Revised: July 1, 2015, to shorten some long quotations and streamline the article. I also removed the “Other Arguments” section that Vines did not use and made it into a new article in order to shorten this one more. It’s still 3500+ words, but it’s an important topic.
In Part I, I reviewed the pro-gay relationship interpretations of the Old Testament, as presented by Matthew Vines, and found them wanting. It gets even worse in the New Testament, as it is here that we see the most egregious errors in interpretation.
Romans 1: Does “unnatural” mean “unnatural for them”?
First, Vines turns to Romans 1:25-26, which states:
26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.
As straightforward as this sounds, Vines and others argue that reading this as a universal condemnation of homosexual behavior is to read the passage grossly out of context. He claims:
Paul’s argument about idolatry requires that there be an exchange; the reason, he says, that the idolaters are at fault is because they first knew God but then turned away from him, exchanged Him for idols. Paul’s reference to same-sex behavior is intended to illustrate this larger sin of idolatry. But in order for this analogy to have any force, in order for it to make sense within this argument, the people he is describing must naturally begin with heterosexual relations and then abandon them. And that is exactly how he describes it.
Vines goes on to argue that, because the alleged behavior here is straight people turning to homosexual behavior (basically, it is unnatural only for heterosexuals), it is not a condemnation of homosexual behavior in itself because most people who display homosexual behavior do so because of their orientation. It is therefore equally sinful if a homosexual person participated in heterosexual acts that went against his nature.
There is so much wrong here that it is difficult to know where to begin. First, let us start with his contention that “natural” in this context simply means exchanging what an individual has for something contrary to it. Let us look at the sections before and after the above cited passage:
21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.
24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen…
28 Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.
Is Paul primarily concerned about idolatry? Yes, and that isn’t exactly an insightful thing to point out. However, the whole point of the argument is that by rejecting God, people fall into sinful behavior, which is not just sinful for them but sinful, period. For Vines to make sense, we’d have to argue that heartlessness is not a sinful attitude as long as the person is allegedly heartless by nature, which is absurd.
Vines claims that Paul’s point on idolatry only makes sense if pagans began with a heterosexual orientation and did something different, but this is not what the passage says. The passage clearly states that the idolaters exchanged the truth about God, which they should have seen, for a lie. In other words, what Paul has in mind is the exchange of what is intrinsically true and good with what is false and foolish. This is what Paul means by “natural” in this passage. For the parallelism of all of these “exchanges” to make sense, we must read that heterosexual relations are, in and of themselves, “natural” and true, while homosexual relations are not, or else verses 26-27 stand out as pretty strange outliers. This “exchange” language is not individualistic (as if Paul is envisioning every single pagan to be making a literal choice to exchange), but as whole, the pagan world has rejected God and has turned to that what is contrary to God’s designs.
What is odd is that Vines admits that he is applying modern concepts of sexual orientation onto the passage but nonetheless believes that, indeed, that is precisely the point! Paul did not know of homosexuality as an orientation, so he could not have spoken on it. However, if this is the case (and as we shall see later, this is wrong), then Vines undermines his own interpretation because Paul would not be making a distinction between who is homosexual by “nature” or not: What we see in the passage is not Paul saying, “Don’t go against your orientation or nature,” but rather a sweeping condemnation on certain actions and desires because by their very nature, they are sinful. Even if we grant that Paul did not think of homosexuality as a disposition or orientation, he obviously knew what homosexual acts are, and this passage states his view on such acts pretty clearly.
It would be enough to stop here because the rest of Vines’ word study on “nature” is rendered moot because of his poor treatment of the passage, but I will spend some time discussing it. First off, it’s important to note how dangerous and deceptive word studies can be. They can be very helpful at times (and will be helpful in dealing with 1 Corinthians 6), but they are considered among the most difficult of exegetical tools to use because they are so easily misused. We all know, intuitively, that words can have very different meanings based on context, and just because the same word is used elsewhere even by the same author does not guarantee that it is used the same way.
