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Issues Facing Missions Today 61: First Timothy 1:10’s Reference to Homosexuality

What is the significance of 1 Timothy 1:8-11’s reference to the Decalogue in the present discussion of homosexuality and the Church?  The passage reads as follows:

1 Timothy 1:8-11 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully,  9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers,  10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine,  11 in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.

Note, firstly, that this list of sins picks up with the fifth commandment and runs through the ninth commandment in order: a table of comparison can make this clear.

Decalogue (Exodus 20)
1 Timothy 9-10
5th Command: Exodus 20:12 Honor your father and your mother
those who strike their fathers and mothers
6th Command: Exodus 20:13 You shall not murder.
7th Command: Exodus 20:14 You shall not commit adultery.
the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality
8th Command: Exodus 20:15 You shall not steal.
9th Command: Exodus 20:16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
 liars, perjurers

Note, secondly, that the list is not exhaustive but indicative.  This is clear in part because the Ten Commandments are not listed exhaustively, and it stops before the final commandment.  Also, Paul says at the end of the list, ‘whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.’  In Romans 13:8, Paul lists four of the Ten Commandments.

Note, thirdly, that Paul chooses to interpret the commandments—the 5th, 7th, 8th, and 9th commandments.  Proper use of the law (v. 8) allows treating the commandments as ‘topics’ that can be and need to be expanded further.  Thus, e.g., the 9th commandment’s saying not to bear false witness is interpreted as forbidding lying and perjuring.  The 5th commandment’s positive command to honour one’s father and mother is interpreted negatively as a law against striking (ESV) or murdering (NRSV, NIV) one’s father and mother.  The 8th commandment not to steal is given a very particular interpretation: not to steal means, among other things, not to be involved in the slave trade (stealing persons).  The 7th commandment against committing adultery is both broadened (sexual immorality) and given specific application (homosexuality).

In regard to the specific application of the 7th commandment to homosexuality, we can note a further point.  The word translated ‘homosexuality’ by the ESV (‘sodomy’ by the NRSV) is ‘arsenokoitais’ in Greek.  It is a compound word that was apparently coined by Paul (first in 1 Corinthians 6.9).  The word is made up of the word for ‘male’ and the word for ‘bed’, and so it refers to a man lying with another man for sex.  The two words appear together in the Greek translation of Leviticus 20:13, which reads:

Leviticus 20:13 If a man lies with a male [Greek: arsenos koitēn] as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Greek could allow one to coin words, the two words in question do appear side by side in Leviticus, and any Greek text of Leviticus that Paul would have seen—or anyone in the first century—would not have had spaces between words.  The main point, though, is that Paul chose his word arsenokoitais from Leviticus 20:13 when he was referencing the 7th Commandment.  This is significant for two reasons.  First, it shows that Paul understood the 7th Commandment to forbid homosexuality.  Thus, when Paul, and probably others, refer to adultery elsewhere, they may intend various sexual sins other than adultery per se, including homosexuality.  Second, it shows that Paul used the Leviticus passage to help explain the wider application of the 7th Commandment.  Clearly, Paul continues to use the Law for Christian ethics, and he sees homosexuality as a sin.

One might note that Paul’s choice of word for homosexual is specifically about (1) a practice or act and (2) males.  The point made above about the list being open and indicative should also lead us to recognise that a reference to males performing homosexual acts would also apply to lesbians.  If anyone should doubt this, we have Paul’s explicit mention of both sins in Romans 1:26-27.

The connection between Exodus 20’s 7th commandment of the Decalogue and Leviticus 20:13 also shows that Paul does not find some particular circumstance for homosexual acts to be acceptable and some other circumstance to make it unacceptable.  Just as one does not search around for situations in which adultery might be acceptable, one does not do so for homosexuality.  A variety of wild suggestions are often bandied about for limiting Biblical prohibitions against homosexuality: pederasty (an adult male with a teenage boy) and temple prostitution being the more popular two.  Moreover, Paul is not understanding homosexuality to be a form of adultery in a limited sense, as though it is only wrong when one commits it as a married man.  This is clear because he first broadens the meaning of adultery to ‘sexual immorality’ (porneia) in general.  

This sort of attempt to play with the meaning of the Law may be what Paul actually had in mind when he said, ‘the law is good, if one uses it lawfully’ (1 Timothy 1:8).  The false teachers that Timothy was up against in Ephesus were certainly misusing the Law, not ignoring it.  In fact, it may even be possible that the reason Paul expands the 7th Commandment to include homosexuals is precisely that some false teachers were excluding this from its prohibition.  If one were to insist on limiting the 7th commandment only to adultery, then one would, indeed, be arguing that the law did not apply to a sexual behaviour such as homosexuality.  Paul debunks this by linking the 7th Commandment to Lev. 20:13 (and Lev. 18:22), and the same is true for any other limitation of the Law, such as trying to exclude those involved in the slave trade from the 8th commandment not to steal.

Another importance of 1 Timothy 1:10 for the issue of homosexuality is that Paul used the word he made up here and in 1 Corinthians 6:9 (we have no indication of the word being used in Greek literature before Paul, and it is not used by non-Christians after him).  These two letters, if both written by Paul (as I believe), were probably written some ten years apart.  Paul’s making up the word ‘arsenokoitēs’ was not a once-off coining of a term; it was a term he apparently used enough to have it in operation over such a lengthy period of time.  There is every reason to believe that Paul regularly talked on this issue: we are simply lucky to have two texts from his writings that caught this.

Also, 1 Timothy 1:10 is important for the present day discussion of homosexuality because it forbids both homosexuality and the slave trade side by side.  One of the more naïve arguments some have put forward in our day is that we should dismiss Paul’s references to homosexuality as a sin because he approves of slavery.  Paul’s writings are fairly significant for arguing against the slave trade, but 1 Timothy 1:10 is definitely relevant on this matter.  This text, then, should put to rest attempts to ‘divide’ Paul himself: Paul is opposing both homosexuality and the slave trade.  If he is opposed to the trade, he is clearly on the side of bringing the entire practice to an end.

1 Timothy 1:8-11 is further important because it pits these sins, including homosexuality, against Paul’s Gospel: ‘… and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the glorious gospel of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted’ (1 Tim. 1.10-11).  And, finally, the larger context of 1 Timothy 1:8-11 is important because Paul’s Gospel is about how people move beyond a life of sin.  In the following verses, Paul recounts how he, too, had been a sinner: ‘formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent’ (1 Tim. 1.13).  He then says, ‘But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus’ (1 Tim. 1:13-14).  God’s grace not only brought forgiveness but transformation to Paul.  He was not stuck in his sin.  The appropriate use of the Law is to point out what is sin: ‘the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane’ (1 Timothy 1:9).  But God’s mercy and grace offer change.  In our day, people regularly pervert grace into licentiousness (cf. Jude 4), as though grace is a matter of being loving and kind rather than bringing the Gospel of God’s merciful transformation to the sinner.  But Paul’s own story is a story of transformation.  Having mentioned homosexuality—and other sins from the Decalogue—as sins, he holds out hope in his Gospel for other sinners.

For these reasons, then, 1 Timothy 1:8-11 is a significant passage for the present confusion in the West’s mainline denominations over homosexuality—and over the nature of grace, for that matter.