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.
12 thoughts on “The Mennonite Failure to Find Common Ground on LGBTQ Inclusion: Appendix on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11”
Pulling up a seat to get notified of subsequent comments…
Ted, you make valid points. Your strongest argument is an argument from absence: “The New Testament gives no specific ethical teaching against the practices of same-sex intimacy, so we must be careful not to read too much into the two texts we have.”
More typically, though, you make this same point in an exaggerated and argumentative way, as when you say that the lack of specific ethical teaching leaves us with no conclusion other that same-sex intimacy was of little-to-no concern to biblical writers.
Your dismissal of Harold’s exigetical work with the terms in 1 Cor. 6:9 is, well, jaw-dropping. You ask us to imagine the reference to male-male sexual relations isn’t there and assure us the love of Jesus still remains! Apparently, we are to regard this as a clinching argument.
As I noted in the previous thread, you adopted an adversarial tone in your presentations, which set the tone for what follows. Commenters tend to be as generous with you as you have been with Harold.
Yet my fervent wish is that traditional and progressive Mennonites can move forward together, without estrangement and separation. We need each other in so many ways. Toward that end—and in recognition of a persuasive argument each of you has made–I ask whether you each could say the following to each other.
(Ted to Harold): “Though I disagree with the way you apply Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Cor. 6:9, I recognize that Paul in these passages is identifying male-male sexual relations as sin. Thus, going forward, I will not disparage your position as ‘restrictionist,’ characterize that teaching as ‘violence’ against sexual minorities nor identify your stance with ‘bigotry’. We share a common purpose: to bring all of life—including sexual conduct—under the authority of Christ and his command to love God and love one another. This purpose requires each of us to encourage ways of living that lead to God’s shalom.”
(Harold to Ted): “Though I disagree with the way you nullify the application of Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Cor. 6:9, I recognize that Paul in these passages is not providing specific instruction on the exercise of sexual desire. Thus, going forward, I will not disparage your position as denying the authority of scripture, characterize your teaching as lacking ethical content nor identify your stance with the liberalism of secular culture. We share a common purpose: to bring all of life—including sexual conduct—under the authority of Christ and his command to love God and love one another. This purpose requires each of us to encourage ways of living that lead to God’s shalom.”
Thanks, Berry, for your work to draw us to say the good that we can to each other. It stretched me and was hard (that’s why I need brothers like you!) but I did say some of it in the end of my mega-comment a few minutes ago.
This is a thought-provoking comment, Berry. What you suggest strikes me as a good idea in principle. I do think it could be worthwhile for there to be some kind of public conversation where people with decided different views of these issues would try to identify their common ground—that’s something I wrote about two long years ago.
I’m not sure I see that as the point of this conversation I am having with Harold, though. I think part of what I am getting at with this entire series is that I think there really does not seem to be any kind of place where that kind of conversation can happen in any kind of significant way in the US Mennonite world. And I honestly don’t expect that there will be.
I should also say that I am not trying to present some kind of “clinching argument” here. I honestly am trying to discern what these two texts actually say. As well, I never characterize Harold’s teaching as “violence” or identify his stance with “bigotry” (maybe you don’t mean to imply that I do but rather just suggest I say I will continue not to do that).
Ted, I believe what you and Harold are doing here can be so much more than commemorating the failure of MCUSA. You each are leaders within MCUSA in regard to this particular conversation. With that leadership comes responsibility to do what you can to correct the direction this conversation is headed.
As you know, the advocacy on the left within MCUSA is deliberately using terms that stigmatize our church’s current teaching position. You use one such term frequently: “restrictionist.” You used another just yesterday in this email string: “heterosexist.” There terms–along with “violent” and “bigoted” (two terms I have not seen you use) are meant to drive traditionaists out of the discourse by characterizing their stance as morally illegitimate. Oh yes, we traditionalists may continue to be part of MCUSA, but we may only continue to be part of the discourse as stigmatized participants, pariahs if you will. This is so even though (as you concede) Paul regarded male-male sexual activity as sin.
And a parallel tactic is deployed by traditionalists, especially those who have little interest in continued dialogue with progressives about sexuality.
Harold seems to recognize the importance of explicitly rejecting this tactic. You apparently do not, which will only be taken by Mennonite progressives as implicit support for it.
