The Part That Makes LGBs1 Uncomfortable
In case you missed it, last time I argued that there are only six passages in the Bible that deal directly with homosexuality, and that the three passages in the Old Testament are not authoritative for Christians as law. Additionally, I argued that Romans 1:26-27 is not addressing loving, respectful, monogamous committed relationships between gay Christian partners, but rather ancient pagan sex rituals. Because of this, the Romans passage is a poorly chosen passage for arguing against modern gay unions. This brings us to the last two passages in Scripture that actually speak to the issue of homosexuality – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10.
Both of these passages are from letters that the apostle Paul wrote, listing the sort of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:9). Moreover, these sins and those who commit them are “contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Tim 1:10-11). Listed in these passages are people such as idolaters, thieves, drunkards, swindlers, kidnappers, and murderers. Now, before we get into the real meat of these passages – namely, the Greek word often translated “homosexuals” – I want to address two common objections raised by gay-affirming Christians.
First, some have objected to the use of these passages against homosexuality on the grounds that there are other places in Paul’s letters that prohibit things that are clearly cultural – women cutting off their hair or shaving their heads (1 Cor 11:6), men having long hair (1 Cor 11:14), or women wearing jewelry and braiding their hair (1 Tim 2:9). Many would claim that since it is not sinful in our culture for a man to have long hair or for a woman to wear jewelry, then we should also consider Paul’s prohibition against homosexuality as cultural. For my own part, I find this argument altogether unconvincing. Certainly, we ought to be sensitive to what is and is not cultural in Scripture; however, we should not make the mistake of assuming that just because one thing is cultural then everything else must be also. Although the cultural prohibitions are indeed in the same letters, they are not in the immediate context of the prohibitions against homosexuality. Moreover, Paul explicitly states that those people listed in these passages “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” and that such things are contrary to the gospel itself. Since gay Christians would obviously agree that things such as lying, stealing, and killing are universally incompatible with the kingdom of God (therefore, not simply cultural), they don’t really have much ground to stand on when saying Paul was only speaking culturally when he included homosexuals in these lists.
Second, it has become somewhat in vogue to simply chalk up Paul as a bigot. Since Jesus never actually said anything against homosexuality (that we know of), one common tactic among gay Christians is to claim to follow Jesus while viewing Paul as closed-minded and chauvinistic. The underlying (but never addressed) problem with this is that it assumes that modern-day gay Christians in the West have a better grasp of Jesus’ teachings and their implications than Paul did. However, given what we do know about Paul, a first-century Jew who worked closely with the other apostles, gave greater status to women and slaves than his culture would have deemed appropriate, and suffered and died for his faith in Christ, I have a really hard time seeing him as someone who didn’t really understand Jesus and the gospel. Viewing Paul as an intolerant homophobe is both ignorant and ethnocentric.
Now, whether or not these two passages actually prohibit homosexuality (particularly, modern homosexuality) all comes down to the word that is usually translated “homosexuals.” This is the Greek word arsenokoitai. This word is a combination of two root words, arsen (which means man) and koite (which means to “bed,” or have sex with). So, literally arsenokoitai means “man-bedder,” one who has sex with other men. “Well, that seems pretty straight-forward,” you might be thinking. “How can LGBs read that and think that it doesn’t mean homosexuals?” Well, because there’s a little ambiguity surrounding this word.
For one thing, it’s usually not a good idea to use the etymological makeup of a word to define its meaning.2 Secondly, this word has not always been translated the same way. Martin Luther, for instance, translated arsenokoitai as “masturbator.” Why so much confusion? Because until Paul used this word in his letters, this word didn’t exist. He made it up. Now, Paul was a master of the Greek language, so he can do that. But it does raise the question, what does arsenokoitai actually mean?
