Monday, August 20, 2012

Is Porn Porneia?


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

In Matthew 19, a group of Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking Him if it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any cause. Jesus rebukes them and clarifies the Law and God’s view of marriage. Jesus explains that God does not permit divorce other than in the case of “sexual immorality”. Through the years as I have taught this passage, many questions have been raised about this exception. One of the most common questions has been if the use of pornography would be included in the definition of “sexual immorality” and thus qualify as Biblical grounds for divorce.

Our culture is immersed in pornography but it is by no means a modern invention. Pornographic images and writing are among the oldest examples of human communication that we have and they were common in the first century, particularly where Greek and Roman cultural influence was strong. Did Jesus therefore include the use of such materials in His definition of “sexual immorality”?

The issue hinges upon the definition of the word that Jesus uses when He grants the exception. The word that is translated in the ESV as sexual immorality is the Greek word porneia (porneia). The word has been translated various ways. The NKJV and HCSB translate it the same as the ESV while the NET & NASB simply translate it as immorality. The NIV, NLT, MSG, and some others translate it variously as either adultery or unfaithfulness. There are numerous other renderings such as fornication (KJV), loss of her virtue (BBE), and unchastity (NRSV). As we can see, the translations vary considerably as to how specific the act in question is. For example, immorality involves a much wider range of behavior than does adultery.

The word comes from the classical Greek word for prostitute pornh (pornēi). It therefore has a common root with our English word pornography, which is derived from a combination of the Greek word for prostitute pornh (pornēi) and the Greek word for writing & drawing grafh (graphēi). A common root, however, does not necessarily mean the concept of pornography is included in the concept of porneia (think of butter and butterfly). We need to understand how the word was used to know what behavior it included.

In Greek and Roman culture, sexual boundaries were more about social standing than about religious ethics. The standard of acceptable behavior was different depending upon a person’s social and political position. The rules regarding adultery and fornication were much more flexible prior to the influence of Christianity. The primary concern was the honor of free women and the reputation of the men who were responsible for their protection. These women were to remain chaste until married and faithful to their husbands. This was not so much a matter of personal morality as of social standing. Violation of the honor of one of these women, whether consensual or not, was considered an assault upon the man she was bound to (father, husband, etc.). Adultery and fornication were not primarily concerns about marriage vows but rather about the honor and reputation of citizens. The scandal associated with such a violation of honor would most closely parallel our feelings about adultery (at least traditionally). The term for this violation of honor, however, is not the word porneia but rather the word μοιχεύω (moicheuō) and this is the Greek word generally translated as adultery. Interestingly moicheuō is not the word Jesus uses.

The culture of Greece and Rome included entire classes of people who were not free and who were not under the same social or moral expectations or protections with regard to sexual choices. Prostitutes and slaves were considered “available” and free men could avail themselves of the services of these women (or boys) without being considered an adulterer or in any way violating their honor or social mores. Such behavior was common and expected. While adultery with “respectable” women was a serious violation, the use of brothels was acceptable and often thought to be beneficial. The word porneia was the term used to describe prostitutes and slaves selling access to their bodies. The word in Greek culture describes the transaction entered into by a prostitute. It was therefore not a term for adultery but was a description associated with a generally acceptable form of extramarital sexual activity.

The Bible’s use of the term, however, is quite a bit different. When the Septuagint scholars translated the Hebrew text into Greek, they used word porneia for Hebrew terms associated with broader concepts of unfaithfulness and sexual immorality. The result is that within the Greek speaking Jewish community the word came to mean illicit sexual activity as understood against the background of the Old Testament Law. The word is used in the LXX for various types of sexual sin condemned by the Law and for the idolatry illustrated by them. The context of Paul’s use of the word in his letters also follows this pattern. The word therefore encompasses immoral sexual misbehavior such as adultery, incest, molestation and others condemned by the Law.

