On the Revoice Conference, “Gay Christianity,” and the Apostle Paul’s Showstopper Words to the Corinthians

On the Revoice Conference, “Gay Christianity,” and the Apostle Paul’s Showstopper Words to the Corinthians June 1, 2018

The Revoice conference has caused a stir in evangelical circles in recent days. Basically, it is a conference that stands for the idea that a person can faithfully affirm both Christian identity and a homosexual identity. This is not a new view–see Matthew Vines’s work as one example–but this particular conference charts new territory by looping in numerous figures associated with Covenant Seminary and the Presbyterian Church in America, among other institutions and churches. Covenant and the PCA are complementarian in theology, so to participate in Revoice signals a major shift along the lines of sexual ethics. Though Covenant is not a conference sponsor, and has recently issued a statement (thankfully) disavowing concrete affiliation between the seminary and Revoice, no complementarian seminary or denomination has yet been so closely linked to a “gay Christian” event as this.

I have responded to the promotional material of Revoice for the Center for Public Theology, as have others like Denny Burk and Phil Johnson. My point in my CPT piece is this: Christians cannot affirm “gay Christianity” because the apostle Paul emphatically closed off any uniting of a fallen identity to a Christian one. Paul does this throughout his writings (e. g., Romans 6; Ephesians 4:22-24), but the showstopper text is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, with verse 11 providing the key phrase: kai tauta tives nte, often translated “Such were some of you.”

In the NASB, here are all three verses:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, 10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 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.

Context is key here. As is well-known, the Corinthian church existed in a sea of iniquity. Corinth was the San Francisco of its day in sexual terms; behaviors and identities that were scandalous elsewhere were prevalent in Corinth. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, numerous born-again believers in the Corinthian church had gratuitously indulged their lusts as unbelievers. Paul explicitly says as much in the passage quoted above. In other words, Paul is not speaking of sexual sin (in terms of both practice and identity) as if it is a problem for some group somewhere else; in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, he is speaking directly to former homosexuals, drunkards, cheats, idolaters, adulterers, and more. He is writing to a group of people who formerly lived to gratify the lusts of the flesh in seemingly every direction.

On the subject of Christianized homosexuality–the issue the Revoice conference is forcing us to confront–if Paul held the view that these people could retain their fallen sexual identity but break with fallen sexual practice, he would have used different language. He would have restricted his comments to a denunciation and prohibition of past behavior–something like “You used to behave in these ways, but now you don’t.” This is exactly what Paul does not do. He tells the Corinthians in crystal-clear language that they have broken with both a fallen sexual identity and fallen sexual practice. In his enlightening exegetical commentary, Anthony Thiselton shows that the traditional translation of the first part of verse 11 is actually not as strong as it should be:

The most important point about the initial sentence in v. 11 is the continuous imperfect indicative of the form ἦτε. The NRSV, NJB, this is what you used to be, is exactly right, as against REB, AV/KJV, such were some of you (NJB changes JB’s were). While were is not strictly incorrect, Paul’s reference to continuous habituation is implicit in the imperfect (see above on vv. 9–10). The neuter plural demonstrative pronoun ταῦτα emphasizes Paul’s sense of shock and undermines the unnecessary discussion about lists of qualities versus lists of actions. The English this is the kind of thing that you were brings together the notion of a state of being with the performance of actions which instantiated it.

There is serious exegetical horsepower being exercised in this paragraph, but the takeaway is plain: the translation doing most justice to the Greek here would read even stronger than the traditional “such were some of you.” It would read “This is what you used to be.” Thiselton has the relationship right: “the performance of actions” actually “instantiated” a “state of being.” In layman’s terms, Paul views the Corinthians as having broken decisively with their old identity and practice. They were thieves, but are not any longer. They were drunkards, but are not any longer. They were homosexuals (whether the malakoi or the arsevokoitai, the passive or active homosexual partner, respectively, according to the Greek) but are not any longer. David Garland says it well in his own exegetical commentary: “The implication is that Christianity not only offers a completely new sexual ethos and a new ethos regarding material possessions but also brings about a complete transformation of individuals. God’s grace does not mean that God benignly accepts humans in all their fallenness, forgives them, and then leaves them in that fallenness. God is in the business not of whitewashing sins but of transforming sinners” (emphasis mine). Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner chime in helpfully in their exegetical commentary: “If for Christians the future has invaded the present, a decisive break has also been made with the past; the once/now motif is just as important as the already/not yet” (emphasis mine).

