The study committee appointed by Synod 2016 of the Christian Reformed Church “to articulate a foundation-laying biblical theology of human sexuality” was asked by the same synod whether in regard to what the church teaches about human sexuality (with same-sex marriage central to the discussion) the church should declare a status confessionis, ecclesiastical Latin for a declaration that in these issues there is little or no room for disagreement.
Confessional matters are those of such importance that all who hold authority in the church must in good conscience subscribe to what the church officially teaches. If the church teaches that sex is only permitted between married members of the opposite sex and if this is declared to be a confessional issue, then no one can teach otherwise or, for that matter, think otherwise. If one is led to a different conclusion, one must find a different fellowship.
So what did the study committee conclude? Should the synod declare a status confessionis? They concluded no, sort of. In a surprising and not altogether straightforward maneuver they declared that there was no need for synod to declare a status confessionis because these matters already have confessional status. And they added—this is the not altogether straightforward part—a recommendation to synod that it so declare. It’s hard to see how such a declaration—a declaration that these teachings already have confessional status—in any way differs from declaring them a status confessionis. No earlier synod has ever made such a declaration and the issues at stake have been in continuous discussion in the church for years. They have not been handled as confessional matters. So how does the committee arrive at its conclusions?
The committee defends its position first by suggesting that the position taken by the study committee can already be found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 108 and 109. I examined that claim in an earlier post and concluded that this is not the case. The Heidelberg Catechism does not rule on same sex marriage, something that did not exist at the time it was written.
The second defense for its position goes to scripture. The report lists two primary considerations in judging whether a teaching has confessional status, quoting here: “First, one might ask whether the teaching in question violates a clear teaching of Scripture. Second, one could consider whether the issue involves the heart of the message of the gospel.” (p. 144)
In the post just prior to this one, I looked the first of these criteria: the “clear teaching of scripture.” The problem that one discovers if you think about how the church in the past has come to confessional clarity is that such clarity is often not so much a property of scripture as it a process through which the church discerns, often over a long period of time and much discussion, how to read the scriptures. An example would the church’s teaching on Trinity which took centuries to formulate and remains under discussion but now serves as a guide to our reading of the Bible.
But what of the second of these criteria? “Whether the issue involves the heart of the message of the gospel.” This is an important consideration. Issues that have confessional status should be issues that involve the central witness of the church. Minor issues permit disagreement. They are, in the language of the church, adiaphora, “indifferent matters.” Confessional issues are such that compromise on them threatens the witness of the church.
The question, then, is whether sexual issues are such. Are they core issues, issues at the heart of the gospel? Some think so. The inveterate blogger Kevin De Young, for example, has been tirelessly making the case that opposition to same sex marriage is required if the church is to maintain the historic Christian faith. In an article entitled, “A Theological Stress Test” (https://wng.org/opinions/a-theological-stress-test-1639142848), using a metaphor derived (at least so I suspect) from banking (the stress tests administered to US banks by the Federal Reserve Board), he makes a slippery slope argument: bend in the area of sexual ethics (by recognizing same sex marriage, for example), and you will lose the whole gospel. The whole gospel, in this case, turns out to be De Young’s construal of the gospel, which runs along penal substitutionary lines and, quoting here, hell “as eternal conscious torment.” Many of us would not regard that as gospel at all, but that’s another matter. The question is whether and how these issues are core faith issues.
In his article, De Young comes almost inevitably to 1 Corinthians 6, Paul’s heated discussion of an example of sexual sin in the early church. In doing so, De Young covers the same ground as the CRC study committee on human sexuality (at times he seems to be channeling the report).
What attracts De Young and the CRC study committee on human sexuality to this passage is that it is an early example of church discipline and one that deals specifically with a sexual issue. Or, at least, a recommendation for church discipline. The issue is that a man in the church has been sleeping with his father’s wife (presumably not his mother but another of is father’s wives). The church in Corinth seems to have been reticent to make judgments in this and other cases. Paul says, quite firmly, sometimes you have to make judgments (6:1-5). He adds: Throw the man out (literally, “hand that man over to Satan,” 5:5).
