What does the word fornication mean? Do you know? You probably think you know what the word means, but I really doubt that you do. I'm sure most people think of the word fornication as meaning: "two unmarried people that are engaging in sex with one another". That's how the word fornication is commonly used anyway. If two unmarried people are engaging in sexual relations with one another, they are usually said to be fornicating and they are said to be fornicators.
So what does the word fornication mean? The best place to start our study of this word is . . . do you know? The dictionary!
The dictionary says the word fornication means: "sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other." (see entry in: The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition).
But hey, we already knew THAT, right? So let's dig a little deeper into this word, okay?
A good dictionary will not simply give us the normal usage of a word but a history of the word's usage as well. In this case, with the word fornication, the dictionary goes on to explain that:
"The word fornication had a lowly beginning suitable to what has long been the low moral status of the act to which it refers. The Latin word fornix, from which fornicatio, the ancestor of fornication, is derived, meant "a vault, an arch." The term also referred to a vaulted cellar or similar place where prostitutes plied their trade. This sense of fornix in Late Latin yielded the verb fornicari, "to commit fornication," from which is derived fornicatio, "whoredom, fornication." Our word is first recorded in Middle English about 1303" (see entry in: The American Heritage Dictionary, Fourth Edition).
If you're still with me, you can see—from the history of the usage of the word fornication—that the word actually means prostitution or whoredom more than it does "sexual intercourse between partners who are not married to each other."
Do you doubt what I'm saying here? Well, I wonder what Jesus would say about it? Thankfully, Jesus did say something about this very thing:
"And I say to you, whoever shall put away [i.e., divorce] his wife, except for fornication, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery" (Matthew 19:9).
This passage, from Matthew's gospel, contains the well-known exception clause: "except for fornication". Jesus, here, permits a man to divorce his wife for one reason and for one reason only. And what reason is that? Only if she is a fornicator.
But wait . . . I thought the word fornication meant: "sexual intercourse between partners who are NOT married to each other"?
What the heck is going on here??!
Well, when push comes to shove in theology and biblical studies we always do . . . what? That's right, go back to the original language. The New Testament was written in koine—meaning common, as opposed to classical—Greek. And the word Matthew puts on the lips of Jesus here (in Matthew 19:9) is the word porneia, meaning: fornication, prostitution (Liddell and Scott. An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon).
Now I think we're getting somewhere, aren't we?
So, if Jesus said a man is permitted to divorce his wife because she was a fornicator, did he mean that she was an unmarried woman who was having sexual intercourse with an unmarried man? Or did he mean that she had a habit of acting like a prostitute (or whore) by having sex with lots of different people all the time, even though she was a married woman?
I think you've guessed it: because she was acting like a whore.
A fornicator, very simply, is someone (either male or female) who whores around, and Jesus was giving us (wives AND husbands) permission to "cut loose" the spouse who behaves like a prostitute (thank you Jesus).
But what about all of those unmarried people who are having sex outside the bonds of matrimony? What about those hell-bound fornicators?!
Okay . . . let's just pull out all of the stops here; let's just throw the book at them; throw the Law of Moses--the law God himself handed down to Moses upon Mount Sinai--at them!! That will teach them!! ("Quick! Get some stones!").
"If a man seduces a virgin who is not betrothed, and lies with her, he shall give the marriage present for her, and make her his wife. If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equivalent to the marriage present for virgins" (Exodus 22:16-17).
That's it? EXODUS CHAPTER 22 AND THAT'S IT?! No: "Take them outside the city walls and stone them to death"?! What the heck is going on here?!
Perhaps Deuteronomy, meaning the second law, or the first law restated, is more condemnatory??!
"If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her; he may not put her away all his days" (Deuteronomy 22:28-29).
Hmm . . . this passage IS a bit different (we do have a word change here, between the word seduce and the word seize), but, it pretty much says the same thing that Exodus says, doesn't it? I mean, where's the whole "take them outside the city walls and stone them to death!" thing?
Maybe now you're beginning seeing my point?
Is a man who loves, honors, and cherishes his girlfriend (to whom he is not married) a hell-bound fornicator? Is the same man who is also faithful, sexually, to this same girlfriend a hell-bound fornicator?
The church—any and every church—says that he is. My church (the Catholic Church) says that he is (I am). Your church does too; I don't care what church you go to, they will all say the same thing. Why? Because they group a lot of sexual sins under the broad category of fornication. Hell, my church even places masturbation under the category of fornication. And you go to hell for THAT too (boy, I'm really in trouble now; especially since I'm single again).
But there's a big difference, isn't there, between acting like a whore (by sleeping around with multiple partners while you're supposed to be being faithful to your spouse or your girlfriend (or boyfriend) and acting like a sexually faithful, committed, and devoted-exclusively-to-one-person married partner even though you are not married?
Yeah, I think there's a big difference too.