We are at a historic juncture as Mennonites. A teaching rooted in scripture–that YHWH creates us in YHWH’s image as male and female and intends for us to find in that gender difference important aspects of shalom living–is being characterized by Mennonites as “violence” and “bigotry.” If leaders such as you do not oppose such discourse, it will soon become mainstream and what remains of our theological diversity will be shattered. This result is as easily forseeable as the sun setting this evening. And as we say in law, a person intends the reasonably forseeable consequences of his actions/inactions.
You are right, Ted, in saying again and again that we must pay attention to the context to see if it sheds light on the items on the list.
And I did. I said that Paul talks about believers who “wrong” and “defraud” each other. Then he starts addressing those who do the wronging (v.8) and says “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God?” (v.9). And then, in the rest of 9 & 10, he lists a bunch of wrongs. The context shows us that Paul is giving us a list of sins.
Yet you wax on and on how I ignored the context! No, the context tells me that I’m reading a list of sins; so as I read it, I do one of central tasks of biblical interpreters: ask what behaviors are in view with a couple items on the list. And when I do so, you take me to task for ignoring context!
What is really going on, is not me ignoring context, but you and I having competing analyses of the context. You try to make the whole passage be only about Christians not taking fellow-Christians to court because of how unjust the magistrates are. You tell us that Paul is “not intending the individual words [on the list of wrongdoings] to carry much weight” because those words are only intended “to shake up his readers” about “how problematic it is for them to take fellow-Christians to court.” In fact, you tell us, that the wrongdoers mentioned in v.9 “are actually the magistrates that the Christians are using to settle their disputes.” Really? You think Paul is saying (in the beginning of v.9), “Do you not know that [the magistrates you are using] will not inherit the kingdom of God?”? And that the list Paul immediately goes on to give—Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers (vv.9b-10, using the NRSV)—is only about the magistrates? And that when Paul says (v.11a) “such were some of you” he is reminding the Corinthian Christians that, “before they met Jesus,” they had been like the unjust magistrates?
Tell me why one can be sure that your analysis of the context is better than mine. (Surely mine is not wrong for being simple and yours right because it is long and complex!) Until you do, please desist from slamming me with the amateurish mistake of ignoring context.
One further point here. You write that, like with Rom 1:26-27, here in 1 Cor 6:9-11 “Paul does not discourse on sexuality. Paul does not give ethical commands for Christian sexual behavior.” Later you say, “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.” Let me again (as I did in my article) point out the context in the verses immediately after 9-11: “Then in the next verses Paul follows up with repeated admonitions on fleeing sexual immorality (vv.12-20).”
A few comments about the rest of your blog that deals with 1 Cor 6.
It’s clear that your argument by and large hangs on seeing Paul in vv.9-11 “trying to illustrate the magistrates’ injustice.” Again and again you make points that assume that the foremost thought in Paul’s mind is that the Corinthians not go to civil magistrates. Wow. I wonder what percentage of persons who read vv.9-11 through the centuries read it that way. I would guess that 95% (99%?) did not take it that way.
When we remove from your blog all the arguments that rest on your premise that vv.9-11 is mainly about magistrates, we are left with only a few arguments from you against my piece. And they are either weak or unfair.
– About arsenokoitai, you say “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 that is not speculation; it’s hard to see how speculation can provide a basis for a ‘strong understanding.'”
My response: What if the speculation comes up with 80-90% probability? Of the many considerations I raised to show that the historic understanding of vv.9-11 is strong exegetically, you left the last ones unchallenged. Any of them by themselves brings 80-90% probability—that’s my sense anyways, until you or someone else can make a case otherwise. That’s a strong understanding even as a vote by that percentage is a strong vote.
– About whether 1 Cor 6 is part of a main trajectory in Scripture, you say “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” (my emphasis).
My response: Go back and look at that section. I say nothing about same-sex prohibitions. I only write about the prohibitions on sexual immorality (porneia). That’s very unfair of you to add the phrase “which includes the sin of same-sex sexual intimacy in all forms” and then point out that the phrase is wrong—as if you are showing that what I say is wrong. The only thing I asserted in that part of the article is that the NT repeats and tightens down on prohibitions against sexual sins.
A few comments from your concluding reflections on the first 3 blogs.
You say, “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.”
I appreciate and value that approach from you. And I believe that I have engaged with your exegetical analyses.
You say 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.”