If we resource the great tradition of the Christian church on this passage and verse, we find abundant support for the view outlined above. John Calvin: “The simple meaning, therefore, is this, that prior to their being regenerated by grace, some of the Corinthians were covetous, others adulterers, others extortioners, others effeminate, others revilers, but now, being made free by Christ, they were such no longer. The design of the Apostle, however, is to humble them, by calling to their remembrance their former condition; and, farther, to stir them up to acknowledge the grace of God towards them” (emphasis mine). Jonathan Edwards (who I just wrote a book about) sermonizes that the first part of verse 11″ denotes the Reality Greatness & wonderfulness of this Change,” the change wrought by gospel conversion. Spurgeon says the same: many of the congregation Paul addressed “had been fetched, by almighty grace, out of the very depths of the grossest sin.” In other words, all of these great pastor-theologians see the sin-driven identities listed in verses 9 and 10 as defeated and overcome by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

There are Christians today who are making the opposite argument. I am thankful for those who have broken with sinful sexual practices of whatever kind, whether heterosexual or homosexual. The church does and must come alongside sexual sinners of every kind and help them fight their lusts and overcome the flesh. The way to do this, though, is not to break with fallen sexual practice but retain fallen sexual identity. The way to help believers fighting sin of every kind is to listen afresh to Paul. Again, if ever there was an opportunity for Paul to allow a group of sinners to hold onto their fallen identity, it was the Corinthian church. But Paul did not encourage the Corinthians–former swindlers, idol-worshippers, homosexuals, and fornicators–to do this. He taught them gospel-driven Christianity. He taught them new-nature Christianity. He showed them beyond a shadow of a doubt that Christ was their all, that conversion had overcome their past, however awful it may have been, and that they were new.

Yes, these believers would have to fight against temptation, internal and external. But the key plank in the New Testament doctrine of sanctification is identity. If you know who you are in Christ, you are freed to fight and defeat–over the long haul–your sins. If, however, you do not know that you are a wholly new creation, you will find the battle against sin terribly dispiriting. You set yourself up for defeat, shame, and the very strong possibility of terrible moral compromise.

We as believers of all backgrounds fight sin at the root level. When we think even a fleeting murderous thought–“You fool!”–or when we allow ourselves to indulge a sexual fantasy about anyone who is not our spouse, we confess it and repent of it before the Lord (see Matthew 5:21-30). I’ve seen some wonder if this is overwrought sanctification. It is not. God sets up an exacting standard of holiness for his church. See 1 John 2:6–“the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.” Do evangelicals know that we are called to obey a perfectly holy, perfectly righteous God? I’m surprised by how lax our understanding of divine holiness is. Note a connection, discerning reader, between our movement’s lax view of holiness and the current scourge of pornography usage, implosion of marriages, and general sexual sin among Christians.

Dear friends: it is precisely because we are not killing sin at the root that we are falling head over heels into one moral compromise after another.

To sum up, the key to overcoming sin and temptation is this: to know who you are in Christ, and then to ruthlessly hunt your sin down wherever it rears its head (see Colossians 3:1-11). Out of love for fellow believers, and out of intense concern for those currently living to gratify the flesh, the church must make this clear: there is no such thing as gay Christianity. There are Christians who are fighting all sorts of sinful attractions and temptations–this, in fact, is all of us. But there is no such thing as gay Christianity. There can be no connection between Christ and Satan, the flesh and the Spirit, the church and the world.

If we teach that there is, we dishonor, disobey, and even silence the words of the apostle Paul to the Corinthians.


For further reading: see this journal article on fighting temptation, this short book by Gavin Peacock and me, this book by Denny Burk and Heath Lambert, this short book edited by Al Mohler, and this powerful testimony by Rosaria Butterfield.

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