Does the NIV Mistranslate “Homosexual” to Attack Gays?

Question: Why does the NIV use the word “homosexual”?  I’ve heard the original word doesn’t mean anything like “homosexual”.  Is this evidence of a scheme of translators trying to attack gays through mistranslation?  What DOES the original text say regarding homosexuality?

Answer: Thanks for the question.  To begin an answer, I’ll cut and paste a portion of our white paper on homosexuality that deals directly with word meanings in the relevant passages.  You can email me and I’ll gladly send the whole doc.

I CORINTHIANS 6:9-11 Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the Kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 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. (NIV)

There is again, no special place given to homosexuality.  It is the same as any other sin.

However, is Paul even talking about homosexuality per se, or something else?  He uses two key Greek words. The first, “Malakos” here translated ‘male prostitutes’ means literally “the soft”, sometimes translated as “effeminate.”  This is a reference to men and boys who allowed themselves to be used homosexually [1]. Or “men who feminize themselves to attract male sex partners” [2]

The second word “Arsenokoitai” is a compound word, “arsen” which means “male” and “koitai” which means “bed” or “lying” – a word with clear sexual connotations.  So the straightforward meaning is men who bed or lie with other males.  Or “a male homosexual, or sodomite.” [3] Another lexicon defines the word as “one who lies with a male as with a female.” [4] Strong’s concordance defines the word as simply “a sodomite.” [5]

I cite several lexical sources here for some authority on the meaning of these two words, since much ado has been made of their translation.  In fact, a lot of very late scholarship uses the ambiguity and uniqueness of these words to suggest that they do not refer to homosexuality at all, or at least not to homosexual practices per se.

Arguments are made by liberal scholars that “arsenokoitai” refers only to male prostitutes or that “malakos” refers perhaps to a slave boy kept for homosexual purposes – a common Greek practice (the implication being that Paul has nothing to say about male on male sex in general.)

But upon inspection, the two words side by side leave little doubt that Paul’s meaning is that homosexual practice is intrinsically wrong, not merely wrong because of the age, slave status, idolatrous context, or exchange of money between the participants.

In fact, “malakos” has a corresponding Latin term (“molles”) which Philo uses to describe effeminate males who desire penetration by men.  Apparently Philo’s (and other ancients’) problem with such men did not center on their exploitation of others, age difference, or acts of prostitution, but rather, around their attempted erasure of the masculine stamp given them by God/nature. [6] And if this term only refers to boys (or girls) abused sexually by older men as claimed, one wonders why they are on the list of the “wicked” at all, and not the exploiters alone.

“Arsenokoitai” is likely a word invented by Paul. [7] It appears nowhere in literature before this usage in 1 Corinthians.  But that doesn’t mean Paul’s meaning is unknowable.  The structure of the word (man + bed/lying), clearly links it with the Mosaic restriction in Leviticus 18:22 – “do not lie with a man as with a woman.”  In fact, the Greek version of the Old Testament in use by early Rabbis used the exact same terms to translate the Hebrew.  In Paul’s Rabbinical circles these very words were used to stress God’s absolute prohibition on homosexual behavior, in contrast to the very lenient attitudes of  the Greco-Roman period. [8]

We can sympathize with those who suggest that any translation (such as the NIV) which render these words using “homosexual” may be misleading.  Clearly “homosexual” is a loaded modern term (unavailable to Paul in the 1st century) and it doesn’t convey the literal meaning of the words Paul uses.  In our context the word “homosexual” often carries a heavy connection to modern understandings about orientation. Thus a person may feel this passage is condemning something beyond our control  whereas these two words are actually condemning sexual practices not orientations.

Perhaps other, better English words might be used to render Paul’s terms, but it would be hard to be as explicit as Paul without being vulgar.  He could hardly be more clear about what he’s condemning: the two roles involved in male homosexual sex:  The first (malakos) gives himself to be used by the second (arsenokoitai). Those who engage in such practice, willfully repudiating God’s good creation design, along with ALL those involved in ANY unrepented pattern of sin (see the expansive list), are not eligible for the Kingdom.”

So like many other instances of translation, “homosexual” is a fair but imperfect rendering of Paul’s meaning into English.  It might be that the evolution of attitudes about homosexuality requires more precision – not to conform the meaning to modern sensibilities, but to better communicate the meaning to changing modern sensibilities.

For example, as stated in our paper, if “homosexual” is taken to include the psychological condition of homosexual orientation, then that does mean that “homosexual offender” (NIV) is not a good translation.  In fact, if that’s how people take it, “homosexual” is misleading and harmful.  Reason being it would convey that to be homosexually oriented is the offense in God’s eyes, and yet no Scripture ever addresses orientation. Paul here addresses behavior.  And the behavior being addressed is clear, even if the Greek words have some ambiguity.

So, if we wanted to get more literal and stay away from any allusion to orientation, we could easily ditch the term “homosexual” (since Paul surely didn’t know that term).  A very rough paraphrase of “malakos” might be: “a man who acts like a woman in sex acts”.  The second word is best understood simply as “those men who sleep with other men.”  Of course you can see what that gains in accuracy it clearly loses in economy.

So while the use of “homosexual” is debatable, what is not is that any accurate transference of these terms into English cannot escape referring to homosexual practices per se.  The context is clear this can’t be a reference merely to pedophilia (Paul did have that term available to him – chose not to use it) or temple prostitution (when the Bible wants to address that, it does so explicitly, not implicitly – Deut 23:17-18).  Instead we have here a simple reference to all male homosexual activity (Romans 1 deals with female homosexual activity.)  It is clearly condemned as sin – not conforming to God’s good design – along with other things like greed and slander.

But the hope of redemption for all “the wicked” is made perfectly clear.  You can put Yours Truly on that list, of those who were in that category until they were “washed, sanctified and justified”.  What amazing hope for all!

  1. Arndt, William R. and Gingrich, F. Wilbur, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1957, pg 489.
  2. Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?, pg 10.
  3. Ibid, p 109.
  4. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pg 75.
  5. Strong, James, Strong’s Greek-Hebrew Dictionary, Riverside Book and Bible House, pg 16.
  6. Gagnon, “Why the Disagreement over the Biblical Witness on Homosexual Practice?, pg 10
  7. Ibid, pg 10.
  8. Ibid, pg 10.