The Effeminate* & Sodomites in 1 Cor 6:9-10
*I've chosen to use the traditional word choice of "effeminate" from the KJV and YLT for
the title of this section, even though the NRSV above translates the key term as "male prostitutes".
Now that we have extensively discussed the term arsenokoites from 1 Timothy, we move on to the one other passage where this word is used. Paul's first letter to the church in Corinth is of course the first usage chronologically, but I switched the order because we add one more term to our investigation in this passage. This new word is malakos and is translated as “male prostitutes” in the NRSV above.
I’ve chosen to use the more traditional translation of “effeminate”, as seen in the King James and Young’s Literal Translation, for the title of this chapter for reasons that will become clear as we continue our research.
The questions I have for this next-to-last passage are:
- What is this new word "malakos", and what can it contribute to our understanding?
- What can we learn about the usage of these lists in Paul's writing?
- How are these words used in context, and for instruction, in the first epistle to the Corinthians?
I hope you find our exploration of the original languages helpful in our discussion, because we're not done yet! In 1 Corinthians we find another uncommon word (in the Scriptures) that has been translated in various ways. However, this time the word is common in Greek usage of the time, and is also used in a few other verses. Our discussion here will focus less on the literal dictionary definition, and more on what it is intended to mean in context.
Malakos means "Soft"
We'll get to the context later, but it's clear that we're looking at a list of behaviors which limit the "inheritance of the Kingdom" among the Godly. Here's the part of the list in Koine Greek that contains our two focus terms – both arsenokoites and malakos – along with one of the other words we looked at in 1 Timothy, pornos (οὔτε means "nor"):
πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται
The Greek word is malakos (μαλακός 3120). Here's what Strong's has to say: "Of uncertain affinity; soft, i.e. Fine (clothing); figuratively, a catamite – effeminate, soft." On the same page in BibleHub.com we also see a longer definition from Thayer's lexicon: "soft; soft to the touch, and simply a soft raiment. Like the Latin mollis (Adj. soft, pliant, flexible, easily moved, gentle), metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness." My personal copy of Mounce's Dictionary says "soft; soft to the touch, delicate. metaphor: an instrument of unnatural lust, effeminate."
There is also a short entry on Wikipedia for the related root word malakia:
Malakia (μαλακία, “softness”, “weakliness”) is an ancient Greek word that, in relation to men, has sometimes been translated as “effeminacy”. The contrary characteristic in men was karteria (καρτερία, “patient endurance”, “perseverance”).
Since this word is used widely outside the Bible, we can also look at more general Greek dictionaries such as the Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ) which have a longer and more complete list of definitions based on usage in Classical literature. You can look at the entire page for the word along with literature references, but I'll list the main definitions here:
MALAKOS – "soft":
- of things subject to touch: soft (soft grassy meadows, of the skin or flesh, soft-fleeced, opposite of hard or rugged ground, of marsh water, to sleep on soft bedding)
- of things not subject to touch: gentle (soft fair words, tender youthful looks, mild, soft, faint or delicate scent, mild climate)
- of persons or modes of life: soft, mild, gentle (easier to handle, of a fallen hero)
- in bad sense: soft ("attacked him somewhat feebly")
- faint-hearted, cowardly
- morally weak, lacking in self-control (not to give in from weakness or want of spirit, indulgences)
- of music: soft, effeminate ("tuned to a low pitch")
- of style: feeble
- of reasoning: weak, loose (to reason loosely)
- weakly, sickly
The literal definition of this word then, as used by the Greeks, is "soft", which is used in many different metaphorical ways just as our equivalent English word is. Our next question is, how do the writers in the New Testament use the word?
The non-Malakos of John the Baptist
There are three uses of this word outside 1 Corinthians; two in Matthew 11:8 and one in Luke 7:25. Each of these uses is similar, so we'll demonstrate with the verse in Matthew:
In context, Jesus is speaking to the crowds immediately after talking with some followers of John the Baptist, who is in prison at the time. Apparently John had begun to doubt Jesus was the true Anointed One, and had sent representatives to ask in person. Jesus responds with an invitation to observe that "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them" (Matthew 11:5). Jesus claims that these are the signs that he is bringing the kingdom of Heaven to Earth ("...on earth as it is in heaven...").
