1 Corinthians 6.9-10 is often cited as the final word on the Christian understanding of homosexuality. It’s trotted out as definitive proof that not only is homosexuality inherently sinful, but also that homosexuals cannot be Christians. But it’s crucial to read these verses in their wider context and to carefully consider what Paul is and isn’t saying to the church in Corinth. In the New International Version, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10 reads:
Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
The modern discussion about these verses centers around the two Greek words that the NIV awkwardly translates as “men who have sex with men”: μαλακός (malakos) and ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites). What precisely do these words mean? What relationship do they have with our modern understanding of homosexuality and committed homosexual relationships? Volumes have been written on these topics, but it’s my contention that a precise understanding of these terms is largely irrelevant in light of the more important issues that Paul is addressing.
Paul isn’t trying to tell the Corinthian Christians what behaviors are and aren’t sinful. They know what sin is. They know right from wrong. They know that the behaviors Paul lists are all immoral — for them, there’s likely no controversy or ambiguity in that regard. The problem isn’t that the Corinthian church thinks that slander and adultery are morally acceptable, the problem is that some of them think that such sinful behavior doesn’t matter. And in response to that cavalier attitude, Paul turns around and tells them that their actions do matter because there isn’t room for such self-centeredness in God’s Kingdom.
Paul is writing to a church in chaos. They’re struggling to understand how to relate to the Roman culture and philosophy that surrounds them and the disparate voices that are trying to lead them. They’re being torn apart by ongoing and unresolved tension between pietistic asceticism on the one hand and unrestrained hedonism on the other. Should they lead lives wholly separate from the broader world, foregoing marriage and avoiding all interactions with non-believers? Or should they, having found freedom in Christ, cast aside their worries and indulge every physical desire, secure in the knowledge of their spiritual salvation?
Paul addresses those practicing libertine excess in no uncertain terms, drawing attention to several particularly blatant examples of their failings: a man is sleeping with his mother-in-law, members of the church are suing each other in civil court, and church members are visiting prostitutes. In light of these egregious moral shortcomings, he admonishes the church to take a hard look at its priorities. Those who are living by the standard that “everything is permissible for me” but are ignoring the fact that “not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6.12) are entirely missing the point of what it means to be a Christian.
Paul has strong words for those who claim to be Christians but are living a life in opposition to all that Christianity stands for. He urges complete disassociation from such hypocrisy:
you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. (1 Cor 5.11)
What would the modern Church look like if we lived by this rule, if we parted ways with every Christian who exhibited greed, who engaged in slander, or who swindled others? This is a sobering standard — a standard that has nothing to do with homosexuality, but everything to do with living a life centered around God rather than self.
Whether or not our modern understanding of homosexuality fits into one of the categories Paul mentions is open to debate. When the ideological dross is jettisoned, there remain valid arguments on both sides of the issue. But looking to this passage solely for a definitive resolution of this contentious issue ignores the real point Paul is trying to make.
Within this context, it’s clear that 1 Cor 6.9-10 is not a straightforward condemnation of homosexuality, it’s a condemnation of hypocrisy within the Corinthian church. It’s a stern warning to Christians urging them to live up to the standard to which they are called, not an attempt to designate certain categories of sin as being incompatible with Christianity — for ultimately all sin is incompatible with Christianity. This is the deception that Paul is warning about, the misguided notion that sin doesn’t matter — that, having now become part of the “in” group, we can act however we want, indulging our every selfish whim because we’re smugly secure in our relationship with God. That sort of unrestrained selfishness is entirely incompatible with God’s Kingdom.
But Paul doesn’t leave his readers in despair. He doesn’t characterize sinful behavior as necessarily removing Christians from God’s Kingdom, rather, he reiterates the fact that the Corinthian Christians are already part of God’s Kingdom:
And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Cor 6.11)
As he will go on to clarify in chapter 12, we are all part of the body of Christ, and it is only through Christ that we can find true unity in the face of our differences. The divisiveness within the church that Paul finds so abhorrent can only be resolved by focusing on the positive aspects of relationships (1 Cor 1.4-9), centering our faith on Christ and his work on the cross (1 Cor 1.18-2.5) and truly listening to the spiritual wisdom of God (1 Cor 2.6-16).
If I may be so bold as to paraphrase the point I think Paul is trying to make in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians:
We’re all Christians and we all share unity in Christ as part of his body. But we lose sight of that fact, and instead form factions and follow our favorite leaders, becoming enamored of worldly perspectives and failing to properly acknowledge God. We become jealous of one another and start suing each other and continue to quarrel and bicker and revel in egregious and obvious sin. But there’s no room for any of that in God’s Kingdom. We need to recognize our role in that Kingdom and live up the freedom that Christ has given us through his death on the cross. We need to recognize that true freedom in Christ isn’t found by slavishly adhering to the letter of the Law, nor is it found by embracing every opportunity for self-indulgence that crosses our path. Rather, it’s found by loving God and remembering that we are part of God in body and spirit — so it’s incumbent upon us to honor God in all that we do.
There’s an important discussion to be had about homosexuality and Christianity — but it’s a discussion that shouldn’t be framed by legalistic delineations of sinful behavior or by esoteric altercations about the meanings of Greek words. 1 Cor 6.9-10 was never meant to serve as the foundation for our moral epistemology; it’s not a quick guide for determining what behaviors are right and wrong. We must look elsewhere — to other Scripture passages, to tradition, to society, to reason, and most importantly, to our hearts — to properly understand what sin is.
And when we do attempt to address contentious and divisive issues, we must do so from the context of lives focused not on ourselves, but on God, within a community that places love for others above love for self, and as those who are known not for our fractious tendencies but rather for the unity we find in these essentials.