Metropolitan Community Church                South London
‘Man-Lyers’ and Other Strange Phrases
                     (1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10)

Any consideration of New Testament statements regarding same-sex acts must carefully take into account the social context of the Greco-Roman culture in which Paul lived, ministered and wrote.  Prostitution and pederasty (sexual relationships between adult men and boys) were the most commonly known male-to-male sex-acts.  In Paul's time, pederasty was a common status symbol for rich – and generally heterosexual - Roman men who most certainly had or owned wives, children, slaves, land and property.

In 1 Corinthians 6:9 Paul condemns those who are “morally weak” and “abusers of themselves with mankind.” (malakoi oute arsenokoitai).  Unfortunately, a large proportion of translations render these words “effeminate” and “homosexuals” or “homosexual offenders”, which is poor translation in the extreme and actually makes complete nonsense of what Paul is talking about here.  A simple application of good scholarship reveals the misleading information of such appalling mistranslations.  The first word, ‘malakoi’ in the Greek text, refers to a person who lacks moral fibre and discipline; they are morally soft or unrestrained.  The word is used elsewhere in the New Testament and never with reference to sexuality, as in Matthew 11:8 where it refers to ‘soft’ clothing; it is also used in reference to ‘soft’ or ‘warm’ butter in other Greek literature of the period.  The second word, ‘arsenokoitai’, occurs once here, in 1 Corinthians and again, in 1 Timothy 1:10, but almost nowhere else in other literature of the period.  It comes from the compounding of two words.  ‘Arseno’, simply meaning ‘men’ or ‘male humans’, and ‘Koitai’, which comes from ‘bedroom’ or ‘bed’ and euphemistically means ‘lying’ with, or ‘having sex’ with, someone - more precisely, it refers to the one who actively penetrates.  In short, the phrase translates quite literally as ‘men-lyer’, ‘men-sleeper’ or more graphically, ‘men-penetrator.’

When the two words are joined together, the meaning becomes, at best, obscure.  Does ‘man’ refer to the gender of the sexual agent, or the object of the sexual act?  In other words, does arsenokoitai mean a man who has sex with others, or does it mean a man who has sex with men?  In the first case it refers to a man who is the active partner during intercourse with anyone.  In the second case the word refers specifically to a man who is the active partner during intercourse with another man.  However, from the words alone, it cannot be ascertained which of these meanings (or any other meaning for that matter) is intended.  Language is not always logical.  In English, the phrase ‘out of sight, out of mind’ could be literally translated elsewhere as ‘invisible idiot’, even though it is understood to mean that something not in immediate view is not something missed or longed for.  Similarly, ‘lady killer’ refers neither to a woman who kills nor to a killer whose victims are women, but rather to a man who is utterly charming and charismatic in his interaction with women.  

Scholars tend to differ on the full extent of Paul’s intended meaning of ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’, but most of them generally agree that he is referring to some form of prostitution, either relating to the paid-for-pleasure of others, or self-gain through the cultivation of someone wealthy – and often elderly - in order to inherit their estates.  The Roman poet and societal satirist Juvenal comments on exactly this kind of (heterosexual) affair in his work.  Those scholars who do not view ‘malakoi’ and ‘arsenokoitai’ as prostitution understand Paul’s meaning to be the sexual abuse and exploitation of children: ‘malakoi’ being a ‘soft’ boy or girl and ‘arsenokoitai’ being the active, much older adult male.  In short, they take Paul’s reference to mean a form of paedophilia.  This would certainly make far greater sense of why “kidnappers” is included in the list of sins noted in 1 Timothy 1:9-10.  It was not uncommon for young slaves to be abused as objects of lust, or even purchased specifically for the purpose.  As a consequence, attractive girls and boys were sometimes kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery.   

In both 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy ‘arsenokoitai’ occurs in a list of various ‘sinners’ who will not inherit the Kingdom of God.  However, the Kingdom of God is not a theme found in any of Paul’s teaching.  Most likely, Paul is repeating a current day list of immoral and criminal behaviour that anyone might refer to as reflecting society’s ills at that time.  He is not especially concerned with any individual item and neither writes at length about, nor returns to, a single one of them; he simply reminds his readers of the evils of the day in order to encourage them to be good people and not undertake any such deplorable behaviour.  Paul’s list covers widely accepted wrongs that people generally decried in society then, in much the same way we might list drug abuse, gang violence, binge-drinking, mugging, paedophile activity and conning or scamming people (especially the elderly), as a modern list of widely accepted wrongs. 

In conclusion, the condemnation Paul expresses in these verses is not of homosexuality or same-sex acts in general but of wanton, lewd, exploitative and abusive sex, possibly between men though not necessarily exclusively so.  Across the entire range of sexual matters, the Scriptures call for mutual respect, caring and responsible sharing:  in a loaded word, love.  The violation of these virtues specifically, but not sex in general, is what the Bible condemns.  The lesson to be learned from in the verses of 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy is that this principle applies equally to heterosexuality and homosexuality.

                                                                                                                                                           Elaine Ambrose, M.Th
                                                                                                                                                                                            April, 2010