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The definition and references of Greek words can only be made by a study of the contexts in the NT where these words occur. In 1972, the definition of porneia was marital unfaithfulness. In 1973, homosexual actions were included. In addition to the two mentioned references, sexual relations between unmarried persons are included in porneia in the NT.

In spite of the fact that the NT has no definition or specification of the different ways porneia can be performed, the GB in 1974 made their own definitions of porneia. And not only that, but they applied these definitions to the marriages of JW. The members of the GB took it upon themselves to decide how sexual relations between married people should be performed, and what they called “lewd” actions between married persons were included in porneia. This created great problems: Husbands were disfellowshipped because of their “lewd” sexual relations with their wives, marriages were dissolved, and children were suffering. After three years, the view of porneia-inside-marriage was abandoned. But irreversible damage had already resulted.

The members of the GB evidently had not learned anything from their mistakes, for they went on to make new definitions of porneia that was not based on the Bible. In 1986, sexual relations with an animal was included in the meaning of porneia. In 1999, deliberate fondling of another person’s sexual organs was included, and in 2019 it was stated that porneia could be performed while being fully clothed and without skin-to-skin contact. In connection with porneia, the GB has “tossed (the Witnesses) about as by waves and carried them hither and thither by every wind of teaching.” (Ephesians 4:14). And because of the demand for absolute obedience, the Witnesses must accept anything that the GB decides, or else be disfellowshipped.

The doctrines taught by Jehovah’s Witnesses are, to a great extent, similar to the doctrines taught by C.T. Russell, and the book The Harp Of God, written by C.F. Rutherford, could almost have been used as a study book for interested persons today.

There are, of course, some differences between the present doctrines of JW and the doctrines found in the seven volumes Studies in the Scriptures by C.T. Russell. The reason for one of the changes of viewpoint is the better understanding of the word mnemeion (“memorial tombs.”) based on discovered Greek manuscripts. All the dead ones in mnemeion will be resurrected. But when we understand that not all dead persons are in mnemion, we realize that not all persons who have lived on the earth will be resurrected, which was the view of C.T. Russell.

In the Watchtower literature from 1970 to the present, the definition of the Greek word porneia has changed. The reason for this, is not the finds of new Greek manuscripts but rather the incompetence of the members of the GB regarding their understanding and treatment of this Greek word. In 1972, the understanding of porneia as a reason for divorce was limited to marital unfaithfulness, that is, sexual relations between a married man or woman and a person of the opposite sex. Homosexual actions were not included in porneia. But in 1973, the meaning of porneia was extended to include homosexual sex.

The only way to understand the meaning of porneia is to look at the contexts in the NT. Only the general meaning “sexual immorality” can be construed from the contexts of the 25 occurrences of the substantive porneia and the seven occurrences of the verb porneuō. And there are three references, 1) to martial unfaithfulness (Matthew 5:32), 2) to sexual relations between unmarried persons (1 Corinthians 7:1, 2), and 3) to homosexual relations (Jude 7).


In 1974, a revolution in the view of the meaning of porneia occurred: Married persons could be guilty of porneia by their sexual relations with their mates inside their marriages. In spite of the fact that porneia in the NT is a general term with only the three references mentioned above, and no particular sexual actions are connected with porneia in the NT, the GB now claimed that particular sexual actions by married persons were porneia. The Watchtower of 15 November 1974, page 703, says:

There are times when lewd practices within the marriage arrangement would provide a basis for a Scriptural divorce. . .

Thus “fornication” is set forth as the only ground for divorce. In the common Greek in which Jesus’ words are recorded, the term “fornication” is por·nei’a, which designates all forms of immoral sexual relations, perversions and lewd practices such as might be carried on in a house of prostitution, including oral and anal copulation.

As to Jesus’ statements about divorce, they do not specify with whom the “fornication” or por·nei’a is practiced. They leave the matter open. That por·nei’a can rightly be considered as including perversions within the marriage arrangement is seen in that the man who forces his wife to have unnatural sexual relations with him in effect “prostitutes” or “debauches” her. This makes him guilty of por·nei’a, for the related Greek verb porneu’o means “to prostitute, debauch.”

Hence, circumstances could arise that would make lewd practices of a married person toward that one’s marriage mate a Scriptural basis for divorce.

Specifying which sexual actions are included in porneia is impossible from the view of the NT, as already mentioned. Nowhere in the NT is porneia defined or specified. To say that porneia includes “perversions and lewd practices such as might be carried on in a house of prostitution” have no linguistic or biblical basis whatsoever. However, this defining qualifier, referring to a house of prostitution, has been repeated over and over again to this day. To say that porneia refers to anal and oral copulation and other lewd practices inside a marriage is to trespass into the private sphere of each married couple.

