People turning to the Bible for answers about same-sex relationships often believe they find references to LGBT people in two particular passages in the New Testament. They are both lists of vices, and they share the same very unique vocabulary.
“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” 1 Corinthians 6:9 (ESV).
“The sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine” 1 Timothy 1:10 (ESV).
In order to understand the meaning of the New Testament vice lists that have been translated as referring to sexual minorities, it’s important to learn a little bit of Greek vocabulary. Specifically, you need to know the word arsenokoites. This is the word Paul uses in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 that is sometimes translated “homosexuals.”
The reason you need to have some understanding of this Greek word is that there are some translation issues that need to be explained. Most of the time the translation of the Bible you have is beyond excellent. Understanding of the Greek usually adds nuance but doesn’t change the meaning of your translation. However, one exception is when a text contains a very rare word.
arsenokoites is translated in these passages as “men who practice homosexuality” and is often applied to LGBT people and the sexual intimacy in our relationships. These two verses are the only places the word arsenokoites shows up in the New Testament. It is also the first time the word shows up in any Greek text anywhere and it wasn’t used again until much later. Yet Paul assumes his readers understood it. So it is possible that the term was used exclusively by the Christian community. So where did they get it?
Reference to Leviticus
The New Testament Christians used a Greek translation of the Old Testament. In Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, verses translated “you shall not lie with a man as with a woman,” the author uses the words aresenos and koite. Many believe arsenokoites is Paul’s simple shorthand to refer back to these verses by combining the two words: arsenos + koite = arsenokoites.
This is what I think Paul was talking about, and I share this understanding with non-affirming scholars (see Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice or Richard Davidson, The Flame of Yahweh).
I differ with them on the nature of what behavior Leviticus references. I’ve written two blogs on the topic to demonstrate that when scripture is allowed to be its own interpreter, it leads us to the conclusion that Leviticus is referring to aggressive actions for the purpose of domination through humiliation, the specific humiliation of forcibly treating men like women through abuse of power.
These acts would be wrong regardless of the gender configuration. It is difficult for those of us who have or desire loving romance with someone of the same gender to understand why our relationships would be compared to such violent acts.
Additional References to Exploitation
In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul gives another indication that this relationship is an abuse of power by using the word malakoi. This is the second Greek word that is important to know, and it refers to being weak, passive, soft, or effeminate. Often it is used to describe a passive partner in a same-sex erotic encounter.
According to what is probably the best lexicon for understanding New Testament Greek (BDAG, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament), malakoi was often used of a catamite, a boy slave that Romans used for sex. It could also refer to pederasty, a common Roman practice in which an older man would initiate an early teenage boy into sexual experience. The boy always took the so-called passive role because the relationship was unequal.
The difference between a catamite and pederasty was not a difference in kind, but degree. A boy who was a victim of pederasty had more advantages because of it and there was less stigma attached to him, but he was still a victim of the abuse of power. Paul’s use of arsenokoites connected the contemporary Greco-Roman practices to the levitical prohibitions, all of which were based on humiliation and abuse of power.
These were not familial relationships, but sexual relationships. They involved no commitment and took advantage of difference in power and social status. They were sexually exploitative relationships taken on by men who also had wives at home. In short, the behaviors were lustful and selfishness on the part of the arsenokoites and humiliating for the powerless malakoi.
The Problem with Equating These Verses to Queer People
These relationships dishonored the sacredness of God’s creation. They violated the humanity of the boys and young men who were socially expected to accept this abuse. They insulted the wives these older men left at home. Nothing about this situation is holy or good. They are violations of the primary biblical mandate to love all people as God’s sacred creation.
For those straight folks who are reading this: If someone were to tell you your relationships were wrong because of a biblical story like the one found in Genesis 19, where Lot’s daughters get him drunk and rape him so they can get pregnant, you wouldn’t accept it. Just because the daughters are women and Lot is a man doesn’t mean it applies to you. It’s wrong because of incest and rape, not because of their genders. This much is obvious.
It’s not much different as a queer person to read that disgusting sexual practices in ancient Greece and Sodom and Gomorrah have any relevance to you and your relationships. Sure, the genders are the same, but that’s where comparisons end. Our desire isn’t to sexually dominate someone else. We don’t want to humiliate someone. We aren’t looking for a straight marriage plus a young kid on the side. These behaviors are unrelated to us and our lives.
The difficulty is that unlike opposite-sex sexuality, there are so few stories of any type of same-sex eroticism in the Bible that they all get lumped together and applied to us. That’s because we’re trying to find a direct answer for a question the Bible never directly asks. That’s dangerous.
As much as we want a “thus say the Lord,” there are all kinds of issues on which we don’t have one. Is democracy a legitimate form of government? What about socialism? Is birth control okay to use? Is healthcare a human right in the modern economy? Should there be limits on social media use? God has given us principles to apply and live by, not a manual with the answer to every question we will ever ask.
In the New Testament, they never asked whether it would be wrong for two men to marry. They never considered that women could fall in love and have a family together. The Bible does address abusive same-sex eroticism that men who were married to women were engaging in on the side. That’s what we find in these texts.
Whether you are gay or straight, the way to honor the intent of these verses is to honor the dignity and humanity of all people, to never use sexuality to exploit another human being, and to honor the commitments you have made to a partner. That is biblical sexuality.
For those of us who are queer: Go in peace. Be affirmed. These verses aren’t about us.