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1 Thessalonians 4:3–8 (BE:NT): 3 This is God’s will, you see: he wants you to be holy, to keep well away from fornication. 4 Each of you should know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, 5 not in the madness of lust like Gentiles who don’t know God. 6 Nobody should break this rule, or cheat a fellow Christian in this area; the Lord is the avenger in all such matters, just as we told you before and testified most solemnly. 7 For God did not call us to a dirty life, but in holiness. 8 Anyone who rejects this, then, is not rejecting a human command, but the God who gives his holy spirit to you.

In this passage, Paul uses the Greek word for sexual immorality often translated as fornication. But then he goes on to describe what he's talking about, which appears to be a thing one believer does to harm another, rather than something two believers do together. Is Paul talking about rape here? If not, what is he talking about?

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    The fourth verse refers to self-control; see also 1 Corinthians 7:5. The fifth verse refers to pagan orgies, such as the Bacchanalia and Dionysian mysteries.
    – Lucian
    May 11, 2021 at 15:13

8 Answers 8

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In 1 Thess. 4 Paul provides counsel with respect to several commandments and, as noted in the OP, chastity is a principal emphasis. Paul's counsel to the Corinthians sheds some light here:

16 Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?

17 If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are. (1 Cor. 3:16-17)

The human body is a sacred creation of God. One who commits sexual immorality not only defiles himself, but drags someone else down with him--fornication is indeed a way that one person can harm another. Paul doesn't hold back in condemning such a selfish and spiritually destructive act.

Rape is indeed evil and roundly condemned in scripture--but that's not what Paul is talking about here. He's making the point that sexual immorality of any kind is a serious violation of God's supreme creation--His children.

Let's consider how he follows this up:

But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another. (1 Thess. 4:9)

In contradistinction to the violation of the sanctity of another human being, Paul teaches us to love one another. Lust sometimes conflated with love, but it is the antithesis of love. Lust is selfish, love is selfless. For a brutally honest discussion of the principles of chastity taught in scripture, my thoughts here.


This may not sound like 21st century philosophy--because it isn't. Paul neither believed in nor taught 21st century philosophy.

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1 Thessalonians 4:3 New International Version

It is God's will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality;

The focal Greek word here is porneia, from which we get the English word pornography.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon

STRONGS NT 4202: πορνεία
a. of illicit sexual intercourse in general ...

b. πορνεία is used metaphorically of the worship of idols

Nowhere in the Bible is this word being associated with rape. The dictionary meaning does not convey this sense either. The context indicates more of adultery rather than rape.

Barns points this out:

no one should be guilty of illicit intercourse with the wife of another. Many expositors - as Hammond Whitby, Macknight, Rosenmuller, and others, suppose that this is a prohibition of adultery, and there can be no doubt that it does include this.

Paul repeated this command in Ephesians 5:3

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people.

and in Colossians 3:5

Put to death, therefore, the components of your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry.

It seemed to be a common problem in these churches.

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The Greek word "πορνείας" transliterated as "porneias" that is used in 1 Thessalonians 4:3 is the broadest word for sexual sin in the Bible. Any kind of sexual immorality, lust, rape, incest, etc. might be addressed by this word.

Because the English "fornication" can include sexual sins which are not limited to adultery, it is often used, and thought to mean, illicit relations between unmarried persons. It is used of harlotry, whoredom, and prostitution, including that of the temple prostitutes (e.g. 2 Chronicles 21:11). Perhaps because of that latter possibility, it is also used in the Bible to refer to idolatry--a spiritual form of adultery.

The Strong's definition for this Greek word is:

πορνεύω porneúō, porn-yoo'-o; from G4204; to act the harlot, i.e. (literally) indulge unlawful lust (of either sex), or (figuratively) practise idolatry:—commit (fornication).

Notice the focus on "lust" as opposed to a specific act.

For the Old Testament equivalent, Strong's provides:

זָנָה zânâh, zaw-naw'; a primitive root [highly fed and therefore wanton]; to commit adultery (usually of the female, and less often of simple fornication, rarely of involuntary ravishment); figuratively, to commit idolatry (the Jewish people being regarded as the spouse of Jehovah):—(cause to) commit fornication, × continually, × great, (be an, play the) harlot, (cause to be, play the) whore, (commit, fall to) whoredom, (cause to) go a-whoring, whorish.

"Fornication" applies when adultery does not--adultery being a more specific category involving one or more married persons. This is why "adultery" and "fornication" get separate mentions in some places.

For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, (Mark 7:21, KJV)

In this text in Mark, the word "fornications" is "πορνεῖαι" (porneiai) and the word "adulteries" is "μοιχεῖαι" (moicheiai).

It is easy to see that there are many types of sexual sin. They are not all the same. In the case of adultery, it is a form of theft--stealing from someone else their partner. It matters not if the two participants are consenting, it is still stealing.

Rape is another category where one partner is not consenting. For that partner, the sin of fornication may not apply, as it was not his or her choice to be violated. (This assumes, of course, that the act was unprovoked.)

