Tuesday 22 March 2011

Bible says No - Part 3 - Corinthians and Timothy

This is Part 3 in a series inspired by the 'Little Britain' sketch "Computer says No".  It seeks to challenge the perception that the Bible issues a blanket prohibition on same-sex relationships.
You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
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 ...


  1. Following on from my post on the previous entry, again I don't think you are being fair about 'arsenokoitai.' Just because Paul coined the word does not imply its meaning is unclear. There is a strong consensus amongst recent commentators that he is, as you say, coining the word from the LXX of Lev 18, and in fact a very similar phrase is found in rabbinic literature of the time which reinforces this.

    Far from tying this kind of sexual activity to the cult or to particular social contexts, Paul appears to be using the most general possible term for any kind of same-sex activity. He is clearly capable of overturning or setting aside certain aspects of the Jewish critique of paganism, but here he chooses not to.

    I wonder though if your setting this in the context of what Paul 'said' about women obscures rather than clarifies. Most of what you cite is a misreading of Paul (as I think you know), and the arguments on the two issues are of quite a different kind, since however you interpret the 'negative' texts like 1 Tim 2 and parts of 1 Cor 11 and 14, there are clearly 'positive' texts where women clearly exercise apostolic leadership.

    There is no parallel in Paul wrt same-sex relationships.

  2. Thanks for this.

    I am afraid that I have to side with Ian, here. Although Paul’s invention of a word can be awkward, still it is the word he uses and although we can be reasonable vague in its translation, we can also be fairly precise about what the word refers to. It is obviously a reference, in some shape or form to same-sex activity; though it is difficult to gain a full understanding, I think it is safe to say, Paul is not giving the thumbs up to same-sex, sexual relationships.

    I do grow rather bored of lengthy exegesis on this or that Koine Greek word. One of my interviewees (i.e. part of my doctoral research) the other day began to tell me about the four words for love in Greek and how there was a special word in the Bible for ‘Godly love’ – agape. I was itching to ask ‘If it is such a special ‘Greek word’ why isn’t it found in the Septuagint?’. So much for agape...

    ‘The theology we find in Paul’s epistles is truly remarkable’. I would suggest this sentence could also read ‘The ideology we find in Paul’s epistles is truly remarkable.’ Because then, as now, much of Paul’s eulogy on equality is ideology; for the greater part of Christian history slavery and the subjugation of women have been part of Christian life and ironically, the more overtly Christian a society the greater its social divisions. Hence Paul’s ‘theology’ does have the ring of ideology – a solution in consciousness to that which is insoluble in reality.

    As Anglicans we have Scripture, tradition and reason as the foundation of our faith. Scripture is useful to a point, but, as have seen, can be ambiguous if we try and read meanings into something written almost 2,000 years ago – and something that we don’t possess one scrap of the original text nor are we able to fully understand the cultural context of the language and its intended meaning. So we have to take it with a pinch of salt... Tradition has, until the last few decades, been happy not to see people and genders as equal.

    We are left with reason as the only sure means of striking the via media, we Anglicans are famed for. Reason tells us that many of the ‘possessed’ that Jesus dealt with were probably people with epilepsy; few of us believe the sky is a vault of water, separated at Second Day from the ‘firmament; despite Jesus’ words telling us we can heal the sick by prayer, most of us go to our GP when we’re ill – and have learnt to thank God for GPs and medicine – how good we are at using reason when it suits. Medicine and psychiatry have suggested homosexuality is actually a perfectly normal variant of human sexuality – like left handedness (though that was regarded as sinister (Latin for left-handed) or ‘kakos’ ‘bad’ – those Greek words again – until recently). Yes, there are those sex obsessed Christians who tell us homosexuals choose to be gay – but as +Demond Tutu notes, who in their right minds is going to choose go be on the outside looking in?