Thus, we are in no way obligated to think that “if we’re going to be consistent as well as historically accurate in our biblical interpretation, then we need to acknowledge for Romans 1 what we already do for 1 Corinthians 11: the term ‘nature’ here refers to social custom, not to the biological order, and it is a culturally specific term.” This is not the space to delve into 1 Corinthians 11 in full (I think his treatment of it is rather simplistic), but it is enough to simply point out the fallacy of assuming that the same word must mean the same thing in two different contexts, a very elementary mistake in interpretation. After all, Paul is obviously not arguing in Romans 1 that it is merely “customary” for people to not murder, envy, slander, etc.; he is calling all of these things out as sins, the products of idolatry. It would be quite odd for Paul to change gears just for the subject of sexual relations. In fact, the best way to take “nature” here, not only based on typical Hellenistic-Jewish ethical uses of the term but more importantly upon the passage itself, is that “nature” refers to God’s created order. That which is “unnatural” or “against nature” would go against the Creator.
Arsenokoitai and Malakos
The next passages in question are 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10, which are translated:
9 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The two words of concern are arsenokoitai and malakos, which are translated “male prostitutes” and “homosexual offenders” in the NIV above (1984). These two words are uncommon, with these being the only instances of arsenokoitai in the New Testament. Arsenokoitai is a compound word, with arsen meaning “male” and koitai meaning, “bed,” so basically, with a sexual connotation, “men who sleep with other men.” This seems like an obvious reference to homosexual relations, but Vines does not think so.
To Vines’ credit, he starts off with some really good advice regarding word studies like this; simply looking at the parts of a compound word, such as “butterfly,” doesn’t necessarily tell us what the compound words mean. However, Vines’ follows up this good advice with some bad history and logic:
The problem with the word “abusers of themselves with mankind” – arsenokoites – is that it was used extremely rarely in ancient Greek. In fact, Paul’s use of it in 1 Corinthians is considered to be its first recorded use anywhere. And after Paul, the few places that it appears tend to be in lists of general vices, which are not the most helpful of contexts. Fortunately, however, many of these lists are grouped by category, and this Greek word consistently appears among sins that are of a primarily economic nature rather than those that are primarily sexual. This and some other contextual data indicate that this term referred to some kind of economic exploitation, likely through sexual means. This may have involved forms of same-sex behavior, but coercive and exploitative forms. There is no contextual support for linking this term to loving, faithful relationships.
Vines commits a few errors here. To start, he makes the same mistake as he made above in being too quick to assume that a word in one context must mean the same thing in another. Next, while he does try to use other Greek texts (as he should), he misrepresents them. While the usage of the term was not terribly common (not surprising, considering the likelihood that Paul coined it) and its usage changed over time (as with many words), there are many instances where arsenokoitai connotes homosexual behavior in a general sense and not just in an exploitative sense, such as with Eusebius, Chrysostom, and Aristedes.
Also, Vines does not mention how the Latin, Syriac, and Coptic translations handle the text. While these are translations, they are nonetheless useful to look at to see the history of translation and interpretation, and all three translate the word to reflect general homosexual behavior. Fourth, and most importantly, Vines does not delve into why Paul would use such a term. It was not uncommon for Greek speakers to coin compound words, so in this case, why would Paul do it and where did it come from? For someone who used the Septuagint frequently, the likely answer is from Leviticus 18 and 20. This is more clearly seen in the fact that there are many allusions to the holiness code in Paul’s writings, including 1 Corinthians itself, with chapter 6 listing vices that are all in Leviticus 18-20 except for drunkenness. The Septuagint, a collection of Greek translations of the Old Testament, render the Hebrew miskab zakar, which means “lying with a male,” into arsen koiten, juxtaposing “male” and “bed,” and it is incredibly strong evidence that Paul put these two words together to allude to a Jewish text he was very aware of. This Greek translation of Leviticus is not mentioned by Vines at all and not only undermines his interpretation in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, it undermines his handling of the Leviticus passages.
