Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People

Incarnational Discipleship

GLBT Persons in the Church: The Case for Full Inclusion, 6

I have much neglected this series of posts in setting up the Christian Peace Bloggers blog-ring and with many events, but I haven’t forgotten it. For the previous posts in this series, see one, two, three, four, five, and this addendum. We come, at last, to the New Testament.  We shall have to spend much time (I anticipate 2 posts) on Romans 1, but first, we need to deal with 2 other brief verses in the Pauline epistles that are often cited on this subject.  As we will see, the verses are quite brief, and there are major issues of translation and interpretation.  Because of this, I will first quote the relevant passages while leaving the key terms untranslated.

1 Cor. 6: 9-11:  “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the Reign of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolators, nor adulterers, nor μαλακοι, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers, will inherit the Reign of God. 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 in the Spirit of our God.”

1 Tim. 1:8-11: “Now we know that the Law is good, if anyone uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the Law is not laid down for the righteous, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers, ande murderers of mothers, for manslayers, sexually immoral folk, άρσενοκοίταις, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.”

Both these unusual terms have been translated in some modern translations by the term “homosexuals,” or, in older translations, as “sodomites,” but, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the term “homosexual” (and its equivalent in other languages) did not exist until the late 19th C. when it was coined to refer, as we now do, to persons whose sexual orientation/attraction is toward their own sex and not the opposite sex.  And, as also mentioned, we do not find anywhere in the Hebrew Bible or Greek New Testament, any nouns built off of the place name “Sodom.” The terms “sodomy” and “sodomites” to refer to a range of sexuals behaviors considered illicit, especially between persons of the same sex, dates to the Middle Ages, as we have seen.

These verses include standard “vice lists” which were common in pagan Greek literature, especially from the philosophers, to list disapproved behaviors. Skipping over all the other interesting features about the use of these vice lists in the NT, let us work with our strange terms left untranslated.  Μαλακοι (“malakoi”) literally means “soft ones.” Some translations have rendered it “effeminate males,” but since what counts as “effeminate” appearance or behavior varies from culture to culture, we have to probe further into the likely background. Robin Scroggs, William Countryman, Victor Paul Furnish, George Edwards, and many other NT scholars think that there are two common Greek practices that Paul is condemning in the 1 Cor. passage. First, was the widespread (but often condemned even by Greek philosophers like Plato) practice in the Greco-Roman world of rich men taking young male protoges and mentoring them–but with part of that mentoring including using them sexually.  In this VERY patriarchal society, men married to have offspring, but women were not considered intellectually or spiritually equal to men, and so it was improper to attempt having any “soulmate” kind of mutual love between the sexes, even between spouses.  One turned, instead, to other males. In Plato’s ideal, this male-to-male love was non-sexual (from where we get the term “platonic love” or “platonic relationships”), but Plato himself acknowledged that this ideal was often not met–both in terms of equality and in terms of the love being non-sexual. Instead, these rich elite males would take young boys who were barely pubescent and forcibly make them the passive partners in sex. They made them “soft” or “effeminate” by forcing them to shave body hair, etc., to minimize their masculine appearance.  It is possible that this is the practice that Paul is condemning in 1 Cor. (and it is certainly one part of what is in view in Rom. as we will see in a future post), but the problem is that if μαλακοι refers primarily to these “effeminized males” then Paul would seem to be blaming the victims in saying that they will not enter the Reign of God.

Another possibility, which I think more likely in 1 Cor. 6, is that the “soft ones” are male prostitutes which we know existed in the 1st C. Greco-Roman world. Especially common were male temple prostitutes and we have evidence that there were some at the temple in Corinth. If this is the reference for μαλακοι, then Paul is condemning male prostitution, especially temple prostitution, which, we have seen earlier in this series, was a major factor behind the condemnation of male on male sex acts in Leviticus.

The term used in 1 Timothy is άρσενοκοίταις (“arsenokoitais”) which appears only here.  It appears to have been a word that the Pauline disciple who wrote 1 Timothy (or Paul, himself, if Paul is the author) made up to describe a practice that he found repugnant but had no ready word for. It combines the terms for “male” and “bed.” The reference is clearly sexual, coming directly in the vice list after πόρνοις (“pornois”), “sexually immoral ones.” Robin Scroggs, again, argues that this probably refers to those men who used the male prostitutes’ services and/or to those male child abusers who effeminized and forced themselves on their young protoges.

If this is accurate, then these two verses are condemning not just ANY FORM of male-to-male sex, but a very exploitive (and even idolatrous in the case of temple prostitution) form. The contemporary equivalent would not be gay couples in longterm relationships trying to get permission to be married, but the horrible “Man-Boy Love Association” which is condemned even by most gay activists and which argues that it should be legally and morally okay for middle aged or older men to have sex with teen and pre-teen boys! I condemn the Man-Boy Love Association and would do so even without specific guidance from these Pauline verses because such relationships are clearly harmful and exploitive.  As we have seen throughout this series, exploitive sex is alway, ALWAYS wrong. (This is why I am glad that Kentucky has become one of the first U.S. states to make marital rape illegal, even though the very CONCEPT of marital rape was unknown until the recent past. For most of history and most cultures throughout history, men were considered to own their wives and wives had no right to ever say “no” to husbands when the latter wanted sex.)

Would Paul (and the Pauline author of 1 Timothy) also have condemned non-exploitive same-sex relationships?  Those, like myself, who argue for revising traditional church teaching and welcoming and affirming gay & lesbian Christians in our churches argue that we do not know the answer to this because Paul does not address the questions being asked today. He had no knowledge of non-exploitive same-sex relationships analogous to heterosexual marriage.  Traditionalists argue that Paul also condemned even loving same-sex acts and relationships among equals.  But traditionalists do not have much to work with in these two brief references. They rest almost their entire case on Romans 1: 24-27.  It is to that passage that we shall turn in the next installment in this series.  Stay tuned.

January 19, 2011 - Posted by | "homosexuality", Biblical interpretation, ethics, GLBT issues


  1. Actually, the term arsenokoitai also appears in 1 Cor. 6:9, right after malakoi.

    Comment by Josh Rowley | January 20, 2011 | Reply

  2. […] Two Brief Texts from Paul (with major issues in translation). […]

    Pingback by GLBT Persons in the Church: Index « Pilgrim Pathways: Notes for a Diaspora People | January 20, 2011 | Reply

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