Why Does God Condemn the Malakoi?

In a recent comments thread, regarding the two words mentioned at 1 Corinthians 6:9, μαλακοὶ and ἀρσενοκοῖται, words that have traditionally been imagined to refer to homosexual sexual activity in toto, I mention that the guilt of the ἀρσενοκοῖται (lit., the "men-bedders," whatever that concept is supposed to refer to) render the μαλακοὶ (a very difficult word to translate into English given its many connotations) the passive participant in a specifically-ambiguous same-sex situation -- the ἀρσενοκοῖται, essentially, offend and exploit the μαλακοὶ. The question is then rightly posed: Then why would God condemn the μαλακοὶ since their being rendered the passive partner in an exploitative same-sex situation is not necessarily their fault?

The simple response is that, in such a situation in which the μαλακοὶ are condemned and barred from entrance into heaven, the μαλακοὶ willingly render themselves to that situation and are thus guilty of self-exploitation, self-objectification, and, many confess, same-sex fornication (whether considered ritually, socially, or fiscally). That some ἀρσενοκοῖται exploit some μαλακοὶ is not to suggest that some μαλακοὶ are guiltless; many μαλακοὶ freely and willingly adopt their own life-context.

Consider, in this very frame of reference, that the πόρνοι, i.e., the "fornicators," or the "sexually immoral," depending on the English translation, the group that heads the list in this passage at 1 Corinthians 6:9, are considered heterosexual prostitutes in the temple shrines in Corinth: "In Attic Greek πορνεία were houses of male prostitution, in which πόρνοι practiced their trade quite legally and with little stigma, as long as they paid the tax on prostitution."1 Even in the Septuagint we witness this same usage of the word πόρνος at Deuteronomy 23:18: "You shall not bring the fee of a prostitute or the wages of a male prostitute into the house of the Lord your God in payment for any vow, for both of these are abhorrent to the Lord your God."2 (emphasis added) A distinction is made: of an implicitly female prostitute and explicitly of a male prostitute.

Note, as well, that the referred to πόρνοι of 1 Corinthians 6:9 is masculine plural, not feminine, thus most likely referring to heterosexual male prostitutes. The common word "fornication," which in our modern context denotes any sexual activity outside a covenant of marriage, is a rather careless translation among English Bible translators:
The other common translation of the word is "fornication," but this is equally if not more misleading, since (a) popular use of this word is considerably at variance with its technical meaning in moral theology, and (b) it too originally meant prostitution -- a fact which was known to Latin writers throughout most of Christian history and influenced their understanding of Paul's attitudes in ways in which it does not affect modern readers unaware of the etymology of the term.3
St Paul, in writing his list of offenders who will not inherit the kingdom of God, then lists "idolatry" after πόρνοι, the heterosexual male temple prostitutes; he then lists adulterers, and then the μαλακοὶ. As noted previously, translating this word into English has caused numerous problems for linguists, given its inherent difficulty. As a matter of historical fact, the word, as used in other ancient sources, has more often than not referred to heterosexual men who, in some semblance, betray their perceived inherited masculine traits (their manhood or inherited male honor in Ancient Near Eastern customs) for perceived "feminine" traits, as variously understood, of course.

Do note, however, that some English Bible translations render μαλακοὶ as male prostitutes, i.e., temple male homosexual prostitutes (cf. ISV, Mounce, NCV, NIV 1984, NLT, NRSV, OJB: "effeminate call boys," TNIV, World English Bible). If this is an accurate translation of the word then this rendering can in no sense whatsoever refer to typical (non-prostitutional) homosexual men who long for a committed love union (and not lust). But the word has so many variant referents in the ancient world.

