An essay by William
O Walker appears below. I have three reservations.
1. While I do not
think the notion of "orientation" is helpful in leading to true human liberation
(my study of the world's religions suggests that sexuality is a social
construct, not biological), I recognize that my view is not currently politically
correct. I think people have the right to love whhom they wish, and should
not need psychological theory to justify that.
2. More important
for Biblical scholarship, I am curious why the following passage was not
included in the survey of the New Testament. It is my understanding that
in the context "servant" is, or can be, a euphemism for a sexual partner.
I would have appreciated attention to the Greek term employed. Even if
Prof. Walker dismisses the passage, it would have been useful to know why.
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto
him a centurion,
And saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the
And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him.
The centurion answered and said, Lord, I am not worthy that
thou shouldest come
under my roof: but speak the word only, and my servant
shall be healed.
For I am a man under authority, having soldiers under me:
and I say to this
man, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he
cometh; and to my
servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
When Jesus heard it, he marvelled, and said to them that
I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not
And I say unto you, That many shall come from the east and
west, and shall
sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom
But the children of the kingdom shall be cast out into
there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou
so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the
3. He does not recognize
the signifiance of the recently discovered text called Secret Mark.
the New Testament Says about Homosexuality
Fourth R 21,3 (May-June 2008)
O. Walker, Jr.
Mainline Christian denominations in this
country are bitterly divided over the question of homosexuality. For this
reason it is important to ask what light, if any, the New Testament sheds
on this controversial issue. Most people apparently assume that the New
Testament expresses strong opposition to homosexuality, but this simply
is not the case. The six propositions that follow, considered cumulatively,
lead to the conclusion that the New Testament does not provide any direct
guidance for understanding and making judgments about homosexuality in
the modern world.
Proposition 1: Strictly speaking, the
New Testament says nothing at all about homosexuality.
There is not a single Greek word or phrase in the entire New Testament
that should be translated into English as “homosexual” or “homosexuality.”
In fact, the very notion of “homosexuality”—like that of “heterosexuality,”
“bisexuality,” and even “sexual orientation”—is essentially a modern concept
that would simply have been unintelligible to the New Testament writers.
The word “homosexuality” came into use only in the latter part of the nineteenth
century, and, as New Testament scholar Victor Paul Furnish notes, it and
related terms “presume an understanding of human sexuality that was possible
only with the advent of modern psychological and sociological analysis.”
In other words, “The ancient writers . . . were operating without the vaguest
conception of what we have learned to call ‘sexual orientation’.”1 (In
the rest of this article I shall use the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality”
strictly for the sake of convenience.)
Proposition 2: At most, there
are only three passages in the entire New Testament that refer to what
we today would call homosexual activity.
None of the four gospels mentions the subject. This means that, so far
as we know, Jesus never spoke about homosexuality, and we simply have no
way of determining what his attitude toward it might have been. Moreover,
there is nothing about homosexuality in the Book of Acts, in Hebrews, in
Revelation, or in the letters attributed to James, Peter, John, and Jude.
Further, homosexuality is not mentioned in ten of the thirteen letters
attributed to Paul. It is only in Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9–10,
and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 that there may be references to homosexuality.2 The
paucity of references to homosexuality in the New Testament suggests that
it was not a matter of major concern either for Jesus or for the early
Proposition 3: Two of the three passages
that possibly refer to homosexuality are simply more-or-less miscellaneous
catalogues of behaviors that are regarded as unacceptable, with no
particular emphasis placed on any individual item in the list.
1 Corinthians 6:9–10 says that certain types of people “will not inherit
the kingdom of God.” The list of such people begins with fornicators, idolaters,
and adulterers, and it ends with thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers,
and robbers. Near the middle—between adulterers and thieves—are the two
Greek words translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “male prostitutes”
(that is, homosexual male prostitutes) and “sodomites.” But no special
emphasis is placed on these people; they are simply listed along with the
others. Similarly, 1 Timothy 1:8–11 says that the law was given not for
good people but for bad people, and it then provides a list, giving representative
examples of who these “bad people” might be. Included in the list—this
time near the end but again without any special emphasis—is the Greek word
translated in the New Revised Standard Version as “sodomites.” In both
texts, such people are mentioned simply in passing, in more-or-less miscellaneous
catalogues of unacceptable behaviors, but with no special emphasis or attention
called to them.
