As I was expressing relief about the SCOTUS decisions this week (Prop 8 and DOMA, the VRA is another story) I had a friend ask me how I dealt with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Here is my (lightly edited) response:
On 1 Corinthians 6 (and on the issue of sexuality in the Bible, in general) there are a several ways I work with the text.
The first problem is that both of the words in the list (malakoi and arsenokoitai) are really very difficult to translate. The NIV’s translation makes it look clear but the words may or may not be taken that way (the RSV opts for the more ambiguous, “sexual perverts”).
The second would be a time and culture specific argument. If Paul is speaking about homosexuality as we understand it today (which I don’t think he is, I’ll get there in a minute), we have to wrestle with the other things he said (even in 1 Corinthians!) that we do not find authoritative any more. Why is this issue the one we focus on? We no longer find it necessary that women cover their heads in prayer, for example. We also allow women to speak in church (at least in my denomination). Even in the list itself (1 Cor 6:9) we ignore the line about greed which is far more widespread than homosexuality. If we turn to Paul’s other letters, we no longer find the implicit acceptance of slavery in the household codes compelling. In short, there are many places where we recognize that Paul was addressing specific issues that were directed to specific people at a particular time. They are not always timeless truths (I am pretty sure that Paul was not consciously aware that he was writing scripture).
Moreover, when we talk about homosexuality in antiquity, we are dealing with something quite different that homosexuality today. Often homosexual relationships were between men of different power, often men with boys. In this way it was a fundamentally abusive relationship. The one in power took advantage of the one who was weak. This, as with many other sins in the Bible, was about injustice. Today, homosexuality has social and psychological factors that no writer in antiquity would have ever conceived of. I am convinced that Paul was condemning an unjust relationship of power and abuse, something that does not define homosexual relationships today.
Finally, I think that it is not the role of the civil government to enforce “Christian” values. I advocate out of my Christian call, but at the end of the day, the role of the government is to ensure equality and liberty for all. Culturally, homosexuality is not problematic for the vast majority of our citizens. In a democracy we should honor that. At the same time, those places where the majority opinion seems misguided (as in our constant saber rattling and corporate greed) I will continue to speak out against it.
What are your thoughts? What works about these arguments? What doesn’t?