The vice lists of the apostle Paul are two passages most commonly used by opponents of affirming theology in their condemnation of homosexuality. At face value, most English translations seem to back up their assertion that homosexuality is condemned in Scripture; but face value has too often led to misinterpretations and misapplications of Scripture. So, let’s reexamine these vice lists in detail and determine whether or not Paul is, in fact, condemning homosexuality (as an orientation) and/or same-sex sexual activity, or something altogether different. As with Lev. 18:22 and 20:13, these passages so closely mirror one another that it makes sense to consider them together.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor homosexuals [arsenokoitai], [10] nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
1Corinthians 6:9-10

…realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers [10] and immoral men and homosexuals [arsenokoitais] and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.
1Timothy 1:9-10

There are two terms present that are often used by Christians to condemn homosexuals and/or homosexuality—malakoi in 1Co. 6, and arsenokoitai(s) in both passages. While it’s to the entire Church’s benefit to ensure that the traditional translation and interpretation of these terms is accurate, it’s especially important for those who have same-sex sexual attractions to know precisely what Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is condemning here. Consequently, we will reexamine the traditional translations and interpretations to see if, in fact, they are consistent with Paul’s intentions.

What Does arsenokoitai(s) Mean?

Because arsenokoitai(s) is used in both passages, we’ll begin there. It’s important to note right out of the starting gate that arsenokoitai is an exceedingly uncommon term. In fact, many scholars believe that Paul coined the term because there’s no evidence in any ancient documents that the term was used before Paul’s usage.

Let’s start by examining how the most common English translations render this obscure term. (Note: Hover over the Version abbreviation for the full name.)

Version Translation (1Co. 6:9) Translation (1Ti. 1:10)
KJVKing James Version abusers of themselves with mankind them that defile themselves with mankind
NKJVNew King James Version sodomites sodomites
NIVNew International Version homosexual offenders perverts
NASBNew American Standard Bible homosexuals homosexuals
AMPAmplified Bible those who participate in homosexuality those who abuse themselves with men
NLTNew Living Translation those who… practice homosexuality people… who live as homosexuals
CEVContemporary English Version one who… behaves like a homosexual people… who live as homosexuals
HCSHolman Christian Standard homosexuals homosexuals
ESVEnglish Standard Version combined with malakoi as “men who practice homosexuality” (footnoted as “the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”) men who practice homosexuality
YLTYoung’s Literal Translation sodomites sodomites

Arsenokoitai(s) – Identifying the Problem

For the most part, this word has been translated consistently from one version to another, and from one passage to another; but there are a few very important exceptions. Before considering them, it’s important to note that these two passages are the only places in the Bible where arsonokoitai(s) is used. So, the fact that these exceptions exist is quite telling in relation to how sure the translators were in deriving the accurate translation of this word.

The New International Version translates arsenokoitai(s) as “homosexual offenders” in 1Co. 6:9, but as the very general term, “perverts,” in 1Ti. 1:10. Now, I’m sure that some Christians are content to consider these terms synonyms; but such a conclusion does not suffice a serious student of Scripture. I was recently told by a friend who worked in a hospital of a young girl who was brought in, pregnant with the child of her grandfather. This filthy man certainly qualifies as a pervert, so is that the type of person Paul was condemning; and if so, should the word have been translated as pervert in 1Co. 6:9, as well, rather than as “homosexual offenders?” Which interpretation is correct; and with such a serious inconsistency, why should we trust either NIV translation?

The Amplified Bible provides a similar inconsistency. It translates arsenokoitai(s) as both “those who participate in homosexuality”, as well as “those who abuse themselves with men.” But, how is the reader to know what kind of “abuse” Paul is referring to? Don’t female prostitutes abuse themselves with men? As with the NIV, we’re left to wonder which translation is accurate, and what basis we have to believe either one.

A final problem with the way these translations render our term is that from one translation to another, they can’t seem to agree on whether those with a same-sex sexual orientation (homosexuals) are being condemned, or only those who engage in same-sex sexual activity. Once again, we see a distinction that, quite regrettably, wouldn’t concern many Christians, but which is more than concerning for those of us who are gay. For example, I need to know if I’m destined for hell simply for being gay, regardless of whether or not I actually engage in sexual activity with another man. Consider that there are numerous gay virgins, or gay people who are celibate because they believe that to act on their attractions would be sinful. Well, based on some of these translations, they’re going to hell anyway! So, it’s vital that we understand precisely to whom Paul is referring.

