The Apostle Paul has had quite a bad press in recent years.
As the Church has modernised its attitude to women, some of Paul’s statements have sounded antiquated, even prejudiced. Not allowing women to speak in church is one example that stands out but there are others. Protracted discussions about head-covering, and indeed headship seem a long way from the experience of many Christians today in an age of equality. And that is before we grapple with other enigmatic verses about women being ‘saved by childbearing’!
In some places, this has resulted in some aversion to readings from the Epistles. There have been services where I have almost heard a sharp intake of breath among the congregations when such passages are read in church. The fact that orthodox theologians have felt the need to address this in recent years in books like “Did St Paul get Jesus Right?” shows how deeply this has been felt.
But to succumb to such a point of view is to underestimate and devalue Paul’s contribution to the New Testament in a way which is far from justified. Alongside the few passages which seem to sit uncomfortably alongside modern understandings of society, there are a whole host of other areas where Paul’s radical and inclusive theology blaze a trail for which we should be profoundly grateful.
His uncompromising insistence of salvation through faith alone, freedom from the Law and life in the Spirit, are just some examples which are at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. His beautiful and universal description of love in 1 Corinthians 13, quoted by people of all faiths and none, deeply inspires us and moves us.
And on a deeply practical level, all men have cause to be deeply grateful to Paul for successfully opposing those who wanted to impose circumcision on male converts to Christ!
The secret to understanding Paul is to discern between theology and cultural practise. Paul's theology is timeless and reveals to us in wonderful vivid ways the glory of God. His cultural practise on the other hand, is focused within the culture of his day, the culture in which he lived.
The theology we find in Paul’s epistles is truly remarkable. It is the theology of equality – in Christ there is no slave or free, no male or female, no Greek or Jew. It is the theology of equal grace – it is by grace you have been saved, through faith, so that no one may boast. It is the a theology that rejects the constraints of religious law in favour of being led by the Spirit – the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace…. against such things there can be no law. It is the theology of growing in understanding, not religious repression - for now I see in part, I know in part, but then I will know fully, even as I am fully known.
We can only be inspired by the love and power of God at work in this most zealous of Pharisees, called while he was a persecutor of the church, and yet who, in God’s grace, became the Apostle to the Gentiles – those outside the people of God, who were dismissed and looked down on by God’s chosen race.
But alongside this, we also see Paul grappling with the cultural issues of his day, and the impact they had upon the new, fragile churches he was writing to. He was writing to a world very different to the one which we observe today. He was writing to a world which accepted slavery as a cultural norm, where spectators revelled in seeing death in the arena, and in which human rights were limited and dependant on political status. He wrote to fledgling Christian communities made up of Jews and Gentiles with very different norms and expectations about what was proper and socially acceptable. He wrote in a world where the religious practises of the vast majority of the population would seem bizarre and alien to us today.
So in the midst of all these issues, he tried to set down norms which would enable these Christian churches to function and grow in the Roman world, and yet not be conformed to it. This is where we find Paul's pronouncements on the role of women for example - statements that were motivated by considerations of cultural practise rather than expressions of the radical new theology of the Gospel.
He also lived in a world which he did not fully understand. Although he was clearly an educated Jew and a Roman Citizen, his culture was set firmly in the Jewish world, and as he went further and further in his travels across Turkey, into Greece, and ultimately to Rome, we find him grappling with the subtleties of Greek faith and culture as well as Roman politics.
It is within this mix that we find the briefest statements in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1 Timothy which appear to address the issue of homosexuality. Today we will look at the 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
The first thing to notice is that the word ‘homosexual’ did not exist in Paul’s day. In fact it only begins to appear in the in English language in the 19th century. The concept of homosexual orientation is one which is relatively new in human society. There was certainly homosexual sex in the Greek world which Paul moved through, but that does not mean that monogamous, faithful, committed same-sex relationships were the norm.
Same-sex acts of various kinds existed in the Greek world between teachers and pupils, in the military, in religious worship, and at the gymnasium. Even today scholars find it a huge challenge to try to unravel their complexity and significance.
