This post is an edited excerpt from chapter 5 of my eBook about traditions taught in church that aren’t actually mentioned in Scripture. I wanted a blog post I could point people to in order to discuss the topic of sexuality in morality specifically, so I’ve created this post for that reason. Please be sure to click the links for the Scripture references, as well as for supporting articles that go more into depth on the topic:
Perhaps the best example of an unscriptural tradition when it comes to sin is the twin topic of sex and lust. You’ve almost certainly been taught that premarital sex is a sin, and the primary reason that most religious Christians are so against premarital sex is one little word: fornication. Depending on your English translation, you’ll find fornication criticized as a very bad thing that one should flee, and if you look fornication up in an English dictionary you will indeed find that it means sexual intercourse between unmarried partners. The problem is, the word translated as “fornication” in some translations of the Bible is the Greek word porneia (πορνεία), which does not literally translate to “premarital sex” as many Christians believe it does. Of course, some modern versions of the Bible now use the term “sexual immorality” to render the word porneia, which is somewhat better than “fornication” as a translation, but it’s still quite problematic since it’s just a broad and general term that doesn’t tell us anything on its own about what sexual acts would actually be considered to be immoral. Some of the better translations of the word are “prostitution,” “harlotry,” or “whoredom,” but even there one has to be careful not to confuse this with consensual sex work as these English words would currently be used, since the Greek word actually had to do with sex that women who were basically slaves would be forced to do, not with the voluntary trading of sex for favours (which had a different Greek word that one would use when referring to that concept: hetaira [ἑταίρα]). Whatever translation of this word one uses, though, the most important thing to ask is what the word means, and the best Bible scholars (see Vine, Thayer, Knoch, etc.) agree that the English meaning of porneia is closer to “illicit sexual intercourse” (or “unlawful intercourse between the sexes”) than anything else.
If we take the term “illicit sexual intercourse” literally, it means sexual intercourse that breaks the law. Generally, here in the western world, premarital sex doesn’t break the law, and it certainly wasn’t against the law among the Gentiles Paul wrote to when he told believers to avoid porneia either. And if one digs into the Mosaic Law, they’ll see that it also wasn’t ever spelled out as being illegal there. While there were sometimes civil consequences for premarital sex among Israelites back in Bible times without first getting the permission of (and likely paying a brideprice to) a woman’s father (sadly, women were considered to be property in ancient cultures including that of Israel, and were often basically sold from one “owner,” her father, to a new “owner,” her husband, through marriage), and deceiving someone into thinking a woman was a virgin when she wasn’t could also result in harsh penalties, premarital sex on its own was never specifically forbidden or called sinful in the Hebrew Scriptures. Of course, premarital sex (or sex outside of marriage) technically could fall under the broad label of porneia in some parts of the world (and still can today), but it could (and can) only legitimately do so in regions where this actually was or is considered to be illegal (such as in parts of the Middle East today, for example). Outside of those more conservative regions of the planet, however, it wouldn’t be considered to be wrong by the law and hence wouldn’t be a sin to do so since it wouldn’t be a crime.
So what sexual acts would be considered illicit (or immoral) when the word porneia was used in Scripture? Well, it would, of course, cover the specific sexual prohibitions that actually were mentioned in the Mosaic Law (at least it would for those who were required to follow said law [meaning Israelites — Gentiles were never under the Mosaic law to begin with, and members of the body of Christ definitely aren’t either, even if they happen to be Jewish]). But it primarily spoke of sexual idolatry, referring to sleeping with temple prostitutes (Paul would presumably have also been speaking against the rape of the women forced to participate in prostitution when he spoke against porneia, not just the idolatry aspect of it, but the connection to idolatry was a large, if not the largest, part of it) who did so as a part of worshiping other gods (in Bible times, Satan used sex to lure people into idolatry; today, now that temple prostitution is no longer a thing, he uses it instead as the new circumcision), although it could also be used in reference to sexual practices that actually were considered illicit by the culture in question, practices such as incest, for example. This particular instance of porneia actually demonstrates quite conclusively that premarital sex was not considered to be a sin. If it were, the Corinthian believers would never have even considered letting things go this far; they would have stopped long before accepting, and seemingly even taking pride in, this relationship happening among their church members if Paul or anyone else had previously taught them that sex outside of marriage fell under the category of porneia-based sins, and he also apparently forgot to tell them it was a sin in this epistle as well when he was telling them to avoid such porneia, so one who claims it is sinful is just eisegeting their own preconceived moralistic bias into their interpretation of the word porneia in this and other parts of Scripture.
