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The Importance of Distinguishing between Sexual Orientation and Practice

by Max Aplin  
7/12/2017 / Relationships


It should be obvious that sexual orientation is not the same thing as sexual practice.  The orientation has to do with sexual desires.  And the practice has to do with activity based on those desires.  This should be very clear. 

Time and time again, however, you will hear people confusing sexual orientation and practice.  Christians too often make this mistake.  In fact, even Bible translators fall into this trap. 

An important biblical text on homosexuality 

The apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are a key biblical text on homosexuality.  Sadly, some major English translations of the Bible have mistranslated part of this passage, blurring the distinction between sexual orientation and practice. 

To begin with, here is my translation of these verses, leaving two words of the original Greek, malakoi and arsenokoitai, untranslated: 

9 Or do you not know that those who are immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived.  Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor malakoi, nor arsenokoitai, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor those who are verbally abusive, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ 

Paul is saying here that people who unrepentantly continue to practise the sins he mentions will not inherit the kingdom of GodAt least part of his meaning must be that they will not reach final salvation in heaven.    

There is some dispute about the meaning of malakoi in v. 9.  It is possible that it refers to men who act effeminately.  However, most scholars take it to refer to the passive partners in male homosexual acts.  And this latter interpretation is to be slightly preferred. 

Arsenokoitai is a compound word incorporating the word arsen, meaning ‘male’, and the word koite, meaning ‘bed’.  This word refers to men who sleep with males, i.e., to practising male homosexuals.  

If malakoi in this verse means the passive partners in male homosexual acts, then arsenokoitai will be referring specifically to the active partners.  If, on the other hand, malakoi means men who act effeminately, then arsenokoitai will be referring to all practising male homosexuals.  

Regardless of which way we interpret, however, we need to understand clearly that in this passage Paul is referring to homosexual practice, not homosexual orientation.  He is saying that people who engage in homosexual acts will not reach heaven. 

Good translations of this passage 

Most Bible translations make it clear that it is specifically homosexual practice that is in view in v. 9. 

For example, the English Standard Version translates: 

9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.’ 

The ESV translators must have understood the word malakoi to mean the passive partners in homosexual acts, and arsenokoitai to mean the active partners in these acts.  And they have, appropriately in my view, combined these two words into a single English clause at the end of v. 9: ‘men who practice homosexuality’.  This correctly shows that it is homosexual practice that Paul is condemning rather than homosexual orientation. 

Faulty translations of this passage 

Although most English translations make it clear that Paul is condemning homosexual practice rather than orientation in this passage, a few fail to do so.  

For example, the International Standard Version reads: 

9 You know that wicked people will not inherit the kingdom of God, don't you?  Stop deceiving yourselves!  Sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, 10 thieves, greedy people, drunks, slanderers, and robbers will not inherit the kingdom of God.’  

The ISV translators have translated malakoi as ‘male prostitutes’ and arsenokoitai as ‘homosexuals’.  

‘Male prostitutes’ is actually quite a poor translation of malakoi.  It is very unlikely that the word refers specifically to prostitutes.  Nevertheless, this is not a key concern of ours here.  

For our purposes in this article, something that is very problematic is the translation of arsenokoitai as ‘homosexuals’.  

I am almost certain that when the translators chose to translate with this English word, they would have rightly understood that Paul was referring to practising homosexuals.  However, the primary sense of the English word ‘homosexual’ is someone who has homosexual orientation.  So the ISV translation has the potential to be very misleading.  

Another translation that makes the same mistake is the New American Standard Bible.  It too translates arsenokoitai as ‘homosexuals’. 

Scaring devout Christians 

Translating arsenokoitai in this passage as ‘homosexuals’ has the potential to unnecessarily scare some Christians.  It can make it seem as if having homosexual orientation will itself bar people from reaching heaven.  But this is not at all what Paul means.  

Homosexual orientation is a big problem in the world, and many Christians are affected by it.  There are many devout believers who fight hard against this tendency within themselves and are looking to God to release them from it.  Paul isn’t saying that people in this situation will not experience final salvation.  

