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Monday, October 31, 2016

A Couple of Odd Words: My Christian Defense of LGB Relationships Part 1

I am publishing this series here at Heaven and Earth Questions for two reasons. First out of practical convenience: I am so frequently asked to give an account of my interpretation of the Bible on the topic of homosexuality that I realized it would be really useful to have my basic exegetical approach laid out in one place. Most of this series is adapted with only minor updates and alteration from a blog-debate I began several years ago with Luke Geraty over at Think Theology. Because that conversation never concluded, my second reason for publishing here is simply to finish my argument in a place where those who are interested can find the whole thing. 

For my series in defense of the identities of transgender folk click HERE


I would like to start with a few caveats. First, I am neither a Biblical scholar, nor a theologian. I do not have any formal education in the fields of human sexuality or psychology either. I hold an undergraduate degree in Bible together with one in the humanities and a masters in the liberal arts; I am not trying to establish an underdog status; rather I want to be clear that while I have just enough Biblical training to endanger myself, I come at these issues as a generalist and not as a specialist in any one of the many fields which bear on this issue. My approach is certain to have its weaknesses as well as its strengths, but I am happy with it. Second I will be restricting myself to commentary on gay sex per se. I will attempt throughout to be both purposeful and accurate with my terminology using "LGBTQ+" or "the Queer community" when speaking broadly and of cultural groupings, "LGB" when discussing matters relating directly to gay sex (1), and "lesbian" and/or "gay" as appropriate when speaking specifically. I have separately published my understanding of what the Bible does and doesn't have to say about Transgender folks as Transgender in a series which begins HERE and so will generally not be discussing issues of gender identity in this series as I am convinced that the two subjects are largely discreet.

Next, I want to lay out what I see as the shifting burden of proof in this "conversation." I accept it at the outset. Certainly the burden of proof lies with the party challenging the historical and traditional view in any situation, not the least here where the Church has operated for at least 2000 years on the (mostly unexamined) assumption that the Bible proscribes any and all gay sex. But I will only accept the burden to a point. That point, I want to suggest, is reasonable doubt as to the best interpretation of scripture in regards to gay sex. I will attempt to show that it is entirely reasonable to doubt that the Bible conclusively and unambiguously condemns all expressions of lesbian and gay sexuality. If I succeed in establishing that doubt, then I suggest that Jesus’ “Love your neighbor” principle, together with the tragic history of Christian persecution of LGBTQ+ people, not to mention their contemporary frequent mistreatment at the hands of the church and Western culture, shifts the burden of proof to those who believe that a Christian can justify withholding support from the Queer community.

I hope that none reading this are unfamiliar with Jesus statement that “all the law and the prophets” - by which I take Him to mean “the fundamental point of God’s moral and religious commands” - are summed up in the command to love [agape] the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love [agape] our neighbor. I believe most Christians would agree with me in saying that each LGBTQ+ person we meet is our neighbor, and doubly so in light of the Church’s frankly shameful history of persecution, flogging, mutilation, and execution of LGBTQ+ individuals (2). I am not saying that this history should cause us to ignore truth; and I want to believe that it is possible to be a good, Christ-like neighbor to LBGTQ+ people while simultaneously believing with integrity that the Bible proscribes gay sex (3); but we would do well to keep our history in mind as the LGBT community certainly hasn’t forgotten, and Uganda looms large in their collective imagination (4).

Two Tricky Words

There are basically two passages in the NT where, depending on your English translation, the word “homosexual” will actually show up: 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 (5). In these passages, the term is a translation of the Greek words asenekoitai and malakoi. While malakoi is a fairly common word in classical Greece, its application to a group of people in a potentially sexual context is extremely uncommon, while arsenekoitai is thought by some of the most traditional scholars to have been coined by Paul himself (6). Most of the N.T. scholarship with which I am familiar equates these terms somewhat more specifically to “active partner in gay sex” and “passive partner in gay sex” or to “homosexual man” and “effeminate” respectively. I believe that there are three distinct problems with the way these two terms have been translated and are used.

The first problem is the infrequency of these terms’ usage. It strikes me that if we are going to restrict the full church participation of a person on the basis of our interpretation of key vocabulary, that vocabulary ought to be thoroughly vetted in terms of its meaning. In the case of arsenekoitai we are looking at a term which Paul seems to have coined (7) while malakoi is used in an almost unique way - it is generally translated as “soft”, “delicate”, or sometimes “morally pliable” in most other literature (8).

