Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 1

Is being effeminate a sin?

Unless you’re Mark Driscoll, you probably would answer no.

Yet Paul specifically references the effeminate in 1 Corinthians 6:9, as part of a vice list. The Greek word is malakoi, and it can also mean “soft.”

The New American Standard Bible catches this reference:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, [will inherit the kingdom of God, v.10]

Most translations, especially modern day ones, pass over this meaning in favor of others.

The NIV and several others interpret the word “male prostitutes,” which seems a bit of a stretch; the English Standard Version for all its talk of word-for-word accuracy, simply leaves it out altogether; the English Common Bible, taking its cue from most newer translations, combines malakoi with Paul’s created word for same-gender sex, arsenokoitai, to say “both partners in same-sex intercourse.”

But the effort to turn malakoi into a condemnation of sex misses the point. Greek had a word for effeminate men who  enjoyed being the passive partner during gay sex; Paul doesn’t use it. He uses the one that is personally derogatory – the one Jesus used to refer to soft clothing in Matt. 11:8/Luke 7:25.

The question, then, is why. If we are uncomfortable with rejecting someone’s presumably inborn manner and appearance as sinful, unworthy of inheritance in God’s kingdom, we need to figure out why Paul places effeminacy in a vice list – and what that means for the other things he condemns.

I’m working through A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews & Gentiles by Stanley K. Stowers, a professor of biblical studies at Brown University (well, he was at the time the book was written, in 1994). Despite its usage of Template Gothic as the principal secondary font, the book provides a helpful look at the culture in place during Paul’s time and why he would view effeminacy – and its next-door neighbor in the 1 Corinthians vice list, same-sex intercourse – as especially problematic.

Romans 1, of course, provides arguably the passage for Christians who oppose homosexuality: unlike any of the other passages, it’s in the New Testament, it specifically refers to female same-sex relations, and it doesn’t include any words invented by Paul himself. But we make a mistake by transposing modern-day notions of homosexuality onto first-century conceptions of same-sex intercourse. It’s easy enough to do when we don’t know what those conceptions are and how they affected Paul’s views. That’s where Stowers, a historian, can help us.

But this will likely lead to further questions: If Paul’s view on sexuality is conditioned on the norms of his culture, can we trust it? Is it applicable today? And if we can’t or it’s not, can we trust anything Paul says? What does it mean for our view of biblical authority? I’ll attempt to get at these issues in the next week or so. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Can Paul Be Trusted on Sexuality? Part 1”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s