This Sunday, my church (Niles Discovery Church) will be presenting our fourth graders with new Bibles.  It’s a long tradition of giving kids a Bible of their own, one that they can read and, as we say in the bookplate we put in it, “when you wear it out, return it for a new one.”

As a pastor and a progressive Christian, I want to give the kids a Bible that is both a translation that the kids can read (that’s written at a level they can comprehend) and that is accurate.  This poses a particular challenge when it comes to two letters in the Bible that have been used to condemn lgbt people (especially gay men).

I know it’s a problem because when I was an adolescent, trying to come to terms with my own sexuality, I went to my Bible to see what it said about being gay, and I found 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  Right there, in the Bible my church had given me, I read, “Surely you know that the wicked will not possess God’s Kingdom. Do not fool yourselves; people who are immoral or who worship idols or are adulterers or homosexual perverts or who steal or are greedy or are drunkards or who slander others or are thieves – none of these will possess God’s Kingdom.” (Good News Translation)

Sure, there are other passages that are used to clobber lgbt people.  There’s the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, in Genesis 19:1-11, but the issue here isn’t so much one of translation as it is of interpretation.  The rape the men of Sodom wanted to commit has been confused with the consensual sex between adult men.  I’m glad God condemned rape.

Leviticus 18:22 & Leviticus 20:13 (those “abomination” passages from the Holiness Code) are pretty clear, but there’s so much else in the Holiness Code that we reject that even my teenaged mind was able to reject these passages, too.  Though, this does raise interesting questions about how we should treat the holiness code (do we ignore it, pick and choose from it, accept all of it, try to find an ethic underneath it rather than the specifics of it?).

There’s Romans 1:26-27, where “unnatural” sex – defined as same-gender relations – is condemned.  But I knew that behaving heterosexually is unnatural for me, so even this passage didn’t clobber me like the others.

No, it was 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that clobbered me.

So as we’ve prepared to present Bibles to our fourth graders, I’ve been looking at various translations to see how they deal with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (and a similar passage, 1 Timothy 1:9-10).

With the understanding that the New Revised Standard Version is one of the more accurate English translations available, I started there, looking at how it dealt with the Greek.  The NRSV translates 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “… fornicators (pornos), idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes (malakos), sodomites (arsenokoites), thieves, …”

Malakos literally means soft or fancy (see Matthew 11:8).  For Paul, probably meant “effeminate,” which would have been a problem because it would be breaking gender roles that were such a part of the social hierarchy; or “vanity,” obsessed with his looks, which has nothing to do with sexual orientation or behavior.

Arsenokoites is a Greek word play: male + bed + [make it a verb] = malebedder.  What’s the best way to understand this word?  A common translation understanding is the adult male in a man/adolescent relationship that could happen in Greek and Roman cultures.  Others think “men who use sex as a means of violence; men who commit rape” is a better understanding of this term.

The NRSV translation is pretty accurate, but it leaves open the question of how to interpret the English word “sodomite.”  Besides, the English used is at least high school level, so it’s not a good translation to give to fourth graders.

The English Standard Version doesn’t do a good job:  “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”  Their footnote says, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase [men who practice homosexuality] refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.”  The NIV, which translates the Greek word in question as “men who have sex with men,” has a similarly bad footnote.

Turning to translations that are supposed to be accessible for elementary schoolers, the Contemporary English Version is a bad translation:  “No one who … behaves like a homosexual.”  The new Common English Bible is even worse:  “both participants in same-sex intercourse” as the translation and “submissive and dominant male sexual partners” as a footnote, which is just a stereotyped understanding of gay sexuality.

Of the English translations that are supposed to be accessible to kids, only The Message translates these verses in a way that I find acceptable (though is does border on being a paraphrase):  “Don’t you realize that this is not the way to live? Unjust people who don’t care about God will not be joining in his kingdom. Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom.”

I mentioned earlier that 1 Timothy 1:9-10 is similar to 1 Corinthians 6:9-10.  The Timothy passage also has the word arsenokoites in it – with similar translation problems.  For instance, the NRSV translates these verses, “This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching …”  However, the Message translates them, “It’s obvious, isn’t it, that the law code isn’t primarily for people who live responsibly, but for the irresponsible, who defy all authority, riding roughshod over God, life, sex, truth, whatever!”

So, tomorrow, we give our fourth graders Bibles.  We’re giving them Contemporary English Version Bibles because it’s the version we have copies of in a closet at the church.  I hope we spring for The Message next year!

By the way, I’ll be teaching a Confirmation Class this year – junior and senior high youth.  They’ll be getting the NRSV New Interpreters Study Bible.  And we’ll spend some time going over these difficult passages as a way to learn about the challenges of biblical interpretation and to address head-on these clobber passages from a progressive Christian point of view.

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