Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6.9-10)

The Guy-Girl Thing

Every blue moon, a poll comes out asking people of same-sex orientation, “What’s the most annoying question you get asked about being gay?” I don’t know why pollsters persist in harping on this, because the results never change. The runaway winner is always, “Who’s the guy and who’s the girl?” The best response, of course, should be, “We’re both women” or, “We’re both men”—or, better yet, “We’re two people.” But that doesn’t answer the real question, which has little to no interest in how traditional male and female roles play out in same-sex attraction, dating, and unions. The guy-girl thing is open code for curiosity about what happens in bed.

Beyond the question’s offensive breach of privacy and implication the inferiority of same-sex intimacy requires mimicking opposite-sex dynamics, it’s also exasperating for its assumption that all relationships, straight or gay, operate on gender-defined entitlements and inequities. (Perhaps the best response would be asking the inquirer to define "the guy's role" and "the girl's role.") Indeed, the guy-girl gay cliché should be trashed along with crude straight ones like “who wears the pants in the family,” “the man is the breadwinner,” and “a woman’s place is in the home.” Yet, while banishing these and similarly sexist syllogisms from common conversation is a good start, it's far from a conclusive remedy. And honestly, I’m not sure one exists. The guy-girl thing—like the race thing and class thing—is so profoundly imbedded in the collective psyche that eliminating male-dominant/female-subservient, active-passive language and stereotypes from the culture may change conscious behavior (a necessity) without making the slightest dent on primal mindset and instinct (a tragedy).

Stamped into Our Assumptions

No better proof exists of how wretchedly the “me-Tarzan-you-Jane” gender bias dogs our species than what we find in gay life. For, while we take great umbrage at the guy-girl question (and rightly so), we’ve also embraced and codified it to the point it’s become central to our individual identities. Go to a male-for-male dating site; before opening candidates’ profiles, you’ll find four bits of info beneath their photos: name, age, location, and preferred role—“top” (active), “bottom” (passive), or “versatile” (both). Gay men and women casually discuss one another’s sexual disposition as “butch” or “femme.” Many have no compunction about transposing gender pronouns as a “between-us” slur—more often than not, an allegedly friendly one!—calling him “her” and she “he.” That nothing annoys us more than being asked the guy-girl question while we’re comfortable adopting its premise as cultural shorthand boggles the mind.

Of course, we see similar paradoxes in other minorities that attempt to deflect disparaging terms and stereotypes by “owning them;” why that is, however, is a conversation for another time. The point to draw for our current discussion is this. The guy-girl thing, with all its nasty undercurrents, is so pervasively stamped into our assumptions about gender and sexuality it’s inescapable. It’s been with us since the dawn of time and colors how we perceive the world, the way it works, and one another. Thus, when we open Scripture to texts dealing with sexuality of any kind, we’re wise to read them through the guy-girl filter, to hear the cultural and religious understanding with which they were originally written and received. Then, as believers who’ve been spiritually and socially enlightened to the myths and injustices of gender inequality, we’re irresponsible not to confess many texts regularly abused to condemn homosexuality ultimately endorse and perpetuate oppression of all women as naturally subservient and passive, intrinsically less than men.

Slang and Coinage

“Softies” is the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, though not directly applying it women. Instead, he employs the term’s common usage in his day—as slang for male temple prostitutes who take the passive position in pagan same-gender sex rites. “Do not be deceived,” he writes. “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul’s phraseology, “men who have sex with men,” bears notice, as when we check the original Greek text, he uses two different words: arsenokoitai for the former and malakoi for the latter. Both terms are problematic for different reasons that lead to the same conclusion.

