If you would like to read Desiring God's original articles on effeminateness to which I am responding, check out the links below:
- Next-gen prep: Did Gillette miss a point?
- Play the Man You Are: Will coaxing keep someone out of heaven?
The English word effeminate dates back to a time in history when femininity occupied the bottom rung of the social ladder. We get the word “virtue” from the Latin word “Virtus“, that came"for,"means man. Think about it. Historically, virtue was inherently male. The implication for the feminine is not so difficult to discover.
Even today we stumble under the weight of our misogynist history and commonly associate the feminine with what is "less". People still say things like "You play like a girl" and hardly think twice about the repercussions. And more folksstillWriting articles condemning men who don't fit a very narrow construct of masculinity, accusing them of being feminine or "feminine."
More recently, Desiring God published two articles on effeminateness (linked above), condemning gay men for their "ephemeral habits," first implicitly and then explicitly. But the most common passages of Scripture used to justify this kind of thinking paint a very different picture of what femininity actually entails.
The infamous passage about effeminacy
The Greek word translated "feminine".(Malakos)appears three times in the Bible. His most notorious appearance is found at 1 Corinthians 6:9:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, women, nor self-abusers with men, nor thieves, nor greedy, drunkards, blasphemers, nor swindlers shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (KJV)(Video) Thinking Biblically About Homosexuality (Selected Scriptures)
According to this passage, the kingdom of God closes the "effeminacy" or"malakoi."But what exactly does "effeminate/MalakoiIf we are not careful, we can easily let our own cultural background dictate our understanding of the text and wrongly conclude that men who “speak flamboyantly, gesture lightly, or wear lipstick” will not inherit the kingdom of God because they it must be "feminine" as Desiring God suggests.
So instead of letting our own cultural background and assumptions dictate our interpretation, let's practice some decent hermeneutical principles. Let's take a little time to really study God's Word and the context in which Paul wrote.
Passages that use the same word for effeminate
The wordMalakosappears twice more in the New Testament. His first appearance is at Matthew 11:8, where Jesus says to a crowd of onlookers, “What did you want to see? A man in soft clothes? Behold, those who wear soft robes are in the houses of kings.”
The second appearance ofMalakosoccurs in a slightly longer retelling of the same story: "What did you want to see? A man in soft clothes? Behold, those who dress splendidly and live in luxury are in the royal courts" (Luke 7:25).
In both passagesMalakostranslates as “gentle” and conveys a type of person spoiled by wealth and luxury. To use the words of Wayne R. Dynes in his Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, seen classical antiquityMalakos(orsoftin Latin) as "the result of luxury, idleness, and spoiled licentiousness" (p. 348):
“In ancient Rome, the concepts weresoft("smooth") andeffeminateacquired particular connotations of decadence and unnerving luxury... Roman satirists took a sarcastic delight in plaguing the vices of luxury that were rampant among the upper classes of a nation once rude and belligerent, had succumbed to the temptations of reviving her charity followed. -successful conquest and plunder of the entire ancient world” (p. 348).
The usage ofMalakosin Matthew and Luke it agrees closely with Dynes' description. A man in the robes of the "gentle" or"Malakos"he is a man who lives in luxury, as Luke 7:25 specifically says. After succumbing to the decline of his wealth, he is the complete opposite of a virtuous man who indulges his lusts to an abominable degree.
A better understanding of malakoi and effeminate
Therefore, a “soft” man, or as some translations say, a “feminine” man, is a man distinguished primarily by forbearance.
This understanding ofMalakosmuch better against the analogy of believing that Scripture interprets Scripture. The condemnation of carnal enjoyment makes sense against the broader narrative of God's Word and is consistent with the two additional uses ofMalakosin the New Testament. On the other hand, it is not to judge men who wear "floral shirts and skinny jeans" or who speak with "squeaky sentences" and "light gestures" (as Desiring God confusedly puts it).
Rather a more modern parallel to itMalakoscould be the son of a corporate tycoon who inherits his father's fortune and treats himself to a luxurious vacation on his family's private island somewhere in the Pacific, hopping from woman to woman.
Classic examples of softening in antiquity
Understanding femininity as an expression of excess and decadence is key to understanding its sexual connotations in ancient Rome. Sexual and romantic excess—whether that excess was homosexual or straight—was an integral part of what it meant to be female. In How to Do the History of Homosexuality, David M. Halperin makes the following observations:
“In the culture of European military elites, at least from antiquity to the Renaissance, normative masculinity often implied rigor, poor appetite, and the control of the pleasure drive. (The once elegant American ideal of the big man on campus, the football player endlessly indulged in his love of hot baths, cold beer, fast cars, and faster women, would be used in this context not as an allegory of masculinity but of its degraded opposite, like a monster of effeminate.) ... Those men who refused to rise to the challenge, who left the competitive company of men for the loving company of women, who sought a life of pleasure, who made love instead of war— they embodied the classic stereotype of effeminate” (p. 111).
