On the Road Between Ephesus and ThyatiraIn the past couple of months, a number of very good reviews have been written or are still in the process of being written on Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation.  In this series of posts, I won’t simply rehash the various critiques of ALTMC as so many have done previously.  For these more general reviews and critiques, I would encourage you to check out those of thinkthelogy.org’s own Luke Geraty, as well as UK blogger Thomas John Creedy and Ken’s former executive pastor Don Bromley.

Instead, I rather think there is much to commend Ken Wilson’s engagement with these issues. In this blog series I want to affirm a number of observations of Ken’s analyses and build upon them by proposing a broader biblical framework which Ken himself is talking around the edges of throughout his text. Ultimately, I want to offer an alternative Scriptural model to Ken’s use of Romans 14 and 15 for understanding and responding to these difficult issues within the Church.

When I first heard Ken present the core content of what would become ALTMC at the SVS 2013 conference in Anaheim, I felt that Kens usage of Romans 14 and 15 was problematic on a number of accounts, not the least of which was Kens lack of treatment of the Corinthian correspondence on that same issue.  When I asked Ken about some of these tensions, Ken simply responded with a smile and said, “Well, that’s for you biblical scholars to figure out.”  Since this conversation over a year ago, a number of individuals have provided (or are forthcoming with) robust critiques on Ken’s use of Romans 14 and 15.  My hope is to affirm key elements of Ken’s argument while suggesting an alternative scriptural framework to both understand the situation and map a way forward for the Church.

Even though I have only met Ken on a handful of occasions, I have great respect for him as a fellow member of the Vineyard tribe and my brother in Christ. My hope is that throughout these posts, my tone is both cordial and collaborative as Scripture, Ken’s position, and these crucial issues are engaged.

First of all, let me say that I deeply appreciate that Ken looks to Scripture for a model to understand and guide our response to this difficult issue within the Church.  I similarly agree with proponents of Ken’s position that we need an eschatological hermeneutic, guided by the Kingdom and our Christian telos, to interpret and respond to this issue appropriately.

I think that Ken’s pursuit of a model for responding to this issue within Scripture’s letters to various churches is a great place to start.  The Church, from the very beginning, has consistently needed correction and guidance.  In fact, over half of the New Testament is exactly this: letters whose purposes are to bring correction of orthodoxy and orthopraxy to Spirit-empowered communities and churches that have missed the mark.

Ken’s pastoral intuition regarding the connection between how we respond to LGBT issues and the legitimacy of marriage and divorce is astute.  While I know some of Ken’s critics don’t agree with his connection of these two issues, I think there is a fundamental connection between these two ideas that we need to affirm.  Ken’s attempt to zoom out from focusing on LGBT issues to the exclusion of other sexually illicit issues is much needed in this discussion.  In order to respond to these issues, we really need a much more holistic, consistent response to sexual brokenness.

In Scripture, this category of sexual brokenness and the range of sexually illicit activity are referred to as porneia (and the associated porn- cognates).  This family of terms underwent a vast transformation and redefinition in the centuries leading up to the composition of the New Testament.  A veritable library has been written in the past couple decades debating the meaning, development, and expansion of this term.  Some, like Dale Martin in Sex and the Single Savior (Westminster, 2006), argue that the precise meaning can’t be known, while others, like Kyle Harper in the more recent “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm” (JBL 2012), have sought to understand the range of this term while appreciating its developmental volatility.

This post is the first of a multi-part series.  In the rest of this post, I will be looking at the biblical concept of porneia (and its associated cognates) and tracing the development of this term from its classical usage through its usage in the New Testament.  Hopefully this will lay some groundwork for my proposal in the next blog.

On Porneia

In the classical Greek language, porneia was generally used to describe the event, trait or activity of “fornication” or “licentiousness.” The context of this activity within classical Greek is almost universally with an opposite gender prostitute (involving a financial exchange) although there is at least one occurrence referent to same sex activity within a similar context.[1]

Correspondingly, the noun pornē is used for the “harlot” or “prostitute” and pornos for those who frequent the harlot’s services. Occasionally, the pornos can also be used to describe male prostitutes. The verb porneuōdescribes the verbal action of porneia with the passive used of an individual prostituting themselves. The verb ekporneuōseems to carry the same sense but is a stronger form of porneuō. For our purposes, porneia will be the focus of our discussion given its significant presence and role within the New Testament but these other terms will similarly be considered as needed.

