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Paul’s Condemnation of Porneia: Sexual Immorality in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10

Monday, 6 August 2012  | Kevin Giles


I have been thinking and writing about Christianity and homosexuality for forty years and I still have many questions unanswered. I keep coming back to this matter only because, as a Christian pastor and theologian I keep getting asked to give my opinion. The most difficult issue for me is determining to what exactly I am actually being asked to say “yes” or “no” or “may be.” In the literature we find people arguing that one is born homosexual or that it is a free choice; homosexuals can change or they cannot change; the norm for homosexuals is numerous sexual relationships or long term relationships; the state should be completely non-discriminatory about homosexuality or the state should not endorse homosexuality in any way; the Bible condemns homosexuality or the Bible does not condemn homosexuality etc. In seeking a place to stand in this polarised debate one needs to carefully study the scientific work on this phenomenon,[1] explore with an open mind what exactly the Bible says on homosexuality,[2] clearly differentiate between the state and the church, and most of all cultivate a pastoral heart. For thousands of people, some within our churches, this is not a theoretical question but a profoundly personal one. 

In this essay I specifically explore what Paul says on homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in reply to Alan Cadwallader’s exegesis of this text in Five Uneasy Pieces.[3] With Dr Cadwallader I agree that the various contexts in which these words stand must be considered and understood. I agree that Paul’s words must firstly be interpreted against the backdrop of their original historical, social and literary context. We are seeking the historical meaning of the text; what Paul meant by what he says and what his readers would have understood him to be saying. A number of things help us do this. These include ascertaining the meaning of the Greek words Paul uses, what Paul says elsewhere on the same matter in question, what were the relevant Christian, Jewish and Greco-Roman beliefs at the time and what was happening in the church Paul addresses. Then second in understanding anything written, the immediate literary context must be considered. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 must be interpreted in the light of the whole of this epistle, particularly chapters 5 and 6 and the addendum following, chapter 7 which constitute a distinct section. To these two contexts that Dr Cadwallader mentions I add a third absolutely essential one in considering the issue, the overall biblical understanding of why God has made us men and women and ordained sexual intercourse.

Dr Cadwallader also quite correctly notes the ‘need to recognise the difference between our time and the time in which the various books of the Bible were written.”[4]  Critical and historical exegesis at best can only tell us what Paul was saying and his readers would have understood him to be saying; how his words apply today is a second and harder question. On the topic of sexual ethics this is where things get really tough. In what follows I conclude that Paul, and indeed the whole Bible, makes heterosexual marriage the only divinely sanctioned context for sexual intercourse. Can we apply this teaching today? Is this not a very narrow and judgmental approach to sexuality?


The literary context: 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6

The beginning of 1 Corinthians 5 marks a major transition that concludes at the end of chapter 6, with chapter 7 being like an addendum.[5] In this section Paul addresses what he believes are clear-cut breaches in the Christian ethic, especially the Christian sexual ethic. The apostle is absolutely clear that he is speaking of how Christians should behave. He does not expect this standard from those outside the church (5:9-12).

He begins with the case of the man who is living with his father’s wife, presumably a woman other than his biological mother (5:1-8). What upsets Paul the most is that the church has either tolerated or condoned this. It has accepted his behaviour. Having addressed this specific matter he then states the general principle: Christians should not welcome or allow in their midst the openly and habitual immoral person, especially the sexually immoral (porneia), but also the greedy, robbers, idolaters, revellers and drunkards (vv. 9-11). For Paul, the conduct of church members should be exemplary, standing in stark contrast to the conduct of unbelievers. Because of his clear-cut demarcation between life in the church and life in the world outside, Paul finds it abhorrent that some believers are going to the public courts to settle disputes among themselves (6:1-8). 

In 6:9 he returns to what he has said in 5:9-12. He asserts, “the wicked (adikoi) will not inherit the Kingdom of God,” meaning that open, habitual and unrepentant sinners will not be included among the elect on the last day. The link with 5:9-12 is made plain in that six of the sins Paul mentions in 6:9-10 are repeated from this earlier passage, to which he adds four more, translated by the NRSV as, “adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites and thieves.”

