God, the Gospel, and the Gay Challenge -- A Response to Matthew Vines
- Al Mohler President, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
- 2014 23 Apr
Evangelical Christians in the United States now face an inevitable moment of decision. While Christians in other movements and in other nations face similar questions, the question of homosexuality now presents evangelicals in the United States with a decision that cannot be avoided. Within a very short time, we will know where everyone stands on this question. There will be no place to hide, and there will be no way to remain silent. To be silent will answer the question.
The question is whether evangelicals will remain true to the teachings of Scripture and the unbroken teaching of the Christian church for over two thousand years on the morality of same-sex acts and the institution of marriage.
The world is pressing this question upon us, but so are a number of voices from within the larger evangelical circle — voices that are calling for a radical revision of the church’s understanding of the Bible, sexual morality, and the meaning of marriage. We are living in the midst of a massive revolution in morality, and sexual morality is at the center of this revolution. But the question of same-sex relationships and sexuality is at the very center of the debate over sexual morality, and our answer to this question will both determine or reveal what we understand about everything the Bible reveals and everything the church teaches — even the gospel itself.
Others are watching, and they see the moment of decision at hand. Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann of Stanford University has remarked that “it is clear to an observer like me that evangelical Christianity is at a crossroad.” What is that crossroad? “The question of whether gay Christians should be married within the church.” Journalist Terry Mattingly sees the same issue looming on the evangelical horizon — “There is no way to avoid the showdown that is coming.”
Into this context now comes God and the Gay Christian, a book by Matthew Vines. Just a couple of years ago Vines made waves with the video of a lecture in which he attempted to argue that being a gay Christian in a committed same-sex relationship (and eventual marriage) is compatible with biblical Christianity. His video went viral. Even though Matthew Vines did not make new arguments, the young Harvard student synthesized arguments made by revisionist Bible scholars and presented a very winsome case for overthrowing the church’s moral teachings on same-sex relationships.
His new book flows from that startling ambition — to overthrow two millennia of Christian moral wisdom and biblical understanding.
Given the audacity of that ambition, why does this book deserve close attention? The most important reason lies outside the book itself. There are a great host of people, considered to be within the larger evangelical movement, who are desperately seeking a way to make peace with the moral revolution and endorse the acceptance of openly-gay individuals and couples within the life of the church. Given the excruciating pressures now exerted on evangelical Christianity, many people — including some high-profile leaders — are desperately seeking an argument they can claim as both persuasive and biblical. The seams in the evangelical fabric are beginning to break and Matthew Vines now comes along with a book that he claims will make the argument so many have been seeking.
In God and the Gay Christian Vines argues that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.” He announces that, once his argument is accepted: “The fiercest objections to LGBT equality — those based on religious beliefs — can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together we can reclaim our light” (3).
That promise drives Vines’s work from beginning to end. He identifies himself as both gay and Christian and claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible. “That means,” he says, “I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life” (2).
Well, that is exactly what we would hope for a Christian believer to say about the Bible. And who could fault the ambition of any young and thoughtful Christian who seeks to recover the reputation of Christianity in the Western world. If Matthew Vines were to be truly successful in simultaneously making his case and remaining true to the Scriptures, we would indeed have to overturn two thousand years of the church’s teaching on sex and marriage and apologize for the horrible embarrassment of being wrong for so long.
Readers of his book who are looking for an off-ramp from the current cultural predicament will no doubt try to accept his argument. But the real question is whether what Vines claims is true and faithful to the Bible as the Word of God. But his argument is neither true nor faithful to Scripture. It is, nonetheless, a prototype of the kind of argument we can now expect.
What Does the Bible Really Say?
The most important sections of Vines’s book deal with the Bible itself and with what he identifies as the six passages in the Bible that “have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches” (11). Those six passages (Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10) are indeed key and crucial passages for understanding God’s expressed and revealed message on the question of same-sex acts, desires, and relationships, but they are hardly the whole story.
The most radical proposal Vines actually makes is to sever each of these passages from the flow of the biblical narrative and the Bible’s most fundamental revelation about what it means to be human, both male and female. He does not do this merely by omission, but by the explicit argument that the church has misunderstood the doctrine of creation as much as the question of human sexuality. He specifically seeks to argue that the basic sexual complementarity of the human male and the female — each made in God’s image — is neither essential to Genesis chapters 1 and 2 or to any biblical text that follows.
In other words, he argues that same-sex sexuality can be part of the goodness of God’s original creation, and that when God declared that it is not good for man to be alone, the answer to man’s isolation could be a sexual relationship with someone of either sex. But that massive misrepresentation of Genesis 1 and 2 — a misinterpretation with virtually unlimited theological consequences — actually becomes Vines’s way of relativizing the meaning of the six passages he primarily considers.
His main argument is that the Bible simply has no category of sexual orientation. Thus, when the Bible condemns same-sex acts, it is actually condemning “sexual excess,” hierarchy, oppression, or abuse — not the possibility of permanent, monogamous, same-sex unions.
