Ted Grimsrud—September 1, 2017
I conclude my four-part series with this post that interacts closely with a second essay by Harold Miller. Previously, I commented at some length on Harold’s essay, “Romans 1:26-27 – Interpretations I have known.” He followed that essay with a shorter account of his interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. After my close reading of that essay, I will finish with some more general reflections on the state of the conversation on LBGTQ inclusion.
The context for 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
In his discussion of this second text that those of a restrictive persuasion see as central to the New Testament message about “homosexuality,” Harold states that he is seeking a “strong understanding.” By “strong understanding,” Harold says he means “each text guiding us has strong exegetical certainty (though never ‘total certainty,’ for all texts have uncertainties).” So, he sets a pretty high standard for what he expects to achieve with his essay.
After two brief paragraphs about the “context” of 6:9-11, Harold zeroes in on verse 9 and the meanings of two words in that verse. In his “context” paragraphs, he does mention that the problem Paul addresses in this verse is that people in the Corinthian congregation are suing other people within the congregation. However, he does not explore how that problem might effect how we interpret the verse and the individual words he focuses on. In fact, he never again refers back to that “context.” He treats the meaning of the words in 6:9 as contained fully within the words themselves and not shaped by how they are used in the sentences that surround them.
Harold states that the two words he wants to focus on are “crucial.” But he does not explain why they are crucial. It could appear that he thinks they are crucial because he is looking for something that will support his views about “homosexuality.” But he does not explain why in a list of terms that serve Paul’s agenda of challenging the Christians in Corinth not to take their disputes to the secular courts, Paul would be giving us definitive teaching concerning “homosexuality.”
I understand the proper way to interpret biblical texts is not to focus on individual words as having what we could call autonomous or self-contained meaning, but we rather look carefully at the context that surrounds those words. The meaning of individual words is shaped a great deal by the sentences, paragraphs, and sections of which they are part. Especially with this text, the verse that Harold focuses on is simply a list without any elaboration within the list of what the words might be referring to. Just taken as individual words, the meaning of the terms is often unclear.
So, if we want accurately to discern the meaning of the particular terms, we would need always to keep Paul’s broader argument in mind. How does the specific word he uses in his list of characteristics of the “wrongdoers” support his argument that Christians should not take their disputes to the magistrates?
I would suggest at first glance, though, that the best way to understand Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians 6:9 (in the context of 6:1-11) is to recognize that he is likely not intending the individual words to carry much weight. More so, he is looking for an effect that the words together would create. He is concerned with the rhetorical impact of listing a bunch of bad things, and wants to shake up his readers with the general impact of the list so that they will recognize how problematic it is for them to take fellow-Christians to court.
Harold does not seem to recognize that the “wrongdoers” mentioned in 6:9 are actually the magistrates that the Christians are using to settle their disputes. Paul uses the same word in 6:1 (translated “unrighteous” in the NRSV) when he refers to the magistrates the Corinthians are suing each other before. Both words could be just as easily translated as “unjust,” which would actually make more sense in this passage because it makes the linkage between 6:1 and 6:9 more clear, it fits with Paul’s reflections on “judging” in these verses, and it reminds us that in 6:9 Paul does not have general wickedness or wrongdoing in mind but specifically refers to these magistrates. Such a recognition helps us understand the meaning of the vice list in 6:9-11 and thus helps us with the individual words that Harold focuses on.
But Harold does not tell us that the “wrongdoers” here are specified as the civil magistrates in Corinth—the non-Christian people who are adjudicating the disputes the Corinthian Christians have with one another. That is, the purpose for Paul giving his “vice list” in 6:9-11 is to illustrate his point about the magistrates. They are unjust and because of that they should not be appealed to for justice in resolving these disputes.
What the identity of the “unjust” people are in Paul’s comments here shows that, as with Romans 1:26-27, Paul does not discourse on sexuality. Paul does not give ethical commands for Christian sexual behavior. All Paul does is illustrate the injustice of the magistrates in order to make his point about not turning to them for “justice.”
In fact, if the word that Harold focuses most of his energies on, arsenokoitai, had not been included in the vice list, the meaning of these verses what not have been any different than it is with the word there. Whatever that specific word means (and, as we will see, it’s meaning is not clear), it adds nothing to the meaning of Paul’s statement beyond simply reinforcing the claim that the magistrates are unjust—just as the Corinthian Christians themselves had been before they met Jesus and had their lives shaped by his better justice.
Focusing on two words—first, malakoi
It seems as if Harold’s main interest in approaching this text is simply to jump in to find in 1 Corinthians 6:9 support for his views rejecting the possibility of same-sex marriage for Christians. He shows this by how he focuses on two individual words that he calls “crucial.” But he doesn’t attempt to show how they crucial to Paul’s argument in 6:1-11 (in fact, they seem not to add anything essential to the vice list beyond perhaps strengthening the rhetoric a little). They are “crucial” because they serve Harold’s argument. The contribution these two words make to Paul’s argument in this context of the vice list seems to have virtually nothing to do with how Christians order their sexual lives. It’s about Christians not suing each other.
