Preached on August 8, 2004 at MCC Columbia in Columbia, S.C.
A new monk arrives at the monastery and is assigned to help the other monks in copying the old texts by hand.
He notices, however, that they are copying copies, not the original books. So, the new monk goes to the head monk to ask him about this. He points out that if there were an error in the first copy, that error would be continued in all of the other copies.
The head monk says, “We have been copying from the copies for centuries but you make a good point, my son.” So, he goes down into the cellar with one of the copies to check it against the original.
Hours later, nobody has seen him, so one of the monks goes downstairs to look for him. He hears a sobbing coming from the back of the cellar, and finds the old monk leaning over one of the original books crying. He asks what’s wrong.
The old monk sobs, “The word is ‘celebrate’.”
As gay and lesbian Christians we often face the same dilemma when reading our Bible. We are confronted by words in the Bible that seem so certain, so clear, and yet, when we go back and look at what the original writers of a text wrote, often we are surprised to find that their words are not the ones who have been handed down to us over the centuries. We find those words meant different things to them – and words that are applied to those ancient words today don’t mean exactly what we think they mean.
We talked last week about the Bible and its history and that all we have are copies of copies of copies. There were no ancient Hebrew Xerox machines. All ancient writings had to be copied by hand. No original autographs of the documents that make up our Bible are around for us to consult when we have questions about this word or that. Consequently the definitions of some words have been lost and are just “best guesses” by scholars. One of those words is “homosexual” – a word that first appeared in English Bibles in 1946 in the Revised Standard Version (1958 in the Amplified Version). This makes sense because the word “homosexual” was not even coined until 1869 by a Hungarian physicist – so this is a word that is not anywhere to be found in the Bible, either in original manuscripts or the copies of the copies.
That fact would not have prevented first century Christians like Paul and the gospel writers from discussing homosexual practices however, because there were words for such things – they simply are never, ever used in the documents that later were canonized into scripture. But, perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s back up now and consider the three specific passages from the New Testament most often used to condemn homosexuality. I think you’ll find, as we did in our study last week of the Old Testament, that these writings hold no condemnation for us as gay and lesbian children of God.
I’m going to begin a little backward this time around and consider the passages from 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 before we move into the Romans 1 passage.
1 Corinthians 6:9-10 reads:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
1 Timothy 1:8-11 is similar:
8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully,
9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers
10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching,
11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.
Seems pretty clear from the English translation of these passages, from the New American Standard Bible, that all homosexuals, male and female alike, are condemned just as kidnappers, thieves, drunkards, revilers and swindlers are. But, like that poor celibate monk, to find hope for our lives we must return to the ancient words and double check their meanings. When we do that, we will find that the words that have held us hostage all these years are words that have been badly mistranslated.
There are two words that concern us in these passages – the Greek word “malakoi” that has been translated in 1 Corinthians as “effeminate,” and “arsenokoites,” which has been translated in both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy as “homosexuals.”
Let’s start with the easy stuff. The word “malakoi” is used two other times in the Bible – in Matthew (11:18) and again in Luke (7:25). In both instances they literally mean “soft” – as in a soft garment, but culturally the word could be used to denote someone who is “loose” or has “loose morals.”
“In the early Christian church, the words were interpreted by some as referring to persons who are pliable, easily influenced, without courage or stability. Non-Biblical writings of the era used the world to refer to lazy men, men who cannot handle hard work, and cowards. [John] Wesley’s Bible Notes defines ‘malakoi’ as those ‘Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.'” (From: http://www.religioustolerance.org/hom_bibc1.htm#corin)
This certainly has no connotation of homosexuality, unless the lazy coward in question is also a queer! But, it’s his “softness” that is condemned, not his sexual orientation.
Now, on to the most difficult word to translate when we’re talking about homosexuality and the Bible. “Arsenokoites” has bedeviled translators for centuries and I doubt we’ll settle the argument in this sermon, but let’s take a look at this word. It is a word that scholars say Paul likely coined. It appears only in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy. It is made up of two words – “arsen” which means “man” and “koitai” which means “bed.” Some scholars say that when we look at the two words together, they form a new word for men who have sex with men. Other scholars point out the fallacy of that line of thinking. Try doing that to other words and see what kind of mangled definitions you get – like “lady killer.” This word does not describe either a lady who kills or someone who kills ladies. Trying to derive the meaning of a word simply from its parts can lead to error.
