This is part 4 of my ongoing series on the Bible and homosexuality. In part 1 I set up my project, and parts 2 and 3 covered the first 4 of my 7 categories of biblical passages which address homosexuality. For the record, my thesis is that the Bible does not condemn either homosexual acts or homosexual people.
I suppose at this point I should thank Biblegateway.com for hosting a comprehensive resource that includes numerous translations and versions of the Bible. If you have ever wanted to compare translations they make it quick and easy. Go here for some information about who they are and what they do. https://www.biblegateway.com/blog/about/
- Paul’s Lists of Sins
Well I have already addressed Paul’s major issue with homosexuality in category 4, but here in 5 we get to look at a few more issues he has with it. It is worth noting that Paul uses lots of negative and angry language to discuss homosexuality and homosexual practices, and homosexual people. As a person he clearly did not think much of homosexuals. However the Bible is bigger than Paul’s opinions, and the message of Christianity is not dependent on Paul’s personal bias. After all, Paul supported slavery and was an avid slut-shamer, all of which we know because he wrote it down in his epistles. Yet Christianity now opposes slavery and Jesus never participated in slut shaming of any kind.
Still Paul is influential in the history of Christianity, and he also wrote several parts of the sacred text. So if he finds moral fault in homosexuality then that fault cannot be so easily dismissed if one wants to remain Christian. I am not advocating abandoning Paul’s epistles, but rather take a deep look into his meaning.
In 1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 Paul lists off the sins of several people who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Among the sins on this list is a curious and difficult to translate distinction regarding 2 words, malakoi and arsenokoitai. There is a rather brilliant article here at christiangays.com which gives the various words used to translate these 2 Greek words in almost all of the various translations of the Bible. In any case Paul claims that the malakoi and arsenokoitai are sins which would bar someone from inheriting the kingdom of God. This has relevance to the issue at hand because at least arsenokoitai is most often translated as the sin of being a homosexual man. Malakoi on the other hand is translated variously as the sin of being weak, effeminate, womanly, and even male sex workers (a throwback to category 3 to be sure, but still an ambiguous one.)
Paul also gives a similar list in 1 Timothy 1:8-11. Here the word Paul uses to describe homosexuals is aresnokoitais, it’s the same word just now plural.
Of some interest here is also the fact that Paul uses words which are identifiers. That is these are all nouns which identify someone according to the sin they have committed. Idolaters, adulterers, malakoi, and arsenokoitai are all terms used to indicate persons according to a particular kind of action which is essential to their identity, namely the sin defines their identity. This is common in almost all of Paul’s sin lists, and he frequently identifies people as a particular kind of sinner, rather than by claiming that they are a person who sometimes commits a certain kind of sin. This makes the idea of loving the sinner and hating the sin problematic when the sin is made to be synonymous with the person’s identity.
The simple answer then to these passages is that Paul is certainly condemning something he takes to be sinful, but that translators of the bible have never quite been sure exactly what that is.
The more complicated answer is that Paul is condemning homosexual relationships but of a specific kind, and that these passages do not contain a blanket condemnation of homosexuals or homosexual practices.
Paul is writing within Roman society, and in general he is writing to Christian Churches in various parts of the Roman Empire that are well outside of the world of Judaism. As such the Roman model of male and masculine sexuality pervades the cultures of the churches to which Paul is writing. Although it must be said that Roman sexuality was certainly about as complicated as our own social views on sexuality, one thing does seem to be clear in Paul’s use of the terms arsenokoitai and malakoi. He uses these terms to indicate a relationship based on a power dynamic, a power dynamic that is immutable because it is based on class.
