Single Christians and Erotic Boundaries

Single Christians and Erotic Boundaries October 11, 2020

The previous generation’s sexual revolution left its demise not only in secular western society but also in the portals of the church. Recent statistics suggest that while extramarital affairs and teen sex are slowly becoming less approved by Americans than they were in the 1970’s, premarital sex is becoming more approved. This is not merely a teen problem, but premarital sex tempts an ever-increasing amount of adult Christians who find themselves single because of school, career, divorce, widowhood, lack of social skills, bad looks, or just not being fortunate enough to find the right person.

While it is true that remaining a virgin until marriage does seem to lessen the odds of a later divorce, most adult singles, some Christians included, do not want to wait until the wedding before having sex. More studies need to verify these claims, especially since statistic research does not always give accurate samplings. It may not be an exaggeration, however, to affirm that even though single church-goers engage in premarital sex less than secular singles, a growing number are not virgins.

Contemporary society’s tendency to have its singles delay marriage until well into adulthood only agitates sex problems in the church. Today’s single Christians experience the difficult paradox of a sex-crazed culture telling them not to get married until their late 20’s, 30’s, 40’s or better, while at the same time their churches expect them to remain celibate all those years.

Western culture drives almost everyone to be self-conscious about looking younger, dressing sexier, getting a smaller waist yet larger breasts, or growing bigger muscles and a larger male sex organ. As Stephen Barton perceptively points out about the way western society invests an economic interest in sexual desire, “It is as if the only language we understand is the language of unfulfilled desire, where sexuality is the master symbol and the products of consumer capitalism the means of fulfillment.”[1]

Is the Christian’s struggle with sex really that bad? Seeing is believing – just visit any number of dating services on the Internet that possess a category related to sexual practice and find the perplexing phenomenon of profilers who claim to be “Christian” in the category of religion and yet “Anything Goes” or “Adventurous” in the category of sex. Join almost any progressive Christian small group and hear the stories about sexual temptations for yourself. The paradox is that many believers – Protestant, Catholic, and even conservative Evangelicals – have all heard that sexual intercourse outside of marriage is wrong, but when the opportunity arises for them to engage in it with an attractive partner, many do so. They have an idea that the Bible frowns on sex outside marriage, but this has not stopped many of them from having sex.

What do the biblical scriptures actually say about sex? When the texts refer to sexual misconduct are they referring to adultery, premarital sexual intercourse, certain sexual acts, or something else? More particularly, which sexual activities, if any, would the Bible consider off-limits for Christians in the contemporary western world? This first study will cover the subject of porneia or “fornication” in Scripture, a word that is sometimes watered down in Bible versions with the ambiguous term, “sexual immorality.”

What Kind of Sex is it? Looking at Porneia in the Biblical Scriptures

The Bible often uses the word fornication or sexual immorality to describe sexual misconduct. The Greek text uses porneia, which is often related to the Hebrew znh/zĕnut.

Bruce Malina defines porneia as “unlawful sexual conduct” when prohibited by the oral or written Torah (Law of Moses). He concludes that since there is no law against premarital sex, porneia does not refer to this activity.[2]  Joseph Jensen, on the other hand, contests this view and points out that virginity was so highly valued among the Israelites that non-virginity on a wedding night provided grounds for a woman’s defamation (Deut. 22:13-21; cf. Jud. 9:2; Sir. 42:9-11; Lev. 19:29LXX; 21:7-14LXX).[3]

Kathy Gaca emphasizes that porneia in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) is related to religious rebellion and non-endogamous marriages: it refers to “acts of sexual intercourse and reproduction that deviate from the norm of worshipping God alone”; monotheism is required to comprehend the sexual rule.[4]

In actuality early Jewish literature used variations of porneia to describe harlotry and adultery (Genesis 38:24LXX; Numbers 25:1LXX; Sirach 23:16ff; 41:17; Testament of Joseph 3:8; Josephus Antiquities 5.7ff), homoerotic activities (Jubilees 16:5; 20:5; Testament of Benjamin 9:1; Sibylline Oracles 3.764), incest (Testament of Reuben 1:6; Testament Judah 13:6; [Dead Sea Scrolls] Damascus Document 4:17-20), and marriage to pagans (Jubilees 25:1; cf. 30:7ff).

Sexual deviance in the Bible finds it origin in the Mosaic sexual holiness codes of Leviticus 18-21 and Deuteronomy 22, where a number of sexual practices such as incest, bestiality, and homoeroticism are considered illegitimate. Sex offenders were to be punished either by God or Israel (Gen. 19; Lev. 20:10; Num. 25; Deut. 22:20-24; Judges 19-20; Job 24:15-24; Prov. 7; Wisd. 3:16-19; cf. John 8:1-11).

Gaca maintains that in the New Testament Paul stresses religious endogamy when he tells Christians they are free to marry but only to someone “in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39; cf. 2 Cor. 6:14), and that the apostle Paul views porneia “for the most part” as “outside of the institution of marriage in the Lord.”[5] In this view, a Christian commits porneia primarily by marrying someone who is a non-Christian or who leads them away from worshipping the one true God. The New Testament, however, uses porneia and its derivatives for a range of sexually illegitimate activities including incest (1 Cor. 5:1-5), cultic prostitution (1 Cor. 6:13, 18 cf. 10:8; Rev. 2:14, 20-21), and extra-marital sex (1 Cor. 7:1-2; Matt. 5:32; 19:9; cf. 1 Tim. 3:2; Heb. 13:4).

