"Nothing more impressive than an intellectual and spiritual approach to seeking truth and a willingness to embrace it unconditionally."

Friday, September 24, 2010

Fornication: What Does It Mean? Part 1

In my experience a great deal of the divorce and remarriage debate centers on the definition of “fornication” in Matthew 19:9. The “no divorce” advocates argue that the use of fornication proves that Matthew 19:9 is addressing espoused (engaged) couples and not married couples. This is based on the idea that fornication can only be committed by a person who has never been married. I think that it is clear from the context of Matthew 19 that is not the case, but let that be as it may, I want to focus on the definition of fornication from both the English and the Greek.


voluntary sexual intercourse between two unmarried persons or two persons not married to each other.[1]

It is clear from this definition that fornication is not limited to people who are not married at all, but also to people who are not married to each other, although they may be married to someone. Anytime two people who are not married to each other have sexual intercourse it is fornication. Married people can commit fornication by having sex with someone with whom they are not married.

When a married person has sex outside of their marriage it is both fornication and adultery. It is fornication because they had sex with someone they were not married to, and it is adultery because the sex violated a covenant.

voluntary sexual intercourse outside marriage[2]

Here fornication is defined as, “voluntary sexual intercourse outside marriage.” The question that must be asked is, can a married person have sexual intercourse outside of their marriage? The answer must be yes. If a married person has sex outside of their marriage they have committed fornication.

sexual immorality in general, esp adultery[3]

This dictionary includes adultery in its definition of fornication. All adultery is fornication, but not all fornication is adultery.


The following are quotes from Greek scholars defining fornication. Greek scholarship virtually unanimously includes adultery in the definition of “pornea,” the Greek word for fornication.

sexual intercourse in general…used of adultery.[4]

harlotry (including adultery and incest); figuratively idolatry: - fornication.[5]

in Matt. 5:32 and 19:9 it stands for, or includes, adultery[6]

it is plain that Matthew represents Jesus in both places as allowing divorce for fornication as a general term (porneia) which is technically adultery.[7]


And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.Matthew 19:9 ESV

I tell you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.Matthew 19:9 ISV

And I say to you, That whoever leaveth his wife not being an adulteress, and taketh another, committeth adultery. And whoever taketh her that is divorced, committeth adultery.Matthew 19:9 Murdock

And I say to you, Whoever shall put away his wife, except for lewdness, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoever marrieth her who is put away, committeth adultery.Matthew 19:9 Webster

And I tell you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except her unfaithfulness, and marries another woman, commits adultery.Matthew 19:9 WNT

And I say to you, that, whoever may put away his wife, if not for whoredom, and may marry another, doth commit adultery; and he who did marry her that hath been put away, doth commit adultery.Matthew 19:9 YLT


It is undeniable from the Greek that fornication includes adultery. It is also certain that the English word fornication is not limited to sex between two people who have never been married, but includes married people who has sex with someone other than his/her spouse.

Matthew 19:9 correctly uses the term fornication as an exception to the divorce and remarriage law, because sex outside of the marriage bond (i.e. fornication) is a valid reason for the innocent person to divorce and remarry.

[1] "fornication." Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 24 Sep. 2010. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fornication).

[2] "fornication." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Harper Collins Publishers. 24 Sep. 2010. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fornication).

[3] "fornication." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Harper Collins Publishers. 24 Sep. 2010. (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/fornication).

[4] Joseph Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977), p. 532

[5] James H. Strong, Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1992), p. 364

[6] W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishing), p. 465

[7] Robertson’s Word Pictures, Quoted from E-Sword version 9.5.1, Retrieved 09.24.10, http://www.e-sword.net/


  1. Pastor, thank you for your analysis, but I think you're writing from a point of view of wishful thinking and not one of scholarly academic scrutiny or intellectual honesty.

    The first 3 sources you list, define fornication in the context of the bible as being "idolatry". Thayer's, Strong's, Vine's and E-sword definitions are non-authoritative. Meaning they definitions within the kind of dictionaries you which would only be purchased by little old ladies at a Christian bookstore and not relevant to serious scholars. Also I'll point out that for a very long time the Strong's concordance has endorsed premarital cohabitation as part of the marriage bed in Heb 13:4, which seems a bit contrary to their published definition of fornication.

    The precise meaning of fornication in English is highly debatable. However, the Latin word fornix and the greek word porneia are authoritatively defined as pertaining to prostitution, not adultery, homosexuality, or whatever else people conveniently try to slap on to it today.

    Overall the meanings of bible words pertaining to sexual sins have been understood differently by Christian leaders at various points in history. St Augustine clearly condemned his personal moral failures under what we understand as 'chambering' in Romans 13:13, which is substantially different than they way the same issues are taught today.

    I hope that helps with your further research and I look forward to your correction of this delicate matter.

  2. I am overwhelmed by the staggering amount of scholarship that you have quoted in your rebuttal of my position. Thank for for introducing me to these new Greek scholars so I can study them.

    Seriously? Thayer is not a serious Greek scholar?