‘God and the Gay Christian’ Discussion, Part 5

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Over the next few weeks, on Wednesdays, we will be discussing Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. (See Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4)

I chose this particular book because I think it provides the most accessible and personal introduction to the biblical and historical arguments in support of same-sex relationships, and because Matthew is a theologically conservative Christian who affirms the authority of Scripture and who is also gay. His research is sound and his story compelling, and he’s a friend—someone I like and respect and enjoy learning from. 

We will wrap up our discussion next week with a look at Chapters 8, 9 and 10, but today we focus on Matthew’s analysis of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. 

The Kingdom of God 

Matthew begins this chapter with a startling and sad confession: “I am far from the only gay Christian who has heard the claim that gay people will not inherit the kingdom of God. That message is plastered on protest signs at gay pride parades. It is shouted by roaming street preachers at busy intersections and on college campuses. The result is that, for many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, all they have heard about the kingdom of God is that they won’t be in it.” 

That sentence just broke my heart. 

The biblical passage typically cited to exclude LGBT people from the kingdom of God is 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, which in the King James version says, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners shall inherit the kingdom of God.” 

Matthew points out that the two terms consider here are malakoi [sometimes translated “effeminate”] and arsenokoitai [sometimes translated “abusers of themselves with mankind” or, more recently, “homosexuals” or “men who practice homosexuality”]. 

Regarding malakoi, Matthew notes that most uses of the word in ancient literature are not related to same-sex behavior but rather to men who were self-indulgent and enslaved to their passions…for women. In the apostle Paul’s culture, it was believed that women were weak and lacked self-control, so a man who indulged his passions without restraint, or who took on the passive role in any sexual relationship, was considered effeminate. This would explain why many early versions of Scripture translated this word as “wantons,” “debauchers,” “licentious,” and “sensual.” New Testament scholar David Frederickson has argued that, given the context, malakoi in 1 Corinthians 6:9 is best translated, “those who lack self-control.” 

The word arsenokoitai is a bit more complicated, and has traditionally been understood to refer to same-sex behavior, especially since a similar word combination occurs in Leviticus 20. In Greek, arsen means “male” and koites means “bed.” While there are very few uses of arsenokoitai in Greek literature after Paul, some of the few uses that have survived indicate it referred to economic exploitation, not same-sex behavior. It’s also important to remember that the most common forms of same-sex behavior in the ancient world were pederasty and sex between masters and slaves. (Pederasty was so common that Philo described it simply as the union of “males with males.”) 

Matthew points to an ancient text known as the Sibylline Oracles in which the word arsenokoites is used to describe injustice: “Do not steal seeds. Whoever takes for himself is accursed to generations of generations, to the scattering of life. Do not arsenokoitein, do not betray information, do not murder. Give one who has labored his wage. Do not oppress a poor man.” He also quotes from the second-century text, Acts of John, which says, “And let the murderer know that the punishment he has earned awaits him in double measure after he leaves this world. So also the poisoner, sorcerer, robber, swindler, and arsenokoites, the thief and all his land.” The word also appears in 1 Timothy 1:10 after “sexually immoral” and before “slave traders.” 

These and other examples from the ancient world have led several scholars to conclude that the term arsenokoites likely describes economic exploitation by some sexual means. 

Given our limited understanding of the exact meaning of these words, it seems like it might be better to err on the side of caution and not rely exclusively on them to condemn or support same-sex relationships. (Personally, I think the Romans 1 passage is probably the most important one to contend with. We covered that in our last discussion.) 

“But here’s the key point to remember,” writes Matthew. “Even if Paul had intended his words to be a condemnation of all forms of same-sex relations, the context in which he would have been making that statement would still differ significantly from our context today.” 

That’s because same-sex behavior in the first century was not understood to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation but rather it was understood as excess on the part of those who could easily be content with heterosexual relationships, but who went beyond them in search of more exotic pleasures. So when the translation of malakoi and arsenokoites shifted in the 20th century to refer to people with same-sex orientation, “it fostered the mistaken belief that Paul was condemning a minority group with a different sexual orientation” when “in fact, he was condemning excessive and exploitive sexual conduct.” 

At the end of this chapter, Matthew basically repeats his main thesis: 

“The concept of same-sex orientation did not exist in the ancient world. Prior to recent generations, same-sex behavior was widely understood to be the product of sexual excess, not the expression of a sexual orientation. The issue we face today—gay Christians and their committed relationships—has not been an issue for the church in past eras…”  

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah is about a threatened gang rape, not an intimate companionship. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 were grounded in cultural concerns about patriarchal gender roles and religious ritual purity. Romans 1:26-27 refers to excessive sexual desire and lust and uses “natural” and “unnatural” to refer to customary gender roles, just as those words are used to describe men with long hair and women who cover their heads. 

“The bottom line is this,” writes Matthew.  “The Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation. What’s more, the main reason tat non-affirming Christians believe the Bible’s statements should apply to all same-sex relationships—men and women’s anatomical complementarity—is not mentioned in any of the passages.” 

Next week we’ll wrap up with a discussion around the biblical arguments for marriage equality. 

Questions for Discussion: 

1.    What do you think of Matthew’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 6? 

2.    If Matthew is right—if committed same-sex relationships are simply never discussed in Scripture—do you find that encouraging or discouraging? Given the degree to which LGBT people have been marginalized, and given the controversy surrounding marriage equality that rages throughout much of the Church, do wish Scripture was a bit more clear on this? Do you think it matters? 

Learn more: 

If you want to learn more about the Bible and sexuality, check out the Reformation Project conference in Washington D.C., November 6-8. Speakers include David Gushee, Allyson Robinson, Gene Robinson, Justin Lee, Jane Clementi, Danny Cortez, Frank Schaefer, James Brownson, Kathy Baldock, Alexia Salvatierra, and Amy Butler.

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