In the midst of our ongoing conversations about sexuality within evangelicalism, I think it's important to understand something that most evangelicals do not understand due to a heavily laid tradition concerning the concept of sexual immorality in the Bible.
Growing up in youth group and now the church, there is a constant misunderstanding of this term heard in Bible studies, sermons, books, etc., precisely, because I think that people have adopted a more recent use of the word in English contexts than they have actually studied the use of the word in the New Testament Second Temple context.
And that's the important point here. The New Testament is not using our modern context of the word as its referent, but it is using the language of its day. People need to understand that when an ancient author uses a word, it may refer to something identical to how we use it today, similar but not exactly how we use it today, or have nothing to do with how we use it today. So the language it uses gains its references from how the terms are used in that context, not how they are used in ours. And only by studying that context can we get a better understanding of the term.
The idea in our modern context, of course, is that the term refers to sex outside
of marriage. Hence, one cannot commit sexual immorality within marriage. I think the modern definition is held out of convenience by evangelicals more than it has anything to do with exegesis; but it may be also due to the fact that the term often referred to prostitution that has brought the modern evangelical scholar to believe that it means "sex outside of marriage."
So what has complicated the matter is the fact that the term in secular culture at the time of the New Testament referred to prostitution ( whether heterosexual or homosexual). Hence, most evangelicals will appeal to these secular uses to justify the modern understanding of the word as "sex outside of marriage." However, it will become clear that the NT primarily refers to the type of sexual immorality found in Second Temple Judaism, which is an expanded meaning of the word. This doesn't mean that it does not retain the term's original use, but when it uses the particular term porneia, it most often refers to what Second Temple Judaism described as unproductive sexual acts, whether within or outside of marriage. In other words, whether one was married to the person with whom the sex act was being practiced had nothing to do with whether a sexual act was considered sexually immoral. The reason for this is found below.
The first thing we need to understand about Second Temple Judaism (STJ), from which the NT gains its idea of the concept, is how it viewed sexuality in its use of the term. STJ got its definition, of course, from two main texts within the Bible.
The first text is Genesis 1:28. It believed that the sexual act was primarily (not solely) given by God to procreate human life within the context of a male-female relationship. Hence, the good use of sex was between a male and female who came together in order to bear the fruit of children (i.e., this is their role as the image of God: to be life-bearers). A purposeful engagement in a sexual act that was not in accordance with God's purpose with the reason His image bearers were to come together in sex was viewed as an immoral use of the sexual act (i.e., sexual immorality). Hence, what was sexually moral was that found in Genesis 1:28. What was sexually immoral was an act that was not of the nature of Genesis 1:28, but rather it's opposite (i.e., death/non-existence of human life rather than the producing of human life was the result of the sexually immoral act). Hence, the author gives examples of right (Adam and Eve having a son together with YHWH, the line of Seth described as "having other sons and daughters" as opposed to just one needed heir, God's reiteration of the creation mandate with Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, etc.) and wrong (Ham's incest, the homosexuality of the men of Sodom, Onan's sin, etc.) uses of the sexual act throughout the book.
The second text that was used to display this, and is mainly the point of departure for the term porneia in many STJ texts, is Leviticus 18. The chapter is a closed pericope, a self-contained unit, that has a central theme throughout. And that theme has to do with the sexual act in terms of how it may negatively affect the lives of children. Engaging in a sexual act in disregard of the children who may have been produced by that act is viewed as an abomination to God for which the Israelites will be cut off from His people (i.e., as they have cut off their children in their sexual practices, they will not be considered His children either).
Hence, the first half of Leviticus 18 deals with incest, which is the engagement in sexual conduct that is threatening toward the life and well-being of the children who may have been produced through those acts. Incest can either create all sorts of deformations and miscarriages or it can create a hostile environment for the child (as was the case with Joseph and his brothers when two sisters were married). This emphasis becomes more explicit once the rest of the chapter is considered.
The second half of Leviticus describes what was considered sexual immorality in terms of children as well. Notice that the sin of adultery is mentioned here, but the prohibition is not about ownership issues, as it is in most texts dealing with adultery, but rather a command to refrain from giving semen that would produce offspring in one's neighbor's wife. Most English translations obscure this, but in Hebrew, it literally reads, "You are not to give your semen to plant seed/offspring into your neighbor's wife, becoming sexually corrupt/immoral with her" (v. 20). Whether the adulterous couple would often kill the child inside or outside the womb, or simply be put to death themselves if found out (and the child dies with the pregnant mother), such an act threatens the life of the child (and it certainly would threaten the covenant status of the child within a family if he survived).
Again, in vv. 22-23, we see two more acts that are incapable of producing the fruit of human life (i.e., they are incapable of fulfilling the role of the imago Dei to be fruitful and multiply and fill up the earth). They cannot obey the creation mandate in their sexual acts. Hence, they are viewed as abominations. These include homosexuality and bestiality.
But there are two instances here (aside from the incest laws where people are often married as well) that tell us that this is something that has more to do with children than whether one is married. The reason for prohibiting homosexuality or bestiality should be obvious enough (i.e., they cannot fulfill the creation mandate, and yet, people purposely engage in them anyway); but the instances of not having sex with a woman in her menstrual period and sacrificing a child to a false god are prohibited for the same reason, yet one is often married in these instances. Hartley notes the close connection, and purposeful intention of the text to place this latter prohibition against sacrificing children in a group of sexual offenses, so it is not out of place (Leviticus 288). He thinks he had to do with all of the sexual offenses being connected to pagan rituals, but that is clearly not the context (what pagan ritual had you marry your mother or sister?). Instead, it is clear that the close tie the author seeks to make intersects at the aspect of procreation. Many pagans had children to sacrifice for a more prosperous life. Hence, they did not have them to raise in covenant with God, but to merely kill them in sacrifice when needed (think of Mesha who sacrifices his son on the city wall in order to stay the hand of Israel in war). Many did it for better crops, victory in war (think of Jephthah), etc. The point is that the act of coming together in marriage (note, this is most often a legitimate son or daughter) in order to have children to sacrifice rather than to raise in covenant with God is equally a sexually immoral act. In fact, the text says that such an act associates His Name with halal "a sexually corrupt act." Again, this sin has nothing to do with whether one is married. Hence, sexual immorality can be committed by married couples, and does not mean "sex outside of marriage" only.