Such miscellaneous lists of “vices” are fairly common not only in the New
Testament and other early Christian literature but also in Mesopotamian,
Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and Jewish writings.3 They appear to have been somewhat
stereotypical in nature, representing a kind of laundry list or grab bag
of negative labels that could be trotted out and used for rhetorical purposes
with little attention to individual items in the lists. As something of
an analogy, I cite a passage from Arlo Guthrie’s famous ballad, “Alice’s
Restaurant.” In speaking of his own arrest for littering and his assignment
to “Group B” in the jail, Guthrie characterizes this group as follows:
Group B is where they putcha
if you may not be moral enough to join the army after committin’ your special
crime. There was all kinds of mean, nasty, ugly-lookin’ people on the bench
there. There was mother rapers . . . father stabbers . . . father rapers
. . . Father rapers! sittin’ right there on the bench next to me!
In somewhat similar fashion, the catalogues
in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 list “all kinds of mean, nasty,
It should also be noted that different catalogues tend to be remarkably
similar in content. They typically list the same kinds of “vices.” Furthermore,
it appears that authors often took over and adapted such lists from earlier
documents. This means that the New Testament writers may not actually have
composed the lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11. These
may simply be conventional lists, taken and adapted from earlier documents
and used here for rhetorical purposes. If so, then inclusion of the words
translated as “male prostitutes” and “sodomites” may be little more than
In any case, neither of the catalogues—1 Corinthians 6:9–10 or 1 Timothy
1:8–11—singles out homosexual activity for any special attention. They
just list, in miscellaneous fashion, various types of behaviors that are
regarded as unacceptable.
Proposition 4: It may well be that the
two lists of unacceptable behaviors—1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy
1:8–11—do not refer to homosexuality at all.
The New Revised Standard Version translates 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 as follows:
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.
For our purposes, of course, the two key
terms here are “male prostitutes” and “sodomites.” It may well be the case,
however, that these are not the most appropriate translations of the underlying
Greek in the text.4
The Greek word translated as “male prostitutes” is the adjective malakoi
(plural of malakos). This adjective means “soft,” as in a “soft”
bed or a “soft” pillow. When applied to people, it can mean “lazy,” “self-indulgent,”
“cowardly,” “lacking in self-control,” and the like. When applied to males,
it generally refers to what are commonly regarded as feminine-like
“weaknesses:” such men might be regarded as “soft,” “flabby,” “weak,” “cowardly,”
“unmanly,” or “effeminate.” But to call a male “effeminate” might or might
not carry implications of homosexuality. Sometimes it did, but certainly
not always. When it did, it may have referred to the so-called “passive”
or “effeminate” partner in the homosexual relationship. But we cannot be
at all certain that malakoi refers to homosexuality in First Corinthians
6:9. It may refer to “softness” or even “effeminacy” in some other sense.
In any case, the use of the adjective malakoi to describe males
should probably be seen not as “homophobic” but rather as essentially
“gynophobic.” It reflects a fear of women or at least of woman-like—that
is, “soft” or “weak”—behavior on the part of men.5
People have assumed that
malakoi does refer to homosexuality in
1 Corinthians primarily because the next term in the list is arsenokoitai
(defined below)—the assumption being, of course, that the two words are
somehow linked in meaning because they appear side by side in the list.
