Fornication

Immorality, Sexual Immorality, Marital Unfaithfulness, or Fornication?

by Kevin Williams

Note the following renderings of Matthew 19:9 taken from 4 popular translations…

  • And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery (NASB).
  • And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery (NKJV)
  • I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery (NIV).
  • And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery (KJV).

I know that there are sometimes problems in translating from one language to another.  I also know that translators often take pain-staking measures to ensure that they translate words that correspond closest to the original language.  I further know that translators can leave the wrong impression of a word’s meaning simply by allowing their present culture to have an impact on how they translate words.  Sometimes it appears that there is more of a reliance on cultural relevancy than on original intent!

Such can be really confusing in reading a passage in the Bible.  For example, consider the renderings above of Matthew 19:9.  “Immorality” could include everything that one would consider to be against the morals taught in God’s Word.  Lying, jealousy, stealing, and many other sins could be included in the meaning of the word.  “Sexual immorality” would limit the meaning to what one would consider of a sexual nature to be against the morals taught in the Bible.  This could, however, also include lust, viewing pornography on the internet, watching inappropriate TV programs of a sexual nature, etc.  “Marital unfaithfulness” could include anything in which one would consider their mate to be “unfaithful,” such as the husband not providing for the family, the wife not keeping the home or one mate deceiving the other.  “Fornication” would include voluntary sexual intimacy between two people not married or not married to each other.

The word in the original Greek language is porneia, meaning fornication involving any illicit sexual intercourse.  That definition tells us that “immorality,” “marital unfaithfulness,” and even “sexual immorality” are all too broad of terms to describe the original word.  “Fornication” is the correct translation of the word and we should understand that it carries the idea of ANY illicit sexual intercourse not only including adultery (involving a married person), but also including sexual sins like homosexuality, bestiality, prostitution, etc. (Thayer, BGD).

Let us think for a minute how this distinction might help in a couple of practical examples.  Suppose a couple is having marital problems and the wife finds out that the husband is viewing pornography on the internet.  Such activity is obviously interfering in the marriage relationship and the wife is hurt terribly.  The hurt is so deep that she begins to wonder if she can scripturally divorce her husband.  She reads Matthew 19:9 in a translation that says she can divorce him on the basis of “immorality” and notes in another translation that it is “sexual immorality.”  She concludes that her husband is being immoral and certainly sexually immoral in allowing pornography to destroy their relationship and thereby decides she can divorce him scripturally.  However, in talking to others and doing further research she realizes that the word applies to sexual intercourse (not lust) and determines that it would be wrong to put him away for that reason.

Also, suppose a couple is having marital problems because the husband lies to the wife on a continual basis and she cannot get him to change.  She seeks counsel from the Bible as to whether or not she can divorce him for that reason and reads Matthew 19:9 in a translation that says she can divorce him for “marital unfaithfulness.”  Since she understand his lying to her as “unfaithfulness” in their marriage she decides she can properly put him away.  However, in talking with others and researching the word, she realizes that it applies not just to any type of “unfaithfulness” but is restricted to unfaithfulness due to sexual intercourse.  She then determines it would be wrong to divorce him for that reason.

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