There have been so many scholarly studies done of how Roman sexuality was defined in terms of an active male penetrator, and a passive effeminate penetrated. “Instead of today’s gender orientation, ancient Roman (and Greek) sexuality can be dichotomized as passive and active. The socially preferred behavior of a male was active; the passive part aligned with the female.” (N.S. Gill Standard Roman Sexuality http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/sexuality/a/aa011400a.htm)
Of course this is an oversimplification, but the general fact remains that in ancient Rome, the “man” was active and chose his partner, whereas the passive partner was the chosen. However one’s sexual activity was also tied to one’s class and social status. ” To be an ancient Roman male in good standing meant you initiated penetrating acts of sex. Whether you did this with a female or a male, slave or free, wife or prostitute, made little difference — as long as you were not on the receiving end, so to speak.” (N.S. Gill Standard Roman Sexuality http://ancienthistory.about.com/cs/sexuality/a/aa011400a.htm) For additional proof please also see this source here.
My point is this, when a man in a position of power, privilege, and authority in society chooses a lover, that lover, be they male or female, must yield to his advances. They become the soft and weak effeminate one, waiting to be penetrated. He becomes the hard penetrator and the initiator of the sexual activity. So when Paul writes about the arsenokoitai and malakoi he is writing about a homosexual relationship which exists between a person of power and a person with no power.
Sexual activities which exist between a person who maintains all the power, physically and socially, and a person who wields no power are at least immoral in being coerced. If one is chosen to be the weak one, the penetrated one, then in Roman society that meant that you lost your masculine male status. It probably also meant that you never had that status in the first place.
So what Paul is writing against is a situation where those in positions of social power and privilege force lesser people in their society into a position of weakness, even unto forcing them to forfeit their identity as men. To be malakoi meant that you could no longer be seen as a male in your society. You had lost that place if you had been taken by arsenokoitai.
This is again the sin of forced sexual exploitation.
Now what can be said of course to those who choose to become malakos? You can no more choose to become malakos in this social context than female African American slaves could really choose to be the mistresses of their owners. A person who has no social power or status does not have the right or the ability to refuse someone who has social power and status. When you do not have a choice, you cannot freely choose to enslave yourself to another’s sexual desires. You may find that you like it, or like them, but whether or not they are a good master to you does not change the fact that they own you and that you do not really have a choice in that matter. The issue here is not whether you can choose to be gay, or are born gay. The issue is that in this social context the only way to be gay without losing all of your power and importance is to be on one side of the relationship.
In our society homosexual relationships involve free choices made by both partners and no one forfeits their social status and privilege by choosing to engage in any particular kinds of homosexual acts.
Yet Paul also seems to condemn the malakoi, those who are arguably being victimized by their society. This is in fact rather problematic, for how can we condemn someone for a sin they cannot help? Perhaps Paul is condemning those who choose the position of malakoi just as other passages in the Bible condemn various sex workers. Or perhaps Paul thinks that the malakoi are seducing and corrupting the powerful Roman men into homosexual affairs. If the malakos is active and chooses to initiate the sexual relationship then the passive partner is actually taking responsibility for the sexual encounter. This may at least be evidence that the one-way sexual encounter described above was not always so clear. Paul could mean that those men who seduce other men into having sex with them must bear some aspect of the moral guilt for whatever sin is being committed, regardless of which side of the sexual encounter they are on.
Still this is a problem since it seems that Paul is condemning people for sins which they have been socially coerced, or directly forced, into committing. We might even raise the troubling language which says “if they wanted me to do it, then I am not exploiting or forcing them.”
Despite this Christians do not generally think that Paul is condemning rape victims and blaming them for their rape.
The only way out is to focus on what the sin here actually is. This is the sin of sexual exploitation, where a Roman male of social importance forces his sexual desires onto a person that may be psychologically willing, but has no real choice in the matter.
Conclusion to 5?: The sin of homosexuality which Paul condemns in the letter to the Corinthians, and in the letter to Timothy is actually the sin of forced homosexuality. The immorality of the action comes from the fact that it is a choice made by one person about how they will use the body of another person who is unable to actually consent to the union. Consent requires free choice, and in ancient Rome, that was not something which the passive sexual partner was able to exercise.