It is unfortunate that the word porneia—used on numerous occasions by the Apostle Paul—has no modern English equivalent. Older versions of the Bible translate it as "fornication" (which we think of as premarital sex), while newer ones often say "sexual immorality." 1 Corinthians 6.12-20 indicates that intercourse with a prostitute is one form of porneia, and earlier at 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 incest is also part of the definition. Porneia is clearly something bad, and something to do with our bodies. But what does porneia really mean? And more importantly, how are Paul’s writings on porneia to transform our hearts, minds and lives?
The world of porneia
To get a better picture of the meaning of porneia, one needs to carve a window into the Greco-Roman world. Through this window you may see the following:
Orgies at the dinner parties of the rich and famous.
Exploited girls, boys and animals, made to dance and provide lewd entertainment for the gratification of guests.
Older men in pedophilic relationships with younger boys.
Debauchery, greed, exploitation, abuse.
Romans 1 speaks of this context: “… God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator …”
When we see a snippet of the world in which Paul was writing, we can see why he chooses porneia to head up his lists of vices. “Porneia, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like … those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God,” he warns in Galatians 5.19-21, and similarly in lists elsewhere in his writings. Even in these few verses, we get a picture of life in the Greco-Roman world.
This is the home for the word porneia. "Fornication" does not begin to grasp what it was, for it went so much further than premarital sex. Even "sexual immorality" does not really get it, for the degree of exploitation went far beyond private morality.
Porneia and the world
In life we make a choice: do we look inward, serving only ourselves, or do we look outward, serving our neighbors, our world and our God? Porneia is a choice for the former. It is the pursuit of fleeting, bodily pleasures with little regard for others. Its results are exploitation and abuse, cutting at the ties between couples, within families and between friends and communities. As such, porneia is ultimately very public behavior.
It is the public nature of porneia that causes Paul to situate it in a group context. One of Paul’s favorite metaphors is that of a body. He did not dream this up on his own: rather, it is the product of a long tradition in Greco-Roman rhetoric. The polis or city-state was often portrayed as a body, with strife, discord and civil disobedience seen as diseases in need of eradication. Paul takes up this metaphor and applies it not to a secular institution, but rather to the Christian community. It is this communal body that is important to Paul.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:19. What doesn’t come across in our English translation is that "your" is plural and "body" is singular. In the South they might say something like, "Don’t y’all know that the body of y’all is a temple of the Holy Spirit?" In other words, the Holy Spirit dwells in the communal body. Community members have their own bodies, but are simultaneously part of the "body of Christ."
It is this communal body that porneia so threatens. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute?” asks Paul in 1 Corinthians 15b. The answer, of course, is "no." Not only does this compromise the individual, but also the integrity of the whole.
Porneia is as much a part of our own Western societies as it was for Paul’s. Think about the sexual ethic that dominates our airwaves, billboards, bars and bedrooms. We are a society that believes in consequence-free sex; in sex that is first and foremost fun; sex that is removed from communities and severed from reproduction and children. At the center of sex lies not the family or even the couple but the individual, and what is paramount is that the sexual needs of the individual are met.
Like any other application of rampant individualism, such a self-centered sexual ethic finds its ultimate destination in abuse and exploitation. We damage not only ourselves, but those in our midst: using people, hurting people, raping people, abandoning people. This is the heart of porneia.
Our alternative: agape and the bonds of fidelity.
Porneia looks inward, concerned about fulfilling my needs and my desires. The opposite—which looks outward at our neighbors, world and God—is known as agape. It is no surprise that Paul’s lists of virtues (e.g. the fruits of the Spirit) are headed by agape, in direct contrast to porneia.
Agape finds its root not in fleeting pleasure, but in fidelity: the commitment to lasting connections. For Paul, fidelity is the cure for porneia: “Since there is so much porneia,” says Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.2, “Each man should have his own woman, and each woman her own man.” Fidelity gives sex a place that is wider and deeper than the individual. Rather than sex itself and the pleasure it affords holding value, it is the lasting connections that are ultimately precious.
Fidelity goes beyond the couple, extending into ever-expanding networks of friendships, families and communities. It is marriage, not one-night-stands; life-long friends, not single-serve drunken encounters; growing your own carrots, not plucking a microwave meal from a shelf. It is those family relationships that are difficult but important; it is our commitment to tend to the earth, inconvenient though it is, because we know we need its lasting care. Porneia destroys bonds, but fidelity strengthens them.
We must think about porneia in terms of how it harms the couple, the family, the community, the earth—rather than simply the effect on one’s own morality. The body of y’all is valuable: let’s care for it in the spirit of fidelity.
Andreana Reale is a member of a faith community in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD and currently a student of theology. She blogs at http://godofdishes.com.