“Such Were Some of You” and How We Use Scripture

Interacting with the use of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate at the 2019 PCA General Assembly.

Five points can be stated from this passage. First, Paul is not talking about people who are tempted to these sins, but those who are identified by these sins because they practice these sins. Second, the church is to remove those who are identified by their practice of such sins from their midst. Third, the sins in view extend far beyond sexual sin. Fourth, the Corinthians are wrong for taking pride in their tolerance of the sinful persons in their midst. Five, Paul is establishing a stark contrast between the identities of people in the world and the identities people in Christ.

 

At the recent General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), there was a great deal of debate regarding how we would respond to a number of overtures pertaining to LGBT issues and the church. During the debate, several appeals were made to the first clause of 1 Corinthians 6:11, “And such were some of you” (ESV). In this article, I want to layout the context of the argument as I heard it presented at GA, examine 1 Corinthians 6:11a in its context, and assess the application of 1 Corinthians 6:11a.

To be clear, I am not interacting with the debate as a whole, within which there were very good points made on both sides, I am only interacting with the employment of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate. Further, I am not, in this article, offering any assessment of the Nashville Statement, again, I am only interacting with the employment of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate. Also, I am not concerned here with the state of the PCA based on our view of homosexuality. I believe the one side when they say, as they repeatedly have, “We think homosexuality is sinful, period.” I also believe the other side when they say, as they repeatedly have, “We are not trying to deny redemption or inclusion in any way to people who have found forgiveness for homosexuality in Christ.” Once again, I am only interacting with the employment of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate. Finally, I am not assessing the decisions of GA on any of these matters, I am only interacting with the employment of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate.

The reason for my writing such a specific article is simple. As we have debated various issues over the last several years (I have been attending GA for 11 years now), our willingness to bogart some biblical text or another(1) for our predisposed end seems to be increasing, and this practice is certainly not limited to one side of the proverbial aisle. While there are various concerns on all sides about the state of the PCA and where it is or isn’t going, I believe how we handle Scripture is the single most important issue we face as a denomination. The current article is only dealing with the most recent example from GA of what I believe is a subtle but grave problem in our denomination, not only on the floor of GA but also at every level of the church. Whether we are standing on the theological right or left (which, within the PCA are still both on the right), when we fall to the temptation of proof-texting our convictions rather than having our convictions shaped by careful exegesis of Scripture, we have departed from biblical fidelity.(2)

The Context of the Argument (3)

At his year’s GA two overtures in particular received a good bit of attention: an overture asking the assembly to declare the Nashville Statement to be biblically faithful and an overture seeking to establish a study committee to consider matters of human sexuality. There were other overtures dealing with the matters at hand, and even some that came with minority reports, but the majority of energy seemed to be focused on these two, affirming the Nashville Statement and erecting a study committee.

In debate regarding the affirmation of the Nashville Statement, there was a great deal of concern regarding how pastoral the statement is or isn’t. Many argued that the Nashville Statement is simply not pastoral enough in its affirmations and denials to be helpful. Most who opposed affirming the overture did not seem to oppose it on the grounds of disagreeing with its content, but on the grounds disagreeing with its tone. It was in this context that 1 Corinthians 6:11a was mentioned by various speakers.

The argument employing the passage from 1 Corinthians seemed to be along the following lines (remember this is my recreated summary of the overall argument not an actual speech given on the floor).

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul lists several sins including homosexuality and says in verse 11, “And such were some of you.” Paul then immediately adds the contrasting declaration that they have been washed, sanctified, and justified in Christ. By framing the conversation this way, Paul both gives his readers the freedom to admit they were in fact glorious sinners of various kinds and affirms that they have a definite place in the body of Christ. The Nashville Statement, in singling out homosexuality and offering such a thorough and sterile take on the matters at hand, potentially removes the freedom Paul gives and thereby raises questions about the truth of his contrasting declaration for those struggling with the sin of homosexuality. If we affirm this statement we may very well be forcing people who struggle with homosexuality (and by “struggle with homosexuality” I mean choose to remain chaste and deal with all the loneliness and everything else that comes with their desire to honor Christ in their bodies)- we may very well be forcing such people to live with shame, from which Paul is trying to release them based on their standing in Christ, by not giving them the freedom to admit that although they are faithful in their fight against flesh and sin, their self-conception is one of being a gay Christian.

The intention of the argument summarized above seemed to be that it is appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to have the freedom both to identify your former sin and continue to be identified by your former sin and ongoing struggle. Is this in accord with 1 Corinthians 6:11?

1 Corinthians 6:11a

On the face, without context, it is easy to see how Paul might be giving both freedom to admit and identify with sin and assurance of salvation in 1 Corinthians 6:11; however, does such an interpretation hold up under closer evaluation? I believe it does not.

The church in Corinth was a mess. It was a church plagued by sinful divisions and behavior within the body. We read in 1 Corinthians 5 of sexual immorality among the body that is “of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1, ESV). Paul instructs the church to remove the one who is doing this from among them, even to deliver him to Satan. On top of such practices of allowing the sinner to stay, there is an arrogance among the people regarding the practice. Anthony Thisleton writes, “Paul attacks two distinct point: (a) the immoral act of the individual person; and (b) the corporate sin of the community in condoning, accepting, and tolerating the situation, with no overt sign even of concern.”(4) Later, Paul tells the Corinthians regarding the issue, “Your boasting is not good” (1 Cor. 5:6, ESV), going on to encourage the Corinthians to remove such people from their midst. Paul then reminds his readers of his former teaching, “not to associate with anyone bearing the name brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality, or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one” (1 Cor 5:11, ESV). Finally, Paul ends the chapter quoting Deuteronomy 17:7, “Purge the evil person from among you” (1 Cor. 5:13, ESV).

As Paul moves into chapter 6, one might be tempted to see an entirely new section and thought in Paul’s writing. However, in 6:9-10 Paul returns to a vice list that is nearly identical to the list found in 5:11 linking what he is saying in 1 Corinthians 6 with what has already been said in 1 Corinthians 5.

In 1 Corinthians 6 Paul seems to be presenting the other side of the conversation he presented in 1 Corinthians 5. Just as one’s continuing in sin means there is a separation from the church (1 Cor. 5), so also one’s continuing in the church means there is a separation from the world. Paul is rebuking the church for appealing to the world to settle matters in which they have no part. “So if you have such cases, why do you lay them before the those who have no standing in the church” (1 Cor. 6:4, ESV)? “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9a, ESV)? In other words, Paul’s point seems to be, if you are walking in sin you are not of the church (1 Cor. 5), and if you are walking in the church you are not of the world (1 Cor. 6). It is in this context that Paul returns to the vice list writing, “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality(5), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9b-10, ESV). Paul then continues, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (1 Cor. 6:11, ESV). In making his point about the difference between the church and the world, Paul highlights the stark difference between some of the Corinthians lives in the world and their lives in Christ. Paul uses a customary imperfect verb (such were some of you) to state what they were in the past and three constative aorists (washed, sanctified, justified) to show what has already taken place to redefine them. In other words, they were one thing, now they are another.

Five points can be stated from this passage. First, Paul is not talking about people who are tempted to these sins, but those who are identified by these sins because they practice these sins. Second, the church is to remove those who are identified by their practice of such sins from their midst. Third, the sins in view extend far beyond sexual sin. Fourth, the Corinthians are wrong for taking pride in their tolerance of the sinful persons in their midst. Five, Paul is establishing a stark contrast between the identities of people in the world and the identities people in Christ.

Assessing Our Use of 1 Corinthians 6:11a

Paul’s point and our use of the text in debate do not seem to line up. As stated above, the point of the appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:11 in the GA debate seemed to be, that it is appropriate, perhaps even necessary, to have the freedom both to identify your former sin and continue to be identified by your former sin and ongoing struggle. However, Paul’s point is, in part, establishing a stark contrast between the identities of people in the world and the identities of people in Christ.

Based on 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, we can affirm several important points that are germane to the discussion:

  1. The church is full of people guilty of all kinds of sins;
  2. Sexual sins are not the unpardonable sin;
  3. We cannot deny someone full inclusion in the church based on their sinful past;
  4. There is freedom to admit what kind of sinner you were;
  5. There is not freedom to continue in sin and in the church in good standing;
  6. Paul is not speaking of temptation to sin in 1 Corinthians 5-6 but of carrying out sin;
  7. It is entirely appropriate for every sinner who professes faith in Christ to stand with confidence in the church as one who has been washed, sanctified, and justified; and
  8. To those who are in Christ a new nature and new identity are given that are in contrast to the nature and identity of those in the world.

If the appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:11 was simply to affirm the above eight points about someone who has struggled with homosexuality, then it is appropriately used. However, this did not seem to be the point. Rather, in the debate on the floor of GA, point number eight seemed to be lost in the appeal to 1 Corinthians 6:11 in favor of a freedom to identify with sin in a way that seems to be contrary to Paul’s point. Paul is not in this passage attaching his conception of people to their temptation, but to their action in sin or Christ and Spirit’s action on their behalf. If we argue that being tempted to sin puts one in the category of what some were, then it removes that person from the category of what Paul says he now is in Christ. If, on the other hand, we deny the necessary sinfulness of temptation (see Hebrews 4:15 on this point) then Paul’s stark contrast between what we were in the world and what we are in Christ stands and our appeal to this verse as a reason to not only identify past sin but also continue to be identified by such sin is off base. In such a case we are then found to be misusing Scripture to our own end, a problem that Peter acknowledged in the first century church in his second letter (2 Pet. 3:16).

Conclusion

Why does this matter? In short, Scripture is the clearest testimony of God that we have available to us. If we, as a denomination, do not have the patience and wherewithal to deal carefully and accurately with God’s Word but are satisfied with incautious proof-texting, then the die has most certainly been cast on the PCA as a denomination. Let me state once again, I do not purport to have offered a solution or even any real insight on the many difficult questions surrounding the church and LGBTQ issues. I understand that there are reasons to have voted against the affirmation of the Nashville Statement as a biblically faithful statement without showing how it is unbiblical in its statements. However, if, in a debate over affirming the biblical faithfulness of a particular statement, we can misuse Scripture with impunity, then the outcome of the vote hardly matters, for our action is little more than a declaration of where we stand in relation to culture rather than where we stand in relation to Scripture.

Kevin Hale is a Minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and is pastor of Christ Church Conway (PCA) in Conway, Ark.

 

  1. The same could be said of the way we use, abuse, and ignore our confessional standards, but that’s another article for another time.
  2. Once again, I want to make clear, in this article, I am not claiming that the convictions of those who so used 1 Corinthians 6:11 are necessarily wrong, only that they are not supported by this particular passage. My argument is solely about our use of Scripture, and our seeming increasing willingness to use it for our ends.
  3. Something of a qualifier must be offered regarding the context of the argument. What follows is only my understanding of things. To be sure, I did attend GA, so this is actually my understanding and not something I have distilled from post GA reports. However, I am not responding to a particular speaker, but the general use of 1 Corinthians 6:11a within the debate.
  4. Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. I. Howard Marshall, and Danold Hagner, A. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000, p390.
  5. The ESV rolls two Greek words into one idea translated “men who practice homosexuality.” The two terms, “malakos” and “arsenokoites”, have generated a great deal of discussion and, indeed, are rather difficult to translate precisely and efficiently into English. Their use together in this instance seems to be intended to set them in contrast to each other to point to the sinfulness of both parties participating in a homosexual act, the one receiving the act and the one performing the act. Thiselton helpfully interacts with a good bit of pertinent literature at some length in an excursus titled “Vice Lists, Catechesis, and The Homosexuality Debate (6:9-10)” found on pages 440-453 in his 1 Corinthians commentary. BDAG presents the terms as able to be used as opposites offering the following definitions of each term. malakos – “pert. to being passive is a same-sex relationship, effeminate of catamites, of men and boys who are sodomized by other males in such a relationship, opp. arsenokoites” (BDAG, 613). arsenokoites – “a male who engages in sexually activity w. a pers. of his own sex, pederast… of one who assumes the dominant role in same-sex activity, opp. malakos” (BDAG, 135).