FORNICATION (Heb. zānâh, Gr. porneia). Used in the KJV for unlawful sexual intercourse of an unwed person. It is to be distinguished from adultery, which has to do with unfaithfulness on the part of a married person, and from rape, which is a crime of violence and without the consent of the person sinned against. When these sins are mentioned in the Bible, they are often figurative of disloyalty. Idolatry is practically adultery from God. This ugly sin ought not even to be a subject of conversation among Christians (Eph.5.3-Eph.5.4 kjv; niv “sexual immorality”) and is commonly associated with the obscene worship of the heathen. For the spiritualizing of this sin, see Jer.2.20-Jer.2.36, Ezek.16.1-Ezek.16.63, Hos.1.1-Hos.1.11-Hos.3.1-Hos.3.5 (where it applied to Israel), and Rev.17.1-Rev.17.18 (where it applied to Rome).

FORNICATION (πορνεία, G4518, meaning unchastity or immorality). Some form of πορνεία, G4518, appears forty-seven times in the NT.

Four different NT meanings are obvious. 1. In 1 Corinthians 7:2 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3, Paul is warning unmarried people about the temptation to fornication. In both cases he advocates marriage to prevent a single life of sexual immorality. In both cases fornication refers to voluntary sexual intercourse of an unmarried person with anyone of the opposite sex. The meaning is specific and restricted. In four other passages fornication is used in a list of sins which includes “adultery” (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; 1 Cor 6:9; Gal 5:19). Since adultery involves a married person, the meaning of fornication in these passages is specific and restricted, involving voluntary unchastity of unmarried people.

2. In two passages (Matt 5:32; 19:9) fornication is used in a broader sense as a synonym of adultery.

4. In other passages fornication refers to harlotry and prostitution (e.g. Rev 2:14, 20, 21). Since fornication has many shades of meaning, the meaning must be determined by the context of each passage.

Out of seven lists of evils in the writings of Paul, the word fornication is included in five of them (1 Cor 5:11; 6:9; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5) and is first on the list each time.

Jesus related fornication to adultery when he said “Everyone (πα̂ς ὁ) who looks at a woman lustfully [with a thought of sexual intercourse] has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). R. C. H. Lenski interprets the “everyone” to include both men and women and both married and unmarried. Thus Jesus was saying that sexual intercourse of unmarried people (fornication) is as evil as extra-marital sexual intercourse (adultery).

Note that possible unmarried people are included in the meaning of fornication in all of those passages where it refers to adultery, immorality, harlotry, et al. Those who state that the NT makes no reference to premarital sex relations and gives no advice on the personal and social problems involved are overlooking the NT use and meaning of the word fornication, esp. in such passages as 1 Corinthians 7:2 and 1 Thessalonians 4:3. See Adultery.


D. S. Bailey, The Mystery of Love and Marriage (1952), 50-53; D. R. Mace, Hebrew Marriage (1953), 221-267; L. Kirkendall, “Premarital Sex Relations: The Problem and Its Implications,” PP (Pastoral Psychology) (April, 1956), 43-46; W. G. Cole, Sex and Love in the Bible (1959), 230-267; O. E. Feucht (Editor), Sex and the Church (1961), 48f., 70f., 216f.; J. T. Landis and M. G. Landis, Building a Successful Marriage (1968), 165-184; H. J. Miles, Sexual Understanding Before Marriage (1971), 204-206.

See also

  • Crimes