Some Thoughts on LGBTQ+ Inclusion

As I said in an earlier post, I have been helping facilitate the CofE’s ‘Living in Love and Faith’ course - which is basically a conversation about the church’s attitude to LGBTQ+ inclusion.

Being me, I felt the need to do a bit of deep mining and examine why the church has, traditionally, failed to include LGBTQ+ folk fully in church life, and whether I feel that’s justified. In this post, I’m only going to deal with the ‘LGBQ+' part - we’ll come back, at a later date, to look at the transgender issue - because it’s quite different and therefore deserves different treatment.

There are about seven places in the Bible where it has traditionally been supposed that homosexuality is condemned. These verses are known to LGBQ+ Christians and their supporters as the ‘clobber passages’. They are as follows:

Genesis 19:1-14 and 24-26

Judges 19:1-30

Leviticus 18:22

Leviticus 20:13

Romans 1:18-27

I Corinthians 6:9-10

I Timothy 1:8-11

In English bibles the issue seems pretty clear. But the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, which was later (circa 300-200BC) translated into Greek, giving us the Septuagint. Most English Old Testaments are translated, instead, from the very much later (circa 600-1100AD) Masoretic text. Some scholars argue that that was partly re-written (particularly in key passages, such as Isaiah 53) in order to make it seem less likely that Jesus was the Messiah (though Christians seem to have ‘accepted’ those changes readily, despite them appearing to set God the Father in opposition to the Messiah); it’s not that simple though, because the Masoretic text seems to follow some fragments of the (1st century AD) scrolls found at Qumran pretty closely. 

The New Testament was written mostly in a fairly colloquial form of Greek known as Κοινή (Koiné), or common Greek. Actually, the New Testament’s language is slightly more complicated than that, because for many of the writers, Greek seems not to have been their first language, so you are apt to find things written in ways which owe a lot to the writers’ first language - you might almost say that it’s written in Judeo-Koiné Greek.

Translation of either Hebrew or Greek into English is notoriously difficult. The linguistic difficulty is compounded by the cultural differences between ‘them then’ and ‘us now’. Many concepts which we take for granted now, had never even been dreamt of back then; conversely, many things which they thought of as ‘obvious’ are totally alien to us. I ‘get’ the idea that the writings are inspired by God. But, it seems to me, that they were inspired then and written for and to people alive then. If they are applicable to us now, then it is almost coincidental. And we must be careful to try not to read them with our 21st century understanding - because we are apt to make terrible mistakes. Worse still is deliberately to do what evangelicals call ‘plain reading’ - which supposedly removes any interpretive biases, but which instead virtually guarantees that we interpret the writings according to today’s culture, thought patterns, societal norms, etc. That is almost certainly bound to do grave injury to the writer’s intent.

Bearing all that in mind, I am going to pick just one of those ‘clobber passages’ and try to work out what it might have meant when it was written… As well as what it probably didn’t, indeed couldn’t, have meant. I hope to show that there is sufficient doubt about its meaning that it is, quite simply, unjust of us to use it to exclude homosexuals from fully belonging to the Church. That’s going to take quite a lot of words, so I shall refrain from trying to tackle any of the other ‘clobber passages’ the same way in this post. If I feel like it, I may write more posts on the others at a later date.

So, let’s take 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, as our example. Here it is, in several English versions.

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. (KJV)

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. (NASB)

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (NIV)

And here is one, widely accepted, version of the Greek text.

Ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε· οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται οὔτε πλεονέκται, οὐ μέθυσοι, οὐ λοίδοροι, οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν. (SBL Greek New Testament)

It’s a difficult passage. It’s quite confusing, and there isn’t a single, black and white, answer which resolves all its difficulties. Let’s take a closer look at what those issues are, and try to illustrate why there isn’t a single, simple, answer. The key words in the passage, when it comes to talking about homosexuality, are μαλακοὶ (malakoi) and ἀρσενοκοῖται (arsenokoitai) - which I have bolded above.

Malakoi literally means “soft.” The KJV translates it as “effeminate.” This word was widely used in the ancient world and has a broad range of meanings, including “effeminate.” It appears several other times in the New Testament and is usually translated as “soft.” But, given that this is just a list without any further context, no one knows for sure exactly what Paul had in mind when he included it in this list of sins. It might be referring to weakness of character, or cowardice, or some other moral (but not necessarily sexual) shortcoming. When used to refer to a person's character, the word usually meant someone unwilling or unable to persevere through tough times or to resist temptations, but it particularly referred to those who were easily cowed by threats rather than doing what they believed was right regardless of possible consequences. Thus following the law out of fear of hellfire is definitely being malakos. So perhaps its meaning is not sexual at all, but Paul may instead be referring to those too frightened to disobey the law in order to love those condemned by the law - which is quite different from assuming that it refers to homosexuality (with almost no evidence to back up the assertion).

But if its meaning is indeed ‘effeminate’ in this case, we should also bear in mind that the meaning of effeminate in Ancient Greek culture was almost diametrically opposed to our modern meaning. To us, an effeminate man is one who appears rather ‘camp’ in mannerisms and speech - the sort of person portrayed in, for instance, the 1970s comedy ‘Are you Being served?’ by John Inman playing ‘Mr Humphries’ - a crude caricature of a homosexual. However, in Ancient Greek culture it seems, judging by Aristophanes’ (fictional?) speech in Plato’s ‘Symposium’, that it may have meant men whose character was so weak that they would only have sex with women, rather than with men, as a properly macho man ought!

Moving on, arsenokoitai is translated in the KJV as “abusers of themselves with mankind,” and is a compound word made out of the words “male” (ἄρσην) and “beds” (κοίται). But, just like many English compound words, the parts don’t always equal the whole (for instance, a housewife isn’t a woman married to a house!): arsenokoitai pretty definitely won't actually mean “male beds.” So what does it mean?

Here’s where things get tricky again: Paul seems to have made up the word arsenokoitai! There don’t seem to be any examples of its use prior to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; the subsequent usage mainly seems to be repetitions of similar lists of sins - which gives us very little ‘context’ to try to establish its true meaning(s).

Because of the uniqueness of this word, even our best translations have to guess what Paul meant. One conjecture is that Paul is referencing the Septuagint Greek text of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, where ἄρσην and κοίτης appear in close proximity to each other. It has been pointed out though, that when Paul uses it, he is writing to a gentile Greek audience, who probably wouldn’t be familiar with the book of Leviticus, so that the supposed link would probably not mean anything to them. But, though that might be a clue about the word’s etymology, it still doesn’t tell us for sure what Paul meant when he used it. The only thing we can be fairly sure of is that arsenokoitai is referring to some sort of immoral male sexual behaviour. There are alternatives to simply assuming it refers to homosexual behaviour - perhaps it refers to "men who sexually exploit others” and/or "promiscuous men". These could include users of prostitutes and sexual slaves, rapists, pedophiles, those who sexually prey upon weaker people (think workplace sexual harassment), and men who use others solely for sexual gratification. In all those cases, it would refer to men who are ruled by lust, regardless of their innate sexuality.

Unfortunately, most modern English translations give the appearance of absolute certainty when it comes to translating malakoi and arsenokoitai, making it seem as if it’s a foregone conclusion that Paul is explicitly condemning homosexuality. But scholars continue to debate the precise meanings of these words and, especially in the case of arsenokoitai, it seems that we’ll never know for sure exactly what Paul meant. Theories abound, but certainty remains elusive.

The NIV does a particularly bad job at conveying these difficulties. Instead of translating the two terms separately, the NIV translators chose to merge malakoi and arsenokoitai together and translate them as “men who have sex with men.” The translators even include a revealing footnote which says “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts.” The NIV all too conveniently ignores the scholarly uncertainty about these words, making it seem as if the definitions of malakoi and arsenokoitai are definitely referring to homosexuality, a conclusion which is dubious at best. Buoyed by agenda-driven translations such as the NIV and ESV, many Christians continue to wield an unfounded certainty about the meaning of these verses in order to condemn and marginalise LGBTQ+ people.

There is a school of thought which supposes that what Paul is condemning by using, in particular, arsenokoitai  is paedophilia, but Ancient Greek has a perfectly serviceable word, παιδεραστεια (paiderasteia -  from which our word pederasty seems to be derived) describing the sexual exploitation of young boys by older males (which was widely practiced in their society)… So it seems unlikely to be that to which arsenokoitai refers. 

The ancient Greeks did not conceive of sexual orientation as a social identifier in the way modern Western societies do - so the concept of ‘gayness’ or ‘homosexuality’ would not be understood by an ancient Greek. Greek society did not distinguish sexual desire or behaviour by the gender of the participants so much as by the role that each participant played in the sex act, i.e. whether they were the penetrator or the penetrated. Within the practice of pederasty, the polarisation between active and passive corresponded to dominant and submissive social roles: the active role was associated with masculinity, higher social status, and adulthood, while the passive role was associated with femininity, lower social status, and youth. There is another word which describes effeminate men, κίναιδος (kinaidos) - referring to those taking a passive role in sex, which was seen as shameful in Greek culture.

So it seems to me that Greek had plenty of words for the kinds of homosexual behaviour which were practiced in their society - which Paul, as an apparently fluent Greek speaker, should have known. So why didn’t he use them, but instead felt the need to invent new words? It’s all very uncertain, and it’s very hard, if not impossible, to determine what Paul means in these verses.

This, in a nutshell, is a large part of the reason why I don’t believe we ought to be failing to fully involve, either explicitly or implicitly, homosexuals in our churches - there is simply nothing like enough certainty about the words malakoi and arsenokoitai to justify the interpretations placed on them by some bible translators. Parallel arguments of similar kind can be advanced regarding the other ‘clobber passages’. Condemning a particular behaviour, and excluding those who practice it, on the basis of such uncertain evidence is, as far as I’m concerned, simply unjust, and I cannot in all conscience support it. We may return at a later date to look more deeply at the justice aspect of the exclusion of homosexuals from full participation in the life of our churches.

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2022