Question: "Does the Greek word arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 really mean homosexuals or something else?"
Answer: In 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 Paul lists some sinful lifestyles that give evidence that a person is not saved: “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 . . . will inherit the kingdom of God.” In other words, a practicing, unrepentant idolater, adulterer, or homosexual is fooling himself if he thinks he is going to heaven. Christians are saved from such sins.
There are some interpreters today who object to lumping homosexuals in with the other sinners listed in this passage. The wording “men who have sex with men” is unclear, they say, and should not be construed as a condemnation of all same-sex activity. In an attempt to make homosexual behavior compatible with Christianity, they attempt to redefine the Greek word.
The phrase “men who have sex with men” (translated “homosexuals” in the NASB) is a translation of the Greek word arsenokoitai. Those who object to this translation say that arsenokoitai does not refer to all homosexual relationships but only to those involving abuse, coercion, or unfaithfulness. They say the word does not refer to “loving, faithful” same-sex relationships.
Arsenokoitai is a compound word: arseno is the word for “a male,” and koitai is the word for “mat” or “bed.” Put the two halves together, and the word means “a male bed”—that is, a person who makes use of a “male-only bed” or a “bed for males.” And, truthfully, that’s all the information we need to understand the intent of 1 Corinthians 6:9.
As in English, the Greek word for “bed” can have both sexual and non-sexual meanings. The statement “I bought a new bed” has no sexual connotation; however, “I went to bed with her” does. In the context of 1 Corinthians 6:9, koitai connotes an illicit sexual connotation—the apostle is clearly speaking of “wrongdoers” here. The conclusion is that the word arsenokoitai refers to homosexuals—men who are in bed with other men, engaging in same-gender sexual activity.
It is interesting to note that arsenokoitai was not a common word in the Greek language to refer to homosexuality. Some have even claimed that the apostle Paul invented the word. This is not the case. In the Septuagint Greek translation of the two verses in the Mosaic Law that refer to homosexuality both contain forms of arseno and koitai (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). This likely indicates that Paul had Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 in mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians 6:9, making it abundantly clear what Paul meant by the word arsenokoitai.
The notion that some homosexual relationships are accepted is not even hinted at in this passage. The men’s commitment level or the presence of “love” is not addressed. The idea that the condemned same-sex activity is linked to economic exploitation or abuse is also a forced reading with no textual basis.
Paul’s reference to “homosexuals,” together with a reference to “effeminate” men in the same verse (in the NASB), effectively covers both active and passive homosexual behavior. God’s Word is not open to personal interpretation in this matter. Homosexuality is wrong; it always has been, and it always will be.
Just two verses later, 1 Corinthians 6:11 says, “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” (emphasis added). This statement negates the idea of “homosexual Christianity” being acceptable to God. Paul tells the Corinthian believers that practices such as homosexuality were evidences of their former life before Christ. Now they have been born again, and they have a new nature and new desires. The old nature remains, and the temptations continue, but child of God has been called to fight against sin, not live in it any longer. By the life-changing grace of God, the Corinthians’ new life stands in opposition to the way they used to live.