every single mention of porneia in the Bible refers to sexual interaction, without exception.
An important piece of information to understanding the history of porneia (πορνεία) is that in ancient times, its meaning also came to be understood and defined in relation to the Greek word “moicheia” (μοιχεία). In most Bible versions, moicheia is usually translated as adultery, but more accurately it indicated the “sexual violation of an honorable woman.” Additionally, porneia was often understood as a complementary term to moicheia and included all other kinds of sex acts that violated a woman who became dishonorable.
The concepts of porneia and moicheia are each at the very heart of Christian sexuality. Their meanings lie at the very foundation of the apostle Paul's teachings. However, incredibly, their meaning and significance have remained mysterious for modern-day interpreters.
Concerning the usage of porneia, the most common variation we find in the New Testament is its use as a noun, which is the primary form of the word. Likewise, the verb form of the word is porneuo, while other usages include the male and female forms, pornos and porne. So, a person who commits porneia is known either as a pornos (male) or as a porne (female).
All porneia is sex outside of marriage, but not all sex outside marriage is porneia. Porneia, however, undoubtedly alludes to that idea (sex outside of marriage). A basic understanding of the word is suggestive of “acts of illegal sexual actions.” This implies that porneia is extramarital sex. But as Paul teaches, the only way to satisfy sexual desire is through marriage. In his letters, porneia can sometimes have a broad and general feeling of sexual immorality, but most of the time this vague term is unduly unclear and thus problematic.
What we must identify is what porneia meant particularly in the context of Greek and Roman culture, where sex with dishonorable women was not only allowed culturally, but also legally. It’s interesting that writers during Roman times viewed sex with slaves and prostitutes as the remedy for adultery, but Paul believed that marriage was the only solution to the problems of sexual prohibition and easy sex with dishonorable women.
Originating from Greek language, porneia later evolved into the Latin word fornicatio, which then became the English word "fornication." The use of the word fornication within a Christian context came into being in a society where legitimate heterosexual norms were determined by the social standing of the woman involved and not by the absence or presence of marriage.
The early church recognized a primary difference between the words porneia (πορνεία) and moicheia (μοιχεία), now frequently and less clearly translated as "fornication" and "adultery." Moicheia, usually translated as adultery, was the sexual violation of a respectable woman - sex with a married woman, widow, or virgin daughter. By contrast, porneia was sex that did not hurt someone else directly such as a husband, father, or a man who held a position of protecting a female's sexual honor. The kind and type of each sin, then, was ultimately identified by the woman's level of status in society.
In Paul's letters, the difference between a moichos (μοιχός) and a pornos (πόρνος) did not depend on the offender's marital status. As a result, both "adulterer" and "fornicator" are misleading terms in English. The pervasive understanding of the word moichos is "violator" - one who sexually transgresses respectable women. The concept of pornos is also broader and less distinctive. The one term (moichos) infers a man who damages respectable women, while the other (pornos) infers a man who lacks self-control.
In ancient times, porneia indicated sexual activity outside of marriage, and culture permitted it. For married men, sex could be moicheia or porneia, and was dependent upon whether the female was sexually honorable or not. But for married women, all moicheia was porneia simply due to the fact that sexual shame was inherent.
The social structure of ancient Greece was such that many women were without social honor. Unrespectable women included both prostitutes and slaves, as well as courtesans or escorts. There was just no encompassing term used for these women. Prostitution and slavery were very similar in this regard. The most important thing that determined their status was whether a woman was suited for marriage.
Unlike today, prostitution in ancient times was considered to be a necessary social practice. It was an alternative option to violating respectable women, both in Roman and Greek cultures. However, it was the pursuit of any sexual relations outside marriage that troubled Paul.
For the audiences he typically addressed, illicit sex with dishonorable women (porneia) was considered sinful. In addition, sexual violation of respectable women outside of marriage (moicheia) was considered sinful and included chaste wives and widows, as well as virgin daughters.
In the New Testament, porneia and moicheia effectively included sex with all female sexual partners except one’s own wife. Throughout the Bible though, God talks about sex in four broad categories, three of which are sinful.
- Marriage, a covenant commitment between a man and a woman
- Moicheia, the sexual violation of an “honorable” woman (i.e. someone else's wife, virgin daughter, widow), but which is usually translated as adultery
- Porneia, which encompasses all other heterosexual sex outside marriage with “dishonored” women (including friends, strangers, prostitutes, polyamory, orgies, etc.)
- Homosexuality, sex between multiple people of the same gender
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.
By: New Heights Church sermon series
By: Dr. Kyle Harper, Ph.D.