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“Soft Men”

Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators . . . nor effeminate, nor homosexuals . . . will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (NASB)

When Denise Shick was nine years old, her father told her he wanted to be a woman. As she became a teenager, he would “borrow” her clothes without permission and wear them as a form of emotional release. Sometimes makeup also was part of his routine. Eventually, he left his family and began to present himself exclusively as a woman. Sad to say, he never repented as far as Shick knows.1 But the tragic experience of having a transgender father led her to establish Help 4 Families ministry, which has seen hundreds of formerly transgender men and women come to faith in Christ and begin joyfully to present themselves according to their biological sex once again.2

The story of Help 4 Families would not surprise the Apostle Paul, for he referenced such a transition in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. In listing a range of sinful lifestyles that used to characterize the believers at Corinth, Paul employed the Greek words malakoi and arsenokoitai. As English translations reveal, scholars disagree on the best renderings of these terms, though the range of meaning obviously included homosexuality. The NRSV references “male prostitutes” (malakoi) and “sodomites” (arsenokoitai). The KJV’s “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” is similar to the NASB’s “effeminate” and “homosexuals” while the ESV collapses both terms into the phrase “men who practice homosexuality.” The literal meaning of malakoi is “soft men,”3 and in the ancient literature it had a range of meaning that extended beyond sexuality to also encompass at times something like the modern term “transgenderism.”4

Aristotle used malakoi to reference “the hereditary effeminacy of the royal family of Scythia”5 while the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo used the term of men who “became like women in their persons.”6 Manetho Ptolemy, the Roman satirist Juvenal, and others illustrate that malakoi and its Latin equivalent molles were among a cluster of words used interchangeably in the ancient world to reference “soft men,” a description theologians Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams classify as akin to the modern acronym LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender).7 Using other terms from this word group, Clement of Alexandria in the second century referenced men who “became effeminate,” wearing women’s hairstyles and perfume and shaving their bodies to become smooth like women.8 Philo spoke of men who “altered the impression of their natural manly appearance into the resemblance of a woman.”9

Clearly, “transgender” is but a small component in the range of meaning for malakoi. As modern translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9 highlight, the term’s focus likely is on homosexual behavior and orientation. Nonetheless, this additional aspect of the meaning should not be excluded. Paul’s reference two verses later to such people’s being “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” gives hope to those who do not feel at home in their bodies in terms of gender.

For the church, this should inspire loving gospel witness to the transgender community, including a call to repent of despising God’s gift of gender. While the medical and practical particulars of repentance will vary from case to case and feelings of gender discomfort may linger, the Holy Spirit provides transgender men and women an opportunity to be included in Paul’s glorious testimony, “And such were some of you” (v. 11).


Denise Shick, "When My Father Told Me He Wanted to Be a Woman," Public Discourse, March 27, 2015, (accessed July 27, 2016).


David Roach, “Transgenderism Is Growing Ministry Focus,” Baptist Press, May 4, 2016, (accessed July 26, 2016).


A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd edition, rev. and ed. Frederick William Danker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), s.v. “malakos.”


S. Donald Fortson III and Rollin G. Grams, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2016), 287. All primary sources from antiquity, unless otherwise noted, are cited as quoted in this work.


Aristotle, Nichomachian Ethics 7.7.


Philo, Abraham 1.135-36.


Fortson and Grams, Unchanging Witness, 287.


Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor 3.3.16, 21.


Philo, Special Laws 1.325.