The second problem with these terms is the basic fact that Paul bothered to coin them. We generally only coin terms when there are no existing words available to express an idea. This is problematic for the traditional interpretation of arsenekoitai and malakoi because Greek already had words which were commonly used to refer to the active and passive partners in a gay relationship. In classical Greek, the words Erastes and Eromenos were used to refer to the active and passive male partners respectively. We can only speculate as to why Paul would have chosen to coin and appropriate new words when he already had terms available but it is clear that he must have been rejecting the existing words for some reason and I think it is fair to conclude that Paul wanted to avoid something intrinsic to either the connotation or denotation of the existing words. After all, a well educated writer does not make up entirely new terminology when there are existing words which carry the necessary meaning, he only does so when there are no exitisting words which properly express his idea. This leads me to believe that Paul had a specific reason to reject Erastes and Eromenos as bad expressions of the sort of people he was describing in 1Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1.

I will suggest that he may have chosen to do so because Erastes and Eromenos may have included the possibility of a loving, mutually beneficial relationship (9). In contrast to the language and culture of classical Greece, the culture of Rome and classical Latin (in which Paul was operating) did not have terms or concepts which readily admitted of loving-mutually encouraging relationships, at least partly because, by the 1st century AD, the social standard for homosexual relationship had become far less egalitarian. Instead, the relevant Latin terms (and parallel concepts) connoted either a self-serving seducer and conqueror intent on using his partner for pleasure(10) or a sexually ambitious submissive willing to demean himself by exchanging sex for influence and opportunity - alternately, the reference could be to rape of male slaves.

I think it likely that Paul chose to coin and appropriate new terms specifically in order to make reference to the Latin/Roman form of the relationship rather than the Greek form. If this is the case, then Paul’s word choice would mean that he is specifically not referring to loving, mutually supportive relationships but to selfish, mutually degrading ones (11).

Finally, there is the cognitive dissonance which the traditional interpretation of these terms ought to create between the contextual implications of the terms and our lived experience of LGB persons. In 1 Corinthians 6:8-10, arsenekoitai and malakoi appear on a list of people who are not going to inherit the kingdom of God; in 1 Timothy 1:6-10, arsenekoitai appear on a list of the unrighteous who have something to learn from the law. But I, at least, know LGB Christians who are actively inheriting the kingdom of God. If I do not want to conclude the Bible is wrong about them, the most obvious alternative would be that it is not referring to them in these lists but to the perverse relationships of the classical Roman world.
So my argument here boils down to the following three points:
  1. Arsenekoitai and malakoi are too rarely used to base a practice of exclusion on them.
  2. Because they were specifically coined and appropriated (respectively), arsenekoitai and malakoi are likely to indicate something other than the loving, mutually supportive relationships which could have been indicated if Paul had used the common terms.
  3. The traditional interpretation of arsenekoitai and malakoi  is problematic because it would force us to conclude that LGB people who claim Jesus as their savior will not inherit the kingdom of God so long as they continue to identify and act as LGB persons and that contradicts our lived experience of LGB Christians.

My next post will finish up the direct N.T. passages with a look at Romans 1 and a further investigation into the culture of the Roman world in relation to homosexuality. I realize this has been a bit brief (after all there are whole books on these subjects) and I am hoping we can work through the nuances and background in comments.

Click HERE For Part 2 in this Series: Romans 1

(1) I do not mean to be either crude or flippant in my use of this phrase. It simply seems clearer than “homosexual activity”, which strikes me as vague (when a gay man buys a shirt he is acting as a homosexual individual but few Christians would have any problem with it),  while “same-sex sex” just sounds odd.
(2) See Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization for an enlightening if troubling history.
(3) I still want to believe that this is true, but my experience of the US Church over the last several years has made it increasingly difficult. The World Vision fiasco, Julie Rodgers account of her experience with Wheaton College, and the recent revelations about InterVarsity Christian Fellowship seem to argue against the tenability of a really loving yet not fully inclusive Christian community.
(4) As I understand it, I would only be eligible for 7 years in a Ugandan prison for my support of the queer community while my LGB friends would be sentenced for life if “caught in the act”.
(5) Malakoi only shows up in the 1 Corinthians passage.
(6) You can find a good rundown on uses of the word HERE but if you are skeptical feel free to check other sources.
(7) Paul may have coined arsenekoitai based on a translation of Leviticus 18:19-23 and 20:13 in the Septuagint and I propose to address that point when I deal with OT texts.
(8) This is the usage by Homer, Herodotus, Plato, and Artistotle; also the dominant way it is used in the Bible - Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25
(9) While these terms could refer to the two parties in a pederastic relationship, they were also used to describe more egalitarian gay relationships. For instance, these terms are used in Plato’s Symposium in reference to the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles wherein Achilles represents the Eromenon.
(10) All of the relevant terms, both Greek and Latin, are male specific. Both cultures were aware of lesbianism but the terms and cultural associations were wildly different because, well….the patriarchy.
(11) Notice that the terms appear on a lists of types of people acting in a specifically unloving way: thieves, murderers, parricides and matricides, greedy, and adulterers. If arsenekoitai and malakoi are used as Greek translations of the Latin concepts over and against the native Greek concepts, they become a far better thematic fit in the context of the relevant passages.

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