To hear some people in Christian circles discuss the issue of homosexuality, one would think that Scripture is not terribly clear on the issue and that there is great latitude around whether it should be viewed as sinful. The United Methodist Bishop of the North Georgia Conference, Sue Haupert-Johnson, has called an openly lesbian bishop “one of the finest bishops I have ever seen” and has said “I long for the day when every child of God is truly welcome in the church. When we leave it up to God to sort out, whatever God’s categorization of sin is.” This “just leave it up to God” to sort categories of sin out position suggests that the issue of homosexuality is not all that clear, so we should not worry about it too much. Yet even more strongly, there are Christians who advocate for open acceptance of homosexual practice, such as Matthew Vines, who wrote in his book God and the Gay Christian, “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” Surely the presence of Christians who are indifferent, undecided, or who argue for homosexuality indicates that this is an unclear topic, right?
Despite attempts to muddy the waters, such as claims that only the Old Testament condemns homosexuality or the New Testament is only critical of pederasty or the views described above, Scripture is abundantly clear and consistent in its view of homosexual practice as a sinful sexual activity. To demonstrate this, I want to take a quick linguistic view at the connection between the Old Testament and the New Testament to show that the New Testament’s continuing condemnation of homosexual practice is rooted in the sexual ethics prescribed in the Old Testament, then consider why this matters.
The Old Testament is quite plain about its condemnation of homosexual practice. We find these two passages in the book of Leviticus:
You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination (18:22).
If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them (20:13).
These are quite straightforward, and they are relevant for how the New Testament defines homosexual practice. To see the connection, we must look at the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was widely used by early Christians and often quoted in the New Testament, and see how it translated these two passages:
καὶ μετά ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικείαν, βέλυγμα γάρ ἐστι (18:22).
καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετά ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι· θανάτῳ θανατούσθωσαν, ἔνοχοί εἰσιν (20:13).
In both passages, you can see the bold words arsenos and koitén. The Greek word arsenos (ἄρσην arsen in the nominative form) quite simply means “man, male,” whereas koitén (κοίτη koité in the nominative form) means “bed” and was also used as a euphemism for sexual relations. Thus, the LXX rendering of Leviticus 18:22 would literally be along the lines of “and with man he must not sleep as bedding a woman.” In the LXX, these two words only appear in close proximity to each other in these two passages.
Why the attention given to these two words? Because they form the basis of the word often translated as “homosexuals” or “men who practice homosexuality.” In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, we find the following:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
And in Greek:
ἢ οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ἄδικοι θεοῦ βασιλείαν οὐκληρονομήσουσιν; μὴ πλανᾶσθε: οὔτε πόρνοι οὔτε εἰδωλολάτραι οὔτε μοιχοὶ οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται οὔτε κλέπται οὔτεπλεονέκται, οὐ μέθυσοι, οὐ λοίδοροι, οὐχ ἅρπαγες βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομήσουσιν.
Note the second bold word (I’ll get to the first one in a moment); look familiar? It is a compound noun combining arsen and koité, used in the plural form: arsenokoitai. In a sense, we could view the definition of this word as “man-bedders.” In Paul’s use of this compound noun, its definition must be understood in light of its correspondence to the use of arsen and koité back in the LXX rendering of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13; Paul has in mind men who have sexual relations with men as they would with women. In other words, the active homosexual participants.
Now what of the first word, malakoi? The word malakos (singular nominative form) in a very straightforward sense means “soft,” and in past Bible translations, this word has been translated as “effeminate.” In the sense here, it is understood as referring to those who are the male passive partners in the homosexual relationship. As it is defined in BDAG, “pert. to being passive in a same-sex relationship, effeminate esp. of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship.” Thus the pairing of malakoi and arsenokoitai includes both passive and active male participants in homosexual activity; these two terms are simply subsumed into the ESV translation of “men who practice homosexuality.”
Paul again uses the term arsenokoitai in 1 Timothy 1:9-10, when he says, “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.” In both instances where Paul uses arsenokoitai, they are included in vice lists, indicating that to be a “man-bedder” is understood to be a sinful act.