This, however, is by no means necessarily the case. “The greedy” and “drunkards”
are also juxtaposed in the list, and it would be difficult to see any link
But even if malakoi and arsenokoitai are somehow linked in
meaning, it is not at all clear just how arsenokoitai should be
translated. It comes from two Greek words: arsen, which means “male”
(as opposed to “female”), and koite which literally means “bed”
but by extension can be a euphemism for sexual intercourse (like “going
to bed” with someone). This would appear to suggest that arsenokoitai
refers to males who “go to bed” with other males. But Dale B. Martin has
pointed out that the meaning of a compound word cannot necessarily be determined
by breaking it apart, looking at the meaning of each of its parts, and
then simply combining these meanings to determine the meaning of the compound
word. As an example, Martin cites the English word, “understand,” which
has nothing to do with either “standing” or “being under.”6
Numerous other examples could be cited, but I want to mention one that
is closer to the topic under consideration. The word I have in mind is
the vulgar term, “mother-fucker.” We know what this word means literally.
But when people use it, they typically are not referring to someone who
has sexual intercourse with his mother (or even with someone else’s mother).
In fact, the word normally does not refer to sexual activity at all. Though
generally viewed as highly pejorative, it is sometimes used in a more-or-less
neutral sense or even, in some circles, as a term of admiration or perhaps
affection. The point is, however, that its original sexual meaning is often
not apparent in its actual usage. And the same thing may very well be true
of the Greek word arsenokoitai. Martin has made a study of how the
word is actually used in ancient Greek literature. It is a rare word. First
Corinthians 6:9 is probably the earliest occurrence that we have, and most
other occurrences are merely quotations from or allusions to 1 Corinthians
6:9 and/or 1 Timothy 1:10 (the only places the word occurs in the New Testament).
According to Martin, though, when the word does appear independently, it
is typically found in conjunction not with sins of sexual immorality
but rather with sins related to economic injustice or exploitation.
Thus, Martin concludes that
arsenokoitai most likely refers not
to homosexuality as such but rather to the “exploiting of others by means
of sex, perhaps but not necessarily by homosexual sex.”7 I would suggest,
however, that it might even refer to exploitation that has nothing at all
to do with sex. We often use sexual language to talk about things that
have nothing to do with sex. For example, someone might say, “I really
fucked up!” without having sex in mind at all. Or think about how we sometimes
use the word “screw.” If I say, “I really got screwed on that business
deal,” I’m not talking about sex, but I am talking about exploitation.
And this is consistent with Martin’s conclusion that arsenokoitai
appears to refer more precisely to exploitation than to sexual activity.
The bottom line is that we simply do not know what the word meant or how
it was used in the first century.8
So, malakoi means simply “soft,” perhaps “effeminate,” and it might
or might not refer to homosexuality. And arsenokoitai might or might
not refer explicitly to homosexuality. Therefore, we cannot be certain
that First Corinthians 6:9–10 refers to homosexuality at all. The same
is true of First Timothy 1:8–11, which has the word arsenokoitai
but not the word malakoi. It might not refer to homosexuality either.
Proposition 5: Even if 1 Corinthians
6:9–10 and 1 Timothy 1:8–11 do refer to homosexuality, what they likely
have in mind is not homosexuality
per se but rather one particular
form of homosexuality that was regarded as especially exploitive and
Some scholars have suggested that malakoi designates attractive
young men, or boys, whose sexual services were either purchased or coerced
by older men, and that arsenokoitai designates these older men who
thus “used” or exploited the younger men. According to this interpretation,
malakoi and arsenokoitai do refer to male homosexuality,
but the objection is not necessarily to male homosexual activity per
se, but rather to the prostitution, coercion, and/or exploitation that
typically accompanied one particular type of male homosexuality. And this,
too, is consistent with Martin’s conclusion that arsenokoitai refers
more specifically to exploitation than it does to sex. Furthermore, if
this is the case, then we simply have no way of knowing what the New Testament
writers might have said about a non-exploitive, non-coercive, loving, committed,
monogamous homosexual relationship. We cannot know because New Testament
writers are not talking about that kind of homosexual relationship.
In the final analysis, we cannot be certain that these passages refer to
homosexuality at all. And if they do, they do so only in passing in more-or-less
miscellaneous catalogues of various types of behaviors that are regarded
Proposition 6: The one passage in the
New Testament that almost certainly does refer to homosexuality is based
on some highly debatable presuppositions about its nature and causes.