During the three and a half years the view of porneia-inside-marriage existed, there were huge problems. For example, what was a “lewd practice”? If a wife accused her husband of lewd practices and wanted to divorce him, but the husband did not view their sexual relations as lewd, what then?[1] Who should decide the matter? The elders? Husbands were disfellowshipped because of their sexual relations with their wives inside their marriages. A great number of marriages were dissolved on unbiblical  grounds, and husbands, wives, and children were suffering. Many elders also created problems because they behaved like police officers (see the last clause in the quotation from The Watchtower of 1978 below), and, in fact, interrogated married couples about their sexual lives.

[1]. I have firsthand knowledge of one such example. It dragged on for several months with numerous conversations between the wife and the husband and the elders. Both became depressed, and at last, they were divorced.


Then came the reversal. The Watchtower of 15 February 1978, page 31, showed that porneia could not be applied to married couples and that oral and anal sex inside marriage, which had been viewed as porneia, could not be included in the word porneia.

In the past some comments have appeared in this magazine in connection with certain unusual sex practices, such as oral sex, within marriage and these were equated with gross sexual immorality. On this basis, the conclusion was reached that those engaging in such sex practices were subject to disfellowshipping if unrepentant. The view was taken that it was within the authority of the congregational elders to investigate and act in a judicial capacity regarding such practices in the conjugal relationship.

A careful further weighing of this matter, however, convinces us that, in view of the absence of clear Scriptural instruction, these are matters for which the married couple themselves must bear the responsibility before God and that these marital intimacies do not come within the province of the congregational elders to attempt to control nor to take disfellowshipping action with such matters as the sole basis. [A footnote shows that Romans 1:24–27 relates only to homosexuals and cannot be used in connection with married couples.] Of course, if any person chooses to approach an elder for counsel he or she may do so and the elder can consider Scriptural principles with such a one, acting as shepherd, but not attempting to, in effect, “police” the marital life of the one inquiring. (My italics and emphasis.)

It is important to note that the reason for the reversal was “in view of the absence of clear Scriptural instruction. This means that the GB admitted that their definitions of porneia-inside-marriage were human commandments without any biblical basis. Did the GB do anything with all the problems that their human commandments had caused for hundreds or thousands of Witnesses? No! What could have been done? It would be difficult to restore a marriage that was dissolved for an unbiblical reason. But persons who had been disfellowshipped because of human commandments could be reinstated. But no attempt to do so was made.


The changing views of porneia on the part of GB is an excellent example of the bad effects of the present organization structure, where GB is a government for JW. Absolute obedience was demanded during the three and a half years when the GB said that porneia could be performed inside marriage, and absolute obedience was demanded when the GB abandoned this view. This situation fits very well the words of Paul in Ephesians 4:14 (NWT13).

So we should no longer be babes, tossed about as by waves and carried hither and thither by every wind of teaching by means of the trickery (panourgia) of men, by means of cunning (kybeia) in contriving error.

Paul’s words refer to false teachers who were planning (contriving) error by means of “cunning” (kybeia). This Greek word refers to dice playing and gambling, and methaphorically, the word refers to “cunning.” The word “trickery” includes “craftiness” or “treachery.” The false teachers that Paul referred to did not have good motives, and they tried to persuade everyone to follow their teachings.

The members of the GB always have had good motives. But the organizational system they have created has put them in the same arena as the false teachers. This system is based on two different principles, 1) the members of the GB believe that they have the right to make commandments and regulations that are not found in the Bible, and 2) they require absolute obedience to these commandments and regulations. The complete reversal of the view of porneia-inside-marriage proves that they had been contriving error—though with a good motive. And their demand that all Witnesses had to accept their view of porneia-inside-marriage and then had to accept the very opposite shows that the Witnesses have been “tossed about as by waves and carried hither and thither by every wind of teaching.”

Did the GB learn anything from their mistakes in connection with porneia-inside-marriage? The answer seems to be No because during the intervening years since the 1974-78 debacle, they went on to make new definitions of porneia not found in the NT. In 1986, sex with an animal was included in porneia. In 1999, the meaning was extended to include the deliberate fondling of another person’s sexual organs. And in 2019, the most extreme definition was presented. If a person is intimate with another person other than his or her spouse, this can constitute porneia even when both persons are fully clothed and there is no skin-to-skin contact.


Because the members of the GB believe that they are appointed by God to be a government for JW, they also believe that they can make laws and regulations without a clear scriptural basis for doing so. And they demand absolute obedience in connection with these laws and regulations. Those who are not obedient are disfellowshipped under the pretext that they are causing divisions inside the organization.

The law of porneia-inside marriage existed for three and a half years, and it caused irreparable damage. Husbands were disfellowshipped because of their sexual relations with their wives, marriages were dissolved, and children suffered. The members of the GB realized that they had gone too far, and so that manmade law was annulled. However, the members of the GB have continued to express their personal extreme view of sexual relations. The most extreme law that they have made is that porneia can be performed even if both persons are fully clothed, and there is no skin-to-skin contact. And based on this human law, their marriage partner may demand a divorce.

Rolf Furuli

Author Rolf Furuli

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