In 6:12-20, Paul brings this whole section to a conclusion. What he is most concerned about is the acceptance of what he considers to be sexual immorality (porneia) in the life of the Corinthian church, the matter he first mentions in 5:1. He reviews this matter again in 6:13, 6:18 and 7:2 at the beginning of his addendum on marriage. This repeated use of the word porneia/sexual immorality/fornication discloses Paul’s primary theme in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6.  In Greek literature porneia simply meant “prostitution,” in the sense of a man paying a woman for sexual gratification, which for Greeks was not in itself thought to be immoral or wrong. By contrast, in Hellenistic-Jewish literature porneia categorised all extramarital sexual activity, including homosexuality, and it was always judged pejoratively. Cadwallader correctly says that for Paul porneia speaks of “sexual immorality.”[6] Paul, however, adds something distinctive; he says porneia involves the body (soma). “Whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her” (6:16). And, “The sexually immoral (porneia) person sins against the body itself” (6:18).  Paul is alluding to Genesis 2: 24 where in marriage the man and the woman become one.  For a Christian man whose body is the temple of the Holy Spirit to be sexually united with someone other than his wife, is anathema. 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 suggests that some Corinthian Christian men were going to prostitutes, seeing nothing wrong with them doing so because sex was only a bodily thing, not related to life in the Spirit, and as such not an issue. This was the prevailing Greco-Roman cultural belief.  For Paul such a disjunction between body and Spirit and such an understanding of sexual intercourse was completely unacceptable.

Behind Paul’s thinking on sex lies the creation stories of Genesis chapters 1 to 3, as his quoting of Genesis 2:24 in 1 Corinthians 6:16 indicates. He believed that God created man for woman and woman for man and sanctioned their sexual union in marriage. It thus followed for him that any other sexual union is forbidden.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

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, revellers, robbers – none of these will inherit the kingdom of God

As mentioned, six of the vices listed in 5:9-11 are given a second time in 6:9-10 and four new ones are added. One of these, “thieves,” is little more than a different word for the “robbers” in 5:10, the other three deal with sexual sins, and thus reflect the major concern of the whole of this section, chapters 5:1 to 6: 20, namely, sexual immorality (porneia).  These ten vices are all nouns that refer to people who habitually behave in one of these ways. Paul is not speaking of people who have committed one of these sins but of people whose lives are characterised by these vices. He thinks of them not as people who have fallen and are in need of forgiveness but as those who are in rebellion against God. Six of these sins are of a non-sexual nature and four are sexual. The point is obvious. Paul does not think sexual sins are any worse than other sins, even if he believes that sexual sins are uniquely sins against the body (1 Cor. 6:18).

Paul first of all in this list condemns those who practice porneia (6:9b) – the NRSV gives the translation, “fornicators.” The Greek word, as we noted above, refers to any extramarital sexual activity. For Jesus, Paul and all the early Christians, any sexual union outside of marriage is a sin. In contrast, in Greco-Roman society it was acceptable for married men to have sex with women who were not their wives so long as the women were not married or with other men. In both cases this was often a master having sex with a slave, or freed slave, male or female, but not necessarily so. Any thought that such sexual encounters were in themselves evil or wrong was not implied. Dr Cadwallader along with others argues that the sex outside of marriage, heterosexual and homosexual, that Paul condemns, was always exploitive, the powerful exerting their will and desires on the less powerful. This is unlikely. Paul as a man of the world [7] would have known that free men had affairs of the heart with consenting free women and also with other free men.

It is true that neither Paul nor any other biblical writer ever explicitly speaks of what is today called “sexual orientation” but Paul says much on human desire. In the next chapter of 1 Corinthians he says ‘it is better for the unmarried to marry than be aflame with passion’ (1 Cor. 7:9). To suggest that Paul accepted that men and women could be driven by sexual desire for each other and never imagined that men could be driven by sexual desire for other men, or women for women, in a world where homosexuality was common, is hard to believe. 

