What Is the True Meaning of Fornication in the Bible?



From time to time, there are many things that we wish the Bible spoke more explicitly about than it does. For example, with baptism should we immerse or sprinkle, can women be elders, where did Cain’s wife come from, do all dogs go to heaven, and so forth? Despite the fact that some passages leave a little more room for interpretation than most of us are comfortable with, there are countless other areas where the Bible leaves no ambiguity at all. What fornication is and what God thinks about it are issues in which there can be no doubt where the Bible stands.

What is the Biblical Meaning and Definition of Fornication?

The modern dictionary definition of fornication is voluntary sexual intercourse between persons not married to each other, which would include adultery.

In the Old Testament, all sexual sin was prohibited by the Mosaic Law and Jewish custom. However, the Hebrew word transcribed as “fornication” in the Old Testament was also in the meaning of idolatry. The word “fornication” is used in association with heathen idols because much of pagan “worship” involved sex in their rituals. In this article we will dig deeper into what the definition of fornication includes according to the Bible.

Paul wasted no words when he said, “Consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion and evil desire and greed which amounts to idolatry” (Colossians 3:5), and the Hebrew author warned, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all and the marriage bed is to be undefiled: for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). These words mean little in our present culture where values are rooted in cultural norms and change like a shifting wind.

But for those of us who hold to the authority of Scripture, there is a different standard as to how to discern between what is acceptable and good, and what is to be condemned and avoided. The Apostle Paul warned the Roman church to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). Paul understood that the world’s system, which we now live in as we await the consummation of Christ’s kingdom, has its own values that are constantly seeking to “conform” everything and everyone into its own image, ironically, the very thing that God has been doing from the beginning of time (Romans 8:29). And there is no area where this cultural conformity is more graphically seen than as it relates to matters of sexuality. 

What Does the Bible Say About Fornication?

The Bible is not silent on issues of sexual ethics, and it does not leave us to ourselves to figure out what sexual purity looks like. The Corinthian church had a reputation, but not one that you would want your church to have. Paul wrote and said, “It is reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such kind as does not exist even among that Gentiles (1 Corinthians 5:1). The Greek word which is used here – and over 20 more times throughout the New Testament – for immorality is the word πορνεία (porneia). Our English word pornography derives from porneia

During the fourth century, the Greek text of the Bible was translated into Latin in a work we call the Vulgate. In the Vulgate, the Greek word, porneia, was translated to the Latin word, fornicati, which is where we get the word fornication. The word, fornication, is found in the King James Bible, but modern, more accurate translations, like the NASB and ESV, opt to simply translate it to immorality. 

What Does Fornication Include?

Many Bible scholars teach that fornication is limited to premarital sexual interaction, but there is nothing in the original language or otherwise that truly suggests such a narrow view. This is likely the reason that modern translators chose to translate porneia as immorality, in most cases because of its broader reach and implications. The Bible doesn’t go out of its way to categorize particular sins under the heading of fornication, and neither should we.

I believe it is safe to surmise that porneia refers to any and all sexual activity that happens outside the context of God’s design of marriage including, but not restricted to, pornography, extramarital sexual intercourse, or any other sexual activity that does not honor Christ. The Apostle warned the Ephesians that “immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper for the saints; and there must be no filthiness and silly talk, or coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4). This snapshot provides an image for us that broadens the meaning to include even how we speak to one another. 

I am compelled to qualify as well that this does not assume that all sexual activity within marriage is Christ-honoring. I am aware that much abuse takes place within the framework of marriage, and there is no question that God’s judgment will not be spared simply because a perpetrator sins against their spouse. 

meaning and definition of fornicationPhoto Credit: ©Getty Images/designer491

What Damage Can Fornication Do?

It is very sobering that the God who loves marriage and “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), in fact, provides one allowance for a covenant marriage to end in divorce. Jesus says that anyone who divorces for any reason “except for the reason of unchastity” (Matthew 5:32 NASB) commits adultery, and if a person marries someone who has been divorced for any other reason other than unchastity also commits adultery.

