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Book Review: God and the Gay Christian

My core argument is not simply that some Bible passages have been misinterpreted and others have been given undue weight. My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Instead of accepting the divide between moderate and progressive Christians who support marriage equality and conservative Christians who oppose it, this book envisions a future in which all Christians come to embrace and affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters — without undermining their commitment to the authority of the Bible.

-Matthew Vines
“Reclaiming Our Light — An Introduction,” pg 3
God and the Gay Christian

Matthew Vines is an openly gay Christian speaker and LGBT activist, known for the viral video “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality” on YouTube. Vines grew up in Wichita, Kansas, having interests in performing arts, speaking and writing.

-from Wikipedia

Note: The featured image at the top of this blog post will make more sense when to get to the end to this article.

Vines is an Evangelical Christian who is seeking to not only establish that the Bible does not actively condemn loving, monogamous, homosexual relationships, but actually supports them, and he’s going to try and do that using a high view of the Bible.

I’ve seen other resources, primarily online, from various progressive churches that are inclusive of the LGBTQ community by taking a low view of the Bible, that is, by not accepting that the Bible is inerrant and ultimately the authoritative Word of God. It’s more of a set of “guidelines” and therefore, the sections of the Bible condemning homosexual behavior are not to be taken literally or, they were social norms that were once valid in ancient societies but have no application in the modern world of faith.

Vines, by contrast, embraces the full authority of the Bible but believes it has been misinterpreted and misapplied, resulting in the Evangelical Church’s long condemnation of homosexual behavior and of gay people, including the gay Christians in their (our) midst.

The approach Vines uses has an unanticipated parallel with what I’ve been trying to do. In my world (if you’ve been reading my blog for very long, you know what my perspectives are), I believe that the Evangelical Church has misinterpreted Scripture and mistakenly concluded that Jesus “nailed the Law to the cross,” rendering it obsolete for both Gentile and Jewish disciples of the Master, replacing Israel with the Church. My purpose has been to attempt to convince Evangelicals of this misinterpretation and to see that both ancient and modern Jesus-believing Jews were and are still in covenant relationship with God through the Sinai covenant as well as the emergent New Covenant (I should note that based on my reading of his book, Vines seems to be a classic supersessionist, but for the purposes of my review, I won’t hold that against him *wink*).

But the parallel in our attempts to convince Evangelicals to reconsider how they view the Bible breaks down almost immediately. I’ll explain why in a minute, but first, let’s take a look at the reasons Vines believes Evangelicals should re-evaluate how they read the Bible relative to LGBT Christians:

  1. First, we saw that a categorical rejection of same-sex relationships has been deeply damaging to gay Christians.
  2. …we saw that the concept of same-sex orientation did not exist in the ancient world. Prior to recent generations, same-sex behavior was widely understood to be the product of sexual excess, not the expression of sexual orientation.
  3. …the church has an established tradition affirming that lifelong celibacy should be voluntarily chosen, not mandated. Maintaining a condemnation of same-sex relationships would require us to revise that teaching.

TorahSince point two is most applicable to an actual examination of Scripture, I want to focus on why Vine believes (and I agree with his perspective here) those portions of the Bible condemning homosexuality do not address sexual orientation as we understand the concept today.

Vine says there are six major Bible verses used by Evangelicals to support the condemnation of Homosexual behavior: Genesis 19:5, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. One by one, Vines addresses each of these points but he might as well have saved himself the trouble because of a few details that make those arguments moot.

As we saw in Chapter 2, same-sex relations in the first century were not thought to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation. They were widely understood to be the product of excessive sexual desire in general. This understanding, I want to stress, cannot be reduced to a mere misconception. It was a reflection of widespread cultural practices that differ greatly from modern ones.

-Vines, pg 106

Vines expands on this matter greatly in Chapter 2: “Telescopes, Tradition, and Sexual Orientation.” Dating back to the days of Moses and extending up through the first century CE, the available Biblical and historical information indicates that any same-sex behavior we witness in these records was related to issues of ritual idolatry or status. Homosexual and heterosexual temple prostitutes were part of many pagan rites in the ancient near east and we can certainly see Leviticus 18:22 applied to that context, particularly since many of the prohibitions listed in the Torah have to do with warning the Israelites away from worshiping “foreign gods.”