    Hence I am afraid, reason is the only way we can really look at this issue. Parsing Greek sentences and looking at the etymology of words is great fun, but it doesn’t really get us anyway. Tradition rather flies in the face of the ‘equality’ that is supposed to be the lot of the Christian; yet reason tells us that the Bible doesn’t have the answers to everything, and sometimes we just have to think around an issue. http://faithisnotthesameasreligion1.blogspot.com/2011/03/corners-of-my-mind.html is something I have written to demonstrate that those of us who have chosen to have a same sex-partner haven’t arrived at that decision lightly. Reason (not to mention my friends and colleagues) tells me I am a better person for acknowledging sometimes you just have to move on from what Scripture may say – it gets it wrong from time to time and it seems to have done on the homosexual issue. Get over it. I think the real questions many Christians should be asking is why they are so interested in other people’s morality! But that is a brave question, few choose to ask.

  3. Hard to imagine that "arsenokoitai" could apply to "all homosexuality" since it clearly only refers to men! Obviously the Hebrew Scripture leaves them out, too.

    To me this is a pointer to a cultural, not a divine ordinance.

  4. I'm not really able to enter the discussion about Paul making up a word and the impact of that, but on a more basic level Paul characteristically wrote to churches or groups of Christians about the issues they were facing. He sought to be a source of encouragement. We need to be reading his letters therefore in the context they were written, it would be dangerous to take any element of the bible out of context!

    I loved what you said about there being a world of difference between a man and a woman having sex together in prostitution, as opposed to marriage, and how it should be the same for same-sex acts - It makes so much sense! Really refreshing to read, thank you!

    God has given us the ability to reason and capacity to love. The great debate about gay and lesbian people being accepted in the church seems insane...Jesus met people where they were at, and accepted them that way - We could learn a lot from Him!

  5. @Ian Paul: Thank you again for your comment. I was particularly interested in your mention of the use of something like arsenokoitai in rabbinic literature. I would be grateful if you would send me more information on this.

    In general however, you made several points that I would like to respond to:

    I agree that, in coining the word 'arsenokoitai' Paul seeks a very general context, rather than a specific one. My argument however is that the same-sex acts Paul would have been aware of were all worthy of prohibition, so, of course he would have wanted to condemn them all. Greek culture recognised same-sex acts in a wide variety of contexts, almost always as something in addition to heterosexual marriage. I too, would agree with Paul that same-sex acts as recreation are wrong, particularly when committed by heterosexuals who are married. Our context today is quite different. Homosexuality is seen as distinct. Most gay Christians see themselves as being created by God in every respected including their sexuality. Same-sex acts among Christians are not something which are done socially in addition to being married (except sometimes by unfortunate gay Christians who have succumbed to the pressure to get married, believing that it would 'sort them out' only to discover that their homosexual feelings continued as before). Paul used the term in a general way but what he saw did not include the issues we struggle with today.

    Secondly, I am very surprised that you think pointing out the parallels with the role and place of women 'obscures rather than clarifies'. The parallels are striking, and cannot be ignored. Very similar arguments are used to justify the subjugation of women. The same appeal is made back to the creation accounts. The same sense of what is 'natural' is invoked in order to justify the 'Biblical' hierarchy. In fact there are many evangelicals today who would still say that it is 'unnatural' for a women to have authority over a man, as you are doubtlessly aware.
    The 'misreading' of Paul which you cite, held sway in the Church for almost 2,000 years, and has only begun to be overturned as we have re-examined the Biblical texts. The same is now needed on the issue of homosexuality, and there are many more instances which have had to be re-interpreted on the place of women, than on the issue of homosexuality.

    I look forward to hearing from you on the rabbinic texts you mention.

  6. Thanks for this, Benny.
    One thing I think significant is that nowhere in the bible do we see the concept of homosexuality as an orientation. Hence Paul did not really believe in homosexuals - only in heterosexuals who were deliberately acting in perverse ways. His understanding was limited, as you say.
    I think it is important to understand/ debate the roots of the words - but I suspect an individual's stance on the issue often colours the interpretation of words we can't be quite sure about!
    To me, that it not the be all and end all anyway, more using our reason, humanity and looking at the broader sweep of an inclusive gospel.

  7. @ Suem:
    'Hence Paul did not really believe in homosexuals - only in heterosexuals who were deliberately acting in perverse ways. His understanding was limited, as you say.'

    I totally agree Sue, and I think that your phrase expresses it very well. Thank you.