Arsenokoitai appears to be coined by Paul. No evidence of its usage prior to this writing (ca. 55 CE) has been found, nor is it seen in texts of any kind during or immediately after Paul’s lifetime. The word is only found in one other New Testament book, 1 Timothy (1.10)—which most scholars date as a second-century epistle written in Paul’s name and may account for the word’s usage, as well as the verse’s fairly close replication of the Corinthian text. Although it’s possible that arsenokoitai, like malakoi, is first-century, gay-related slang, its absence from literature at the time suggests not. Thus we have two methods for decoding Paul’s euphemism, and which we choose starkly alters how we interpret the text.

Method One: we extrapolate Paul’s meaning by assessing his intentions in light of the context—the preferred method for interpreting Scripture when the original text can be confidently translated. In this case, the preceding list of behaviors Paul typically attributes to pagan cultures (sexual immorality, idolatry, and adultery) coupled with the subsequent reference to pagan male prostitutes would invite us to assume arsenokoitai is Paul’s term for “homosexual.” This would lend credibility, without indubitably confirming, the passage might mean what some believe it does. Method Two: we break the word down, as we would any compound word (which is what arsenokoitai is) and look at its parts to derive a clearer definition. If Paul intentionally combines words to characterize the persons he’s describing, the term becomes very specific. Paul links arsen (“male,” singular/neuter), o (masculine definitive article, like “el” in Spanish), and koitai (“beds, or places where coitus occurs,” feminine/plural). Literally translated, it would mean “the man in women’s beds”—a virulently sexist insult, since ancient women are summoned from their beds to the man’s bed to serve his sexual needs. To visit a lady’s bedchamber and request her favors would be the height of masculine indignity.

Regardless which method we use, it’s obvious breakdown of gender roles is what convinces Paul the acts he decries—whatever they are, as we can't be certain due to his coinage—are unnatural. Confidence this is a guy-girl thing and not to be misconstrued as condemnation of guy-guy and girl-girl things rests in the second “men,” whom Paul portrays with the Greek adjective for “soft” or “fancy” (malakoi). Matthew and Luke use the singular form to describe “fine” clothing, and, in Corinth, it’s a familiar appellation for male sex workers in pagan temples. These men, respected as professionals serving a religious function, only make themselves available for same-gender rituals. They aren’t “rent boys” men summon to fulfill their homoerotic desires. Sex with malakoi happens in their temple chambers, in their beds, according to ritually prescribed terms. While they assume the sexually passive role—which Paul clearly loathes, as it’s the “woman’s job”—that arsenokoitai must go to them and follow their protocol is equally reprehensible.

Diminishing Half of Humanity

The inference is undeniable. Paul reviles the practice because, in service to idols, men debase other men and consent to debasement as women. To put it bluntly, in Paul’s mind and ancient Jewish culture, men are naturally active tops, women are naturally passive bottoms, and anything that varies from his paradigm—whether in same-sex or opposite-sex settings—is unnatural. That places those who accept the text as bona fide condemnation of homosexuality in the dubious position of legitimizing its obsolete view of women as “softies,” inferior creatures of convenience bound to please men on demand with no right of initiative on their own behalf. And sadly, many who embrace 1 Corinthians 6.9’s anti-gay reading find nothing repugnant about its inherently sexist stance. But we who believe Jesus’s teaching and example support gender equality cannot submit to Paul’s rationale. It’s an anachronism, the artifact of a primitive, patriarchal culture, and therefore untrustworthy as doctrine. This would be so even if the reading were not crippled by conjecture, as subjugation of women rests at its core. No scripture—whatever its purported purpose—diminishing half of humanity as naturally inferior can be countenanced. Female and male, we are all created in God’s image and likeness. To legitimize a text that dishonors women is tantamount to doubting God and God’s Word. Constructing doctrine on it—one that promotes condemnation, inequality, and exclusion, no less—teeters (at the very least) on blasphemy.

So we say of those comfortable in taking such risks with 1 Corinthians 6.9 what we’ve said of others who perform similar injustices with previously discussed clobber texts: they need our compassion and prayers.