In addressing the passages in Genesis and Leviticus, Vines argues that the sin of Sodom was primarily inhospitality, not same-sex love or sexuality. The law of Moses condemns same-sex acts in so far as they violate social status or a holiness code, not in and of themselves, he asserts. His argument with regard to Leviticus is especially contorted, since he has to argue that the text’s explicit condemnation of male-male intercourse as an abomination is neither categorical or related to sinfulness. He allows that “abomination is a negative word,” but insists that “it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin” (85).
Finally, he argues that, even if the Levitical condemnations are categorical, this would not mean that the law remains binding on believers today.
In dealing with the most significant single passage in the Bible on same-sex acts and desire, Romans 1:26-27, Vines actually argues that the passage “is not of central importance to Paul’s message in Romans.” Instead, Vines argues that the passage is used by Paul only as “a brief example to drive home a point he was making about idolatry.” Nevertheless, Paul’s words on same-sex acts are, he admits, “starkly negative” (96).
“There is no question that Romans 1:26-27 is the most significant biblical passage in this debate,” Vines acknowledges (96). In order to relativize it, he makes this case: “Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in this passage is indisputably negative. But he also explicitly described the behavior he condemned as lustful. He made no mention of love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So how should we understand Paul’s words? Do they apply to all same-sex relationships? Or only to lustful, fleeting ones?” (99).
In asking these questions, Vines makes his case that Paul is merely ignorant of the reality of sexual orientation. He had no idea that some people are naturally attracted to people of the same sex. Therefore, Paul misunderstands what today would be considered culturally normative in many highly-developed nations — that some persons are naturally attracted to others of the same sex and it would be therefore “unnatural” for them to be attracted sexually to anyone else.
Astonishingly, Vines then argues that the very notion of “against nature” as used by Paul in Romans 1 is tied to patriarchy, not sexual complementarity. Same-sex relationships, Vines argues, “disrupted a social order that required a strict hierarchy between the sexes” (109).
But to get anywhere near to Vines’s argument one has to sever Romans 1 from any natural reading of the text, from the flow of the Bible’s message from Genesis 1 forward, from the basic structure of sexual complementarity, and from the church’s faithful reading of the Bible for two millennia. Furthermore, his argument provides direct evidence of that Paul warns of in this very chapter, “suppressing the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18).
Finally, the actual language of Romans 1, specifically dealing with male same-sex desire, speaks of “men consumed with passion for one another” (Romans 1:27). This directly contradicts Vines’s claim that only oppressive, pederastic, or socially mixed same-sex acts are condemned. Paul describes men consumed with passion for one another — not merely the abuse of the powerless by the powerful. In other words, in Romans 1:26-27 Paul condemns same-sex acts by both men and women, and he condemns the sexual desires described as unnatural passions as well.
In his attempt to relativize 1 Corinthians 6: 9, Vines actually undermines more of his argument. Paul’s careful use of language (perhaps even inventing a term by combining two words from Leviticus 18) is specifically intended to deny what Vines proposes — that the text really does not condemn consensual same-sex acts by individuals with a same-sex sexual orientation. Paul so carefully argues his case that he makes the point that both the active and the passive participants in male intercourse will not inherit the kingdom of God. Desperate to argue his case nonetheless, Vines asserts that, once again, it is exploitative sex that Paul condemns. But this requires that Paul be severed from his Jewish identify and from his own obedience to Scripture. Vines must attempt to marshal evidence that the primary background issue is the Greco-Roman cultural context rather than Paul’s Jewish context — but that would make Paul incomprehensible.
One other aspect of Vines’s consideration of the Bible should be noted. He acknowledges that he is “not a biblical scholar,” but he claims to “have relied on the work of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own.” But the scholars upon whom he relies do not operate on the assumption that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life.” To the contrary, most of his cited scholars are from the far left of modern biblical scholarship or on the fringes of the evangelical world. He does not reveal their deeper understandings of Scripture and its authority.
The Authority of Scripture and the Question of Sexual Orientation
Again and again, Vines comes back to sexual orientation as the key issue. ‘”The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sexorientation,” he insists. The concept of sexual orientation “didn’t exist in the ancient world.” Amazingly, he then concedes that the Bible’s “six references to same-sex behavior are negative,” but insists, again, that “the concept of same-sex behavior in the Bible is sexual excess, not sexual orientation.”
Here we face the most tragic aspect of Matthew Vines’s argument. If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted to understand what it means to be human, to reveal what God intends for us sexually, or to define sin in any coherent manner. The modern notion of sexual orientation is, as a matter of fact, exceedingly modern. it is also a concept without any definitive meaning. Effectively, it is used now both culturally and morally to argue about sexual attraction and desire. As a matter of fact, attraction and desire are the only indicators upon which the modern notion of sexual orientation are premised.