Jesus turns back to the crowd from talking with John's disciples, and begins discussing John the Baptist. He asks the people what had attracted them to listen to John in the first place. Was he "a reed shaken by the wind"? Or "someone dressed in soft robes"? Both could be similar terms – a direct reference to Herod*, the one who claimed to be the legitimate leader of Israel. Herod had printed coins with the image of a reed, and he "bent back and forth" constantly trying to be accepted by both the religious leaders in Judaism as well as the Romans. He lived in luxury in the royal palace, wearing soft ("malakos") robes, as one who had achieved what men would say is the goal of life.
* It's possible Jesus also had in mind the description of God's judgement on Ptolemy from the Jewish historical book of 3 Maccabees, verse 2:22: "He shook him on this side and that as a reed is shaken by the wind." See Sacra Pagina by Harrington for the scholarship behind these interpretations. Also see this Google Books result.
Yet Jesus held up John in contrast, as one who is a prophet – and more than a prophet (v 9-15). Not a soft, pliable sycophant seeking affirmation from the rulers of the world, but a man of God who confronts those rulers. John's prophetic message, "speaking truth to power", included the condemnation of Herod's divorce and marriage to his brother's wife. This marriage was calculated to gain support of certain key Jewish leaders. John stood up to Herod's immoral and power-grasping behavior, and was imprisoned and later executed for it. No bending here!
Jesus continues to express frustration with "this generation" (v 16-19), who insist on putting both John and Jesus into their framework of expectations for what Messiah will be instead of listening (v 15)! He concludes: "yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds", which reminds me of how Matthew 7:15-20 describes identifying false prophets (by the fruits, the resulting actions or character attributes, of their teachings). This leads directly into one of Jesus's negative comparisons of the crowds to the town of Sodom in the judgement (v 23).
Sorry, it's hard to stop once we get into the gospels! So to wrap up briefly, the only other uses of malakos in the New Testament are in a description of clothing that is first a sign of royalty, and maybe secondarily implying a certain moral weakness. The verse in Luke is in the parallel passage about John: "What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces."
What about the Greeks?
So, the usages of malakos in the Gospels doesn’t seem to have a direct connection to homosexuality. Maybe we can learn something from how this word was used outside of Scripture? Fortunately for our research, malakos was used widely in Koine Greek writing outside of Christian circles.
In “Nicomachean Ethics”, published in 350 BCE, Aristotle uses the word in several ways:
“of the dispositions described above, the deliberate avoidance of pain is rather a kind of softness (malakia); the deliberate pursuit of pleasure is profligacy in the strict sense.”;
“One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is soft (malakos) or luxurious, for luxury is a kind of softness (malakia); such a man lets his cloak trail on the ground to escape the fatigue and trouble of lifting it, or feigns sickness, not seeing that to counterfeit misery is to be miserable.”
“People too fond of amusement are thought to be profligate, but really they are soft (malakos); for amusement is rest, and therefore a slackening of effort, and addiction to amusement is a form of excessive slackness.”
– Nicomachean Ethics, Loeb vol 73, VII vii 7; pg 417
Here we see malakos as “soft” used in a negative metaphorical way, but not having anything to do with sexuality. This fits well with the suggested usage in the Gospel of Matthew, but it’s not the only way the word is used. Since the word in context in 1 Timothy is sandwiched between “male prostitutes” and “thieves” (in the NRSV), one sex-related and one not, we should also look for uses that might have more to do with sexuality.
Once again, there are many uses of malakos having to do with sexuality. It is certainly not restricted to general moral laxness, and was a popular term in debates and acusations about sexual- ity amongst Greek writers. I’ll attempt a simple list of some of the ways it’s used:
1. Boy Prostitutes
You'll be familiar with the basic idea from our discussion of 1 Timothy. A translation note from the NABRE may be helpful here:
"The Greek word translated as boy prostitutes may refer to catamites, i.e., boys or young men who were kept for purposes of prostitution, a practice not uncommon in the Greco-Roman world. In Greek mythology this was the function of Ganymede, the “cupbearer of the gods,” whose Latin name was Catamitus. The term translated sodomites refers to adult males who indulged in homosexual practices with such boys."
