I’ve seen a lot of conservative Christians recently argue that gays cannot be saved, or cannot be Christian, specifically because of 1 Cor 6:9-10.
Paul writes “Or 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 homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor those habitually drunk, nor verbal abusers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.“
Even if one agrees that these verses directly address everyday homosexuality (which I don’t), I hope that after looking at the actual text, we could reach agreement that what it says they cannot do is “inherit the Kingdom of God,” not “be saved” or “be a Christian.” Nothing in that verse talks about eternal life or the destiny of the soul and spirit. And I think there’s a critical difference there that’s worth talking about, no matter how we feel about the acceptability of homosexuality to God.
The Kingdom of God
First, let’s consider what “inherit the Kingdom of God” is talking about.
For one thing, Jesus constantly referred to the Kingdom of God already having arrived and being actively present among His listeners at that very time. He never referred to it in a future tense. In numerous parables He said “the Kingdom is like” instead of saying “the Kingdom will be like.” Matthew 12:28 says that the “Kingdom has come upon you.” Luke 17:21 says it is “in your midst.” Luke 12:32 says the “Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom” – “has been,” not “will be.”
Perhaps the most famous passage that helped to create the doctrine of being born again, the story of Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus, says that nobody can see the Kingdom in John 3:3 – not “nobody WILL see,” but “nobody CAN see” the Kingdom. That’s present tense; the Kingdom is already here, but the question is whether we can see it.
So participation in the Kingdom isn’t some future thing when we die. (In fact, I feel that anyone who believes that it’s only in heaven after our death is missing an amazing opportunity to participate in God’s Kingdom right here on earth in our lifetimes.)
Inheriting the Kingdom
Having then established that the Kingdom is not just future, let’s consider the word “inherit.” What does it mean to inherit the Kingdom of God?
An inheritance is very specifically something that is passed along to a beneficiary upon the death of the one who left it in their will, or who was properly related to that deceased individual if a formal will was not written. Jesus has now already died (and been raised from the dead). When He was speaking these things, He was referring to an event yet to come. He had not yet died, so what was His was not yet ready to be given to His heirs.
Now, however, He has died, and we have now been designated as His heirs. This naturally indicates that what He had for us has been given – has already been given – as an inheritance. And that thing is the Kingdom.
It’s not a future transfer, either: that would be to place the inheritance in a trust. But that is not what the Scriptures say. In fact, the concept of a trust is in scripture, in Galatians 4:1-2, where a guardian is assigned until the heir comes of age. But nothing about our inheritance in Christ uses this language: our inheritance is apparently full and immediate.
So this phrase “inherit the Kingdom” refers to a present inheritance of an existing active Kingdom based on the legal fact of His death and burial and our relationship to Him. His resurrection simply confirmed the truth of His words, and demonstrated to mankind and the spirit realm alike that His inheritance had in fact been given as He said.
Next we ought to discuss what salvation really means.
“Salvation” to anyone listening to Jesus or reading Paul in Biblical times was a very here-and-now, on-the-earth, in-your-present-body thing. There is no evidence that Jesus was referring directly to eternal life any time He used the word “saved,” other than a few statements that those who persist until the end will be saved. In other verses He did refer to “eternal life” but the two cannot be conflated simply for our convenience. His “gospel,” His Good News, was about ministry to His listeners’ present needs, not their eternal destiny. In fact, in His time, the Jewish faith (which was Jesus’ own faith) had only a minimal concept of the afterlife, and that was largely borrowed from Greek and Roman philosophy. Ancient Jews believed that after death there was nothing, either reward or punishment, just a dim gray nothingness. The current evangelical focus on salvation from hell did not really take hold until four or five centuries after Jesus’ life.
Note that the naysayers watching Jesus die in Matthew 27:42 said “He saved others; He cannot save Himself.” They were fully aware that “salvation” referred to healing and provision and rescue from human and demonic oppression. Their statement had not a single bit of focus on eternal life.
In Acts 2:40, Peter, preaching to the crowd, said they could be “saved from this crooked generation” – not saved from eternal punishment. It’s easy to twist that into meaning “saved out from” but that’s not what the text says.
