In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul describes several habituated behaviors that he warns will keep people from God’s kingdom:
9 Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men 10 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And that is what some of you were. 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.
Paul includes several behaviors in this list. In the last decade the one that that has attracted the most attention is that which is translated in the NIV as “men who have sex with men”, a translation of two Greek terms, malakos and arsenokoites. As you may know, the debate over the translation of these two terms in the last thirty years has been highly controverted and politicized … to say the least.
Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality
That said, the mainstream scholarly opinion is that Paul is intending to condemn male homosexual acts. As Richard Hays explains, malakos is “pejorative slang to describe the ‘passive’ partners-often young boys-in homosexual activity.” Meanwhile, arsenokoites is “a translation of the Hebrew mishkav zakur (‘lying with the male’), derived directly from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 and used in rabbinic texts to refer to homosexual intercourse.” Hays concludes:
“Thus, Paul’s use of the term presupposes and reaffirms the holiness code’s condemnation of homosexual acts. This is not a controversial point in Paul’s argument; the letter gives no evidence that anyone at Corinth was arguing for the acceptance of same-sex erotic activity. Paul simply assumes that his readers will share his conviction that those who indulge in homosexual activity are ‘wrongdoers’.” (See Hays, “Homosexuality: Rebellion Against God,” cf. Moral Vision of the New Testament, 382-83)
If that’s right then it would seem that Paul is warning that those who engage in homosexual acts in an ongoing unrepentant way thereby exclude themselves from the kingdom.
Why has homosexuality dominated the discussion?
I think there are two reasons why the debates over homosexuality and the interpretation of malakos and arsenokoites have dominated the public square of discussion. The first reason is because their meaning has been disputed and people on both sides of the debate (i.e. the traditionalists like Hays and gay affirming revisionists like Justin Lee) are heavily invested in different ways.
The second reason is one that applies only to traditionalists: it is easier to focus on ethical topics that are not relevant to one’s own person or belief community. Most traditionalists are part of Christian communities which are not themselves gay-affirming and thus they do not have visible gay members. Consequently, that issue is kept safely at a distance and it is consequently a relatively safe matter for debate.
Contrast that with some of the other topics on Paul’s list … like greed.
What about other issues … like greed?
The North American church is full of greedy people. There are various possible metrics by which we might measure widespread greed. Let me offer two: the low levels of tithing and the popularity of prosperity preaching.
Let’s start with the case of tithing. According to Barna, 5% of the American population tithes (i.e. donates at least 10% of their income to churches and/or non-profit charities). This statistic rises to 12% among evangelicals, the most generous demographic group.(Source)
While evangelicals are to be commended for being relatively generous, that rate of giving is still pathetic. Even if you don’t think that Christians are obliged to tithe 10%, the fact that millions of Christians tithe far less (e.g. 2-3% of income) is a damning indictment of the relative lack of generosity.
Second, consider the widespread and enduring popularity of the health and wealth gospel led by folks like Creflo Dollar and the prosperity lite of “America’s Pastor” Joel Osteen. Preachers/teachers like these have best-selling books, churches in the thousands and tens of thousands, vast radio and television ministries, and multi-million dollar incomes. And they are fueled by millions of hopeful devotees who desire precisely that same degree of material success in their own lives.
These two data points provide good evidence that greed is widespread in the North American church.
Delusions of Greed
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of our greed is that we delude ourselves by condemning those who are richer or greedier than us. We judge our neighbor who buys a brand new BMW sedan but we are okay financing a two year old Honda Accord, even though we need to cut back our tithe to make our car payments (and our cell phone bill, and our mortgage, and …).
But we keep focusing on that neighbor and their new BMW rather than asking ourselves whether we really need that Honda Accord, and more specifically whether our current rate of material consumption is inhibiting our charitable giving.
Soren Kierkegaard warned about the danger of deluding ourselves by comparison with the wider group of which we’re a part. As he observed, no person left unto themselves would think they were meeting the demands of Christian discipleship: “But when there are 100,000, one becomes confused….”
That’s an understatement. Greed is a crisis situation in the church today. And yes, I include myself in that sobering indictment. And yet, who wants to hear a sermon or lecture or read a book indicting their patterns of material consumption? The fact is that it is more comfortable for most of us to hear a condemnation of the unrepentant homosexual lifestyle rather than the unrepentant greedy lifestyle.