Does it ever trouble you that it has become the case that the historic stance on same-sex relations is now the stance that “poses alternatives to the cultural biases” of our day? And that your stance “simple echoes those biases”?
You say that, as we read the Bible, we “look at the liberative dimension of the story for clues” for how we should approach “present-day issues such as sexism, racism, and warism.”
Yet we must not let the liberative theme drown out the holiness theme. In the Bible we not only see God loving and welcoming all, including the poor and marginalized, we also see
God working to deepen our obedience to the moral Law. As you have said, “Jesus’ message of welcome is not based on ignoring the call to faithful living.” And as you have said, the only valid reason for EMU’s hiring policy to discriminate against those who are in covenanted same-sex relationships would be “that God declares such relationships to be sinful.” It’s your commitment to a theological/biblical foundation that draws me to spend these hours in conversation with you.
As I went to post this, I read Berry’s comment.
Berry, you’re the kind of brother that we in the church need! I resonate with the commitment Berry calls for: that I say to Ted that “I will not disparage your position as denying the authority of scripture, characterize your teaching as lacking ethical content nor identify your stance with the liberalism of secular culture.” Your words, Ted, in the final paragraph showed good “ethical content” when you wrote that our “point would be not that anything goes.” Rather “[w]e should have the same ideals, the same expectations, and offer the same support for same-sex as we do opposite-sex marriage and families.” I believe that you have that commitment, Ted. I remember you saying on MennoLink in Oct 1998 that surely all of us can agree that “sexual intercourse is meant for two people in the context of a committed, covenanted, monogamous relationship.” Are you and your congregation also willing lean into the Anabaptist LGBTQ community to join you in that stance? That community has never yet publicly supported and encouraged monogamy (meaning sexual exclusivity, not just a social monogamy). Instead I hear the opposite. For instance, a gay who was active in our denomination responded to your MennoLink comment: “I am unwilling to define this as God’s universal purpose for sexual intercourse. Even the Bible tells of people (e.g., Elkanah, Samuel’s father) who had more than one partner with integrity. While monogamous, committed, covenant relationships may reflect the dominant trajectory of biblical values, there is enough complexity there to prevent me from automatically judging negatively those who do not fit the pattern.” I’m uneasy about a congregation assuming that gay couples are maintaining monogamy if even the gay community in our church does not uphold monogamy. As I wrote on a web article (replaced by this one) soon after your MennoLink exchange, it “would affect me greatly” if I learned “that the community of lesbians and gays who long for membership in my denomination are now committed to sexual exclusivity.” I would still be personally convinced that same-sex sexual intimacy is against the wisdom of God because of my understanding of the Bible. But “I would be much less vocal in my denomination.” As you can tell, I’m still vocal.
In the middle of the night the Lord convicted me that I had let my hurt over your comments about me to readers (e.g., “someone who hopes to find what they are looking for in the Bible”) begin to poison my attitude. I apologize for writing in an attitude of anger and judgment (e.g., my 95/99 comment and my stating an ethical concern immediately after stating my belief in your ethical content) rather than an attitude of asking questions and searching together. With God’s help I’ll turn away from a dark spirit toward the fruit of the Spirit–and the graciousness I asked of you.
I appreciate this, Harold.
Some more thoughts:
(1) Context. I appreciate your acknowledgement of the importance of context in interpreting 1 Cor 6:9, Harold. I think you are correct that I was too dismissive of your approach, and I do recognize that you do take the time in your essay on 1 Cor to talk about the context of the verse you end up focusing on.
However, my emphasize on the importance of context comes from my thinking that we need more than some general comments about the context (which you do offer) before we go on to talk about the meaning of specific words in a way that does not involve actually explicitly analyzing how the meaning of the particular words we discuss relate to that context (which you don’t offer).
As it turns out, I do think your understanding of the context misses some key points (as I will discuss below), but a main point I want to make is that when you discuss the key words, you don’t go back to reference the context that you mention. It strikes me that you treat the words as if they have some kind of self-contained, autonomous meaning independent from the context where they are used. That is one of my big problems with your approach; I think when we try to figure out what words mean, we need to look at how they are being used in their literary context.
This need to consider the context more carefully becomes especially urgent when the meaning of words we are trying to define is unclear (as it is with both malakos [which has various meanings, some having nothing to do with sexual behavior] and arsenokoitai [which, as you know, is unique to Paul’s writing and only shows up twice in NT lists with no explanation of what it means]). And being extra careful about our interpretation is even more urgent when we consider just how significant a role this verse plays in many churches’ antipathy toward LGBTQ people.