Rather, he is saying that men who habitually and unrepentantly act out their homosexual orientation will not experience this.  And although women aren’t mentioned, the passage certainly implies that women who engage in homosexual practice will likewise not be saved. 

It is these people Paul has in mind, not those who simply have homosexual orientation.  And Bible translators are making a big mistake when they allow their translations of this or any other passage to blur the distinction between homosexual orientation and practice. 

Nor is it just Bible translators who go wrong in this way.  Again and again you will hear Christians criticising and condemning ‘homosexuals’ without further qualifying what they mean by the term.  This is so harmful.  There is a world of difference between homosexuals who oppose the homosexual orientation within themselves and homosexuals who unrepentantly act out this orientation. 

Encouraging sexual immorality 

Unnecessarily scaring people isn’t the only problem caused by blurring the lines between sexual orientation and practice.  Whenever we fail to distinguish these things, we are in effect encouraging people to see them as always going together.  And when we encourage people to see orientation and practice as always going together, this is bound to encourage them to think that someone with a certain sexual orientation can’t be expected to abstain from putting it into practice. 

However, God has designed sexual activity only for the marriage relationship between a man and a woman (Genesis 2:24; Matthew 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; 1 Corinthians 6:16; 7:9; Hebrews 13:4).  People need to understand clearly that just because they have sexual desires, that in no way makes it OK for them to express those desires in any way they please.  Losing sight of the distinction between sexual orientation and practice can only serve to encourage people to have sex whenever they want and regardless of the morality of their actions.  And this applies to people with every kind of sexual orientation, whether heterosexual, homosexual, paedophiliac or whatever. 

Abnormal sexual orientations 

Although it is sinful sexual acts and not orientations which will bar people from salvation, it is important to recognise that any non-heterosexual orientation is a horrible thing.  

In Romans 1:26 Paul describes people with homosexual orientation as those who have ‘disgraceful passions’.  Homosexual orientation, like any other non-heterosexual orientation, is a serious distortion of God’s created order.  And as such it can only be regarded as deeply unpleasant. 

It is crucial for every Christian to understand, however, that we human beings all have many things about us that are horrible.  We are all terribly disfigured and polluted by sin in many ways, and this includes born-again believers.  For someone who doesn’t have an abnormal sexual orientation to look down on someone who does is therefore both illogical and thoroughly hypocritical.  

Yet there are more than a few people claiming to be Christians who clearly do look down on those who have a non-heterosexual orientation.  I would suggest that those who choose to be hypocrites in this way are playing a dangerous game.  They need to remember that, according to the Gospels, hypocrisy was something that greatly angered Jesus during His ministry on earth.  And because ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever’ (Hebrews 13:8), He surely has the same attitude to hypocrites today. 

Seeking release from abnormal sexual orientations 

Finally, it is important to understand that Christians who are affected by an abnormal sexual orientation should be looking to God to release them from it.  An abnormal sexual orientation is a particular tendency towards sin, and God surely wants Christians to be free from such tendencies.  We can certainly expect to be tempted throughout our lives, as Jesus was.  But we should still look to God to act against any special tendencies towards sin within us.    

I have heard well-meaning Christian leaders say that if a Christian has homosexual orientation, it is a problem that God is using for the good of that person and no release from it should be sought.    

It is true that God works for our good in all things (Romans 8:28), and He will use an abnormal sexual orientation for the good of those Christians who are affected by one.  But it would be a big mistake not to seek release from it.    

If someone has a tendency to lose their temper, for example, it would be perverse to say that God wants this tendency to remain so that He can use it.  And the same goes for abnormal sexual orientations.  Besides, there are Christian healing ministries that will testify to having some success in helping rid people of these problems. 

That is not to say that getting freedom from problems is always easy or straightforward.  But Christians should never just resign themselves to having tendencies towards sin, and that includes abnormal sexual orientations.

 

See also: 

What Attitude Should Christians Have to Homosexuality? 

What Did Jesus Make of Homosexual Practice? 

The Arrogance and Hypocrisy of the West

I have been a Christian for over 30 years. I have a Ph.D. in New Testament from the University of Edinburgh. I am a UK national and I currently live in the south of Scotland. Check out my blog, The Orthotometist, at maxaplin.blogspot.com

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