The first of the two “crucial” words, malakoi, was, Harold writes, “a common word in Greek literature for the passive partner in male sex.” However, this was actually a common word in general and was often used in non-sexual contexts, literally having the meaning of “soft.” Its other use in the New Testament comes in Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25, where it is used of “soft” clothing. It was used to connote non-sexual and sexual forms of immorality. It could also have the general sense of “morally soft.” That is, the sexual connotation for this word is not self-evident—it is something Harold brings to the text.
Harold’s confidence about the meaning of malakoi aside, it is not self-evident that this word was being used here of “the passive partner in male sex.” Harold does not acknowledge the ambiguity concerning the meaning of the word. Nor does he seek to draw on the other items in the vice list nor the broader purpose Paul seems to have had in giving us the vice list in trying to discern what this somewhat ambiguous word might mean.
Since Paul is trying to illustrate the magistrates’ injustice, it seems more likely that he would have had a more general sense of malakoi in mind than an overtly sexual connotation, since his point is not about any particular wrongdoing by the magistrates but that they are unsuited to play the role of justice-decider for the bickering Christians. Paul is certainly not giving concrete ethical instruction about Christian sexual behavior here.
Harold’s lack of attention to the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9 is shown in his comment that “even if the prevalent form of same-sex behavior in the Greco-Roman world was exploitative and excessive, Paul still could have known of consensual, loving forms.” Perhaps Paul could have known of such (though we have no evidence that he did), but we have no basis to think that awareness would have been in mind here. It is most likely (and in his earlier comments Harold had noted that we can never know for sure what a text means, so we must go with the most likely meaning) that Paul would follow the prevalent understanding. That is, if Paul did have sexual behavior in mind when he uses the word malakoi, the context here of his use of the word would indicate that he most likely would have had “exploitive and excessive” behavior in mind, if indeed that was “the prevalent form of same-sex behavior” in his world.
The context makes that even more likely. Paul’s vice list in 6:9-10 includes only behaviors that could be seen as “exploitative and excessive”: “Fornicators, idolaters, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.” And, remember, he uses this vice list to make a rhetorical point about the unsuitability of civil magistrates to adjudicate Christian conflicts—leading him surely to overstate the magistrates’ injustices in order to drive home the point that Christians should settle their own disagreements.
To support his point about Paul likely having “consensual, loving forms” of same-sex intimacy in mind, Harold adds, “It can appear that Paul wrote of consensual, loving forms of same-sex behavior in Romans 1.” As discussed in my previous post, Paul calls the actions he cites in Romans 1 paradigmatic cases of people being given up to “the lusts of their hearts” (1:24), “degrading passions” (1:26), and being “consumed with passion” (1:27) and committing “shameless acts” (1:27) that show they are filled with “every kind of injustice/wickedness” (1:29). This is hardly language Paul would use of “loving forms of same-sex behavior.”
As well, Harold suggests that the use of the word malakoi itself could indicate that Paul had in mind “something consensual chosen by both partners,” and therefore not “exploitative, abusive relations.” I would point out that there is nothing in this passage itself to support confidently reading malakoi as even being about sexual behavior at all. And, as I argued above, the context is one of “exploitative and abusive behaviors” in general as part of Paul’s main argument against going to civil magistrates. The most straightforward and contextually respectful reading of malakoi is that it refers to a general moral laxness.
Focusing on two words—second, arsenokoitai
Harold’s core argument, though, is about Paul’s use of the word arsenokoitai. All scholars that I know of who have examined this passage agree that this word is utterly unique to Paul in first-century writings in Greek as far is we know. Its meaning is thus, by definition, uncertain. We have no other contemporary usage to draw on for comparisons and all we have here in 1 Corinthians 6 is a list with no explanation of what the individual words might mean.
We actually now have two strong reasons for denying that this passage could possibly provide a “strong understanding” that would give the basis for opposition to same-sex marriage that Harold presents himself as constructing. First, Paul is not addressing sexual ethics at all in this passage. He is not giving us explicit directives. His agenda is not “homosexuality.” Second, there is only one word in this entire passage that clearly alludes to same-sex sexual behavior. The meaning of that word is unclear, and can’t be otherwise, because it is a word that is utterly unknown to us elsewhere in the New Testament and in all extant writing in Greek from the first century. And the passage here gives us few clues as to what Paul might have meant with any specificity. The main contextual clue is that Paul uses this word to reinforce his rhetorical flourish about how unjust civil magistrates in Corinth were—that is, it is likely the word was used to heighten the sense of injustice, not to make a point about male/male sex as such.
Now, the word arsenokoitai likely does have connotations of male/male sexual acts. It appears to be a made up word that combines two Greek words: “male” and “laying.” And it is true that these two words both appear in the Greek translation of Leviticus 18:23, the text that forbids males/male sex. But we really can’t say more than that that is not speculation; it’s hard to see how speculation can provide a basis for a “strong understanding.”
