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Adultery & Fornication: What do those words mean in the New Testament?

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

One of our funniest open-marriage memories is from twenty years ago. We were laying in bed with another couple in the afterglow of exhausting sex, when Paula realized it was nearly 3:00 AM. She jumped up and said we had to go, reminding me I was scheduled to preach at a Baptist Church I'd never been to before at 11:00AM. She pointed out that we were an hour from home, and we still had to pick up our kids from the babysitter's; and on top of that we weren't even sure where the church at which I was preaching was located (this was way before GPS). The woman laying next to me initially thought Paula was just being funny. But, it was all very true, I was a minister and I did have to speak at a very conservative church that morning.

Over the years Paula and I have been asked over and over how is it that we can claim to be committed Christians and have a sexually open marriage. This question comes both from our monogamous friends as well as couples who have an open-marriage but have a deep feeling of guilt about doing so.

When I explain how I do not believe following Jesus requires monogamy, I am often asked if I am just ignoring the parts of the New Testament that oppose sex outside of marriage. Though in my response I point out that I first made a multi-year study of the scriptures before I ultimately settled on the polyamory model; I understand why people might think that I first abandoned monogamy then looked for an excuse. So today I am going to address a frequently misunderstood New Testament word “fornication”.

Let us look at this passage from the gospel of Matthew chapter 14

After Jesus called the crowd to Him, He said to them, “Hear and understand. It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man.” Do you not understand that everything that goes into the mouth passes into the stomach, and is eliminated? But the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders. These are the things which defile the man; but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile the man.”

The truth Jesus is making is simple; morality is not primarily about our ritual cleanliness but about our motives and how evil motives cause us to do evil things to other humans. Then he lists the sins we can commit against other people: evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness and slanders. Now let us consider two words as relevant to this discussion: adultery and fornications.

Adultery did not mean, as some suppose today, all sex outside of marriage; but rather the sin of adultery was limited to a man having sex with the wife of another man or a married woman having sex with a man other than her husband. A married man having sex with an unmarried woman or a prostitute was not considered adultery.

Why the inconsistency?

Because adultery was seen as the ultimate property crime against the husband. In many ancient cultures (and some modern ones), a married woman had only one purpose: to bear sons to carry on the man’s legacy and inherit his property. Other “womanly” functions such as cooking and clearing and even recreational sex could, and were, carried out by concubines and/or female slaves. The crime of adultery was one of giving away all a man possesses to the offspring of another man. Thus it was usually punishable by death. In a side note, you might have seen how the Saudi government just this recently condemned a woman to death for adultery while only punishing the man with 100 lashes. Or when this week the Sultan of Brunei instituted the death penalty for adultery. We can assume from history that no men of substance will be even charged with this crime unless he is caught screwing the wife of an even more powerful man. And note that the Sultan has repeatedly divorced his wives as they got older so he could marry much younger women. Hmmm? Do you think he waited for his divorce and remarriage to have sex with these women? Not on your life. Yes, I know that sounds like the current president of the USA that is worshiped by the conservative Christians ... but I digress.

So to be sure this view of women as property is still alive and well. Adultery was the ultimate form of theft of a man’s legacy. Adultery could never be charged if a man has sex with the wife of a slave since the slave had no property or title to defend.

In the model of love and equal justice for all that the teachings of Jesus proposed, there is no room for a man to own his wife as property. Rather she (like all people) owns herself, including her sexuality. I believe the true Christian model is that a man does not buy a wife, but rather they come together freely and choose to become a unit. In this choosing, they are free to adopt the ancient "female" model of sexual exclusivity after marriage; or the equally ancient “male” model that gives sexual freedom after marriage. That is as long as both partners have equal rights and responsibilities under the arrangement. Importantly, this choice is theirs to make, not the community’s, the government's or the religious leaders'.