Some young boys were castrated to keep their more feminine appearance longer. The emperor Nero (the "beast of Rome") dressed up one of his favorites in woman's clothing and married him, treating him as a wife, after castrating him. Not a very loving or consensual relationship!
2. The “Effeminate”
Any outward characteristics that seemed “feminine” in the culture were labeled as malakos. This could be anything from physical characteristics, to preferring luxury to hard work, or to be a scholar. For a male to take on any characteristics of the feminine, or even to value womanly qualities, was to reduce the assumed natural superiority of the male in the culture.
This may come as a surprise to you, because it certainly did for me. Greco-Roman culture in the first century generally looked down on men who displayed too great a love of women! Descriptions of men curling their hair, wearing perfume, and dressing up to court or seduce women are not used in a posi- tive way. Those who sought the love of women too openly were seen as men who could not control their sexual lusts (“morally weak”), or who valued women so highly as to lose some status in the culture that held up men as uniformly superior to women.
In some Greek writings, men who sought out men (usually younger boys) for relationships were regarded as more manly and masculine, since they valued men over women. Malakos was an insult traded back and forth in the numerous debates about the superiority of a man loving either a woman or another man. Those who argued that male homosexual love was best made their case that to pursue a woman beyond the simple need to procreate was to taint a man with the “softness” or “effeminacy” of a woman. Men who fall in love with women demonstrate their effeminacy (malakos) by being controlled by women.
4. Male Prostitutes
I mentioned the three general concepts of homosexual behavior in our last section 1 Timothy, but left the last one to be explained here.
Most homosexual activity in ancient Greco-Roman culture appears to have been in pederastic and slave-prostitute environments. There are some writings that refer to adult free men who have chosen to continue relationships, either for profit/patronage or by choice. They were generally looked down on by all of society, and the word malakos was sometimes used as an insult for them. Some of these did choose to take on feminine clothing, hair and make-up styles.
Summary of usage in literature
There is a good case to be made that Paul was using the word malakos specifically for the negative sexual meaning in the Greco-Roman world. However, it was certainly not restricted to homosexuality. A man in the first century could be accused of malakos for any of the following:
- Eating or drinking too much, enjoying luxury.
- Having long hair, shaving, wearing nice clothes (basically being a modern “metrosexual”).
- Keeping knees together, or swaying when walking.
- Dancing, laughing or gesturing too much.
- Being penetrated sexually by man or woman.
- Enjoying sex with women too much—a “wanton” person.
How is malakos translated in various Bible versions?
While malakos was often seen as a euphemism for the despised ("wasteful of seed") practice of masturbation during the first few centuries of Christianity, it gradually shifted away from that view through the Middle Ages. Today this is not something we will see reflected in our translations, although the equivalent word in modern Greek has come to mean masturbation.
Let's look at another translation comparison table for both malakos and arsenokoites as used in this verse. The first three terms in our list are consistently translated "fornication/sexual immorality" (pornos), "idolatry/worshipping idols" (eidololatres) and "adulterers" (moichos), so we'll assume we can leave those alone for now.
|WYC||1382||lechers against kind||they that do lechery with men|
|KJV||1611||effeminate*||abusers of themselves with mankind|
|Darby||1890||those who make women of themselves||who abuse themselves with men|
|ASV||1909||effeminate*||abusers of themselves with men|
|NIV||1973||male prostitutes||homosexual offenders|
|CEV||1995||pervert||behaves like a homosexual|
|NLT||1996||male prostitutes||practice homosexuality|
|TNIV||2001||male prostitutes||practicing homosexual|
[or passive homosexual partners]
|men who have sexual relations with other men
[or active homosexual partners]
|NET||2006||boy prostitutes||practicing homosexuals|
If we consider the Greek usage of malakos, you might notice how the older translations seemed to do a better job bringing those meanings forward directly. Until the 1970s, when homo- sexuality became a controversy in the conservative Christian world, it was consistently translated with the connotation of “effeminancy” or “wantonness”.
