Who Carries the Keys to the Kingdom: Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

Every believer hopes that he or she will enter into heaven when their earthly life is over.  To do so, one must meet certain requirements and live by certain parameters.  Those who fail to meet these standards could be denied access to the Kingdom.  Throughout the Bible various sins are listed that if committed, may cause one to fall out of favor with God.  The Ten Commandments would be the most familiar list.  The Laws of Moses, found in Leviticus, would be another.  Many of these offenses are highly relevant and remain illegal even today.  Some have been all but forgotten.

In 1 Corinthians Chapter 6 we find a specific list of perpetrators that will be denied entry into heaven.  Some of the sins in this particular passage are quite clear, others obscure.  Certain translations of the Bible have interpreted two of the phrases in this passage to imply that homosexuals will be some of the people who will be refused at heaven’s gate.  Are the interpretations that support this idea correct or misguided?

Backstory:

In Acts 18, we find the account of the Apostle Paul going to Corinth on his second missionary trip.  Paul was compelled to spread the message that Christ was the Messiah.  He was eventually successful in establishing a Christian church there.  At the time of Paul’s visit the city’s inhabitants were mostly cultic pagan, worshiping Aphrodite and other gods of Rome, Greece, and Egypt.  To be called ‘a Corinthian’ in those days was synonymous with moral depravity.  (1)

Paul left Corinth after a year and a half to continue on his missionary calling.  During his travels Paul received word that the Corinthian Church was divided and that many in the community were returning to their former misguided ways.  Paul wrote a letter to address these concerns.  1 Corinthians is that letter. (2)

Context:

Paul’s letter addresses many topics.  He condemns the disorder in the Corinthian church as well as the moral disorders of the community.  Paul lays out some guidelines for conduct at public worship, spiritual gifts or offerings, and finally he writes about Christ’s resurrection, the implications of it in Christian life and death, and instructions for church collections and future visitors to the city.

In chapter 5 Paul reports that he has been informed of an incestuous affair taking place between a man of the new church and the man’s stepmother.  Paul writes that this behavior would be shameful even to the sexually immoral Pagans of Corinth.  Not only did the affair take place, but it became known and no punishment occurred.  “They ought to have been a humbled people. They should have mourned; and should have given their first attention to the removal of the evil. But instead of this, they had given indulgence to proud feeling, and had become elated with a vain confidence in their spiritual purity.” (3)

In Chapter 6, Paul is upset by the fact that Christians are bringing petty lawsuits into Pagan courts, rather than settling them amongst themselves.  Local culture was influencing the young church in Paul’s absence.  The Apostle’s letter is written in the hopes that it will stop the regression of the community back into old habits and instead guide the new followers to spiritual maturity.

He asks “Dare any of you, having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints?” (Cor. 6:1) “I speak to your shame. Is it so, that there is not a wise man among you? No, not one that shall be able to judge between his brethren?” (Cor. 6:5)

Paul is questioning how Christians could allow themselves to be judged by a set of rules that lack a high moral standard when they have the ability to settle minor disputes outside of court, in the midst of fellow believers.

In the previous chapter, Paul is reprimanding the church for an unpunished heterosexual act.  In verse 15 of the chapter at hand, Paul speaks against prostitution.  This is the context in which the verse occurs:  incest, prostitution, and petty disputes being heard in Pagan courts.

“[1 Cor. 6:9] condemns sexual immorality in the context of pagan sex rites.  It condemns prostitution.  It condemns abuse.  It condemns greed, drunkards and slanderers… Paul simply listed the ‘male prostitutes’ and ‘pederasts’ among the list of the most vile people out there to emphasize his point.” (4)

Analysis:

“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 swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God.”    (1 Corinthians 6: 9-10 KJV)

Other English translations interpret the words in bold very differently.  Effeminate is replaced by: male prostitutes, men who have sex with men, those who make women of themselves, men who practice homosexuality, men who submit to homosexual acts, sexual molesters, anyone practicing homosexuality, passive homosexual partners, homosexuals, or any who are guilty of unnatural crime. (5)