"Fornication" was applied to the homosexual acts of Sodom and Gomorrha. Some might say the sin of these cities was not so much that of homosexuality, but hedonism in general.

Even as Sodom and Gomorrha, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire. (Jude 1:7, KJV)

The word "fornication" might even encompass sexual sin of a personal/private nature, i.e. "solo sex." Pornography, which comes from the same root word, but which is neither rape nor physical adultery (it is adultery of the heart, according to Jesus), is fornication. Lust of any form is under its umbrella.

Paul seems to be addressing sexual immorality of any form, in saying:

That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; (1 Thessalonians 4:4, KJV)

That "possess his vessel" implies continence, which might be an uncommon word but is certainly the right word for this context. Its negative is the word selected for the translation of 2 Timothy 3:3.

Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, (2 Timothy 3:3, KJV)

Broadly speaking, it refers to lack of self-control. But applied to sexual immorality, it means one is not able to keep one's passions in check. Any lack of self-control in this area harms not only the individual, but also others around him or her, even though we may not fully see how.

Conclusion

The "sin" Paul addresses seems to be that of uncontrolled sexual desire, i.e. lust. When one is unable to control sexual desire, the outworking of this may come in multiple categories of sexual sin, including adultery, rape, and even pornography--which may not have been a category available in Paul's day. Essentially, Paul is speaking broadly, and not addressing a particular category of sexual sin. Any form of sexual sin will defile the person who might otherwise be "holy."

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The source I use for an answer is a highly reputable one that has been doing the rounds for 300 years. It is based on the Authorised Version but the verses in question are clearer in this more literal translation than the one used by the OP. This is how they read:

"For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel [body] in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified. For God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness. He therefore that despiseth, despiseth not man, but God, who hath also given unto us his holy Spirit."

Sadly, this western generation's ideas about sex cause confusion as to the meaning when, in Paul's day, he spoke to Christians with crystal clarity about how sexual immorality (of any kind, including lustful thoughts) shows a despiteful attitude to God's sanctifying gift of the Holy Spirit. Today, however, people seem to think that if adults consent to any kind of sex, that's okay. Great fuss is made about rape when it's discovered, yet the lack of real effort to find and punish rapists indicates double standards. There's just been a horrifying expose of one London policeman having committed 49 crimes against women, including 24 rapes with 12 women, over an 18 year period while serving as a policeman. The system failed many opportunities to flush him out. It only came to light because he finally confessed. A culture of misogyny is rife, world-wide, and sexual abuses have already been exposed in many religious groups. The sexual abuses going on in Paul's day may have had a different dirty colour, but Paul's warnings speak just as clearly to Christians today, much of it now in colourful pornography on the Internet.

We get our English word 'pornography' from the Greek "πορνείας" - "porneias". But how many Christians today think they are sinning against God by watching pornography? Don't they know that that inflames lust, which Jesus said was just as sinful as actually committing adultery - Matthew 5:28? Also, that lusts lead to murder - John 8:44? Now, here are expository snippets on the verses in question:

"2. The manner of [Paul's] exhortation - that they would abound more and more in holy walking, or excel in those things that are good... (2.) We must not only persevere to the end, but we should grow better, and walk more evenly and closely with God.

  1. (1.) They had received of them who had converted them to Christianity, or been taught of them, how they ought to walk. Observe, the design of the gospel is to teach men not only what they should believe, but also how they ought to live... To talk well without living well will never bring us to heaven: for the character of those who are in Christ Jesus is this: They walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit...

II. A caution against uncleanness, this being a sin directly contrary to sanctification [being set apart as holy unto God]. 1. It is expressed in these words, That you should abstain from fornication (v. 3), by which we are to understand all uncleanness whatsoever, either in a married or an unmarried state. Adultery is of course included, though fornication is particularly mentioned. And other sorts of uncleanness are also forbidden, of which it is a shame even to speak, though they are done by too many in secret. All that is contrary to chastity in heart, speech, and behaviour, is contrary to the command of God in the decalogue, and contrary to that holiness which the gospel requires...

The body is here called the vessel of the soul which dwells therein, (so 1 Sa. 21:5) and it must be kept pure from defiling lusts... To indulge the lusts of concupiscence is to live and act like heathens: Even as the Gentiles who know not God (v. 5). The Gentiles, and especially the Grecians, were commonly guilty of some sins of uncleanness which were not so evidently forbidden by the light of nature. But they did not know God, nor his mind or will, so well as Christians know, and should know, that his will, namely our sanctification in this branch of it... Christians should not walk as unconverted Gentiles, in lasciviousness, lusts, excess of wine, revellings, banquetings etc. (1 Pet. 4:3) because those who are in Christ have crucified the flesh with its affections and lusts...

