Today, Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson wraps up his series on the Bible and homosexuality for the “On Faith” column in the Washington Post. He deals with the passages in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 that include lists of those excluded from the glories of the Kingdom of God. First, he takes up Corinthians:

In the letter to the Corinthians, amid the list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God, Paul uses two Greek words: malakoi arsenokoitai. The first is a common Greek word meaning “soft,” and elsewhere in scripture is used to describe a garment. Nowhere else in scripture is it used to describe a person. The early church seems to have understood it as a person with a “soft” or weak morality. Later, it would come to denote (and be translated as) those who engage in masturbation, or “those who abuse themselves.” In our own time, with masturbation having been more popularly accepted, this word has often been used to denote homosexuals. All we actually, factually, know about the word is that it meant “soft.”

Well, we do know a bit more than that, but Robinson may well be correct that malakoi doesn’t actually have sexual connotations. In any case, it’s the less important term used in 1 Corinthians 6:9 anyway.

The Greek word arsenokoitai is an even greater mystery. It is found nowhere else in Scripture – NOR is there any record of its being used in any other contemporaneous text. We have nothing, either internal to the scriptures nor external to them, to give us guidance as to its meaning.

This is simply incorrect. The word arsenokoitai is not quite as a big a mystery as Robinson, and other gay advocates, want us to believe. The word seems to be a compound of two Greek words, according to Peter Ould:

This is a fairly easy question to answer. The Greek word arsenokoites seems to derive itself from two other words – arsen and koite. Arsen literally means “man” and koite is usually translated as marital bed, sexual impurity (i.e. Rom 13:3) or sperm (and see Rom 9:10 where Paul uses the words koiten exousa to mean “get spermed”, or “conceived”). So the literal meaning is “man sex bed” which we would render as “man who has sex with man”.

This usage, in turn, seems to be based on the Septuagint translation of Leviticus 20:13, in which the terms ἄρσενος κοίτην (arsenos koiten) are used, meaning “a man who lies with a man.” Paul actuay preferred to use the Greek translation of the Old Testament in his letters, no doubt because his readers would be able to readily understand it, while most wouldn’t know Hebrew, so Paul would have to do his own translation of the Hebrew text for for his Greek readers. So what it looks like is that, in using arsenokoitai, Paul is simply reiterating the prohibition on homosexual behavior found in Leviticus 18 and 20, which is also an indication that these passages from the holiness code are not as irrelevant to Christians as Robinson would contend.

When such a mysterious word appears in an ancient text, the translator must do something with it. Even with commonly understood words, a translator has choices to make about which English word best communicates the word’s meaning. In the case of a completely unknown word like arsenokoitai, the danger of mistranslation is heightened. Many translators have chosen to take the two words together, understanding the Greek word for “soft” as applying to the receptive partner in male-to-male anal intercourse, and have taken the arsenokoitai to mean the active partner. This is speculation at best.

It is speculation, but only because of the question about whether malakoi has a sexual connotation or not. If it does, then this construction may make sense.

Others have speculated that this receptive/active relationship applies to a practice (which would have been known to Paul) in which an older man took a teenaged boy “under his wing,” taught him the ways of the world, and used him sexually. If this were its true meaning, we would all condemn such a practice as child abuse! No one is arguing for acceptance of such a practice.

This, on the other hand, does not, and is much more speculative. There is certainly nothing about the terms used in this passage, or the context in which they appear, that would indicate that they have anything to do with a specific sexual practice such as the one Robinson mentions.

First Timothy 1 gets short shrift:

The same pairing of words is used in Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, with no further light being shed on its meaning. Whatever its meaning, there is no reason to believe that homosexual men, as we now understand them, are the target of Paul’s condemnations.

What does this mean? Again, Paul is not condemning specific individuals, but rather what they do. The English Standard Version translates his words as “men who practice homosexuality,” which makes clear that it is the acts, rather than the orientation, that is in view. The weaselly expression “as we now understand them” is meant to suggest that since we know more about human sexuality than Paul did, we can safely put his views on the shelf, yest I suspect that Paul understood human sexuality, especially in its sinful expressions, far better than modern culture does.

Whatever one makes of these seven “texts of terror,” it seems clear that they must not be used in the service of condemning homosexuality as we know it today. Simply stated, the Bible does not speak to the questions we are asking today about men and women who are affectionally oriented toward people of the same gender. Taken in their own contexts, these texts speak to situations and from understandings different from our own.

Whatever else you can say about Robinson’s articles, I think it is fair to say that he has not established anything he says in this paragraph. He makes a few references to the mainline lodestone for gay relationships, the “committed, life-long, monogamous” partnerships that are actually pretty rare among at least male homosexuals, and assumes that since those mimic elements of heterosexual marriage they are therefore exempt from Scripture’s condemnation of homosexual acts. That’s a position that can be accepted by the church only through a transformation of our doctrine of God such that we can buy the idea that God can and does contradict Himself in response to the supposed “progress” of human culture.

Let me be clear. I am not asserting that the Bible speaks affirmatively of same gender, intimate, sexual relationships. All seven of these passages are negative. They simply are not addressing the questions we are asking in light of modern understandings of psycho-sexual relationships.

There is much, however, in scripture about compassion for one’s fellow human beings, a call for empathy and justice for the marginalized, and a standard of honesty, mutuality and love in all relationships. Therefore, I would argue that Holy Scripture gives us great and lasting guidance for the conduct of our relationships, one with another, whether they be with strangers, friends, or intimate, life-long partners. But a wholesale condemnation of the loving relationships of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people? No!

That we are called to compassion for gays, to minister to them in love and truth, is beyond question. By obfuscating the meaning of Scripture, by suggesting that God has changed His mind about what is right and wrong, by telling us that what Scripture has to say about an important aspect of human sexual behavior is irrelevant, and by congratulating moderns on their “advanced understanding” of sexuality, Robinson does not serve the cause of truth. That will inevitably undermine the effectiveness of any ministry we hope to have to gays if it is embraced by the mainline churches. Sad to say, several of those denominations are already a long way down the road to caving into the culture, and putting their stamp of approval on what God has said is wrong.