Note: This is Part One of my two-part series on homosexuality and the Church. The first part examines supposed references to homosexuality in the letters of Paul; Part Two, which I will post tomorrow, will outline five primary ways to introduce this information to a church congregation.
For the Evangelical Christian who leans even modestly leftward, it is not a difficult task to hermeneutically bypass Hebrew scripture that appears to condemn homosexual activity. The admonition found in Leviticus 20:13 that anyone found to be engaged in same-sex intercourse should be put to death can be cast in doubt simply by engaging in the process of questioning: In our current cultural context of modern and postmodern American Christianity, who should be deemed worthy by the public to carry out the sentencing of such a crime? Should it be our officers of the law who are to put all homosexuals to death? The absurdity of the question exposes the cultural and contextual gap between ancient Hebrew Yahwism and twenty-first century American globalism, and is often left unconsidered by many who vehemently defend what they call “traditional marriage.” The New Testament Gospels contain virtually no references to homosexuality at all (with the exception of a few queer theological interpretations of extracanonical Gospels), so little can be argued from the authoritative words of Jesus of Nazareth. On this particular issue, he remains peculiarly silent. But what of the letters of Paul? How do we confront the theology of a man whose writings make up more than a quarter of the New Testament with our rapidly shifting knowledge of gender identity and human sexuality? Such is the aim of this study.
In Part One I will address two primary pericopae from the writings of the Apostle Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and Romans 1:24-27, and their literary, historical, and social context. In Part Two of this post, I will help to outline a method in which the material of Part One might be disseminated within a congregational or ministerial setting.
PART ONE: Textual Analysis
1 Corinthians 6:9-10
Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth deals with several important issues with which the early Christians in that city struggled, particularly unity, holiness, love, the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, and sexual morality. It is the latter with which this section is concerned. Paul was undertaking no small task to preach to the Corinthians about sexual ethic. Of the cultural setting of Corinth, David L. Tiede writes, “Corinth was a town with a reputation for cosmopolitan airs, for bawdy sex in the marketplace, for crafty dealings among the traders at the port…The human meat markets of every age have looked about the same, and every generation has had its high priests of sexual freedom and pornography.” With this context in mind, two words in particular should be given special attention from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: arsenokoitai (arsenokoitai) and malakoi (malakoi).
The fluidity of language has a long history of birthing numerous interpretations of the Biblical text, both in ancient times and throughout recent history. Dale B. Martin, in his excellent study of human sexuality and the Church, Sex and the Single Savior, notes that both of these mysterious terms included in Paul’s Corinthian vice list held, until the 19th or 20th century, a distinctly male connotation, with no respect to our modern concept of sexual orientation. The term arsenokoitai, for example, took on new meaning when the Greek noun—which refers solely to men—was translated in the early twentieth century with the generic label of “homosexual,” thereby feeding the growing misconception that both the male and female gay identity stemmed from what was commonly considered to be a mental disorder.
Furthermore, Martin suggests that arsenokoitai (arsenokoiteV) has a much more specific meaning than any generic homosexual activity. This specific meaning might be lost to us, but contextual hints may be found in the Sibylline Oracles (2nd - 5th cent., CE), an ancient Greek text which utilizes the word in a vice list very similar to (yet totally independent of) Paul’s reference in 1 Corinthians. However, arsenokoiteV here takes on a distinctly economic meaning, sandwiched between such admonitions as “Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed,” and “Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress the poor man.” In addition, two other early Christian texts, The Acts of John (2nd cent.) and Theophilus of Antioch’s To Autolychus, also include arsenokoiteV among economic vice lists. It is possible that by including aresenokoitai among such sexual sinners as adulterers (moicoi) and fornicators (pornoi), Paul is attempting to single out those who are motivated by their own greed toward sexual exploitation. In any case, it should be pointed out that the exact definition of this term has been and will most likely remain a mystery, and that due to this ambiguity, translations will continue to be influenced by the particular ideological milieu or bias of the translator.
