Millions of lives are destroyed, relationships are uprooted, and fortunes are wasted in the false hope of becoming ex-gay, all because of the blatant misuse of one biblical passage.

It is well-known that the ex-gay movement is based on very faulty psychological premises. What is not so well-known is that the biblical basis for their assumptions is equally bankrupt. It may be good to remind ourselves that every time oppressed groups began to make headway in America they were all opposed by those who claimed to have the Bible on their side. Eventually, their arguments were perceived as the rantings of self-serving demagogues and carry no weight today among mainstream Christians and biblical scholars.

So today we should not be surprised that the Bible is trotted out once again to keep another oppressed group under wraps. And just as before, a careful look at their arguments finds this current effort wanting.

The leading ex-gay ministry, Exodus International, typically claims that they can deliver “freedom from homosexuality through the power of Jesus Christ,” and that 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 proclaims that “Some Corinthian Christians had formerly been homosexuals, but now were counted among the saints. “

I certainly would not want to argue against the power of Jesus Christ to change lives. This, for Christians, is so basic a reality that it needs no proving; examples abound in any congregation. What is at stake here is not change, but what kind of change. Does this text really say that former homosexuals in the Corinthian congregation were transformed into heterosexuals? Let’s take a good look at this text.

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. (NRSV)

The English word “sodomites” has a very recent etymological history. It was coined about 1,000 years after the New Testament was written, in 1051 AD. In its English definition it encompasses a wide range of sexual behavior that includes many heterosexual sex acts. Basically, it condemns most anything other than the missionary position, including all forms of oral and anal sex and mutual masturbation. (At one time it included naked sexual intercourse.) The straight teenagers who take a vow of chastity until marriage who engage in anal and oral sex, thinking they are really not having sex, are guilty of sodomy.

If we simply stopped here and asked what kind of sexual activity Paul had in mind, there is nothing to indicate he meant homosexual sexual behavior. Corinth was noted as a particularly licentious city where it is presumed that all forms of sexual practices were undertaken. The use of the word “sodomites” does not tell us with specificity what exact practice(s) Paul had in mind.

But the English meaning is irrelevant here because it is an anachronism; there is no word in the Greek of Paul’s day for homosexual or the like. To import such a meaning into a text is to commit the worst sin of translation: to alter its meaning. In this case, the NRSV translators actually put modern words into Paul’s ancient mouth.

So, what does the meaning of the Greek words employed in the text tell us? There are two Greek words that are at the center of understanding these verses:

Malakoi, is a well-known Greek word with a range of meanings: extremely self-indulgent, soft, weak, effeminate, and often used for (cultic) male prostitutes as used in this translation.

Arsenokoitai (translated “sodomites” in the NRSV) was used only by Paul, but etymological studies suggest a usage for very sexually active men who have sex with men or women, including visitors to cult prostitutes.

One of the practices of Paul in his listing of vices, which was typical of Greco-Roman rhetoric, is to group similar vices together. This is a helpful clue in determining Paul’s precise meaning. We have already seen that a perfectly suitable use of arsenokoitai is visitors to cult prostitutes. In keeping with the rhetorical device of coupling, the passage should read:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, cultic male prostitutes and those who visit them, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers–none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And this is what some of you used to be.

Some in the Corinthian church were idolaters who had visited cultic prostitutes in their past, and now, being transformed by the power of Jesus Christ, were free from this sin. I think we can all agree that visiting prostitutes of any stripe is inconsistent with Christian morality!

With this understanding of how to translate 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, it is immediately apparent that to demand that gay Christians somehow appeal to Jesus for a transformation of their sexual orientation is not supported in this text. The many thousands who have tried it and failed, only to live lives of loneliness and self-condemnation, are a stark testimony to the gross misuse of this passage.

A former board member of Exodus International, Dan Puumala, himself an ex-gay ministry leader, after years of watching little success in reprogramming gays into straights, suggested in a speech* to EI in 2002, that Exodus should change its motto from “Freedom from homosexuality through Jesus Christ” to “Come suffer with us.” What a waste, and what a terrible misappropriation of the purpose of Jesus which is to bring life, “and that abundantly”, to all people.

[*DVD: Cloak of Humility: Responding to Critics of Ex-Gay Ministry]