Homosexual acts as sexual excess and establishing status relate specifically to anal penetration with the individual doing the penetrating having the higher status. Vine establishes, and again, I agree, that in each of these cases, the men and women involved in homosexual acts were also participating in heterosexual acts. This wasn’t a matter of sexual orientation whereby the homosexual person has no choice about being attracted to same-sex people. These were people who indulged in pleasurable sexual (and other) activities for the sake of pleasure and perhaps status (Master vs. slave, Older male vs. younger male), but who had heterosexual relationships/marriages for the purposes of procreation (see Prager’s article Judaism’s Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism (and then Christianity) Rejected Homosexuality).

So how did we get to where we are today? The modern understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation began to develop among an elite group of German psychiatrists in the late 19th century. Prior to 1869, the terms “homosexual” and “homosexuality didn’t exist…Even then, while some doctors began to think of same-sex attraction as an exclusive sexual orientation, that understanding didn’t begin to gain wide acceptance until the middle of the 20th century.

-ibid, pg 42

Matthew Vines
Matthew Vines

The heart of Vines’ argument is that none of the Bible passages in question could possibly have to do with sexual orientation or a “loving, committed, monogamous” same-sex relationship because, as such, the concept of sexual orientation didn’t then exist and was not the focus of the Biblical sexual prohibitions.

As far as that goes, Vines makes a good case, but the best he can say is that the Bible is silent on sexual orientation. Of course, we have no idea if human beings experienced homosexuality as an exclusive sexual orientation in ancient times. We only know that such experiences don’t exist in our historical record, nor do they seem to be presupposed by the Bible. Each and every marital relationship described within the context of the covenant people of God was heterosexual, that is, between a man and a woman (or between one man and several woman in the case of men like Abraham, Jacob, and David). There are no normative examples of romantic and marital relationships between two men or two women within the covenant community.

I stress that point because Vines not only wants to discredit the condemnation of homosexuality oriented people based on the Bible, he wants to establish that the Bible can be used to support marriage equality. While he does well in his first argument, he flounders in the second.

Addressing whether or not same-sex couples can become “one flesh,” Vines states:

In Ephesians 5:31-32, the phrase “one flesh” is said to be a mystery that relates to Christ and the church. The relationship between Christ and the church does not involve sexual union or anatomical difference…Not only does Ephesians 5 never mention gender-determined anatomical differences, it focuses instead on the fact that husbands and wives are part of the same body.

So according to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in the Bible’s understanding of those words. What is necessary is that two lives are joined as one in the context of a binding covenant.

-ibid, pg 149

In my opinion, Vines is playing fast and loose with his Biblical hermeneutics and sinking into eisegesis, or projecting what he wants to see in the lines between the Bible verses. Stepping back and taking a longer view, as I said above, the Bible never presupposes same-sex couples in a normalized marriage within the covenant community of Judaism or later, the early Christian ekklesia. The overarching template of sanctified marital relationships in the Bible is one man and one woman.

On the one hand, Vines says that the Bible’s prohibitions against homosexuality do not apply to sexual orientation and thus the validity of modern same-sex bonding, but on the other hand, he attempts to force the scriptures to sanction modern same-sex bonding based on how those scriptures define marriage, including Ephesians 5. I don’t think he can have his cake and eat it too.

What about Vines’ other two points?

holding handsIn Chapter 3: “The Gift of Celibacy,” Vines challenges Evangelical Christianity’s “answer” to gays in the Church: life-long celibacy. Vines believes it is cruel to force a gay person who is devoted to Jesus Christ and who loves God to remain sexually unfulfilled for their entire lives, deprived of the same love and companionship that straight couples in the Church enjoy. He says that orientation is not a choice and Vines as well as all other gay people cannot simply change who he is/they are attracted to. Celibacy is unsustainable in a human existence, and Vines provided compassionate stories of gay Christians whose lives were tremendously and negatively impacted by attempting to follow this Church “policy.”

Vines correctly points out, using a number of heartrending examples, how Christian families have been torn apart by a gay child coming out, which has led to gay Christians leaving their churches and their faith, parting from their families, abusing drugs and alcohol, and even committing suicide. All this because the Church demands they either change something about themselves they find impossible to change or to deny that part of themselves by remaining celibate and alone forever.

But I think Vines’ argument comes down to the following:

Instead of asking whether it’s acceptable for the church to deny gay Christians the possibility of sexual fulfillment in marriage, we should ask a different question. Is it acceptable to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a God-reflecting covenant?

