“With I Cor 6,” booms Anderson, “people think they’ve hit the sodomy jackpot.” Paul’s letter, after all, is written to Christian believers in Corinth (i.e. saved people), and it speaks of some of them having been arsenokoitai before being saved. How to square this with Rom 1:18-32 and the uncompromising outlook of the bible in general, which portrays sodomites as reprobates who cannot change and are worthy of destruction?
For the uninitiated (and do watch the above video clip), Pastor Steven Anderson has detailed views of sodomy derived from the bible. He notes that God never sends preachers to save sodomites. God doesn’t treat a Sodom the way he does a Nineveh. He doesn’t send prophets to warn homosexuals of imminent destruction and to give them a chance to repent. In the case of Sodom, he sent angels to have them remove the single righteous man before raining hellfire on the city. Israel’s righteous kings followed suit. Asa cast the sodomites out of the land (I Kings 15:12), and his son Jehoshaphat scourged the pockets of sodomites that his father missed (I Kings 22:46). In a later time, Josiah broke down the houses of sodomites as part of his zealous purge (II Kings 23:7). Nowhere in the bible is mercy shown to a sodomite in the way, for instance, that Jesus forgives an adulteress about to be stoned.
The explanation for all this, according to Anderson, is found in Rom 1. Though everyone is born with a sin nature — with natural tendencies to lie, slander, covet, steal, envy, murder, fornicate, rape, commit adultery, etc. — even the most wicked people are not tempted with “vile affections” (Rom 1:26), which God must give them over to. These are things which are “not convenient” (Rom 1:28), or not at hand within the framework of normal human inclinations. Vile affections, according to our pastor, would include homosexuality, pedophilia, bestiality, the mere thought of which are so repulsive that a process must take place before someone can become deranged enough to engage in any of them.
That process is shown by the genesis of a reprobate described in Rom 1:18-28. A reprobate is someone who has been rejected by God (cf. Jer 6:30) and beyond the scope of salvation. Reprobates, moreover, are made that way by God after they continually deny him of their free will. Although God initially loves them (he wants everyone to be saved, which is why he died “for everyone” on the cross, per Rom 5:18), he gives them up, gives them over to vile affections, when they continue rebelling against him with extraordinary rancor. He turns them into beasts, according to Anderson — reprobates who are irrevocably damned.
So then what about I Cor 6:9-11?
Anderson begins with a cautionary comparison to Jas 2. Brandishing I Cor 6 to prove that sodomites can be saved, when every other biblical passage indicates otherwise, is like saying Jas 2 proves that salvation is by works. Or perhaps like saying that Romans 11 proves that ethnic Israel will be saved, instead of the spiritual Israel (of Jewish and Gentile Christians) evoked elsewhere. “If the bible is replete with one idea,” says Anderson, “and you find a single passage which seems to imply something different, which do you think you might be misunderstanding?” (The obvious retort is that both could be correct if we’re not working under fundamentalist assumptions, but Anderson won’t have that.)
Here’s the passage. I’ll use the King James, since that’s the version Anderson accepts.
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind [arsenokoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.
For all the problems of the King James, the translation here isn’t so bad. “Abusers of themselves with mankind” (used also by the ERV and American Standard) preserves the ambiguity of the phrase arsenokoitai better than many bibles which incorrectly supply “homosexuals” or “sodomites”.
Anderson is probably correct that arsenokoitai does not refer to sodomy per se, but to a certain form of same-sex activity involving abuse or coercion. Perhaps, he suggests, “abusers of themselves with others” engaged in homo-erotic sex as either an unwilling partner (especially kids or teens), or in a drunken state of mind. But this would mean arsenokoitai are primarily victims of same-sex abuse, not the abusers themselves. Victim-blaming is par for the course in honor-shame cultures, and so wouldn’t be terribly surprising if Paul did that, but we do need a closer look.
Biblical scholars have debated the meaning of arsenokoitai, because I Cor 6 is literally the first time the term ever appears in Greek literature. Many wonder if Paul coined it. And in the first 300 years of Christian history, when theologians wrote about homosexual/sodomite practices, they never used the term. They never mentioned the passage of I Cor 6. They used the passage of Romans, which clearly refers to sodomy. So whatever arsenokoitai meant, it wasn’t a clear-cut euphemism for sodomy or homo-eroticism. To this extent, Anderson is on the right track.
The word comes from arsen, which means “male”, and koite, which means “bed”, and given the fact that Paul also condemns effeminacy (malakoi) right before, he probably has in view both the passive (“effeminate”) and active (“abusers of themselves”) partners in pederastic relationships. This was a common phenomenon in antiquity (certainly in Corinth), in which an older male “kept” a boy or hired a boy as his “mistress”. Boys hitting puberty would often shave themselves and use powder to keep their pederast-relations going instead of breaking them off. So yes, Paul does do a bit of victim-blaming here of sorts — but not with the term Anderson thinks. Those who are “effeminate” (malakoi) are the passive youths. The “abusers of themselves with others” (arsenokoitai) are the active abusers, the older men. Anderson is too quick to dismiss the category of “effeminate” as irrelevant to the discussion. The meaning of this term is precisely what he wants the other term to mean. “Abusers of themselves with others”, unfortunately for him, does imply active sodomy, though admittedly in the restricted context of pederast relationships.
Anderson makes another point — that Paul isn’t necessarily implying that every single thing on his list of vices applied to the Corinthians. Paul seems to be rattling off a standard list, and then says “such were some of you”, meaning that some of the Corinthians had surely once been guilty of at least something on the list. He isn’t saying that some of the Corinthians used to be fornicators, some used to be idolaters, some used to be adulterers, some used to be effeminate, some used to be abusers of themselves, and all down the line. I think Anderson is right about this, but it doesn’t mean much, because it cuts both ways; we have no idea which items on the list applied to the believers in Corinth. (Idolaters is the only sure bet.)
In essence, Anderson’s strategy is to minimize the possibility that arsenokoitai applied to any of the letter’s (Christian) recipients, and on the assumption that it did, to minimize the possibility that the term refers to active sodomy by blaming the victim instead of the abuser. He’s half successful on both counts. There may or may not have been church members who had been same-sex “abusers”. If there were, it’s the “effeminate” who would have been the passive or unwilling youths, whom Paul does indeed hold accountable for their activity. “Abusers of themselves with others” would have been the older men, who lusted for those same-sex youths. They were a particular kind of sodomite, and — sorry pastor — Paul does imply that such abusers can be saved, and that they can turn from their behavior.
How to reconcile that with what Paul says in Rom 1 — that sodomites in general have been given over that way by God, and cannot be redeemed — will be the subject of a later post.