We may understand these words, That no man go beyond or defraud his brother (v. 6) in any matter - en to pragmati - in this matter of which the apostle is speaking in the preceding and following verses, namely the sin of uncleanness. Some understand these words as a further warning and caution against injustice and oppression, all fraud and deceit in our dealings with men..." Matthew Henry's Commentary, p 1876 columns 2 and 3

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Paul's instruction in 1 Thess 4:3-8 is structured in a very simple way. Let me set this out to make it clearer:

For it is God’s will that you should be holy:

  • You must abstain from sexual immorality; [Greek: πορνεία]
  • each of you must know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in lustful [ἐπιθυμίας] passion like the Gentiles who do not know God;
  • and no one should ever violate or exploit [πλεονεκτέω] his brother in this regard, because the Lord will avenge all such acts, as we have already told you and solemnly warned you.

For God has not called us to impurity, but to holiness. Anyone, then, who rejects this command does not reject man but God, the very One who gives you His Holy Spirit.

Thus, Paul lists three separate matters that (presumably among other things) can defile one's personal holiness:

  • sexual immorality
  • passionate licentiousness (a term broader than the above)
  • embezzlement/exploitation/defrauding

Thus, Paul is NOT making any attempt to define sexual immorality as exploitation - the three matters above are separate from each other.

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Rape is just an extreme outward and illegal expression of sin. However, divine perspective is loftier, greater and deeper, as well as more mystical than any legality. Even consensual lasciviousness between two or more actors (like in der Grupensex) is a sin for which divine vengeance comes upon those actors, regardless they decently pay taxes and are considered as legally impeccable citizens in the records of the local police office.

Hell will be full of legally impeccable un-repented sinners, as well as Heavens will be comfortable for many a legal violator, who repent those violations, and even who do not repent legal violations for they did those violations for the sake of God and conscience (like, if I steal from a stingy rich man for the sake of feeding somebody dying of hunger, I am legally guilty, but a good man in God's eyes; moreover, would be a despicable and cowardly nerd in God's eyes had I not stolen, if the steeling was the only means to save the mentioned hungry man; "dilige et quod vis fac" /"love and do whatever you wish"/ as our dear St Augustine says).

P.S. Christ's vengeance is, however, not blind and callous as the legal punishment, but this vengeance is expression of His unconditional love, for He does not want His creatures, His images and likenesses, to be subjected to and enslaved by the filthy elements of sin, but to His deifying grace. Thus, He protects and saves us through this "vengeance".

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If, then, reasoning appears to hold the mastery over the passions which stand in the way of temperance, such as gluttony and lust (4 Maccabees 1:3)

εἰ ἄρα τῶν σωφροσύνης κωλυτικῶν παθῶν ὁ λογισμὸς φαίνεται ἐπικρατεῖν γαστριμαργίας τε καὶ ἐπιθυμίας (4 Maccabees 1:3)

'Verily, when the Law orders us not to covet, it should, I think, confirm strongly the argument that the Reason is capable of controlling covetous desires, even as it does the passions that militate against justice. (4 Maccabees 2:6)

καίτοι ὅτε μὴ ἐπιθυμεῖν εἴρηκεν ἡμᾶς ὁ νόμος πολὺ πλέον πείσαιμ᾽ ἂν ὑμᾶς ὅτι τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν κρατεῖν δύναται ὁ λογισμός ὥσπερ καὶ τῶν κωλυτικῶν τῆς δικαιοσύνης παθῶν (4 Maccabees 2:6)

Put to death, then, your members that are upon the earth -- whoredom, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and the covetousness, which is idolatry -- YLT Colossians 3:5

Νεκρώσατε οὖν τὰ μέλη τὰ ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, πορνείαν ἀκαθαρσίαν πάθος ἐπιθυμίαν κακήν, καὶ τὴν πλεονεξίαν, ἥτις ἐστὶν εἰδωλολατρία, NAS27 Colossians 3:5

The Greek word for immorality applies to folly, from lust recited by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4:5 and also to gluttony and covetous desires, as we understand it from the book of 4 Maccabees, chapter 1 to 2.

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I've been researching this since I first asked the question. I found this article very helpful:

https://www.academia.edu/1368753/PORNEIA_The_Making_of_a_Christian_Sexual_Norm

It is an excellent discussion of how porenia was used by different groups over time. It's not perfect, I think it misses some pretty critical points of Paul's usage in 1 Thessalonians 4 and 1 Corinthians 7. But it's fantastic context for this discussion, especially the way it brings sex slavery into the center of it.

Highlights: Greco-Roman women were largely either honorable (under the protection of a man) or dishonorable (somewhere on the slave/prostitute spectrum). (Dishonorable women were not allowed to wear veils to cover their hair, which were understood to be part of their genitals in Greek thought, helping explain 1 Corinthians 11.) Adultery was sex with an honorable woman that didn't belong to you, with or without her consent, and was a crime a man committed against another man. By comparison, in at least some historical contexts, porneia included sex with "dishonorable" women, who were often slaves. The use of slaves for sexual purposes was (and remains) rape. Yet the Greeks and Romans considered it good and beneficial for the larger culture, because if a man was raping slaves, at least he wasn't running around having sex with women that actually mattered...

So when Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4 uses porneia to describe a sin committed against a fellow Christian, it seems probable that this was his intended usage. The Church would likely have included both sex slaves and men who would previously have been raping those sex slaves. Paul would have none of that: "The one who rejects this is not rejecting human authority but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you."

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