Abusus Non Tollit Usum

Just Because Something Is Misused Does Not Mean It Cannot Be Used Correctly.

Churches of Christ generally see the Bible as historically accurate and literal, unless scriptural context obviously indicates otherwise. Regarding church practices, worship, and doctrine, there is great liberty from congregation to congregation in interpreting what is biblically permissible, as congregations are not controlled by a denominational hierarchy. Their approach to the Bible is driven by the “assumption that the Bible is sufficiently plain and simple to render its message obvious to any sincere believer”. Related to this is an assumption that the Bible provides an understandable “blueprint” or “constitution” for the church. Historically, three hermeneutic approaches have been used among Churches of Christ.

  • Analysis of commands, examples, and necessary inferences;
  • Dispensational analysis distinguishing between Patriarchal, Mosaic and Christian dispensations; and
  • Grammatico-historical analysis.

The relative importance given to each of these three strategies has varied over time and between different contexts. The general impression in the current Churches of Christ is that the group’s hermeneutics are entirely based on the command, example, inference approach. In practice, interpretation has been deductive, and heavily influenced by the group’s central commitment to ecclesiology and soteriology. Inductive reasoning has been used as well, as when all of the conversion accounts from the book of Acts are collated and analyzed to determine the steps necessary for salvation. More generally, the classical grammatico-historical method is prevalent, which provides a basis for some openness to alternative approaches to understanding the scriptures.  Therefore, I am going to use these approaches to look at the New Testament scriptures concerning homosexuality.

The Gay Christian organization Soulforce is a wonderful resource for study, particularly, their publication, What the Bible Says–And Doesn’t Say–About Homosexuality.  The Rev. Dr. Mel White, the co-founder of Soulforce, discusses in this publication, in his “Fifth Premise,” the six biblical texts that are used by some people to condemn homosexuality.  He explains what Genesis 2:21-25 (The Creation Story), 19:1-14 (The Story of Sodom), Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 (The Holiness Code), Romans 1:26-27 (Natural and Unnatural), and 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 (The Mystery of “Malakois” and “Arsenokoitai”) says about homosexuality.  As a member of the Church of Christ, there is really no need to study what the Old Testament in Genesis and Leviticus have to say about homosexuality because those laws were overridden by the New Covenant/New Testament of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, this post will focus on the Pauline Epistles that many use to condemn homosexuality.

For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.—Romans 1:26-27.

Paul is writing this letter to Rome after his missionary tour of the Mediterranean. On his journey Paul had seen great temples built to honor Aphrodite, Diana, and other fertility gods and goddesses of sex and passion instead of the one true God the apostle honors. Apparently, these priests and priestesses engaged in some odd sexual behaviors — including castrating themselves, carrying on drunken sexual orgies, and even having sex with young temple prostitutes (male and female) — all to honor the gods of sex and pleasure.  Did these priests and priestesses get into these behaviors because they were lesbian or gay? I don’t think so. Did God abandon them because they were practicing homosexuals? No. Read the text again.

In the Soulforce video, There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, the Rev. Dr. Louis B. Smedes, a distinguished Christian author and ethicist, describes exactly how the Bible says these promiscuous priests and priestesses got into this mess. Once again it has nothing to do with homosexuality:

SMEDES: “The people Paul had in mind refused to acknowledge and worship God, and for this reason were abandoned by God. And being abandoned by God, they sank into sexual depravity.”
SMEDES: “The homosexuals I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and they thank God for his grace and his gifts. How, then, could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?”
SMEDES: “Nor have the homosexuals that I know given up heterosexual passions for homosexual lusts. They have been homosexual from the moment of their earliest sexual stirrings. They did not change from one orientation to another; they just discovered that they were homosexual. It would be unnatural for most homosexuals to have heterosexual sex.”
SMEDES: “And the homosexual people I know do not lust after each other any more than heterosexual people do… their love for one another is likely to be just as spiritual and personal as any heterosexual love can be.”

Dr. Smedes is right.  We have not rejected God; we are merely trying to understand.  Our sexual orientation is not a choice, instead it is a gift from God, and we cannot change who we are.  We were born this way.  How many of you would have chosen to be gay, if you had the choice?  Would you have chosen the hardships we face as gay men and women?  Wouldn’t heterosexuality be the easier way?  “Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat”  Matthew 7:13.  The gate for heterosexuality is wide-open and easy, but the gate for homosexuality is narrow and difficult.

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate (malokois), 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.—1 Corinthians 6:9-11

But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully; Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind (arsenokoitai), for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine; According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.—1 Timothy 1:8-11

These are the last two places in the Bible that seem to refer to same-sex behavior. We can combine them because they are so similar. I have underlined and put in parentheses the two words that should be examined the closest in these texts: malokois and arsenokoitai.  First let us examine the word malokois.

There have been 44 different interpretations in English of the word malokois.  Most common through history have been weaklings, effeminates, or homosexual.  I believe all of these are incorrect interpretations of the word.  Greek scholars say that in first century the Greek word malaokois probably meant “effeminate call boys.” The New Revised Standard Version says “male prostitutes.” Today in Modern Greek, the word translates to “common.”  White argues that the term is used for the word catamite, which is a fairly consistent interpretation by most Biblical scholars.  A catamite was a young hairless boy used for sexual pleasure by older men.  This derives from the more Ancient Greek practice of pederasty (remember that Corinth is in the Greek Peloponnesus).  The practice that Paul is condemning is and always has been that of pedophilia, not homosexuality.

No one has really ever known what to make of the Greek word arsenokoitai that Paul seems to have originally came up with. The exact meaning of this word is lost. It seems to have been a term created by Paul for this verse.  Rick Brentlinger, of GayChristian101.com, says:

Arseno is the Greek word for man and koite is the Greek word for bed, used euphemistically to mean having sex. We say ‘he slept with her’ when we mean, had sex with her. In the same way, koite-bed was a euphemism for having sex.

It does seem to be a compound word in which the original meaning has been lost to us.  Arseno has the same meaning today as in Ancient Greek which is man or male.  Koitai though is a little more difficult.  I am not a scholar of Ancient Greek, but I have tried to understand the use of words (historians have to do that if they want to remain as accurate as possible).  Brentlinger states that it means “bed,” whereas modern use of the word translate it to mean “looks.”  White has a differing interpretation:

As for arsenokoitai, Greek scholars don’t know exactly what it means — and the fact that we don’t know is a big part of this tragic debate. Some scholars believe Paul was coining a name to refer to the customers of “the effeminate call boys.” We might call them “dirty old men.” Others translate the word as “sodomites,” but never explain what that means.

White continues by saying that:

In 1958, for the first time in history, a person translating that mysterious Greek word into English decided it meant homosexuals, even though there is, in fact, no such word in Greek or Hebrew. But that translator made the decision for all of us that placed the word homosexual in the English-language Bible for the very first time.

The fact is, there is not clear evidence that homosexual orientation or the love between two men and two women is a sin.  The Bible is completely silent on the issue of homosexual orientation. And no wonder. Homosexual orientation wasn’t even known until the 19th century.

Remember what Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice (Act 1, Scene 3), that even “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”

The truth about homosexuality will be discussed in my next post.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

5 responses to “Abusus Non Tollit Usum

  • Vilges Suola

    I speak Modern Greek but have no Ancient Greek. Which Modern Greek word translates as 'common'? I might be on the wrong word here, but 'μαλάκας' nowadays means 'jerk' 'wanker' and is used as a jokey term of affection between young men, as well as a term of abuse. 'Mαλακία' is 'jerking off / wanking', or used to mean 'a load of crap'. 'Mαλακός' nowadays means 'soft', without necessarily connoting weakness. They all seem to suggest a connection with the idea of things once considered unmanly – that denial of desire that Christianity goes in for so often.Seems to me a bit of a stretch to say that the Bible is silent on the matter of homosexual orientation. Paul pretty obviously deplored it – where's the ambiguity in 'leaving the natural use of the woman' 'men with men, working that which is unseemly'? Why do we need to fuss about translations and interpretations of texts from 2000 years ago, except as they pertained to life as it was lived 2000 years ago? What possible relevance can they have now? Let's get on with being gay and working out a modern ethics of homosexuality. Paul's been dead a long time.

  • JoeBlow

    VS, I used Google translate for the Modern Greek. Like I said, I am no expert on Greek, ancient or modern. I have merely done a fair amount of research on the meanings of these words. However, as a historian myself, I believe that historians should be objective and do their best to understand things in their historical context. I probably should not have mentioned the modern translations of the words, but I did it because I thought it was interesting. Homosexual orientation was not understood in the same way in the ancient world as today. My next post is about this. Therefore, when Paul discusses young male prostitutes and condemns then and what was most likely the men who paid for their services, he was condemning pederasty, child abuse, and pedophilia. Pederasty though is the concept that Paul would have been most familiar with. Paul had a pederastic relationship with Timothy, though I do not believe it was sexual. Paul was Timothy's mentor, which was the idea behind pederasty, though sometimes/often/maybe rarely it was sexual (no one knows) I don't think this was the case with Paul and is one of the reasons that he is condemning it. The practice is similar, though Paul is discussing male prostitution as opposed to sexual pederasty. Anyway, that is a long explanation, but I do not believe that Paul could have been discussing a concept (i.e. homosexual orientation) that was unknown at the time.In the most literal sense the word "homosexual" is not used in the Bible, instead inferences, references, euphemisms, metaphors are used instead. And as I pointed out, subject to interpretation, mis-translation, changing use/meaning over time, etc. I also think that it is important for someone with faith to attempt to understand the meaning behind Paul's teachings. It may not be important to everyone, but some of us do find strength and solace in our faith, and thus would like to better understand Paul. Beyond that, as a historian, it would be ahistorical to look at a meaning other than what was the original intent. I do not think that homosexual orientation could be his original intent since it was not a concept understood in the modern sense at the time.

  • Vilges Suola

    I know that it wasn't thought of in the modern sense. We've moved from 'sin' to 'sickness' to 'orientation' since then – at least in some people's eyes. How it was thought of 2000 years ago is certainly of academic interest, but gay christians seem sometimes to be looking for justification in these arguments about translations, and I don't think we need any, that's all. The homphobic can like us or lump us – I don't care which. Maybe that's easier to say here in the UK than it would be in the US.

  • JoeBlow

    VS, I realize that I was splitting hairs about, and I do have an academic interest in the topic. Yes, I agree that gay Christians do look for justification in translations. Most of the modern biblical translations don't even worry with the original meaning, they simple translate the words as homosexual, which I believe is incorrect.As for homophobia, I could care less what they think. As far as sin goes, homophobia to me is a much worse sin that homosexuality could ever be (though I don't think homosexuality is a sin). Homophobia is about hate; homosexuality is about love. Love will always trumps hate in the long run. And I have to believe that hate is a far greater sin, whereas love is a virtue. Homophobia is like racism, you are rarely ever going to change their minds, and if you argue with them, they are unable to see reason and it only fuels their hate. I find it best to ignore them when possible.

  • Questions and Answers | The Closet Professor

    […] Before I studied the scriptures and understood the true meanings of its words, yes, I did feel that I was enslaved by my homosexuality and sin. However, when I studied the true meanings of the words, with faith that God was guiding my study, I came to believe differently. I will not repeat this journey, but instead I urge you to go back and read my post “Abusus Non Tollit Usum.” […]

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