whatever happened to
RUSSELL D. MOORE
D. Moore is the author of Adopted for Life and a senior
editor at Touchstone
where this article originally appeared.
David, did you do any fornicating this weekend?" This line,
attributed to Richard Nixon, is fixed in American presidential
lore as the former president's inquiry to talk-show host David
Frost before their famous post-Watergate interview. The question
is memorable because the word "fornicating" carries
all the same connotations that many associate with Nixon himself.
It seems awkward, out-of-date, censorious, and kind of Inquisitorial.
is a parable. 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.
MORE THAN A WORD
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
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
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.
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.
own denomination, the Southern Baptists, maintains a consensus,
with the rest of the Church in its Catholic, Orthodox, and historical
Protestant forms, that sexual activity is biblically limited
to the marriage union. My denomination has commendably sought
to shore up this ethic with good denominational programs encouraging
teenagers and young adults in our Southern Baptist churches
to maintain this moral standard. While studies show that such
initiatives have some effectiveness in at least delaying sexual
intercourse among young singles, it is not at all clear that
Southern Baptists and other Evangelicals have succeeded in creating
a sexual counterculture.
his book Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives
of American Teenagers (Oxford University Press), sociologist
Mark Regnerus shows that abstinence-pledge programs are most
effective with younger adolescents, and that the "appeal
of the pledge diminish[es] as the sex drive increases with age."
Regnerus demonstrates that Evangelical Protestant teenagers
are more likely to engage in sex while unmarried than their
Mormon, Jewish, and even mainline liberal Protestant peers.
also demolishes the common notion that these virginity pledges
are the driving force in what many of us have seen anecdotally
for years -- namely, Evangelical teenagers clinging to a technical
virginity through sexual practices other than intercourse. Regnerus
acknowledges that the technical virginity charade happens, but
he says it has nothing to do with seeking to avoid some kind
of religious guilt. It's instead a "future-oriented, self-focused
(but not anti-family), risk-aversive, parent-driven (and subtly
class-oriented)" middle-class morality.
put it bluntly, teenagers of whatever religious persuasion in
contemporary America are more likely to delay intercourse and
to substitute oral sex or some other form of gratification for
intercourse because they are trying to avoid risks to their
future economic well-being. They are technical virgins because
they want to go to college rather than because they want not
to go to hell. As conservative Evangelicals grow more socially
and economically ascendant, Regnerus predicts, they will be
more likely to adopt the same forms of sexually tolerant risk
management focused on economic viability.
brings us back to language. 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)?
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."
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
ACT OF INFIDELITY
here, again, is where our language betrays us. We still haven't,
for the most part, lost the language of adultery. While someone
might speak of an affair, rarely does one speak of extramarital
sex -- except for the sociologists and sex therapists. The spouse
cheated on is more likely to use a word filled with the gravity
of adultery. And it is quite easy for couples to see the ongoing
consequences -- even in marriages that stay together -- of adulterous
though, the language of premarital sex brings with it the illicit
assumption that the problem is resolved once the timing is brought
in line with the activity. After all, if the sex was premarital
and now one is married, it would seem that the event in question
is all in the past. My colleague S. M. Hutchens notes the wrongheadedness
of such a view, ignoring as it does the real and abiding attachments
made by illicit sexuality (see Interlocking Hearts,
couples fail to see the power of the spiritual warfare they're
up against if they see the premarital sex as something in the
past. Fornication is, itself, an act of infidelity. In the act
of fornication, I am sinning against a future or a potential
spouse because I am indulging my desires apart from the self-giving
of covenant union.
THE ROOT PROBLEM
can be forgiven by the gospel of the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
So can fornication or any other sin (except, of course, as our
Lord teaches us, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, but that's
another story). But because we've so domesticated fornication,
it seems to me that adultery is in some ways easier to repent
of, because it's easier to know what repentance looks like.
who has committed adultery, if he is repentant, understands
something of how he has broken trust, attacked a covenant. He
is able, then, to see that, even when his wife has forgiven
him, he must invest years in rebuilding that trust, in showing
what John the Baptist calls "fruits in keeping with repentance"
(Luke 3:8). He is able to understand why his wife cannot wholly
surrender herself to him as easily as she could before. After
all, if he'll cheat with one woman, why wouldn't he cheat with
another? He's an adulterer, and he must show himself to be faithful.
premarital sex, on the other hand, marriage seems to have fixed
the problem. But the fornicator now married, unlike the repentant
adulterer now caught, often doesn't see the ongoing nature of
his problem. Often he finds it difficult to lead his wife spiritually,
or to fully gain her trust. Sometimes this shows up immediately;
sometimes years later. The root problem is the same. She knows
that they have sinned. And, as Alice von Hildebrand says, reflecting
on the shame of the primeval couple in the account of the Fall
in Genesis 3: "Nothing drives a couple further apart than
she knows, especially if he professed to be a Christian before
the marriage, that his libido is stronger than his conscience.
If he's able to justify his fornication, he will justify his
adultery. They are not two separate things. They are two different
assaults on the same thing: the uniting and self-giving covenant
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.
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
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).