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Judgment, kingdom, and sexual immorality

The previous post (“Resurrection, judgment, and sexual immorality”) was an attempt to locate Paul’s condemnation of sexual immorality in general and homosexuality in particular in Romans 1:24-27 in the eschatological narrative that I think controls his thought in the letter. Here I will try to do the same for the reference to the exclusion of “men who practise homosexuality”, as the ESV rather misleadingly has it (though see the footnote), in 1 Corinthians 6:9.

We need to go back to the beginning of chapter 5. Paul has heard report of “sexual immorality” (porneia) in the community: a certain person “has his father’s wife”, a practice “which is not even (found) among the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 5:1, my translation). No doubt he has in mind Leviticus 18:8, which prohibits uncovering “the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness”.

Paul insists that they must “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (5:5). The “old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil”, must be cleansed from among them because it has a detrimental effect on the whole community (5:6-8). They should not “mix together with the sexually immoral (pornois)”—not meaning outsiders but those who are named “brother”. The church has a responsibility to “judge” those on the inside: “remove the evil (one) from among yourselves” (5:9-13, my translation).

In this last statement Paul has quoted a refrain from the Old Testament. If a man has sex with the wife of another man, they shall both die: “you shall remove the evil (one) from Israel” (Deut. 22:22 LXX). If a man lies with a virgin engaged to another man, they shall both be stoned—“the young woman, because she did not cry out in the city, and the man, because he humbled his neighbour’s woman. And you shall remove the evil one from yourselves” (Deut. 22:24 LXX).

After the story of the gang rape in Gibeah, the tribes of Israel demand that the Benjaminites give up the guilty men “and we will put them to death and remove evil from Israel” (Judg. 20:13 LXX). The saying is also found in connection with false prophecy (Deut. 13:5) and idolatry (Deut. 17:7). A person who does not respect the verdict of the priest shall be put to death: “and you shall remove the evil (one) from Israel” (Deut. 17:12 LXX).

The message, therefore, is unequivocal. Zero tolerance of porneia.

The eschatological dimension

We then get on to the problem of believers suing each other in the courts, which gives Paul the opportunity to introduce an eschatological dimension into his argument, in two ways.

First, he insists that the church must learn to deal with its internal moral problems because “the saints will judge the world”—and even angels (1 Cor. 6:1-3). “And if the world is to be judged by you,” he asks, “are you incompetent to try trivial cases?”

The thought can be traced back to the giving of judgment to the saints of the Most High in Daniel 7:22. The particular historical empire symbolised by the fourth beast is destroyed, and sovereignty over the nations which it had oppressed is given to the community represented by the “son of man” figure. It is echoed in different Jewish texts: the martyred righteous “will judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever” (Wis. 3:8); God “will give the power to pass judgment on the Gentiles to his chosen” (1QpHab 5:4–5).

Within the limited eschatological horizon of the Gospels, Jesus promises his disciples that when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, they “will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). In Luke’s version of the saying Jesus first assigns a kingdom to his disciples (Lk. 22:30). Finally, following the overthrow of pagan Rome, John expects the martyrs to be raised and to reign with Christ throughout the coming ages (Rev. 20:4-6).

Secondly, Paul writes that “the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9, cf. 10). From this letter alone it is apparent that he foresaw a time in the not too distant future when there would be severe testing and upheaval (3:13; 7:26, 29-31; 10:13), the old order would pass away (2:6; 7:31), the Lord Jesus would be revealed (1:7-8), the world would be judged (11:32), the dead in Christ would be raised (15:20-23), the apostles would be vindicated (9:24-27), and Christ would reign over his enemies (15:25). It is at this time that the righteous inherit the kingdom of God (cf. 15:50) and sit in judgment over the nations.

Among the “unrighteous” Paul lists the “sexually immoral” (pornoi), idolators, adulterers, malakoi, arsenokoitai, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. We’ll get to the translation of malakoi and arsenokoitai in a moment. Some of the Corinthian believers had once belonged to one or more of these categories, but they have since been washed, sanctified, “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11).

