Can a Christian ever call themselves a “sober alcoholic?” Or a “non-practicing adulterer?” A “celibate gay” person?
The controversy over the Revoice conference has died down some, but the main topic continues to provoke earnest discussion among evangelicals: Is it ever appropriate to use the terminology of “single” (or “celibate”), “gay,” and “Christian” within the same sentence, to describe some believers? Does such language inherently betray a compromise of a Christian’s identity, as being founded only upon our relationship with Christ? Or even worse, does it wrongly identify a Christian with their sin?
J.I. Packer on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
Esteemed evangelical leader, J. I. Packer, made the following statement entitled “Why I Walked,” describing his decision to leave his denomination, when this church body decided to begin officiating gay marriages, in 2002, contrary to two millennia of previous church teaching. Packer’s words give remarkable exegetical insight into how a balanced and faithful reading of I Corinthians 6:9-11, can be read, studied, and applied, to the current debate:
In 1 Corinthians we find the following, addressed it seems to exponents of some kind of antinomian spirituality:
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 practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (6:9-11, ESV).
To make sure we grasp what Paul is saying here, I pose some questions.
First: What is Paul talking about in this vice list? Answer: Lifestyles, regular behavior patterns, habits of mind and action. He has in view not single lapses followed by repentance, forgiveness, and greater watchfulness (with God’s help) against recurrence, but ways of life in which some of his readers were set, believing that for Christians there was no harm in them.
Second: What is Paul saying about these habits? Answer: They are ways of sin that, if not repented of and forsaken, will keep people out of God’s kingdom of salvation. Clearly, self-indulgence and self-service, free from self-discipline and self-denial, is the attitude they express, and a lack of moral discernment lies at their heart.
Third: What is Paul saying about homosexuality? Answer: Those who claim to be Christ’s should avoid the practice of same-sex physical connection for orgasm, on the model of heterosexual intercourse. Paul’s phrase, “men who practice homosexuality,” covers two Greek words for the parties involved in these acts. The first, arsenokoitai, means literally “male-bedders,” which seems clear enough. The second, malakoi, is used in many connections to mean “unmanly,” “womanish,” and “effeminate,” and here refers to males matching the woman’s part in physical sex.
In this context, in which Paul has used two terms for sexual misbehavior, there is really no room for doubt regarding what he has in mind. He must have known, as Christians today know, that some men are sexually drawn to men rather than women, but he is not speaking of inclinations, only of behavior, what has more recently been called acting out. His point is that Christians need to resist these urges, since acting them out cannot please God and will reveal lethal impenitence. Romans 1:26 shows that Paul would have spoken similarly about lesbian acting out if he had had reason to mention it here.
Fourth: What is Paul saying about the gospel? Answer: Those who, as lost sinners, cast themselves in genuine faith on Christ and so receive the Holy Spirit, as all Christians do (see Gal. 3:2), find transformation through the transaction. They gain cleansing of conscience (the washing of forgiveness), acceptance with God (justification), and strength to resist and not act out the particular temptations they experience (sanctification). As a preacher friend declared to his congregation, “I want you to know that I am a non-practicing adulterer.” Thus he testified to receiving strength from God.
With some of the Corinthian Christians, Paul was celebrating the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in heterosexual terms; with others of the Corinthians, today’s homosexuals are called to prove, live out, and celebrate the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms. Another friend, well known to me for 30 years, has lived with homosexual desires all his adult life, but remains a faithful husband and father, sexually chaste, through the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the gospel. He is a model in every way. We are all sexually tempted, one way or another, yet we may all tread the path of chastity through the Spirit’s enablement, and thereby please God.
There is a lot to digest in Packer’s rich prose, but I wish to highlight here a few salient points. First, note that the Apostle Paul in this passage is describing patterns of “Lifestyles, regular behavior patterns, habits of mind and action.” Paul is not speaking of occasional lapses, nor is he speaking of the mere presence of disordered desires, or other “inclinations,” that temptation can exploit, that might lead a believer into sin.
This does not give such disordered desires or inclinations a “free pass.” But it does give us the proper context for understanding why Paul implores the Corinthian church, “such were some of you.” We are not to structure our lives around persistent, unrepentant sin. This is incompatible with being a Christian.
Secondly, I note Packer’s example of a friend, “As a preacher friend declared to his congregation, “I want you to know that I am a non-practicing adulterer.” Thus he testified to receiving strength from God.”
Was Packer’s friend in the wrong, by calling himself “a non-practicing adulterer?” If we mistake such use of language, as some type of confusion of spiritual identity, as a compromise of allegiance, then the objection can be sustained. But this is not the case, neither in Packer’s example, nor in Paul’s admonition in I Corinthians.