Following his general condemnation of porneia – all sex outside of marriage - Paul then mentions “the idolaters” and “the adulterers” (moixoi). This last word refers specifically to married people who have sexual intercourse with someone of the opposite sex besides their spouse. He then speaks of the malakoi and arsenokoitai. The exact meaning of these two rare words is much debated but it is generally agreed that he is condemning sex of one kind or another between men. The first term, malakoi, literally means “soft” and thus it was often used of effeminate men.[8]  Most modern commentators and translators conclude that Paul is using it of those who are customarily the passive partner in a homosexual union. Gagnon gives the translation, “effeminate males who play the sexual role of females.”[9] The second term, arsenokoitai, is a compound of the Greek words “male” and “bed,” which could be literally translated, “male-bedders.” Koitai (bed) was a common word to speak of sex. These two words are used in the prohibitions of homosexual practices in both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:3. Dr Cadwallader’s claim that the etymology of this word (by which he means deriving its meaning on the basis of its parts) tells us nothing of how Paul understood it is to me unconvincing.[10] Certainly the etymology of many a word may say nothing about its current meaning, but the etymology of a word is often a key indicator of its primary meaning. The late nineteenth century word “homosexual” is a classic example (homos in Greek means ‘the same’). Given the context of the use of the arsenokoitai in this instance, namely sexual sins, and its background in the two Leviticus texts, this meaning is the most likely. Thus the overwhelming majority of scholars and translators are agreed that the word speaks of men having sex with other men. What is disputed is, first, whether Paul is using this term to speak of males who are penetrated by other males or of males who have intercourse with other males, and second, what modern English word(s) best translate these two Greek words. Because he seems to be referring to men who are penetrated by other men by the first term, malakoi, most commentators and translators think the second term, arsenokoitai, refers more generally to men who have sex with other men. Gagnon translates the word, “males who take other males to bed.”[11] Most modern translations give a simpler translation, for example, “sodomites” (NRSV), “homosexuals” (TNIV), and “homosexual offenders” (NIV).

Cadwallader’s argument that what Paul is condemning when speaking of sexual sins in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6 is exclusively exploitive sex,[12] and in particular that the word arsenokoitai refers “to someone who acts dishonourably and violently in a sexual intrusion upon the body of another”[13] and the word malakoi refers to those who are penetrated against their will,[14] is unpersuasive. Paul does not suggest that the man living with his father’s wife is in error because he has acted against her wishes or exploited her, or that all the adulterers have forced themselves on virtuous women, or that the malakoi are all abused against their will, or that all the arsenokoitai are predators.  Paul, like other Jews of his day, held that all sex outside of marriage (porneia) was sin and thus homosexual intercourse per se was sin. We may disagree with him but this was his view. 

However, even if it were conceded that the words malakoi and arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 do not categorically condemn all homosexual relations, what he says here has to be related to what he says elsewhere. In Romans 1:26-27 and 1Timothy 1:10 we have also quite explicit rejections of homosexual relations.  In taking this position Paul perfectly reflects the explicit and widely held Jewish rejection of homosexuality that prevailed in his day.

I Corinthians 6:11

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.

Paul now makes the point that some of the Corinthian Christians who were habitual sinners of these kinds have been radically converted. God had “washed them,” “sanctified them” and “justified them” “in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” They had become new people in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. Their lives had been turned around. Each of the three verbs that speak of their new status are preceded by the strong Greek adversative alla (English “but”) to highlight the transformation that has occurred. This transformation changed their status before God and how they behaved in the world. It must have been the case that there were many in the Corinthian church who had experienced such profound conversions, otherwise Paul would not have made such a claim to Christians who were all too ready to criticise him.

The wider context

Why we must now ask, was Paul so adamantly opposed to porneia, hetero- or homo-sexual activity outside of marriage? Was it simply because as a Jew of his day he accepted this common Jewish proscription of such behaviour? This may well have been significant but why were the Jews so opposed to porneia? Why we must ask, did the Jews and Paul hold marriage in such high regard? The answer is because for the Jews, Jesus and Paul, marriage is a creation given institution and thus inviolable. The Bible begins with, and makes foundational for all that follows, that God made us male or female, giving to both the mandate to be “fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:27-28) and then adding as the climax of the second creation narrative that for this reason “a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:25). Paul clearly had these creation stories in mind in his condemnation of the sinful behaviour he saw all around him, including homosexual relations in Romans 1:18-32[15] and in condemning the visiting of prostitutes in 1 Corinthians 6:16, as I have mentioned. For him, porneia, all sex outside of the marriage union, reflected the fall, not God’s good creation.

