The first word Paul uses in his 1 Corinthians 6:9 list of kingdom-noninheritors is pornos, a word translated as “fornicators” in the NASB and KJV and as the somehow less tangible “sexually immoral” in the NIV.
Before we dig into the biblical use of the original language, let’s consider the meaning of these interpretations.
According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, fornication means either “voluntary sexual intercourse engaged in by a man, esp. an unmarried man, with an unmarried woman” or “voluntary sexual intercourse engaged in by an unmarried person”. Frankly, the difference between these two definitions is splitting hairs. Either way, if any participant in sexual activity isn’t married, the activity falls into the category of fornication.
As for the NIV’s translation, we’ve got the obvious keyword “immoral”: not in conformity with the accepted standards of proper [sexual] behavior. If I’m to consider this, I have to be doubly cautious about what constitutes my “accepted standards”. After all, geography and culture play a role in what is considered to be acceptable; consider the vast differences between Bible Belt suburbia and the inner city of New York, between indigenous peoples of the Pacific Islands and the residents of rural Afghanistan. If I’m to take the NIV’s interpretation, I must be certain to consider God’s standard as the “accepted standard”, only deferring to other standards when God’s word is silent or indifferent.
Pornos (and its related words) is used in many situations in the New Testament and can sometimes vary in its meaning, being applied in its narrow definition at times and in a broader scope at other times. However, most if its uses are narrow in this scope, and context clues can shed some light on its meaning in such cases.
Let’s see how pornos has been used elsewhere. We see it condemned by the author of Hebrews where it’s compared with Esau’s godlessness (Hebrews 12:16) and indicated to be something that’s not compatible with the undefiled marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4). This latter example is crucial for offering some context on the typical meaning of pornos.
“Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators [pornos] and adulterers [moichos] God will judge.”
When Paul lists pornos here, he refers to fornicators, or those who engage in sexual activity when one or more of the sexual partners is unmarried.
This deliberate juxtaposition (as we’ve discussed elsewhere) indicates that the marriage bed is only undefiled when it is free from these two elements (pornos and moichos). Also, consider the pairing of pornos (a variably translated word) with the clearly-defined moichos, which is reliably and unerringly translated as “adulterer”. This pairing indicates these two have a supplementary set of definitions.
If the word pornos broadly means those who are culturally unacceptable (that is, culturally “sexually immoral”), would it be paired with moichos, a word that explicitly means participants in action (adultery) that is religiously unacceptable but culturally endorsed? If so, then the pairing is arbitrary at best and incoherent at worst, playing both sides of the line of cultural acceptability.
Was Paul instead referring to the moral acceptability per God’s standard? Well, keep in mind that while God’s standard is very clear throughout the Bible on acts outside the marriage, He offers scant details on activity inside the marriage (that is, it doesn’t clearly define unacceptable practices within marriage). If Paul is referring to the moral acceptability per God’s standard, the juxtaposition against the marriage bed in this verse is rather scarily ambiguous. How can the marriage bed remain undefiled through the religious avoidance of undefined practices?
If we set aside the broad-yet-vague “sexually immoral” interpretation of pornos and instead opt for “fornicators”, we find the latter interpretation fits smoothly in the pairing with moichos and the juxtaposition of the undefiled marriage bed.
If pornos means fornication and moichos means adultery, the complementary pair of terms covers all possible sexual activity between all people on earth with one sole exception: one’s current spouse. Not only does this interpretation render coherent the pairings of words, but it also makes the precise defition of an undefiled marriage bed intelligible: don’t engage in sexual activity with a partner that is not your spouse. Concise and clear.
So, back to 1 Corinthians 6:9. When Paul lists pornos here (and in similar situations like in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 and Ephesians 5:5), what does he mean to say?
He refers to fornicators, or those who engage in sexual activity when one or more of the sexual partners is unmarried. So, we must be certain to follow this rule, as it indicates something God despises. Sexuality was made for marriage, and we should refrain from it until that context is set.
The next sinner, the idolater, may seem out of place in this list, but only if you haven’t delved much into the books of the prophets. In truth, eidōlolatrēs fits right in.