Wednesday, June 23, 2010

1 Corinthians 6: the most important passage? (Pt 2)

"'Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of heaven.And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God." 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (ESV)

In my previous post I note a number of questions raises by this passage which I am afraid I do not have time currently to take further, but I happily commend two great commentaries on 1 Corinthians to you, those by Fee and Thiselton. So, just a few more exploratory thoughts - more questions, than answers!

Important here is the opening question, "Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?" Paul is writing (as he has been on other matters up to this point) about things of ultimate importance. The alternative to inheriting the kingdom of God is not retirement in Bermuda. It is non-trivial to find that, in the end, the judgement is made that we shall not inherit the kingdom of God.

This gives a general edge to our considerations: let's understand this passage well. But it also gives a particular edge to an important element in Anglican Communion debates (and similar debates in other churches): we are not talking about a range of ethical possibilities, all equally valid, and wondering if we can agree to disagree and all get along; rather, many conservatives are pointing out, we are talking about salvation itself, and the possibility that making the wrong ethical choice can lead to loss of salvation. In blunt terms, it is often said, the gospel itself is at stake in the debate over homosexuality. Here I do not want to take these points further as they involve some considerable questions and issues, but I think it worth reminding ourselves that for a substantial number of Anglicans what is at stake is not only 'ethics' but also 'theology', and their depth of concern is such that they have in many cases made a decision to walk away from Anglican churches which deny their concerns.

Then there is the question of what kind of 'unrighteousness' is envisaged here. 'Thieves', 'drunkards', and 'swindlers' appears to refer to egregious criminal behaviour. But is 'greedy' referring to a criminal level of behaviour (pace certain moneymen appearing in courts around the world today) or to me and the mysterious disappearance of chocolates from the chocolate box last night? Who are 'revilers'?

With reference to the sexual matters mentioned in the list, sexual immorality, adultery, and homosexual practices, are these the lurid kinds of acts that tabloid newspapers love to salivate over, or a simple indicative list of sexual behaviours which are outside of the bond of marriage?

Then, and this takes us back to the intriguing question of the meaning of the Greek words (see my post below), is there anything here which impinges on 'loving, stable, permanent, faithful same sex partnerships'? Most Christians, liberal through to conservative are unpersuaded by arguments for the righteousness of casual sexual promiscuity: if that behaviour is all that Paul is referring to here, then we agree with him!

I suggest we take care not to get too anxious over the meaning of the Greek words used, malakoi and arsenokoites, as though if we can prove they mean X and Y but not Z then Z is 'in the clear'. Paul clearly is not giving a comprehensive list of the practices which imperil salvation. He does not mention incest or bestiality but it is incomprehensible that their absence here means we can think them righteous behaviours. Similarly for cruelty to people or animals, or murder, or drug-taking.

It is quite possible - but not often noted - that Paul (a) consistent with other passages in the Bible which affirm marriage (including the treatise he is about to pen in 1 Corinthians 7) and do not affirm homosexual practices, believes God to judge any same sex partnership, casual or permanent, to be unrighteous, and (b) singles out two practices here (i.e. via use of malakoi and arsenokoites) which are unrighteous but also represent God's salvation at work, for the Corinthian congregation includes post-malakoi and post-arsenokoites washed, sanctified, justified Christians.

Another way of putting the point just made is this: doubting the applicability of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 to faithful, stable, permanent same sex partnerships is not the same thing as establishing the righteousness of such partnerships. To establish that case involves some other steps (e.g. along the lines being advanced by Howard Pilgrim in his comments on this site, and in particular in reference to the most recent posts here).

I need to stop for now. A further point, which I think is important: the whole of 1 Corinthians 5-7 is a complex, creative, and wide ranging treatise on human sexuality. It earths Christian sexual ethics in a theology of creation (6:16), welds it into a theology of the Holy Spirit (6:19), nails it to the cross (6:20), and refuses to pit it against Christian freedom (6:12). Much more can and should be said, but this treatise is one of the most sophisticated pieces of theological argumentation you will ever read!