One may ask: Is it not a contradiction to say that, on the one hand, etymology is typically not always reliable, but to use it here? The issue here is that we are dealing with the probable origin of the term, as even Vines admits, in which case etymology becomes a lot more useful. In most cases, that is not the situation, because terms change usages based on context and time and it’s difficult to pinpoint the beginnings of a word. Here, however, since this is the first recorded instance of the word, it makes more sense to use etymology. Indeed, what is the better method:
1) Relying on selected usages of the term from many, many years after Paul, who seemed to be the one who coined the term, while ignoring many others, or
2) Seeing that Paul, a learned Jew who uses the Septuagint frequently throughout his letters, coined a word from Leviticus and a moral code he alludes to in the same passage.
I think the answer is obvious. Thus, contrary to Vines and other interpreters, the homosexual passages in Leviticus are indeed affirmed in the New Testament, and we have ample evidence of that here. The use of the word in 1 Timothy is not much different and carries similar analysis. “Male prostitutes,” as in the 1984 NIV, is therefore not a good translation, which is why the 2011 NIV, for all the criticism lobbed at it, correctly changes this to general homosexual behavior.
What about malakos? Malakos literally means “soft,” which can have a neutral meaning, but in the context of morality it typically has a negative connotation. Basically, if one is “soft” in this sense, he is lazy, cowardly, or degenerate, or perhaps weak-willed in a way to be effeminate (which is the way the KJV translates it). It would be similar to calling someone a “wimp” for not standing for the right thing. It could also, in a negative way, refer to the passive partner in homosexual relations; essentially, it is referring to the fact that the male is in a sexual role that is quintessentially female, which is the way most translations read this.
Vines concedes that malakos can be used this way, but argues that since it does not always mean that, we have no reason to translate it in that manner and should go back to “the ambiguity that prevailed for more than 1,900 years of translation.” Vines continues to ignore the context of the passage in favor of illegitimate word studies and also uses some curious logic. First, let’s grant that he is correct about the ambiguity of malakos: In what way does this mean that there is no condemnation on homosexual relationships? His reasoning is that because malakos can apply to a broad spectrum of actions or attitudes, it need not be exclusively linked to homosexuality, even though sometimes it can be. However, even if that is the case here, all that means is that we should think of other activities to be included along with homosexuality, rather than thinking that this excludes homosexuality. It’s a bit like saying that because the concept of a rectangle includes more than just a square, we are not justified to think that general descriptions that apply to a rectangle also apply to a square, which is obviously absurd.
Second, it is strange that he is appealing to the history of translation to attempt to support his argument when he jettisoned all of it in his treatment of arsenokoitai (and Romans 1… and Leviticus 18 and 19… and Genesis 19). Why is history important here but not there? Of course, it is false that it is really as ambiguous as he thinks it is during those 1,900 years, but even if we grant that, his argument is inconsistent.
Furthermore, there is actually good reason to see a homosexual meaning in this particular passage. As mentioned above, there are clear allusions to Leviticus in this passage, and then in the passage right after, Paul talks about the grievousness of sexual sin. In addition, contrary to the King James Version and NASB, it is unlikely that Paul would be thinking of general “effeminate” behavior; he is fairly specific in his vice list and it would be out of place to be so general, especially if that generality may negatively cast light on women (contrary to feminists, Paul is not a misogynist). For Paul, it would make sense to cover not only the active, penetrating partner in a homosexual relationship (arsenokoitai), but also the passive one. This makes clear that homosexuality in general, active or passive, does not belong in a Christian lifestyle, consistent with the codes in Leviticus.
As we can see, these arguments simply do not hold water. We have good reason to take arsenokoitai to either refer to general homosexual behavior or the active partner in a homosexual relationship, and we also have good reason to see that malakos carries with it a homosexual connotation in this passage. Even if we were to broaden the latter to include more “soft” moral behavior, that would still include homosexuality in the eyes of Paul and would not change the meaning of arsenokoitai or Romans 1. This misuse of word studies and bad logic do not make for a convincing argument.
