Fornication is used in the Bible to refer to two types of sin. In its most literal sense, fornication refers to any violation of God’s laws regarding sexual behavior. But fornication on a spiritual level refers to pagan idolatry such as that practiced by the nation of Israel which was pictured as God’s wife in the Bible.
In the Old Testament the English word “fornication” is used to translate the Hebrew word “Zanah” which refers to all types of sexual immorality.
Here is a literal use of zanah speaking of a violation of God’s law’s regarding sex:
“20 But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel:
21 Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore[zanah] in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” – Deuteronomy 22:20-21 (KJV)
If a woman claimed to be a virgin and had sex with another man during her betrothal period she would be put to death.
Here is a spiritual use of zanah referring to Israel’s adulterous behavior toward God:
“8 Now when I passed by thee, and looked upon thee, behold, thy time was the time of love; and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness: yea, I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine…
”26 Thou hast also committed fornication[zanah] with the Egyptians thy neighbours, great of flesh; and hast increased thy whoredoms, to provoke me to anger .” – Ezekiel 16:8 & 26 (KJV)
In the New Testament the English word “fornication” is used to translate the Greek word “porneia” or variations of this word including “pornos”,”porneu”, and “ekporneu”. This word is a synonym of the Hebrew word zanah and was actually used directly to translate zanah in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Septuagint).
Here is a literal use of porneia exhorting Christians not to commit sexual immorality:
“Flee fornication[Porneia]. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication[Porneuo] sinneth against his own body.” – I Corinthians 6:18 (KJV)
Here is a spiritual use of porneia referring to world’s idolatrous behavior toward God:
“2 And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird.
3 For all nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication[Porneia], and the kings of the earth have committed fornication[Porneuo] with her, and the merchants of the earth are waxed rich through the abundance of her delicacies.
4 And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.” – Revelation 18:2-4 (KJV)
Porneia Does Not Only Refer to Prostitution
Many Christian sites online purpose a false argument that Porneia only refers to Christians engaging in prostitution and not to all sexually immorality in general.
Below are three instances where Porneia(or its root word Porneuo) does refers to sexual sins other than prostitution(or harlotry as it is sometimes called):
Porneia is used to speak of incest in I Corinthians 5:1(incest was not always with a blood relative – but was also if a man had sex with one of his father’s wives that was not his mother).
“It is reported commonly that there is fornication[Porneia] among you, and such fornication[Porneia] as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.”
1 Corinthians 5:1 (KJV)
Porneuo (which is the root word Porneia is based on) is used to speak of the orgy the Israelites had with the daughters of Moab.
“Neither let us commit fornication[Porneuo], as some of them committed, and fell in one day three and twenty thousand.”
1 Corinthians 10:8 (KJV)
Ekporneuo(whose root is Porneuo) also speaks to sexual debauchery which occurred in Sodom including homosexuality and other types of sexual perversion.
“7 Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication[Ekporneuo], and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”
Jude 1:7 (KJV)
These three passages prove that fornication(Porneia, Porneuo and Ekporneuo) is more than just speaking to prostitution. It also used to refer to other types of sexual sins as well including incest, orgies and homosexual behavior.
Let me also return to very important connection that is made by the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians chapter 5. We already mentioned that he refers to incest as a form of porneia and then he spends this chapter scolding the church for allowing this man who was committing incest with his father’s wife to remain in the Church. He goes on to say this toward the end of the chapter:
“9 I wrote unto you in an epistle not to company with fornicators[Pornos]:
10 Yet not altogether with the fornicators[Pornos] of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or with idolaters; for then must ye needs go out of the world.
11 But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator[Pornos], or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.”
I Corinthians 5:9-11 (KJV)
So Paul is saying those who commit porneia(in this case speaking of incest) are rightly called “pornos” or what is often translated as whoremongers or fornicators in the KJV.
This is a VERY important connection he makes here. Because I have seen many Christians online falsely teach that “pornos” only refers to men prostituting themselves out for sex or men visiting prostitutes themselves but we can see here that the Apostle Paul is saying in God’s Word porneia, porneuo, ekporneuo and pornos have a MUCH broader meaning covering all forms of sexual immorality and those who commit all forms of sexual immorality.
Now that we have proven that porneia and its related synonyms refer to ALL sexual immorality lets look at all the types of fornication(sexual sins) the Bible addresses.
Types of fornication
Whoremongering (pre-marital sex)
“Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” – Hebrews 13:4 (KJV)
Marriage is the only place that God honors sexual relations between a man and a woman and sexual relations outside of marriage resulted in great penalties in the Scripture.
Whore-mongering is a gender specific sin.
For a man whore-mongering is when a man who is single or married engages in sexual relations with women he is not married to.
For a woman whore-mongering if when a woman who is single engages in sexual relations with men she is not married to.
“But as a wife that committeth adultery, which taketh strangers instead of her husband!.” – Ezekiel 16:32( KJV)
God actually defines adultery for us in Ezekiel 16:32 when he speaks against Israel’s spiritual adultery against him in going after other gods.
Adultery in its most literal and physical form is when a wife does either of two things:
1. If she does not take her husband – meaning she refuses to give herself sexually to her husband she has committed adultery against him.
2. If she gives herself sexually to other men she has committed adultery against him.
In most cases when a woman commits adultery she does both as God says of Israel – she goes with other men and she denies her husband his sexual rights to her.