This eschatological setting is an overlooked aspect of the New Testament condemnation of same-sex behaviour. Richard Hays talks in general terms about the wrath of God against human sin and a final redemption of humanity in the chapter on homosexuality in The Moral Vision of the New Testament. But he discusses 1 Corinthians 6:9 solely with regard to the translation of the two Greek words and the ethical implications: ‘Paul simply assumes that his readers will share his conviction that those who indulge in homosexual activity are “wrongdoers”…, along with the others sorts of offenders in his list’ (382). The specific and very pronounced connection with judgment and kingdom is not taken into consideration.

The translation of malakoi and arsenokoitai

The word malakos means “soft”. Jesus asks the crowds with regard to John the Baptist: “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing?” Those who wear “soft clothing” are to be found not in the desert but in kings’ houses (Matt. 11:8). It was used in Hellenistic Greek to describe a person who was “effeminate” in demeanour or personality, and the connection between effeminacy and the passive role in homosexual intercourse was easily made, as this passage from Dionysius of Halicarnassus (born c. 60 BC) indicates:

The tyrant of Cumae at that time was Aristodemus…, who was called by the citizens Malacus (Malakos)—a nickname which in time came to be better known than his own name—either because when a boy he was effeminate (thēludrias) and allowed himself to be treated as a woman, as some relate, or because he was of a mild nature and slow to anger, as others state. (Dion. Hal., Rom. Ant. 7.2.4)

Fee says that the word most likely refers to ‘the younger, “passive” partner in a pederastic relationship—the most common form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world’.1

The second word, arsenokoitai, has probably been coined, perhaps by Paul himself, from the two texts in the Levitical code that prohibit and penalise homosexual relations:

And you shall not sleep (koimēthēsēi) with a male (arsenos) as in a bed (koitēn) of a woman, for it is an abomination. (Lev. 18:22 LXX)

And he who lies (koimēthēi) with a male (arsenos) in a bed (koitēn) for a woman, both have committed an abomination; by death let them be put to death; they are liable. (Lev. 20:13 LXX)

The arsenokoitēs is the person who does what is described here: he lies with a man as in the bed of a woman. The form of the prohibition suggests that it is directed principally against the active partner, who penetrates another male as though he were a woman. This makes it more likely, in my view, that there is a correlation between the two terms in 1 Corinthians 6:9, and that Paul has adapted the Old Testament command to the contemporary Hellenistic cultural context.

Philo on pederasty and the public display of effeminacy

To illustrate the point… Philo complains that the “evil” of pederasty (paiderastein) has “been let loose upon cities”. He describes the young men who allow themselves to be “treated like women”:

…not bearing about them a single spark of a manly character to be kindled into a flame, but having even the hair of their heads conspicuously curled and adorned, and having their faces smeared with vermilion, and paint, and things of that kind, and having their eyes pencilled beneath, and having their skins anointed with fragrant perfumes…, and being well appointed in everything that tends to beauty or elegance, are not ashamed to devote their constant study and endeavours to the task of changing their manly character into an effeminate one. (Philo, Spec. Leg. 3.37)

Those who obey the Jewish Law “consider such persons worthy of death”, because the Law “commands that the man-woman (androgynon) who adulterates the precious coinage of his nature shall die without redemption” (3.38). The pederast, though, should suffer the same punishment, not least because he is a corrupter of young men, being “a guide and teacher of those greatest of all evils, unmanliness and effeminate lust (malakias)” (3.39).

Philo attributes the spread of this “evil” to the fact that in many nations “lack of self-control and effeminacy” (akrasias kai malakias) are socially rewarded:

At all events one may see men-women continually strutting through the market place at midday, and leading the processions in festivals; and, impious men as they are, having received by lot the charge of the temple, and beginning the sacred and initiating rites, and concerned even in the holy mysteries of Ceres. (3.40)

What his argument demonstrates, in addition to the depth of the Jewish dislike of such unmanly behaviour, is that the “gay” aesthetic and lifestyle were as much a matter of public spectacle in the cities of the ancient world as they are today. Conceivably, some of these provocative “men-women” were now among the community in Corinth, having been washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Judgment of the pagan world

Paul maintains that men who do such things cannot be part of a community that must inherit the kingdom of God and judge the world and angels. He is not thinking of something that will happen at the end of history. Fee is too imprecise, historically out-of-focus:

Here he is speaking of the final judgment on “the world” as a whole, the entire anti-God system of things that will come under God’s judgment, in which God’s people are in some way to be involved.2

The impending kingdom of God was something that would impact the “world” as Paul knew it, and the churches that he was founding in place of the ineffectual synagogues would be instrumental in that transformation. Since sexual immorality generally and homosexual activity in particular were such conspicuous and characteristic features of a world that was about to come under judgment and pass away, it was eschatologically necessary that such behaviour should be eliminated from the community.

