Holy Love: Passages #3

​1 Corinthians 16:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10

Paul’s missionary journeys had taken him to Corinth and Cyprus before he made it to Rome.  So, I decided to treat these two passages before Romans 1.  What he experienced with respect to sexuality came through his firsthand observation in Asia Minor.  In fact, what he wrote in Romans 1 was based on second-hand information, only later confirmed when he ended up in Rome.

As with the Levitical passages, these two texts are directly related to their cultural cultural/historical context. [1]  And as with the Levitical passages, we must begin with that context but use it to glean abiding messages that we can apply today.  In ‘Holy Love’ I write mostly about the abiding message and its application.  In this post, I will say more about the original context.

Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is linked to the misogynistic culture of the Greeks.  At the extreme of unbridled hedonism, the sexual ethic was a male “anything goes” sexuality.  But even where the virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty were factored in, Greek culture gave wide-ranging license to men’s sexual behaviors.  The fact that some male sexuality was more civil and discreet (just as some of it is today) did not mean it was moral.  

By pointing specifically at two aberrant male sexual behaviors, Paul was calling out misogyny in general and  expressions of it in particular.  Although in its early stages, here are two texts that show a new day was dawning with regard to gender equality.  Jesus’ regard for women was the pivot, and the first Christians continued to open the door to equality.  We see this even more clearly in other of Paul’s writing– Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:21, 1 Tim 3:11, and especially his naming of Junia as an apostle in Romans 16:7.  This dawning of egalitarianism reset the context in which human sexuality came to be viewed in Christianity.  We catch a glimpse of it here through the two male sexual sins that Paul denounces.

In the two texts we are looking at today, Paul addresses both of the expressions. Malakoi is the more general practice.  Arsenokoitai is a more specific practice.  Both words are difficult to interpret because they are not used frequently in the Bible.  In fact, arsenokoitai only appears in the 1 Timothy text.  And even outside Scripture it is a strange word. [2]. In ‘Holy Love’ I focus on these two words because it is through them that we get the abiding message which we can apply today.  I will say a bit more about them in this post, and then turn to an unfortunate turn of events with respect to the words.

Malakoi—this is the word which more generally describes mysoginistic sexuality that characterized Greek culture.  The word literally means “soft,” and it was a way of saying a man was effeminate. But with respect to sexual morality, the “softness” applied  to hedonistic practices that were unbridled, sensual, and egoic.  Today, we would describe it as sexual addiction.  In Greek culture, malakoi frequently expressed that addiction by becoming prostitutes.  But the word means more than that, it means men whose sexuality was out of control.  It describes males whose sexuality lacks restraint.

Arsenokoitai—this word included the ideas contained in malakoi, but in a more sinister way.  Arsenokoitai were males who exploited others for their own gratification, treating their partners like objects, not people.  These males went beyond consensual sex to forced behaviors (e.g. rape), and the word is used outside the Bible to describe men involved in the sex industry (prostitution) and related sex-trafficking. Ardenokoitai are sex abusers.

In looking at these two words, it is important to know that neither of them describe a male’s sexual orientation, but rather his behavior.  The fact is, it is not possible to say these words refer to homosexuals. 

But that’s how both words are viewed.  The two words are generally thought to refer to homosexuals.  How did this happen?

The answer lies in The Revised Standard Version that came out in 1946. It was the first translation to use the word ‘homosexual’ in these two passages.  It was an inaccurate translation so far as the Greek words are concerned (as we have seen above), and it was more nearly a linguistic capitulation to an emerging cultural perception—namely that homosexuality is itself sinful.  With the publication of the RSV, conservative Christians could make their case from the Bible.  Other subsequent translations followed the RSV’s lead.  So that today, there is a cut-and-dried “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it” viewpoint—a viewpoint made and held onto simply because the word ‘homosexual’ was put into the biblical text. [3]

So, where does all this leave us?  What is the abiding message?  Most importantly we learn that the two passages are not about homosexuality as we think of it today.  They are not about sexual orientation.  Today, we would call it “males behaving badly”—in promiscuous and abusive ways that violate the Covenant requirement that sexual behavior honor sacredness, fidelity, permanency, and monogamy.  Neither malakoi males nor arsenokoitsi males do that.


(1) What did you learn today that you have not known before?

(2) How do your learnings influence your thinking?

[1] Since writing ‘Holy Love,’ I have found Dale Martin’s book, ‘The Corinthian Body’ (Yale University Press, 1999) and also Marilyn Skinner’s ‘Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture, 2nd Edition (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).  Both look at the cultural context for Paul’s words in great detail.  

[2] Dale Martin has written one of the most complete studies of these two words, in a chapter entitled, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences” in the book edited by Robert Brawley, ‘Biblical Ethics and Homosexuality: Listening to Scripture’ (WJK. 1996).

[3] Kathy Baldock and Ed Oxford have been at work to show how the 1946 RSV charted an inaccurate course, one that a senior scholar on the translation team later acknowledged.  Kathy and Ed have gone through the complete archives of the RSV translation project, and in January 2020, their book ‘Forging A Sacred Weapon: How the Bible became Anti-Gay.’  In the meantime you can read some interim articles on the Canyonwalker Connections website.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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