The Christian, in his or her walk with God, is called upon to embrace certain character traits and practices and reject others. A compact yet significant list of many of these traits and practices are included in Galatians 5:16-24:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary the one to the other; that ye may not do the things that ye would. But if ye are led by the Spirit, ye are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousies, wraths, factions, divisions, parties, envyings, drunkenness, revellings, and such like; of which I forewarn you, even as I did forewarn you, that they who practise such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law. And they that are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof.
Christians are to embody the fruit of the Spirit while avoiding the works of the flesh. We do well to explore the nature of the works of the flesh so as to avoid them and the fruit of the Spirit so as to manifest it.
The list of the “works of the flesh” begins with “fornication” in the American Standard Version; the term is also variously translated as “sexual immorality” (ESV) and “immorality” (NASB; the King James Version and its offshoots begin the list with “adultery,” yet such is not found in the best manuscripts, and would be covered under “sexual immorality” anyway). The Greek word is porneia, defined by Thayer as:
1) illicit sexual intercourse
1a) adultery, fornication, homosexuality, lesbianism, intercourse with animals etc.
1b) sexual intercourse with close relatives;
1c) sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman;
2) metaphorically the worship of idols
2a) of the defilement of idolatry, as incurred by eating the sacrifices offered to idols
“Illicit sex” is perhaps the most pithy yet accurate translation of porneia; I prefer “sexually deviant behavior”: while clunky, it does well at delineating exactly what is under the purview of porneia without casting a wider net.
Porneia, in a “literal” sense, is that which one would do with a porne, or prostitute (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:13-20): sexual activity disconnected from covenant relationship between a man and a woman whom God has joined. The range of activities which came under the purview of porneia include adultery, bestiality, same sex sexual relations, pederasty, sexual acts with children, and thus any kind of sexual behavior which is outside of the bounds of marriage (Hebrews 13:4; cf. Jude 1:7).
We also can see how porneia is the opposite of what is approved in marriage through Jesus’ use of porneia as the “exception” of the general condemnation of divorce in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. No other action or behavior could justify separating what God has joined; in porneia, the offender is becoming “one flesh” with one to whom God has not joined him or her, and this terribly violates the sanctity of the marriage bed.
To this end we can understand how porneia is translated as “illicit sex” or even “sexual immorality,” although we must keep “sexually deviant behavior” in mind, since one can imagine sexually immoral thoughts or feelings that are sinful yet do not rise to the level of porneia (cf. lasciviousness, Matthew 5:28, Galatians 5:19). “Immorality” is too broad of a translation. In modern parlance “fornication” is defined as “sexual activity before marriage”; since people in the ancient world tended to marry at a very young age, strict fornication was not as significant of a concern as was adultery. By extension, fornication would fall under the aegis of porneia; attempts to suggest that pre-marital fornication would justify a later divorce, or is the only justification for a divorce, prove misguided.
The Apostles manifest great concern regarding sexually deviant behavior in their exhortations, and for good reason: sexual immorality was so prevalent in the ancient pagan world as to be considered the norm. Fraternization with prostitutes and female companions was part of feasts and banquets; Christians would be seen as odd and strange for not participating in such behaviors. To this end the Apostles and elders in Jerusalem exhorted Gentile Christians specifically to avoid sexually deviant behavior (Acts 15:20, Acts 15:29, Acts 21:25). Paul would often mention sexually deviant behavior first when going through a list of sinful behaviors (1 Corinthians 5:9, 11, 6:9, Ephesians 5:3, Colossians 3:5), demonstrating his strong concern regarding the matter. Even though the Christians in Thessalonica were walking so as to please God, Paul felt compelled to exhort them unto sanctification, which he associated strongly with avoiding sexually deviant behavior (1 Thessalonians 4:1-8).
In 1 Corinthians 6:13-20 Paul set forth his most systematic denunciation of sexually deviant behavior. Corinth was (in)famous for its heritage of sexually deviant behavior surrounding the Aphrodite cult in the city. Paul exhorted Christians to avoid sexually deviant behavior: it is the sin one commits against oneself. Those who are joined to Christ should not become one flesh with a prostitute. Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit, and are no longer their own, but have been bought with a price. Christians thus ought to glorify God in their bodies.
God made human sexuality as a good thing to be enjoyed in its proper covenant relationship. Outside of marriage sexual behavior de-humanizes. Many voices in the world exalt and glorify sexual behavior outside of marriage; a world which has rejected the existence of God will almost invariably make a god out of sexuality, the transcendent experience which they most associate with the divine (Romans 1:18-32). The number of souls who will be eternally lost on account of their lust for sexually deviant behavior will most likely be terribly high. Sexuality is good in its proper context, but it makes for a terribly disappointing goddess.
As Christians we do well to remember that there is much more to life than sexuality, and to seek to glorify God in our bodies. There will be no need for sexuality in the resurrection; the relational intimacy we will enjoy with God in Christ will be far greater than anything found in sexuality (Matthew 22:30, Ephesians 5:31-32, Revelation 21:1-22:6). Sexually deviant behavior may be tempting for a season, but it cannot deliver on its promises, and leads to pain, misery, regret, and ultimately death (cf. Proverbs 5:3-23). May we trust in God in Christ, flee from and avoid sexually deviant behavior, and obtain the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry