Scripture and Homosexuality: 1 Corinthians

Our series continues on understanding what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about homosexuality.  All references made by other authors can be found here.

Because 1 Timothy 1:9-10 deals with the same words as 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, we’ll just have one discussion concerning Paul’s message about homosexuality.  *This is a long post.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Consider what this passage says in the original Greek:

[9] Or do you not know that unrighteous ones will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Stop being deceived: neither sexually immoral ones nor idolaters nor adulterers nor soft ones (malakos) nor male-bedders (arsenokoites) [10] nor thieves nor covetous ones, not drunkards, not abusive persons, not robbers will inherit the kingdom of God.  [11] And these things some of you were; but you had yourselves washed, but you were sanctified, but you were made pure because of the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and because of the Spirit of our God.

This passage, to me, is foundational for doing effective ministry within the GLBT community.  I will explain my reasoning for this belief in the conclusion of the series.  For now, though, let’s look at what Paul says here concerning same-sex relationships, our Christian walk, and what Jesus has done for people regardless of their sin.

Aresenokoites and Malakos

In this passage, Paul uses the Greek word arsenokoites to refer to same-sex couples.  The debate over this word involves two differing positions: arsenokoites does correctly translate into all who practice homosexuality, or arsenokoites only refers to those who practice homosexuality as idol worship.  Obviously, there can only be one correct interpretation, and the first one given is it.  Even though Paul may have coined arsenokoites, he did so based on two Greek root words, which means ‘male’ and ‘bed’.  Paul’s use of ‘male-bed’ refers to men sexually arousing one another, as a man would a woman.  The word ‘male-bedder’ can also be described as a sodomite, as Earle notes, “the same sin is described graphically in Romans 1:27” (p. 226).  A compelling argument against this position can be found in Dale Martin’s article “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meaning and Consequences”, where he defends a person’s right to be openly gay and Christian, rejecting the position that homosexuality is sin.

As Martin states, “we have very few uses of arsenokoites and most of those occur in simple lists of sins … providing no explanation of the term, no independent usage, and few clues from the context about the term’s meaning” (p. 119).  However, later in his argument Martin gives a confusing statement, “I am not claiming to know what arsenokoites meant, I am claiming that no one knows what it meant.  I freely admit that it could have been taken as a reference to homosexual sex” (p. 123, emphasis mine).  Martin adds in his note section that while arsenokoites does show up in later Greek literature, these occurrences “provide little reliable evidence for the meaning of the term in a first-century Greek context” (p. 134).  However, one scholar objects that, “[Arsenokoites] is first found among the poets of the Imperial period” (Moulton et al., p. 79).  Additionally, John Batteau “points out that these words (arsenokites and malakos) were used consistently by Greek authors to apply to the full spectrem of homosexuality, both promiscuous and monogamous (Kirk, p. 60).

Still, Martin presses his argument, going on to conclude, “any interpretation of scripture that hurts people, oppresses people, or destroys people cannot be the right interpretation, no matter how traditional, historical, or exegetically respectable” (p. 130).  Martin continues with an emotional appeal to Christians, asking such questions as, “Can the church … believe that it really would be better for all lesbian and gay Christians to live alone, without the joy of intimate touch, without hearing a lover’s voice when they go to sleep or awake” (p. 131).  This is a very common rebuttal given by the pro-gay movement.  Yet, Martin does make an agreeable point: “there can be no debate … that the church’s stand on homosexuality has caused oppression, loneliness, self-hatred, violence, sickness, and suicide” for many gay and lesbian people (p. 130-131).  Even though this is a correct statement against the Church’s attitude towards gays this should not be used to overturn what God’s Word clearly states: practicing homosexuality is a sin.  Gary Jepsen gives a creditable rebuttal to Martin’s above article within this sentiment.

In response to Martin’s argument against Paul’s word arsenokoites, Jepsen points out that “it matters not how you or I might want to take the word arsenokoites; what matters is what it originally meant for Paul in his context” (p. 399).  He goes on to observe that “Lev 18:22 and 20:13 both use the two Greek words arsenos and koiten together (the root words for arsenokoites) … Thus, it is no stretch to see how Paul [affluent to the Old Testament] could have … put the two words together to form a new word” (p. 402).

Further, Jepsen goes on to respond to Martin’s suggestion to disregard the claim that malakos speaks out against homosexuality.  Malakos, which translates to mean effeminate or soft one, describes men who gave themselves over to other men for sex.  While Martin tries to steer the debate about this word in a different direction, it is clear that he misses the point, which Jepsen clearly hits: 1 Corinthians 6:9 correctly uses the word malakos in speaking against homosexual practice.  The practice of men and boys being used for gay sex “was a common thing in that day” (Earle, p. 226), so Paul did understand what he was saying when using the word malakos.  As Paul implored Christians to live within their God-given identity in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, he affirms “to play the penetrating male (arsenokoites) or the penetrated male (malakos) in a homosexual sexual act was contrary to revelation (Genesis 1:27), nature, and design” (Jepsen, p. 404).

Ending his argument against Martin, Jepsen states a continuing dilemma found within this overall debate; “we have cast Scripture aside and allowed ourselves to be driven by other agendas.  We have made ourselves judges over God’s Word rather than allow the Word to be judge over us” (p. 405).  Jepsen’s words are a stark reality that the role of scripture is supreme in this entire debate; both sides use it, and often both sides misuse it.  One side (ex-gay) concludes that the Word of God defines the purpose of our lives, while the other side (pro-gay) concludes that life defines the purpose of God’s Word.  The outcome of this divided approach to God’s Word has caused massive divisions among the Body of Christ, in such ways that many bible-believing Christians and churches have conformed to pro-gay ideals, having toned down sin in order to enlarge grace.

Again, while grace is a huge cornerstone in the Christian faith, it cannot be used to justify anyone’s sin, as Paul says in Romans 6:1-2.  Later in that same chapter Paul again implores Christians to remember, “sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14, NIV).  Therefore, it is only natural for him to also implore the Christians of Corinth to follow suit.  Even before chapter 6, Paul refers to the Corinthians as a “church of God” and as those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy” (1:2, NIV).  By these terms of endearment, it is easy to conclude that the audience of 1 Corinthians are people who accepted Jesus as Lord and Savior, who have repented, and who claim themselves to be blood-bought Christians.  Understanding this, chapter 6 verses 9-11 begins to take on a new feel, especially in regards to today’s trend of gay affirming churches.

Christ has Redeemed

This brings up the second reason why this passage is foundational for the Church to grasp in order to minister to gays and lesbians.  Paul interjects here a silent message, that when fully grasped, rings loud a meaty command: Christians are called to not participate in openly gay relationships.  As Earle notes, the gay Christians of Corinth were trying to “claim that they should be recognized as God’s children just as readily as those who prefer the traditional way of life” (p. 226).  While they are still God’s children, gay Christians cannot rightly justify their life as being acceptable when it clearly goes against the standards of their Father.  The Greek translation comes back into play here in that when Paul says, “Don’t be deceived,” he is actually saying, “Stop being deceived.”  Vine’s Dictionary translates the word planaõ to mean, “deceiving oneself” (p. 151), which is used to stop an action already in progress.

In fact, Mare begins his commentary on verse 6:11 saying, “describing [the Corinthians] conversion, the apostle lists three transactions that occurred at the time when the Lord saved them” (p. 223).  This is all in past tense, which signifies that the Corinthians in question were already converted Christians.  Earle points out that in verse 11, “the first thing that should be noted is that in all three cases the verb is in the aorist tense, not the present,” meaning that these events had already taken place in the past (p. 227).  He continues stating, “[those] to whom Paul is writing had their sins washed away – the compound verb apolouõ (only here and Acts 22:16) means ‘wash off’ or ‘wash away’ – they were [already] set apart to God, and they were [already] ‘justified’” in His sight (Earle, p. 227).  Jowett describes ‘washed’ in this manner: “[When the apostle writes the word] ‘washed’ he suggests more than the washing out of an old sin, he means the removal of an old affection … more than the cancelling of guilt, he means the transformation of desire” (p. 5).