In this discussion, both De Young and the study cite 1 Corinthians 6:9: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?” This sounds scary. Many would probably read it mean something like the unrighteous will go straight to De Young’s place of “conscious torment.” What worse is that when Paul goes on to specify who he means by “the unrighteous,” he includes a long list sinners, including on their interpretation (De Young and the study committee) people men who have sex with other men. “Don’t be deceived”, say Paul, “Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor those who accept what they should not accept [malakoi, literally, “soft,” sometimes taken to mean the passive partners in male with male sex but with a variety of other meanings] nor men who bed men [taking the word in its literal meaning but the exact connotation here and elsewhere is not clear] nor thieves nor the avaricious nor drunkards nor the verbally abusive nor the rapacious will inherit the kingdom of God” (vss. 9b-10).
There’s much that should be discussed here in the broader context but I’ll confine myself for now to the verses I just cited, verses in which the apostle says that these sinners “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” What’s up with that? You might be asking. Is this, as it first appears, a legal criterion for salvation slipped into Paul’s gospel, as it were, by the back door? A denial of grace? I think not, although the study committee report comes dangerously close to making it such. The problem is not in what Paul says but in how these verses are typically read. They are read not in the context of Paul’s writings but in the context of the theology of heaven and hell. That’s not what these verses are about. Not at all.
So, what does Paul mean by “inherit the kingdom of God.”? He does not mean to say that these specific sins are a list, comprehensive or otherwise, of “mortal sins:” sins of the sort that if one commits them and does not plead forgiveness, one goes to hell. There are several of these lists in the Pauline literature, with the same tagline: that these sorts of sinners “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Galatians 5:19-21 is example. Some of the sins listed there overlap with those in 1 Corinthians 6; some do not. Ephesians 5:3-5 has another list, again with the tagline about not inheriting the kingdom. This one condemns even dirty jokes. Are dirty jokes a mortal sin?
The problem for the study committee (and Kevin De Young) is that these lists appear to be both too broad and too narrow. Too narrow because there are many serious sins that are not named, murder, for example. Too broad because the lists include sinners whose sins are distressingly common, even accepted in today’s churches. Take the people who in translations of 1 Corinthians 6:10 are called the “greedy.” These are, in Greek, the pleonektai, those who strive to get ahead of others, the ambitious, the overachievers. They were condemned in antiquity by Aristotle and others, but in our time and place, they are considered culture heroes. Our capitalist ethos rewards those who are ambitious. “Greed is good,” says Gordon Gekko, the take-no-prisoners entrepreneur played by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie, “Wall Street.” Do the ambitious, the strivers, those who try to “get ahead,” also not inherit the kingdom of God? Indeed, that is what Paul seems to be saying.
And thus, as I said above, on a first reading this seems a denial of the gospel of grace. It seems to say, if you do X—name the sin—you will not enter the kingdom of God. If this is so, what happens to the central doctrines of our faith, those prized by Reformation churches like the CRC, doctrines like sola gratia, “by grace alone,” and sola fidei, “by faith alone.” To ask the question in this way is to open a long line of inquiry about God and grace and heaven and hell, one worth pursuing, but which cannot be taken up here.
If we are to understand what Paul is saying, we need to focus on how Paul uses the two key terms: “inherit” and “kingdom of God.” Begin with the language of inheritance in Paul. A key text is Galatians 4:1-7. In this passage, Paul lays out, possibly for the first time in writing (Galatians being one of his earliest letters), an important premise of his theology: that promise precedes law. That Abraham precedes Moses. That law (Torah) is a sort of guardian (Galatians 3:24); it serves and preserves the promise given to Abraham. But it’s promise that God is about, not law.
It’s in the context of this argument that the apostle resorts to an inheritance metaphor (Galatians 4:1-7). Suppose, he says, that you are the heir of an estate. While you are still a minor, you are placed under a guardian, but once you have achieved the age of majority, you are no longer under the guardian. Now, as the heir, you are the owner, in charge of the estate, free to choose how to run it but also responsible for what you have inherited. You are an adult. But suppose you say that you don’t want to be an adult; you would rather stay a child, under the guardian. It’s easier that way. This is what precisely what the Galatians are saying and doing, according to Paul. They want to live as children not as adults. In essence he is saying: Grow up. (This has many applications for Christians today.)
