Paul uses a cluster of terms in his letters to characterize sexual immorality: porneia, aselgeia, akatharsia, and epithumia/pleonexia . These words are found in various forms in close proximity at several points throughout Paul’s writings.
Paul doesn’t so much name the vices as he characterizes them. Sexual vice is a kind of moral impurity and social indecency, instigated by feelings and desires and that are out of control. When Paul speaks like this, it is partly for modesty’s sake. There are just some things that one doesn’t say in polite company. Mostly, though, it simply wasn’t necessary to provide a clinical description of the pagan world’s sexual habits. Paul’s audience, informed by the scriptures and Jewish mores, knew what he was talking about.
As Paul’s language indicates, some cases are more extreme than others. Some are shocking, with no place in proper society. At the root, though, they all share some common characteristics. They are products of corrupt human nature – misguided passions and misshapen desires – and they render one unclean before God.
Porneia and its related forms normally encompass the full range of illicit sexual behavior from a Jewish point of view. Often translated as “fornication” in older translations, it is not simply sex between unmarried people. In its narrow meaning, it relates to prostitution and is sometimes translated “whoredom”. More commonly, however, it simply refers to any illicit sexual relationship. (See, for example, Porneia and Leviticus 18).
To me, this is one of the harder terms to pin down precisely. Traditional translations don’t help much: licentiousness, lasciviousness, wantonness, sensuality. Except for sensuality, we don’t use those words much today, and I’m not sure that the translators mean “sensuality” in the same way that it is used in modern speech. If the lexicons are correct that aselgeia refers to activities that lack self-restraint, violate public norms and shock the conscience, I think words like “impropriety”, “indecency” and “shamelessness” might be better translations today.
Akatharsia is uncleanness. The word is obviously related to the ritual purity laws established in the Torah and later interpreted by religious teachers. Paul is following Jesus here, in emphasizing moral rather than ritual purity. In Mark 7:20-23, Jesus includes porneia, aselgeia and adultery (moicheia) in a list of things that make a person truly unclean before God. “It is what comes out of a person that defiles,” Jesus said. Jesus’ list of defiling acts, it should be noted, includes many more non-sexual sins than sexual sins. Akatharsia, then, is not an exclusively sexual category although it is often used in the context of sexual misconduct.
Pathos is passion. I would define it as palpable physical and emotional arousal oriented toward an object. Its connection with the human sex drive is obvious. Of course not all passions are bad. That’s why the term is often accompanied by a modifier. When, however, people justify their actions based on pathos, they are setting up their feelings as the proper standard of morality.
Not all passions are sexual in nature, nor are the ways that people act on those passions. For example, feelings of loneliness, heartbreak or despair are not sexual feelings, but they can lead to sexual acting out. People also do the opposite, inappropriately channeling their sexual drives into other forms of misconduct. Pathos, then, can be a powerful feeling that needs relief, not just an expression of human drive and energy. Being ruled by pathos makes us slaves to our emotions and turns people into objects that meet our needs.
Epithumia and Pleonexia
Epithumia is desire. It is often translated “lust” or “covetousness”, but the root is really more neutral: “desire” or “longing” or “to set one’s heart on something.” “Lust” is an interpretive translation based on context. Even when describing evil or unwholesome desires, the word is not limited to sexual matters. The Greek version of the Old Testament uses the verb form of epithumia for “covet” in the Ten Commandments. The desires of a misshapen heart can lead one into sexual sin but it can also lead one into all sorts of other sinful behaviors.
Pleonexia is related to epithumia and is often translated as “greed”. It is an insatiable or unending desire for more. Sometimes this is clearly about money or material possessions, but at other times it is used in the context of sex-related conduct. Some sin-sick hearts may never be satisfied, always looking for something more, something better, something new, something more intense. They will never find it in the objects on which they set their hearts.
Like pathos, sinful epithumia and pleonexia lead people to treat others as objects that fulfill their desires.
For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from porneia; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with pathos of epithumia, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to akatharsia but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you. (1 Thessalonians 4:2-8)
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: porneia, akatharsia, aselgeia, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)
Therefore, I say this and testify in the Lord: You should no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their thoughts. They are darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them and because of the hardness of their hearts. They have become callous and have given themselves up to aselgeia, in pleonexia for every kind of akatharsia. (Ephesians 4:17-19)
But porneia and akatharsia or pleonexia should not even be heard of among you, as is proper for saints. Obscene and foolish talking or crude joking are not suitable, but rather giving thanks. For know and recognize this: Every person who is guilty of porneia, akatharsia or pleonexia, who is an idolater, does not have an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. (Ephesians 5:3)
Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: porneia, akatharsia, pathos, evil epithumia and pleonexia, (which is idolatry). On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. These are the ways you also once followed, when you were living that life. (Colossians 3:5-7)
I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the akatharsia, porneia and aselgeia that they have practiced. (2 Corinthians 12:21)
See also Paul’s extensive use of porneia in 1 Corinthians 5-7.
It is actually reported that there is porneia among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2)
Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! People who commit porneia, idolaters, adulterers (moicheia), the soft, men who lie with men (arsenokoites), thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers — none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. “All things are lawful for me,” but not all things are beneficial. “All things are lawful for me,” but I will not be dominated by anything. “Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food,” and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is meant not for porneia but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. (1 Corinthians 6:9-13)
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a porne? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a porne becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun porneia! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the person who commits porneia sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20)
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” But because of cases of porneia, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. 1 Corinthians 7:1-2
Therefore God gave them over in the epithumia of their hearts to akatharsia, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. For this reason God gave them over to degrading pathos; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. (Romans 1:24-27)