This entry is part [part not set] of 8 in the series Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church

After two weeks of listening to testimonies and putting flesh on the “issue,” we dove back into the text last Tuesday night in week 8 of our Homosexuality class. As I warned my students, this week was going to involve some nitty gritty, in-depth, bust-out-your-lexicon interpretive questions.

After finding our classroom (you had to have been there…), we spent the first half of class finishing our discussion of Romans 1. Last week, we summed up the logic of Paul’s argument, and this week, we answered all of the “what about this” and “what about that” sort of pushbacks to the traditional view. Isn’t Romans 1 just about idolatry? Or lust? Or seven-vices-by-jim-fetter-40124360158heterosexuals having homosexual sex? Or isn’t Paul just talking about pederasty (sex with boys), or prostitution, or other forms of non-consensual, exploitative sex? If he is, then Romans 1 would be irrelevant for gay men and women seeking a consensual, monogamous, no-sex-until-marriage sort of relationship.

But after looking at the historical situation, literary context, rhetorical context, and the meaning of the phrase para physin (“against nature”) in light of its Greco-Roman and Jewish context (yes, it was a tedious first hour of class!), we concluded that Paul’s words do indeed apply to all forms of homosexual sex—not just the bad ones. But I’ve already written a bunch of blogs, perhaps too many, on Romans 1, so I’ll sum up the second hour of class.

I haven’t actually blogged about Paul’s references to same-gender sex elsewhere in his letters. So this part of the class was new territory for me. On two other occasions, Paul mentions some form of same-sex eroticism, but there’s a massive debate about what he’s talking about. Here are the passages:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Cor 6:9-10)

“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim 1:9-10)

In these passages, Paul mentions some sort of homosexual activity in a long-list of vices, and the words he uses—malakoi and arsenokoitai—have been subject to much debate. Hence Daniel Helminiak’s evaluation that “There is no real certainty about what these texts mean…Nobody knows for certain what these words mean, so to use them to condemn homosexuals is really dishonest and unfair” (Helminiak, What the Bible Really Says, 107).

I appreciate Helminiak’s interpretive honesty, but I’m afraid that his conclusion is terribly overstated. The Greek word malakoi (and its Latin equivalent) was widely used in the Greco-Roman world to refer to effeminate men. The word doesn’t describe guys who were artistic and bad at sports, but men who crossed gender boundaries in significant ways. Malakoi were men who dressed like women, acted like women, talked like women, shaved their body hair like women, and—not always but most of the time—were known for having sex with other men, just like women. Not everyone who was malakoi (lit. “soft”) received sex from other men, but many did. And since the word is listed after sexual immorality and adultery, and before arsenokoitai (a sexual term as we’ll see), it’s almost certain that Paul had in mind not just men with a limp wrists who couldn’t throw a football, but precisely men who received sex from other men. Or, as the note in the ESV correctly states: “the passive partner in homosexual sex.” Such usage was common in Paul’s Greco-Roman world.

This interpretation is confirmed by the meaning of arsenokoitai. Now, to be fair, arsenokoitai never occurs in all of the ancient Greek literature prior to 1 Corinthians 6. Paul creates this word, but not ex nihilio. That is, he coins this term by smashing two Greek words together: arsen (male) and koite (bed), or “one who lies with another male.” Where does Paul find his inspiration for such a word? Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—the two passages in his Bible that mention and condemn consensual homosexual sex.

The Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13 reads:

kai hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos.

Even if you don’t know Greek, you can tell that the two words arsenos (“male”) and koiten (“lying”) look a lot like the one word arsenokoitai used in 1 Cor 6 and 1 Tim 1. That’s because Paul’s word is created out of Leviticus’ two words. In fact, the Hebrew original (mishkab zakur) of Greedy1Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was widely used in Rabbinic literature to refer to male-male homosexual sex (b. Sanh. 54a; ib Sabb. 17b; b. Sukkah 29a; y. Ber 9.50.13c) and its likely that Paul—a Hebrew of Hebrews—is forging a Greek version of the Hebrew phrase. Most importantly, Paul is creating a term about homosexual sex from a passage (Leviticus 18 and 20) that prohibits consensual, same-gender sex.