In other places when Paul uses the words for “inherit,” he seems to have this metaphor in the back of his mind. He explicitly returns to it briefly in Romans 8:16-17 where, once again, he is arguing that Christians should live by Spirit (freely), not by law. He says, “This same Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are children of God. And if children, then heirs—heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, so indeed if we suffer with him, we will also be glorified with him.” What we inherit is the Christ-life: the freedom of it (as in Galatians), the suffering of it (as in Romans), and the ultimate triumph of it (Romans again). To inherit the Christ-life is to live as if we belong—to live as heirs of the estate, not as slaves; as adults, not as children. It’s the language of identity, of ownership of who we are. When Paul says, as he does in 1 Corinthians 6:10 that various sinners “will not inherit the kingdom of God,” at least part of what he means is that these people are not living as if they were heirs of the estate, freely and responsibly. Life as the heirs of God is passing them by.
The second term, “kingdom of God,” fills this out. What Paul has in mind is perhaps best illustrated in the opening prayer in the letter to the Colossians (even if Colossians is not from the pen of Paul): “With joy we give thanks to the Father who qualifies you to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in Light, who rescues us out of the dominion of darkness and changes our standing to become the kingdom of his beloved children.” We are no longer defined by what we were but by what we are becoming. Our standing has changed.
Ephesians 5 draws out the implications of this: “Be imitators of God as beloved children . . .. What is immoral or unclean or avaricious should not even be named among you, for you know that no immoral nor unclean nor greedy person, an idolator, has a share in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:1,3,5). Once again, this is a question of identity. Who are you? Or, better, who will you be? Will you be the idolater you once were, full of all kinds of avarice, or will you be a child of God. We are, of course, this side of the grave, both. We still are that idolater, that immoral, unclean, and avaricious person, but we are also God’s beloved children.
This is what Paul has in mind in 1 Corinthians 15:50, “I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” We are of both flesh and spirit. Out of which paradigm will you live? the apostle asks us. Will you live as heirs of God? Or will you live as those who are dominated by the forces that maim and destroy our souls?
With that mind, come back to 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, the text cited by study committee as a clincher for their claim that their conclusions have confessional status. When Paul says, “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” (vss. 9b-10; NIV), he does not mean to exclude these people from grace but hold up before the congregation a different identity. You are not defined by these things any longer, he says; you are now heirs. Live like heirs: “You were once these things, but you have been washed, made holy, and made righteous by the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
If what the study committee implies were true, none of us would survive the test. Inheriting the kingdom of God in Paul’s letters comes down not to what we are (flesh) but to what we aspire (Spirit). It’s not about whether we are the heirs of the kingdom. We are. It’s about whether we will live out of that identity.
There are always three possibilities. One is that we fail to recognize that we are in fact children of God and therefore heirs of the estate. This is to live as if there is no grace. Those who fall into this category are not directly addressed in Paul’s letters. They are not in the churches. A second is to recognize that we are children of God and therefore heirs but to fail to live as spiritual adults. This was the way adopted by the Galatians and justly condemned by Paul. A third possibility is to accept both our freedom and responsibility as heirs of the estate and to make this singular fact central to our identity, in which case we will refuse to be defined by our sin.
But this is to point to a key part of Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 5-6 and elsewhere. He argues that as spiritual adults we have both the ability and the obligation to make difficult judgments. He says, “Do you not know that the holy people [of God] judge the world? And if the world is judged by you, are you unworthy to make judgments in small matters? Do you not know that we will judge angels? Why not the things of life?” Why not, indeed. In these matters as in others, we are called to make wise, spiritually-informed judgments. To declare what the church has always taught about homosexuality and other sexual matters to have confessional status at this time when we have been led by an accumulation of new insights into scripture and life to question some of those teachings seems to me to be an irresponsible denial of the obligation placed on us by the apostle to make spiritual judgments, even when those judgments require us to rethink what we once considered true. It’s choosing law when we should be choosing Spirit.
1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is an important text, just as the study committee says it is. But what it calls us to is not a condemnation of sinners but a affirmation of our new identity in Christ.