Dale B. Martin suggests that the proper translation of this word belongs to the notion of effeminacy in some context clear in the ancient world and clear in the minds of the Corinthian believers to whom he writes. The problem, however, is denoting who or what group, exactly, encompasses the μαλακοὶ. Martin underscores the fact that the word can be used to describe "the softness of expensive clothes, the richness and delicacy of gourmet food, the gentleness of light winds and breezes." (link) In a moral sense, however, the word is imagined as conveying "laziness, degeneracy, decadence, lack of courage, or, to sum up all these vices in one ancient category, the feminine":
For the ancients, or at least for the men who produced almost all our ancient literature, the connection was commonsensical and natural. Women are weak, fearful, vulnerable, tender. They stay indoors and protect their soft skin and nature: their flesh is moister, more flaccid, and more porous than male flesh, which is why their bodies retain all that excess fluid that must be expelled every month. The female is quintessentially penetrable; their pores are looser than men's. One might even say that in the ancient male ideology women exist to be penetrated. It is their purpose (telos) [i.e., end, goal]. And their "softness" or "porousness" is nature's way of inscribing on and within their bodies this reason for their existence. (link)
Many of us may balk at such Neanderthal-like ideology but this is how men perceive of maleness, masculinity, femaleness and femininity in the ancient world. For a male to exhibit female qualities, in whatever sense, is perceived as shameful. This is why ancient and violent male power-rape of other males existed and still exists today in many parts throughout the Middle East -- men are robbed of their honored manhood. This is the sin of Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding villages.

So a male characterized as one who is willingly penetrated by another male (or even by a female via means of certain sexual objects), is deemed a μαλακος. However, notes Martin, to say that a μαλακος referred explicitly and solely to "a [homosexual] man who was penetrated is simply wrong. In fact, a perfectly good word existed that seems to have had that narrower meaning: kinaedos." But μαλακος referred to "this entire complex of femininity." (link) He suggests that a man who willingly submitted himself to being penetrated by another could leave himself open to the negative charge of μαλακία; but "in those cases, the term refers to the effeminacy of which the penetration is only a sign or proof; it does not refer to the sexual act itself. The category of effeminate men was much broader than that." (link) The word is, simply, complex.



In the Ancient Near East, the categorized μαλακοὶ also refer to men who cannot tolerate hard work: "Xenophon uses the term for lazy men. For Epictetus and the Cynic Epistles, the term refers to men who take life easy rather than enduring the hardships of philosophy. In Dio Cassius, Plutarch, and Josephus, cowards are μαλακοὶ." Martin notes that, throughout ancient literature, μαλακοὶ are "men who live lives of decadence and luxury. They drink too much wine, have too much sex, love gourmet food, and hire professional cooks." Even Josephus insists that the μαλακοὶ are men who are weak in battle, [enjoy] luxury, or [are] reluctant [due to being cowardice] to commit suicide [should the need arise] (War 7.338; Antiquities 5.246; 10.194)." (link)

Elsewhere in ancient literature the μαλακοὶ are characteristically effeminate "by body type and body language, including whether a man is really effeminate even if he outwardly appears virile." However, the word "never refers specifically to penetration in homosexual sex (although men who endure it are discussed in the book [e.g., Pseudo-Aristotelian's Physiognomy]). Rather, it denotes the feminine, whether the reference is to feet, ankles, thighs, bones, flesh, or whatever." (link) He suggests, in conclusion, that all penetrated men are μαλακοὶ but not all μαλακοὶ are penetrated men. (link) In reality, then, no one should be allowed to get away with insisting that μαλακοὶ, as well as ἀρσενοκοῖται,4 obviously refers to passive men and dominant men, respectively, who engage in general, consensual, even monogamous homosexual sex.

Ancient historical texts also portray a male who is μαλακος as being, morally, "'licentious,' 'loose,' or 'wanting [lacking] in self-control5,'" writes John Boswell, stating further that, broadly, the word "might be translated as either 'unrestrained' or 'wanton.'"6 From the earliest days of the ancient Christian tradition, throughout the Protestant Reformation and even of later Roman Catholicism into the twentieth century, the word μαλακος referred to masturbation: "This was the interpretation not only of native Greek speakers in the early Middle Ages but of the very theologians who most contributed to the stigmatization of homosexuality."7 Boswell continues:
No new textual data effected the twentieth-century change in translation of this word: only a shift in popular morality. Since few people any longer regard masturbation as the sort of activity which would preclude entrance to heaven [which would horrify earlier believers], the condemnation has simply been transferred to a group still so widely despised that their exclusion does not trouble translators or theologians.8
You will forgive me, I hope, for personalizing this issue at this point onward; for the reality of homosexuality is not merely a topic of discussion, nor a debate among scholars, but frames an ontological truth in which many human beings live their lives. Boswell's final statement is a tragic fact of evangelicals: their ease with dogmatic condemnation toward LGBTQ persons based on two ambiguous words at 1 Corinthians 6:9 is troubling at best. (I realize that this passage is not the only passage used in condemning same-sex relationships: three other passages are deemed primary: Romans 1:24-28; Leviticus 20:13; Leviticus 18:22. More on this below.)

