On losing the word “fornication”

Russell D. Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has written a thought-provoking essay on how Christians have adopted the cultural grammar on sex and why we need “to recover a lexicon worthy of the gravity of human sexuality.” The entire essay should be read, but here some excerpts:

The word “fornication” is almost never used these days except among those who want to ridicule backward, Puritan sexual norms of the most Hawthornian sort. The word is sometimes used to ridicule Christian sexual counter-revolutionaries as prissy prigs who talk like a late 1980s Saturday Night Live version of the “Church Lady.” Or, come to think of it, like Richard Nixon trying, and failing, to be one of the boys.

But that’s just it. The joke doesn’t really work because Christians don’t talk like that, in public or in private, at least not any more. And they haven’t for a long time. “Fornication” sounds as creepy and out-of-place to a Christian’s ears as it does to anyone else’s. Sure, we talk about sexual morality and warn against sexual immorality, but those are the words we use, on our best days. More commonly, we teach our children and our single church members to “practice abstinence” or to avoid “premarital sex.”

But could it be that the loss of the words “fornicate” and “fornication” is about something more than just updating our vocabulary to connect with the society around us? Could it be that we’ve lost something crucial about the grammar of the Christian faith? Moreover, could it be that, by using the language of “premarital sex,” we’ve implicitly ceded the moral imagination to the sexual revolutionaries?

Language is important. Think of the difference it makes whether your child’s elementary-school teacher refers to Washington and Adams and Jefferson as “founding fathers” or as “insurrectionists,” or, conversely, of Osama Bin Laden as a “terrorist” or a “revolutionary.” The words “chastity” and “abstinence” simply aren’t univocal terms, and the words “fornication” and “premarital sex” aren’t interchangeable.

In the term “premarital sex,” the emphasis is on timing. The act itself is the same; the “sex” is unaltered linguistically. What changes “marital sex” to “premarital sex” is simply when one chooses to engage in it. This assumption, though, is right at the heart of the contemporary American Christian crisis of sexual ethics.

* * *

The talk of “abstinence” and “waiting” shores up the implicit risk management behind the cultural milieu. It is not just in our public witness that we adopt the culture’s grammar; we do so in our own churches and parishes. How often do we urge teenagers to maintain chastity to be consistent with their “values” and to avoid bad consequences to their health, their future marriages, or their walk with God? These consequences are no doubt real, but why would it seem so awkward to say what the Scripture says quite straightforwardly—that fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–10)?

One does not have to be some sort of wild-eyed “hellfire and brimstone” revival preacher to recognize that the apostles and prophets seem insistent that sexual immorality brings upon itself the wrath of God (Rev. 21:8). Yet this sounds so foreign, even to our ears, that we retreat instead to terms like “struggling” and “need for accountability” and even “addiction.”

Fornication, quite simply, isn’t merely “premarital sex.” It isn’t only a matter of impatience. It is not simply the marital act misfired at the wrong time, a kind of, as it were, premature ejaculation. Yes, it is true that the sexual act in fornication is, or at least can be, the same sort of physical activity as wedded sexuality. And it’s true that, in fornication, the couple involved may be doing that which they would be qualified to do if they were a married couple (which would distinguish fornication from, say, sodomy or incest). But fornication is, both spiritually and typologically, a different sort of act from the marital act, and is indeed a parody of it.

Sexual union is not an arbitrary expression of the will of God (much less of random Darwinian processes). It is instead an icon of God’s purposes for the universe in the gospel of Christ. Paul’s classic text on the one-flesh union of marriage from Ephesians 5 makes no sense if it is presented as it is too often preached: as a set of tips for a healthier, “hotter” marriage. Instead, this passage is part of an ongoing argument about the cosmic mystery of Christ, a mystery “which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Eph. 3:5).

The Genesis 2 mandate to leave father and mother, to cleave to one another, and to become one flesh is a “mystery” and “refers to Christ and the Church” (Eph. 5:31–32). The husband/wife union is a visible representation of the Christ/Church union—a covenantal bond in which, as a head with a body, Jesus is inseparable from his bride, a bride he protects, provides for, leads, disciples, and sanctifies. He is as inseparable from his Body as a human head is from a human body—a truth the apostle heard from the voice of the Galilean himself, when Jesus asked the persecutor of the Church on the Road to Damascus, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4).

Fornication pictures a different reality than that of the mystery of Christ. It represents instead a Christ who uses the Church without joining her, covenantally, to himself. It is not just “naughtiness.” To use another word Christians find awkward and antiquated, it’s blasphemy.

This is why the consequences for fornication in Scripture are so severe. The man who leads a woman into sexual union without a covenantal bond is preaching to her, to the world, and to himself a different gospel. He is forming a real spiritual union, the apostle warns, but one that is of a different spirit than the sanctifying Spirit of God in Christ (1 Cor. 6:15–19).

* * *

I am not suggesting that we totally ban the language of “premarital sex” or “abstinence,” especially when we’re trying to explain a Christian ethic to the outside world using categories already in play. I am suggesting, though, that part of what it means to recover a Christian vision of sexuality is to recover a lexicon worthy of the gravity of human sexuality. We don’t simply wish to say, “Wait more patiently.” True love waits, yes, but, more importantly, true love mates.

In order to recover the beauty and the exuberance of marital unity, we need to speak honestly and bluntly of the ugliness of its counterfeits. We learn, then, not to be ashamed of the Christian language of “fornication,” but instead to be ashamed of fornication itself.

This shouldn’t make us more censorious. Instead, when we speak honestly, we are able, paradoxically, to speak with more liberating power to sinners—including sexual sinners—in our streets and sidewalks and pews. The same gospel that tells us that fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of God also tells us, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

“Sexual Iconoclasm” (Touchstone)

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