The fact that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 references “the law” and also uses the term arsenokoitai, derived from Leviticus 18 and 20, suggests quite strongly that Paul is thinking of Leviticus 18 and 20 when he mentions homosexual sex in his list of vices.

Sure, there’s work to be done here. But after the words are studied, it seems clear that malakoi and arsenokoitai refer to the passive and active partners in homosexual sex. I don’t think Paul’s audience would have been terribly shocked or thrown off by Paul’s words. Paul is simply assuming the view held unanimously in Hellenistic Judaism that same-gender sexual relations are against the Creator’s will.

But—and here’s what it gets dicey—so is greed. So is heterosexual immorality (porn?). So is stealing (burning the latest Coldplay album and giving it to your friend). So is slander (Facebook comments?). Whatever we say about homosexual relations, we must also say about all the other sins mentioned in Paul’s list of vices.

Consistency. It’s a tough and often unpracticed virtue.

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  1. My question is based on the last paragraph. Something I have seen frequently is comparing homosexual sin to others. I do this myself stating that my heterosexual lust is no better than homosexual lust.

    I have seen this as an argument saying that homosexuals should be allowed into all the positions that others are or else it is inconsistent. I personally wonder where the heart of the person is on the matter. For example to say someone that is in a homosexual relationship can’t be in a certain ministry leadership role and someone who is unrepentantly indulging in pornography can’t be in the same role seems right to me. If however there is a person that struggles with heterosexual pornography, that person identifies it as sin, hates it as God hates it, and on occasion indulges in it followed by confession, repentance, and prayer for God to remove that sin from their life then I don’t have a problem with this person being in basically any leadership role. Likewise if someone is homosexual and struggles with pornography in the same way I have don’t have a problem with that person. I simply think of them as struggling with sin and working out their salvation under the Grace of God.

    So my question is, shouldn’t the primary focus in dealing with people that struggle with this sin opposed to other sins, be living before God in a repentant attitude? I don’t look at homosexuality as the issue so much as denying its sinfulness and living in unrepentance as the main problem.

  2. I notice that all the other vices in the lists harm others in one way or another. And isn’t that consistent with why any vice would be prohibited? Also, the majority of the vices reveal a depravity influenced by hedonism. It’s very hard to imagine how the self-sacrificial commitment of marriage is harmful to others or reflects depravity emerging from hedonism.

    It’s interesting that arsenokoitai is right before vices that violate social justice such as thievery and greed. And malakoi, too, brings to mind the idea of encouraging oppressive, degrading acts as one willingly lowers himself to a submissive (“womanly”) place in society. They both may be vices sexual in nature, but should we neglect the possibility that they’re more than that? Even in 1 Timothy, if we take two vices at a time, it could be said that arsenokoitai is paired with enslavers, another practice of social injustice.

    I know where you’ve landed with Romans 1, but I still don’t understand how we can dismiss the significance that it’s in the context of excess (nay, burning!) lust. If Paul believed all men were heterosexual, of course, he would condemn all homosexual activity, including same-sex relationships that resemble the love and romance of what we see in gay marriages today, as an act that goes beyond the ordinary realm of experience (i.e. “unnatural”) arising out of lust. Think about it…what would it take for you, as a heterosexual man, to have sex with a man? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for one to think it would take some kind of excess lust within you…some kind of thrusting away of what is “sufficient” to satisfy…some kind of distorted excitement within as you consider the conquest of grasping for something “hard to procure”? Ah, perhaps with one who is “malakoi” to demonstrate your manly position in your first century Roman-Greco culture…grunt! And virtually all adult men were married, so this was almost always in the context of adultery. Why on earth would they need above and beyond the satisfaction to be found with their wives? Plato seems to agree with Paul that going beyond nature arises out of sexual excess: “…the pleasure enjoyed by males with males and females with females seems to be beyond nature, and the boldness of those who first engaged in this practice seems to have arisen out of an inability to control pleasure.” Some expressions used by the Early Church Fathers are “burning with insane love for boys,” “they were driven into monstrous insaneness,” “it came from their luxuriousness,” “they were addicted to the love of boys,” and “polluted by the perversity of lust.”