Apparently, these converted Christians were allowing themselves to indulge in past sins, seeing no reason to stop such practices, and trying to justify their lives in the process, which sounds like what is happening today within the pro-gay Christian movement.  Paul was clearly calling the church to account for doing such actions, exhorting them to remember that they had the blood and redemption of Jesus washed over them already; in a sense, he was telling them, “Remember, you are a new creation.  Your past is no longer a part of you.” (2 Corinthians 5:17).  As Geiger heeds, “calling sinful behavior the norm puts one on a slippery slope that will eventually eliminate the need for justification and sanctification” (p. 72).

As stated before, this type of thinking causes one to live in compromise: their walk with Christ versus their walk with self.  This battle is common among every believer, hence why Paul calls all who follow Christ to deny themselves daily in order to pursue the will of God (Romans 12:1-2).  Paul calls to light this idea of carnal Christianity, living within a realm of compromise, in 1 Corinthians 3:1-3.  In essence, this gives the basis for how he begins verse 11 in chapter 6: you were this, but now you are not bound by that life anymore; you are a new person in Christ.  If a person continues participating in same-sex relationships, then, and living a faith and life of compromise, can they truly be a devoted Christian?  Paul seems to imply no, basically affirming that change in behavior is possible and required for gays and lesbians, along with every other sinner mentioned, who profess to have given their lives over to Christ.

Redemption = Changed Focus

It should be noted that Paul (nor I) is judging a gay person’s salvation in Christ – no one can do that but God.  Instead, what is being questioned is an openly gay Christian’s commitment to living for Christ.  As scripture clearly states, one cannot faithfully follow two different masters (Matthew 6:24; 1 John 2:6, 2:15-17, 3:10).  Christians have a free-will choice to make: either live for themselves, and remain carnal, or live for God, allowing Him to refine them from their carnality.  Everyone sins, and all will keep on sinning and falling short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23), though that is not an excuse to avoid striving for and living within God’s standards of holiness (Romans 6:19).  The Christian life is about denying ones self, not riding the fence of compromise (Luke 9:23-24).  When one becomes a Christian, change occurs (2 Corinthians 5:15-17); here, there is no difference between straights and gays, for all who come into a relationship with Christ change from the inside out.  Further, the redemption of Christ requires us to change our focus: from us to Him.

The meaning of ‘were made pure’ (justified in the NIV), “refers to a radical inner change which the [person] experiences” (Bauer et al., p. 249).  Furthermore, the word dikaioõ (pure) itself means, “to cause someone to be released from personal or institutional claims that are no longer to be considered pertinent or valid, make free/pure” (Bauer et al., p. 249).  This total transformation occurs because the person calls on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13).  The way Paul words this last part clearly indicates that Jesus is the one who brings about the change (transformation) within a person; it is not an action brought on by them alone.  This is a strong point to consider, when dealing with the debate of change.

Many times, gays desire change but attempt to do so on their own efforts.  This not only brings about negative results but also causes many to retreat into their former ways and conclude that God made them this way and that scripture really does not say anything against today’s gay relationships.  What the person, as well as the Church, needs to understand is that a gay person’s overall goal is not to become straight; rather, the overall goal by God’s grace is to be more like Jesus, just as this is every Christian’s ultimate goal in life (Titus 2:11-14).  This change, as instructed in Romans 12:2, occurs only when the person in need opens himself up for such change, i.e. lays himself upon the altar as a living sacrifice (Romans 6, 12).  While there are many today who claim otherwise, that change is not possible, there are more who claim that it is possible, through the work of Christ (Mark 9:23, 10:27, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

However, the Church should take note as well.  Just as the redemption of Christ calls sinners to change, so it calls saints to change their (wrong) behaviors as well.  This passage essentially demands that the Church, through the help of Christ, engage the gay community with grace and truth.  The text addresses the whole Body of Christ and should be read in light of the unity that Paul stresses at other places in 1 Corinthians.  In passages such as 3:16-17 and 12:26, Paul reminds the Church that they are one body, seen as God’s temple, and that if one part suffers everyone suffers.  For the details of how to minister to the needs of the body, the Church should understand how Jesus did ministry.  This is what follows in the next section.

8 responses to “Scripture and Homosexuality: 1 Corinthians

  1. Indeed, this is a lengthy post–thanks for the heads-up–and I’d like to respond more fully later, perhaps in an e-mail or by posting installments. But my initial question (which also applies to the passage in Romans that you blogged about earlier) is, “What is the context of these passages?”

