“Effeminacy” is an old-fashioned word. It was once commonly used. Then it was banished from polite discourse. Recently, the word has enjoyed something of a comeback in evangelical debates over human sexuality and anthropology. Online, it is frequently chosen as a way to toe the line between acceptable apologetics and abusive rhetoric. Some people use the word to be tough. Some use it to be bad.
But “effeminacy,” understood rightly, is also a biblical word and concept, appearing in a text so relevant to modern debates that some detractors have dubbed it a “clobber passage.” The Presbyterian Church in America seems to have recognized just how loaded the word is. The denomination requested a study of 1 Corinthians 6:9 as a part of an Ad Interim Study Committee on Human Sexuality. But surprisingly, the committee relegated this aspect of their commission to a single footnote. They were, perhaps, not quite ready to talk about effeminacy.
But like it or not, people are talking about effeminacy. And like it or not, the word appears in the Christian tradition. So, we would do well to understand it — what it is, what it means for sexual ethics, and whether Christians should use this term today.
Effeminacy in the New Testament
The word “effeminacy” appears in older English translations of 1 Corinthians 6:9. The underlying Greek is malakoi, the plural of malakos. In its immediate context, Paul appears to apply effeminacy to men who engage in homosexual practices. The word is preceded by “adulterers” and then followed by an odd term, perhaps coined by Paul, once translated “abusers of themselves with mankind” but now usually translated as simply “homosexuals” (arsenokoitai).
Commonly, interpreters argue that the two terms (malakoi and arsenokoitai) refer to the passive and active partners of homosexual activity. So, for example, the ESV translates both terms together with the phrase “men who practice homosexuality.” The case for translating 1 Corinthians 6:9 in this way is strong, but it has the obvious weakness of reducing two distinct concepts to one.
It also removes a rhetorical subtlety present in the original. Malakos sometimes did refer to the passive partner in a homosexual relationship, but it did so as a figure of speech. The literal meaning of malakos is “soft.” Thus, when applied to those engaging in certain behavior, this was something of an epithet, analogous to calling someone a “Nancy boy.” Choosing the narrow, and presumably narrowly accurate, option loses this aspect of the way the word functioned. It was not a specific or technical term but rather a broad one that was used precisely to bring to mind a range of other, mostly unfavorable, connotations.
Malakos appears two other times in Scripture, in parallel passages where Jesus is describing the difference between John the Baptist and rich men. Rich men wear “soft [malakois] clothing,” Jesus says in Matthew 11:8. In Luke 7:25, this line is repeated, but an additional description is added: “Behold, they which are gorgeously apparelled, and live delicately, are in kings’ courts” (KJV). Soft clothes, then, are luxurious clothes, gorgeous and delicate. Here malakos is also used figuratively. Yes, the clothes are literally soft, but their softness indicates their relationship to luxury. They are fine clothes, expensive clothes. The reason John the Baptist doesn’t wear them is not because he inherently dislikes silk. He doesn’t wear them because he is an ascetic. John does not live a soft life of luxury but rather a hard life of self-denial and self-mastery.
A closely related word in Luke 7:25 is tryphē. Translated there as “luxury,” it also appears in 2 Peter 2:13: “They count it pleasure to revel [tryphēn] in the daytime.” This usage is trickier. The context has to do with pleasure but also with a lack of shame. The sin is committed openly or flagrantly. In his commentary on 2 Peter, John Calvin offers this translation: “luxuriating in their errors.” Tryphē, then, carries connotations of a lack of discipline or constraint. Both malakos and tryphē also could be translated as “effeminate” or “effeminacy.”
Does ‘Effeminate’ Mean Feminine?
Neither malakos nor tryphē carries the linguistic association with the female sex that the English word “effeminacy” does. This might be considered a strength in that it allows contemporary Christians to discuss the moral issue without being immediately pulled into a discussion of the sexes. But the New Testament does use a word that stands opposite of malakos, and this word does carry an association with one’s sex.
That word is andrizomai in 1 Corinthians 16:13. It was once translated as “quit ye like men” (KJV) but is now often rendered “be courageous” (NIV, NLT, NET). Once again, the privileging of a narrow sort of clarity obscures the literal word and its rhetorical force. In context, andrizomai does indicate courage, but it does so after the manner of the contemporary expression “man up.” The word invokes the concept of a man in order to symbolize strength. Interestingly, the next moral duty listed in verse 13 is “be strong.” “Quit ye like men” captures the fact that andrizomai indicates manliness.
Malakos and andreios (the adjectival form of andrizomai) can be seen, then, as opposites — and as corresponding to effeminacy and manliness, respectively. Effeminacy is a soft and indulgent character trait. Manliness is a courage that holds strong under pressure.