Here, to speak of being a non-practicing adulterer, a sober alcoholic, or a celibate gay person, is not incompatible with being a Christian. Please note the qualifiers: “non-practicing,” “sober,” and “celibate.” They are important.
This does not mean that the presence of underlying desires, that are associated with adultery, alcoholism, or being gay, are to be, in any way, a cause to be celebrated. Instead, it is an honest, frank admission of our fallen condition, in need of grace, as persons who have been sanctified, by virtue of Christ’s work on the cross, and who are in the process of becoming sanctified (Hebrews 10:14 ESV), through the work of the Holy Spirit in us. Such frank language need not be deceptively subversive indications, of a secret love of one’s sin, though a Christian should surely seek to mortify such thoughts (Romans 8:13 ESV).
Some may still register some discomfort, preferring the language of “struggling with lust,” “struggling with alcohol,” or “struggling with same-sex attraction.” This is reasonable, in a certain sense. As we seek to grow in Christ, we can trust in the work of the Holy Spirit to reposition our appetites. The point here is that we do not “identify” with our sin, as believers in Christ.
However, in our efforts to chastise sin, we should resist overreaching into the Apostle Paul’s argument, claiming for it something Paul did not claim. God may indeed miraculously transform our disordered desires, at a particular point, in our Christian life. To call someone an “ex-habitual-adulterer,” or an “ex-alcoholic,” or “ex-gay,” would be appropriate in such cases. We should praise God for this.
But the Christian life is not as simple as that, for many, if not most of us. Sanctification is a life-long journey. Some disordering of desires may stay with a person their entire life. God heals, but the progress it takes happens according to His timetable and not ours. Our business is to be faithful to the calling He has placed on our spiritual journey.
To emphasize: To say that certain disordered desires may stay with us through our earthly life, is not minimizing the power of God to heal and transform. It is simply a sober assessment of our need for continued sanctification, and our complete and utter dependence upon Christ.
Therefore, we must exercise extreme caution when using language like “ex-alcoholic” or “ex-gay,” to describe a believer. To unthinkingly assert this is like prematurely running up the victory flag, while the battle is still raging.
Nevertheless, we have reason to take courage. Christ has already won the war victory for us. But we must walk that journey, day by day, to see that final victory eventually realized in our hearts.
“Sin is crouching at [our] door,” (Genesis 4:7), but temptation need not catch us by surprise. We must be on guard, and be wary of thinking that everything is “fine” and “normal,” or “completely healed,” when our honest experience is very different.
- No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV).
The Holy Spirit gives us the power to say “No,” in those times of testing. But this is not the end of the story. The Christian life is about more that just saying “No” to having an extramarital affair, “No” to alcohol abuse, and “No” to having gay sex.
There is the positive message of “Yes,” too. The Spirit also gives us the power to say “Yes,” to new possibilities, to redirect our energies, joyfully towards those things that give glory to God, and restoring our souls, satisfying our most truest, deepest desires. Sometimes, in His providence, God can use those unsightly, disordered desires to show us something beautiful and life-giving about ourselves, that we never would have seen otherwise!
“Such were some of you,” therefore, is not to be construed as a way of pretending temptation does not exist, in the life of a Christian. “Such were some of you” is instead a call to repentance of a repeated pattern of acted-upon sin.
But it is more than that. It describes that Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the one in whom we find our true “identity.” In that washing, accomplished by Christ, as 1 Corinthians 6:11 tells us, we discover the believer’s existence as a “new creature,” that yields something better and new, surpassing the “old man” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV, Colossians 3:9 KJV). Maintaining that distinction and balance is crucial to a biblical understanding of sanctification.
For further exploration of these themes, please read these previous Veracity postings (#1 , #2, and #3), that touch on the Revoice conference controversy. In summary, my own view is four-fold: (1) critics were right to raise questions about the use of language regarding Christian identity, hence this blog post (!!), but that the main speakers behind Revoice have answered those criticisms fairly and well. (2) Critics were also right to raise questions concerning how those Christians, who struggle with same-sex attraction (note my “safer” identity language here!!), should go about establishing “spiritual friendships” with same-sex friends. Boundaries should be in place, to avoid sexual temptation, but methinks the critics tended to overplay their concerns about Revoice. Nevertheless, clarity is still needed, as there is apparently still considerable confusion as to what “spiritual friendships” are all about. (3) As Dr. Al Mohler noted in his critique, Revoice addressed the “LG” in the “LGBT+”, only touched on the “B,” and said nothing about the “T.” (4) And finally, the fundamental question behind Revoice is whether or not same-sex attraction is inherently a morally culpable sin. Scripturally, I do not see how the mere presence of a disordered desire, like same-sex attraction, constitutes sin, in and of itself, as this confuses the distinction between temptation and sin. Clearly, others in the church disagree. Hopefully, future Revoice conferences will more adequately address these concerns.