This also explains how in Acts 11 and Acts 16, salvation upon an entire household was proclaimed, based on the faith of the head of the household alone. How can this be if the other members of that household had not personally placed their faith in Jesus (noting that individual salvation based on a personal belief is the typical evangelical formula for salvation)? Similarly, 1 Cor 7:14 describes even unbelieving family members being saved by their spouse. It makes much more sense if you understand “salvation” as earthly deliverance from a wide range of oppression or harm, where a change coming to a household leader literally WOULD save all the members of that household. This was prefigured by Noah’s entire family being saved due to Noah’s faithfulness to believe God and build the ark, and Rahab’s faithfulness to help Joshua’s spies which resulted in the salvation of her entire family. Nowhere are Noah’s wife and children, or Rahab’s husband and children (and family slaves) ever honored for participating in that faithfulness or belief. They were simply saved by proxy via the household leaders.
So Jesus and His followers were not particularly focused on the future of their souls when they referenced salvation; their focus was on the earthly life of those who put their faith in Christ.
Now, this doesn’t deny the eternal change that comes WITH salvation, to which Jesus often referred. But that wasn’t what Jesus meant by “saved.”
Being a Christian
So, finally, if eternal salvation of the soul isn’t necessarily the issue in “inherit the Kingdom” or “be saved,” what makes one a Christian?
There are a ton of definitions about what “Christian” means, so let’s consider some of the most common.
If your fundamental definition of “to be a Christian” is “to be a follower of Christ,” anyone can follow Christ, even if they still have sin in their heart or actions. Many were described in the Gospels as being Jesus’ followers – until at some point they ALL abandoned him in the final hours of His life. Even the most faithful apostles ran away, but were still commended for their faith and even Peter was specially honored despite repeatedly cursing like a sailor and swearing that He was not a follower. So, a follower abandoning Him is not evidence that they are not a true follower.
And if you define “following” as obeying Jesus’ commands, how is practicing homosexuality (if it is a sin) different than, for example, not following Jesus’ numerous other commandments, such as going into all the earth to make disciples, which nearly no modern Christians actually do, or not fully following His commands about giving to anyone who asks (instead of only those who we deem worthy of our welfare), or not doing all the things that Jesus did, based on His statement that “whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do?” Not a single one of us comes even close to meeting just the standards Jesus set in the Sermon on the Mount, to say nothing of the rest of His teachings in the Gospels. We ALL fall short, and often willfully; if we’re honest, we like our comfort more than meeting all of Jesus’ commands. How is willful homosexuality any different?
Perhaps your definition of “Christian” is primarily “to represent Christ on the earth.” Again, not one of us can claim to do that fully, even if it is our full heartfelt intent.
Perhaps it’s “to have a personal, intimate relationship with the Lord Jesus.” I wonder about your relationship with your children. Even if they don’t always do what you say to do, I presume you still have a personal, intimate relationship with them. Similarly, Christ loved us while we were still yet sinners, and I’m pretty sure that our sin, or anything else, cannot separate us from His love. 1 John 4:10 says “in this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” And I know plenty of gays that have very close personal relationships with Jesus, despite anyone else’s opinion of their lifestyle.
Speaking of propitiation, perhaps your definition is “forgiven for our sins?” That work was completed on the cross, period, full stop. Our acceptance of that work is not at play here; as He died, Jesus said “it is finished.” John 19:28-30 says “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished, in order that the Scripture would be fulfilled, *said, “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth. Therefore when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, “It is finished!” And He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” Did you catch that? “All things had ALREADY been fulfilled.” It most definitively does not say “had already been fulfilled but only for those who accepted it.”
But if you believe that personal acceptance of Jesus’ work on the cross is required, then perhaps being a Christian is about being justified by God through our personal faith in Jesus, and therefore being declared “not guilty.” Fine, but that doesn’t say anything about sexual behavior – or any other sin. Someone who the Lord has not convicted in their heart that a certain behavior is sinful, who truly believes with all their being that they are made right before God by Jesus’ sacrifice, no matter how incomplete that may be (see above, where NONE of us meet that standard) is justified by faith. End of story. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:13 Paul specifically addresses those who are weak in their faith, and how we should not presume to change that fact but to honor their weakness by showing them grace.