Harold’s conclusion that the scope of the word arsenokoitai “would include all male/male sexual intimacy (including loving, committed relationships)” is unwarranted. A single, very cryptic word interpreted without consideration of its literary context simply cannot carry that kind of weight—except for someone who hopes to find what they are looking for in the Bible.
Harold concludes this essay by asserting that Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians is part of the general New Testament repeating and tightening down on prohibitions against sexual sins, which includes the sin of same-sex sexual intimacy in all forms. In fact, though, the only places where the New Testament even refers to same-sex sex (Rom 1 and 1 Cor 6) are not making “prohibitions” of any kind. They are both passages where Paul describes non-Christian behaviors in order to make points to his Christian readers that have nothing to do with sexual behavior of any kind. In Romans the point is that self-righteous religious people are also idolaters and in 1 Corinthians the point is that Christians should not take other Christians to court.
In the end, the Bible leaves discernment concerning full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in the churches up to us. A truly biblical response to the need for such discernment would not waste time on cryptic, peripheral proof texts that have for generations been misused in ways that have been extremely hurtful and disrespectful toward vulnerable people. It is worth noting that these proof texts simply do not say what interpreters such as Harold claim that they do. But our best energies would much more faithfully be spent trying to discern how the Bible’s general message of hospitality and mercy speaks to the experiences of LGBTQ people as they try to live lives of faithfulness and integrity.
So, where are we?
One of the lessons I learned from the first three posts in this series is that just about all of those who have made known their disagreement with my perspective on these topics have not been willing to grant any validity to my analyses. I have tried to suggest that we should be able to converse together about the text with a shared desire to understand the meaning of the specific passages, even if we have theological differences. I have tried to approach the texts straightforwardly, taking them at face value, and not questioning their authority. My focus has been on getting at what they are saying in their biblical contexts.
One common kind of comment (and this echoes the responses Mark Thiessen Nation wrote to my arguments in the book we co-wrote, Reasoning Together: A Conversation on Homosexuality) is that we have hopelessly divergent theological viewpoints. But those who make that assertion don’t do so in direct engagement with my actual comments on the verses. It appears that that insistence on the irreconcilable theological differences precludes a conversation about the actual texts. I tentatively suggested in my second post that this stems from fearfulness.
In these last two posts, I have focused on the two texts that Harold wrote about. I could do similar analyses on the other two passages that are commonly cited—the creation account in Genesis 1–2 and verses from the law codes in Leviticus (specifically 18:22 and 20:13). I am confident that they would result in similar conclusions.
I do not believe that the weaknesses in Harold’s arguments are due to his inability to capture the essence of the restrictive arguments. I think he does a pretty good job of reflecting the best insights of the restrictive scholars (such as Gagnon, Sprinkle, Nation, Swartley, and others). Rather, I think the weaknesses of Harold’s arguments reflect weaknesses in the restrictive argument in general.
I conclude that it simply is the case that these two passages cannot carry the weight Harold (and the others put on them). One way to think about how peripheral these two texts are (and likewise with Leviticus) is to imagine that a few words had been different. Say, the example of men lying with men as part of a much larger set of prohibitions in Leviticus had been left out. The meaning of the set of prohibitions would not change. Or, say, Paul’s summary of pagan idolatry in Romans 1 used a different example than male/male lust or his list of the characteristics of unjust magistrates in 1 Corinthians 6 did not include the word arsenokoitai. The meaning of those passages would not change—and we’d have no hint of anything overtly about “homosexuality” in the Bible at all. Now, those few words are present so we must try to make sense of them. But this exercise in imagining otherwise illustrates just how peripheral and thin the overall biblical teaching on “homosexuality” actually is.
So we are left with this: The Bible, when read in the most straightforward way possible, but without reading into it anti-LGBTQ assumptions, simply does not give us direct guidance for our discernment concerning LGBTQ inclusion.
We should also recognize that the Bible’s moral guidance comes most centrally from ways that the story challenges and poses alternatives to the cultural biases of its day, not about ways that it simply echoes those biases. We see this most obviously when we read the Bible looking for help in discernment concerning present-day issues such as sexism, racism, and warism. We could find plenty of “biblical evidence” in favor of patriarchy, slavery, and going to war. Most of us, though, rightly conclude that that “evidence” is mainly evidence of the cultural biases of biblical times. We look at the liberative dimension of the story for clues for how to resist and overcome oppression, discrimination, and violence, even if that means going against some “biblical evidence” that points in the other direction. I see no reason for not approaching the Bible in the same way in relation to LGBTQ inclusion.
In the end, I believe, we have a simple choice. Will we be guided by a call to love or by a commitment to purity and strict rule following? I think it’s clear which direction Jesus would recommend. The point would be not that anything goes but that churches should not discriminate based on affectional orientation. We should have the same ideals, the same expectations, and offer the same support for same-sex as we do opposite-sex marriage and families.