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ opponents considered him a bastard, born from porneia, insinuating that his mother had a sexual relationship out of wedlock (John 8:41). In Hebrews, Esau is labeled as sexual immoral (pornos) because he essentially prostituted himself by selling his birthright (Heb. 12:16).

More typically porneia appears as one vice among many others in various lists related to the practices of the pagan Greco-Romans. The Christians are warned not to engage in these sins; to do so jeopardizes their inheritance in the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 5:9-11; 6:9-11; 10:5-12; 2 Cor. 12:21; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:5; Eph. 5:3-5; 1 Tim. 1:9-10; Mark 7:21; Matt. 15:19; Rev. 9:21; 21:8; 22:15; Didache 3:3; Barnabbas 19:4).

Those who commit porneia and other illegitimate sex acts incur God’s judgment that may happen as a consequence of their own sins, the wrath of Satan, divine calamity, or eternal punishment at the end of time (1 Cor. 5:1-5; Rom. 1:24-32; 10:8; Heb. 13:4; Rev. 2:20-23; 21:8).

Thus the early Christian writers of the New Testament, similar to their Jewish contemporaries, identify porneia as including various kinds of sexual misbehaviors. Since the earliest Christians originally came from early Judaism, they probably considered the same or similar sex acts as illegitimate. Both presupposed to some extent the Old Testament sexual holiness codes: Leviticus 18 seems to be the assumed backdrop behind the early apostolic decree for Gentile believers to abstain from porneia in Acts  15:28-29.

The apostle Paul elaborates on porneia in 1 Corinthians 6-7 and 1 Thessalonians 4. In 1 Corinthians 6:9-20 he warns against sexual immorality, which in this context refers to sexual intercourse with non-believers, more specifically, prostitutes. The Corinthian believers apparently thought much like their fellow Greek pagans: having sexual intercourse with a prostitute was as natural as eating or drinking (cf. 1 Cor. 6:13a). In the now famous words of the Athenian orator Demosthenes, “The hetaerae [prostitutes] we have for our pleasure, the concubines for the daily care of our bodies, and our wives so that we can have legitimate children” (Against Neaera 59.122).[6]

Paul warns the Corinthians to flee from porneia and that the believer who has sex with a prostitute/non-believer sins against his own body (1 Cor. 6:13b, 18; cf. Rom. 1:24). His view of “body” in this context may have a double entendre: it means both the individual body of the believer and the social body of Christ in which all believers are members through God’s spirit. The believer’s body is also considered the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 6:15; 3:16-17; 10:16-17; 12:12-14, 27; cf. Eph. 1:22-23; 5:28-32).

Porneia therefore defiles not only the believer’s holy temple – which is owned and purchased by Christ’s atoning death and will be raised from the dead in the future – but it also dishonors the entire fellowship of believers who are members of the corporate body of Christ (1 Cor. 6:14-16, 19-20).

Paul considers non-believers and prostitutes as members of the fallen world (cosmos), a location and age controlled by Satan and passing away (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 13; 7:31; 2 Cor. 4:4). Hence, when a believer from the body of Christ becomes “one body” by having sex with a prostitute, this represents on a macro-scale the unthinkable sexual union between Christ and the corrupt world belonging to Satan (1 Cor. 6:15-16). With this understanding Paul warns the Corinthians to “flee porneia” (1 Cor. 6:18a).

In 1 Corinthians 7, among other things, Paul tells married couples to satisfy each other sexually in order to avoid porneia, which here would mean all extramarital sex with or without prostitutes (1 Cor. 7:1-5). He then turns his attention to the single/unmarried/virgin believers and suggests they remain celibate like himself, but he recognizes that not everyone has this “gift” and thus permits them to get married if they are burning with sexual passion (1 Cor. 7:7-9, 34, 36-37). No doubt, this implies that premarital sex would be morally wrong. It is clearly evident here that for Paul, the only legitimate sex is marital sex, and the only options for the believers were marriage or celibacy (1 Cor. 7:7-9, 25-34 cf. 2 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:25-27). There was no third alternative to participate in extra-marital sex, though under certain conditions (notably the death of a spouse) remarriage was permitted.

In Part II, we will be covering more specifically what Paul says about porneia in 1 Thessalonians 4. Stay tuned…


[1] Stephen C. Barton, “‘Glorify God in Your Body’ (1 Corinthians 6.20): Thinking Theologically about Sexuality” in Religion and Sexuality (ed. Michael A. Hayes, Wendy Porter and David Tombs; Studies in Theology and Sexuality 2; Roehampton Institute London Papers 4; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), 370.

[2] Bruce J. Malina, “Does Porneia mean Fornication?” Novum Testamentum 14.1 (1972), 17.

[3] Joseph Jensen, “Does Porneia Mean Fornication? A Critique of Bruce Malina,” Novum Testamentum 20.3 (1978), 165-66.

[4] Kathy L. Gaca, The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) 19-20, 124.

[5] Gaca, 151.

[6] Translation from H. Reisser in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (ed. Colin Brown; Grand Rapids: Regency Reference Library/Zondervan, 1986), 1:498.

This study is derived from a pre-published draft of my essay entitled, “What is Sex? Christians and Erotic Boundaries,” in Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates, ed. C. K. Robertson (New York: Peter Lang, 2006).

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