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The Biblical Meaning of Adultery & Fornication

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Note: I am working on an essay looking at some of the interpretations of Christianity presented by some of the characters is my novel. However, I had an illness this week and simply didn’t get any work done on the website.

I was asked once again about reconciling open-marriage and Christianity this past week. Though this essay I’ve posted before only addresses part of the issue, I thought I’d post it for those who had not seen it before.

One of our funniest open-marriage memories is from over twenty-five 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 11:00 AM. 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 and 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 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 cleaning 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. On a side note, you might have seen how the Saudi government just 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 treat all fellow humans with respect and dignity.

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This is a very good and concise argument against the sloppy exegesis that most Christians use to ban any sex activity outside marriage. Even someone I know to be fairly sexually positive told me that sex outside marriage is "living in sin."

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I was raised and raised my children in a sex positive home m by Christian parents several of my church friends were raised that way.I kno pastors and their families that are nudist.and some that swing


May 02, 2023

Thank you for this background. I now understand your theology better. It is a pity people reduce the source of their theology to the four Gospels. Joseph Campbell, the mythologist, said "Theology is the misreading of mythology." This goes for the Orthodox, Conservatives, and Evangelicals alike. It seems like Americans like to cut out things they don't like, or Scriptures that don't conform to their theology. Because they read mythology (the Bible) as history. That is why some would go to great lengths to justify their actions from their preferred texts. They can then still claim that they are Christians. If one reads texts outside the 4 gospels, one gets truths like this: "Yeshua said: I am the Light that…

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You are so right that people (particularly conservatives) like to elevate the scripturas they like and simply ignore those they do not. Yet the same time they insist they are "Bible believers." Liberal theologians are willing to say the texts shouldn't be taken literally when they discount some and elevate others. I think that is a far more honest approach. I am convinced the only reason conservatives even talk about the Old Testament is that it gives them more texts to pick and choose from. By limiting the authoritative scriptures to the Gospels, particularly the words of Jesus, it greatly disempowers the ecclesiastical hierarchy because most of the directives Jesus gave were about helping others and condemning established religious leaders.…


May 01, 2023

I am sorry to hear about your health problems. I hope you are recovering well. I want to applaud you once again for your open marriage, polyamory, and sex-positive philosophy and your rejection of conservative Christian morality.

Just a quick note: The author must have written this pre-2020 with reference to the then president of the USA who was worshipped by conservative Christians. This is also a reminder of how one must interpret ancient texts. Prof explained some of the social norms of two thousand years ago to make sense of some of the sayings about the sexuality of Jesus and Paul. This is called hermeneutics. The hermeneut (the interpreter) of the text must look at all the cultural and…

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Ah yes, I did not revise this little essay and should have. I originally wrote it up in this format back when I first started blogging back when I was in my last to years of my PhD program. I made it a habit of writing on something other than my projects for school for the first 30-40 minutes each day in my university office (I was a graduate assistant).

However, the content dates back to when I was working on my master's degree back in the late 1980's.If you recall from the Part 1 & 2 of Our Open Marriage, in the first few years Paula and I were marred, she was sexually frustrated since her vision of marriage…

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