Now, it’s definitely true that working out of our salvation, and the Holy Spirit convicting us of our remaining sin that needs to be changed, is a lifelong process for all of us. But it doesn’t mean we are not ALREADY justified by faith.
It’s critical to realize that nothing about being saved or being a Christian is dependent upon our current status or behavior. There are so many verses that talk about our salvation being accomplished and complete, and being solely dependent upon Christ’s work on our behalf. Of course God does not intend to leave us in a sinful, immature, incomplete state: in fact, it says otherwise in verses like 2 Cor 8:6 and of course Phil 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (LSB).”
How could this be otherwise, when every single one of us was saved, or became a Christian, or began the process of inheriting the Kingdom “while we were yet sinners?” To believe otherwise is to cast off the idea that “there is none righteous, not one” (Romans 3:10). In light of this simple fact, how can we not fully accept and believe that anyone can be saved no matter their current state? Yes, we might point to an area of sin in their lives – which we ALL have at varying levels even as saved Christians – and know that the Lord has yet to complete His good work in them. But it certainly cannot be used to insist that they are not saved or a Christian. The only one who can make that assessment is God Himself, and our standards are often deficient. Why else would we be told “judge not, lest you be judged” (Matt 7:1)? God knows our inability to judge with full awareness, and wishes to spare us the punishment for false accusations and false witness against those who truly are our brothers and sisters.
So to summarize, for all these reasons, I cannot accept the statement that gays cannot be Christian – any more than I would accept that someone who commits adultery, or who lies, or who verbally abuses their spouse, or idolizes their job or possessions, is not a Christian. What it means is that the Holy Spirit still has work to do to bring them to maturity – sometimes more than others.
So let’s stop the “not a Christian” language, because it’s simply not supported by Scripture.
The Damage from Disfellowshipping
In fact, I’d argue that rejecting anyone’s relationship with Jesus, and therefore excluding them from fellowship, is a frighteningly effective way to prevent them from ever being changed, because they won’t be around other more mature believers and see the right way to live.
I’m sure someone will say “But 1 Cor 5:1-5 says to deliver such a sexually immoral sinner to Satan to destroy his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved.” Well, let’s be precise; that was a specific case to which Paul was referring, of a kind of evil sexuality that was even beyond that committed by the Gentiles (who were specifically named as practicing homosexuality elsewhere in the Epistles). Clearly, Paul was addressing sexual perversion that went far beyond homosexuality. It wasn’t a general command regarding all sexual sin. And that is good, because if we summarily kicked out all the porn users and lustful individuals and divorced and remarried couples in our midst, far more than half of our church pews would be empty the next Sunday. (About 40% have been divorced and 65% use porn at least monthly.)
And yes, the following verses in 1 Cor 5:9-13 say to not have association with fellow believers that insist on sexual immorality. Okay, I’ll take that at face value: if that’s your view, then this immediately destroys the argument that a sexual sinner (specifically gay in the case of this discussion) is not Christian; Paul is very explicitly acknowledging here that there ARE believers who are sexually immoral. So this seems pretty clear: despite what Paul says in the very next chapter (1 Cor 6:9-10), they ARE believers.
Furthermore, if you must insist that they are not believers or saved, then consider that in the same few verses, Paul explicitly says NOT to reject fellowship with “outsiders” who are sexually immoral people “of the world.” He says “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people; I did not at all mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the greedy and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world.” If you want to insist that homosexuals are not Christian believers, then you are actually told by Paul that you SHOULD NOT break fellowship with them.
In fact, it’s pretty obvious from the language in 1 Cor 5:9-10 that Paul was actually correcting an excessive application of his guidance in a previous letter – it looks like he was reining in and correcting an excessive disfellowshipping that was happening in the church in Corinth.
So you can’t have it both ways: either gays may be saved and Christian, in which case you may break fellowship if you wish, hoping that God will convict them, or they are not saved, in which case you should NOT break fellowship with them.