    Did you see my response to your response to Josh in the last blog? Are there any philosophical or religious writings that don’t place these acts in the context of sexual excess, lust, or addiction leading to going beyond “sufficient limit” and reaching for “that which is inaccessible”? And even if some of the literature of the day portrayed love and romance (or even union/marriage) between same-sex people, Paul still would have believed they were heterosexuals with no need for that; and being informed by the philosophical and religious views of his day, this would be chalked up to another case of excess lust leading to the shameful display of going beyond the ordinary realm of experience. That’s why same-sex marriage, too, would have been prohibited by the rabbis (even though the two negative comments regarding same-sex marriage in the Talmud and the Midrash appear long after NT times).

    I’m not saying Paul was mistaken to maintain the view that homosexual acts were shameful without exception and a display of going against nature any more than Paul was mistaken to maintain the view that a man wearing his hair long was shameful without exception and a display of going against nature (But is Paul looking down at us from heaven shaking his fist at all the Christian men with long, flowing hair?). If Paul believed length of hair translated into something immoral, then it did; and, of course, he would condemn all cases of men with long hair without exception. If Paul believed all homosexual acts translated into something immoral, then they did; and, of course, he would condemn all acts of homosexuality without exception. Both acts (long hair & same-sex sex) were seen as going beyond the ordinary realm of experience (i.e. unnatural), and Paul highlights the Genesis account leading up to both arguments. Therefore, to engage in either shameful act must arise out of a deliberate dismissal of that which conforms to nature and an intentional grasping for that which is against nature. Paul had no concept of long hair being anything other than shameful (i.e. he had no concept that it could almost exclusively reflect personal style, because that is /not/ what it reflected in Paul’s day), and Paul had no concept of homosexual acts being anything other than shameful (i.e. he had no concept that they could almost exclusively reflect love between people of same-sex orientation, because that is /not/ what it reflected in Paul’s day). At best, it reflected the warped love between two heterosexuals.

    I don’t see Jesus “debating” about men having long hair, because there was no debate (i.e. apparently, he had no problem with this religious view of the day). Does that mean we better have our husbands cut their hair pronto? I don’t see Jesus “debating” about men having sex with one another, because there was no debate (i.e. apparently, he had no problem with this religious view of the day). Was it part of Jesus’ agenda to inform them that one day long hair would almost exclusively reflect personal style, so his culture must adopt that view NOW? Was it part of Jesus’ agenda to inform them that one day homosexual acts would almost exclusively reflect the love between two people with same-sex orientation, so his culture must adopt that view NOW? Apparently, Jesus was perfectly content with allowing some cultural changes to take form gradually. Did that kind of stink for men who would have liked to express their personal style through long hair? Sure. Did that stink for men who would have liked to express their love through same-sex marriage and intimacy (& women but they were used to being oppressed)? Even more so! But…didn’t it also stink for a very long time for women who had to cope with the idea of being property (hey, turn her over and rape her…she’s just a piece of property, right?), and for slaves, and for any who continued to be oppressed, because cultural changes don’t happen overnight? Sure, it stunk. Jesus didn’t change things over night, but he did enough to set the ball of in motion.

    So, in order to condemn gay marriages today, we’d have to agree with Paul that both partners could find love and romance with heterosexuals; therefore, their marriage is an act that goes beyond the ordinary realm of experience (i.e. “against nature”) arising out of lust.

    If I had been in your class, I could have expressed all this to you. 😉 Maybe we should just email each other…sheesh, this is so incredibly long. But writing it sure forced me to think things through!

    • My last post (above) was long and I’m guessing there is too much for you to respond to. 🙂 In an effort to simplify where I’m at with this, I thought I’d include this summary:

      In Romans 1, the women exchanged something for that which was “para physin” (contrary to nature). Compare this with what God did with the Gentiles in Rom. 11:24. They were grafted “para physin” (contrary to nature) into a cultivated olive tree. We see that the word “nature” carries the same meaning when Paul speaks of hair length for men. The meaning is “unusual” (i.e. going beyond the ordinary realm of experience). I don’t see why I should assume Paul had some other meaning in mind in Romans 1. And I don’t see how this interpretation necessarily contradicts the Stoics.