You'll notice that there is more variation in translating malakos and arsenokoites in 1 Corinthians than we saw in 1 Timothy. The most obvious difference is how some choose to combine the two into a single concept, even though the Greek clearly has them as separate terms.
This is a good example of a dynamic style of translation, which goes beyond a literal transfer of words and attempts to convey the underlying ideas the original readers might have understood. In general this is a good thing, since a 2,000 year difference goes beyond common languages. However, it also requires the translator to interpret and make theological decisions, which are always influenced by current context and the inherent biases every human being has.
What we should do now is ask WHY the translators have made these decisions.
Here are all the direct translations of malakos from the versions above:
- lechers against kind
- wantons ("one given to self-indulgent flirtation or trifling; a lewd or lascivious person")
- effeminate (3)
- those who make women of themselves
- male prostitutes (3) – one adds: "or passive homosexual partners"
- boy prostitutes
Out of this list, it seems that the translators have chosen meanings as varied as "those who lust for their own kind", lewd people, the effeminate/womanly man (4), male/boy prostitutes (4) and sexual perverts.
Six translations combine both malakos and arsenokoites, somehow understanding them to be referring to one single concept which is almost exclusively homosexual:
- adultery of any kind
- men who have sex with men (2011 NIV)
- homosexual perverts
- anyone practicing homosexuality
- men who practice homosexuality (2001 ESV)
Two have decided that this refers directly to male-with-male sex, while three broaden this to women. The outlier groups everything into "adultery of any kind". Certainly all translations are comfortable translating the first three terms as "fornication/sexual immorality" (pornos), "idolatry/worshipping idols" (eidololatres) and "adulterers" (moichos), so those seem reliable.
Unlike our in-depth look at arsenokoites in 1 Timothy, our translators don't seem to have come to the same agreements on defining malakos for contemporary audiences. Since the 1970s (based on the list of versions above), 7 translations explicitly associate this term with homosexuality (assuming that's what's implied by "perverts"), and 4 others emphasize male prostitution. Keeping in mind that these translations are all generally conservative translations that are not going to take risks on new translation theories, it seems significant that one third choose a term that focuses on prostitution.
Active and Passive Partners
There is a specific concept underlying the decision for some translators (most prominently the popular 2011 NIV and 2001 ESV) to combine the two words malakos and arsenokoites into one blanket condemnation of homosexuality (or at least male-with-male sex). I'm referring to the first century concept of "passive and active partners".
In much of ancient Greco-Roman culture the ideas of passive and active sexual partners were even more important than the physical genders of men and women. Women were generally seen always seen as the passive partner (to be explicit, often implying "the one who is penetrated"), except for some idolatrous situations that we'll look in the next section on Romans. In the common pederasty relationship we looked at in the last section on 1 Timothy, it was important in the culture to consider the young partner the passive one, and the older male would be the active partner. As the young man grew up, he would be expected to leave this passive role behind and become the active partner with a youth. Any hint of either reversing these two roles or implying equality between the two was condemned by the Greeks.
Malakos was sometimes used in Greek literature to imply the passive partner, and, as we've seen, many of our current mainstream translators translate arsenokoites as a more active male partner. The strange thing is, if Paul really had the two unequal partners in pederasty in mind, we might expect him to use the standard word pairs of erastes + eromenos or paiderastes + kinaides. Not only does he never use these terms, but the ones used instead are separated in the list of vices exactly the same as the terms for idolatry or theft.
It seems clear to me that the translators of the NIV and ESV in particular have accepted the Greek practices and concepts of sexual practice between unequal partners as describing all same-gender sexual relationships. This does not seem to match our current understanding of homosexuality being an orientation toward attraction and sex that can be fulfilled in either abusive and immoral ways, or in a committed, loving, monogamous relationship between two equals.
Those Who Lack Self-Control
Referring back to our list of definitions of malakos, one of the ways the word was used was to indicate those who were morally weak and lacked self-control. It could refer to people who become controlled by their lusts.
So, what does Malakos mean?
Once again, we can't be sure. It's definitely a negative term, and being used in a metaphorical way instead of literal. We can see any of the following options being reasonable translations:
- Those who are controlled by their lust, whether for men or women.