The most disappointing part of this is the fact that the vast majority of Christians have no idea what the Greek term actually is, or where else it was used in Scripture. All they know is what’s printed on the pages of their Bibles. They’re trusting that what they’re reading is accurate; and as we can see, that’s not always the case. Even when a single word is translated only twice in the entire Bible, the translation isn’t always consistent. Yet, we’re told to simply trust the “scholars” because they know the biblical language better than we.

Rather than putting my confidence in man, I’ll take God’s advice. I’ll “study to show [myself] approved”, so that I can “rightly [divide] the word of truth” (2Ti. 2:15). I strongly encourage you to do the same.

Arsenokoitai(s) – Finding the Correct Translation

Determining the correct translation of arsenokoitai(s) is not as easy as it may seem. One might choose to simply play a numbers game, and conclude that since the majority of common translations render the word “homosexuals,” we should do the same. But, that doesn’t suffice me. Having seen the damage that majority rule has done to the Church time and time again throughout history, I’m inclined to rid myself of the translations offered in the text, and try to construct the proper translation from the ground up. It’s certainly better than putting my trust in scholars who have already demonstrated that they weren’t as absolutely sure about the meaning of this term as so many Christians, by default, believe.

PLEASE NOTE: My intention here is not to besmirch the work done by linguistic and biblical scholars in the translation of these various Bible versions. I don’t doubt that they worked very hard to provide a translation that was, if nothing else, more than adequate for instruction in the things of God. My intention is only to point out the undeniable inconsistencies and inaccuracies in these translations, not to call into question the credentials or intentions of those who served on the translation committees.

The first thing that should be considered with regard to this word’s meaning is that arsenokoitai is a compound word. Paul combines the Greek word for male (arsen) with the word bed (koitus), which is often used as a euphemism for sex (just like the verb form of “bed” is used in English). So, the constituent words of arsenokoitai can be translated as meaning “those who have sex with men” or “men who have sex”. Most likely, what is meant is those who have sex with men, male-bedders, as it were.

PLEASE NOTE: The meaning of a compound word cannot always be derived by examining the meaning of its constituent words. For example, a hallmark is not a mark in a hall. A butterfly is not a stick of butter that flies. A ladykiller is not a person who kills ladies, nor a lady who kills people.

But, we have to derive a more precise meaning for this term; because even if male-bedder is an accurate generic simplification of this term, it’s not specific enough to be helpful in interpreting Paul’s intended target. For example, heterosexual wives are male-bedders. Is it Paul’s intention to condemn them, as well? What type of male bedder is being condemned, specifically?

Under most circumstances, the context of a difficult word would give us enough clues to ascertain its meaning. It’s a lesson we learned in elementary school. Now, at first glance, we might get a little discouraged when looking at the context of arsenokoitai(s) in these two passages because both passages contain seemingly arbitrary lists of sinful activities. However, let’s not form that conclusion too quickly.

In 1Timothy, Paul grouped the terms in his vice list in such a way as to provide just enough clues to derive the target of “male-bedders” with absolute precision and certainty—and we’d better thank God for this, otherwise we’d have to relegate ourselves to a “best guess” hermeneutic, as so many of our English translations erroneously did.

Think about grouping like this… When I’m preparing to go grocery shopping, I often group my items together so that when I’m in the store, I can find what I’m looking for more quickly. I group all of the dairy products together, all of the meats, all of the vegetables, etc. That way, I don’t have to search my list when I arrive in a particular section of the store, nor do I have to keep going back and forth when I come across another product that I forget to get while I was in a particular section.

Paul uses this very same tactic when addressing his vices in 1Ti. 1:9-10. By examining these groups, we can discern the proper meaning of arsenokoitai(s) once and for all.

…realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers [10] and immoral men and homosexuals [arsenokoitais] and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.
1Timothy 1:9-10

Terms Type of Group
lawless and rebellious synonyms for lawbreakers
ungodly and sinners synonyms for people who trangress God’s law
unholy and profane synonyms for the sacrilegious; those who dishonor the sacred
killers of fathers/mothers, murderers types of killers
immoral men [pornois], male-bedders [arsenokoitais], kidnappers (we’ll examine the connection below)
liars and perjurers synonyms for people who speak untruths

As you can see, Paul clearly grouped his terms together. Consequently, the question we have to ask ourselves is: What do immoral men, “male-bedders”, and kidnappers have in common? If we can answer this question, we can be fairly certain that we’ve found the definition of arsenokoitais.

Obviously, since we don’t know what type of male-bedders are being condemned—nor do we even know for certain that arsenokoitai(s) can be properly broken apart into its constituent words—we need to focus on finding the link between “immoral men” and “kidnappers” first. Then, we’ll be in a better position to discover the role that male-bedders play in this group.

The word translated “immoral men” in the NASB (whoremongers in the KJV) is pornois. It’s from the root word pornos, which is used two ways in Scripture—a general reference to “sexual immorality” and a specific reference to prostitution. Although most modern translations render the word as the generic “sexually immoral” in this passage, it doesn’t make sense that Paul would use such a catch-all in a list that included a number of various vices. You don’t make a grocery list and include “dairy” as one of the items to pick up. So, I believe it’s a safe bet that Paul was referring to prostitutes here.

The word translated “kidnappers” in the NASB (menstealers in the KJV) is andropodistais. It refers to an enslaver or slave trader. Now, the fact that prostitutes are being condemned in this group indicates that the type of slavery being spoken of here is sexual slavery.

So, we have Paul condemning prostitutes and those who exploit them for financial gain. Considering modern prostitution, it takes only a small awareness of the industry to quickly identify those who exploit prostitutes. We call them pimps. During the time Paul wrote this, though, the prostitutes were sexual slaves, so it was a pimp to the Nth degree—a slavemaster.

Seeing that Paul is condemning two of the participants in a prostitution ring, we have to ask one simple question: Who is the third player? Obviously, the industry would not exist if it were not for the customers. And, indeed, the customer of the prostitute is, indeed, a “male-bedder,” so it perfectly fits the potential translation of arsenokoitais.

So, to quickly recap, Paul was criticizing sexual exploitation in this passage. While the specific form he had in mind likely involved two men (which I’ll demonstrate when defining malakoi in a moment), it can no more be seen as a condemnation of homosexuality in general as a condemnation of male-female prostitution could be considered a condemnation of heterosexuality in general.

What Does malakoi Mean?

As with arsenokoitai(s), the first thing we need to do is determine whether a reexamination of the meaning of malakoi is justified. Is there sufficient cause to question the translation of this term? To answer this question, we’ll do the same thing we did with arsenokoitai(s)—compare the ways our modern English translations render this term.

Version Translation
KJVKing James Version effeminate
NKJVNew King James Version homosexuals (footnoted as “catamites”
NIVNew International Version male prostitutes
NASBNew American Standard Bible effeminate (footnoted as “effeminate by perversion”
AMPAmplified Bible combined with arsenokoitai as “those who participate in homosexuality”
NLTNew Living Translation male prostitutes
CEVContemporary English Version pervert
HCSHolman Christian Standard male prostitutes
ESVEnglish Standard Version combined with arsenokoitai as “men who practice homosexuality” (footnoted as “the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”)
YLTYoung’s Literal Translation effeminate

It doesn’t take long to realize that a reexamination the translation of malakoi is more than called for. Contrary to what many people would have us believe, it’s exceedingly obvious that the translators were not sure of the proper translation of this term within this context.

Out of the 10 translations considered, 4 completely different terms are used:

  • effeminate (KJV, NASB, YLT)
  • some variation of homosexuals, either by orientation or activity (NKJV, AMP, ESV)
  • male prostitutes (NIV, NLT, HCS)
  • perverts (CEV)

Excuse my candor, but this is absolutely ridiculous. These translations are all over the place. In just 10 translations, the word was translated in four completely different ways. That’s an average of a different translation for every two Bible versions. If we made a distinction between the condemnation of “homosexuals” and the condemnation of “homosexual activity,” we’d have to add yet another variant translation. If there were ever evidence that a word’s translation requires reexamination, this is it!