Importantly, both of these terms can be applied to both men and women. After all, Paul is writing to a group that includes both men and women when he calls them to “act like men.” One place where this interesting rhetorical convention has been preserved is in the Book of Common Prayer’s baptismal service. After the person, man or woman, is baptized, the minister makes the sign of the cross on his (or her) forehead and says, “[We] do sign him [or her] with the sign of the cross, in token that hereafter he [or she] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner against sin, the world, and the devil.” Female as well as male Anglicans are called to manfully fight. Andrizomai works the same way. Both men and women are called to “man up.”
Can women be warned against effeminacy, then? That sounds strange to modern ears. Understanding the full range of effeminacy, however, will show that the answer is yes. To be clear, effeminacy is not the same as femininity. And if a woman commits the sin of effeminacy, it is not because she is being overly feminine. Rather, she is abusing or distorting femininity in a way that creates vice. This claim will take some further explaining, and to make it easier to understand, we need to look at what effeminacy has meant in the broader tradition.
Effeminacy, Decadence, and Deviancy
Malakos and other language related to the concept of effeminacy appear widely in ancient literature. Philo of Alexandria and Josephus both use them, as do Plato, Aristotle, and Plutarch. As a moral concept, ancient effeminacy could mean physical weakness, mental weakness, cowardice, a failure to live up to one’s duty, luxury, or sexual immorality. In this last meaning, the immorality could appear when the man assumed the role of a woman, and it could also appear when a man prioritized his lust for women over his duties and the pursuit of virtue. A few examples can demonstrate these meanings.
Aristotle defines malakos as “luxury” in his Nicomachean Ethics (7.1.4). By “luxury,” he means indulgence or the lack of self-restraint. He states that the luxurious man is intemperate and beholden to his own passions. He gives in to his desires and violates what he knows to be right. This sort of “softness” can manifest itself in exceeding the bounds of propriety as well as in shrinking away from duty out of fear. Aristotle even applies this vice of softness to those who are not steadfast in their opinions but too quickly abandon them.
Plutarch was a Greek philosopher and historian who lived in the first-century Roman empire. Though not a Christian, Plutarch would have been a contemporary of the first generation of Christians, and so his cultural outlook is instructive for the literary and intellectual world of the New Testament. In one of his moral treatises, a character denounces the love of pleasure as “a soft [malakos] life” (The Dialogue on Love, lines 750–51). This soft life involves spending time “in the bosoms and beds of women.” It is criticized for being “devoid of manliness and friendship and inspiration.”
The character speaking these lines is not one of Plutarch’s examples of wisdom, but his words do help to explain what “softness” meant in the first-century Roman empire. It indicated sensuality or pleasure-seeking as its own end. A few lines later, another character states that men who allow themselves to be sexually abused by other men are guilty of “weakness and effeminacy [malakos].” The language used is quite crude, and it clearly has to do with the subordinate member of a male homosexual act.
And so, in Plutarch, effeminacy has to do with sexual profligacy (which is a sort of luxury) and the passive homosexual partner. The notion common to both meanings is that of decadence and forsaking duty. This sort of softness is a pursuit of pleasure that leads to prodigal living and even disgrace.
The early Christian bishop and theologian John Chrysostom uses the term “effeminacy” in largely the same way Plutarch does. Chrysostom applies the word to luxury and describes offenses like “delicate cookery” and “vulgar ostentation.” Under the first class, he includes “making sauces,” and under the second, “superfluous” art — that is, artwork, design, or fashion that exceeds the bounds of necessity and function.
Throughout his argument, Chrysostom twice alludes to men imitating or behaving like women as cases of effeminate luxury. By this, he does not mean that they are presenting themselves as women per se. He is not talking about actual cases of androgyny. Instead, these men were wearing the kind of expensive and luxurious clothing typically associated with women. Chrysostom writes, “When it perverts men to the gestures of women, and causes them by their sandals to grow wanton and delicate, we will set it amidst the things hurtful and superfluous” (Homily 49 on Matthew, section 5).
In this same section, Chrysostom points out that women also should avoid luxurious clothing. Alluding to 1 Timothy 2:9, he says, “In spite of Paul’s prohibiting the married woman to have costly clothing, you extend this effeminacy even to your shoes.” As strange as it sounds, women too could be guilty of effeminacy. Typically, this rhetoric was used against men; men dressed decadently were wearing clothing and jewelry meant for women. But Chrysostom was actually asserting a distinctive ethic for women too. They also were called to reject luxury, to reject effeminacy. Indeed, both men and women should “quit ye like men” and maintain a decorum of moderation and humility.
Another piece of evidence in late antiquity is found in Augustine’s City of God. In book 7, Augustine describes a group of people he calls “the effeminates consecrated to the Great Mother.” These men have “pomaded hair and powdered faces,” and they “glid[e] along with womanish languor” (City of God 7.26). This “Great Mother” is the goddess “Cybele” or “Kybelis.”
