Definition of Terms

By Elmer Moore

The meaning of words is of prime importance when these are used as a means of communication. If one does not know the meaning of words used in a discourse or manuscript, he does not know the thought of the speaker or writer. The Bible is a document that is made known through the medium of words (Eph. 3:1-5). It behooves every earnest student of the Scriptures to endeavor to understand what a writer meant by the word or words he used. Especially is this true of words over which controversy has arisen. To illustrate this fact I call attention to the word baptism. Every student of the Bible knows the importance of understanding this word in the way it is used in the Bible.

Men who are interested in the truth will want to know what a word meant when it was used by a certain writer, and how it was understood by those addressed. Then, and only then, is one qualified to make an application. I believe that it is a foregone conclusion that we must endeavor to understand what a writer (of any document) meant when he wrote, and how those to whom it was written understood. We have witnessed in our generation failures at this point (for instance, the attitudes of the Supreme Court and the Constitution of these United States). I am convinced we have seen men decide a matter on the basis of present interest and need rather than on the actual intent of the Constitution. Brethren, are we doing this very thing regarding the marriage and divorce issue? Are we interpreting Q) certain passages because of a present interest and need rather than the actual intent of the passage? If so, we are making a tragic mistake by interpreting Scripture from sinister motives. With this in n-dnd we approach a study of words used in regard to the “marriage” question. It shall be our purpose to learn how those words are used in the Scriptures.

There are seven words that this article will address. They are: (1) Marriage, (2) Divorce, (3) Bound, (4) Loosed, (5) Bondage, (6) Adultery, and (7) Fornication. We shall note them in this order.


Marriage is a family relationship that has been established by a covenant. In discussing the marriage relationship involving husband and wife, God said, “. . . yet she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Marriage is a covenant that involves terms, promises, and ratification. The terms involve those who have the God-given right to enter into this relationship (the specifics of which will be discussed by others). This covenant involves promises to love, and remain faithful to a mate. This covenant is ratified when whatever is legal in society has been met (Rom. 13:1). The New Testament reveals that there are those whom God identifies as married that “committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9), because they are still bound to another. The New Testament also reveals the fact that one may be unmarried but still bound to a mate (1 Cor. 7:11). Hence, marriage involves a man and woman who have entered into this covenant relationship. This may be with or without God’s approval.


A divorce takes place when this marriage covenant has been dissolved. In our present society a divorce occurs when a legal decree has been issued. This seems to accord with the Bible use of the term (Deut. 24:1). The word basically means to “to let loose from, let go free” (W.E. Vine, p. 331). Like the marriage covenant, this may be with or without God’s approval.

The words “put away” describe what takes place when a divorce occurs. The original for “put away” is “used of divorce, as to dismiss from the house” (J.H. Thayer, p. 66). The King James Version agrees with this. “But I say unto you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery” (Matt. 5:32). Jesus uses the terms put away and divorce interchangeably. In this passage, the one who is put away is the one who is divorced. In other words to put away means “to set free, let go” (W.E. Vine, p. 918).


I shall take the liberty of discussing these two words together. They are used in the same passage and are set in contrast to each other (1 Cor. 7:27); a contrast where opposites occur. When such is the case one can know the meaning of both words if he can learn the meaning of either; for the one would be the opposite of the other. The word “bound” is used three times with reference to marriage (Rom. 7:2; 1 Cor. 7:27,39). The word is defined to mean, “to bind, i.e., put under obligation, sc. (to wit, e.m.) of law, duty etc.” Also, “to be bound to one” (J.H. Thayer, p. 131). Thayer cites the three passages listed above with reference to a husband and wife. Thus the word “bound” carries with it the idea of being under obligation to a mate with respect of law and duty. Please note that this is the way that Paul is using the term in the above passages. Compare Romans 7:2, “For the woman that hath a husband is bound (under obligation to her husband regarding duty enjoined) by law to the husband while he liveth.” To be “loosed” is the opposite of being bound. The term “loosed” is used in 1 Corinthians 7:27 as the opposite of being “bound”; hence, it means not under obligation regarding duty enjoined in marriage.


The word translated “bondage,” which occurs in 1 Corinthians 7:15, is listed by J.H. Thayer in the following passages: Acts 7:6; 2 Peter 2:19; 1 Corinthians 9:19; Romans 6:18,22; Galatians 4:3; Titus 2:3. Thayer defines the word to mean “to make a slave of, reduce to bondage.” He lists Acts 7:6 and 2 Peter 2:19 under this definition. He further notes: “b. Metaph.: To be under bondage, held by constraint of law or necessity, in some matter, 1 Cor. 7:15” (p. 158). It is of importance to note that Paul did not use the same word that he did in vv. 27,29, translated “bound.” He certainly knew this word and had he intended to describe the marriage bond, he would have used it. In order to get remarriage in this passage, I am convinced that some have interpreted it in view of present interest and need! However, this verse will be discussed in another article.


This brings us to the words “adultery” and “fornication.” One would have difficulty in showing any significant difference in these words. Fornication is a term that includes all kinds of illicit sexual relationships. Thayer defines the term to mean “properly illicit sexual intercourse in general.” He goes on to show that the word included those who sell their bodies for sexual uses, whether male or female (pp. 531-532). He defines the word “adultery” to mean, “to have unlawful intercourse with someone else’s wife, to commit adultery.”

In 1 Corinthians 5:1 a married person is said to be guilty of fornication. Hence, the idea that the word “fornication” means only sex on the part of the unmarried is incorrect. I have no intention to enter upon a discussion of the age old controversy about the technical difference between these words. They are sometimes used interchangeably and sometimes are distinct. That both of these terms involve sexual intercourse in their literal meaning is undeniable. It appears that the word “fornication” is a more inclusive term than adultery, including all sins of an illicit sexual act.

The idea that “adultery” describes the act of entering an unlawful marriage, and not that of continuing in it and sexually cohabiting, is without scriptural foundation. We are supposed to believe by this reasoning that the sin involved is that of entering a marriage rather than sexual cohabitation. According to this theory, one may obtain forgiveness for entering this marriage and then he may remain in it, and the actual sexual acts are not involved. My friends, one has to re-define adultery to come up with such an idea. I suppose that the woman of John 8 who was taken in the act of adultery was actually involved in finalizing a marriage ceremony!

I have tried to look at how these terms are used in the New Testament, to understand what they meant at the time they occurred in the sacred text. I only ask that you examine the text where they occur and see if I have succeeded.

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 1, pp. 2, 32
January 4, 1990