Of course, some try to argue that Paul did tell them to avoid premarital sex a couple chapters later when he apparently tells them, “and because of the whoredom let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her proper husband,” supposedly telling them to get married rather than have premarital sex, but that’s not what he’s actually trying to get at there at all. It would take a much longer study to get all the way into the full meaning of this chapter, but along with actually taking the context of the passage into consideration, there are also idioms in the original Greek text that aren’t obvious if you’re not aware of them (for instance, the phrase “not to touch” was a figure of speech that literally meant “not to have sex with,” only perhaps somewhat cruder [it should probably actually be translated with a four-letter verb]), so a more informative paraphrase of the first couple verses of that passage, that is more in line with the actual meaning of these verses, would be, “Now, about what you wrote to me, you said: ‘It is ideal for a man to avoid having sex with a woman.’ Whether or not that’s true, in order to avoid the temptation that would almost certainly arise to have sex with temple prostitutes instead, let every man continue having sex with his own wife, and let every woman continue having sex with her own husband.” Basically, this passage is talking about Corinthian Christians who had come to the conclusion that it would be more righteous or holy to avoid sexual intercourse with their spouses altogether (perhaps because of outside Gnostic influences, although we don’t know the reason for certain), but Paul warned them that they should not stop sleeping with their already existing spouses or they could end up inadvertently committing idolatry as their biology would very likely lead the men to sleep with temple prostitutes instead (because they were the easiest people to find sex with aside from with one’s spouse, since people generally didn’t have romantic relationships back then as we do today; marriage was more of a business arrangement until very recently, so outside of marriage and adultery, the easiest and most common way for a man to have sex in that time and place was with a temple prostitute), and the women could even end up committing adultery. Yes, celibacy is honourable if one can handle it (the reason for this isn’t because sex is somehow dirty or less than righteous and something that should be avoided in general, however; it’s because it helps one hold lightly to the things of this Earth so one can focus solely on the things of God instead of the concerns of one’s spouse, since the easiest way for one to have sex while avoiding idolatry was through marriage when Paul wrote that), but as the writer of Hebrews put it (even if this is a Circumcision writing, this is one of those trans-administrational truths that applies to both the Israel of God and the body of Christ), marriage (and sex in marriage) is just as honourable, and one shouldn’t defile their marriage bed by sleeping with temple prostitutes or by committing adultery (both of which would be temptations if a married couple stopped sleeping with each other). Contrary to what most have been taught, Paul wasn’t telling single people to find marriage partners rather than commit the supposed sin of having premarital sex in this passage (they generally didn’t have boyfriends and girlfriends like we do today anyway, so the idea of unmarried, romantic “couples” having sex probably wouldn’t have even crossed Paul’s mind); the context of this chapter and the previous chapter makes it pretty clear in the original Greek that he was talking to the already married in the first seven verses, telling them that the husbands risked going to temple prostitutes if married couples stopped sleeping with each other, which would be tantamount to idolatry because sex with temple prostitutes would necessarily involve worshipping other gods in the process. As for those who were once married and wished to remarry (the word “unmarried” in this passage almost certainly refers to widowers, based on the patterns through this chapter in the original Greek text, although it’s still perfectly valid advice for those who haven’t been married yet either), while he’d prefer for them to remain unmarried like him so they can focus on pleasing the Lord rather than a spouse, he does still say that getting married is better than burning with the desire to be married if they can’t control their desire for marriage (it’s unlikely that he was talking about burning with sexual desire here; based on the context of the topic of marriage in general throughout this part of the chapter, and the fact that he was saying it would be good for them to remain unmarried like him, it seems far more likely that he would have simply been referring to the desire to be married, particularly since sex outside of marriage hadn’t actually been condemned anywhere else in Scripture prior to his writing this, at least as long as it wasn’t illegal or idolatrous). And as far as those of us in this day and age go, at least here in the western world, there are other ways for unmarried people to have sex without resorting to visiting temple prostitutes, although if they are “burning” to get married, they certainly should.
