“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Whoever determines the meaning of words has the power to frame the debate.
If I say that your disagreement with me means that you hate me, and if others believe my statement, then you’ve lost the argument, because you’ll be written off in the public’s mind as a cruel person. Thus your words come from hate, and you have no credibility. What you actually say will no longer be examined on its own merit, because you’ve been, essentially, disqualified.
That’s the power of definitions, and nowhere does it hold as true as when we debate the Bible. If we agree that it’s authoritative, then our controversy isn’t over whether or not the Bible should be obeyed, but rather, over what it does or doesn’t say.
Matthew Vines, openly gay and identified as an Evangelical Christian, says in his new book God and the Gay Christian that the Bible is God’s inspired word, and that it does not condemn homosexuality, therefore there’s no conflict between homosexuality and Christianity. In our last five posts we’ve looked at how he concludes this when reading Genesis, Leviticus, the Gospel and Romans. Today let’s look at his interpretation of two short but key passages in the New Testament: I Corinthians 6: 9-10 and I Timothy 1:9-10.
New Debates over an Old Word
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God.” -I Corinthians 6: 9-10
“Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for the murderers of fathers and the murderers of mothers, for fornicators, for abusers of themselves with mankind, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to
sound doctrine.” -I Timothy 1: 9-10
In most modern Bibles, the King James phrase “abusers of themselves with mankind” (used above) is translated “homosexuals”, or “sodomites”, or “male homosexual offenders.” And with good reason. The Greek word which the phrase “abusers of themselves with mankind” is translated from is arsenokoite, a combination of two Greek terms found in the New Testament: “Arsane” (meaning “male”) and “Koite” (meaning “counch” or “bed” with a sexual connotation.) For example, Paul used “koite” in Romans 13:13 when he warned against fornication by saying “Let us not walk in chambering (koite)”. The author of Hebrews used the term in a similar though more positive way when he wrote, “Marriage is honorable in all things, and the marriage bed (koite) is undefiled.” (Hebrews 13:4)
Vines rightfully points out that the word was rarely used in writings of Paul’s time, and seems to be a phrase he himself coined. There we agree. But then he employs what I consider to be some fancy footwork while dancing around Paul’s
He admits Paul may have meant the term to condemn homosexuality, but then reminds us of his earlier argument (responded to in our previous two postings) that Paul’s concept of homosexuality was very different than the loving and committed relationships we see between same sex couples today.
I’ve noted in this series that we should, in fairness, recognize that same sex couples often can and do love each other deeply; I’ve likewise argued that love cannot by itself justify a relationship, since a married man can deeply love a woman other than his wife, but the relationship between them would still be adulterous and wrong. So yes, homosexual couples may love each other, and no, that alone doesn’t justify homosexuality.
Still, I also have to note that much modern homosexual behavior is in fact casual, anonymous, highly promiscuous, and utterly absent anything equating love. The same could be said for much current heterosexual behavior, certainly, but my point is that it’s a stretch to imply that all modern homosexuality is expressed in loving commitments, because it surely isn’t.
Regardless, Vine’s argument that Paul’s understanding of homosexuality was limited is one we’ve already taken up in this series (see Part IV and V). But having repeated that argument, Vines goes further in saying Paul probably wasn’t talking about homosexuality at all in this verse. Citing later uses of the word arsenokoite in other writings, he concludes that the word is at least ambiguous and most likely referred to men who were immoral, or to male prostitutes.
But Strong’s Concordance of the Greek New Testament translates arseonkoite to mean “a Sodomite”, in obvious reference to Sodom and homosexuality. The Arndt-Gingrich Greek Lexicon translates it “a male who practices homosexuality, pederast, sodomite”, and cites Romans 1:27 as an example. Thayer’s Greek Lexicon has the same take on the word; indeed, according to Timothy Dailey’s The Bible, Church, and Homosexuality, no lexicon can be found that doesn’t specifically equate arsenokoite with male homosexuality.
So Why Did Paul Coin a New Phrase for an Old Sin?
Paul’s coining of a new term isn’t out of character, as he coined 179 terms in the New Testament. It’s especially unremarkable that he would have coined this one, considering the words it’s made of and, more importantly, the source he seems to have drawn the phrase from.
First, though, let’s acknowledge one of Vine’s good points: a word can indeed be used different ways, sometimes confusing it’s original meaning. In later writings arsenokoite was, as Vine’s notes, used to mean some things other than a male homosexual. Sometimes it was written in a more general sense to describe someone who was sexually lewd or generally wicked. That doesn’t change Paul’s intended meaning of the word; it only shows, rather, how a word’s original meaning can be broadened.
For example, in modern English, the word “whore”, which technically means “prostitute”, is often used to also describe a woman who is morally loose, even though she doesn’t literally sell herself for sex and is not, therefore, a true prostitute. Likewise, some may refer to a cruel, thoughtless man as a “bastard”, a term literally referring to someone born out of wedlock, but figuratively used to malign someone’s general character. In both cases, we may know the speaker’s intent, while recognizing he’s technically and linguistically in error.
The same may be said for arsenokoite, but a look at the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament – confirms Paul’s original intention when using the phrase.
The word is the Greek translation of the verses found in Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20: 13, where sex between men is expressly forbidden. So in Greek, the Hebrew condemnations of homosexuality from Leviticus are translated and appear as follows:
“Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman”(Leviticus 18:22)
“— meta arsenos ou koimethese koiten gyniakos”
“If a man lies with a man as with a woman, they have committed an abomination —“ (Leviticus 20: 13) “— hos an koimethe meta arsenos koiten gynaikos”
When Paul adopted the term arsenokoite, his intent couldn’t have been clearer. He employed Greek terms from the Old Testament prohibitions and applied them to modern language. The best attempts to revise his meaning fall short of a convincing argument, leaving us with the interpretation, and the clear intention of word and verse, that we’ve had all along.
Next we’ll post our final part in this series, summarizing our main points and discussing what needs to be done in today’s church, in response to the claims of Vines and other pro-gay apologists. Please join us.