In other words, effeminate men indulged in the excesses of sexual lust and romantic love. More often it was heterosexual excess. And this understanding of effeminateness continued into the Renaissance, when literature portrayed effeminate men as obsessed with love, typical of women. Take, for example, this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo laments his infatuation with Juliet's beauty:
"O sweet Juliet,
Your beauty has softened me
And in my temper the steel of bravery softened!" (3.I.I.)(Video) Effeminacy and the Church | Douglas Wilson (Collegiate Reformed Fellowship)
Romeo and Juliet is just one example among many that Halperin uses to illustrate the historical definition of femininity that had little to do with sexual orientation and typically developed in heterosexual encounters. Think about it. Feminine men were typically obsessed with women. This strongly contradicts the modern connotations used by anti-LGBT organizations to shame men who exude "the gay vibe" — and yes, those are Desiring God's actual words.
Old Masculinity: A Performance of Male Dominance
In ancient Rome, people based their virtue on feats of control, whether control over themselves or control over others. (And remember: virtue was synonymous with manliness.) Therefore,MalakoiHe represented everything a man should not be. By letting luxury, love and general excess determine their everyday life,Malakoishe lacked the composure of a man, and with it the appearance of virtue.
Additionally, exercising their dominance over others through sexual penetration was one of many ways men asserted their masculine control. On the other hand, it was also a way to emasculate. Penetration was a feat of manhood. But being penetrated was a shame.
In Paul Among the Men, Sarah Ruden observes the following about a typical Roman:
"Apart from a certain restraint to avoid quarrels within his royal household, he swaggered among his wife, sweethearts, slaves and whores and men. After all, penetration signaled moral righteousness... In fact, society has pushed a man toward sexual brutality toward other men." [Kindle Edition]
Men established their dominance over others, including men, through sexual conquest, manufactureMalakoian easy target for men who want to prove their masculinity. In the male economy, the sexual conquest of women was not enough. UntilMalakoiThey had their mistresses. It was men's sexual conquest that really cemented one's masculinity. And what could be easier than raping a man you already despised?
For this reason,MalakoiThey were the natural prey of men wanting to prove their manhood. IfMalakosbeing sexually penetrated by another man had nothing to do with being "gay". Such a concept did not exist. Rather, it had everything to do with male dominance.
Overthrow the old version of toxic masculinity
The Condemnation of PaulMalakoiit would not have been surprising to the Corinthian church. The surrounding culture already viewed such men (and boys) with contempt, and Scripture itself was strongly opposed to the kind of licentiousness they represented. Denouncing them would have been as obvious as denouncing idolaters or thieves.
However, Paul's condemnation of men who sexually dominate other men would not be obvious. These men represented the pinnacle of male virtue, and the predominantly non-Jewish community would have seen them as such. This may be one of the reasons Paul chose to condemn male-to-male sexual conquest, using a separate two-word portmanteau of the Levitical Law.—arsenokoitai.In doing so, he roused the Corinthians from their cultural stupor and drew their attention to the immorality of what was really going on.
Regardless, it's important to understand that Paul wasn't talking about gay men. He named a very specific scale by which men in ancient Rome were measured. And he declared, quite shockingly, that no matter where you fell on the "manhood scale" - whether you were the lowest of the lows or the highest of the highs, overly spoiled or sexually dominant - you would not inherit the kingdom. The scale of masculinity has been perverted.
Such old representations of femininity, rightMalakoi,typically exhibit sexual (usually heterosexual) excess and the enjoyment of a life of luxury, as indicated in passages such as Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25. That made "femininity" sinful. And the men who proved their male "virtue" through rapeMalakoithey were no better. Sexual orientation had nothing to do with it. And Paul has never tried to judge men who just happen to exude "the gay vibe."
Ultimately, it's beyond disappointing that Desiring God hasn't done its homework in its recent articles on "effeminate." It's a shame, to be honest, and a shame for the Word of God.
Twisting Scripture to shame men who don't fit into our culture's own perverted masculinity scale is, at its core, spiritual neglect. We don't need gay people hating each other. In fact, they are some of the best men I know. And I daresay they have a lot to teach believers about healthy masculinity.