The Danger of Itching Ears and the Hope of the Gospel
I’m going to say this as gently as I can: These arguments are old, basically taken almost verbatim from scholars in the 80’s like Boswell, and they are also quite poor. I try to be someone who is very tolerant of a wide range of interpretations because I know there are certain passages in Scripture that are difficult to understand, but the arguments above are examples of completely unacceptable hermeneutics. Many of these passages are actually not that difficult to understand, and it takes a great deal of exegetical gymnastics to try to get them to say something entirely different. Honestly, I have far more respect for arguments that outright reject the Bible’s authority on this matter because that shows far greater consistency than claiming to take Scripture as God’s Word and yet resorting to such irresponsible interpretive methods.
Basically, what we see here is what we call “eisegesis”: Reading something foreign to the text into the text. In this case, what they are reading into the text is the assumption that homosexuals are created that way by God and that the biblical writers had no idea that this was the case. Since they start out with this presupposition, as I pointed out in the beginning of Part I, that leads them to assume every negative mention of homosexuality is either about exploitative sex, such as in 1 Corinthians 6, or inapplicable to someone who is homosexual “by nature” and who seeks a monogamous relationship, such as in Romans 1.
This assumption is unwarranted for several reasons: One, it is still up for debate whether or not someone is a homosexual completely by “nature.” This is not to deny that there are both biological and environmental factors involved, but to claim that orientation is completely genetic has yet to be supported by strong scientific evidence and philosophical argument. Two, it is inaccurate to think that Paul and other ancient people would be ignorant of people who have a different sexual preference. We have evidence from ancient times that they were very much aware of men who only wished to be with other men and, if they did marry a woman, only did so due to societal pressures. They would not have conceived of it as explicitly as some modern psychologists do, but contrary to Vines’ interpretation of Romans 1, Paul would have been aware that, indeed, some people are inclined to have sexual relations with their own gender over the opposite one. It is thus very likely that Paul is not only condemning homosexual acts but the very desire to be with someone of the same gender (“burned with lust”), which is not part of God’s created order. Third, even if we grant the assumption that homosexuals are simply born with their orientation, none of these passages permit a homosexual lifestyle. As stated before, even if we agree that Paul has no conception of someone who is inclined to his or her own gender, he obviously knows what homosexual relations are and forbids them.
I’ll repeat the warning at the beginning of Part I: It is easy to just hear what our itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3-5). “Itching ears” is idiomatic in Greek, meaning people who simply wish to hear teaching that is novel and pleasing to them. These pro-gay interpreters provide an especially obvious example of this, but we are all prone to do this because it is not always easy to listen to the challenging words of Scripture if they close to home. If we call ourselves Christians under Scripture’s authority, we must allow the text to speak on its own terms and stand in judgment of us.
Therefore, I exhort Christians as Paul exhorted Timothy: Keep your head. Don’t fall into the rhetorical traps of the surrounding culture and resort to name-calling when someone points out clear sin. Stand for biblical truth, however unpopular it may be. Nonetheless, I also want to quote Paul’s reminder to the Corinthian church, which comes right after Paul’s listing of sins in 6:9-10:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor. 6:11)
If we claim to be Christian, we were once on that boat and undoubtedly still struggle with sin. But sin no longer has such a complete hold on us because were justified and washed by Jesus. This hope is available to everyone else as well. We are not trying to simply condemn homosexuals because Christ came for them as he did for all people, but we do nobody any favors by pretending something is not a sin when Scripture clearly teaches that it is. That is not loving; that is misleading. For people to understand the Gospel, they must understand that they have a need for a Savior, and that implies a conviction of sin. If we are unclear on that, then non-Christians get an incomplete gospel and Christians get no instruction on how to mature and grow in their walk with their Lord. This passage, then, is a message of hope but also of judgment: Christ can and will deliver one from a past life of sin, including homosexuality, but as 9-10 teach, those who continually remain in that sinful state either show an immature faith or no faith at all.