With what follows, I invite your criticism of my ideas. Please tell me where you think I go wrong. I am trying to give clear evidence for the moves I make.
One criticism I have of your account of the context of 6:9 is that you seem to miss the centrality of the “magistrates” (the civil court judges) in Paul’s discussion in 6:1-11. The same word is used of these people in both 6:1 (“take it to court before the unrighteous”—adikia, also translatable as “unjust”) and 6:9 (“don’t you know that wrongdoers do not inherit the kingdom”—also adikia, or “unjust”), making clear the link between the first part of this section and the last. This link is why we should recognize that the vice list has to do with Paul’s characterization of the magistrates (admittedly exaggerated in order to intensify his challenge to his readers to resolve their own conflicts).
Paul’s point is that people who are part of God’s kingdom (or, “polis,” we could say) must learn to settle their own disputes if they are truly to be a polis that is an alternative to the kingdoms of the world. They must not rely on those those who are both part of the world’s kingdom/polis and profoundly unjust to boot. The connecting point here is that the mention of the magistrates (“the unjust” [or “wrongdoers,” 6:9]) as not part of the kingdom of God comes immediately before and then right after (the end of 6:10) the list of their characteristics that demonstrate that they are unjust and, hence, should not be relied on to judge (adjudicate justice) for the Christians’ internal conflicts.
Paul finishes his argument by reiterating that the identity of his readers is defined by their no longer being unjust but rather being healed members of God’s kingdom—and expected to live like that, including with how they deal with conflicts with each other. They should be “just,” not “unjust” like the magistrates. Clearly, Paul’s concern here is not so much to elaborate on the character of the magistrates but to give ethical exhortation to his readers about how they should deal with their conflicts. The vice list, then, plays a rhetorical role to help Paul drive his point home—it is not meant to be used as the basis for ethical directives for Christian sexual behavior.
Then, with 6:12, Paul—having finished his argument about dealing with conflict—moves on to a new topic. Now, it is true that in the larger context of 6:1-11 Paul does deal with issues of sexual immortality (5:1-13) and of the call to purity, including sexual purity (6:12-20). I wouldn’t deny that there is some larger connection between these discussions and 6:1-11 (e.g., all three seem to emphasize the call for the Christians to be different than their surrounding culture). But I don’t think that broader context would change how we should interpret 6:1-11.
(2) Cultural biases. You ask if it bothers me that my stance on LGBTQ inclusion “simply echoes” today’s cultural biases. Note that the three issues I mention are racism, sexism, and warism. I would say, strongly, that to the extent that our culture now tilts away from those ‘isms, I am not troubled—I only wish that in each case the tilt was stronger (though that is not to say that I am perfectly happy with every element of the “tilt” away from racism, sexism, and warism).
I would say the same thing with regard to heterosexism. To the extent that our culture tilts away from heterosexism, I am pretty glad—certainly not troubled. As the churches have been with regard to the other three ‘isms, also with regard to heterosexism, I am troubled that the churches have not been more in harmony with the culture’s move away from oppression and violence (and, in all four cases, I would say that the resistance to oppression and violence would be better had more biblical and theological work been done to ground the resistance).
At the same time, our culture does retain many elements of racism, sexism, warism, and (I’d emphasize) heterosexism. So, it is not simple to identify cultural biases going one way or the other. I think the Bible’s overall message is one of liberation, resistance to violence and oppression, and a commitment to care for the vulnerable one’s in our midst. To the extent that cultural biases reinforce those problems (even in the teachings within the Bible), Jesus calls us to resist them, I believe.
(3) Today’s sexual ethics. I do believe it would be good if, in the churches (including mine), we could have honest and safe conversations about our sexual ethics, values, and commitments. But I would strongly oppose centering those on the behaviors of LGBTQ people. I think such a conversation would need to be a place where people felt safe (not characterized by the kinds of judgmental attitudes Paul critiques starting at Romans 2:1).
Jesus does give us the beginning of a good model in the story of the woman caught in adultery. He first forgives, without qualification (full stop). Then he challenges her to live as a forgiven and healed person. I think in our context, the burden is first of all on the churches to offer respect and acceptance of sexual minorities. Only when that is established would there it be appropriate to then have the conversation you are suggesting—and only when there is clear evidence that first there is the kind of transparency and accountability being practiced with regard to heterosexual members that might be asked of LGBTQ members.