In addition to these more literal interpretations of porneia, there was also a figurative meaning to the word (and its Hebrew equivalents in the Hebrew Scriptures), having nothing to do with physical sex at all, but simply being a metaphor referring to outright idolatry.
The one thing it never meant, however, is premarital sex, or at least by now it should be obvious that there’s zero reason to believe it did, despite the fact that your parents and pastor would probably prefer you believed it did. Of course, they likely only think they want you to. If they understood just how many STIs and unwanted pregnancies this teaching is responsible for, they might change their minds (unless they’re the vindictive sort who want those they consider to be sinners to be punished physically for defying their rules; there are religious Christians out there with this mentality). The idea that premarital sex is sinful causes many parents to actively make sure their kids don’t learn about protection and birth control, but since pretty much an equal number of Christians have premarital sex as non-Christians (the religious can’t fight nature and biology any more than the rest of the world can), only without any knowledge of how to minimize the potential risks, young people in conservative areas or with religious parents tend to end up with more diseases and unwanted pregnancies than those who don’t, and if you’re going to judge a doctrine or religious teacher by its or their fruit, it’s easy to see that the traditional “Christian” view on sexuality is rotten to the core.
Even with all that being said, many religious Christians will try to defend their indefensible claims about premarital sex based on Jesus’ comment about “lust” and “committing adultery in one’s heart,” attempting to convince us that this makes premarital sex sinful by default since you wouldn’t have sex without sexual desire (they like to use this argument to condemn masturbation and pornography too). However, because so few understand right division, not to mention what Scripture says in its original languages, they don’t realize that He was actually speaking about something else altogether in that passage from what most people assume. In fact, when you discover what “lust” really refers to in Scripture you’ll realize that it is actually often encouraged, and that it’s also time to reconsider your thoughts on porn as well (and, really, anyone who cares about women at all should actually be encouraging the spread and consumption of pornography because [contrary to the claims of the morality police who, as it turns out, appear to be wrong about basically all of their assertions about sexuality] when porn usage increases, sexual assault decreases, unless they don’t care about reducing sexual assault, which would be quite sad).
To put it plainly, to “lust” in Scripture, in its original languages (chamad [חָמַד] in Hebrew, with epithymeō [ἐπιθυμέω] being the verb form of the word in Greek, and epithymia [ἐπιθυμία] being the noun), doesn’t simply mean to have sexual attraction to someone, but rather it just means to “covet” or “desire” something or someone, and sometimes lusting/desiring is a good thing (the Lord’s statutes and judgements are to be lusted for/desired more than gold, and even Jesus “lusted/desired” according to the Bible. In fact Paul himself encouraged epithymia at times as well). What Scripture does condemn when it comes to epithymeō is coveting something that already “belongs” (so to speak) to someone else, such as someone else’s property (or wife, since, again, women were considered to be property back then, unfortunately), which is what the 10th Commandment is all about. But to enjoy the way someone looks, or even to fantasize sexually about someone, isn’t what is being criticized when epithymeō actually is spoken against in Scripture; intent to take someone else’s “property” without permission also needs to be there for the coveting to be wrong (otherwise, accepting something you desire as a gift, or even finding your own spouse sexually appealing, would also technically be wrong). So for epithymia over a woman to be considered “committing adultery in one’s heart,” in addition to needing to have intent to actually possess her, she would have to also belong to someone else already, which is, thankfully, not possible in the western world today since women are no longer considered to be property. And, of course, that passage only applied to Israelites, and even then only to some of them (it was a part of the Sermon on the Mount, which was all about elaborating upon the Mosaic law, something that never applied to Gentiles, and doesn’t apply to Jews saved under Paul’s Gospel either, so even if Jesus did mean what most Christians assume He did here, it wouldn’t apply to most people anyway). But even if those