So, what does the word mean? Scholars are divided. Some say the word is so obscure we’re only left to guess but other scholars have gone ahead and made the leap and settled on such definitions as, “abusers of themselves with mankind,” “perverts,” “sodomites,” and finally, “homosexuals.”
Many scholars believe that Paul coined this word by combining the two words used in the Septuagint (an ancient, pre-Christian translation of the Old Testament into Greek) to translate the Hebrew word “quadesh” which refers to “male temple prostitutes.” Other scholars like L. William Countryman, Robin Scroggs and Daniel Helminiak all conclude that the word refers to male prostitutes. So, here, as we saw in our study of the Old Testament references used against gays and lesbians, this word most likely refers again to idol worship or other forms of sex that objectify another person.
A comment I often hear when talking with people on both sides of this issue is, “So, are you saying the modern Bible translators are wrong?” To which I answer, “Yes.” When the word homosexual was coined it was mainly used as a medical term meaning “morbid sexual passion for one of the same sex.” By 1934, it had lost its medical definition and instead simply became, “eroticism for one of the same sex.” (Jonathan Ned Katz, “The Invention of Heterosexuality” ) Also, during this time in history, homosexuality was seen as a mental illness meaning that gays and lesbians were stigmatized, faced discrimination in employment and other areas of society and were often institutionalized. It wasn’t until 1973 that the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders.
Although we associate the riot at the Stonewall Inn in 1969 with the beginning of the gay and lesbian rights movement, there were already stirrings within the gay community as early as 1945 as organizations like the Mattachine Society and Daughters of Bilitis came into existence. Gays and lesbians were already beginning to make waves in society, and society was certainly not open to the idea and did everything in its power to suppress this fledgling movement.
Scholar Dale Martin notes that it was in this time that the translation of “arsenokoites” shifted away from the idea of male prostitution – or “abusers of themselves with mankind” – toward a blanket condemnation of all homosexuals, as “the language of psychology and ‘normalcy’ creeps into English versions” of the Bible. (Martin, “Arsenokoites and Malakos: Meanings and Consequences.”) Based upon his assertion, I believe that the use of the word homosexual in 20th century translations of scripture is wrong and is an error that has been repeated in many translations of the Bible printed from the 1950s into today including The Living Bible, the New International Version and the New American Standard Bible. I believe the insertion of the word homosexual into our contemporary Bibles has more to do with cultural bias, and a need to stop any acceptance of homosexuality as normal by society, than it does with solid scholarship.
What we find then is that “arsenokoites,” when properly translated and placed in its historical context, is again a condemnation of a sexual practice that uses or abuses another person and has nothing to do with loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships.
Have you read Romans 2?
But, the passage that seems to get the most attention the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans. I often get letters from people who simply state, “Read Romans 1.” As I said last week, I’ve gotten this kind of letter so often that I really want to give a smart aleck response to them. Something along the lines of, “Wow! You mean the Bible condemns homosexuality? I read the thing cover to cover and couldn’t find it, but thanks to you, I’ve seen the light! How could I have missed it! Thank you so much for pointing this out. You know, you’re the first person who’s told me this! I’ll take down my Web site and repent immediately. Thank you so much for saving me!”
Instead, I bite my tongue and simply reply, “Read Romans 2.” Because if they read Romans 2 (and the rest of Paul’s epistle, for that matter) they would understand what Paul was trying to accomplish in Romans 1.
Despite its repeated use by our opponents, I have to admit that Romans is my favorite book in the Bible because it is a rhetorical masterpiece. Paul did not found this church and he had never been to Rome when he wrote this letter. This is not a letter among friends. It is a persuasive letter of exhortation to a group of people personally unknown to Paul.
Paul begins crafting his masterpiece by doing what any good rhetorical expert would do – capture the audience up front. In Romans 1 he starts out by talking about something that the Jewish Christians in Rome know a lot about – the debauchery and loose morals of Roman Gentiles. Look at these people, he says, they’ve traded the truth of God for a lie – this lie, according to Paul is the pagan temple worship rituals that included worshipping idols. The people described by Paul have turned their back on God, “they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” These people worshipped idols, not God.
It is because of this reason, Paul says, that “God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading 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!”
