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There are two lists in the New Testament that the writers of the letters I receive often mention:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the [arsenokoitai], nor [malakoi] nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV), emphasis added)
“Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the [arsenokoitai], enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” (1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV), emphasis added)
The term “homosexuality” was invented in the late 1800s, but did not appear in any English language Bible before 1946. For most of history, Christians have read 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 very differently than their recent translations suggest they might. The two Greek keywords in these passages are malakoi and arsenokoitai. These words are extremely difficult to translate into English.
Arsenokoitai is found in both 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Malakoi is found only in 1 Corinthians 6:9. Dale Martin’s book Sex and the Single Savior is extremely helpful here. Martin makes a compelling case that no one living today definitely knows what arsenokoitai meant and at best we are guessing at definitions. Surprisingly, Martin shows that whatever arsenokoitai was, most of the extra-biblical vice lists that include arsenokoitai categorize it with acts of economic exploitation and oppression, not with sexual violations where we would expect to find it if it refered primarily to sexual acts.
Malakoi is much easier to define, yet the definition reveals rank misogyny. Again, Martin makes a compelling case in quoting several extra-biblical sources where malakoi was used. Each time malakoi appears, there is no question the term refers to men directly or indirectly acting in any way that society would have defined as feminine. Some ancient authors go so far as to indicate it would be better to be dead than to be a woman as defined by their society. They list the litany of qualities that that ancient culture considered “woman-like”: drinking too much wine, having too much sex, loving gourmet food, hiring a professional cook, being weak in battle, and enjoying luxury all fall into the classification of being unmanly. Malakoi often refers to heterosexual men who wore things like nice clothing, jewelry, wore cologne, shaved, did their hair, and cared for their skin to aid them in appearing attractive in their heterosexual pursuits. It meant being “soft” or effeminate. In that patriarchal society, women were degraded as being inferior to men and therefore it was considered to be a vice, malakoi, for a man to act in any way like them. Martin’s conclusion is “willful ignorance or dishonesty” could allow us to define malakoi so narrowly as to refer to “passive homosexuals” now.
Martin’s textual scholarship resoundingly agrees with Brownson’s conclusion in The Bible, Gender and Sexuality:
“When we take the original social context of these vice lists seriously, we again recognize a gap between what these vice lists are rejecting and what is happening in committed same-sex relationships today.” (Brownson, The Bible, Gender and Sexuality, p. 275)
After 1946, however, an obvious homophobic bias enters New Testament English translations, and it is not warranted by the original languages. The original languages address men being “like women,” which is deeply misogynist and produces a whole set of interpretive problems. But translations after 1946 introduce generic homophobia instead.
I have a hunch that some translators may be trying to avoid the misogyny in the original text. Yet these translations produce demonstrable bodily harm to a group of human beings, and that fruit should warn us about their roots.
Jesus, like the Hebrew prophets before him, valued people and interpretations of the Torah that were life-giving rather than destructive. Jesus practiced a kind of Torah obedience that expressed itself in a preferential option for the vulnerable. As a community, LGBTQ people are vulnerable in our time.
Through generations of prejudice and mistranslation, we have misclassified as a weed something that isn’t a weed at all. In fact, our misclassifying the LGBTQ community is what’s producing noxious weed-like results including disproportionate homelessness and suicide rates among Christian LGBTQ youth rejected by their religious families and churches. The fruit of our recent translations and misclassification of LGBTQ people is not life, but death.
We must remember:
- Saying “I’m sorry” is not enough.
- An apology that calls straight Christians only to more loving and respectful forms of heterosexism, homophobia, biphobia, or transphobia is not an apology.
- The language of reconciliation devoid of liberation is empty rhetoric.
- Kindness and respect are not synonyms for reparation for harm done in the past.
- Allowing even “respectful” disagreement over whether another person should exist is not “creating safe space.”
That last one is vital. The debate over LGBTQ people is not merely about theology. It’s really a disagreement over whether LGBTQ people should exist, live openly, and form families in our communities. The lists in Paul’s writings are lists of behaviors that can be changed. Sexual orientation is much more like a person’s skin color than their actions. It’s not something to be changed; it’s who people are. Reparative therapy, however, is one example of Christian attempts to “weed out” a certain type of person—an LGBTQ person—from existence. Ultimately, it’s a form of genocide.
Learning to listen to those who are not like us as they share the harm they’ve experienced through misclassification offers us the opportunity to choose between compassion and fear. Our differences can be scary, but they don’t have to be. Although we do have differences, there is much we have in common, too. Someone who is different from you is also someone’s child. They are someone’s sibling. They are someone’s best friend.
Remember to breathe. And choose compassion.
And to all my LGBTQ friends who may be reading or listening this week, I offer as encouragement the words of Dr. Katie Cannon of Union Presbyterian Seminary:
“Even when people call your truth a lie, tell it anyway. Tell it anyway.” (in Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology)