A Pepper Grinder Post

Pornography and the Kingdom of God

I read two interesting posts recently by a blogger named Rob Slane. I read them in the newsletter, but you can read them at Rob's site and . I thought the posts were well done, and I agreed with most of what Rob said. However, toward the end of the second post, Rob quotes 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (incorrectly attributed as 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 in the version posted on the web) under the heading: "God tells us that those who don't break with it will be excluded from the Kingdom of God" (it being pornography).

Gulp. This certainly made me sit up and take notice. We are told (and I have no reason to doubt it) that over two-thirds of Christian men and over one-half of pastors view pornography regularly. Rob is saying that if any of these men were to die without breaking this habit, he would go to hell. My question is, "Did Paul really say that?"

Here's my translation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 (I'm including verse 11 because it is clearly connected to the preceding two verses):

Don't you know that the unrighteous won't inherit the Kingdom of God? Don't be misled. Neither the sexually immoral, nor idol worshipers, nor adulterers, nor those who engage in homosexual acts*, nor thieves, nor greedy people, nor drunkards, nor the verbally abusive, nor robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And that's what some of you were. But you were washed, sanctified, and pronounced righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

*The Greek uses two words here: one describing passive partners in homosexual acts (possibly male prostitutes, as the NIV translates it); the other being a more general term for men who take part in homosexual activity. I could have written something like, "neither passive nor active partners in homosexual acts." The difference between the two was a little hazy for me, so I chose just to translate it as if it were describing one action. I also wanted to keep it clear that this is speaking of people who engage in homosexual acts, rather than those who might feel attraction to someone of their own sex, since I think the Greek indicates this, but some translations don't convey it.

cliffPerhaps the most obvious question to ask about the way Rob uses this passage is: Is pornography in the list? The short answer is no. Granted, pornography as it exists today did not exist then; however, you would think Paul could at least have talked about lust or sexual fantasies. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount that anyone who looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her in his heart. Surely, by this standard, looking at pornography should count as sexual immorality or adultery, depending on the married state of the people involved.

This is a good point, but take a look at the list of people who won't inherit the kingdom:

  • sexually immoral
  • idol worshippers
  • adulterers
  • those who engage in homosexual acts
  • thieves
  • greedy people
  • drunkards
  • verbally abusive
  • robbers

With the possible exception of greedy people, all of these seem clearly to be talking about people who ACT on their wrong desires. (In fact, I would argue that because it is included in this list, Paul meant people who act on their greed when he said greedy people.) This says to me that even though it is wrong to have fantasies about immoral sex or adultery, this kind of sin was not what Paul had in mind when he compiled this list.

This brings up another question. Is Paul's list complete? For example, he doesn't mention murderers. Are we really to believe that a serial killer would get into heaven, but a sexually immoral person would not? It's pretty clear to me that Paul is simply throwing out examples of types of people who won't inherit the kingdom, rather than giving an exhaustive list. This could mean that just because lust or sexual fantasies didn't make the list, offenders aren't necessarily off the hook.

Another important question is what type of offenders Paul is talking about. To take the example of thieves, what makes someone a thief? Is anyone who has ever stolen anything a thief? What about someone who occasionally gives in to temptation and steals, but then feels conscience-stricken, confesses his crime, and pays back more than he stole? To put it differently, is there a difference between someone who is prone to stealing, and someone who is a thief?

A description of Judas in John 12:4-6 helps us out here.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages."

He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (NIV)

stumpFirst of all, the tense of the Greek verb used to say that Judas "used to help himself" to the contents of the money bag describes an action that is done repeatedly. Also, there is nothing ever said to give us the impression that Judas felt sorry for his thievery and apologized for it, much less that he tried to change his ways. Also, it's clear from the way Judas argues to try to make sure there is plenty of money in the pot, that he is not just succumbing to momentary temptation, but is stealing the money intentionally, and that he plans to keep on doing so. In other words, Judas is completely unrepentant.

This brings up the question of what was going on in Corinth that led to Paul discussing this subject. Although there were multiple issues, there is one that clearly stood out in Paul's mind when he wrote 1 Corinthians.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? (1 Corinthians 5:1-2, NIV)

Here was a person in the church having an open, sexual relationship with his stepmother. Paul was appalled not only by the fact that this person was doing this openly and without repentance, but also that the church did not appear to be upset about the situation. This helps us understand what Paul had in mind when he wrote about the kind of people who won't inherit the Kingdom of God. He was not thinking about people who fail, but then beg for forgiveness, change their ways, and go on. He was thinking of people who deliberately and knowingly live in a way that is contrary to God's will, don't ask for forgiveness, and don't try to change.

There is something that disturbs me about the way we've talked about this so far, and the way Rob Slane sounded in his article. It feels like the discussion has focused on what we need to DO to be saved, like our works or lack of them are what will save or damn us. Where in this message is grace? Where's the gospel? It's in the verse that Rob failed to include when he quoted this passage:

But you were washed, sanctified, and pronounced righteous in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:11, my translation)

But what does this verse mean, coming right after the verses that talk about types of people who won't inherit the Kingdom of God? Does it mean that if you do the types of things Paul has been talking about, after becoming a Christian, it's okay because Christ has cleansed you? Absolutely not. Just a chapter ago (1 Corinthians 5:9-11), Paul told the Corinthians not to associate with someone who calls himself a Christian but engages in repeated, unrepentant sin. This makes it clear both that someone can engage in this type of unrepentant behavior and at least appear to be a Christian, and that we can't just accept that. Paul is saying something like, "Jesus made you clean; now, ACT like it!" On the one hand, it is clear from this and many other passages in the Bible that God chooses and welcomes all sorts of messed up people. On the other hand, it's just as clear that God expects us to "go and sin no more." Even in the case of the man in a sexual relationship with his mother-in-law, Paul's desire was not to get rid of the guy so the church would be pure. He makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 5:5 that his desire is that the man truly turn to God.

So what is our ultimate goal? Is it perfection? That is certainly the ultimate goal, but perfection won't happen this side of heaven. Look at Matthew 18:21-22:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, "Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?"

Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. (NIV)

streamChristians will sin, and we have to forgive them, even if they mess up over and over again. But isn't it better not to sin? Of course it is, and this has to be our goal, even if we know we will never completely attain it in this life. Repentance is not repentance unless our firm intention is to leave the sin behind us and never commit it again. This is true whether the sin is viewing pornography, being verbally abusive to someone, or committing any act which violates the clear teaching of the Bible. If someone views pornography, either literally or in his mind, and thinks, "I can just ask forgiveness after this, and I'll be okay," I question whether this person's repentance is real. If you are planning to commit a sin again, then you really are like Judas, planning to help himself to the money bag in the future.

I can picture someone who has never been tempted by pornography, or who has vanquished his temptation, being upset by this. He might think I'm letting people off too easily. After all, this is a sin which is doing a great deal to bring misery to many people and is destroying marriages and healthy relationships. I don't deny that pornography is a great evil. However, I would also warn anyone reading this who doesn't struggle with pornography to guard against the sin of pride and against the error of passing over offenses he commits, while vilifying offenses he avoids. Remember what Jesus said about the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:11-14.

"The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: 'God, I thank you that I am not like other men--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.'"

"But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, 'God, have mercy on me, a sinner.' I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (NIV)

So what's my message to people struggling with pornography? Is it that they shouldn't worry too much about it, because God will surely forgive them? No! We have been cleansed by Christ, and we need to act like it. This means we need to leave behind sexual immorality, including the fantasy immorality of pornography. On the other hand, I reject the view that seems to be implied by Rob Slane, that unless someone has gotten to the point of saying that he has achieved victory over this sin, he will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Even the somewhat dogmatic first epistle of John states categorically that no one is without sin. (1 John 1:8) I do not believe that the viewing of pornography is some kind of super-sin that will keep us out of heaven more than other sins. Any Christian who commits any sin must turn away from it. He should echo the sentiment of the Book of Common Prayer:

We do earnestly repent, And are heartily sorry for these our misdoings; The remembrance of them is grievous unto us; The burden of them is intolerable. (Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

But let us also remember that God is merciful. If he were not, we would all be in trouble.