Defining Terms for a Defining Moment: Homosexuality in the New Testament

It is important to define biblical terms accurately and precisely. Words matter greatly because the Word matters greatly

The position affirmed by Cortez and New Hope Community Church poses a serious moral crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention. Our response to the church’s position will likely be a “defining moment” in the history of our denomination. In such a defining moment, it is especially important that we define biblical terms accurately and precisely. Words matter greatly because the Word matters greatly. Cortez has wrongly defined important biblical terms and that he has done so to the peril of his family, his church, and the homosexuals to whom he seeks to minister.

 

Most readers of this blog are likely aware that Southern Baptists are facing yet another defining moment. On February 11, 2014, Pastor Danny Cortez announced to the congregation at New Hope Community Church in Los Angeles that he had changed his position on homosexuality. Cortez delivered an hour-long message explaining why he no longer believed that the New Testament condemns homosexual behavior. On May 18, the majority of the members of this Southern Baptist fellowship voted to become a “Third Way church” in which members agree to disagree on the issue of homosexuality and exhibit openness to a variety of positions on this moral question.

In his defense of his new position, Cortez raised a few linguistic arguments that I believe require a response. Cortez argued that those who believe the New Testament condemns homosexual practices are misreading the New Testament. They misread the New Testament because they improperly define the key terms.

First, Cortez argued that Paul coined the term translated “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9. No one can be sure what the term really means since the term had no previous history of usage. Paul probably did coin the term arsenokoites in this passage. Nevertheless, the term was not used in a linguistic vacuum. It has sufficient background to make Paul’s usage clear. The term was formed by combining the word arsen (“male”) with the word koite (“bed”). The word refers to “one who goes to bed with a male.” Since “bed” was often used as a euphemism for sexual relationships, the term refers to “one who has sex with a male.” Paul’s term was derived from Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not sleep with a male as with a female, for it is an abomination”) and 20:13 (“Whoever sleeps with a male as with a female, both of them have committed an abomination”). Both components of Paul’s term (“male” and “bed/sex”) appear in the Greek translation (LXX) of these two texts from Leviticus. Paul’s term forms a clear allusion to these two texts and thus refers to a man who has sex with a male who fulfills the role ordinarily assumed by a female. This noun describes the one who plays the masculine or dominant role in a homosexual act. Although the HCSB combines this and the previous moral category in the rendering “anyone practicing homosexuality,” the marginal reading is very precise: “active homosexual partner.”

Second, Cortez claims that he immersed himself in the homoerotic literature from ancient Greece and Rome and discovered that ancient homosexuality was never a genuinely loving relationship between two people of the same gender (like homosexual relationships today), but always a violent and abusive relationship in which a dominant person abused another person. The NT condemned ancient homosexuality only because of its violent, abusive, and selfish nature. However, Paul’s list of the wicked who will not inherit the kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9 includes both the one who played the dominant role and the one who played the passive role in a homosexual relationship. The term malakos (lit. “soft one”) was equivalent to the terms eromenos (Greek) and pathicus or cinaedus (Latin). The term was used by ancient writers like Philo to describe the male who played the passive or feminine role in a homosexual act (Dreams 2.2 §9; Spec. Laws 3.7 §§37-42). Paul is clearly referring here to the typically younger feminine partner in a homosexual relationship. That is why the HCSB (mg.) and the Lexham English Bible translate the term: “passive homosexual partner.” Paul prohibited playing the dominant role and playing the passive role in a homosexual relationship because Leviticus 20:13 insisted “both have committed an abomination.” If Paul had merely rejected homosexuality because it involved violence and abuse, surely he would not have condemned the passive partner (who in Cortez’s view was always the object of violence and abuse) along with the dominant partner. Paul’s insistence on the wickedness of playing either the dominant or passive role in a homosexual relationship shows that he viewed homosexual behavior as sinful because it was a perversion of the created order and God’s moral standards for sexual relationships, not based on the assumption that it was always characterized by violence or abuse.

The position affirmed by Cortez and New Hope Community Church poses a serious moral crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention. Our response to the church’s position will likely be a “defining moment” in the history of our denomination. In such a defining moment, it is especially important that we define biblical terms accurately and precisely. Words matter greatly because the Word matters greatly. Cortez has wrongly defined important biblical terms and that he has done so to the peril of his family, his church, and the homosexuals to whom he seeks to minister. I pray that the dictionary we use to define Paul’s terms will be Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 rather than homoerotic literature. Danny Cortez is no Noah Webster, but his new dictionary of biblical terms will likely be a bestseller in a culture seeking to justify a new morality that is little more than the old immorality. I sincerely hope that Southern Baptists won’t buy it.

Charles L. Quarles is Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at SEBTS. This article appeared on Between the Times is a blog by the faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, NC.

Read about this issue before the Southern Baptist Convention: The problem with gay marriage: Is there a moderate position for Baptists?



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