- Those who are morally weak in general.
- Young male prostitutes ("catamites").
- Older male prostitutes who dress effeminately to continue as the "passive" partner for wealthy patrons.
It seems clear to me that the well-regarded conservative translators of the NIV (thought-for-thought style translation) and the ESV (more literal word-for-word translation) are convinced that the combination of malakos and arsenokoites refer specifically to a pederastic relationship. Accepting either the catamite or effeminate prostitute definition of malakos does not accurately reflect the monogamous, committed, egalitarian gay marriage ideal being proposed by some Christians today. Can we join together in agreeing with Paul and these translators that we do not want to encourage these abusive relationships, yet also understand that they have nothing to do with the question at hand?
Last comment: The fact that the literal-style ESV combines two obviously discrete Greek terms into one speculative phrase is especially significant, I think, as we leave open the possibility that there may be a negative agenda in this translation.
Now that we've looked at the word malakos in detail, and added the various interpretation ideas in with our definition(s) of arsenokoites, I'd like to take one step back and look at the immediate context of the words. The first, very obvious, thing we can observe is that this is a list of vices, similar to 1 Timothy. But these are not the only occurrences of similar lists in Paul's writing.
IT'S A LIST
A suggestion by Robin Scroggs in his book "The New Testament and Homosexuality" is that the contents of this list of immoral behaviors could have been sourced from standard lists of immorality that were circulating at the time. We even see lists like this used outside of Scripture. In other words, the suggestion is that the specifics on this list weren't necessarily germane to Paul's topic. He merely grabbed a few samples to illustrate his main point.
I've seen this concept cited in other sources as well. The Greeks had their own similar lists. The Apocryphal book The Wisdom of Solomon has one in chapter 14 (we'll take a quick look at this in our discussion on Romans). The first century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria claimed king-of-the-hill with 147 entries in one copy!
Other Lists from Paul?
We have already seen one other list in 1 Timothy, which shares the term arsenokoites, but not malakos. Obviously Paul doesn't feel that he needs to use these two words together in every list to get his meaning across.
Where can we find all these lists in the New Testament?
Galatians 5:19-21 – "Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God." (15 items)
1 Corinthians 5:10 – "I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons – not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world." (4 items)
1 Corinthians 5:11 – "But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one." (6 items)
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – "Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God." (10 items)
2 Corinthians 12:20 – "For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder." (8 items)
Romans 1:29-31 – "They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." (20 items)
Romans 13:13 – "Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy." (6 items)
1 Timothy 1:9-10 – "This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching..." (14 items)
I've compiled every term in these lists into a spreadsheet with a count of how many times they are used. The top ten repeated terms are:
- Fornicators (5 times)
- Drunkard/Drunkeness (4 times)
- Idolatry/idolator (4 times)
- Greedy (3 times)
- Jealousy (3 times)
- Quarrels/Quarreling (3 times)
- Robbers (3 times)
- Anger (2 times)
- Envy (2 times)
- Gossip (2 times)
Arsenokoites and malakos are after position 15. Again, pederasty, a harmful and immoral form of homosexuality, was widely known in culture at the time, yet this was not something that Paul seemed too concerned about. Of course, since it was definitely sex outside of marriage and mostly involving multiple partners, it could certainly fall under the general "fornication/sexual immorality" and "adultery" labels.
THe "Evolution" of the List in 1 Corinthians
Within this one letter to Corinth, we can find three of the lists, and they all seem to be related.
|1 Corinthians 5:10||1 Corinthians 5:11||1 Corinthians 6:9-10|
|sexually immoral||sexually immoral||sexually immoral|
Paul is using the list motif in building his argument – simultaneously adding items to his list every time he repeats it. Is it possible that the list itself is not the main point, but it is placed here to support his argument? What would that argument be? We'll look at that in the final part of this section.
So what can we learn from the lists?