It is on this basis that most contemporary Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical and Pentecostal theologians cannot endorse heterosexual relations outside of marriage or homosexual relations in general.[16] This means that their rejection of homosexual sex is not predicated on five proof texts, as the authors of Five Uneasy Pieces would lead us to believe.  It is predicated on the belief that in creation God made heterosexual marriage the norm and thus the proper place for intercourse to take place. It is in the light of this creation context that I read 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, as well as Romans 1:26-27 and 1Timothy 1:8-11. Taken one by one in isolation, these texts along with three others—Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13—can be dismissed as irrelevant to homosexuality as it is known today, as they are in Five Uneasy Pieces, but once Genesis chapters 1 to 3 are recognised as providing the theology that lies behind these culturally located comments, this blanket dismissal is not possible.

Genesis 1-3 is foundational for any adequate understanding of Scripture. If we all spent more time reflecting on these opening chapters of the Bible, many of our confused theological and ethical ideas would be corrected. Here we learn that God has made man and woman equal in his sight and to each other in creating them in his image and likeness and to both giving the mandate to rule and propagate the earth. And, he has differentiated them by creating one male and the other female, two sexes, differentiated primarily by their different bodies. This difference makes them complementary because the man alone or the woman alone cannot procreate. They need each other to fulfil the divine mandate. In marriage they become one flesh (Gen. 2:24).  Genesis chapters 1 and 2 speak of the ideal, of a world where man and woman are in perfect relationship with God and each other and in harmony with the earth. Genesis chapter 3 explains why the world we know and live in is not like this. Humankind, personified in Adam and Eve, has turned from God and as a consequence lost the relationship they had with him, lost the equality men and women had with each other. The man now rules over the woman (Gen. 3:16) and they have lost the idyllic life they once enjoyed in Eden.

Only in the light of this theological construct can the Bible as a whole be understood. It explains why the world is in such a mess, why there is suffering, why wars occur, why marriages break down, why children are born with deformities, why we need a saviour, why we long for new creation, and much more. In this framework, we are also to understand why all porneia, sex outside of heterosexual marriage, is other than the creation ideal. It reflects the realities of a fallen world where God’s norms are constantly broken. This theological construct speaks of a good creation, fallen creation, a new creation inaugurated by Christ and a perfected creation on the last day.

Paul’s lists of vices and virtues

In what I have said so far, I have not responded to Dr Cadwallader’s extended discussion on Paul’s list of vices of which he sees 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 and 6:9-10 as two examples. These lists appear in all but three of Paul’s epistles and are commonly paralleled by lists of virtues that are to characterise Christian living. In one of the better known lists, Paul speaks of the vices as “works of the flesh” and the virtues as “fruits of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16-26). In his attempt to dismiss the scholarly consensus on the force of Paul’s condemnation of what he considers porneia in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 and 6, Dr Cadwallader speaks of “Paul’s move away from a reliance on vice lists,”[17] affirming instead “the fundamental freedom of the gospel,” a gospel “not bound by law.”[18]   Paul certainly believed that the gospel was the end of the epoch of the Law (Rom. 10:4) but definitely not the end of morality. Jesus and Paul in fact asked more of the believers than the law demanded; they taught a higher ethic. And rather than Paul moving away from vice lists, they are as much a part of the Pastoral Epistles written late, as they are of 1 Corinthians written early.  Sexual sins are often mentioned in the vice lists because on this issue the Christian ethic stood in stark contrast to the lax sexual mores of Greco-Roman society. For Paul, porneia of any kind was inconsistent with life in the Spirit (1 Cor. 5:1, 6:13, 18, 7:2, 2 Cor. 12:21, Gal. 5:19, Eph. 5:3, Col. 3:5, 1 Thess. 4:3). This is basic to his thinking and characterises the early Christian ethic.

Today, sexual mores are again very lax.  Contemporary Christians have but two choices: to agree with Dr Cadwallader by concluding that Paul’s sexual ethic has no “pertinence”[19] in our culture and time, or to conclude that Paul’s high sexual ethic is as pertinent for our generation as it has ever been.

