In the Christian community the sinfulness of pornography is sometimes downplayed. Many write it off as a harmless way to pass time or to relieve stress. Others say that the Bible only prohibits physical adultery, and that pornography is not explicitly prohibited by God’s Word. We will look closely at Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians to determine whether or not these statements are true and how seriously a Christian should take pornography in their own life.
It is true that the English word pornography does not appear in any of the English translations; however, the Greek word that serves as the basis for the English word does appear often in the Bible and it is always prohibited. The Greek word porneia is the underlying word often translated as sexual immorality in many modern translations such as the English Standard Version and as fornication in others such as the King James Version. Regardless of how it is translated, the idea behind the word is of fornication or habitual sexual immorality.
With that general understanding of the term, we will now turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 for a deeper study to determine whether pornography should be an acceptable practice in the life of a Christian. Paul begins this section of his teaching by reminding his readers that he already taught them how they “ought to walk and to please God”, and encourages them to do so even more.
He continues in verse 3, “for this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality.” This is very important because Paul says plainly, “this is the will of God.” It’s not often in scripture that we see God’s will explicitly stated in such a way. In fact, Paul only says this one other time in his writings. There is no confusion here – God wants us to be sanctified. This is not some general vague statement Paul makes, allowing us to fill in the blanks as we see fit. Over the next several verses, Paul begins to list what it means to be sanctified.
First on the list as he concludes verse three is to, “abstain from sexual immorality.” The phrase sexual immorality is the same word porneias referring to illicit sexual intercourse in general. Does pornography fit the bill here?
To answer the question, let’s move briefly to Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:28, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” There is no doubt that pornography is intent on creating lust in the mind of the person viewing it. The one viewing has committed adultery “in his heart” therefore according to Jesus.
The next question is whether or not committing adultery in one’s heart count as illicit sexual intercourse? I believe it does, and this can be seen later in Matthew 15. Jesus says in verse 18, “but what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality…” Jesus’ statement here shows how the thoughts of the heart can defile someone which is the opposite of sanctification. The fact that Jesus clearly separates adultery and sexual immorality further shows that it is not only physical adultery that is prohibited.
So Paul’s commandment to abstain from sexual immorality and Jesus’ teaching line up, unsurprisingly. Lustful thoughts defile us. Refraining from sexual immorality is a step toward sanctification which is God’s will for us. Therefore, pornography is counter to God’s will because instead of sanctifying us, it defiles us
Paul continues to describe sanctification in verse four, “that each of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God.” Pornography is often viewed in binge form for hours at a time with the viewer unable to stop. Moreover, the person consuming pornography often does it because they feel as though they are being deprived either by their singleness or by “not getting enough” from their wife. These actions do not exhibit “knowing how to control one’s body.”
I am not minimizing the challenges of singleness or even of marriage when sexual expectations are not being met. These are serious matters; however, being able to work through these struggles is a part of sanctification. Paul says that when we fail to control our own body in holiness and honor, not only are we not growing in sanctification, but we are actually acting as though we do not even believe that God exists!
Further in verse seven, Paul says, “For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness.” This further reinforces Paul’s point of God’s will for us. To act in ways that defile us is in direct opposition to the life that God has called us for.
Paul concludes powerfully in verse eight, “Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you.” On one level this disregards God because as Paul has shown, God’s will and calling for us is our sanctification. Viewing pornography is ignoring God’s will for our lives. It also reinforces what Paul said earlier in this letter already that he is only teaching what God has told him (see 2:13), so these words are not Pauls’ but God’s word.
But the reference to the Holy Spirit in verse 8 is very interesting and adds extra weight to the section of Paul’s teaching, because it shows the trinitarian nature of this teaching.
Paul begins this section of teaching in verse 1 by showing how to please God the Father by showing what God’s will is (verse 3). Throughout the section he urges the Thessalonians “in the Lord Jesus” and instructs “through the Lord Jesus” (verse 2). Finally, he mentions the Holy Spirit, saying we know God the Father’s command because it is revealed by God the Son, and we are strengthened by God the Spirit to carry out that command in our lives. We are rejecting all three persons of the trinity when we view pornography.
So looking at pornography is much more than a harmless way to pass time. It is harmful and destructive to one’s mind, one’s marriage and the people who portrayed in them. But it’s even more than that. It is a sin against the triune God and a disregard for God’s will as clearly laid out in scripture.
May God grant grace to those who struggle in light of this truth.
Souter, A. (1917). A Pocket Lexicon to the Greek New Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press ↩︎