If you insist that they’re not saved, then you’d better be willing to be a witness to them through continuing an active loving relationship so that God has a chance to redeem them. But yelling at them about their lifestyle or identity and how you believe that God is sending them to hell is never going to bring them back to Jesus.
If you’re going to accept that even gays can be believers, but you still feel the need to disfellowship them based on an unrepentant homosexual lifestyle, then perhaps God can help you understand about how it’s possible for them to be saved given 1 Cor 6:9-10.
But my bet is that if you enter into a real friendly loving relationship with a faithful, Jesus-loving gay person, even if it’s outside church circles and thus not an issue from 1 Cor 5:9-13, I believe you’ll quickly discover that your view about their lack of salvation is ill-supported and unnecessarily judgemental.
I have to take a moment here and share a story. I grew up in a very strongly anti-homosexual church culture, and fully believed that it was not possible for a gay person to truly know God. However, a few years ago, through the circumstances of life and death, I had the chance to spend a number of hours talking with the son of a recently-deceased close friend as we sorted through his mom’s effects. I had always known that this son was… well, different, flamboyant, and I suspected gay, but I had never wanted to know, because I was afraid I would have to reject him. If I didn’t KNOW he was gay, I could pretend he was just different. But at his mother’s funeral, in his speech honoring his mother, he made a very careful mention of his homosexuality that left no doubt in anyone’s mind.
As we sat together mourning her and dealing with a house full of both clutter and memories, we spent hours talking about his life – and his husband of seven years which he had hidden from most of his acquaintances – and his relationship with God, and how our anti-gay church had wounded and abandoned him decades ago.
Aside from his testimony about those specifics, one thing that struck me above all else is how scripturally grounded, and deeply aware of his relationship with the Lord, this man was. And it was heartbreaking to me that he had to live out his relationship with God in secret for twenty years, with just a few people in our church who knew the truth, sworn to secrecy, who were available to fully love and to mentor him as he truly was.
But despite these limitations, it was utterly clear to me that he was as saved and fully Christian as anyone else in the church. In fact, I have told others that I assess his maturity and awareness of Scripture and his trust in the Lord as far above many other people with whom I spent time at the church. Literally the only thing “different” about him was his utter conviction that his homosexuality was inherent and was not wrong (after years of praying and trying to change, based on the church’s teachings).
Here are the implications of this story.
More than anything I heard from society or other affirming believers, this encounter with him convinced me that I was fundamentally wrong about homosexuals and Christianity. If I could see with my own eyes – and discern with my own spirit – that this gay man could experience a vibrant living relationship with God, with plenty of evidence of the Holy Spirit being richly active in his life, I must be wrong to assert that he was unsaved or unChristian.
This set me on a path of doing my own studies of what the scriptures actually say, and just as importantly why I could have been misinterpreting them for so long. Ultimately, as I wrote about in October 2022, I concluded that I had to take an affirming position, even though it went against my upbringing and my previous intellectual understandings. In this case, I was letting the scriptures transform me, very much to my discomfort, not selecting an interpretation to fit my passions or to please others.
And as I’ve stopped running away from the possibility of gay Christians, I’ve been able to see things I never saw before, with evidence piling up of the righteousness of God truly expressed in the lives of numerous gay people.
Your conclusions may differ, of course. You can assert that they are all fooling me and themselves, and that they’re hellbound according to 1 Cor 6, and probably also that I’m convicting myself for publicly agreeing with them. But if you do, I’ll bet you are concluding that without having spent much time interacting with gay people with an open mind and spirit. Like I used to, you probably have a lot of preconceptions that blinded you to the reality of their lives and spirituality. Perhaps, like me, you’re even fearful of risking deep interactions with them, lest it change your own mind or corrupt you somehow. As a relative said to me not long ago, “NO. That’s not a step I’m willing to take. Let’s not talk about this.”
But as for me, I’m finding an amazing liberty and joy and peace in watching an entire community of people being increasingly welcomed by certain churches and Christians into the Kingdom – not that they were not already welcomed by the Lord – but that increasingly their fellow Christians are admitting that yes, they can be saved, and be Christians, and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven every bit as much as heterosexuals. And it’s yet more evidence to me of the amazing love and grace of God.