FORNICATION

T. PIERCE BROWN

This article is not intended to be a critical examination or exegesis of the whole passage of Matthew 19:9, nor a general dissertation on divorce and re-marriage. We wish to examine only one question, “Does the word `fornication’ in the passage have reference to an act of sexual intercourse committed before marriage, or does it refer to an act committed after marriage?”

Let us make clear that whatever conclusion we reach is merely a conclusion, and not a clear and unequivocal Bible statement. But the method of arriving at the conclusion and the conclusion itself will be indicated in the following.

First, we need to examine the Bible meaning of “fornication.” Although the common present day usage of the term may usually refer to sexual intercourse between unmarried persons, Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, Second ed.(1949), p. 993 correctly says, “Fornication is sometimes used, espec. in the Bible, to include all sexual intercourse except between husband and wife.” Thayer says (p. 532) that it means, “illicit sexual intercourse in general.”  Ultimately the Bible meaning of a term must be decided from the Bible usage of the term.

When we examine such passages as Acts 15:20,29; 21:25; 1 Cor. 5:1; 6:13,18; Eph. 5:3; Col. 3:5; 1 Thess. 4:3 there is no reason to assume that the passages are limited to unmarried persons. In fact some of them cannot be so limited. Other references such as Jude 7 and almost all references which put it in a spiritual context indicate that the word does NOT have exclusive reference to unmarried persons.

Also, when we examine all cognate words which are etymologically related to porno, translated “fornication ” 26 times, we find pornos translated “fornicator” 5 times and “whoremonger” 5 times. As we read all these references, we see that they refer to ALL illicit sexual intercourse and not merely that between unmarried persons.

The question may then be raised, “What is the difference between fornication and adultery?”  The word “adultery” refers to unlawful intercourse with the spouse of another, whereas “fornication” refers to illicit intercourse with any other — including homosexuality and bestiality.

My conclusion, therefore, is that there is nothing in the passage of Matthew 19:9, either etymologically, grammatically, or contextually that suggests that which happened in the past, before the marriage. Of course, both parties have the right to expect the other to be pure, but if we press that point, they also have the right to expect the other to have a healthy body, a good mind, and to have obeyed all of God’s laws. But their past failure to do all of that does not give them the right to divorce. Neither does their past failure to have been sexually pure.

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