Moving to the 21st century

Exegeting a text historically and theologically is the easy part. I have outlined what I believe is the plain meaning of 1 Corinthians 6:8-10 in the light of the historical Corinthian social context, the literary context in which this text is found in 1 Corinthians and in the context of the foundational biblical schema of creation and new creation. I conclude that Paul in 1 Corinthians chapters 5 to 7 is condemning all porneia – all sex outside of marriage – and specifically homosexual relations, on the basis that the creation norm is the life-long union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others. In coming to this conclusion, I am following in principle the majority of scholarly commentators.

This understanding of Paul’s sexual ethic, however, raises acute challenges when it comes to application today because it stands in direct opposition to our prevailing cultural values and thus seems to us moderns very judgemental and narrow. Cadwallader does not have the same challenge to face. He argues that Paul is only condemning exploitive sex, heterosexual and homosexual. He thus limits the application of Paul’s words in today’s world to these things alone. He denies that the apostle is categorically proscribing all hetero- or homo- sexual relations outside of (heterosexual) marriage.  This interpretation and application of Paul’s teaching reflects what most westerners believe today.  

Most contemporary Australians believe that sex outside of marriage, homo or hetero, is perfectly acceptable as long as it is not exploitive or violent; homosexuality is genetic, much the same as being right-handed or left-handed, and most homosexual relations are expressed in loving, long-term, exclusive, and committed unions. The great ethic of our generation is, after all, tolerance. These conclusions are reinforced when we are introduced on TV to impressive people like Justice Michael Kirby, Senator Bob Brown, Minister Penny Wong and comedian Magda Szubanski who speak openly and affirmatively of being homosexuals.  

In this cultural setting, we Christians then begin to wonder if we should ever make judgments about the sexual behaviour of others.  We recall that Jesus told his followers not to be judgemental of others (Matt. 7:1-5) and that the most important rule for Christian living is to be loving (Matt. 22:37-39, Jn 13:34, c.f. Rom. 13;8, 1 Cor. 13, etc.). And we recall that Jesus and the apostles said far more about sins such as hypocrisy, jealousy, unwillingness to forgive, lying, stealing and slander than they did about sexual sins which they never categorised as worse sins than others.

The pressure to abandon the traditional Christian sexual ethic is almost overwhelming in contemporary Western society. Nevertheless, I think we should stand firm. We should presume that Paul is wiser than we are and the traditional view of the church over two thousand years may still be relevant. In concluding this, we do not stand alone. The Catholic and Eastern Churches and the vast majority of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians also make this stand.  As we struggle to apply the Christian sexual ethic, specifically in relation to homosexuality, in our culture and time, some of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6 should be read very carefully.

First, we are to note that Paul is addressing the Christian community in Corinth, not the leaders of the city of Corinth or the rulers in Rome. He believed that how Christians live in the power of the Spirit should be altogether different to how those without Christ and the Spirit live. His was a radical, counter-cultural ethic that he thought was only possible for those who knew the power of the Spirit. He does not advocate imposing this ethic on unbelievers. He says explicitly in
1 Corinthians 5:9-12 it is not the Christians’ job to “judge those outside” the church. This means that in the early twenty first century in the Western democracies when Christendom (the merging of the state and the church) has long gone we Christians should not seek to apply the Christian eschatological ethic to the world. We should not expect, or even want, the state to legislate against or punish people who break the Christian moral code. We should leave it to our democratically elected parliamentarians to make laws for the good of the whole community, laws that do not unfairly or unjustly discriminate against people on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, or socio-economic status. The Christian ethic is for Christians and it is always an ideal. We all fail in many ways. None of us perfectly keeps “the law of Christ.”

Second, as we listen to Paul we should carefully note that he was convinced on the basis of his experience that people in the power of the Spirit could desist from habitual sinning and he specifically mentions homosexual practices. Some of the Corinthians, he says, had been adulterers, idolaters, thieves, drunkards, revellers and regularly had sex with other men. On becoming Christians they had ceased doing these things. Again, the apostle would not categorically say this to a sometimes hostile church if it were not true. In relation specifically to homosexual activity, there is no reason to question what Paul says. People can be involved homosexually and cease.[20] I have personally met many people who have told me that once they were involved homosexually and this is no longer the case. I am not suggesting that people who clearly perceive themselves to be homosexual can just change like one would change where we live, or what sport we play, or that they want to do so. I am simply saying we should not think that homosexual behaviour is irresistible or immutable and once begun cannot be stopped.