saved under the Gospel of the Uncircumcision did somehow fall under this particular point in Jesus’ sermon (which they don’t), the word “adultery” in that passage really tells us everything we need to know about the context of the passage; a man (even a married man) couldn’t commit adultery with a woman who wasn’t married (or at least betrothed) back then, since adultery in Bible times wasn’t defined the same way we do so today (adultery was a property violation back then, not a purity violation, which is why Jesus didn’t condemn women for desiring men, since a woman couldn’t own a man through marriage — a wife was always the property of a husband and never the other way around at that time), and it’s extremely important to interpret a passage of Scripture using the definitions of the time rather than basing our interpretations on modern definitions of English words (using modern definitions rather than the definition of a word at the time it was written is how we end up with all sorts of confused and unscriptural doctrines). It’s also important to note that nowhere prior to this sermon had sexual attraction or fantasy, or sexual desire in general, ever been condemned anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (or anywhere else in the Greek Scriptures either, for that matter). When one realizes all this, it becomes apparent that Jesus wasn’t creating a new law for Israel to follow, but was simply expanding on one His audience was already familiar with (the 10th Commandment), pointing out that for a Jewish male to covet his neighbour’s wife with the intention of having her would basically be the equivalent of breaking the 7th Commandment as well, but He wasn’t even hinting that finding other people sexually appealing, or admiring their bodies (or even fantasizing about them) was at all wrong. In fact, those who do try to force sexual desire out of their (and others’) lives are actually demonstrating a symptom of a far more pernicious form of lust than any mentioned already, one which affects (and infects) Churchianity to a fatal degree. This, of course, would be the religious lust of self-righteousness, so if a religious leader tries to convince others that simple sexual attraction and desire (or even premarital sex) is sinful, it would be wise to question any of their teachings since they’re demonstating how little they likely know about Scripture, and there’s a good chance they haven’t even been saved yet (relatively speaking, of course), since they likely don’t understand what it means to rightly divide the word of truth. Of course, another reason that religious conservatives are so opposed to “lust” (and anything even related to premarital sex) is simply basic erotophobia. Thanks to the horribly harmful purity culture that conservative Christianity has inflicted upon the world, too many people grow up with the idea that sexuality (anything from simple sexual desire to any form of sexual activity itself) is inherently dirty and shameful. Most Christians will deny this and claim that sexual thoughts and acts are only “dirty” or sinful when they’re outside the context of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage, but they themselves don’t realize just how deeply the effects of purity culture have rooted into their subconscious, eventually blossoming into full-blown erotophobia, which in turn forces them to have to believe that mistranslated and misinterpreted Scripture is true because anything else could allow the sexuality they so fear to enter their lives.
There is a lot more that can be said about this complex topic (which has admittedly been simplified a great deal here), but the bottom line is that modern religious Christians are following in the footsteps of the fourth century Institutional Church (who gave us many false doctrines that Churchianity never recovered from; so many of the errors of the Christian religion find their roots in that time period) and are making the same mistake of reading their own biases into the original text just as those so-called “Early Church Fathers” did, although it’s even worse today since so much time has passed and most Christians are now unaware that, in the first century, sex among the people Paul taught almost never took place between people who were considered equals, and this included sex within marriage. As already mentioned, the idea of a boyfriend and girlfriend, as we understand them today, in love with each other and sleeping with each other probably wouldn’t have ever entered into Paul’s mind since that wasn’t how relationships between the sexes generally worked back then, but there’s literally no reason to think he’d have a problem with consensual sexual relations between a couple in love today as long as no worship of other gods was involved, and it wasn’t actually illegal where they lived.