Gay-affirming Christians often argue that arsenokoitai is referring to a very specific type of homosexual relationship. You see, in ancient Greek and Roman cultures, there was a common practice in which an older (usually married) man would take a young boy in his adolescence and train him up to be a man. And being a man means knowing how to have sex (or so they thought).3 And the way that they would often teach these boys about sex is by having sex with them. This was not a loving, respectful, mutual relationship between two consenting adults. This was an older man taking advantage of a young boy. Essentially, this was pedophilia and rape. One reason that many believe this is what Paul is referring to is because the word just before arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is the Greek word malakoi (often translated as “effeminate”), which literally means “soft ones.” Most scholars agree that this refers to the young boy in the type of homosexual relationship mentioned above.4 “If that is what malakoi means,” gay-affirming Christians say, “then by proximity (context) arsenokoitai must be referring to that specific type of homosexuality.” And all gay Christians agree that that sort of relationship is unchristian and heinous.
So, why don’t I find this argument very convincing? Because I know the Greek language too well to just accept that as good enough.
You see, while it is true that we should be cautious about using the etymology of a word to determine its meaning, it is not true that we should never do that. Particularly in the case of words such as arsenokoitai it can be extremely helpful.5 Since we don’t have other occurrences of arsenokoitai before Paul, we can’t compare how it is used elsewhere to help determine what it means. It is always helpful to consider the context of a word, so we have to take into consideration the fact that malakoi appears next to arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians. But we also have to take into account that malakoi is altogether absent from the list in 1 Timothy. What does this mean? I would argue that it means that the word arsenokoitai can stand alone and is not dependent on (or directly tied to) malakoi for its meaning. That being the case, it is important that we pay attention to the etymological makeup of arsenokoitai to help us understand what Paul was trying to get at.
Although we don’t have any uses of arsenokoitai before Paul, we do have the word paiderastia which was a common and well-known term for the above relationship between an older man and younger boy. We could reasonably presume from what we know about Paul and his familiarity with classic Greek works that he would have been familiar with this word. On top of this, the early Christian writers such as Tatian (120-180 AD) and Justin Martyr (100-165 AD) used a similar word, paidofthoros, to refer to these sort of pedophiliac relationships. Since they wrote a relatively short time after Paul and his writings, and since this word was common enough to have appeared in multiple works, we could reasonably assume that Paul might have also been familiar with paidofthoros as well. Which begs the question…
Why would a master of the Greek language such as Paul create a whole new word with such a broad etymology as “man-bedder” if he was only referring to a very specific type of man-bedding, especially when there were already two perfectly good words available that he could have used for that specific type of homosexuality?
My guess? Paul created arsenokoitai because he wanted a word that referred to the actual act of bedding another man, and went beyond the specific situational meaning of paiderastia and paidofthoros. Can I prove this? No, obviously. But, for the life of me, I can’t think of another explanation that takes into account all of the evidence. So, if I’m going to have intellectual integrity, I am forced to conclude that on the one hand arsenokoitai refers to the act of gay sex regardless of the situation. On the other hand, arsenokoitai only refers to the act of gay sex, not the feelings of attraction toward a person of the same gender.
There you go. Now the final question is, what do we do with all of this? Tune in next time to find out how Christians should and should not respond to the issue of homosexuality.
1: The reason that I use LGBs (Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals) instead of LGBTQIAPK - lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (questioning), intersex, asexual (androgynous), pansexual (polyamorous), kinky – is for two reasons: (1) that’s just a ridiculously long acronym, and (2) the issue I am deal with is really only focused on the first three groups.
2: This can be seen in English with words like “pineapple.” Despite what the word’s etymology might suggest, any English speaking person knows that a pineapple neither comes from a pine tree, nor is it a type of apple. Because of this, it’s always better when doing word studies to ask, “What did the word mean at the time that it was being used?”
3: Sadly, some things never change.
4: Which raises a whole other can of worms as to why these young boys would be excluded from the kingdom of God and the implications of that on other victims of pedophilia and rape. But that is a discussion that is extremely nuanced, and one that I don’t care to address here. Suffice it to say that I don’t think being a victim excludes one from the kingdom … ever!
5: arsenokoitai is what we call a hapax legomena – a word that only occurs once in a document.