- Some Christians claim that homosexual orientation and/or practice is an especially important sin to God, either because of something inherently perverted or idolatrous, or because it tends to be something repeated without repentance, unlike something like gossip. However, even if our two somewhat ambiguous terms are condemning homosexuality, Paul certainly doesn't seem to emphasize it in his lists. Only 2 of the 6 lists include words that could possibly imply homosexuality, even though quite abusive same-gender practices were prominent in Greco-Roman culture of the time, and none of the clearest terms are ever used.
- The lists seem to be used to stand in for something in an argument, not to be a focus on their own. We have to look more broadly at the text to see what is being taught.
What is Paul Teaching the Corinthian Church?
Paul had originally founded the church in Corinth, and apparently continued to act as an advisor at a distance through letters (this one written from Ephesus). This letter, like many others, was written to address specific issues of the time which we find to also be helpful in our walk today.
Outline of the Letter
I have taken a sample outline from Bible.org (run by a conservative Christian group associated with the Dallas Theological Seminary), though condensed for brevity, to give us a quick look at the entire book:
- Greetings and thanksgiving (1:1-9)
- Divisions in the Church
- The Fact of Divisions (1:10-17)
- The Causes of Division (1:18–4:13)
- The Cure for Divisions (4:14-21)
- Disorders in the Church
- Failure to Discipline an Immoral Brother (5:1-13)
- Failure to Resolve Personal Disputes (6:1-11)
- Failure to Exercise Sexual Purity (6:12-21)
- Difficulties in the Church (7:1–14:40)
- Concerning Marriage (7:1-40)
Concerning Christian Liberty (8:1–11:1)
Concerning Worship (11:2–14:40)
- Doctrinal Correction of the Church Regarding the Resurrection (15:1-58)
- Closing (16:1–24)
2: Divisions in the Church
It's obvious at the beginning that Paul is writing in reaction to major divisions in the church. Members are claiming allegiance to certain teachers, and breaking the unity of the body (sounds familiar!). Paul is firm: "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose." (1:10)
He emphasizes our equality in humbleness before God, not to rely on human wisdom but the power of God. There are some, he says, who are spiritually mature, but their level of insight cannot be understood by the immature like those in this church. "For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?" (3:3)
Our work will be judged by God, not man. Paul makes it very clear that when we think we are wise (and can tell others what the one true path is, "following Apollos" or "following Paul"), we should learn to be a fool again to attain true wisdom! (3:18)
He ends this section with a plea to stop judging: "Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God." (4:5) Instead he asks them to follow the examples he and Apollos are setting as humble servants. "For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power [ability to perform]." (4:20)
3: Disorders in the Church
Paul next addresses three specific sinful situations he's heard about in the church:
- A man living with his father's wife –"you are to hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved". (5:5)
- Bringing lawsuits against brothers in the courts instead of settling matters in the church or allowing yourself to be defrauded for the sake of unity – "In fact, to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?" (6:7)
- Abusing freedom in Christ by going to prostitutes – "'All things are lawful for me,' but not all things are beneficial. 'All things are lawful for me,' but I will not be dominated by anything." (6:12)
It is in between the last two points that our specific verses are found. I'll mention one thing here.
Paul makes it very clear that he is affirming our freedom from the law in Christ. There is nothing we are forbidden to do to be part of the body of Christ, yet there are two criteria which we should apply to determine if we should do certain things. We should examine if we will:
- be harmed by, or harm others by, a given practice, or
- be controlled by this practice.
I don't think we'll have disagreement that participating in prostitution or sexual immorality is harmful or controlling (leading us away from Christ). The question is, are same-sex marriages between Christians different from heterosexual marriages in this regard? It seems we can look for signs of harm and control in the same way we would analyze traditional marriages – and we can certainly find examples of both healthy and unhealthy marriages in that environment.