We can see that translations vary greatly, and we know that varying translations can call objectivity into question.  The source Greek word, Malakoi from which the KJV Bible derives the word effeminate can also be defined as soft, or delicate.  This word is used in only two other verses in the Bible (Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25), each time referring to a man who would wear soft/fancy/fine clothing.  Malakoi’s other Biblical occurrences are not sexual in nature.  Specifically, Jesus is referencing the unflattering appearance of John the Baptist and how it was a manifestation of John’s faithfulness and spiritual conviction.  “This kind of clothing [malakois] was an emblem of riches, splendor, effeminacy, feebleness of character. He meant to say that John was a man of a different stamp – coarse in his exterior, hardy in his character, firm in his virtue, suited to endure trials and privations, and thus qualified to be the forerunner of the toiling and suffering Messiah.” (3)

Abusers of themselves with mankind also varies in translation.  Other English interpretations of the phrase are: abusers of themselves with men, males lying down with males, men who practice homosexuality, masturbators, men who perform homosexual acts, defilers, homosexuals, perverts, or sodomites.

Arsenakoi is the original Greek source word that has become the phrase abusers of themselves with mankind. The phrase also appears in 1 Timothy 1:10, which is another letter written by the Apostle Paul.  These are the only two places in the entire Bible where this word appears.  Some have said that this is a word that Paul himself may have constructed.  Many have said that Paul used the word arsenokoitai because Jews would know exactly what he meant, as the same terminology was used in Leviticus.  One fault with this argument is that while converted Jews may have understood the reference, Pagan Gentiles would not.  We know from Romans 15 that Paul was called to minister to Gentiles as much if not more than to Jews. (6) Secondly, in order for this argument to hold up we must know unequivocally that the verses in Leviticus are truly in reference to homosexuality.

The internet is full of educated, fact filled debate over these two Greek words in question and their Biblical meanings.  Outside of the Bible, the word Arsenokoitai/es appears just over seventy times, mostly referring to temple or shrine prostitution or pederasty.  (7)

Pederasty is a relationship between an adult male and an adolescent boy.  The relationship was usually sexual and sometimes exploitative.  “In his [Geoffrey Gorer’s] study of native cultures pederasty appears typically as a passing stage in which the adolescent is the beloved of an older male, remains as such until he reaches a certain developmental threshold, after which he in turn takes on an adolescent beloved of his own.” (8)  Some argue that if Paul was indeed referring to pederasty, he would have used the known Greek word for pederasty, paiderasste.

Paul’s Other Letters:

Paul wrote 13 letters, or epistles, that are included in the New Testament.  The Pauline epistles contain other lists similar to the list in 1 Corinthians that are not presumed to exclude homosexuals from salvation.  “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” (Ephesians 5:5 KJV) and “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5 NIV) and also “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21 KJV)

Paul repeated himself again and again and yet of the Pauline epistles, only the passage in 1 Corinthians is presented as proof that God does not accept homosexuals.  If we are certain that homosexuals or homosexual practice is an accurate translation, and that what Paul was indeed saying is that homosexuals cannot gain entry into heaven, why didn’t he emphasize this in any of his other letters?  We may also ask why parallel verses by the same author have not been re-translated for uniformity.  If Paul preached against homosexuality, shouldn’t he have always preached against homosexuality?

Conclusion:

People are bitterly divided on this topic.  Who will be denied access to heaven?  The Apostle Paul may have meant male temple prostitutes or their patrons.  He may have meant pederasts, abusive pederasts, or any participants in male – male intercourse.  Should any of the possible meanings of Paul’s words be understood to indicate gay men, sexually active gay men, or homosexuals in general?

