Thou shalt not fornicate

A divorced friend of mine was describing her long-running relationship with her current boyfriend. I gracefully inquired if there were any marriage plans on the horizon. “Well, I don’t think so,” she replied. I tactfully marveled at her boyfriend’s iron sexual self-control, but she volunteered the information that he didn’t need any self-control because they had a great sex life. They are both avowed Christians, and I marveled that apparently while I was napping, the Sixth Commandment had been repealed (the Seventh if you use the Reformed numbering). “Oh,” she explained, “he says that the Sixth Commandment forbids only adultery, which properly speaking involves only cheating on a marriage. Neither of us is married, so we are free to have sex if we want.”

Hmm . . . Have you heard that line of thought before? There is some truth in it. In my American Heritage Dictionary, the only meaning given for adultery is “voluntary sexual intercourse between a married person and a partner who is not the lawful spouse.” In the original biblical text, the Hebrew verb for what is forbidden in Exodus 20:14 is na’aph, which describes “intercourse with the wife or betrothed of another man.” So strictly speaking, the bare words of the Sixth Commandment condemn only cheating on your spouse or with someone else’s spouse. So is the merry couple in the clear?

Well, not exactly. There is a wonderful antique word that describes their sexual relationship: fornication. Except for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ album that uses the term, I don’t think I’ve heard it spoken in 30 years. It belongs to the bygone era of King James English that gave us vouchsafe and beseech. The King James Version of the Bible (KJV) uses the term 44 times. Unfortunately no new word has arisen to take its place. Maybe single people sleeping together has gotten so commonplace in our world that nobody thinks a word is needed that calls it sinful.

Scripture has much to say beyond just the Sixth Commandment about sexuality outside of marriage. Those ten principles are a wonderful summary of God’s will for human behavior, but they were not intended to be comprehensive. The New Testament has a Greek word for marital infidelity, moicheía, but it also has a term for sexual relations between two unmarried people, porneía, or as the KJV would have read, fornication. Note that the New International Version of the Bible consistently translates porneia as “sexual immorality,” which is kind of vague—people can define immorality in a variety of ways. But the New Testament’s references to porneía always describe it as sinful. Examples:

Hebrews 12:16: “See that no one is sexually immoral” (pornos).

1 Corinthians 6:9,10: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral (pornoi) nor idolaters nor adulterers (moichoí) nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

1 Corinthians 6:18: “Flee from sexual immorality” (porneía).

Ephesians 5:3: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality” (porneía).

Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral” (pornoi and moichoí).

People are going to do what people are going to do. But if God hates and forbids certain human sexual behaviors and threatens to punish those who do them, we need to believe him, obey him ourselves, and pass the word: Thou shalt not fornicate.

Pastor Mark Jeske has been bringing the Word of God to viewers of Time of Grace since the program began airing in late 2001. A Milwaukee native, Pastor Jeske has served as the senior pastor at St. Marcus, a multicultural congregation on Milwaukee’s near north side since 1980. In addition, he is the author of several books and dozens of devotional booklets on various topics.

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