Defining Terms for a Defining Moment: Homosexuality in the New Testament

By: Charles L. Quarles (Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, SEBTS)

Most readers of this blog are likely aware that Southern Baptists are facing yet another defining moment. On February 11, 2014, Pastor Danny Cortez announced to the congregation at New Hope Community Church in Los Angeles that he had changed his position on homosexuality. Cortez delivered an hour-long message explaining why he no longer believed that the New Testament condemns homosexual behavior. On May 18, the majority of the members of this Southern Baptist fellowship voted to become a “Third Way church” in which members agree to disagree on the issue of homosexuality and exhibit openness to a variety of positions on this moral question.

In his defense of his new position, Cortez raised a few linguistic arguments that I believe require a response. Cortez argued that those who believe the New Testament condemns homosexual practices are misreading the New Testament. They misread the New Testament because they improperly define the key terms.

First, Cortez argued that Paul coined the term translated “homosexual” in 1 Corinthians 6:9. No one can be sure what the term really means since the term had no previous history of usage. Paul probably did coin the term arsenokoites in this passage. Nevertheless, the term was not used in a linguistic vacuum. It has sufficient background to make Paul’s usage clear. The term was formed by combining the word arsen (“male”) with the word koite (“bed”). The word refers to “one who goes to bed with a male.” Since “bed” was often used as a euphemism for sexual relationships, the term refers to “one who has sex with a male.” Paul’s term was derived from Leviticus 18:22 (“You shall not sleep with a male as with a female, for it is an abomination”) and 20:13 (“Whoever sleeps with a male as with a female, both of them have committed an abomination”). Both components of Paul’s term (“male” and “bed/sex”) appear in the Greek translation (LXX) of these two texts from Leviticus. Paul’s term forms a clear allusion to these two texts and thus refers to a man who has sex with a male who fulfills the role ordinarily assumed by a female. This noun describes the one who plays the masculine or dominant role in a homosexual act. Although the HCSB combines this and the previous moral category in the rendering “anyone practicing homosexuality,” the marginal reading is very precise: “active homosexual partner.”

Second, Cortez claims that he immersed himself in the homoerotic literature from ancient Greece and Rome and discovered that ancient homosexuality was never a genuinely loving relationship between two people of the same gender (like homosexual relationships today), but always a violent and abusive relationship in which a dominant person abused another person. The NT condemned ancient homosexuality only because of its violent, abusive, and selfish nature. However, Paul’s list of the wicked who will not inherit the kingdom in 1 Corinthians 6:9 includes both the one who played the dominant role and the one who played the passive role in a homosexual relationship. The term malakos (lit. “soft one”) was equivalent to the terms eromenos (Greek) and pathicus or cinaedus (Latin). The term was used by ancient writers like Philo to describe the male who played the passive or feminine role in a homosexual act (Dreams 2.2 §9; Spec. Laws 3.7 §§37-42).Paul is clearly referring here to the typically younger feminine partner in a homosexual relationship. That is why the HCSB (mg.) and the Lexham English Bible translate the term: “passive homosexual partner.” Paul prohibited playing the dominant role and playing the passive role in a homosexual relationship because Leviticus 20:13 insisted “both have committed an abomination.” If Paul had merely rejected homosexuality because it involved violence and abuse, surely he would not have condemned the passive partner (who in Cortez’s view was always the object of violence and abuse) along with the dominant partner. Paul’s insistence on the wickedness of playing either the dominant or passive role in a homosexual relationship shows that he viewed homosexual behavior as sinful because it was a perversion of the created order and God’s moral standards for sexual relationships, not based on the assumption that it was always characterized by violence or abuse.

The position affirmed by Cortez and New Hope Community Church poses a serious moral crisis for the Southern Baptist Convention. Our response to the church’s position will likely be a “defining moment” in the history of our denomination. In such a defining moment, it is especially important that we define biblical terms accurately and precisely. Words matter greatly because the Word matters greatly. Cortez has wrongly defined important biblical terms and that he has done so to the peril of his family, his church, and the homosexuals to whom he seeks to minister. I pray that the dictionary we use to define Paul’s terms will be Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 rather than homoerotic literature. Danny Cortez is no Noah Webster, but his new dictionary of biblical terms will likely be a bestseller in a culture seeking to justify a new morality that is little more than the old immorality. I sincerely hope that Southern Baptists won’t buy it.

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  1. stamatis   •  

    As a Greek I wanted to say that your translation and exegesis are on point. Unfortunately, Cortez doesn’t see that he is hiding the truth of the gospel from these people and opening the doors to their eternal destruction. I think since leaders will be judged hardest by God that Cortez will be shown all those homosexuals that he patted on the back, but are suffering eternal torment in hell. He like any believer that endorses it will be so grieved when they stand before God and see that they hurt these people instead of helping them. Instead of loving this group of sinners Cortez is actually showing hatred to them by accepting their sinful lifestyle. This grieves my spirit.

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  3. PJ Tibayan   •  

    I watched the sermon video. Danny Cortez is clearly a good communicator. He also has a genuine heart felt love for God, the church, and his son. He is right to love his son. He is right to hug and accept his son as his son no matter what. But he gets the Bible wrong here. He says 3 things that don’t cohere: (1) Romans 1 is a mirror to deal with your own sins, not the sins of others so don’t judge. Then he says (2) that the text doesn’t refer to homosexuality but to homo-erotic violence and “judges” those who do that as being wrong/sinful. Then he says (3) that we can’t know what the text really means because scholars disagree and go back and forth. The only way we can know is by the evaluating the “fruit” of someone’s life. That is certainly a necessary part of the evaluation. But it’s not the only part. What the Bible says is the crucial starting point, not the fruit of someone’s life (as important as that is). To summarize: he says the text means judge your sins not others, then judges the sins of those who participate in homo-erotic violence, then says we can’t really know what the text means but we need to look at the fruit. Those don’t cohere.

    And I’m glad he loves and hugged his son. He should. And he should support him. I’ve prayed for Danny and his son Drew and will continue to. I’m in the same Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association and want for their family to be strong and blessed (according to God’s Word). But the path of blessing from Jesus Christ is in trusting his words rightly interpreted and applied, so I’m praying that Danny understands and applies the Word rightly to loving God, his church, his son, and the rest of his family.

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