First Corinthians 6.9, like many of the clobber texts, loses its doctrinal validity not merely for its purported anti-gay views, but because it bases its stance on the assumption women are naturally inferior to men.

Postscript: The Translation Saga

For centuries, translation issues with 1 Corinthians 6.9 have presented an ongoing challenge for scholars and theologians. On balance, the current belief it has something to do with same-gender sex is relatively recent, having first surfaced in the King James Version (1611). Prior to that, the fifth-century Latin Vulgate—on which the KJV heavily relies—translated arsenokoitai as adulteri ("adulterers"; feminine, plural), which echoes the male plural earlier in the verse, possibly to indicate the usage of “women’s beds.” Regarding malakoi, the Vulgate uses mollibus (“luxurious” or “effeminate”) for Matthew and Luke’s description of “fine clothing.” But it uses idolis servientes (“idol slaves”) in Corinthians—a decidedly gender-neutral translation. Given the Vulgate’s closer proximity to Paul’s time, we’re tempted to suppose it’s more accurate; yet four centuries in real time aren’t as close as they look on a 2,000-year timeline. So that’s also a shaky proposition.

The KJV’s handling of malakoi radically departs from the Vulgate, which raises questions about its agenda. It simplifies Matthew and Luke’s usage to “soft," yet pointedly replaces the Vulgate’s “idol slaves” with “effeminate.” Its handling of arsenokoitai is even more curious. It reads, “abusers of themselves with mankind,” a strangely self-contained phrase that disconnects the “men with men” linkage to suggest Paul’s talking about two different groups, not two types of men engaged in mutual acts. (This confusion apparently is somehow tied to 16th and 17th-century mores, as Martin Luther interprets arsenokoitai to mean “men who masturbate”!) Some historians have tried to connect the KJV’s overt amplification of gay-slanted texts to the theory King James I was homosexual. If this is so, the KJV distorts the original texts to confirm its patron’s self-loathing and fear—a strange, but not unheard-of, response for personally troubled church leaders.

Modern translations either tend to back off, choosing more generic terminology like “men who have sex with men” and “homosexual offenders” or buckle to the KJV with “sodomites”—none of which gets any closer to solving the riddle of Paul’s intended meaning, and hence offers theologians (or us) not the least bit of help in grasping his original point.


grant said...

Thanks for the indepth explanation. I think I followed it. Unhappily, I'm sure many/most folks won't care to dig in that deeply and will fall back to: "But the bible clearly says ... etc. etc. etc."

I hope you understand my humor when I say that sometimes I think the Catholic church was right when they resisted translating the bible from latin allowing everyone to read their own copy instead of needing a priest to translate. One day all this will become clearer.

Thanks again.

Tim said...

Grant, I realize we dove headlong into the weeds on this one. And I thought about taking a less nettlesome route--just saying something like, "The reason why Paul gets so worked up here is because he thinks men should be men, women women, and he finds gay sex problematic because he thinks that it's men acting like women."

The problem with that, of course, is that something like that sounds heavily opinionated without much factual basis. Frankly, no one who abuses 1 Corinthians 6.9 to condemn LGBT folks will care about what the post breaks down. "The Bible says so and I don't care what you say" is the mantra.

But the series isn't really about them. It's about those of us who believe in inclusion, etc., knowing as much about these texts as possible so we can silently walk away from abusers, and leave them to their own ideas. To know that Paul literally makes up a word and then uses an existing word that disparages women to describe his distaste for same-gender sex is enough to question the validity of the text. Anyone who agrees with him here has to overcome a few hurdles in terms of how his POV reduces women. Naturally, they may not realize all of this is in the text. That goes back to Jesus's saying, "You err by not knowing the Scriptures."

They may indeed, but we shouldn't. So that's why I went into all of this--so we'll know what they think they're talking about and what they're actually talking about are two very different--decisively different--things.

Thanks for your patience with me here, Grant. And your observation about letting a priest translate is funny and ironic. Things were so much simpler back then!