Paul uses two words in 1 Cor 6:9, “μαλακοὶ” (malakoi) and “ἀρσενοκοῖται” (arsenokoitai), that are as important to Paul’s understanding of sexuality as they are difficult to understand. Consider how differently leading English translations render this part of the verse.
“men who practice homosexuality” (ESV; a marginal note reads, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”)
“men who have sex with men” (NIV ; a marginal note reads, “The words men who have sex with men translate two Greek words that refer to the passive and active participants in homosexual acts”)
“male prostitutes … homosexual offenders” (NIV 
“effeminate … homosexuals” (NASB 1995; a marginal note to the first word reads, “i.e. effeminate by perversion”
“effeminate … sodomites” (NKJV)
“effeminate … abusers of themselves with mankind” (AV)
These translations appear to agree that the individuals in view are men who are engaged in some kind of sexual activity of which Paul disapproves. But the translations’ differences outshine their agreement. Should the terms be understood together or separately? Does the term malakos denote male homosexual activity (generally), the passive participant in a homosexual act, a man who engages in paid sexual activity with other men, or an effeminate man? Does the term arsenokoites denote male homosexual activity (generally) or the active participant in a homosexual act (specifically)? A survey of the commentaries and academic literature yields further possibilities.
What is Paul trying to say to the church? How does his teaching in this verse address the sexual landscape within and outside of the contemporary church? We will summarize what the apostle is saying in these two words in four points, and then draw four pastoral conclusions from his teaching.
Paul’s Meaning in 1 Corinthians 6:9
First, the two words malakoi and arsenokoitai describe individuals who are engaged in activity that Paul regards to be sin. We see this point in at least two ways. First, these two words fall in a much longer list in 1 Cor 6:9-10. Paul insists that persons whose lives are characterized by these actions “will [not] inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor 6:10). There is considerable overlap between this list and the list of 1 Cor 5:11, which describes individuals who are subject to the discipline of the church. Second, the word arsenokoitai appears in one other place in the New Testament, 1 Tim 1:10. In the context of Paul’s argument of 1 Tim 1:10, this word describes a violation of the moral law of God (“the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for … men who practice homosexuality,” 1 Tim 1:9,10 [ESV]). These two words, then, describe activities that are violations of the law of God, that exclude one from the Kingdom, and that are subject to the church’s discipline. Paul understands these two words to describe sin.
Second, Paul understands these two words to describe a particular kind of sexualsin. These two words follow three words, two of which denote immoral sexual offenders (“the sexually immoral … adulterers” [ESV]). The word arsenokoitai follows “the sexual immoral” in Paul’s catalog of sins against the Decalogue in 1 Tim 1:10. The context in which the terms malakoi and arsenokoitai appear together, then, shows that these terms refer to a specific type of sin against the seventh commandment.
Third, these two terms together capture the range of male same-sex activity. Some have argued that Paul is only condemning a particular or narrow kind of homosexual behavior, such as prostitution, pederasty, or rape. On this reading, there is space in Paul’s ethic for non-exploitative homosexual activity between two consenting adults. This view runs aground on Paul’s argument in Rom 1:18-31 and it finds no support from 1 Cor 6:9. For one thing, in Paul’s day, the term malakos had already acquired a technical meaning when it was used in sexual contexts. It denoted the passive partner in male same-sex activity. The term arsenokoitai makes the point particularly clearly. As commentaries frequently note, Paul is the first Greek writer who appears to have used this term. It is a compound formed from two nouns meaning “man” and “bed.” Its origins are not difficult to discover. These two terms appear together in LXX Lev 18:22 and 20:13. In fact, in Lev 20:13 the two component parts of Paul’s new word stand side by side. Both these passages in Leviticus roundly and categorically condemn same-sex activity. This background is important to understand what Paul means by the term arsenokoitai. This word must refer to a wide range of male same-sex activity and may properly be translated “bedders of males, those [men] who take [other] males to bed,” “men who sleep or lie with males.” Since it is paired with the word malakoi, the word arsenokoitai may particularly denote the active partner in male same-sex activity. The two terms, malakoi and arsenokoitai, then, capture, in unqualified and comprehensive fashion, male same-sex activity.
Fourth, Paul is concerned to address sinful sexual behavior in these two terms, but not only such behavior. In Paul’s day, the term malakoi could denote more than just sexual activity. Such persons sometimes “intentionally engage[d] in a process of feminization to erase further their masculine appearance and manner.” That is to say, the word malakos was used to describe “a man who is trying to be a woman,” a man “who significantly blur[s] gender distinctions.” To be sure, Paul’s primary concern in 1 Cor 6:9 is with same-sex behavior. But the apostle is also aware that, in the social context of which he and his readers were part, those who committed themselves to this lifestyle not infrequently blurred the culturally discernible lines between a man and a woman. It is in this sense that one can appreciate the translation “effeminate” for malakoi, even if one opts for another English word that better captures the sense of the Greek word in the context of Paul’s argument.