    Paul’s vocabulary has been examined thoroughly by those you cited (and probably by many others). It appears that we have a compound word that doesn’t have much usage elsewhere that would inform us, though it’s clear from the two or three lists in which it appears that it’s something nasty, plus Paul elaborates a little Romans 1. Fair enough.

    By contrast, Paul wrote a long argument in chapter 11 about head coverings that doesn’t get much discussion–nor compliance–in the contemporary church, except among the most conservative denominations.

    How is it that we determine that one or two words appearing in two or three places can disenfranchise an entire group of people, while half a chapter (among other signifcant portions of Corinthians, like chapter 14) get overlooked without consequence?

    I take a larger view of these texts to make better sense of them. For example, this list of sins follows an exhortation about lawsuits between believers, and immediately precedes the statement, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial.” So the words of interest seem a little confusing by context, and by face value it appears that there might be some leeway. Corinthians has a lot of corrective language; some of it seems less than universally applicable, despite what we believe about scripture as a whole. And in some places, Paul himself says, “I say, and not the Lord . . . ”

    Paul’s letters to Timothy seem a little more uniform in this regard; he provides lots of encouragement and instructions in them for his protege, and for us who want to be leaders in the church. Nevertheless, “sodomites” is one word in a list of sinners where the main point is teaching in conformance with the Gospel. And to me there is a certain amount of irony in the verses immediately preceding the text that warn against “meaningless talk.”

    My point is that churches use contexts (both within and beyond scripture itself) to apply various passages in good faith, but sometimes without regard to the specifics. For example, we typically choose to deal redemptively (if at all) with those who have remarried following a divorce, despite Jesus’ clear instructions to the contrary. Why wouldn’t we offer comparable grace to a gay or lesbian couple, even when we know their conduct (or at least what we think they do in bed) is proscribed in Paul’s letters?

    Thanks again for making a space for our dialogue!

    • “All things are lawful. ..” was referring to the eating of meat. There were a group of people who’s former religion included idol worship, not eating meat sacrificed to idols, and not eating meat. Paul is talking about not creating a stumbling block for others to come to Christ. He WAS NOT SAYING SIN IS LAWFUL. SIN, BY DEFINITION, IS UNLAWFUL. Second, again in context, the passage regarding women wearing Headwear was about standards of living in accordance with the customs of that time, NOT with regards to sin. Nowhere in that passage of corinthiams does it say “women who don’t wear head coverings shall not inherit the kingdom of God. It DOES say, men who bed with men shall not inherit the kingdom of God. You gays act like us straights don’t know what it’s like to be engulfed in sin and have to give it up. Not as a statement of pride, but rather of deep shame, I used to like Meth and sex with a lot of women and pornography. If you wanna get technical, the bible doesn’t say pornography specifically is wrong so its all groovy, right? Not. I was born that way with those needs. It was who I was. It took YEARS for me to shed those parts of my life. But I had a desire to completely submit to God. I want to go to heaven. I am not willing to have a few good years here and then go to hell. The way I was born was the way of death. You also were born that way. Stop justifying your lifestyle with these arguments which quit frankly are childish. It’s not like the bible said “a near sleeps in tents on Tuesdays and howls like a wold on a half moon. …when you unDerstand this you will know what sin is” no. It said “men who bed with other men shall not inherit the kingdom of God”. Now…let’s say it REALLy does not mean that. Let me ask you one of an obvious question. Which side of judgement do you want to error on? And don’t say “God knows my heart and knows it was an honest mistake” because God’s reply could likely be “I also had Paul write that doubt is sin so in case you weren’t certain about something that you would err on the side of pleasing me rather than yourself”. Bottom line. ..if I’m not certain of something, I try not to do it. Why take the chance when the penalty is FOREVER? That’s a life sentence I DO NOT want! I hope you can see the logic in that 🙂

  2. Thanks for your reply, Seth. Sorry, it’s taken awhile to respond.

    You’re right in saying that the church overlooks some passages of scripture, while trying to uphold others. In the letters, though, we need to look at what was cultural (speaking to only that time period) and what was transcultural (speaking to all time periods). An example of this would be head coverings. Since prostitution was big in Corinth, you had some Christian women that dressed like the other women in the city. It’s been said that Paul is calling women to dress differently. Obviously, we don’t have that problem – for the most part – in today’s church. The head coverings, from the research and understanding I’ve done, is a cultural issue – it dealt with a specific problem for a specific time.