When he begins his book, Matthew Vines argues that experience should not drive our interpretation of the Bible. But it is his experience of what he calls a gay sexual orientation that drives every word of this book. It is this experiential issue that drives him to relativize text after text and to argue that the Bible really doesn’t speak directly to his sexual identity at all, since the inspired human authors of Scripture were ignorant of the modern gay experience.
Of what else were they ignorant? Vines claims to hold to a “high view” of the Bible and to believe that “all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life,” but the modern concept of sexual orientation functions as a much higher authority in his thinking and in his argument.
This leads to a haunting question. What else does the Bible not know about what it means to be human? If the Bible cannot be trusted to reveal the truth about us in every respect, how can we trust it to reveal our salvation?
This points to the greater issue at stake here — the Gospel. Matthew Vines’s argument does not merely relativize the Bible’s authority, it leaves us without any authoritative revelation of what sin is. And without an authoritative (and clearly understandable) revelation of human sin, we cannot know why we need a Savior, or why Christ died. Furthermore, to tell someone that what the Bible reveals as sin is notsin, we tell them that they do not need Christ for that. Is that not exactly what Paul was determined not to do when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11? Could the stakes be any higher than that? This controversy is not merely about sex, it is about salvation.
Matthew Vines’s Wedge Argument — Gender and the Bible
There is another really interesting and revealing aspect of Matthew Vine’s argument yet to come. In terms of how his argument is likely to be received within the evangelical world, Vines clearly has a strategy, and that strategy is to persuade those who have rejected gender complementarity to take the next logical step and deny sexual complementarity as well.
Gender complementarity is the belief that the Bible’s teachings on gender and gender roles is to be understood in terms of the fact that men and women are equally made in God’s image (status) but different in terms of assignment (roles). This has been the belief and conviction of virtually all Christians throughout the centuries, and it is the view held by the vast majority of those identified as Christians in the world even today. But a denial of this conviction, hand in hand with the argument that sameness of role is necessary to affirm equality of status, has led some to argue that difference in gender roles must be rejected. The first impediment to making this argument is the fact that the Bible insists on a difference in roles. In order to overcome this impediment, biblical scholars and theologians committed to egalitarianism have made arguments that are hauntingly similar to those now made by Matthew Vines in favor of relativizing the Bible’s texts on same-sex behaviors.
Matthew Vines knows this. He also knows that, at least until recently, most of those who have rejected gender complementarity have maintained an affirmation of sexual complementarity — the belief that sexual behavior is to be limited to marriage as the union of a man and a woman. He sees this as his opening. At several points in the book, he makes this argument straightforwardly, even as he calls both “gender complementarity” and denies that the Bible requires or reveals it.
But we have to give Matthew Vines credit for seeing this wedge issue better than most egalitarians have seen it. He knows that the denial of gender complementarity is a huge step toward denying sexual complementarity. The evangelicals who have committed themselves to an egalitarian understanding of gender roles as revealed in the Bible are those who are most vulnerable to his argument. In effect, they must resist his argument more by force of will than by force of logic.
Same-Sex Marriage, Celibacy, and the Gospel
Matthew Vines writes with personal passion and he tells us much of his own story. Raised in an evangelical Presbyterian church by Christian parents, he came relatively late to understand his own sexual desires and pattern of attraction. He wants to be acknowledged as a faithful Christian, and he wants to be married … to a man. He argues that the Bible simply has no concept of sexual orientation and that to deny him access to marriage is to deny him justice and happiness. He argues that celibacy cannot be mandated for same-sex individuals within the church, for this would be unjust and wrong. He argues that same-sex unions can fulfill the “one-flesh” promise of Genesis 2:24.
Thus, he argues that the Christian church should accept and celebrate same-sex marriage. He also argues, just like the Protestant liberals of the early twentieth century, that Christianity must revise its beliefs or face the massive loss of reputation before the watching world (meaning, we should note, the watching world of the secular West).
But the believing church is left with no option but to deny the revisionist and relativizing proposals Vines brings to the evangelical argument. The consequences of accepting his argument would include misleading people about their sin and about their need for Christ, about what obedience to Christ requires and what faithfulness to Christ demands.
Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners.
Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors. The church is the assembly of the redeemed, saved from our sins and learning obedience in the School of Christ. Every single one of us is a sexual sinner in need of redemption, but we are called to holiness, to obedience, and to honoring marriage as one of God’s most precious gifts and as a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.
God and the Gay Christian demands an answer, but Christ demands our obedience. We can only pray — with fervent urgency — that this moment of decision for evangelical Christianity will be answered with a firm assertion of biblical authority, respect for marriage as the union of a man and a woman, passion for the Gospel of Christ, and prayer for the faithfulness and health of Christ’s church.
I do not write this response as Matthew Vines’s moral superior, but as one who must be obedient to Scripture. And so, I must counter his argument with conviction and urgency. I am concerned for him, and for the thousands who struggle as he does. The church has often failed people with same-sex attractions, and failed them horribly. We must not fail them now by forfeiting the only message that leads to salvation, holiness, and faithfulness. That is the real question before us.