-ibid, pg 161

Vines began his book by saying he intended to provide evidence to support the supposition that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as an orientation and does not condemn loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and I think, based on how we understand the history of homosexuality in the ancient world, he makes a good case. But his evidence for Biblical support of same-sex relationships based on sexual orientation up to and including marriage equality is much weaker and seems to come down to whether or not the Church thinks it’s being fair to gay Christians.

He cannot, in my opinion, make the Bible support same-sex marriages within the Church, but he can make a credible appeal for compassion and even mercy. I don’t deny his love for God, nor can I deny his experience, or the experience of myriads of other gay people who say that they have no choice in the matter, they are attracted sexually and romantically only to members of the same sex. Further, I can be compassionate about the struggles of forced celibacy (the New Testament generally treats celibacy as voluntary and even as a “spiritual gift”).

So, what’s the answer? I don’t have one. Relative to writing a book review, I don’t need to produce one. All I have to do is render an opinion whether or not the author successfully made his case. I must admit, I have been challenged in terms of the Biblical statements regarding homosexual behavior as addressing excesses in indulgence rather than orientation as such, but still see no active Biblical support for acceptance of marriage equality within the Christian Church.

Does that mean I’m being mean or cruel? Vines separates Christians into either those who affirm homosexuality or the non-affirming group. I guess I’m still in the latter category, which is too bad.

BiblicallyI have a confession to make. I was hoping Vines would deliver a devastating argument that I would find impossible to refute Biblically, a real “game-changer” that would permit me in all clear conscience based on sound scriptural exegesis to accept that homosexual orientation and monogamous same-sex bonding was sanctioned or at least permitted by God. It would resolve a great deal of dissonance between my current Biblical perspective and my desire to be compassionate and accepting.

So where does that leave me? Can I accept that a person can be gay and authentically a Christian, in “right relationship” with God through their faith in Jesus Christ? How can I hold a person accountable for something they experience as out of their control, as inseparable from their identity and personality? I don’t know. I don’t know if our understanding of homosexuality as a sexual orientation existed before the late 19th century. There’s no evidence it did, but who writes the history books?

On the other hand, who wrote the Bible? If God intended same-sex couples to be normalized within the covenant community, why isn’t there any indication in the Bible?

As far as my understanding of how Gentiles are included in the New Covenant and the continuance of the Torah mitzvot as an obligation for ancient and modern Jewish Jesus-believers, I find a great deal of Biblical and scholarly evidence as presented by many New Testament theologians. Vines has virtually no Biblical evidence of support for marriage equality, and his only scholarly source, and it’s a good one, is Dr. James Brownson. Dr. Brownson’s son came out as gay at the age of eighteen, resulting in Brownson authoring the book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships.

I mentioned before that the best I can say about Vines’ book is that the Bible is silent about how it views same-sex attraction as an orientation, since the concept didn’t exist Biblically and historically. I don’t know what that means for gay Christians, but I think it’s premature to say that it is a “requirement of Christian faithfulness” for believers to “show that supporting LGBT people is not at odds with being a faithful Christian.” (pg 183)

To learn more about Matthew Vines, please go to his website. You should also visit The Reformation Project which…

…exists to train Christians to support and affirm lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Through building a deep grassroots movement, we strive to create an environment in which Christian leaders will have the freedom to take the next steps toward affirming and including LGBT people in all aspects of church life.

-from their About page.

One last thing. I purchased this book through AbeBooks.com but the actual seller was Housing Works. According to the bookmark included with my purchase:

Housing Works is a healing community of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. Our mission is to end the dual crises of homelessness and AIDS through relentless advocacy, the provision of lifesaving services, and entrepreneurial businesses that sustain our efforts.

AdvocateWhile this doesn’t have a direct relationship with Vines’s book, it does serve as a reminder that there have always been disadvantaged, disenfranchised, and vulnerable populations among us that for one reason or another, we demonize, marginalize, or ignore. The Bible is God’s revelation to human beings in written form, a record of God’s interaction with His greatest creation: people. What it shouldn’t be is a straitjacket that binds us so tightly that we fail to act with compassion, kindness, and mercy. We all are, after all, created in the image of God.

God’s image does not have a sexuality or sexual orientation, but it does provide us with the ability to choose who we are in relationship to God and to each other. We can also choose to behave lovingly and with respect to all others who have the same image, including people who experience grave disadvantage, sometimes just because of how we choose to interpret the Bible.

So far, I know the Bible doesn’t automatically condemn LGBT people. Beyond that, I’m still learning. The one thing I do know though, is that it’s no sin to care about someone, even if they aren’t the same as you. If that’s a mistake, I’ll choose to err on the side of compassion.