It is true that about 2% of the population find themselves at some point in their life profoundly homosexual. [21] They are attracted and desire physical intimacy with those of the same sex. The argument that this is entirely genetically based in all cases or even most cases is not supported by scientific evidence. Genetics can certainly be important but the home environment, early sexual experiences, labelling, personal choice, one’s social network and beliefs and possibly other factors may be just as or more important factors in differing degrees from person to person.[22]  If this is the case then the popular idea that people are born “hard-wired” either to be heterosexual or homosexual is not true, at least in the vast majority of cases. Indeed, some homosexuals insist that their sexual behaviour is freely chosen. [23]  Probably bi-sexuality and the many people who change from either a same sex partner to an opposite sex partner, or from an opposite sex partner to a same sex partner, are explained at least in part in this way. Here we should recall that Dr. Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) measured human sexual orientation on a scale from 0 for completely heterosexual people to 6 for completely homosexual people. Much of the Kinsey reports have been called into question but that sexual orientation is on a continuum is generally accepted, even if it is little discussed.

Third, even if the homosexuality that Paul condemns was mainly exploitive (free Roman citizens having hetero- and homo- sexual relations with slaves who were available to them), this does not mean that if he lived today he would endorse loving, long-term homosexual unions between equals. Even the most generous reading of his epistles must concede that he consistently condemns porneia, sex outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship. He completely rejects the idea that sex is like having a meal, neither good nor bad, the prevailing view in the Greco-Roman world.

A broader contemporary sexual ethic

We have heard Paul but as we struggle to understand homosexual relations in our contemporary world, it is important that we consider them also in the light of two widely held contemporary community beliefs. First, that marriage is a commitment between two people to a life-long union to the exclusion of all others, even if failure is all too common. And second, that an actual marriage ceremony is not needed to form such a committed relationship.  Given this second belief, most contemporary Australians, Christian and non-Christian, want to distinguish clearly between loving sex in a long-term, committed relationship, within or apart from marriage, which they would think is beyond reproach and much other sex, for example, casual sex with virtual strangers, paid for sex, sex with minors, and sex that breaches a loving, committed relationship (once called adultery), which they would not unquestionably endorse.  We have found that Paul’s ethic excludes homosexual relations in general; now we ask, how might the contemporary sexual ethic just outlined evaluate homosexual relations as they are scientifically described today?

In making ethical judgements, what has been discovered scientifically should not be ignored. We now know that heterosexual and homosexual behaviour statistically analysed is profoundly different in terms of fidelity (especially for males) and in the length of relationships. One of the most significant findings is that long-term, exclusive male unions are the exception rather than the rule.  A 1997  study of 2,583 homosexually active men in Australia found that of those over forty-nine, 26.6% had more than 10 male partners in the past six months, 44.9% had between 2 and 10, and 28.5% had just one male partner. In the course of their life only 2.7% of those over 49 and 2.9% of those under 49 said they had had only one partner.[24] In 1994, the largest gay magazine in America, The Advocate, gave the findings of a questionnaire returned by 2,500 male homosexual readers.  The article reported that 2% said they had sex with only one man in the last year, 57% had had sex with more than 30 men and 35% had more than 100.[25] Homosexuals usually do not deny these findings. In reply, they often say “restrictive” heterosexual monogamy should not be imposed on homosexuals.[26] The 1995 Advocate survey of 2,500 of its lesbian readers resulted in a very different picture. On average they had ten sex partners in a lifetime. However, when it comes to long-term unions, things evened out. One study found that only 8% of homosexual men and 7% of homosexual women had had a relationship that lasted more than 4 years.[27] Space excludes me from saying more on the extensive scientific data that we now have on homosexual relations that tends to give a consistent picture.[28]  Notwithstanding what has just been said, it needs to be added that there are long-term, loving exclusive unions among male and female homosexuals, even if they are not common, that a modern relational ethic would affirm.

