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Study Three: From the New Testament - Paul's Advice to the Corinthians

Reading 1 Corinthians 5:1–6:20 in its context

In these two chapters, Paul expresses his surprise and consternation over the fact that in the Corinthian congregation, there is evidence of immorality which would make even a pagan blush. For example, Paul has heard that a man is living with his father's wife (5:1)!

Paul knows very well that the Corinthian Christians are a minority surrounded by non-Christians. Therefore they cannot avoid daily contact and dealing with immoral people (5:9f.) such as the greedy, robbers, and idolaters. Paul does not even consider it his business to judge such immoral non-Christians. That is God's prerogative (5:12–13).

However standards should be significantly higher in the Christian Church than in the surrounding society. Paul advises the Corinthian Christians to expel from their congregation people who are guilty of immorality or greed, idolatry, drunkenness, or robbery (5:11,13). Paul also considers it a disgrace that Christians should take legal action against other Christians before a non-Christian court (6:1–6). Ideally, he feels, Christians should not go to court at all against a Christian brother or sister. They should prefer to suffer injustice from other Christians rather than resort to legal process to procure justice for themselves (6:7–8).

Speaking in the first person, Paul affirms that Christians are free people. They are not subject to a law which commands them to do one thing and forbids them to do another. However liberty does not mean license to do whatever feels good. The Corinthian Christians should carefully consider what is beneficial (6:12).

Furthermore, Christians should remember who they are. They were washed, sanctified, and justified (6:11). Their bodies are members of Christ (6:15), temples of the Holy Spirit (6:19). Therefore they should shun anything that interferes with their close union with Christ. Paul warns the Corinthians specifically against consorting with a prostitute (6:16f.).

Exploring the biblical text in detail

In 1 Corithinians 6:9–10, Paul presents a list of the kinds of people who, he says, will not inherit the kingdom of God. Who is excluded? Bible translators evidently have a difficult time attempting to render the Greek text in adequate English terms.

When Six Studies on Homosexuality, the original material for this study, was published in 1985, the Revised Standard Version (RSV) was the English translation of choice. Since that time the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) was published and adopted by the ELCIC for use in its study documents. A reader who is restricted to the use of translations may be puzzled to discover that the various versions paint significantly different pictures.

According to the RSV translation, Paul's list includes "the unrighteous, the immoral, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers" (6:9f.).

However the NRSV translation of the list speaks of "wrong doers, fornicators, idolators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and robbers."

How is it that the NRSV translation speaks of "male prostitutes" and "sodomites" where "homosexuals" is used in the RSV translation?

Who are the "homosexuals?"

We are particularly concerned with two unusual Greek words. The word "homosexuals" (6:9) in the RSV translation actually represents two Greek words, namely μαλακοι (malakoi) and αρσενοκοιται (arsenokoitai). There is considerable discussion about what these two words mean. Already the second edition of the RSV substitutes "sexual perverts" for "homosexuals," and a comparison of other English translations shows how difficult it is to determine the precise meaning of the words in question. For example, the New International Version translates the two Greek terms with "male prostitutes" and "homosexual offenders," respectively.

Malakoi

The first of this pair of words also occurs in Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25. In both places the word μαλακοι (malakoi) refers to soft clothing. In neither place can one detect any sexual connotation or overtones. Some scholars infer from this that in 1 Corinthians 6:9 the word is devoid of sexual implications as well, and simply describes some men (the adjective is masculine in this verse) as "soft." However three observations speak against this interpretation.

First, is it conceivable that Paul would want to say that "soft" men will be excluded from the Kingdom of God? What is there so despicable about being "soft?" Surely, Paul is referring to something much more serious than a personality trait.

Second, it is well known that in every language most words can be used in more than one sense. A given word can mean one thing in one sentence and quite something else in another. One must pay careful attention to the context. In English, too, the word "soft" can carry widely divergent connotations. A soft heart is a compassionate heart, but a soft head is something quite different.

Third, in secular Greek literature the word malakoi can have sexual connotations and often refers to men and boys who allow themselves to be misused homosexually. The Jerusalem Bible evidently understands the word in 1 Corinthians 6:9 in this sense when it offers the translation "catamites," a word which The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines as "a boy who is having a sexual relationship with a man."

The NRSV translates malakoi as "male prostitutes," thus assuming that Paul was rejecting the commercialization of sex. According to this translation, the passage would address the exploitative use of sex. It would have little or nothing to do with a caring, loving, and committed homosexual relationship. In fact, this particular word might not refer to same-sex relationships at all.

Arsenokoitai

The second of the Greek words in 1 Corinthians 6:9, αρσενοκοιται (arsenokoitai), does not occur in Greek literature before Paul. Literally it means "men-sleepers," or "men who sleep (with men)," suggesting sexual intercourse, but without specifying the precise nature of the sexual behaviour that is meant. Boswell proposed the translation "active male prostitutes."

The NRSV takes arsenokoitai to mean sodomites. In common language sodomy is generally understood to refer to a specific sort of sexual intercourse between males, involving penetration of one male by another. "Some suggest the apostle had in mind certain public spectacles, as when soldiers sodomized prisoners of war in public in order to humiliate the enemy," according to Jersild. Nissinen documents the practice with pictographic and inscriptional evidence.