God expands the meaning of adultery to unfaithfulness of a wife to her husband. He compares Israel’s idolatry to a wife committing adultery against her husband. Israel was not worshiping God and worshiping other gods. She had stopped worshiping God and was going after false gods.
This shows that marital faithfulness for a woman is a two sided coin. On side she must be faithful to her husband by not giving herself to other men. But the other side of marital faithfulness is that she must give herself to her husband as well.
Adultery in the Bible was a gender specific sin.
In the Old Testament, the only way a man committed adultery was when he slept with another man’s wife.
Later Christ expanded the definition of adultery for men to include if a man divorced his wife for reasons God does not allow. In this case, he was said to be committing adultery against her in wrongfully divorcing her. In this way he was using adultery to refer to marital unfaithfulness by a husband toward his wife.
But the idea of a man committing adultery against his wife by sleeping with another woman is not found in the Scriptures. If this other woman he has taken is a second wife(polygamy) there is no sin. If this other woman he has had sex with was not married to him then he has committed the sin of whore-mongering and this is against God. This is not adultery against his wife.
If a woman who is married has sex with a man who is not her husband and/or she defrauds her husband by refusing to have sex with him then this is by definition adultery. She has committed adultery against her husband and she also sinned against God.
“Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid.” – I Corinthians 6:15 (KJV)
“18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness…
26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:
27 And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.” – Romans 1:18 & 26-27 (KJV)
“No one is to approach any close relative to have sexual relations. I am the Lord.” – Leviticus 18:6-18 (NIV)
“Neither shalt thou lie with any beast to defile thyself therewith: neither shall any woman stand before a beast to lie down thereto: it is confusion.” – Leviticus 18:23 (KJV)
Sexual defraudment in marriage
“3 Let the husband render unto the wife due benevolence: and likewise also the wife unto the husband.
4 The wife hath not power of her own body, but the husband: and likewise also the husband hath not power of his own body, but the wife.
5 Defraud ye not one the other, except it be with consent for a time, that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again, that Satan tempt you not for your incontinency.” – I Corinthians 7:3-5 (KJV)
Confusion about Adultery and Fornication
Many Christians get confused about fornication and adultery. It is very common to hear in many Sunday school classes across America that “fornication is talking about sexual sin BEFORE marriage, and adultery is talking about sexual sin AFTER marriage”. Some Christians wrongly believe that it is inaccurate to call a woman committing adultery on her husband a fornicator – but Biblically speaking adultery is a type of fornication that occurs only within marriage.
All acts of adultery are acts of fornication, but not all acts of fornication are adultery in the same way that first degree murder is considered a capital crime, but not all capital crimes are first degree murder. Capital crimes also include things like terrorism and espionage.
Is sexual denial in marriage a type of fornication?
I have had many people write me and disagree with me that sexual denial is a type of fornication claiming that the Bible never specifically refers to sexual denial as a type of fornication.
We already previously mentioned Ezekiel 16:32 where God says adultery is when a woman takes strange men instead of her husband. In that verse it is implied that marital faithfulness on the part of the wife toward her husband is a two sided coin which includes her NOT giving herself sexually to other men and her GIVING herself sexually to her husband.
In I Corinthians 7:5 the Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of God says that one who denies sex is literally committing fraud (defraud) against their spouse. This Greek word here “Apostereo” means to “keep back by fraud” or to “rob”.
This same word is used in James:
“Behold, the hire of the labourers who have reaped down your fields, which is of you kept back by fraud[Apostereo], crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord of sabaoth.” – James 5:4 (KJV)
Literally in the same way that an employer agrees to pay wages to his employees, a spouse agrees to give their body in the act of sex to their spouse. To deny sex to one’s spouse is an act of sexual fraud.
In fact sexual denial was so heinous to God that he listed it as one of three reasons a wife was to be freed (given a divorce) from her husband:
“10 If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11 And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.” – Exodus 21:10-11 (KJV)
Most people do not realize that as disgusting as it is to God for us to have sex outside of marriage that it is EQUALLY disgusting to God for one spouse to sexually deny their other spouse in marriage.
Still some will say that in Greek literature outside the Bible fornication was never used in the sense of sexual denial. But what they miss is that the Bible takes Greek words and sometimes expands upon the meanings of these words. The New Testament expands on the meaning of Greek words like adultery (Moichao), church (Ekklesia), flesh (Sarx) and hell (Geenna and Hades) where Christ and his Apostles used these common Greek words in ways that they were not typically used.
This is why it is right to understand “fornication” (porneia) in Matthew 19:9 as inclusive of ANY sexual sin including adultery and sexual defraudment:
“And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication[Porneia], and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 (KJV)
Not having sex in situations where God commands us to have sex is just as much fornication as having sex in situations where God forbids us to have sex.
Some have wrongly taught that the fornication exemption for divorce in the Gospel of Matthew(Matt 5:32 & 19:9) is referring only to a woman having sex before her marriage was consummated during the betrothal period but this limits the definition of porneia in a way that is not supported in the Scriptures.
So you want to stay away from fornication and not violate God’s laws about sex?
Then DO NOT have sexual relations before marriage and DO have sexual relations with your spouse(of the opposite gender of course) after marriage and you will not be guilty of fornication.