Since we see the word adultery was referring to a property crime, why did Jesus still separate it from the word “fornication?” Fornication is also translated as “illicit sex” or “sexual vice” by other Bible translators. In the Greek the root of this word is Pornos. This word refers specifically to prostitution. The male form is also translated whoremonger, or seller of prostitutes. What one must understand was that in the time it was written prostitution was part of the slave trade. The whoremonger was just as part of their society as the fishmonger who bought and sold fish. The whoremonger however bought women, girls and boys at the slave auction and rented their bodies to men (and some well-to-do women) for sexual use. The prostitutes themselves had not the slightest right to say no, because they were slaves. This is more akin to what we call human trafficking than a woman choosing to have sex for money. Of course in those days the Roman government was the chief supplier of slaves through conquest, thus official policy was to encourage the use of enslaved people for sex.

There was also a second type of prostitution that existed in that time and place; that being religious or temple prostitution. Again this was not limited to women, temple prostitutes could be females of all ages or young boys. The Hebrew law (Old Testament) interestingly forbids Hebrew children to be given over to becoming such prostitutes, but does not condemn Hebrew men from participating by hiring them. It is widely accepted that since it was children given over to being temple prostitutes, that they were not at liberty to say no. And the buyers of sex at a pagan temple could not be charged with adultery for visiting a prostitute, though the "joining" with a servant of a false god was problematic to Jews across the Roman Empire. Paul very specifically went into this in I Corinthians 6, just after he states that "all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any," Paul says:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For He says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

Here the Apostle Paul tells Christians in the Greek city of Corinth that their bodies are temples of God. This analogy would resonate in a city known throughout the world for its marvelous temples to a multitude of gods. Many of the people to whom Paul is writing here grew up worshiping at those temples. So using that imagery, he tells the Corinthian Christians that they are not to join their bodies to temple prostitutes who serve as conduits to false gods. Rather he says, they should flee the temptation of easy sex with the temple prostitutes. Why; because God has paid the price for our bodies, so we have no business buying the body of a pagan prostitute. He closes with the admonition that we are to use our bodies (i.e. our sexuality) to glorify God.

Jesus presented the world a much higher standard of sexual morality than had been practiced before. He introduce the concept of treating all humans as having value and that the moral human would never treat someone in a way they would not want to be treated. And in this passage Paul extends that idea that our sexuality is a key way we show love for all, and thereby glorify God.

Certainly to pay a whoremonger to have sex with his slave would not meet that standard. And consider one more thing that makes fornication evil. Sex with a temple prostitute was doubly evil in that the participant was engaging in a sexual sacrifice to a false god. Consider one more thing: In either case, the person who pays the whoremonger or the pagan temple to have sex with the unfree prostitute is in reality forcing that woman or boy to have sex. They have no possibility to refuse. That is the very definition of rape: forcing someone to have sex against their will. Have you ever noticed the word “rape” is never mentioned in lists of sins by Jesus or Paul, even though it has been common throughout history? This is because it is captured in the concept of “unlawful sex” or “fornication”.

So, when you come across these lists of sins, do not make the mistake our conservative friends wish you to make and assume they simply refer to all sex outside marriage, but realize it means forced sex or rape. But beyond that, any sexual action that is coerced or pushed on another person is violating Jesus' standard of showing compassionate love. This applies both in and out of marriage.

Thus when we look at both the issues of “adultery” and “fornication” we find that the assumption that Jesus was teaching a morality simply based on forbidding sex outside of heterosexual marriage is false. As with the rest of morality, Jesus taught us that the highest rung of righteousness is to act based on love toward those around us and treating all fellow humans with respect and dignity.

In this photo, my wonderful wife of over thirty years is fully enjoying God's gift of bodily pleasure with another married couple.

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Sep 11, 2021

Your take on the New Testament and sexuality is very interesting. A Sex Positive theology is a better way to look at sex than Sex Negative. There is another way to look at sex: "Sex is sacred because it is life. Sex is the very pulse of life itself. Sex is the fundamental nature of all existence...If sex is life, then naturally sex is the seat of all wisdom about life." (Marc Gafni: A Return to Eros.) Gafni calls this narrative SEX EROTIC. Look at 1 Corinthians. 6:12 and 10:23. This is very Tantric: "Everything is permissible for me...(NIV); Or "All things are lawful for me..." (NAS). But nor everything is beneficial, and I will not be mastered by it…


Jan 18, 2021

I'd never noticed how hot that photo is before.

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