I keep having people tell me about this thing called fornication and how bad it is. So I asked myself, what does the word “fornication” really mean? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “fornicate” means”
“(Of two people not married to each other) have sexual intercourse.”
In the Bible the word “fornication” is typically used to translate the Greek word “porneia” into English. The best translation for “porneia” is “sexual immorality” because the word describes things that are forbidden by the Law.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t get us much closer to what the word means and what it actually means and what people think it means are two very different things. In fact, the word is a misnomer. In case you were wondering, the dictionary defines the word “misnomer” as:
a wrong or inaccurate name or designation.““king crab” is a misnomer—these creatures are not crustaceans at all”
synonyms: inaccurate name/label/designation, wrong name/label/designation, inappropriate name/label/designation“scientists say “killer whale” is a misnomer for what is one of the gentlest marine creatures known to man”
a wrong or inaccurate use of a name or term.“to call this “neighborhood policing” would be a misnomer”
What is wrong with the word fornication?
This is best understood by learning how this word came to be, which requires a bit of church history. The short version is the major thought leaders of the early church, Jerome, Augustine and Gregory, were all a bunch of perverts. They hated sex and especially the idea of sexual pleasure, which they considered the most foul and wicked of all activities. Even within marriage, sex could be considered a sin (although a venial one), so outside marriage sex must be a mortal sin.
They hated sex so much they threw out the Bible’s instruction and standards on marriage and replaced them with a combination of Pagan belief, Stoic philosophy and Roman law. While the Bible says that sex is the act that creates a marriage, the perverts in the early church decided that marriage was by consent only and sex had nothing to do with it. That was the beginning.
Later, the church took control of marriage for political purposes and they required that any marriage be made under the auspices of the church, in public, with an exchange of vows which required public commitment by both parties. This too was in absolute violation of the Bible’s instruction but they didn’t care, they were the church and they could do whatever they wanted to. If you didn’t like it they’d declare you a heretic and kill you.
This created a problem because there is no prohibition anywhere in the Bible that forbids what is now known as “premarital sex”. The reason is simple. When a virgin has sex for the first time, that is her marriage ceremony and with that act she’s married. Whether she knows it or not. If she has sex with any other man, that’s the crime of adultery. The reason there is no Biblical prohibition on “premarital sex” is because sex is how marriage begins. Sure, you can have a wedding celebration and exchange vows, but the marriage occurs when the couple has sex.
The church knew this and they have always known this, but they are sneaky and quite devious. They could not admit that sex makes one married so there was no way they could call sex with a virgin marriage or call sex with the town bicycle adultery. They had to have something else and they settled on the Biblical prohibition in the New Testament that forbid Christian men from having sex with prostitutes.
That is where the word fornication comes from and the leaders of the church claim that any sex outside of marriage is fornication and it’s a sin.
Romans 4:15 and 5:13 are specific in telling us that where there is no law there is no transgression and no sin is imputed. In other words, there has to be a rule that can be broken before you get a violation, and lacking a violation of some prohibition, there is no sin imputed. With that in mind, let’s see if the church got it right.
Examining The Evidence
Is it a sin if two people who are not married to each other get together and have sex? In some cases, yes. The crime of adultery is a man having sex with another man’s wife. The crime of incest is two close relatives having sex together. The crime of sodomy is two men having sex. Each of those, however, is a specific sin, the sins of adultery, incest and sodomy and in each case the situation is one in which the two people having sex cannot marry each other. That’s important.
Is it possible two people who are not married to each other could get together and have sex without being in sin? Again, in some cases, yes. The reason is there is no prohibition anywhere in the Law that says a man cannot have sex with any woman who is eligible to marry him. If a man (whether married or not) has sex with a virgin, he has consummated his marriage to her and that is not a sin. If a man has sex with a widow, a legitimately divorced woman (a woman who was divorced because of her immorality) or any other woman who is unmarried but not a virgin, it is not a sin because there is no prohibition on such activity.
The simple rule is if the man and woman could legitimately be married to each other, having sex is not a sin and it doesn’t matter if the man is already married or not because a man can have more than one wife. Christians hate, hate, hate this.
The reason it’s not a sin is because the way God designed things, the man (any man) has the authority to initiate marriage to any woman he is eligible to marry at any time. However, this word “fornication” was part of a restructuring of the language and it reflects what the church taught about sex and marriage, not what the Bible teaches. The reason is the church usurped the man’s authority to initiate marriage and claimed there had to be a ceremony in order for there to be a marriage. That meant that sex prior to the Easter Bunny definition of marriage had to be classified as a sin called “premarital sex.”
The Law did not contain any prohibition, anywhere, on a man having sex with a woman eligible to marry, regardless of whether he was single or married, but I recently had a fellow arguing with me on this subject. He claims “premarital sex” is a sin and he used Deuteronomy 22:21 as the centerpiece of his argument. The problem there is the woman who was sentenced to death in that passage was a betrothed woman who was found to NOT be a virgin on her wedding night.
The thing is, the very next passage (verses 22-23) describes a man who has sex with a betrothed virgin getting put to death because “he violated his neighbors wife.” That’s one way to say adultery, but the fact is that a betrothed virgin was legally married.
