St Paul, porneia and the bonds of fidelity

I wrote an essay a few months ago about my good friend St Paul and his attitude to premarital sex.

This is an issue that has concerned me for some time, not least because of my own experiences of being at once a Christian, a sexual being, and not married. Now that I am married, surprise surprise, I find that I am far less troubled by the issue. Nonetheless, the subject called ‘Practices and Theologies of Love’ offered an opportunity too good to pass up, so I committed myself to writing the essay and figuring out once and for all what Paul had to say about sex before marriage.

As I flipped through commentaries and lined up my notes into paragraphs, I saw that actually, Paul didn’t have a whole lot to say about premarital sex. The reason, in a nutshell, is that the ‘dating scene’, in which we enter into extended ‘relationships’ with others as a precursor or an alternative to marriage, did not exist in Paul’s day. So to suggest that Paul had something to say about this issue is to imbue his words with a context very different from his own.

What Paul did mention a fair bit, however, was this concept of porneia. Older English versions of the Bible translate this to ‘fornication’, which in English means ‘premarital sex’. Hence the confusion. Nobody knows exactly what Paul meant when he used the word porneia, but here are some likely possibilities:

• sex with a prostitute;

• unlawful sexual conduct described in Leviticus 18, including incest, sex with a menstruating woman, men having sex with men and bestiality;

• the sexual idolatry that permeated the Greco-Roman world, which involved abuse, promiscuity and exploitation.

What I found out was that Paul was less concerned about the impact of porneia on individual morality, than its affect on the wider group. Take the example of the man (part of the church in Corinth) who has sex with his father’s wife, in 1 Corinthians 5. This is termed porneia. Paul’s concern is not for the man, or for the woman or the father for that matter. He demands that the church “hand this man over to Satan”. Paul is worried about the effect it will have on the Christian body: “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough?”

Paul talks a lot about ‘the body’, which is a metaphor for the group as a whole. The concept comes from a long rhetorical tradition, in which the Greco-Roman polis or city-state was often portrayed as a body. Strife, discord and civil disobedience were seen as diseases in need of eradication. 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 (6.19). What doesn’t come across in the English translation is that ‘your’ is plural and ‘body’ is singular – in other words, the Holy Spirit dwells in the communal body. Throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul blurs the categories of the individual and communal body. It is as if they are one and the same thing. 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 Cor 15b. The answer, of course, is ‘no’. Not only does this compromise the individual, but also the integrity of the group. Porneia stalks on the edges of the group, ready to infiltrate and compromise the integrity of the whole.

I think that porneia is still a threat. I find it helpful to think beyond just individual sexual morality, and the impact that sexual abuse and exploitation – a clear form of porneia – have on the wider community. I was thinking about contemporary issues such as ‘sexting’ and young ADFA cadets filming each other having sex, and the utter devastation this kind of behaviour has on people and relationships. I think this is porneia.

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 centre 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 fulfilled. Sex is a pleasure-inducing product, transacted in an economy where the happiness and wellbeing of the individual is the primary currency. If the individual can experience passionate, gasping, orgasmic sex, then this person has achieved a significant degree of success. This is how we define good sex.

This is our modern sexual ethic – and, like any other application of rampant individualism, finds its ultimate destination in abuse and exploitation. Porneia, if you will. The modern sexual ethic, concerned mainly for the pleasure of the individual, does not care much about the other or the others involves. It is ultimately selfish.

And this is the point where I get to marriage. You may find the institution of marriage problematic – not least because it excludes a very important segment of our population (people in same-sex relationships). Marriage, however, has something very good going for it: it has the effect of giving sex a place that is wider and deeper than the individual. Rather than sex itself and the pleasure it affords holding the ultimate value, it the marriage itself that is valued. Sex is simply a part of the marriage. This leaves us outwardly focused: looking face-to-face with our spouse, rather than down at our own genitals.

If ‘marriage’ doesn’t work for you, then let’s think about fidelity. Fidelity is the commitment to lasting connections, as opposed to the pursuit of fleeting individual pleasure. Fidelity goes beyond the couple, extending into ever expanding networks of friendships, families and communities. Self-centred sex destroys bonds, but sex that is built on fidelity strengthens them. In my books, fidelity is the opposite of porneia.

“But since there is so much porneia,” says Paul, “each man should have his own woman, and each woman her own man” (1 Cor 1.2). Paul, in essence, is advocating fidelity. I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing.