Homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

First Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 are discussed often in the debate about homosexuality because of the Greek words Paul used to describe what we currently call homosexuality: μαλακός and ἀρσενοκοίτος; both terms occur in 1 Cor 6:9 and only the latter in 1 Tim 1:10. There’s a pretty wide difference in the translations of these terms, from the general (“sexual pervert” in the RSV) to the fairly specific (“male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders” in the NIV). So sound exegesis requires that we figure out what these words mean and then understand how Paul is using them.

The first word is μαλακός, which only occurs 3x in the NT. It can be used to refer to something that is soft to the touch, like clothes (Luk 7:25; Matt 11:8). Here in 1 Cor 6:9 the meaning is a little harder to ascertain. In classical Greek the word had a wide range of meaning. Moving from the literal, physical meaning of “soft,” it took on the meaning of effeminate, weak, sickly, tender, yielding, etc. So exactly what does it mean here? It would appear to have a meaning related to sexual activity, as it is sandwiched inbetween two sexual terms, but the exact nuance is unclear. In order to answer what this word means, we have to look at the other word under consideration, ἀρσενοκοίτης. This is a compound word in Greek, which links the word for male, ἄρσην, to the word for bed, κοίτη. So what does it mean? It has been argued to refer to homosexual rapists, men who perform anal sex upon their wives, unnatural sex with gods or angels, and male prostitutes, but none of these appears to fit naturally the linguistic bill. An ancient lexicon by Sophocles states the following: “ὁ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοιμώμενος κοίτην γυναικείαν," which could be translated as "one who has intercourse with a man as with a woman.” There is a similarly formed word μητροκοίτης, which joins the word for “mother” to the word for “bed” and δουλοκοίτης, which joins the word for “slave” to “bed.” The undisputed meaning of the former is “one who has sex with his mother, one who commits incest.” The undisputed meaning of the latter is “one who has sex with slaves.” So the most reasonable definition for ἀρσενοκοίτης is “one who has sex with a man.” This allows us to circle back around and define further the meaning of μαλακός. Within the semantic domain of sexual activity, if ἀρσενοκοίτης refers to the one who is having sex, that is, the active partner, then μαλακός refers to the one who is passive, that is, the receiving partner.

But here it gets a little complicated. These words bring to the fore a primary difference in the way we think about homosexuality as a sociological/psychological category. We are accustomed to thinking about homosexuality as divided into orientation and behavior. Orientation refers to predisposition: Some one can be predisposed, so to speak, to be attracted to a particular gender. Behavior refers to actual activity, that is, use of the body for sexual activity without regard for orientation. Technically in our modern categories, you can have one and not the other. What’s important to remember is that the ancient Greco-Roman world did not have the category of orientation; the only category was behavior. And even then, the ancients thought about sexual behavior differently than we do. For example, there is evidence that sex was less about pleasure and more about power and control. This comes into play as we discuss these particular words. I think the better argument here is that Paul is referring to specific behaviors, not orientation. He identifies the man who receives in the sexual act and the man who gives as both acting inappropriately. (Note that he does not speak of women here; we’d have to go to Romans 1 for that.)

To extend that argument, some argue that a cultural issue may be in play, namely, the natural roles of power that the ancients saw operating in the sex act. Men were to be dominant and penetrate; if a man willingly chose to be penetrated, that would violate the natural order. If a man chose to penetrate another man, then that also would violate the natural order. So Paul is thinking about sex in a way that we no longer accept and consequently we can reject his arguments. There are two contextual arguments against this train of though. The first concerns other words listed in these passages. Take, for example, 1 Cor 6:9: The word which occurs before μαλακός in the list is μοιχοί, "adulterers." The word which occurs at the top of the list is πόρνος, a term either for a prostitute or a generally immoral person. Paul has in mind in this passage an order established by God which prioritizes the union of man and woman as most important. Anything which goes against that order is unrighteous, whether it is a heterosexual act or a homosexual one. The second contextual argument is that this is a vice list. These are illustrative, not exhaustive. They serve a general function of warning believers away from activities contrary to God’s will. Note how many different vices are included, and note that in other vice lists there is not complete overlap (see Gal 5:19-21, for example).

The theological point to make is that there are lots of things in these verses that are bad, not just one. We need to be honest and state that we have a lot of unrighteous behaviors that apart from God’s grace could keep us from the kingdom. Most important to note, though, is the note of redemption in each passage. So we say too much about these passages when we say that they simply condemn homosexuality. Let’s be honest and talk about these words clearly as focusing upon male homosexual behavior, not homosexual orientation generally. But let’s not say too little, as these words occur within the context of the primacy of the husband/wife sexual relationship, illustrating one way which unrighteousness manifests itself.