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What Does ‘Effeminate’ Mean In The Bible?

The Bible contains several references to effeminate people, leaving many readers wondering what the term means in context. If you’re looking for a quick answer, here’s the gist: In the Bible, the term ‘effeminate’ refers to males exhibiting stereotypically feminine traits or behaviors. This article will take an in-depth look at the meaning of ‘effeminate’ in the biblical context.

We’ll explore the original Greek and Hebrew terms behind the English word ‘effeminate,’ analyze the contexts where the term appears, and discuss scholarly interpretations. By the end, you’ll have a thorough understanding of what the Bible means by ‘effeminate’ and the significance of this concept.

The Greek Word ‘Malakos’ in 1 Corinthians 6:9

Meaning and Usage of ‘Malakos’

The Greek word ‘malakos’ translated as ‘effeminate’ in some Bible versions, literally means ‘soft’. It was used in ancient Greek literature to describe things that are soft, delicate, fine or gentle. When referring to people, it often denoted qualities considered feminine or unmasculine by ancient Greek standards.

For example, the playwright Aristophanes used ‘malakos’ mockingly to refer to long-haired dandies who took great care with their appearance and dress. Rhetoricians applied it to men who were delicate in their speech or composed their words too carefully.

Medical writers used ‘malakos’ to describe soft or weak muscles lacking in tone.

Malakos in 1 Corinthians 6:9

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, ‘malakos’ appears in a list of sins that will exclude people from God’s kingdom. The surrounding terms like sexual immorality and adultery indicate this verse refers to some kind of sexual misconduct. But there are different views on what behavior specifically was meant.

Some Bible versions translate ‘malakos’ literally as ‘effeminate’ (ESV), (KJV) or ‘male prostitutes’ (NIV). Others render it more broadly as ‘sexual perverts’ (NLT) or ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’ (ASV) to capture the ambiguity.

Scholarly Interpretations and Debates

Modern scholarship offers various theories about what behaviors Paul was targeting:

  • Passive male homosexual partners
  • Male prostitutes servicing other men
  • Men who took the female role in sex
  • Masturbators or morally weak men
  • Child molesters

There is also debate around whether ‘malakos’ refers to specific acts of sexual misconduct or to the more general ancient notion of men failing to exhibit masculine virtues.

Arsenokoitai in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

Meaning and Etymology

The word arsenokoitai appears in two New Testament verses, 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. It is a compound word made up of arsen meaning “man” and koitai meaning “bed.” The literal meaning is “men who have sex with or lie in bed with other men.”

The word does not appear in any Greek literature prior to the New Testament, so Paul seems to have coined the term himself.

Use in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy

In 1 Corinthians 6:9, Paul includes arsenokoitai in a list of sinful behaviors that will prevent one from inheriting the kingdom of God. The full verse states: “Or 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 nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.”

Similarly, in 1 Timothy 1:10, Paul includes arsenokoitai along with other sinful behaviors that are contrary to sound doctrine. The full verse reads: “We know that the law is good if one uses it properly.

We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine.”

Scholarly Debate over Meaning

There has been considerable debate among scholars over the precise meaning of arsenokoitai. Here are some of the main views:

  • Refers to male same-sex intercourse more broadly – This is the most common view and understands Paul’s use to encompass all male homosexual relations.
  • Specifically means male prostitutes – Some scholars argue the term refers to the Greek practice of pederasty where older men had sex with adolescent boys.
  • Means “effeminate” men – A minority view is that it refers to effeminate or passive male partners in homosexual acts.
  • Uncertain meaning – Some scholars admit the precise meaning is uncertain but the general sense refers to some form of same-sex sexual behavior.

The exact meaning continues to be debated but most scholars agree Paul coined the term to describe sinful same-sex sexual activity in some form. Ultimately, Paul’s concern seems to be behaviors that go against God’s creative intent for human sexuality rather than focusing on specific practices.

Hebrew Concepts in the Old Testament

Qadesh and Qedesha

The Hebrew words qadesh (male) and qedesha (female) refer to sacred prostitutes associated with pagan temples and shrines in the ancient Near East. These “temple prostitutes” were individuals who engaged in ritual sex acts as part of worshipping foreign gods like Baal and Astarte.

The books of 1 Kings and Deuteronomy contain prohibitions against the practices of the qedeshim (plural of qadesh), showing that they were indeed part of the religious landscape of ancient Israel and Judah.

Scholars debate the precise activities and status of the qedeshim. Some believe they engaged in sacred prostitution rites, while others argue they simply served religious functions like music, dance and divination.

In any case, the Hebrew Bible condemns their association with pagan worship and likely sees their gender-bending religious roles as abominable.