The passage in question is Romans 1:26–27. Earlier in this chapter, the
author is talking about idolatry, the worship of false gods. Then, beginning
in verse 24, he talks about the results of idolatry. Verses 24 and 25 identify
the results of idolatry as lust, impurity, and the degrading of one’s body.
Then, verses 26 and 27 spell out in more detail the nature of this lust,
impurity, and bodily degradation as follows (New Revised Standard Version):
For this reason God gave
them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse
for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse
with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless
acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their
Following verses 26 and 27, the remainder
of the chapter lists some of the other results of idolatry, and the list
is rather similar to the catalogues in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and 1 Timothy
1:8–11. In other words, homosexuality is but one among other types of unacceptable
What must be emphasized, then, is that the passage, taken as a whole, is
not about homosexuality. It is about idolatry. The only reason it mentions
homosexuality at all is because the author assumes that it is a result
of willful idolatry. Knowing full well that there is one true God, people
nevertheless freely choose to worship false gods. As punishment for this
idolatry, God “gives them up” to homosexual activity. Thus, in a sense,
homosexuality is not so much a sin as it is a punishment for sin. This
should mean, however, that no monotheist would ever take part in homosexual
activity—no practicing Jew or Christian or Muslim. Only worshippers of
false gods would engage in such activity. This was a fairly common assumption
within first-century Judaism, and it is one of the dubious presuppositions
that underlie Romans 1:26–27. Clearly, however, it is not consistent with
what we can observe in the world around us.
The passage also makes at least two other assumptions that point to its
essential irrelevance so far as modern discussions of homosexuality are
concerned. First, it assumes that homosexuality is somehow “unnatural”—contrary
to nature—or a better translation would be “beyond what is natural.” In
other words, it isn’t just unusual for people to engage in homosexual
activity. It is
abnormal; it “goes beyond” that which is natural.
According to the American Psychological Association, however, “most scientists
today agree that sexual orientation is most likely the result of a complex
interaction of environmental, cognitive, and biological factors.”10 Moreover,
psychologists tend to be extremely cautious about using such categories
as “natural” and “unnatural,” “normal” and “abnormal” when talking about
Second, the passage assumes that homosexuality is an expression of insatiable
lust. People turn to homosexual activity because heterosexual activity
simply fails to satisfy them. They want more! As Dale B. Martin points
out, it is somewhat like gluttony: gluttony is too much eating, and homosexuality
is too much sex.11 People engage in homosexual activity because they “can’t
get enough” of sex otherwise. And this, of course, is related to the notion
that homosexuality “goes beyond” that which is natural. Homosexuality
excessive sexuality. Together with the author’s emphasis
on the verb “exchange,” this suggests that, in modern terms, the reference
in the passage may be more to bisexuality than to homosexuality.
If such is the case, then the passage would appear to have little relevance
for people whose sole orientation is homosexual.
In light of the assumptions that underlie Romans 1:26–27, perhaps the question
to be raised when reading these verses is the following: “Exactly what
is it that is being opposed here, and why is it being opposed?”
Is it simply homosexuality
per se, or is it the idolatry, the “abnormality,”
and the insatiable lust that, in the first-century Jewish mind, were associated
with homosexual activity? And a second question is this: What would the
author of Romans 1:26–27 say about a loving, committed, monogamous homosexual
relationship—one that was not rooted in idolatry, one that did not
represent a rejection of one’s own true nature, and one that was not
characterized by excessive lust? I think the answer has to be that we simply
do not know, because, once again, the author is talking about something
Conclusion: The New Testament really
does not provide any direct guidance for understanding and making
judgments about homosexuality in the modern world.
