The Problem of “Porneia”

The Greek word that is most often translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia, the word from which derive our English term, pornography.

Every Greek lexicon or dictionary of the NT is in agreement, that porneia refers to any form of sexual activity before or outside the relationship of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. It can refer to pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual practice, prostitution, bestiality, and all other expressions of sexual activity outside the marital relationship between a husband and wife.


I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, upon hearing that there are people at Bridgeway who, for whatever reason, believe that sex before marriage is permissible. Pre-marital sex is commonplace in our culture, but to hear that it is present in the church is extremely disheartening. My surprise upon hearing this is that I would never have imagined that such a view could even exist among professing Christians. There are some things that are so patently obvious in the Bible that one simply takes for granted that everyone who has spent any amount of time in church life would understand this. But I guess I was wrong.

Last week I did some research. Now remember: statistics can be deceiving. There can be numerous unknown or unstated factors that skew the results of any public opinion poll. That being said, a recent survey of professing evangelical Christians indicated that nearly 60% said they would have or have had sex before marriage. There was no indication in the survey as to whether or not they regarded pre-marital sex as morally permissible. Some (perhaps many) may believe it to be morally and biblically sinful but engaged in pre-marital sex anyway.

I suppose the only place to begin is by taking note of the terminology that we find in the NT. The Greek word that is most often translated as “sexual immorality” is porneia, the word from which derive our English term, pornography. But don’t ever think that the Greek porneia is referring primarily to visual portrayals of sexual activity. We must never read back into the NT the meaning of our modern English words. Rather we must allow the NT to define its terminology in its own way.

Together with the noun porneia, there is a related form that is often translated “the sexually immoral.” There is also the verb “to commit sexual immorality.” Together these words appear 42x times in the NT. Here is a small sampling to give you an idea of how it is understood.

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

“It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1).

“But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).

“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:9).

Now it may be helpful to pause here and point out that whereas adultery and homosexuality are forms of porneia or sexual immorality, porneia is a much broader term that includes any and all sexual activity before or outside the marriage relationship.

“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13).

Again, a brief word is in order. Here we see that God clearly created the human body for a purpose, and it is not for sexual immorality. Thus when a person engages in sexual activity outside the bonds of marriage he/she is violating the very purpose for which God has created us as sexual creatures.

“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

“But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband” (1 Corinthians 7:2).

“We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day” (1 Corinthians 10:8).

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality” (Galatians 5:19).

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints” (Ephesians 5:3).

“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5).

In this text we see that God doesn’t single out sexual immorality as worse than other sins of the flesh. Idolatry and covetousness and theft are equally heinous in the eyes of God.

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