What this means is that even if we go beyond Paul and allow that sex outside of marriage in a committed and loving relationship is ethically acceptable, this does not open the way to the universal endorsement of all sexual relations, hetero or homo, or encourage us to believe that heterosexual marriage and homosexual marriage can be closely equated. Many heterosexual marriages fail and many heterosexuals are not faithful to their marriage vows but the majority of hetero sexual marriages do last a lifetime, only a small percentage of people marry more than twice, and where infidelity occurs in the vast majority of cases the-outside-the-marriage partners can be counted on one hand.

Conclusion

I began this essay without any enthusiasm for the topic and I end it feeling the same because it is a very divisive issue that leaves some angry and hurt, whatever is concluded. What is more, arguing that Paul, and the Bible in general, judges all sex outside of heterosexual marriage sin makes me very conscious of the huge gulf between secular Australian attitudes to sex and those given in the Bible. This gulf is as wide and deep today as it was for Paul who sought to bring the Gospel to those who took for granted the Greco-Roman sexual values of his day. We may choose to disagree with Paul but we cannot find him taking a liberal and open-minded attitude to sex that would be acceptable to most Australians. My most positive thought is that he does not pick on homosexuals nor elevate this sin or any sexual sins in general above all other sins. As far as his sex ethic is concerned, he sets the same high standard for every believer: celibacy or heterosexual marriage. This standard he makes clear, is for Christians empowered by the Holy Spirit.  He does not expect it of unbelievers. Thousands of Christians across the ages, their sexual orientation unknown, have chosen the first option for the sake of the Gospel. They have lived full and productive lives as singles serving Christ, usually as part of an intentional Christian community.[29]

This Gospel, I need to add finally, is not about sinless perfection. It is rather “the good news” that Christ offers forgiveness to frail human beings who all too often fall into sin. It is a Gospel that allows no one to elevate themselves morally before God because before God we are alike all sinners in need of grace.

Post-script

Before I leave this matter, I need to say categorically that the issue of homosexuality and women’s liberation cannot be equated as the evangelical right constantly tries to do. Paul could not say to women, “this is what some of you used to be,” as he does to the Corinthians whose behaviour he condemns. The two matters are to be contrasted rather than compared.

  1. Christian theologians view homosexual relations as a breach of the Christian ethic. What they proscribe is certain behaviour. Women’s liberation in contrast concerns the dignity and equality of half the human race. The argument is that because women are full human beings they should be valued and treated in the same way as men. Women as women are not guilty of any sin simply because they are women. The behaviour of this one sex is not an issue.
  2. How the Bible speaks of homosexual relations and women is very different. Homosexual relations are rejected primarily because they breach the creation norm in which we are made by God as either male or female so that we complement the other in our differences. Because of this profound theological grounding of sexual identity and sexual relationships, there is not one statement in scripture that would endorse sex outside of a heterosexual marriage union. In contrast, when it comes to the relationship of men and women, the  revealed creation order makes the two sexes equal before God and to each other (Gen. 1:27-28), adding later that it is sin that leads the man to dominate over the women (3:16). Jesus endorses this noble creational view of the sexes standing side by side, saying not one word to suggest men have been set over women and much to the contrary. Paul generally follows his master, allowing that the Spirit empowers men and women alike for ministry (1 Cor. 12:7). He thus speaks positively of them leading the assembled church in prayer and prophecy (1 Cor. 11:4-5); of men and women missionary apostles (Rom. 16:7) and of men and women as leaders of home churches which were the norm in early Christianity (Acts 12:12, 16:14-15, 40, Col. 4:15). In Galatians 3:28, he says that “in Christ there is neither male nor female,” meaning not that sexual differentiation is obliterated in Christ but that it is transcended. It is in the light of Paul’s equal-in-ministry theology and his generally affirming view of the leadership of men and women and of their oneness in Christ that I and others argue that Paul’s three regulative comments that single out women should be interpreted (1 Cor. 11:4-16,14:33-34, 1 Tim 2:11-14).  These texts speak to particular problems and pastoral concerns in the churches addressed and therefore should not be taken as universal prohibitions.
  3. It thus follows that to affirm the substantive equality of women is to prioritise the primary and foundational view of women given in the Bible. It is not a capitulation to modern secular culture. In contrast, to affirm homosexual relations is to reject the primary and foundation understanding of sex given in the Bible. It is to capitulate to modern secular culture.