Even though the activity of prostitution, both cultic and secular, served a central role in Greek and Roman societies, porneia was not that common of a word, appearing in the works of only four classical authors. These sparse occurrences stand in sharp contrast with the presence of porneia occurring “nearly four hundred times in Jewish and Christian Literature before 200 C.E. and over eighteen hundred times between 200 and 600 C.E.”[2]

The semantic range of porneia greatly expanded in Second Temple usage as the receptor term in the LXX (Greek translation of the Old Testament) for the Hebrew root znh.  In the Hebrew Bible, zānâ is used for a variety of purposes including prostitution, adultery, exogamy, general promiscuity, as well as spiritual harlotry/idolatry.[3] Beyond singular meanings, the pairing of dual harlotry, both religious and carnal, occurs again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible.[4] This joint harlotry is particularly evident in the golden-calf and Baal of Peor narratives. Throughout Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekial, Israel’s apostasy is described as both “whoredom” (zānâ) and “adultery” (nā’ap), but Richard Davidson notes that “whoredom” is the much more frequent metaphor than adultery throughout these texts.[5]

In later Second Temple and Hellenistic Judaism, porneia expanded in usage even farther to include virtually any prohibited sexual activity from Torah.[6] Included in this expanded usage are extra-marital intercourse/harlotry, adultery, incest, unnatural vices, sodomy, unlawful marriages, bigamy, exogamy, and same sex activity.[7] Very similar to Paul’s argument regarding the link between same-sex activity and idolatry in Romans 1, porneia is causally linked with idolatry in Wisdom of Solomon 4:12-17. In the book of Jubilees, porneia defiles not only the individual (30:2, 6) but also the family (30:7), the land, and all of Israel (30:15).  Astute readers will note how very similar this understanding in Jubilees is to how the whole range of sexually illicit activity in Leviticus 18 is said to corrupt and defile both the people and the land (Lev 18:24-30). In his excellent article on porneia, KyleHarper rightly observes that, “the term condensed the cultural differences between the observers of the Torah and Gentile depravity.”[8] In sum, licit sexual activity was defined by Torah and served as a cultural boundary marker where everything beyond Torah-observance was categorized as illicit and labeled as porneia.[9]

It is this range of usage that we arguably find throughout the New Testament.  The noun pornē,is used to describe professional prostitutes (Luke 15:30; Heb 11:31; Jas 2:25); pornos is used in three instances to describe individuals involved in illicit sexual activity (1 Cor 6:9; Eph 5:5; 1 Tim 1:10.); porneia is found in seven different vice lists (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; Rev 9:21). Jesus seems to implicitly suggest there is some material difference between the activity of adultery (moichaō) and porneia in the Matthean exception clauses (Matt 5:32; 19:9).[10] The excessive sins of Sodom and Gamorrah are described as ekporneuō in Jude 7.  In 1 Corinthians 5:1ff, Paul suggests there are “types/kinds” of porneia, of which one type is incest.  Also in the Corinthian correspondence, Paul argues that toleration of porneia of even a single individual implicates the whole local church, risks corrupting the status of the community as a pure bride, and equates to an eschatological threat against the community as a whole.[11] In 1 Thess 4, porneia is portrayed as contrary to “sanctification” and rejection of this reality constitutes rejection of God himself.[12] Given these observations, it should not be surprising then that one finds porneia as one of the four prohibited activities Gentiles were to refrain in the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25) and that the likely background for these prohibitions is found in Israel’s holiness code.[13]

For the early Church, porneia was a big deal.  I believe Ken is right to link how we respond to both divorce/remarriage and same-sex sexual activity since they are intimately connected in the NT under the under the umbrella term porneia as sexually illicit activities.  In the next blog, we will look at a place in Scripture where the themes of porneia, epistolary letters of correction, eschatological communities, the commands of Jesus, prophetic leadings, and arguably the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15) all come together to hopefully speak into our contemporary conversation.  Oh, did I mention that of the 56 occurrences of porn– roots in the New Testament, over one third of these instances occur in the book of Revelation…?


End Notes

[1] See TDNT 6:581 for specifics.

[2] Kyle Harper, “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” JBL 131, no. 2 (2012):369.

[3] For various discussions of these see, Hauck and Schulz, “po,rnh,” TDNT 6:584; Richard M. Davidson, Flame of Yahweh: Sexuality in the Old Testament (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007), 306n27; Phyllis Bird, “Prostitution in the Social World and the Religious Rhetoric of Ancient Israel,” in Faraone and McClure, Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World (University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), 49-55.

[4] Aron Balorda widely tracks this tendency throughout various periods of OT history including the antediluvian period (Gen 6:1-4), the patriarchal period (Gen 24:3; 26:34-35; 28:1-5; 34), the period of the exodus and entry into Canaan (Exod 32; 34:15-16; Num 25; Deut 7:3, 4; 17:17; Josh 23:12, 13), the period of the judges and monarchy (Judg 14:1-3; 16; 1 Kgs 3:1-3; 11:1-8; 16:31; 2 Chr 18:1), and the postexilic era (Ezra 9:1-10:44; Neh 13:23-30; Mal 2:10-16).  Balorda concludes his survey by suggesting that, “it is usually the case that the carnal harlotry, esp. when committed collectively, brings about the religious one” (99).  See Aron Balorda, “The Jealousy of Phinehas in Numbers 25 as the Embodiement of the Essence of Numinal Marriage” [M.A. thesis, Andrews University, 2002], 98-126.