But this is not the issue that Christians are grappling with today.
The overwhelming majority of gay Christians today are not fighting for the right to indulge in promiscuous, religious, or hedonistic sex. They simply want the church to recognise the same Christian ethic for them as for heterosexual couples, and increasingly want the same structures and sacraments to frame their relationships. This would not have been what Paul saw as he journeyed through the Greco-Roman culture of his day. What he would have been aware of, was the bewildering array of sexual activity which existed - much of which, as a Jew, he would have had little understanding of.
As a result, gay Christians have, for many years, said that they don’t recognise themselves in the things Paul writes about in respect to homosexuality (if indeed we can even call it that). Put simply, the things that Paul condemned are not the things that LGBT Christians aspire to today.
On top of that, there are considerable problems in translating the words which Paul uses. In 1 Corinthians 6:9 we find the verse, often quoted that says,
9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV, 1984)
But the words translated as ‘male prostitutes’ and ‘homosexual offenders’ are far from clear in the Greek which Paul wrote. The two words are ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’.
Malakoi also appears in the Gospels. In Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25 Jesus asks people what they expected to see when they went to John the Baptist.
What did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces.
The word translated as 'fine' is malakoi. More usually it means 'soft' and was often used in Greek language to speak disparagingly about people who were soft willed, spineless, or lacking in courage. In English translations, it was not until the 20th Century that malakoi was given a homosexual meaning. What was more common before that, was the meaning found in John Wesley's Bible Notes. He defines "malakoi" in 1 Corinthians, as those:
"Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship"
Arsenokoitai is even more difficult to unravel. It does not appear in any contemporary Greek texts, and appears for the very first time in 1 Corinthians. One tool in discerning the meaning of words is to observe how they are used in a variety of contexts. In the case of arsenokoitai, we have no contemporary contexts outside of Paul's writings to compare. The only other use of the word is in 1 Timothy 1:10, where it is translated in the NIV as 'perverts':
9 We also know that law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious; for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, 10 for adulterers and perverts, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.
This lack of comparable examples to cross-reference has prompted many to ask how we can know for sure what Paul meant by it, and how can we translate it with any degree of certainty?
The most likely explanation is that Paul invented the word, by putting together two words from the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 which condemns someone 'who lies with a man as with a woman'. But as we have seen previously, (Bible says No - Part 2) this condemnation was almost certainly linked to religious prostitution and worship of idols. The command was designed to keep Israel separate from the dubious religious practices of the cultures around them, and free from idol worship.
This of course brings us back to what Paul saw in the Greco-Roman world. He would have been aware of same-sex acts in the context of Greek religion, Greek education, Greek gymnasiums - in short 'Greek Culture' - and he knew that the church must be kept pure from that in the same way that the holiness code of Leviticus was designed to keep Israel pure from the dubious practises and idol worship of those around them.
So if we can have any degree of certainty about these words, it is that they condemned the Greek expression of same-sex acts , which are very different in context to that of gay men and women today, in loving, committed, faithful, exclusive same-sex relationships.
As we try to unravel 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10, the case against homosexual relationships today becomes less and less clear. The words Paul used are either unclear in their meaning, or are simply not found in other contemporary texts, inside or outside of scriptures. Even Greek scholars find it hard to translate them with any degree of certainty.
I had always been told that ‘homosexual offenders’ in the Bible meant all homosexuals who had sex, regardless of the context, but I now find this impossible to justify. There is a world of difference between a man and a woman having sex together in prostitution, as opposed to marriage, and we would never dream of treating those situations as comparable – so why do we assume that all homosexual sex is condemned in the Bible?
If these verses can be translated in a way which condemns homosexual acts, then the acts they condemn are the wicked, immoral, idolatrous, adulterous expressions which the first part of 1 Corinthians 6:9 refers to - not the self-giving love that we observe today between people of the same sex who genuinely love each other and want to commit their lives to each other before God.
Next time - Romans 1 ...