(1 Cor 6:9–11 ESV) 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. 11 And such were some of you. 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.
After addressing lawsuits between believers, Paul dramatically changes the subject to moral sin, declaring that certain sins will keep the sinner from inheriting the kingdom of God. Some of these are obvious, whereas others are a tad more controversial, such as “men who practice homosexuality.”
Before considering homosexuality in particular, we need to reflect on where this list comes from. Paul (as well as Jesus and other New Testament authors) often give lists of sins that damn, and the lists are never the same. Therefore, we need to avoid the interpretation that these are somehow “mortal sins” that are inherently more damning than other “venial sins.” Were we to compile a list of all sins that make a list like this one, it would be quite a long list.
And yet we’ve all been taught that sin is sin, and any sin can damn. If so, why does Paul pick on these sins? Well, as he says in verse 11, these are sins that the Corinthian converts had left behind when they were converted. Paul had been the first missionary to Corinth and knew these people personally — and he knew their stories. Therefore, he wasn’t speaking abstractly — these are sins the church members had in fact had to leave behind to become Christians.
Obviously, just about any Gentile convert would have been an idolater. And most Corinthian men would have been adulterers and otherwise sexually immoral. In the Grecian culture, it was expected that married men would enjoy the company of prostitutes and otherwise sleep around. Sexual fidelity to one’s wife was not really expected.
Just so, homosexuality was an entirely acceptable practice among the Greeks. Some of their philosophers considered gay sex preferable to heterosexual sex, because the love was considered purer, as there was no expectation of creating a family.
This was, of course, the exact opposite of the Jewish perspective on sexuality, which focused heavily on having children. The Jews took “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28) very seriously, so much so that they considered it sinful not to marry, with rare exceptions made for dedication to Torah study. Paul, in chapter 7, will break from Jewish tradition and allow Christians to remain single to better serve the Lord.
Drunkenness was also a part of the Grecian lifestyle, with banquets often being held to encourage drunkenness accompanied by the companionship of hetaerae, high-priced, highly cultured prostitutes, trained to serve male fantasies.
The other sins are not so typical of Greek society, except in the sense that all these sins are common to all societies: swindlers, revilers, thieves, greedy.
And so, are these unforgivable sins? No, but in that time and place, they were sins well known by the members of that church to be sin. Hence, if they were to return to these activities, they’d do so in rebellion against the known will of God, and so threaten their salvation.
Paul’s point, of course, is that his readers had left these very sins behind, knew them to be wrong, and had no excuse for going back to them — no matter how approved they might be in the local culture. Local culture is not our Judge. Jesus is.
This brings us to a translation difficulty. In the Greek, we have this phrase: οὔτε μαλακοὶ οὔτε ἀρσενοκοῖται, oute malakoi oute arsenokoitai, that is, neither men who engage in the male homosexual role nor men who engage in the female homosexual role. English translations vary quite a lot, but in the last several years, for obvious reasons, these words have drawn considerable attention from scholars, and a consensus has developed that Paul was referring to consensual, male homosexuality.
In the Greek culture, a distinction was drawn between gay men who acted in the female role and in the male role. To act as a female was to be soft and effeminate, and was considered entirely improper for free adults. This was a role reserved for boys and for slaves. On the other hand, to engage in sex with a boy or a slave as a man has sex with a woman was considered entirely acceptable behavior.
Thus, Paul uses two different words to make certain that his point is made: both roles are contrary to the God’s will and potentially damn. And it’s important to realize that Paul has not limited his condemnation to unwilling partners or ritual, idolatrous prostitution. There is nothing here suggesting Paul is only condemning rape or abusive sexual relations.
In fact free, adult men had no problem finding homosexual boys and slaves to be their consorts. And the literature of the time does not suggest that these relationships were typically abusive. To the contrary, the relationships were often considered a part of mentoring a young man.
Homosexuality and male prostitution, for example, were especially characteristic of Greco-Roman society. Plato lauded homosexual love in The Symposium (181B). Nero, emperor at the time Paul wrote this letter, was about to marry the boy Sporus (Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, 6. 28), an incident bizarre only in its formality, since 14 of the first 15 Roman emperors were homosexual or bisexual.
Bible Knowledge Commentary.
Now, Paul’s other point, of course, is that the Corinthians had left these sins behind when they came to Jesus, had been cleansed by the name of Jesus — his authority acquired on the cross — and the sanctifying work of the Spirit. Therefore, don’t go back!