Unlike arsenokoitais, malakoi was used elsewhere in Scripture, which allows us to take into consideration its usage in a non-list context. In Matt. 11:8 and Luke 7:25, it was used to describe John the Baptist’s clothing. It was translated as “soft” in these verses.

The root word, malakos, actually means soft or feminine. Think of its usage in the gospels as referring to soft apparel, which may seem feminine, like silk. From this perspective, “effeminate” is a fairly accurate rendering of the term in 1Co. 6, in a very literal sense. However, that translation doesn’t really convey the specific way in which Paul used it. For example, was he intending to condemn anything soft, like the aforementioned clothing worn by John the Baptist? As we had to do with male-bedder, we have to try to identify the specific type of femininity that is being condemned here; for example, all women are, by definition, feminine in one way or another, and we certainly don’t want to think Paul was condemning them.

Now, we saw in the 1Ti. 1 vice list that Paul grouped his terms together. While there’s no evidence that he did the same in 1Co. 6, the fact that malakoi appears in conjunction with arsenokoitai may lead us to the proper translation of the word.

In fact, it does! Knowing now that arsenokoitai(s) refers to the customers of prostitutes, it makes perfect sense that Paul would also condemn the prostitutes themselves whenever he condemns their customers. Indeed, as was the case in 1Co. 6, it makes sense that he would condemn the prostitutes before he condemned their customers.

Think about modern styles of speech. If I were preaching a sermon and condemning certain behavior in a particular segment, I wouldn’t say, “The customers of prostitutes, and also prostitutes are in sin.” What I would say is, “Prostitutes and their customers are in sin.” The primary subject in such a consideration is the prostitute. Their customers are an extension of them; so it makes sense that in both 1Co. 6 and 1Ti. 1, Paul would condemn prostitutes before he’d condemn their customers, and that’s exactly what he did.

Unlike the English translations’ renderings of arsenokoitai(s) (in which every single translation got it wrong), 6 versions got the translation of malakoi correct (even if not precise), including the KJV, NASB, and YLT (which correctly, albeit imprecisely rendered the term “effeminate”), as well as the NIV, NCV, and HCS (which more accurately rendered the term “male prostitutes”).

Now, if you’re thinking through this information critically, your next question is likely, Why would Paul refer to male prostitutes by calling them feminine? The answer is found in the type of male-male prostitution Paul was likely condemning—pederasty. In this common form of ancient Greco-Roman sexual exploitation, the prostitutes were always young, even prepubescent. They would certainly be considered feminine, not only in that they would take the submissive role sexually, but also in that their prepubescent skin was smooth and “soft” (malakos), their voices higher, and their mannerisms not markedly macho, as testosterone would not have been very high in their systems at that early stage of development.

The Conclusion of the Matter…

Without a doubt, the terms often translated as having something to do with homosexuality, malakoi and arsenokoitai(s), actually have nothing to do with it (in any general sense). To the contrary, what is condemned in these passages is pederastic prostitution, which, although male-male in nature, cannot be seen as in any way analogous to homosexuality in general. Paul was condemning behavior that was familiar to himself and to his readers, and it’s exceedingly unfortunate that our modern English translations have not faithfully preserved his words. This is indicative of the implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases that the translators approached these admittedly obscure terms with. The worst example of this bias is how the Young’s Literal Translation (YLT) rendered arsenokoitais as “sodomites,” when the word has nothing to do with Sodom or its inhabitants. Instead, it’s a word chosen because of a horrible interpretation of the Sodom and Gomorrah destruction narrative, and the assumption that arsenokoitais was referring to people who commit the same sin as they did. Well, it wasn’t!

Often hailed as one of the smoking guns of anti-gay theology, these two Pauline vice lists are an ever-present reminder of the dire need to engage in study before making a theological pronouncement. What’s so sad is that the lists in and of themselves are actually fairly straight-forward. Rather than Paul’s words being the problem, it’s the translation of his words that has held the Church captive to ignorance for so long. But, in the words of Jesus Christ, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free!”