If you’d like to read the original articles on effeminacy by Desiring God, to which I am responding, check out the following links:
- Grooming the Next Generation: Did Gillette Miss a Spot?
- Play the Man You Are: Will Effeminacy Keep Anyone from Heaven?
The English word “effeminate” harkens back to a time in history when “femininity” occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder. We get the word “virtue” from the Latin word “virtus,” which itself came from “vir,” meaning man. Think about that. Historically, virtue was inherently masculine. The implication for the feminine isn’t that difficult to figure out.
Even today, we stumble under the weight of our misogynistic history, commonly associating the feminine with what is “less.” People still say things like, “You throw like a girl,” and hardly think twice about the implications. What’s more, people still write articles condemning men who don’t fit a very narrow construction of masculinity by accusing them of being womanly, or “effeminate.”
Most recently, Desiring God published two articles touching upon the topic of effeminacy (linked above), where gay men are condemned for their “effeminate habits,” first implicitly and then explicitly. But the most common passages of Scripture used to justify this sort of thinking paint a very different picture of what effeminacy actually entails.
The Infamous Passage on Effeminacy
The Greek word translated “effeminate” (malakos) shows up three times in the Bible. Its most infamous appearance comes in 1 Corinthians 6:9:
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (KJV)
According to this passage, the Kingdom of God excludes the “effeminate” or “malakoi.” But what exactly does “effeminate/malakoi” mean? If we’re not careful, we could easily let our own cultural baggage determine our understanding of the text, thereby erroneously concluding that men who “speak flamboyantly, gesture lightly, or wear lipstick” won’t inherit the Kingdom of God because they must be “effeminate,” as Desiring God implies.
So instead of letting our own cultural baggage and presuppositions drive our interpretation, let’s practice some decent hermeneutical principles. Let’s take a little bit of time to actually study God’s word and the context in which Paul wrote.
Passages That Use the Same Word for Effeminate
The word malakos appears two other times in the New Testament. Its first appearance occurs in Matthew 11:8, where Jesus says to a crowd of onlookers, “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses.”
The second appearance of malakos occurs in a retelling of the same story with a bit more detail: “What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who are dressed in splendid clothing and live in luxury are in kings’ courts” (Luke 7:25).
In both passages, malakos translates as “soft” and communicates a type of man spoiled by riches and luxury. To use the words of Wayne R. Dynes in his Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, classical antiquity viewed malakos (or mollis in Latin) as “the result of luxury, idleness, and pampered self-indulgence” (p. 348):
“In ancient Rome the terms mollis (“soft”) and effeminatus acquired special connotations of decadence and enervating luxury… The Roman satirists took sardonic delight in flagellating the vices of luxury that were rampant among the upper classes of a nation that, once rude and warlike, had succumbed to the temptations that followed its successful conquest and plunder of the entire ancient world” (p. 348).
The use of malakos in Matthew and Luke strongly coincides with Dynes’s description. A man clothed in the raiment of the “soft” or “malakos” is a man living in the lap of luxury, as Luke 7:25 explicitly states. Having succumbed to the decadence of his wealth, he represents the complete opposite of a virtuous man, indulging his appetites to a disgusting degree.
A Better Understanding of Malakoi and Effeminacy
So a “soft” man or, as some translations put it, an “effeminate” man is a man primarily characterized by indulgence.
This understanding of malakos holds up much better against the analogy of faith, that Scripture interprets Scripture. Condemning fleshly indulgence makes sense against the broader narrative of God’s word, and it aligns with the two additional uses of malakos in the New Testament. On the other hand, condemning men who happen to wear “floral shirts and tight jeans” or who speak with “lispy sentences” and “light gestures” (as Desiring God perplexingly puts forth) does not.
Instead, a more likely modern-day parallel of malakos might be the son of a corporate tycoon who inherits his father’s fortune and indulges in lavish vacations on his family’s personally-owned island somewhere in the Pacific, bouncing from woman to woman.