The other example, as mentioned before, is that of having sex with a woman in her menstrual cycle. Although one can have a child during this period, it was understood to be more difficult and less probable, and so threatened the potency of the act (not to be graphic, but the blood may have been viewed as getting in the way of the semen mixing with whatever fluids they believed it had to mix with inside the woman). For this reason, God prohibits it as one of many examples that the Israelites were to remain holy in their sexual conduct, and seek to fulfill the good use of sex in procreation rather than the immoral use that engaged in sexual acts that were less likely to fulfill that creation mandate. Again, this is something that can be practiced in marriage by a married couple, and so when the term porneia refers to sexually immorality of the Leviticus 18 type, it does not merely refer to sex outside of marriage. Hence, that is not its definition.
Instead, the term that once seemed to be used exclusively of prostitution was expanded, precisely, because prostitutes were often used by men in Greek culture as alternatives to having children with their spouses. Prostitutes in Hellenistic culture often used various methods of preventing or aborting a pregnancy, or disposing of a child born from one her clients (infanticide via exposure was very common, since the prostitute would merely give birth to a child and then abandon it to die). Hence, prostitution in Greek culture came to be understood by the Second Temple Jewish Person as an unproductive sexual act, as that which is found in Leviticus 18.
Hence, when the term porneia was now used in STJ, it referred to more than just prostitution, but to any sexual activity where the act was not in accord with God's creative purposes to make a child and fulfill the creation mandate in Genesis 1:28. The examples in Leviticus being only one part of many sins, both in and outside of marriage, that could qualify.
What I often ask my evangelical friends is whether pedophilia is wrong because it is outside of marriage, and then the individuals only need to get married, or because sex with a child cannot fulfill the creation mandate, and is therefore sexually immoral, an abomination worthy of death in the eyes of God? Even sexual acts with a young adolescent woman may be threatening toward the child (and the woman), and therefore, be considered a sexually immoral act between two people who were married.
Again, if marriage between opposite sexes is all that is needed, why can't men marry little girls? Apart from being reprehensible to our culture, we need something more in place to understand why it is absolutely, morally wrong rather than culturally taboo. The Greeks did not have a problem with pedophilia and thought it was an ideal way to receive sexual satisfaction without the repercussions of children. It was also viewed as a rite of passage for the child. There are some in the world today who organize with one another in an effort to try and make sexual love between adults and children legal. As long as it's between a male and female and within a monogamous marriage, what would be wrong with it, biblically speaking?
The same goes for homosexuality. Just saying that God made marriage to be between a man and a woman doesn't explain why He did it. I agree that we ought to obey whether we understand or not, but doesn't the above tell us why it's wrong? Doesn't the above also tell us why a host of other sexual sins within marriage are wrong?
You see, the reason why people like Mark Driscoll don't get it is because they have been trained within this evangelical culture that views sex within marriage as some free-for-all, but anyone practicing sex outside that covenant as committing sin. Hence, the married couple can never practice sexual immorality with one another. Because of this, all sorts of what the Bible would actually consider sexually immoral practices are not only allowed, but praised as being faithful to God's purposes with marriage.
The acts of sexual immorality are anticreational acts. They, like individual acts of murder, are acts that work toward reversing God's goal in creation to fill up the earth with human life. They don't accomplish the goal of reversing creation completely (or even get close to it) because God and His children are still at work in the world; but they are evil acts, abominations, in the sight of God nonetheless.
Notice, in Romans 1:26, we have Paul describe the judgment of God upon pagan cultures as a giving over that includes "their women exchanging natural functions in the sexual act with unnatural ones." This is usually viewed as lesbianism, but "their women" may refer to "their (masculine pronoun) wives." Hence, it refers, not to women with women, but men committing sexually immoral acts with their women/wives on the one hand, and those who commit sexually immoral acts with other men, in v. 27, on the other. This would set up a merism referring to all sorts of sexually immoral acts committed between humans, and it would be in line with Leviticus, which sees the dominant party in the sexual act (here it would be men) as the ones upon whom guilt is pronounced. In any case, whether one sees this or not, the point is that the term porneia in the New Testament does not merely refer to "sex outside of marriage," but to any anticreational sexual act that one purposely engages in.
So when the New Testament talks about sexual immorality (and its continual prohibition and consequences of being cut off from God's presence and people), it is important to understand to what that term is truly referring. It is not sex outside of marriage, but an immoral use of sex, regardless of whether the individuals involved are married. If this is true, then perhaps the sexual immorality that fills the average evangelical home today is a judgment of God upon it (perhaps for its idolatry per Romans 1). If so, we have a lot of work to do in repentance. I pray that reformation, rather than judgment, will come more quickly to us. O Lord God, let mercy come!
For more on this, you can read my The Christian Case Against Contraception, pp. 53-95 (although I really want to revise and expand what is said therein). Obviously, I can't get into everything in one blog post, but I've tried to talk about this throughout this blog, and you can see it in different places here. I hope that my book on Genesis will clarify much of these things for evangelicals, since I'm sure what I've written above is something completely foreign to their traditional thinking on this matter. May grace cover us all in the meantime.