Richard Hays agrees with Robin Scroggs that the term arsenokoitai is created by Paul himself in deliberate allusion to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, two passages which in rabbinic literature are generally understood to refer to homosexual intercourse. From this Hays concludes that "Paul's use of the term presupposes and reaffirms the Holiness Code's condemnation of homosexual acts."

Scroggs has sought to read the two Greek terms malakoi and arsenokoitai as references to pederasty, a practice in which an older male enjoys the sexual favours of a younger male. In that relationship malakoi is taken to refer to the passive younger person and arsenokoitai to the active older and controlling male.

Others have accepted this conclusion, observing that originally the practice of pederasty was tied to status, serving to initiate boys into adult society. According to this interpretation, Paul is warning the Corinthians against a sexual practice that is potentially exploitative and degrading to young males. If what we today understand as a gay relationship is not a mode of exploitation but one involving adult consent, then, according to Scroggs and others, Paul's injunctions would not apply to it.

While William Petersen agrees that the term arsenokoitai was coined by Paul as a deliberate allusion to the two Leviticus passages, he rejects the RSV translation "homosexuals," as well as Boswell's translation "active male prostitutes." He argues that Luther's translation "Knabenschänder" (boy abusers) is fairly close to the mark, although an identification with pederasty should be avoided as well.

Petersen bases his argument on an examination of two patristic sources from the second and third century which refer to Zeus and his relationship with the shepherd boy Ganymede as the archetype of one who engages in arsenokoitia (this not the word arsenokoitai and means "sexual activity between males").

Of course, according to Greek mythology, neither Zeus nor Ganymede were homosexuals. Nor was their relationship one of prostitution. Rather, observes Petersen, "Zeus is the model of the healthy male in Greco–Roman antiquity who was sexually aroused by handsome boys and pretty girls alike," and who seduced both with equal relish.

Thus Petersen concludes that the term arsenokoitai has nothing to do with gays on the one hand or prostitutes on the other. It refers to sexual activity between males who find it equally attractive and satisfying to have sexual relations with males as well as females. In antiquity the concept of sexual orientation was unknown. All "healthy" males were considered "naturally" attracted in both directions, says Petersen.

Such persons (most closely akin to those at the approximate mid-point on the Kinsey scale) would be classified today as bisexual or ambisexual. The Greek term would have little or nothing to do with what we today understand as homosexuality.

What is meant by "will not inherit the Kingdom of God?"

Paul warns his Corinthian readers that people who keep doing what these Greek words describe cannot hope to receive God's ultimate acceptance. Assuming that the two Greek words mean homosexuals, a literal interpretation of the text would compel us to affirm that gays are unacceptable to God. A terrifying prospect, to be sure! Of course one dare not stop there. What is said about the queers applies equally to thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and others (1. Corinthians 6:9–10). The list can be amplified even further if we draw on Paul's letter to the Galatians which contains a similar list of offenses (Galatians 5:19–21) which exclude the offenders listed there from God's eternal favour.

A literal interpretation of these texts would create serious theological difficulties since Paul asserts again and again that we are justified not by what we do or don't do, but only by trusting in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:21–26 and elsewhere).

Furthermore, Paul acknowledges that although the Corinthians have been washed and justified and sanctified (6:11), nevertheless there is still a great deal of immorality to be found among them (5:1–6:20). Thus it is clear that Paul does not think of Christians as morally pure people.

The phrase "will not have a part in … " is found in almost identical contexts in rabbinic literature quite frequently. Judaism was accustomed to the phrase "people who do such and such shall not have a part in the world to come." The rabbis said this sort of thing as a way of warning people not to engage in certain activities. This was their way of saying emphatically, "Don't do such and such. God doesn't like it!" The rabbis did not mean to imply that God saves people by works, nor that God would not forgive certain deeds, but they did mean to say that there are things God frowns upon.

Maybe we can deduce from this that when Paul says "the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Corinthians 6:9), he means to say no more (but also no less) than, "stop doing these things! God does not approve!"

Obviously, Paul insists that such behaviour should not be taken lightly. Such things are not in keeping with life in the Spirit.

Paul's words "and this is what some of you used to be" (1 Corinthians 6:11) indicate that people guilty of all sorts of things on the list can and did successfully change their behaviour. Some interpreters claim that according to Paul's own words, malakoi and arsenokoitai can and did change from their former way of life.

Even the most ardent promoter of homosexuality carefully distinguishes between homosexual orientation and homosexual behaviour, and agrees that the latter is subject to change. However the question is whether such a change is mandatory for Christians.

What Do You Think?

In 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 is Paul speaking about gays and lesbians at all? In what way can these verses apply to Christians who have committed themselves to each other in a same-sex relationship of genuine love?

Does 1 Corinthians indicate that in Paul's opinion gays and lesbians, drunkards and thieves can be justified? If so, does he specify how this happens? Does Paul regard malakoi and arsenokoitai as worse offenders than robbers and adulterers?

Why, do you think, are we expending such energy on exploring the meaning of malakoi and arsenokoitai while giving so little attention to such terms as "wrongdoers" and "greedy" which appear side by side with those two Greek terms?

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