Interpretations and Controversies

The feminine characteristics of the qedeshim have led some interpreters to associate them with effeminacy. For instance, the King James Version translates qadesh as “sodomite,” reflecting the view that their sexual activities violated gender norms.

However, it is unclear if the qedeshim actually exhibited effeminate traits.

In the 20th century, scholars debated the qedeshim‘s relevance for prohibitions on homosexuality in the Old Testament. Some argue they were male cult prostitutes who served men, but others point out the lack of concrete evidence.

The precise connection between the qedeshim and the condemnation of same-sex relations remains ambiguous.

Relevance to New Testament Understandings

Attitudes toward gender non-conformity in the New Testament world were complex. On one hand, the ideal man was masculine, dominating women and boys. On the other, the qedeshim illustrate that some ancient Near Eastern cultures incorporated feminine religious functions for men.

This means New Testament writers like Paul were heir to multifaceted Jewish traditions about men behaving like women. When Paul condemns “effeminate” behavior in 1 Corinthians 6:9, for example, he may be reacting to Greco-Roman norms as well as drawing on older biblical traditions like the qedeshim prohibition.

Effeminate Behavior as Contrast to Masculinity

Warriors and Masculine Valor

Biblical writings often contrast effeminate behaviors with masculine behaviors like valor and bravery in battle. In the Old Testament, warriors and military leaders demonstrated stereotypical manliness by executing feats of strength and cunning on the battlefield (Judges 11:1-2).

Their bravery and willingness to fight even against great odds was seen as virtues worthy of praise (Judges 7). In contrast, behaviors viewed as weak, passive, overly emotional or soft were scorned as “unmanly” or effeminate (Deuteronomy 20:8).

Feminine Behaviors as Weakness

In the New Testament, the term “effeminate” occurs once, in 1 Corinthians 6:9. In the original Greek, it referred to softness, weakness and excessive self-indulgence. Early church writers applied it to men deemed not masculine enough – lacking in control over bodily passions or vain in pursuit of luxury and comforts (source).

Even characteristics viewed as feminine like emotional sensitivity or caring for children were scorned as undermining manliness. The implication was that God made men and women distinctly so blurring gender attributes was immoral. Of course, today most reject narrowly prescribed gender roles.

Still, some traditionalists continue labeling behaviors that deviate from conventional manliness as effeminate.

Implications and Significance

Sexuality, Gender Roles and Social Norms

The biblical discussions of effeminacy have had significant implications for sexuality, gender roles, and social norms throughout history. In many traditional interpretations, effeminacy in men was seen as sinful and associated with weakness, immorality, and homosexuality.

This reinforced narrow views of masculinity and femininity, portraying stereotypical gender roles and heterosexuality as godly ideals.

Such perspectives have been used to stigmatize and oppress sexual minorities and enforce strict gender conformity. For example, some churches prohibited effeminate behavior in men and taught that homosexuality was unnatural and sinful.

However, modern biblical scholars are reconsidering these interpretations in light of improved understandings of sexuality and gender identity. There is increased recognition that biblical passages reflect the cultural biases of ancient writers rather than God’s definitive views on human diversity.

Relevance for Modern Readers

As modern readers wrestle with applying biblical teachings on effeminacy, two considerations come to the forefront. First, there are debates over which behaviors and characteristics the Bible considers effeminate and to what extent these reflect universal virtues versus specific cultural values.

Second, there are differing views on whether the biblical prohibitions should inform modern gender roles and sexual ethics or be reconsidered in light of current knowledge.

Many mainline Christian denominations have moved away from Strict traditional interpretations that condemn effeminacy and non-heterosexuality. Rather, they emphasize using reason, conscience, and compassion when applying biblical principles to modern contexts.

Most promote equal dignity for people of diverse genders and sexual orientations. However, some evangelical groups maintain that biblical teachings prohibit gender fluidity, homosexuality, and transgender identity.

Ultimately, biblical passages on effeminacy raise complex questions for modern readers about interpreting ancient texts, upholding moral virtues, and showing love for neighbor. While reasonable people may differ, many agree that human dignity and the fruits of God’s spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness—should guide any application to contemporary life.


In summary, the biblical concept of the ‘effeminate male’ has complex linguistic, cultural and contextual nuances. While some interpret it strictly in terms of sexual behavior, many scholars see it more broadly as a failure to exhibit masculine virtues.

The meaning also connects to ancient gender constructs and norms foreign to the modern reader. Examining the original words and contexts provides valuable insights into what Scripture meant by ‘effeminacy.’

This understanding helps readers grapple with a term that can be difficult and controversial for contemporary audiences.

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