Biblical Truth - Meaning from context

Alasdair North - 

When I was a bit younger (and single) I did a little investigation into where in The Bible it says sex before marriage is wrong. From what I remember it all came down to how you interpreted the Greek word porneia.

This word is mostly is translated as “fornication” or “sexual immorality”. But what does that actually mean when we read it in The Bible? After all, one man’s sexual immorality is another man’s Friday night. If you were trying to nail down it’s exact meaning then you might start by writing a list of things that it covers. But the activities and attitudes you would put on this list will depend on your personal preferences and on the views of the society you live in. Sex before marriage may well have been immoral in Israel in the time of Jesus, but it isn’t widely considered immoral in 21st century England.

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:18 to “flee from sexual immorality”. But what does he actually mean? The way I see it there are three options here.

  • We should go with what he had in mind when he was writing. All that he would consider immoral should be avoided. First century Jewish attitudes of morality should always be considered to be the gold standard.
  • That Christians should avoid anything that would widely be perceived as immoral so that non-Christians wouldn’t have a bad word to say about them.
  • That we should look solely to God’s word when working out what’s immoral or not, rather than relying on cultural context.

When you take that verse out of context then all three points of view have their strengths. We need to look at the rest of the passage to get an idea of which way Paul would have us interpret this.

Here we see that Paul is talking about our standing with God. As God bought us at a high price we should conduct ourselves as he would wish. We are to flee from things that are against God’s desire for us, from what He would consider to be sexually immoral. For this passage, at least, cultural interpretation doesn’t come into it. We’re not being asked to conform to the culture of our time, or of two thousand years ago, but to obey the God that owns us.

This is the case for most of the passages that I looked at containing this word. They didn’t talk of judgement by the people of the day, but by God.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that context is vitally important when interpreting The Bible. But it really is vitally important. We need to be aware of it constantly to avoid bringing our own bias to what we read. From the Corinthians passage the only thing we can tell for sure is that Paul wasn’t that keen on Christians having sex with prostitutes. If you want to read it in any other way then you’ll need some evidence.

← back to index or archive
I'm the CTO of viaLibri, a director and web developer at Runway, and an active member of St. Barnabas Church.

Latest Posts