Thus Paul in tackling the question of consorting with prostitutes does not resort to saying "It's wrong. Do not do it." Instead he takes his readers in 6:15-20 through a subtle argument in which he teases out the implication of our bodies being members of Christ, of sexual intercourse with any woman being a marriage act, of the special character of sexual sin, of the character of our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, and, above all, of the significance of belonging to God.

Our minds should boggle at the thought of what Paul would write were he preparing a paper for the forthcoming Hermeneutical Hui. Would his exacting theological analysis and creative (inspired!) exploration of all relevant themes combine into a conclusion which would fit with your present views, or mine, or neither?


  1. HI peter... As soemone who is attending the Hi next week i have been reading with interest your posts and the ongoing discussion around them.. I have a question though, surely the theological principles arounf interpretation must start with an understanding of humanity as God's creation. i noted one of the article that was suggested via the email was
    which i believe you suggested (on behalf of the committee having spent the best part of four hours reading it I was not inmpressed. His reading of scripture discounts 1000 years of church and jewish history.
    i though this paragraph summed up everything that is wrong with it...
    "Understanding the institution of marriage in the Old Testament as a fundamental manifestation of the fallen state of humanity, captive to patriarchy and the embodiment of its worst abuses and manifestations, captivated by the power and seductive force of religion, and subject to historical and social evolution in form and norms, yet also occasionally the locus of the mystery of the workings of God’s grace and salvation..."
    Surely if there is to be any conversation base principles need to be considered, and the scriptures surrounding creation and fall have to be looked at before we can even claim to make sense of the other texts.
    The article linked does not do it justice and dare i say it is full of holes, prejudice, and discounst not only Scripture, but tradition, and reason...
    jsut wondered what your thoughts were on this?

  2. Hi Michael,
    A churchwide committee needs to send out a range of resources in a situation such as this. All will not be agreeable to all, and some may not be agreeable to the resourcer!

    Yes, you are right re a careful building upwards from creation.

    The citation you give demonstrates a general problem I think with some approaches to trying to offer a sound theological argument in favour of change: the argumentation is of insufficient quality to be persuasive :)

  3. “I suggest we take care not to get too anxious over the meaning of the Greek words used, malakoi and arsenokoites, as though if we can prove they mean X and Y but not Z then Z is 'in the clear'.” This is a very important and helpful insight.

    Unfortunately you do not let this translate into the start of your helpful post.

    Instead, you use a translation that is most probably false. You are right, we don’t know what arsenokoites means. It is highly unlikely to mean the translation you use. No English translation prior to 1946 used homosexual here. When early Greek speaking Christian preachers condemned homosexuality, they did not use arsenokoites. John Chrysostom preached in Greek against homosexuality, but he never used arsenokoites for homosexuals, and when he preached on 1 Corinthians 6:9 he did not mention homosexuals!

    So –we come to the end of your list of passages, and not a single one is clear about condemning committed same sex couples. You are perfectly correct to now attempt to turn that around and seek biblical passages supporting committed same sex couples. Sounds like time to make applications to St John’s for funding for another series of Huis. Maybe including on a Pacific island this time.

  4. If, as you say, you regard these verses as serious – “about salvation itself, and the possibility that making the wrong ethical choice can lead to loss of salvation”, why does evangelical discussion focus on the word in the text that, under God’s inspiration, is unclear? Why is the focus not, for example on moichois (moichos), where the translation of “adultery” is, under God’s inspiration, clear? Mt 5:32: “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” cf Mt 19:9 Mk 10:11-12 Lk 16:18 It seems to me that the evangelical “concern” for the salvation of homosexuals is mendacious when there is no similar concern for the clearer danger to the salvation of remarried heterosexuals and the ministers who take these weddings.

  5. Hi Anonymous,
    I would be interested in having other evangelicals respond to your point here.

    It would be worth asking of the text here whether Paul had moichos=remarriage after divorce in view here.