What the two terms at 1 Corinthians 6:9 do not address -- what the authors of the Bible as a whole do not address in even one passage -- is homosexual orientation, a physical- and/or emotional-attractional proclivity for which none of us among LGBTQ-oriented persons asked, but for which we receive shunning, stigma, harassment, bullying, violence, prejudice and, in an ultimate sense, condemnation to hell from many evangelicals (and we are most grateful for affirming advocates and conservatives who are otherwise gracious). I think Dr. James V. Brownson is correct to highlight the fact that "the Bible does not envision the category of [homo-]sexual orientation; it only addresses the problem of excessive desire"9 or lust. (cf. Rom. 1:24, 26, 27) But for us in a modern context, being gay is a matter not of lust or behavior, but of orientation -- this is the difference between behavioral practicality and a base realistic ontology.

Consider, if you will, the categories listed at 1 Corinthians 6:9-10: "All of these," notes Dr. Brownson, "address not only inclinations but also behaviors," and St Paul says
that those who do these things "will not inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:10). When Paul goes on to say, "this is what some of you used to be" (1 Cor. 6:11), he is speaking of the combination of inclination and behavior that characterized the former lives of [the Corinthians]. These inclinations and behaviors (including, for Paul, those of malakoi and arsenokoitai) were not affirmed by the church, even though the church was called to welcome sinners. But most importantly, when [the Corinthians] ceased to engage in these behaviors, they no longer were "fornicators, idolators, adulterers...malakoi or arsenokoitai." In Paul's world, if the inclination ceased to express itself in behaviors, that inclination no longer characterized the person at all.10
But the inclination toward homosexual relationships and/or same-gendered attraction remain in those who, by the grace of God, have turned toward Christ by faith and become regenerate followers. What are we to conclude, then, regarding inclination and characterization? If the inclination toward homosexual attraction remains the reality in the state of mind of the regenerate homosexual, yet that reality itself is sinful, and hinders one from entrance into heaven, then LGBTQ people cannot be saved, since they cannot be rid of the very sinful inclination that instrumentally leads them to desire same-sex intimacy.11 Unless, that is, the two terms in question at 1 Corinthians 6:9 are not referring to general same-sex attraction that longs for relational and physical intimacy but to an inordinate sexual activity that derives from lust, or from exploitation, or from religious (temple) or social or fiscal prostitution.

The two authors in the Bible who mention some semblance of same-sex (typically male) sexuality in condemnatory terms also do not address homosexuality in terms of two males or two females desiring a loving, committed, life-long, emotional and monogamous bond; they tend toward condemnation for some sort of (homo-)sexual activity (whether related to temple prostitution, male gang rape, or heterosexuals rejecting their heterosexual nature and turn toward lust of the homosexual variety.

Nor do the authors of Scripture address the nights that I spend in tears due to loneliness and an accompanying overwhelming desire to love and to be loved by someone of my own gender. My option is either loneliness or a relationship. The theory of me converting to heterosexuality is farcical at best. Not only am I not attracted to women, whether physically or emotionally, but I am by nature repulsed by the idea of forming a heterosexual relationship as much as any typical heterosexual male is by nature repulsed by the idea of forming a homosexual relationship.