[5] Davidson, Flame of Yahweh, 311.

[6] Harper, “Porneia,” 379.

[7] Here is just a sampling of sources for these various usages: extra-marital intercourse/harlotry (Ab., 2, 8; Gr. Bar. 4:17; 8:5; 13:4; Asc. Is. 2:5; Treasure Cave, 12.); adultery (Sir. 23:23; Test. Jos. 3:8); incest (Test. R. 1:6, 4:8; Test. Jud. 13:3); unnatural vices (Sib., III, 764; IV, 33-36,); sodomy (Test. B. 9:1; Jub. 16:5; 20:5); unlawful marriages (Treasure Cave, 37, 6.); bigamy (Damascus Document 4:20.); exogamy (Tob. 4:12.); and same sex activity (Philo rejects all porneia including pederasty (Spec. Leg., III, 37f) and arguably homosexuality/transgender more generally (Spec. Leg., III, 41).

[8] Harper, “Porneia,” 374-75.

[9] Harper rightly goes on to summarize, “Classical pornei,a was the act of selling oneself, not a whole class of actions categorized as immoral.  Jewish and Christian pornei,a could evoke the whole array of extramarital sex acts of which Greek and Roman culture approved.” (“Porneia,” 383).

[10] There has been a significant discussion on these clauses in the last century.  My point with this reference is to simply acknowledge that the umbrella of illicit activity of pornei,a may be broader than simple adultery or even incest as some suggest.  In the late fourth century, Gregory of Nyssa articulated the division between pornei,a and moiceia in this way: “the sin is judged within this categorical division: a sin of desire which is accomplished without injustice to someone else is called pornei,a, but that which entails injury and injustice toward another is moiceia” (Gregory of Nyssa, Ep. can. ad Letoium 3).  Building upon this, Kyle Harper, in his article “Porneia: The Making of a Christian Sexual Norm,” has presented a compelling suggestion that as “moiceia was sexual violation of a respectable woman—extramarital sex with a wife, daughter, or widow.  pornei,a was extramarital sex that did not injure a third party such as a husband, father, or male relative who stood in a position of protection over a woman’s sexual honor” (“Porneia,” 364).  Harper traces the development of pornei,a from earliest usage until the late fourth century Christian developments as represented by the quote from Gregory of Nyssa.  This is a worthwhile study for any wanting to wrestle with the meaning of this ideologically-charged term.

[11] See 1 Cor 5:1ff; 2 Cor 11:2; 12:19-21.  For similar NT thought, see Heb 12:14-17.

[12] See 1 Thess 4:1-8.  A similar idea may be behind Rom 1:18-32 and the link between sexual deviancy and rejection of God.

[13] While there is debate on the background of these prohibitions, Richard Bauckham and Joseph Fitzmyer have made compelling arguments for the Leviticus 17-18 as the intertexutal background for the Acts 15 prohibitions.  See Richard Bauckham, ed., “James and the Jerusalem Church,” in The Book of Acts in Its Palestinian Setting (BAFCS 4; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 458-462; Richard Bauckham, “James and the Gentiles (Acts 5:13-21),” in History, Literature, and Society in the Book of Acts (ed. Ben Witherington; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 172-178; Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 31; New York: Doubleday, 1998), 556-58.  From the observations of the range and function of porneia in this study, it should be noted the mapping of these to the range and function of these within Leviticus 18 is strikingly similar.  In this time period, porneia is used as a referent to activities including incest, adultery, bigamy*, same sex activity, and bestiality which all appear in Leviticus 18 (*: Bigamy is arguably in view in Lev 18:18 following Richard Davidson’s argument in Flame of Yahweh).  Similarly, the structure of Leviticus 18 itself suggests it is a whole unit (i.e. the nation’s ordinances and practices versus the Lord’s, etc.) and the context of this is establishing a boundary between the practices of Israel, the people of God, and those of the other nations.  Both the individual illicit sexual activities described porneia and how the term functioned in Judaism at the time (as a boundary between the Gentiles and the people of God) only reinforces the proposal that Leviticus 17-18 be understood as the background for the Apostolic decree.  I think it is worth noting at this point that some proponents of developing positions on LGBT practice within the Church often look to Acts 15 and the adoption of the Gentiles into the Church as a guide for how we are to respond to LGBT individuals—and I think there may be value in this proposal but probably not in the same way some anticipate.