Jesus is certainly drawing upon this Hebraized usage in His comments in Matthew 19 and elsewhere. Jesus and the other N.T. writers use moicheuō when specifically referring to adultery and use porneia when talking about this broad category of sexual sin. Jesus therefore narrows the grounds for divorce from the whim of the husband to a group of unlawful sexual interactions. The use of the word is therefore more broad than our word "adultery" but narrower than our phrase "sexual immorality". It is a category referring to acts of sexual intercourse contrary to the teaching of the Law. The New Testament writers therefore extend the sexual morals of the Law, making them foundational to the formulation of Christian sexual ethics.

This being the case, would the use of pornography be included in porneia and thus qualify as a reason for a biblically sanctioned divorce? The answer would appear to be no. There are many idolatrous sins of the heart not included in the exception. Jesus’ words reflect a category of actions that involve immoral sexual intercourse or contact.  

We must make a distinction between what constitutes sin (all sin is idolatry and a serious offense to God) and those sins which Jesus recognizes as sufficient to break the covenant between two married people. Marriage is not simply a private commitment it is a public institution. While all lustful fantasy proceeds from an adulterous heart (Mt. 5) to prostitute oneself through sexual activity in violation of the marriage covenant is both sinful and destructive to the institution itself. Marriage is a physical illustration of Christ’s relationship with His bride and a married couple becomes “one flesh”. Divorce is allowed when there is a physical illustration of unfaithfulness because such actions destroy the unity of the two as one flesh thus breaking the union and undermining the illustration of the deeper spiritual truth to which the marriage points.

There is certainly no question that the use of pornography is sinful and can be quite damaging. So numerous are the passages of scripture that address the destructive nature of lust and the danger of seeking to serve our fleshly desires that there is no need to recount them here. This alone, however, would not seem to involve the kinds of behavior understood by the word porneia. 

By using this term, Jesus presents a revolutionary view of marriage and sexual ethic that was uncommon in both Jewish and Greek culture of the 1st century. Marriage was not just an economic transaction that could be undone easily. It was to be an abiding and permanent spiritual union drawing upon the Hebrew connection between sexual activity and spiritual commitment. This significantly restricted the types of behaviors that were acceptable for gentile converts because the demands of the moral law were extended to them. It also restricted the ability of Jewish converts to withdraw from the union except under the most serious violation by the other person.

7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  2. Our culture is immersed in pornography but it is by no means a modern invention. Pornographic images and writing are among the oldest examples of human communication that we have and they were common in the first century, particularly where Greek and Roman cultural influence was strong. Did Jesus therefore include the use of such materials in His definition of “sexual immorality”?
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  3. If pornography is not fornication, is child porn not pedophilia? I understand your argument, but it is paper thin.

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    1. I think I understand your concern, however, the argument is only "paper thin" if it is applied more broadly than I intended. Some have attempted to apply this argument in ways that are not appropriate.

      I did not say that addictions to pornography or other sinful acts proceeding from a lustful heart could never rise to the point of faithlessness in a marriage relationship. My point is that in His use of the term Jesus is narrowing rather then broadening the categories that qualify for divorce. Prima Facia, the use of any pornography is a serious sin but also this does not as a stand alone fact qualify as the basis for the disillusionment of a marriage commitment.

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  5. I believe that porn is porneia because Jesus said, When you look at another woman (man) to lust, you are guilty of the sin of adultery. Jesus took adultery from the physical act outside our bodies to a matter of the heart (condition of the inside). He went on to say in another place, if the inside of the cup is clean then the outside will automatically be clean. (Matt 5:28; 23:25-26; Luke 11:39)

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    1. Thank you Anonymous. I appreciate and agree with your assessment that Jesus clearly says lust makes one guilty of the sin of adultery. The question I was addressing was not simply regarding the particular sinfulness of pornography (which is a given), but if this sin when committed in the heart, on its own, is grounds for a biblical divorce. It seemed to me that Jesus was narrowing those requirements.

      Having said that, I do agree that there are circumstances where use of porn can indeed rise to that level. My point was simply that it seemed to me that contextually Jesus was not primarily addressing pornography when using that term.

      In counselling situations where there is not a persistent addiction I am not sure most pastors would advise divorce.

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