To the extent that it does talk about homosexuality, the New Testament
appears to be talking about only certain types of homosexuality, and it
speaks on the basis of assumptions about homosexuality that are now regarded
as highly dubious. Perhaps, then, we could paraphrase what the New Testament
says about homosexuality as follows: If homosexuality is exploitive,
then it is wrong; if homosexuality is rooted in idolatry, then it
is wrong; if homosexuality represents a denial of one’s own true
nature, then it is wrong; if homosexuality is an expression of insatiable
lust, then it is wrong. But we could say exactly the same thing about heterosexuality,
If homosexuality is not necessarily any of these things, however, then
it would appear that the New Testament has nothing to say about it in any
direct sense. Speaking specifically of the Pauline letters but in words
that are applicable to the New Testament as a whole, the Pauline scholar
Victor Paul Furnish puts it as follows:
[Paul’s] letters . . .
cannot yield any specific answers to the questions being faced in the modern
church. Shall practicing homosexuals be admitted to church membership?
Shall they be accorded responsibilities within a congregation? Shall they
be commissioned to the church’s ministry? The Apostle never asks or answers
these questions. . . . On these points there are no proof texts available
one way or the other. It is mistaken to invoke Paul’s name in support of
any specific position on these matters.12
In short, there is nothing in the New Testament
that tells us directly whether homosexuality per se is a good thing
or a bad thing or simply a fact of life.
To be sure, when we consider its overall message, the New Testament may
provide some indirect guidance regarding homosexuality. Indeed,
it may well be the case that a twenty-first century “Paul” would revise
Galatians 3:27–28 to read as follows:
For as many of you as were
baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek,
there is neither slave nor free, there is not male and female, there
is neither homosexual nor heterosexual; for you are all one in Christ
American Psychological Association. “Answers to Your Questions About Sexual
Orientation and Homosexuality.” Washington: The American Psychological
Furnish, Victor Paul. The Moral Teaching of Paul: Selected Issues. 2nd
ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.
Martin, Dale B. Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical
Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press,
Moral Teaching of Paul, p. 65.
2. Some have argued that Mark 10:6–9 and Jude 6–7 should be added to the
list, but most scholars agree that these passages have nothing to do with
3. In the New Testament, see, for example, Matthew 15:19; Mark 7:21–22;
Luke 18:11; Romans 1:29–31; 13:13; 1 Corinthians 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians
12:20–21; Galatians 5:19–21; Ephesians 4:31; 5:3–5; Colossians 3:5–9; 1
Timothy 6:4–5; 2 Timothy 2:3–4; Titus 1:7; 3:3; 1 Peter 2:1; 4:3, 15; Revelation
9:21; 21:8; 22:15
4. In much of what follows, I am indebted to Dale B. Martin, Sex and
the Single Savior, pp. 37–50.
5. In terms of the dominant gender stereotyping, “feminine-like” behavior
on the part of men would be seen as “weakness,” while “masculine-like”
behavior on the part of women would be viewed as “hybris.”
Sex and the Single Savior, p. 39
Sex and the Single Savior, p. 43.
Sex and the Single Savior, pp. 38–43. To be sure, inclusion
in a list of “vices” suggests that the root meaning
has a negative connotation, but the basis for a connotation may be more
complicated than it appears. Just as malakoi may be essentially
“gynophobic,” arsenokoitai may also be “gynophobic” and even “misogynistic.”
It may refer to males who treat other males like females by dominating
or in some way—either literally or symbolically—emasculating them (the
implication being, of course, that it is perfectly acceptable and even
appropriate to treat females in this way).
9. For discussion, see, e.g., Furnish, The Moral Teaching of Paul,
pp. 67–72; see also pp. 58–67 and the entire chapter, pp. 52–82.
10. “Answers to Your Questions.”
Sex and the Single Savior, p. 57.
The Moral Teaching of Paul, p. 78.
O. Walker, Jr., is Jennie Farris
Railey King Professor Emeritus of Religion at Trinity University in San
Antonio, Texas where he served as a member of the faculty and as an administrator
until his retirement in 2002. He is the author of Interpolations in
the Pauline Letters (2001).
Copyright © 2008 by
Polebridge Press. All rights reserved.