In summary, Paul identifies in 1 Cor 6:9 male same-sex behavior as sinful. He places none of the qualifications or limitations upon that behavior for which some in recent times have pled. There is, in other words, no category of acceptable or virtuous same-sex behavior in Paul’s thinking. Paul furthermore recognizes that what may attend such behavior is the conscious blurring of culturally discernible lines between masculinity and femininity.
Some Pastoral Conclusions
What does Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor 6:9 say to the church today? In the first place, Paul helps us to see that there is more to same-sex sin than the physical act of same-sex intercourse. In Paul’s day as in ours, some persons who engage in this behavior consciously attempt to blur the lines between male and female. There is, in other words, a particular culture or lifestyle corresponding to this sin that comes into being within the community of its practitioners. A pastoral response to same-sex sin, then, is never purely a matter of the pursuit of behavioral modification. To be sure, it is never less than that. But it must be sensitive and attentive to the ways in which this sin can foster and encourage a sinful distortion of a person’s God-given masculinity (or femininity).
Second, in 1 Cor 6:9, Paul references malakoi and arsenokoitai in the third person. But he concludes with an appeal that begins, “such were some of you” (1 Cor 6:11). One of the implications of this way of speaking to the Corinthians is the recognition that sinners often come to draw their identity from particular sins to which they give themselves freely. In other words, they are known for and may even come to see themselves in light of a particular sin. That was the situation in which some of the Corinthians had found themselves, but no longer. Today, one hears that some Christians may legitimately identify themselves as “gay Christians.” For the apostle Paul, a “gay Christian” is a contradiction in terms. One may identify as “gay,” one may identify as “Christian,” but one may not identify as both at the same time. The Christian’s most basic and comprehensive identity is that he is “in Christ.” It is this reality that Paul will go on to press upon the Corinthians in the verses that follow, as he persuades them to “flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor 6:18, cf. 6:12-20). Any pastoral approach to persons wrestling with temptations to same-sex sin must be clear and decisive on this point, not least to encourage them to flee to Christ for the resources that they–and all of us–need to fight sin.
Third, Paul’s words remind us that even professing Christians are susceptible to temptations to same-sex sin. It is not simply that he reminds the church that “some” of them had been enmeshed in such sins. The warning of 1 Cor 6:9-10 assumes the possibility of professing Christians falling into the sins that he enumerates in those verses. There is no biblical reason to think that any Christian is somehow immune from temptation to such sins, or from their commission. Those who preach and teach the Word of God, especially, must never make the fatal error of assuming that same-sex sin, in any of its forms, lies entirely outside the walls of the church.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, Paul’s words are full of grace. They wound in order to heal. In v. 11, he reminds us of the resources that are available in Christ to cover the guilt of sin, to dethrone the dominion of sin, and to mortify indwelling sin, “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.” Same-sex sin is not unpardonable. It can be covered by the blood of Christ. Neither is a person who wrestles with temptations to same-sex sin consigned to despair before the prospect of unbroken slavery to it. There is grace in Christ that offers sinners hope–hope to be delivered from the tyranny of sin, and hope to live under the wholesome lordship of Christ; hope to put sin to death, and hope to become more and more like the Savior whom they love.
Paul’s teaching about same-sex sin in 1 Cor 6:9 is unflinching and unsparing. He allows us to make no compromises or truce with this or any other sin. But he does so in order that we would not wallow in the slough of sin but rather enter fully into the freedom that belongs to those who are “in Christ.” Paul’s counsel is not easy. He does not promise Christians that we will be spared setbacks or deep grief in our conflict with this or any other sin. But the joy in Christ that lies before us is well worth the fight. And even in the fight we know that “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
See the discussion particularly of Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 303-39; S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 277-301; and David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 212-5.
The term is a substantival adjective meaning “soft.” Greek writers used this adjective in both non-sexual and sexual contexts.
See the literature cited at BDAG, “μαλακός,”and Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice,306-12.
LXX Lev 18:22 reads καὶ μετὰ ἄρσενος οὐ κοιμηθήσῃ κοίτην γυναικός βδέλυγμα γάρ ἐστιν. Lev 20:13 reads καὶ ὃς ἂν κοιμηθῇ μετὰ ἄρσενος κοίτην γυναικός, βδέλυγμα ἐποίησαν ἀμφότεροι·θανατούσθωσαν, ἔνοχοί εἰσιν.
Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 312.
Ibid., concluding a discussion of 1 Cor 6:9 and Philo Spec.Leg. 3.37-42.
Preston Sprinkle, People To Be Loved: Why Homosexuality Is Not Just An Issue (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 107, 118. He prefaces the statement on p. 107 by saying that the term malakoi “as it stands alone … probably refers to effeminacy in the Roman sense.”
See Paul’s express concern for this matter, albeit in a different context, at 1 Cor 11:2-16, Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice,328.
The same principle applies to every other sin. It is sinful to embrace any identity that is rooted in or constructed around what God forbids in Scripture.
In context, the “sexual immorality” that the Corinthians are to “flee” is heterosexual in nature, but Paul’s argument applies no less to sins of homosexuality.