Though traditionalists view the passages in question differently, assuming the authors are referring to life-long monogamous homosexual relationships -- contrary, I think, to what we explicitly discover in each passage (cf. Gen. 19:1-11, a passage about male honor-shame violent gang rape; Judges 19:1-30, a second passage about male honor-shame violent gang rape, wherein the men rape a woman all night and thereby kill her; Lev. 18:22 and Lev. 20:13, two passages that are not as cut-and-dried as many traditionalists assume; Rom. 1:24-28, a passage about people who knew God but turned away from God, refusing to acknowledge God and betrayed their own sexual nature; and 1 Cor. 6:9-10) -- I remain unconvinced that the two authors who mention homosexuality in some context are referring, in condemnatory terms, the notion of two members of the same gender lovingly committing their selves to one another.

__________

1 John Boswell, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981), 336.

2 Ibid., 336-37.

3 Ibid., 337, n4. "A few very recent [English Bible] translations have taken cognizance of this: the NAB observes that in 1 Cor. 6:12-20 'the fornication referred to is probably that of religious prostitution, an accepted part of pagan culture in Rome.'" (n5)

4 "As the debate over homosexuality and the Bible has become more explicit," writes Martin, "various attempts have been made to defend the interpretation of arsenokoitês as a reference to male-male or homosexual sex in general. A common error made in such attempts is to point to its two parts, arsên and koitês, and say that 'obviously' the word refers to men who have sex with men. Scholars sometimes support this reading by pointing out that the two words occur together, though not joined, in Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible and in Philo in a context in which he condemns male homosexual sex. Either Paul, it is suggested, or someone before him simply combined the two words together to form a new term for men who have sex with men [and, of course, avoiding entirely the notion of lesbianism].

"This approach is linguistically invalid. It is highly precarious to try to ascertain the meaning of a word by taking it apart, getting the meanings of its component parts, and then assuming, with no supporting evidence, that the meaning of the longer word is a simple combination of its component parts. To 'understand' does not mean to 'stand under.' In fact, nothing about the basic meanings of either 'stand' or 'under' has any direct bearing on the meaning of 'understand.'

"This phenomenon of language is sometimes even more obvious with terms that designate social roles, since the nature of the roles themselves often changes over time and becomes separated from any original reference. None of us, for example, takes the word 'chairman' to have any necessary reference to a chair, even if it originally did. Thus, all definitions of arsenokoitês that derive its meaning from its components are naïve and indefensible. Furthermore, the claim that arsenokoitês came from a combination of these two words and therefore means 'men who have sex with men' makes additional error of defining a word by its (assumed) etymology. The etymology of a word is its history, not its meaning." (link)

5 David E. Frederickson, "Natural and Unnatural Use in Romans 1:24-27," in Homosexuality, Science, and the "Plain Sense" of Scripture, ed. David Balch (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 219-20.

6 Boswell, 106-07.

7 Ibid., 107.

8 Ibid.

9 James V. Brownson, Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church's Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2013), 170.

10 Ibid., 171.

11 Dr. Brownson rightly, I think, notes: "These New Testament texts call into question the adequacy of the orientation/behavior distinction in addressing gay and lesbian Christians. If same-sex erotic acts are always morally wrong, then the impulse to engage in those acts is also a manifestation of a disordered and sinful inner state. Focusing on behavior alone -- and regarding as neutral the 'preference' or inclination toward such behaviors -- simply cannot be justified from Scripture, particularly from the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. If the acts are sinful, all inclinations to such acts are to be understood as manifestations of a sinful nature, and are to be resisted as such. . . . Before God, if an action is wrong, the inward impulse toward that action is equally culpable.

"This means that the attempt by some traditionalists to bracket sexual orientation and to focus only on sexual behavior is ultimately untenable, even if it may seem necessary or benevolent from a pastoral point of view. Where does one draw the line? Where does the sinful impulse begin? Is it when gay or lesbian persons experience a desire for friendship with others of the same sex, admiration for another's physical beauty, the tendency to frequently think about another person, the persistent desire to be with another person, the desire to be touched by another, the desire to kiss or be kissed, or the desire for still more intimate sexual contact? For most gay and lesbian persons [as well as heterosexual persons], these desires are part of the same continuum, and they cannot always be readily distinguished from each other." (175)

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.