Does this narrative-eschatological reading of the text in any way relativise the exclusion of the malakoi and arsenokoitai? I don’t know.

  • 1. G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1987), 243.
  • 2. G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (1987), 233.

Comments

Wondering how this might compare/contrast with uses of arsenokoitai and other similar words in 1 Tim. 1:10???

There the list seems to be of a much more sinister/violent nature.

John, I take it that arsenokoitēs in 1 Tim. 1:10 has the same meaning as in 1 Corinthians 6:9. The connection with Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is reinforced by the reference to the Jewish Law, which is laid down the “lawless and disobedient”. Homosexual behaviour is probably to be seen as a form of porneia. There may be a reference to the eschatological narrative in verse 11: “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted”. Paul’s proclamation is that his God will sooner or later be glorified among the nations of the ancient world. Paul later urges Timothy to “keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:14–15).

I’m wondering what are gender dysphoric people to do. I also think of physiologically hermaphroditic individuals. Should we continue to echo the Evangelical chant to “change your sexuality” by God’s spirit?

The simple answer is no.

If there’s a way to get around the homosexuality clobber texts in the Bible, I am all for it. I just haven’t seen an exegetically convincing way to do that.

In this case, does the historical contingency relativize the statements? I wish it seemed likely that it did, but that would also relativize idolatry, adultery, greed, and the other things Paul lists in 1 Cor. 6. I think it’s pretty clear this list comes from the pagan culture surrounding Paul that will be destroyed in history, but the judgement of that culture does not seem to automatically make those things ok, especially compared to a relatively longstanding trend of Yahweh condemning those things that appears to last from age to age.

On the flip side, the Beatitudes are also tied to historical contingency, but I don’t think anyone would argue that the destruction of Jerusalem means it’s ok to get to hating our enemies.

At the same time, the Church’s ethics are meant to be driven by the presence of Christ in the community by the Holy Spirit and not an appeal to case law.

Right now, I feel like the most promising line of inquiry is to determine if homosexuality is condemned across the board or just certain expressions of it (pederasty, sex outside of marriage, wanton sexual expressions) that would be equally condemnable in heterosexuality.

Agreed. Part of the modern, post-Christian narrative in the west is that homosexuality is now generally recognised as a fundamental orientation and not merely as a set of perverse behaviours, intentional departures from the natural or normal. In other words, whereas Judaism thought of humanity as having a single sexual identity from which some people unnaturally diverged, the modern world allows from a number of minority sexual identities that are different from the heterosexual norm but no less natural. Then we need to take into account the fact that within the homosexual subset, there is a spectrum of behaviours from unrestrained and highly destructive promiscuity to modest, faithful and sometimes even “Christian” same-sex monogamy. So what does it mean to model a good way of being human, in society, answerable to the Creator, under these different eschatological conditions?

Andrew, great post! It seems the chapter is about the moral standards for those who would inherit the kingdom and be raised with Christ, not just about homosexuality. The moral standard addresses much more than sexual sins, although sexual sins are certanly highlighted. But I think we do a misfavor to the larger conversation in the post modern world when we limit this to homosexuality because our world views homosexuality as a biological condition, so to say the Bible is against homosexuality implies those people are physiologically lesser: a kin to an argument about slavery. To include the moral standars such as greed or believers not suing one another in court- that it would be better just to be cheated- seems to make the chapter about a higher moral standard all of us must struggle to achieve.

No doubt homosexuality has an exaggerated significance for the church at the moment, but there may be a good reason for that. It may be, of course, that we’re only now, very belatedly, beginning to catch up with the problem: we’ll argue about this for a while and then move on. But I also think that the it’s indicative or symptomatic of the more serious and more fundamental crisis of the western church’s relation to secular society. Yes, we are having to rethink our understanding of what it means to be human—are we having to accept that biblical and modern anthropologies are incompatible, just as we have had to accept that biblical and modern cosmogonies are on the face of it incompatible. But it seems to me that the legalisation of same-sex marriage is forcing us to think much harder about the way in which we belong—or don’t belong—in the world. Which is a good thing, whatever conclusions we reach.