Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
These, startling, verses have caused pain for those of us who are lesbian, gay or bisexual. Modern Bibles have struggled with translating the words rendered, in our version today, as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” The Greek words here, arsenokoitai and malakos are difficult to translate; the King James version has “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” whilst the Good News version translates both words as as “homosexual perverts.”
Malakos – which the King James translates as “effeminate” means “morally soft.” A Roman man could be accused of this if he was deemed to take an excessive interest in clothes, a fine life, the company of women or possessions. Similarly a man might have been seen as malakos if he touched his head too often with his finger or wore a goatee beard! Taking the “wrong” sexual position with another man would also render a man as malakos. Romans weren’t bothered by men having sex with other men but were very concerned about the social, and physical roles taken.
Arsenekoitai is now thought to mean “temple prostitutes.” In pagan society worshippers could go to a temple, have sex with a shrine prostitute and see this as a form of worship.
Paul’s words reflect his concerns for purity in a very different social context to our own. Roman sexual mores were concerned with rôles rather than relationships and Paul seems not to understand the concept of two people of the same gender forming a life long loving relationship. Paul was appalled by the sexual excess and abandon – often linked to pagan worship – in the new Corinthian church; and later criticises those who use prostitutes.
Translating these attitudes into a modern idiom is difficult. Perhaps Paul would condemn those who use others simply for lust, who treat the other as a piece of meat as they coast through dating apps and one night stands. Perhaps Paul would recognise the validity and worth of committed costly love no matter where it is found.
Prayer Lord Jesus, you found love in strange places, let prostitutes follow you and find their worth; reclined with your beloved disciple at the Last Supper; and healed the Centurion’s treasured boy. Help us to celebrate love in all its diversity, to understand and critique our culture, and to be careful with our use of Scripture, that we may not condemn but celebrate your creation. Amen.
The Rev’d Andy Braunston ministers with four churches in and around Glasgow and co-ordinates the Daily Devotions project.