I have a couple of more thoughts, Harold.
I need to say a bit more about your comments about the context for 6:9. You start the discussion of context with 6:7 (the reference to being “wronged” and “defrauded”), but do ignore the context that tells us why Paul is talking about this and what his main concern is—the lawsuits.
And then you misidentify the “wrongdoers” (i.e., that adika, the “unjust”) as Corinthian Christians because you ignore the reference in 6:1 to the adikia. The coherence of the entire section, 6:1-11, makes it clear that these two references are to the same people (the magistrates before whom the lawsuits that Paul is concerned with are processed).
Of course, I can’t prove that my interpretation is right and yours is wrong. But given the important elements of the context that you do ignore, I think I have good reason to think mine is better, at least in the sense that it tries to make sense of the whole unit.
I do agree that “holiness” is a very important theme for us to take into account. But I think your big mistake is that you seem to posit that God’s holiness and God’s love are in tension with each other. You contrast God’s loving and welcoming emphases with “God working to deepen our obedience to the moral Law” as if these are two different things. In fact, the Law is the source of our knowledge of God’s concern for the poor and marginalized. This concern, coming straight from the Law, provides the basis for the prophetic critique of Israel. And it also provides the basis for Jesus’s call to repent and embrace the good news.
If Jesus embodies God’s holiness, as I believe he does, he shows that holiness is in fact itself all about such love and welcome. Any call to holiness that does not come out of and lead to love and welcome echoes the dynamics of the Pharisees that Jesus critiqued: They focused on rules and neglected “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Mt 23:23).
You keep saying that I “ignore the context,” specifically that I “ignore the reference in 6:1 to the adikia” when I say that vv9-10 are not only about the magistrates. But I’m not “ignoring” the context; I’m following my understanding of it. I would only be “ignoring” it if I was persuaded of your understanding but chose to disregard it.
Here’s why I’m am not persuaded of your understanding:
– you build everything on identifying the adikia (the unrighteous) in v1 with the adikia in v9. Since “the unrighteous” in v1 refer to the magistrates, you are certain that “the unrighteous” in v9 also refer to the magistrates. Yes, that’s an argument that has some weight. That can be a working hypothesis: adikia in v1 and v9 refers to the same persons. But it’s far from decisive—because there are many who are unrighteous, and two occurrences of “the unrighteous” could refer to two different groups of unrighteous people.
– in fact, there are reasons to suspect that the adikia in v1 refers to a different group of “the unrighteous” than the adikia in v9. In v8 (very close context to v9!) Paul starts talking about another group of wrong-doers in the Corinthian church: “you yourselves wrong and defraud.” So we are warranted to consider another working hypothesis: that adikia in v9 might refer to folks in the church. The fact that Paul uses the verb “wrong” in v8 is adikeō adds a bit more weight to this second hypothesis. And the fact that in v11 (very close context!) Paul is talking about the church adds more weight. Few commentators agree with your analysis that v9 is saying “Do you not know that [the magistrates you are using] will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
Again, I can see why you get the meaning of adikia in v9 by looking at v1. But somehow you can see no reason I would get its meaning by looking at v8 and v11! Instead you keep saying that I’m “ignoring” the context.
Some other observations.
A point you raise in this blog (& in the blog on Rom 1) is that the New Testament gives no specific ethical teaching against the practices of same-sex intimacy, no prohibition. Berry noted that argument and also observed that it is an argument from silence. There is a further observation that lessens its strength. We all agree that some Levitical laws still apply. How do we know which? If a NT author picks up on one, that is a good clue. And Paul did that by arsenokoitai, his unmistakable reference to Lev. 18:22 and 20:13. So we do have a prohibition against same-sex intimacy that continues into the NT.
You responded to Berry that you don’t “characterize Harold’s teaching as violence.” But though you may not use the word violence, you do use the concept. For instance, you talk about my interpretations of some “proof texts” as being “extremely hurtful and disrespectful toward vulnerable people.” If your interpretation of those text is the right one, then, yes, my interpretation is hurtful. But if my interpretation is the right one, “then it is not loving nor would it cause a person to flourish as a human to encourage them to pursue same-sex intimacy” (Sprinkle).