This is the reason, Paul says, that, “God gave them up to degrading passions,” or as the King James Version calls it, “vile affections.” It’s interesting to note that the Greek words used here connote not a loving relationship between women or between men, but “dishonorable lust.” What Paul is condemning here is men lusting after men and women lusting after women. There is no condemnation anywhere in this verse of loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships. The context of this verse makes it clear that Paul is discussing the pagan rituals that take place in Gentile society in Rome. These are practices that are well known to the Roman Christians – practices that they revile.
Paul, the master of rhetoric, knows this. He knows that if he starts out his letter talking about the vile practices that the Gentile Romans engage in, he’ll hook his audience quickly. He knows that they’ll read the first part of his letter and think, “Right! These horrible Roman pagans are disgusting and we all know it. God has abandoned them and condemned them. We’re better than they are. We’re righteous and have eternal life. They’re nasty and will die horrible deaths. Go us!” (Where have we heard this kind of thing before? Hmm, let me think!)
But, Romans 2 is the punch-line:
Romans 2:1-11 says:
“Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. For God shows no partiality.”
I’ve told opponents before to read Romans 2 and they say, “Well, that doesn’t include me, because I’ve never engaged in homosexual sex!” I’m sure plenty of Roman Christians said the same thing, but again, they miss Paul’s point. If you read further into this verse, Paul says that idolatry is not limited to “dishonorable lust,” they can also be “filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
Now, if we’re honest with ourselves we’ve all gossiped at one time or another in our lives. We’ve all been haughty or boastful or envious at some point. We’ve certainly rebelled against our parents at some point. We’ve all been foolish, faithless, heartless, and yes, even ruthless from time to time. Therefore, Paul tells us, we have no excuse when we judge others, because we are no better than anyone else, and besides, God shows no partiality. Nobody is God’s pet. The whole point of Romans is that we are one in Christ Jesus – that no one is better than anyone else and that through Christ we have been made true children of the living God – both righteous Jew and nasty Gentile alike.
We only hear condemnation when people talk to us about Romans. Today, I want to share with you some of the Good News from Romans:
Romans 8:1-2: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.
Romans 10:9-13: because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Romans 13:8-10: Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.
And probably the best verse in the whole book:
Romans 8:35-39: Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? 36 As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Hear the Good News, my brothers and sisters, nothing separates you from Christ. All you owe to one another is to love each other as God loves you. God shows no partiality – God loves us all equally and pours out grace upon anyone who calls on God and believes. This is the bottom line.
I believe that God does not care about our sexual orientation. We’re told in the Bible that before God there is no male or female, no Greek or Jew, no slave or free. When God looks at us, God does not see our sexuality – God sees our heart. I believe that God doesn’t care about the gender of our partner. What God cares about is whether or not we’re living lives of integrity. I think God only cares about one thing – do we love one another as God loves us? We are God’s eyes and ears and hands and arms in the world. God has partnered with us to spread the Good News that God’s love is unconditional and free to anyone who accepts it. According to the Bible, God’s main concern is that we embrace the call that God gives to each of us – to serve one another, to outdo one another in loving each other and serving each other.
And again, let me end with the caveat I gave you in last week’s sermon. Even if the Bible does condemn all homosexual acts, even those that occur within the context of a loving, committed relationship, we need to ask ourselves if they still have any moral authority on us. We have already decided as a society that the Bible’s approval of slavery has no authority over us. We have already decided as a society that the Bible’s view of women as property and unfit for ministry has no authority over us. We have decided as a society that people of different races are no longer inferior, even though the Bible has been as an authority on such issues. We have discarded many things that the Bible says we must observe, including Jesus’ direct command that divorce is permitted only when the woman cheats.
So, I’m asking you to consider this question, even if the Bible condemns homosexuality as we know it today, why should we as a society accept that condemnation, now that we know so much more about homosexuality as a sexual orientation and not as a mental illness or defect?
But, my contention is, and will always be, that when the Bible is read in context, no condemnation can be found of loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships. All the sexual acts we’ve discussed over these past two weeks are acts of brutality or idol worship or “dishonorable lust.” They are not acts of love between men and women, but acts that use or abuse another or are done in the context of worshipping idols.
Hear and understand the Good News: God has made you, and God has proclaimed you a good creation. You are blessed by God, and not condemned.
As the monk said – the word is “celebrate!”
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.