    As for chapter 14, are you talking about tongues or women “talking/teaching in church?” Again, what is being said for that time and what is being said for all time. With the women speaking, you had females interrupting the church service with questions. Paul was suggesting that women not interrupt the service, but rather ask their questions to their husbands as home. I don’t think he was against women teachers, per se, as he noted several women in his letters doing ministry with/for him (Dorcas, Lydia, Pricilla, etc). As for tongues, it’s still a gift being used today, so the instructions for it are transcultural – for all time and situations.

    In regards to the “All things are lawful …” quotes, Paul is quoting common thought in the church and city. Notice, there are quotation marks around the phrase, “All things are lawful for me”, but when Paul speaks, there are no quotes. He is refuting their thoughts/excuses for doing sin.

    There are times where Paul does say, “I command this, not the Lord” (chapter 7:12, 25), when he is giving advice/instruction not necessarily from God’s mouth. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t inspired by God, or that his thoughts are any less. He’s being honest in saying, “Look, this is my opinion here.” However, whenever Paul is giving his own opinion, he notes it. So I don’t see how this relates to 6:9-11. He was clearly writing the command of God; otherwise, he would have said so. Right?

    Divorce is blindly looked at in the church, today, and that’s really unfortunate. Some divorces have been justifiable (abuse or sexual immorality, which is allowable by Christ), but some have not been (it’s just not working out). The church needs to take a firmer stand on divorce, especially in regards to teaching about it in light of today’s cultural mindset. But, the church not speaking about it doesn’t make divorce a non-sin. It’s still wrong; God is still displeased with it – as with all sin.

    I would also agree that the church has been “too hard” on the gay community, and are very slow to offer a hand of fellowship. They need to repent of their ways and seek forgiveness from the GLBT community. They need to love the gay community as Christ loves them: in truth and grace upon grace.

  3. Pingback: Scripture and Homosexuality « Six:11 Ministries·

  4. Gosh, I had to look back at what I wrote to fully understand your reply–but I treasure the opportunity to have this sort of exchange.

    I think we are saying something of the same thing in our posts: we need to have some understanding of the audience, both in time (history) and place (culture) when pondering Scripture, to determine whether it’s universally applicable or not.

    But when I look at Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 concerning head coverings, the arguments he uses seem pretty global (e.g., Christ being the head, women made from man and for man’s sake, what nature teaches, etc.). Then he concludes with, “if anyone is disposed to be contentious, we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.” And does the same thing in 1 Corinthians 14: 34-36 “As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches . . . for it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”

    Good heavens! I find both passages offensive, [BTW, I don’t have heartburn with Paul’s instructions about tongues and prophecies, just the gender statements.] And neither one has qualifying language that would limit its scope in time or place, despite what we know about the culture of the day.

    My point is that we have identified a way, through our understanding of historical culture and through a whole-scripture perspective, to let go of some of Paul’s gender-specific proscriptions. Even as little as 30 years ago, there was quite a bit of controversy in Protestant denominations about women in ministry–and the Roman tradtition still doesn’t ordain women. What keeps us from offering the same sort of understanding to our gay brothers and sisters when looking at the snippets of Scripture that would otherwise condemn them?

    Thanks again, Shawn, and best Holiday wishes to you and your family

  5. Pingback: Harsh words « Minkyweasel World·

  6. I 100% agree that Arsenokoitai means homosexuality in general. But I’ve read elsewhere that malakos means pedophilia. What’s your opinion on that?

  7. WELL SAID!!! I like how you approached this from a non condemnational, non hateful stand point while simultaneously not watering down what God has to say on such a very hot topic right now. Too many pastors either condemn gays or support their lifestyle, but both are wrong. Like any other sinner, let Christ make them into a new creation through following and becoming a disciple of Christ. My own sin was a lack of manogamous desire. Variety of women was my own fleshly desire. I was born that way. I don’t understand why so many homosexuals think they are unique in their sin. Why do I have to give mine up but they get to keep theirs? You answered that question beautifully and in a way I pray will benefit all unrepentant sinners, not just homosexuals.

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