Unlike arsenokoiteV, however, the word malakoV (plural: malakoi) does have a well-documented meaning. Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to his political opponents as “girly-men,” the ancients used the term malakoV to refer to any man with a less-than-masculine demeanor, a physically feminine build, distaste for hard work, or an otherwise milquetoast disposition. Josephus and Plutarch both use the term in their writings to refer to the cowardly. The Greek word is actually the etymological ancestor of the English word malleable, and means, literally, soft. Often translated together with arsenokoitai as “sexual perverts” or “homosexuals,” a much closer understanding of the word might be its original King James English translation, effeminate, which inadvertently takes into consideration the inherent sexism of Paul’s culture. Men were chiseled and virile, but women were weak, both in will and in physical stature. The ancient understanding of the feminine was very much influenced by the coital act—men were aggressive penetrators, while women were to passively allow themselves to be penetrated. Any man who was seen to be “soft” followed the natural order of distinction bestowed specifically upon women, and was therefore weak and cowardly. As Martin concludes, the difficulty with Paul’s use of the term malakoV is not the inherently sinful nature of homosexuality, but instead the “rank misogyny” implied by the term. This concept will be explored further in Part II of this study, which will be posted tomorrow.
In this text-segment, as in the Corinthian correspondence, context becomes one of the key issues to interpreting the passage. It should first be noted that the overarching theme of the Romans letter involves the complicated interplay of salvation for the Jews and salvation for the Gentiles, and it is through this lens that Romans 1:24-27 must be viewed. Specifically, when Paul speaks of what many today consider to be a theological re-hashing of the Fall of Humanity, he is actually referring to the idolatry of the pre-Christian Gentiles, as is revealed by the preceding paragraphs.
It should not be overlooked or ignored that the primary sin that Paul is speaking against here is not some modern concept of sexual orientation, but the sin of idolatry. The “exchanging of natural intercourse [Greek: cresin, or use] for unnatural” among men and women is not the sin being committed, but is instead punishment meted out by God for the sin of worshiping false gods! Furthermore, David L. Balch observes that “Paul is not evaluating homosexual ‘relationships,’ a modern value, but judges the psychological state of the person experiencing addictive desire…Paul's terms desire, passion, inflame, appetite, and error suggest that he is critiquing unbridled eros, sexual passion.” Paul, like many other ancient moralists, viewed homosexual activity as “the most extreme expression of heterosexual lust.” This interpretation of the pericope holds that Paul was instead noting the consequences of idolatry; that is, the total abandonment of will to appetite. Indeed, the link between sexual promiscuity and gluttony has been well-explored by recent scholars:
Sexual desire and hunger for food were thought to be analogous. The pleasure or use of sex is to be limited by satisfaction, as a full stomach limits eating. The Greco-Roman question of sexual use does not ask about the gender of the subject or the object, does not ask whether the activity is homo- or heterosexual.
Women being inflamed with passion for women and men being inflamed with passion for men is not, then, the result of any innate, natural, sexual orientation that causes one to be attracted to a person of the same sex, but is instead the carrying out of a natural sexual drive to its depraved ultimate conclusion.
Finally, it is a tragic irony that those who utilize this very passage as fuel for the fires of judgment against the LGBTQ community apparently (and most unfortunately) read no further than the end of the first chapter of Romans. The very next portion of the letter contains the following admonition:
Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?The same Paul who proclaims that the New Age of Christ has arrived, urging Gentiles and
Jews alike to embrace one another as brothers and sisters, also writes to the Church in
Galatia that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no
longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” This understanding of God
as no respecter of persons bears a remarkable resemblance to Peter’s epiphany in Acts 10,
as he preaches to Cornelius following his own vision regarding the acceptance of the
profane: “You yourselves know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to visit a
Gentile; but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” As long
as proof-texting is utilized by those perceived to be in power as a tool for marginalization
and rejection of our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, the church
will never be seen by the oppressed as the catalyst for the New Age of Christ that Paul
envisioned it to be.
 For more on this, see Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Biblical Scholarship (Society of Biblical Literature Semeia Studies) (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2011), particularly Jione Havea‘s chapter, “Lazarus Troubles.”
 David L. Tiede, "Will idolaters, sodomizers, or the greedy inherit the kingdom of God : A pastoral exposition of 1 Cor 6:9-10." Word & World 10, no. 2 (March 1, 1990): 152.
 Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 39.
 Ibid, 40.
 Ibid, 41.
 Ibid, 45.
 Ibid, 47.
 Balch, David L. "Romans 1:24-27, Science, and Homosexuality." Currents In Theology And Mission 25, no. 6 (December 1, 1998): p 437.
 Victor Paul Furnish, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” in Homosexuality: In Search of a Christian Understanding, ed. by Leon Smith, p 13, quoted by Martin, p 49.
 Balch, 437.