Exchanging Natural Relations
Looking only at “man-bedders” might lead to the conclusion that it is only male homosexual practice that is regarded as sinful, but not so. Paul explicitly references both male and female homosexual activity in Romans 1:26-27 as part of his illustration for the evidence of people who have been given over to their sin. I provide a longer citation of Romans 1:21-27 for context:
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.
As Paul references both male and female homosexual activity, they are examples of what happens when people reject God and turn only to what is in creation. As they turn away, God hands them over to their sinful passions; male and female homosexual activity is thus an example of those who have so rebelled against God that he has handed them over to themselves to dishonor themselves.
What are these “natural relations” that both the men and women exchanged? Anatomically speaking, it is quite obvious what is the “natural” function of sexual relations; males and females are naturally designed to engage in sexual activity with one another. Not so with males with males and females with females; this is not their natural function. Thus here, Paul speaks of the exchange of the natural function as a “dishonorable passion” as a stark example of gross rebellion against God’s created order and against the natural sexual function that he has established.
Such Were Some of You: Why it Matters
So why does it matter if we recognize the Bible’s clear condemnation of homosexual practice and its categorization of it as a sinful act? Because the call of the gospel is “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). How can we call people to repentance if they have no idea what the gospel calls them to repent of? This is significant because Scripture makes clear that unrepentant sinners, those who refuse to submit to the authority of Christ, have no place the kingdom of God:
1 Corinthians 6:9-10: Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
Galatians 5:10-21: Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
We do not call people into the kingdom of God and tell them to be proud of who they are as swindlers, as drunkards, as idolaters, or as those with violent tempers. We call them to repent of their sins and to fight against them, to seek to grow in holiness. To be confused on the Scriptural condemnation of homosexual practice and to affirm people who proudly engage in homosexual activity is no different than affirming those who proudly commit adultery and find their identity in such practice (and perhaps the church in general needs to be stronger on this latter point). To tell people that they may proudly continue as sinners without repentance is to ignore the call of the gospel and to actually leave them as the unrighteous who will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But there is good news for the one who has engaged in homosexual activity: homosexuality is not ontological, that is, it is not who you are, it is what you do. To be a practicing homosexual does not mean you are a homosexual who can never inherit the kingdom of God; the message Paul gives to the Corinthians is more hopeful than that. Let me finish the citation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and add verse 11:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 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.
Who were the Corinthian believers? They were formerly those who were sexually immoral, idolaters, adulters, practicers of homosexuality, thieves, greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers, but they are these things no more. Their sinful activities were not part of who they were ontologically, but who they were in praxis. Since the Corinthian believers turned to Christ, they had been sanctified and justified and had put away their old identities in their sinful activities. Paul’s exhortation is to remember that unrepentant sinners have no place in the kingdom of God, but also to remind them that the kingdom of God is filled with repentant sinners.
This final point of “such were some of you” should inform how we speak of “homosexual Christians.” The category of homosexual is part of the “such were some of you” category, not “such are some of you.” Homosexual practice is to be put away, to be repented of, to be fought against, not to be celebrated in the church, as an addition to one’s identity in Christ. To continue to proudly engage in homosexual activity while claiming to be a Christian is to fundamentally remain in rebellion against the Lordship of Christ.
Now in calling homosexual people to repentance, there is a line that Jackie Hill Perry said in her book Gay Girl, Good God that I think is helpful: “God was not calling me to be straight; he was calling me to himself.” The call to repentance is not the call to suddenly feel no more homosexual attraction; the call to repentance is the call to turn from your sinful practice and submit to Jesus Christ. You may very well struggle with the presence of your disordered desire for the rest of your life; many believers must fight against their desires to engage in various sinful practices. The point is that you fight. Remember, homosexual practice is not part of who you are, it is part of what you do. While we may struggle with our fleshly desires, through Christ we may struggle in the fight against them, looking to Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who was tempted in all ways as we are, and yet without sin.
Christian, whether or not homosexual practice constitutes sinful activity is not an ambiguous question. It is a disordered and sinful passion, the practice of which is plainly condemned in both the Old and the New Testaments. Paul’s use of arsenokoitai plainly links his understanding of homosexual practice with the holiness code of Leviticus, while his description of it as an “exchange of the natural function” and a “dishonorable passion” marks it as a sign of rebellion. We must not be confused on the definition of what is sin, for when we become confused on what is sin, we become confused on the very notion of repentance, and by extension, what the call of the gospel is.