“As believers, we take the Bible, though written down by humans, to be the divinely inspired Word of God. We believe that this is the essential information that God wanted us here on earth to know in order for us to lead the best possible lives in this life and give us the best possible chance to spend eternity with Him in the next. For example, we know exactly the meaning of “You shall not murder” or “You shall not steal”. There is no doubt what God wants us to know in these 2 important commandments. So, if these two words, “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” are so critical for us to understand in order to achieve the previously mentioned goals or rewards, wouldn’t God with all His limitless powers, wisdom and foreknowledge have made it possible for their meaning to be clear to either the lay reader or the scholar today?” (9)

God knows all.  God knew modern readers would struggle with the ambiguity of both the original English translation (effeminate and abusers of themselves with mankind) as well as the original Greek malakoi and arsenokoitai.  God also knew that we would have abundant resources with which to research the terms for ourselves – from a simple library card to the World Wide Web.  God knew that people would disagree on the intended meaning of Paul’s divinely inspired words.  God knew that the modern Church would be divided over whether or not to embrace LGBT people as leaders, members, or anything more than sinners beyond saving, lost under the pull of Satan.

The conclusion therefore is that God left us with a choice. 

Believers can choose to accept translations that have adopted language and/or meanings that excludes LGBT people from the kingdom, and speak hurtfully about or towards them

OR

They can choose to accept LGBT brothers and sisters because the Bible is ambiguous, because Jesus did not address sexuality in His primary teachings, and because we find same-sex oriented animals in nature, and/or simply because our hearts lead us to choose love over persecution.  We can choose the greater message of love, lest we ‘become the evil we deplore’. (10)  “If a man says, I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar: for he that loves not his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 John 4:20)

Final thoughts:

Is it possible that human assumption and cultural bias could be at work here?  Adultery is among the sins listed by Paul, but is now all but accepted in society.  We almost expect it, and forgive it without appropriate consequences.  The fact is that the Bible is explicit when it comes to the sin of adultery, and yet some believers readily embrace these transgressors but disavow compliant LGBT people of their own faith.  This is nothing short of hypocrisy.

People assume that 1 Corinthians 6:9 is anti-homosexual because they believe that the Bible in its entirety is this way.  We have been told by our earthly religious leaders that homosexual behavior is in the same category with adultery, pedophilia, incest, rape, orgies, and prostitution.  To reach this conclusion definitively requires alteration, assumption, or omission.  Furthermore, if we could reach spiritual maturity exclusively by following earthly religious leaders, we would never have been given the tangible Word to read for ourselves.  And I do encourage believers to read the Scripture, thoroughly, for themselves, with an awareness of translation philosophy in mind and an open heart.

“And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life” (Revelation 22:19)

References:

(1) http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/4418.htm
http://www.padfield.com/2005/corinth.html http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/missions.html ,
The New American Bible. Hartdegen, Stephen J. NIHIL OBSTST. Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1983. Print.
(2) http://www.ibtministries.org/viewcourse.php?crid=109
(3) Barnes, Albert. Barnes Notes on the Old and New Testaments. 19th ed. Baker Books, 1983. Print.
(4) Shelton, David. The Rainbow Kingdom: Christianity and the Homosexual Reconciled. lulu.com, 2007. Print.
(5) http://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/6-9.htm
(6) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/first/missions.html http://firstbaptistchurchoc.org/Sermons_01/paul.htm
(7) http://www.gaychristian101.com/Define-Arsenokoites.html
(8) Gorer, Geoffrey. The Danger of Equality and other Essays The danger of equality: and other essays. Weybright and Talley, 1968.
(9) Scroggs, Robin. The New Testament and Homosexuality. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983. Print.
(10) http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/o/godgrace.htm

Further Reading:

Sex in Antiquity: Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. Ed. Mark masterson, Ed. Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Ed. James Robson. Routledge, 2014. Print
http://www.tms.edu/m/tmsj3h.pdf
http://canyonwalkerconnections.com/are-you-in-or-out-icorinthians-and-itimothy/
http://stopbibleabuse.org/biblical-references/paul/arsenokoites.html
http://phc.edu/gj_haas_hermen.ph
http://philia.ws/ul/nt/index.htm
https://christianstudies.wordpress.com/2011/05/14/230/
https://mennoknight.wordpress.com/2015/06/09/responding-to-five-arguments-about-arsenokoites/
http://www.gaychristian101.com/Arsenokoites.html
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