Premarital sex and lust (and porn) aren’t the only things religious leaders have insisted that people shouldn’t participate in, however, when it comes to sexuality. There are so many other traditional religious ideas that aren’t in the Bible but that you’ve no doubt been told you must abstain from as well. For example:
• Homosexuality is forbidden. Like the topic of porneia, this is a tricky topic, but whatever Scripture does say about homosexuality, at most one could argue that it might forbid anal sex between males outside the context of rape and/or idolatrous prostitution (which is always wrong, and quite possibly what it’s actually forbidding according to many scholars). Regardless of whether it does, however, it doesn’t say anything about love, romantic relationships, or other forms of sexuality between males, and it definitely never says anything about love, romantic relationships, or sexuality between females (the passage in Paul’s epistle to the Romans about idolatry that some mistakenly use to argue against homosexuality does not actually condemn women lying with women as many believe, and may in fact be talking about women lying with animals [an action that actually was forbidden in the Hebrew Scriptures] when the context of worshipping the creature in that passage is taken into consideration, although it could also be argued that it instead refers to women participating in a certain sort of shrine prostitution. Either way, the idea of women lying with women had never previously been forbidden in Scripture, so there’s no reason to assume it was all of a sudden being forbidden at that point — and, of course, there’s also the fact that the actions mentioned here were actually “punishments,” so to speak, themselves; Paul’s point in this passage wasn’t that he was telling people to avoid certain sexual sins, but rather that the sin of idolatry would lead people to certain negative consequences). As far as males go, there are some who make persuasive arguments that it’s only idolatrous prostitution and rape between males that’s forbidden (much like the “porneia” issue between men and women), but I haven’t studied this issue enough myself to be dogmatic about it either way. What I will say, however, is that Scripture is very clear that it’s the anti-gay conservatives who are actually guilty of “the sin of Sodom” (which had nothing to do with homosexuality at all) today, and I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of these religious conservatives at the final judgement. Even if only indirectly, homophobic (and transphobic) conservatives are responsible for many homeless youth, as well as for numerous suicides, not to mention all the assaults against and even murders of people who are different from them when it comes to their sexuality and gender identity, and pretty much each and every conservative (whether they’re religious or not) is going to have to answer for their culpability in these horrors when they’re standing at the Great White Throne Judgement. Because even if they’re only indirectly responsible, they all still have a responsibility for all of this suffering nonetheless.
• Abortion is condemned by the Bible as murder. Regardless of one’s feelings on abortion (and whether it happens to actually be wrong or not, which I’m not taking a side on either way in this section), it isn’t ever mentioned in the Bible; and since murder is a legal term, it can’t legitimately be defined as murder in places where it’s not illegal (abortion might involve killing, but killing can only be classified as murder if the killing is unlawful under one’s human government, or capital punishment and the killing of enemy combatants in war would also have to be called murder). Most Christians today also aren’t aware that abortion (at least if performed during much of the first two trimesters) was not actually considered to be wrong by most Christians throughout much of history (at least among Christians who hold to Sola scriptura). It’s only extremely recently that certain conservative Christians (mostly of the Roman Catholic variety) gained enough political power to sway nearly everyone to suddenly assume it was always thought to be a sin (not that we should base our theology on what religious Christians have historically considered to fall under the purview of “orthodoxy” or “orthopraxy,” of course, but it is still something interesting that anti-abortion Christians should be aware of), primarily because they wanted to punish women for enjoying sex and to ensure that they suffer long-lasting consequences for their actions (they’ll argue that it’s actually because they think abortion is immoral and that they believe in “the sanctity of life,” but the way they treat those who have been born reveals the real truth about them to the rest of us: that they don’t actually believe in “the sanctity of life,” in good morals, or in ethical practices at all).
• Monogamy is the only acceptable form of romantic relationship. Honestly, nearly every Christian is likely aware of the fact that polygamy and other forms of non-monogamy were considered to be an acceptable practice for people by God in the Bible, with the possible exception of local church overseers and deacons (depending on how one translates/interprets those particular passages; there’s good reason to believe they’re actually just saying that an elder or deacon should have at least one wife, meaning they should not be single), but you’d never know it to hear them talk about it. God even told David that if he wanted more wives, rather than taking someone else’s wife all he had to do was ask God for more. So basically, those conservatives who claim they’re fighting to promote “traditional marriage” really aren’t (if they were, they’d be promoting polygamy at the very least), and if monogamy was actually natural, cheating wouldn’t be so common in so many relationships (yes, even in Christian relationships).
• Swearing is shameful. I’m including this in the list because so much “swearing” here in the west is either sexual in nature, or is connected to shame about the human body and its functions. The Bible actually has plenty of profanity in it in its original languages. In fact, the only thing that looking down on profanity does is demonstrate what an unspiritual (and likely hypocritical) snob one is.