You’ve probably already guessed it, but the word unchastity in the Greek is the very word we’ve already identified as porneias. These are strong words that cut against the grain of our cultural views of marriage and divorce, but they are God’s words. 

The sin of sexual immorality (fornication) has the potential to destroy the very relationship which God created to reflect his love for his bride, the church. Paul instructed husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her” (Ephesians 5:25). Don’t get me wrong, there are many things that can strike a death blow to a marriage, but it seems that sexual sins are especially heinous and destructive, and often inflict such deep wounds and hurt and ultimately break covenant in ways that seldom can be repaired. 

To the Corinthian church, Paul offers this chilling warning, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ. . . or do you no know that the one who joins himself to a prostitute is one body with her? For he says, ‘The two shall become one flesh’” (1 Corinthian 6:15-16). Again, the sin of immorality (fornication) is much broader than prostitution alone, but the principle we find here can be applied to all areas of sexual immorality. My body is not my own. As a follower of Christ, I have become part of his own body (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). When I sin sexually, it is as though I am dragging Christ and his own body into participating with me in this sin. 

Fornication also seems to have a way of taking our affections and thoughts hostage in such a formidable way that some people never break the chains of their bondage. The writer of Hebrews wrote about the “sin that so easily entangles us” (Hebrews 12:1). This seems to be exactly what Paul had in mind when he wrote to the Ephesian believers that they “walk no longer as the Gentiles also walk in the futility of their mind being darkened in their understanding. . . having become callous having given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:17-19). Sexual sin creeps into our minds and takes us captive in ways that we often fail to discern until it’s too late. 

Sexual sin can be a very private sin, but the seed planted in secret also bears destructive fruit, publically wreaking havoc in marriages, churches, vocations, and ultimately robbing believers of the joy and freedom of intimacy with Christ. All sexual sin is a counterfeit intimacy designed by the father of lies to take the place of our first love, Jesus Christ. 

How Can We Overcome the Sin of Fornication?

So how does one battle and win in this area of sexual sin? 

1. Acknowledge that it is God’s will for his people to live pure and holy lives and that he condemns sexual immorality of every kind (Ephesians 5; 1 Corinthians 5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3).

2. Confess (Agree with God) your sin to God (1 John 1:9-10).

3. Confess and confide in trusted elders as well (James 5:16).

4. Seek to retrain your mind by filling it with Scripture and actively engaging in the very thoughts of God himself (Colossians 3:1-3, 16).

5. Realize that Christ, alone, is the one who can free us from the bondage that the flesh, the devil, and the world have engineered with our fall in mind (Hebrews 12:2). 

Even as I pen my thoughts, I realize that for the one bleeding and gasping for one more breath on the battlefield, these words may come across as hollow and quite detached from the horrors of the real-life struggles for holiness. Nothing could be farther from my intent. My words are not intended to be a checklist or an easy fix. I have simply sought to offer God’s truth in a world of lies and the prayer that God would free us all from the chains that bind us so that we may love him more. 

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Prostock-Studio


headshot of author Rick KirbyRick Kirby, along with his wife and children, live in Anderson, South Carolina. Rick serves as a corporate chaplain in the upstate of South Carolina, in addition to shepherding micro-church movements, which he does in partnership with the Evangelical Free Church in America and the Creo Collective. Rick has written as a freelance writer in the past with organizations such as The INJOY Group, InTouch Ministries, and Walk Through the Bible. Rick holds a Master of  Divinity degree from Erskine Theological Seminary and presently is a  Doctor of Ministry student at Erskine, as well. Through the years, Rick’s family has been deeply engaged in discipling efforts globally in Brazil, Ecuador and most recently in Puerto Rico. Among the many things Rick enjoys are woodworking in his woodshop and roasting (and drinking) coffee.

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