To complicate matters, the English translation of verse 21 says the woman is to be put to death because she committed a great folly and “played the harlot” in her father’s house. I’ll skip over the confusion the word “harlot” creates for now (it convinces people that “premarital sex” is some kind of sin) but I’ll cover it later. The word translated as “played the harlot” in Deuteronomy 22:21 is the specific term “liz-nō-wṯ” and there are only 5 occurrences of this word, which is a form of our old friend “zanah.” The question is what “liz-nō-wṯ” actually means, so we first look at the other usages of the term and the five times “liz-nō-wṯ” is used are:
1) Leviticus 20:5 (Defined in the text as Molech worship)
2) Leviticus 20:6 (Defined in the text as using mediums and spiritists)
3) Leviticus 21:9 (Contextually implied as being sexual idolatry)
4) Numbers 25:1 (Defined in the text as Baal worship)
5) Deuteronomy 22:21 (A woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night)
So the question is, why, when the facts support a conclusion of adultery, did Moses use the term “liz-nō-wṯ” which is defined in the other uses as idolatry? Is it possible that in her acts of adultery the woman is signifying her rejection of God, His Law and precepts of purity? This follows the idea that idolatry is spiritual adultery in the same way that adultery is physical idolatry. Idolatry is giving something that belongs only to God to someone or something else and adultery is a wife giving to some other man something that belongs only to her husband. In both cases there is an obligation that is being violated.
There are actually two ways in which the woman in verse 21 could be guilty of adultery, one of which is if she gave her virginity to another man after she was betrothed (she committed adultery against her betrothed) and the other if she gave her virginity to a man prior to becoming betrothed. If the latter case, not only did she commit adultery when she had sex with the man she purported to marry, she caused him to commit adultery because she was already a married woman.
Keep in mind that proving adultery is extremely difficult because it requires two witnesses and not only that but a finding of adultery would require a determination be made as to who her husband really was. If a woman is to be put to death for adultery it is in the interest of justice to put the man guilty of adultery to death as well, which might lead to a situation in which the man who innocently married her would be found guilty of adultery and be subject to the death penalty.
But, wait! Is there truly a need to push the adultery issue when this is such a can of worms? She is also technically guilty of idolatry in giving to someone else that which rightfully belonged only to the man she had agreed to marry (idolatry) and that is also a death penalty offense.
Perhaps that’s the reason why Moses used the term “liz-nō-wṯ” to describe her crime, a term that is specifically defined as idolatry. The problem with calling this adultery is there must be a victim and the question is, who is the victim and who is the other guilty party? Will the woman tell the truth and even if she did, could she be believed? Only God knows the truth of the matter, so the term “liz-nō-wṯ” does an admirable job of describing the situation in which regardless of who she committed adultery against or with, what she did was give herself to someone other than he to whom she belonged and thus in the context of idolatry she was in violation of a death penalty offense without the messy problem of proving who she was actually married to… one in which the completely innocent victim of her adultery might have to pay for her crime with his life.
It seems to me the clear instruction for judges in this matter is with the facts as presented, this is a situation in which it does no good to try to dig down to the bottom of things. Legally married, she’s found not to be a virgin, so should the case be judged as adultery (in which there is the possibility of an innocent man being put to death) when a suitable alternative exists? Where would the two witnesses come from and how could adultery be proven otherwise? As presented, there is only one witness against her (the cloth) that testifies to her guilt so she cannot be convicted on the charge of adultery unless there is another witness. On the other hand, as to the charge of idolatry we have two witnesses, the cloth and the offended husband who did not receive what was owed to him and knows it because he was there. Obviously, since both crimes are death-penalty offenses, it is better to protect the innocent than go on a witch-hunt for the guilty and that’s what Moses appears to have decided, which is probably why he characterized her crime as “liz-nō-wṯ” which is translated into English as “playing the harlot” but defined in the text as idolatry.
What modern Christians like to see in this text is “harlotry” and “fornication” but the text absolutely does not support this at all. What the text supports is a physical act of adultery with circumstances that allowed her to be convicted of idolatry without allowing a witch-hunt that may very well have seen an innocent man put to death. That is a very real possibility because if an unmarried woman is screwing around in her youth while living in her father’s house, what is the worst thing that can happen to her? Marriage. On the other hand, once she’s betrothed, what happens if she’s caught screwing around? The penalty is execution as an adulteress (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Simple logic says that once she’s betrothed the woman will probably be very careful not to step out of line. She’s had her fun, got away with it and now she’s set to latch onto her beta provider.
In this case of the woman found not to be a virgin on her wedding night, she probably lost her virginity prior to her betrothal and that means her betrothal was a sham (she was already married) and the man she purported to marry committed adultery in the process of discovering she was already married (not a virgin) which makes him guilty of adultery through no fault of his own.
Folks, what we DO NOT see here is an example of premarital sex. We see a case of adultery that would be a nightmare to prosecute and the witch-hunt necessary to discover the truth in this matter (her real husband has nothing to lose- he actually did nothing wrong in this episode) would likely get an innocent man killed so instead of adultery she was convicted on the available evidence on a charge of idolatry and sentenced to death.
While Deuteronomy 22:21 is not describing premarital sex, the position of the church with respect to premarital sex is real. It took a lot of study, but it’s found among ancient holy writings in the famous story about the ceremony of the Easter Bunny with his basked of colored eggs. This is the instruction where the early church got the requirement for a marriage ceremony and the story explains why people aren’t supposed to play with the eggs (especially the blue ones!) before the ceremony. Seriously. That sticky white stuff from the eggs just goes everywhere. I was having a rough time finding the source for this doctrine on premarital sex but the guy with a funny hat told me all about it and everybody tells me it’s not possible for him to make mistakes when it comes to this stuff(1) so I guess it must be true. After all, it seems like everybody in the church believes it.
- The Roman Catholic Church claims the Pope is infallible in all matters of faith and doctrine for the church. I didn’t say it came from the Bible.