Classic Examples of Effeminacy in Antiquity
Understanding effeminacy as an expression of excess and decadence is key to understanding its sexual connotations in ancient Rome. Sexual and romantic excess — whether that excess happened to be homosexual or heterosexual — was part and parcel of what it meant to be effeminate. In How to Do the History of Homosexuality, David M. Halperin makes the following observations:
“In the culture of the military elites of Europe, at least from the ancient world through the Renaissance, normative masculinity often entailed austerity, resistance to appetite, and mastery of the impulse to pleasure. (The once fashionable American ideal of the Big Man on Campus, the football jock who gets to indulge limitlessly his love of hot showers, cold beer, fast cars, and faster women, would appear in this context not as an emblem of masculinity but of its degraded opposite, as a monster of effeminacy.)… Those men who refused to rise to the challenge, who abandoned the competitive society of men for the amorous society of women, who pursued a life of pleasure, who made love instead of war—they incarnated the classical stereotype of effeminacy” (p. 111)
In other words, effeminate men indulged in the excesses of sexual pleasure and romantic love. Most commonly, it was heterosexual excess. And this understanding of effeminacy continued into the Renaissance, where literature depicted effeminate men as besotted by love, typically for women. Take for example this excerpt from Romeo and Juliet, where Romeo bemoans his infatuation with Juliet’s beauty:
“O sweet Juliet,
Thy beauty hath made me effeminate,
And in my temper softened valour’s steel!” (3.I.I.)
Romeo and Juliet is only one example among many that Halperin uses to illustrate the historic definition of effeminacy, which had little to do with sexual orientation and typically played out in heterosexual encounters. Think about that. Effeminate men were typically besotted by women. This strongly contradicts modern connotations utilized by anti-LGBT organizations to cast shame upon men who give off “the gay vibe” — and yes, those are the actual words of Desiring God.
Ancient Masculinity: A Performance of Male Domination
In ancient Rome, men established their virtue through performances of control, whether control of self or control of others. (And remember: virtue was synonymous with masculinity). Thus, malakoi represented everything a man ought not to be. By allowing luxury, love, and general excess to rule their daily lives, malakoi lacked the control of a man, and by extension, all semblance of virtue.
Furthermore, exerting your domination of another through sexual penetration was one way, among many, that men could assert their masculine control. On the flipside, it was also a way to be emasculated. Penetration was a performance of virility. But to be penetrated was a disgrace.
In Paul Among the People, Sarah Ruden observes the following about a typical Roman:
“Except for some restraint to avoid conflict within his actual household, he positively strutted between his wife, his girlfriends, female slaves and prostitutes, and males. Penetration, after all, signaled moral uprightness… In fact, society pressured a man into sexual brutality toward other males.” [Kindle Edition]
Men established their dominance over others, including men, through sexual conquest, making malakoi an easy target for men looking to assert their virility. In the masculine economy, sexual conquest over women was not enough. Even malakoi had their female lovers. It was sexual conquest over men that truly cemented one’s masculinity. And what easier way to do so than to rape a man that you already despised?
Thus, malakoi were the natural prey of men looking to prove their masculinity. If a malakos was sexually penetrated by another man, it had nothing to do with him being “gay.” No such concept existed. It rather had everything to do with male domination.
Overthrowing Antiquity’s Version of Toxic Masculinity
Paul’s condemnation of malakoi would have been thoroughly unsurprising to the Corinthian church. The surrounding culture already regarded such men (and boys) with disdain, and Scripture itself spoke strongly against the type of self-indulgence 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 have been obvious. Such men represented the pinnacle of masculine virtue, and the largely Gentile congregation would have seen them as such. This could be a reason why Paul chose to condemn male-upon-male sexual conquest by using a portmanteau of two separate words from Levitical law—arsenokoitai. In so doing, he shook the Corinthians out of their cultural stupor and drew their attention to the immorality of what was actually taking place.
Regardless, it’s crucial to understand that Paul was not talking about gay men. He was naming a very specific scale upon which men were measured in ancient Rome. And he was declaring, quite shockingly, that no matter where you fell on the “manliness” scale—whether you were the lowest of the low or the highest of the high, excessively spoiled or sexually dominant—you would not inherit the Kingdom. The scale of masculinity itself was perverted.
Thus, ancient portrayals of effeminacy, or malakoi, typically depict sexual excess (usually heterosexual) and the indulgence of luxurious living, as alluded to in passages like Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25. This is what made “effeminacy” sinful. And the men who proved their masculine “virtue” by raping malakoi were no better. Sexual orientation had nothing to do with it. And Paul never attempted to cast condemnation upon men who happen to give off “the gay vibe.”
Ultimately, it’s more than a little disappointing that Desiring God failed to do the proper homework on their recent articles discussing “effeminacy.” It’s shameful, to be honest, and a disgrace to the Word of God.
Twisting Scripture to shame men who don’t fit our culture’s very own perverted scale of masculinity is spiritual malpractice to the core. We don’t need gay men to hate themselves. In fact, they’re some of the best men I know. And dare I say, they have much to teach believers about healthy masculinity.