Augustine goes on to say that Cybele turns her devotees into eunuchs. This was a real historical phenomenon. The Roman poet Catullus has a work where he describes Attis as being possessed by the spirit of Cybele and castrating himself. These “effeminates,” then, are described as such precisely because of the sexual element in the vice. They have been turned, as it were, into women. They then devote their lives to the service of this goddess and assume a female presentation.
We can see that ancient effeminacy combined elements of luxury or wantonness with sexual deviancy. The sexual deviancy could be effeminate in two ways. First, it could be an indulgence wherein the man “wasted” his strength and virtue. Second, it could be a case where the man took on the role of the woman, usually in an overly elaborate or decadent way. This androgyny was either uniquely cultic or a form of pleasure-seeking and indulgence within male social groups.
The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas discusses effeminacy in his landmark Summa Theologiae. There he interacts with both Aristotle and 1 Corinthians 6 before concluding that the core problem with effeminacy is “withdraw[ing] from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion” (ST II-II, q. 138). Thomas states that the opposite of effeminacy is perseverance.
In one of his replies, he also mentions the element of sexual deviancy, but he says that the term “effeminacy” is applied to deviancy by way of custom because the effeminate man has grown soft. Interestingly, Thomas believes this softness is primarily mental and volitional. The man in that case has “yielded” to a “weak motion.” He has not persevered in his duty and calling to be a man but has rather abandoned it for the pursuit of fleshly pleasure.
This understanding of effeminacy brings the two seemingly distinct meanings together. A passive or dominated man and a lecherous or libidinous man form two sides of the same coin. Both are failing in their pursuit of the good. They quit their duty and abandon themselves to vice. They do this, not merely out of ordinary fear, but because they sense a “lack of pleasure” in the ethical struggle.
On a similar note, “manliness” meant a strong and persistent battle against sin. Commenting on the use of andrizomai in 1 Corinthians 16:13, John Calvin summarizes it as “fortitude.” Matthew Henry’s commentary explains it this way: “Show yourselves men in Christ, by your steadiness, by your sound judgment and firm resolution.” If effeminacy is the tendency to fall away in the absence of pleasure, manliness is courageous perseverance through challenging struggle.
This historical understanding of effeminacy can assist contemporary promoters of a renewed masculinity, but it also challenges certain assumptions. The Christian critique of effeminacy does promote strength and perseverance in the face of struggle, but it does not simply criticize perceived “girly men.” A man of slight build with a nasally voice might be effeminate, but those characteristics would not necessarily be what made him so. On the other hand, if a man of that physiognomy overcame his obstacles and achieved virtue, all the while embodying Christian faith, hope, and love, he could prove himself manly. Seeing the whole picture isn’t always easy.
We must always be on guard against simple prejudice. There’s nothing intrinsically effeminate about a man who sings, cooks, plays the piano, or pursues “indoor” vocations. In fact, all of those activities have historically attracted various elite men. Similarly, a woman pursuing intellectual rigor is not violating her femininity, as the example of Mary proves (Luke 10:39).
But terms like “effeminacy” and “manliness” do retain concepts that many today have largely rejected. In order to avoid effeminacy, you must have functioning concepts of cowardice, luxury, virtue, perseverance, struggle, and victory. You must also believe that people and endeavors have godly ends or points of completion that define their nature, value, and success. These terms can then be applied to men and women in more sex-specific forms, but they would do so by defining a manly man as one who acts in accordance with his created nature, in pursuit of godly purpose, persevering in the face of opposition and distraction — from the world, his own flesh, and the devil. He then does so in a masculine mode, or “as a man,” and continues in them.
Additionally, Christian manhood requires other characteristics like meekness, moderation, sobriety, and gravity. A godly man avoids “sinful anger, hatred, envy, desire of revenge; all excessive passions, distracting cares; immoderate use of meat, drink, labor, and recreations” (Westminster Larger Catechism 136). Health and fitness are good things, but they are good things in relationship to other goals. They must enable one to achieve godly ends, including protection, provision, and service. A flashy or excessively “manly” notion of masculinity is actually an artifice standing in place of the real thing. Insofar as these artificial versions of manhood give in to vice by way of the soft motions of indulgence or intemperance, they become “effeminate.”
Retaining the vocabulary of “effeminacy” and “manfulness” in our theological ethics is worth the hard work. While both terms need to be used with care, they capture specific biblical concepts that have held a stable place in ancient and Christian history but are in shorter supply today. Wrestling with their unfamiliar or unconformable associations, especially in the areas of sexuality, can help us appropriately criticize older errors as well as newer ones. It can expand our understanding of the ways the Bible retains features of the ancient world and the ways it transforms them. Finally, understanding these words can help men and women achieve their respective virtuous ends in the body of Christ.