      More importantly, Paul lists “arsenokoitai” along with some other vices in his two lists. We know it relates to male-male sex. The ancient world had no conception of sexual orientation. Writings reveal that the philosophers of the time presumed that the same lusts that drove men to engage in female prostitutes could drive them to eventually seduce other men. Paul’s Romans 1 passage aligns with this train of thought. It’s with this in mind that the vice is listed. The vice still applies today. It is still wrong for any man to lose control of his lust and allow his sexual excess and uncontrolled passion to drive him to seduce other men.

  3. Can one say ouch there? I wonder how the debate would shape up in elaborating what level of greed, reviling etc constituted a lifestyle equated with other sexualities, adulterers such that one would forfeit the Kingdom? Or is that a reasonable discussion? I’ve always understood that list as having an unwritten “a lifestyle of” before it – based on teaching I guess coming also from the logic that we’re all greedy to some degree, but parts of the list are lifestyles/ongoing things (one act of adultery surely maybe forgiven, but an unrepentant ongoing lifestyle might be a different matter) and thus different.

  4. The reality that people argue and argue about all this stuff, that people step up to defend Jesus’ existence, that people do to those who have not caused any inherent harm what they would not want done to themselves, boggles my mind as to why we haven’t all discovered it’s fake.

    When the answer to the question, “Why are LGBT+ people sinners?” is, “He has reasons that man is not ready for”, instead of, “I have reasons man is not ready for”, people should get who is doing the talking. Replace ‘have faith in Jesus’ with ‘believe what I tell you this collection of thousands of scrolls/partial scrolls and scroll fragments written in Koine, Hebrew, and Aramaic with many variations and different levels of errors means, and if you disagree with me you are disagreeing with Jesus himself!”

  5. Can someone explain to me the definition of sexual immorality for a gay christian? I’m stuck and confused. As a heterosexual conservative traditionalist I’m very aware of sexual immorality and its influences on my life – my heterosexuality can be a tiresome burden and a gift/blessing also.

    What is the sexual ethic/moral boundaries for a gay christian?

    I would love to hear from someone who identifies as gay and christian. No debate interest. Just trying to get clarity and understanding.

    • Hi Phyte_On –

      I left this comment previously, but it seemed to have gotten eaten (but still in my RSS history). If this is a repeat, please disregard:

      Hi Phyte_On –

      My husband and I made a wedding vow to one another: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine.”

      We pledged our whole selves exclusively to one another for a lifetime. We strive to love each other with mutual care-taking, grace, compassion, and self-sacrifice. Sex is an important part of our marriage; our emotional commitments and bonds are uniquely enriched and deepened by sharing our bodies with one another.

      We’ve joined our lives – spiritually, emotionally, and physically; together, we contribute to the greater life of our families and communities.

      Sex outside of my marriage would be a betrayal of my husband. It would be devastating and clearly immoral. I imagine the temptations I face are very similar (if not identical) to those of straight people. If there’s any difference, it’s probably that I would have less opportunity for physical infidelity because the vast majority of men are straight.

      Even before I was married, I understood sexual promiscuity to be immoral. The unitive property of sex is profound, and casual sex is harmful – it causes emotional distress to some degree. “No strings attached” doesn’t really exist when we’re talking about physical intimacy.

      I believe my lived experience is wholly aligned with the bible. Unlike Preston, I don’t believe covenantal same-sex relationships are proscribed by scripture.

      If we look beyond the clobber passages, scripture shows us that we are relational creations – we are meant to be in relationship. Sexuality is a gift from God that is a mechanism for living into this creative intention. Sex is a unique and significant expression of emotionally intimate relationships. The unitive property of sex binds us to other humans in a profound way. Dating is good. Marriage is good. Sex within the context of covenant relationships is good.

      Scripture – even Paul’s seeming proscriptions on erotic homosexual acts – never says that the human condition is different for people who are gay. It never says that some groups of people are called to celibacy. (The traditionalist demand of people who are gay is a heavy, cumbersome load indeed! A demand that pulled me very far away from the cross.)

      The bible has a lot to say about sexual promiscuity. It calls us to express our sexuality in healthy, generative ways. For gay people, like straight people, I believe that sex is intended to be within the context of committed relationships.

      Thanks for asking. I hope my answer is helpful.
      My very best to you