4: Difficulties in the Church
Let's quickly wrap up our summary of 1 Corinthians ("following through on the swing"):
Marriage and Celibacy
- Paul makes it clear his personal preference (7:25) is for everyone to stay celibate like himself. He doesn't seem to be a big fan of marriage for anyone who can avoid it, at least for the unique time he was writing ("the world as they knew it was passing away"). (7:31)
- For those married, it must be an egalitarian relationship of mutual rights – no allowance for domination. (7:3)
- For those who cannot be at peace and live righteously in celibacy, they should marry. (7:36)
Food Offered to Idols, Cultural Adaptation, and Freedom
- Even eating food sacrificed to idols (one of the two remaining commands passed on by the Jerusalem Counsel in Acts 15) is not a sin – we should only be aware of our testimony when we partake with those who don't understand. (8:4)
- Paul has made himself conform to all cultures, and be "all things to all people" to bring Christ to everyone. (9:22)
- Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial – what will help those around us and build them up? (10:23)
Worship Practices in the Corinthian Church
- Women must have heads covered in prayer and prophecy, and men must not. (Is this a cultural practice of the time, or a lasting command for us today? I think we mostly agree on the first option!)
- "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?" (11:14-15)
- Do not eat the Lord's Supper unworthily, letting some go hungry while others feast – weakening the collective body as some starve. (11:21)
- Gifts are given for the diversity of the body to contribute to the whole. We should celebrate the differences.
- Love is the greatest and most lasting gift. In the end all will be gone but love will remain and we will see clearly. Faith, hope and love remain, and the greatest is love. (13:13)
- Make sure that all spiritual practices benefit each other and those who visit. (14:26)
- No permission given for women to speak in assembles at this time. (14:35)
Paul wraps up with a defense of the resurrection and a request for help for the churches in Galatia.
So, what does the context help us with?
Paul seems to be quite focused on how to navigate the balance between the freedom we have from the Law (our life is no longer lived by rules and regulations) in Christ, and yet our continued need to care for others and avoid practices that would harm them. I like to think his sermon on love in chapter 13 is a guide for us here – embracing faith, hope and greatest of all love as our "rule of life".
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love,
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers,
and understand all mysteries and all knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.
Love is patient;
love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things.
Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part;
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three;
and the greatest of these is love.
This reminds me of the conversation Jesus had with the expert on the Law who asked him his opinion on what is the greatest of the (613 according to the Pharisees) commandments.
When the scribe heard this, he declared it to be true, that "this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices." (Mark 12:33)
How do we apply the Rule of Love (not the Rule of Law) today with our gay brothers and sisters? This is an important question.
- Do we count on our knowledge and training, and tell them that tradition is clear – they can never have hope to enter a loving relationship the way heterosexual couples can?
- Or can we start listening, asking questions, and watching to see if there there is love or harm in these relationships in a different way than it is experienced in marriage between a man and a woman?
It's hard to love someone as ourselves if we don't understand what they think and feel. It's impossible to know what they think and feel if we don't listen. Listening doesn't mean we have to change our minds, or ultimately change our answers in the end. But it may change our hearts in the process to know how to respond in selfless love, not thinking of our own agendas.
What have we learned from our second passage in the New Testament? I don't know about you, but here's what I'm leaving with:
- The Greek word malakos has a clear definition unlike arsenokoites, but appears to be even more difficult to interpret in our passage. It seems that our translators are accepting some form of abusive unequal relationship to be condemned, from male prostitution (as in 1 Timothy?) to man/child pederasty. The interpretations applying the terms to all forms of homosexual relationships seem like they may be stretching a little.
- Paul likes dropping in lists of vices as part of his larger arguments. He doesn't seem to emphasize our key terms in particular, or really any of the terms in general. The focus doesn't seem to be on the specific items. While adultery and sexual immorality in general come up outside of these lists, we don't see our malakos or arsenokoites do so.
- Paul's focus in writing to the church in Corinth appears to be to:
- Encourage unity by discouraging arguments about who is right or wrong,
- Emphasizing freedom in Christ, but tempered with watching carefully for harm and captivity away from Christ.
- Giving instructions to the Corinthian church as to proper practices for their time and place, and making sure to remember that love, carefully defined as other-focused not me-focused, is greater than all other spiritual gifts and practices and all knowledge that we believe we already have.
Well, that's what I'm seeing today. Maybe you are seeing something different? We have just one more passage to go before we wrap up our little project, and it's definitely the strongest one in most traditional debates. Let's see what we can find this time.
Page photo credit: Dennis Jarvis on Flickr, "Tunisia, Colors Everywhere" – Creative Commons