(An overview of this series on the biblical teachings that address same-gender sexual activity is found here.)
Christians acknowledge the reality and presence of sin in our lives and world. But we also point to the power of God to save us, forgive us, and conform us to the image of Christ.
These two passages in Paul’s letters (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 and 1 Timothy 1:8-17) use terms that are typically translated to describe same-gender sexual activity. In both cases, the words show up on lists of those who practice behavior that is sinful and in conflict with godliness.
Neither passage ends with a negative tone though. Both point ahead to the transforming effects of the gospel message – the good news that Christ died for sinners and by his Spirit cleanses us and helps us experience his work in our lives.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (ESV): Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor the idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality (malakoi and arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
1 Timothy 1:8-10 (ESV): Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality (arsenokoitai), enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.
Lexical information (what the words mean)
The words malakoi and arsenokoitai (in 1 Corinthians 6:9) are often paired together to designate both the so-called passive and active participants in same-sex activities (BDAG, 613).
Μαλακός – though this word has a broader meaning of “soft,” BDAG rightly defines the word in this context as “pertaining to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate,” BDAG, 613.
ἀρσενοκοίτης = “a male who engages in a sexual activity with a person of his own sex, pederast,” BDAG, 135. This word also makes an appearance in 1 Timothy 1:10.
Note that the first half of this word (ἄρσην) refers to a male, while the second half is for sexual relations (see Romans 13:13 for Paul’s use of κοίτη to refer to illicit sexual activity). Though a compound word cannot always be understood as the sum of its parts, in this case, with a previously unseen combination (before Paul), the word would be understood from the obvious pairing of meanings from its component parts.
To add to this likelihood, some have posited that the proximity of ἄρσην and κοίτη in Leviticus 20:13 (and Leviticus 18:22), the two passages in the Mosaic Law that speak against same-sex activity, led to the origin of the compound word. The one word became a convenient way to explain this particular vice.
The old Latin and Syriac translations (from the Greek) are the oldest known translations (they are from the second century) of the New Testament. Coptic is not far behind (third century). They provide early evidence for how this term was understood in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. The early Latin, Syriac, and Coptic translations of the New Testament attest to the meaning of sex between males for ἀρσενοκοίτης (Gagnon, 322).
Modern translations – 1 Corinthians 6:9 (malakoi and arsenokoitai)
ESV, NIV, HCSB, CEB – They use one all-encompassing phrase for both participants (malakoi and arsenokoitai). For instance – “men who practice homosexuality” (ESV).
NASB – “effeminate” and “homosexuals,” with footnote “effeminate by perversion”
NET – “passive homosexual partners” and “practicing homosexuals”
NKJV – “homosexuals” and “sodomites”
NLT – “male prostitutes” and those who “practice homosexuality”
NRSV – “male prostitutes” and “sodomites”
The Message does not capture the precise meaning of the words with its overly-free translation (vague mentions of sex and its abuses).
Modern translations – 1 Timothy 1:10 (arsenokoitai )
ASV – “abusers of themselves with men”
CEB – “people who have intercourse with the same sex”
ESV – “men who practice homosexuality”
HCSB, NASB – “homosexuals”
NET – “practicing homosexuals”
NIV – “those practicing homosexuality”
NLT – “those who practice homosexuality”
NRSV – “sodomites”
Contextual information – 1 Corinthians 6
The terms describing sinful behavior are all grouped under the category of person known as “the unrighteous.” These unrighteous are said to have no inheritance in the kingdom of God.
There are a variety of serious sins mentioned in the list, including four that relate to sexual behavior. The list begins with a general term for sexually immoral people (πόρνοι), which is a cognate term for porneia: “This Greek word and its cognates as used by Paul denote any kind of illegitimate – extramarital and unnatural – sexual intercourse or relationship” (Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, 871). The list that follows adds adulterers and the two terms for men involved in same-sex activity.
What is the nature of this stern warning? In light of 1 Corinthians 5:5, which prescribes church discipline for sexual sin as a way of helping the offender avoid eternal punishment, the warning in 1 Cor 6:10 is probably intended to point to the possibility of eternal judgment for those whose actions are completely in opposition to God’s kingdom values. This passage is meant to show the serious nature of the sins listed.
That leads us to 1 Corinthians 6:11 (“And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” NIV). The tone and logic of the passage suggests Paul’s dual purpose to reassure the Corinthian believers of their salvation and identity in Christ while still establishing the expectation that they will leave any of these old sinful practices behind in their growth in Christ. The implication is that those who persist in blatantly sinful behaviors have not experienced the cleansing work of Christ in their lives and are thus outside God’s kingdom. But the good news is that those who have been washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ will experience God’s work and exhibit fruit in keeping with their transformation.
Contextual information – 1 Timothy 1
1 Timothy 1:10 lists ἀρσενοκοίταις with other types of sinners that need God’s law in its proper use. The proper use of the law is to expose sin, not to reform sinners. The introductory condemnation is “for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.”
Paul shows that God’s (Old Testament) Law is beneficial for sinners, to reveal their sin (in preparation for repentance and reception of the gospel – see 1 Timothy 1:11-16). The Law is not for “the just,” because the Spirit is the one who now brings believers from their past and their old selves, which were characterized by these (and other) vices. The Spirit empowers the believer to put on the new self and bear fruit for God, in ways that are in stark contrast to the old ways of life “for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane.”
The specific offenders mentioned are lawless in areas that correspond to laws found in the OT (including disobedience to parents, murder, sexual immorality and same-sex activity among males, bearing false witness, and possibly, stealing/kidnapping). See Gagnon, 334-335.
Thus, in Paul’s descriptions of two kinds of people (the lawless/ungodly and the righteous), people who practice same-sex sexual relations are counted among the lawless/ungodly, who nonetheless have opportunities for new life through the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Timothy 1:14-16). In verse 15 Paul summarizes the gospel with the words, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Paul believes in a holy and gracious God who both opposes sin and saves sinners.