 



 

[1] On the scientific data, see N. E. Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Do It: A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, revised 2nd edition, 2010 which can be downloaded from www.mygenes.co.nz.This book gives a comprehensive 20-year review of more than 10,000 scientific papers and publications on homosexuality.

[2] The best study of what the Bible says on homosexuality with a comprehensive survey of the scientific data is in R. A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, Texts and Hermeneutics, Nashville, Abingdon, 2001.

[3] Five Uneasy Pieces: Essays on Scripture and Homosexuality, Adelaide, ATF,  2011, pp. 47-68.

[4] Ibid., p. 48.

[5] On this passage besides the many scholarly commentaries, a few of which I footnote later, see also B. S. Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics: 1 Corinthians 5-7, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1999.

[6] Five Uneasy Pieces, p.61.

[7] See the discussion and documentation on this in A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000, p. 452.

[8] Ibid., p. 448.

[9] The Bible and Homosexuality, p. 306.

[10] He says seeking the meaning of this word viaits etymology “is completely invalid.” Five Uneasy Pieces, p. 49.

[11] The Bible and Homosexuality, p. 92.

[12] Ibid., p. 58

[13] Ibid., p. 60.

[14] Ibid.

[15] For the evidence, see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexuality, pp. 289-297.

[16] All these churches predicate their rejection of homosexual relations primarily on the basis of what Scripture teaches. The Catholic theologian may add that what Scripture says on this matter reflects natural law and the Orthodox theologian may say it reflects the tradition of the church but in both cases scriptural teaching is foundational to the position taken.

[17] Ibid., p. 63.

[18] Ibid., p. 64.

[19] Ibid., p. 63.

[20] For the evidence, see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 418-429.

[21] See J. Harvey, et al, “Sex in Australia: The Australian study of health and relationships,” The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 27/2, 2003, pp. 230-233. This article gives the findings on the largest and most thorough survey in Australia to date. It was conducted by telephone interview with 19,307 respondents between the ages of 16 and 59 in 2001/2002. The study found that 97.4% of men identified as heterosexual, 1.6% as gay and 0.9% as bisexual. For women 97.7% identified as heterosexual, 0.8% as lesbian and 1.4% as bisexual. Studies in other Western societies come up with much the same figures. About 2% of the population self-identify as homosexuals.

[22] For a brief outline of the science on causation, see the essay by psychiatrist David Clarke, “Science and Sexuality” in Beyond Stereotypes: Christians and Homosexuality, Box Hill, Australian Evangelical Alliance, 2009, pp. 29-35. In more detail, see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 380-432.

[23] On choice, see P. Pronk, Against Nature? Types of Argumentation against Homosexuality, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1993. This is a book written by a Dutch homosexual with doctorates in biology and theology. He argues that no one is “born” a homosexual; choice is always involved.

[24] P. Van de Ven, et al, “A comparative Demographic and Sexual Profile of Older Active Homosexual Men,” Journal of Sex Research, 34, 1997, pp. 349-60.  For similar figures from England, see C. H. Mercer et al, “Behaviourally bisexual men as a bridge population for HIV and sexually transmitted infections? Evidence from a national probability survey,” International Journal of STD & AIDS, 20, 2008, pp. 87-94. On Lesbian relationships and the length of male and female homosexual partnerships, see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, pp. 454-459.

[25] Janet Lever, “The 1994 Advocate Survey of Sexuality and Relationships: The men: Sexual Relations,” The Advocate, Aug, 23, 1994, pp. 16-24.

[26] Over the years I have taken part in a number of open forums with homosexuals and heard such comments many times. For published quotations see Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, p. 458 n 189.

[27] Gagnon, p. 459 and n 191.

[28] On this see Gagnon for a good summary and in more detail, N. E. Whitehead, My Genes Made Me Do It: A Scientific Look at Sexual Orientation, revised 2nd edition, 2010 which can be downloaded from www.mygenes.co.nz.

[29] A beautiful account of what such Christian communal living can involve for a group of men is described in Xavier Beauvois’ film, “Of Gods and Men.”


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