One of the latest, and best reviewed, books supporting Christian gay marriage is Matthew Vines’ God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.
Matthew Vines’ book has been hailed by evangelical authors such as Tony Campolo and Rachel Held Evans. Evans writes,
God and the Gay Christian is a game changer. Winsome, accessible, and carefully researched, every page is brought to life by the author’s clear love for Scripture and deep, persistent faith. With this book, Matthew Vines emerges as one of my generation’s most important Christian leaders, not only on matters of sexuality but also on what it means to follow Jesus with wisdom, humility, and grace. Prepare to be challenged and enlightened, provoked and inspired. Read with an open heart and mind, and you are bound to be changed.
Vines attended Harvard for two years and then took a leave of absence to study what the Bible says about gay sexuality and marriage. He is now founder and president of The Reformation Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to changing church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Vines realized he was gay at age 19, while in college. His book reflects his efforts to reconcile his generally orthodox Christian beliefs with that fact. In an interview at Amazon.com, Vines states,
If you argue that we are free to agree or disagree with parts of the Bible we may not like, then supporting same-sex relationships is easy: just say that the biblical authors were wrong and move on. But that isn’t how I see the Bible, and it isn’t how most evangelicals see it either. When I say I have a high view of Scripture, what I mean is that I don’t feel free to set aside parts of the Bible that may make me uncomfortable. Instead, I have to seriously grapple with Scripture, daily striving to submit my will to the Bible rather than submitting the Bible to my will. For Christians who share that understanding of Scripture, biblical interpretation on same-sex relationships is far more consequential in determining our beliefs.
This is, of course, critically important. There is nothing to consider or debate if the scriptures are not accepted as authoritative for how believers should live.
So let’s consider the scriptural arguments made by Vines. He begins by pointing out that there are six key texts at issue.
Six passages in the Bible— Genesis 19: 5; Leviticus 18: 22; Leviticus 20: 13; Romans 1: 26– 27; 1 Corinthians 6: 9; and 1 Timothy 1: 10— have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches.
(p. 11). We’ve covered all these before, but we’ve not covered all of Vines’ arguments.
The test of experience
Vines begins by arguing, fairly, that Jesus himself says that we should judge a tree by its fruit. If gay marriage is wrong, why is it wrong? What is the evil fruit that it supposedly bears? I’ve addressed this question in a recent series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
Vines argues that the early church’s change of position on accepting Gentiles is
The earliest Christians used a similar, experience-based test when making what was one of the most important decisions in church history: whether to include Gentiles in the church without forcing them to be circumcised and to obey the Old Testament law. As Peter declared of early Gentile believers, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.… Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15: 8, 10). The early church made a profoundly important decision based on Peter’s testimony. Gentiles were included in the church, and the church recognized that the old law was no longer binding.
(pp. 14-15). Vines also gives slavery as an example where experience forced the church to change its position.
There is a key distinction that Vines overlooks. What experience did for the church — in both cases — is prompt the church to look at the scriptures afresh — to see whether their reading had been in error. Experience does not override the scriptures, but it sometimes demonstrates that our reading of the text has been in error.
So, yes, I certainly agree that the gay marriage experience requires us to look anew at the scriptures — with truly open minds. But nothing in our experience may override what the scriptures actually say — and Vines agrees with me on this, at least in principle.
Many Christians argue that asking gay Christians to be celibate may be contrary to American culture, that we see fulfillment in sex much more than anything else, but the Bible actually sees celibacy as a positive option for the Christians. After all, aren’t many heterosexual Christians required to be celibate simply because they haven’t found a suitable spouse?
Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including involuntary celibacy for some straight Christians. Even when straight Christians seek a spouse but cannot find one, the church does not ask them to relinquish any future hope of marriage.
Vines is quite right, of course, but he misses the point. It’s not just that celibacy is sometimes required due to the absence of marriage. Rather,
(1 Cor 7:32–35 NET) 32 And I want you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the things of the world, how to please his wife, 34 and he is divided. An unmarried woman or a virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the things of the world, how to please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your benefit, not to place a limitation on you, but so that without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord.
Paul commends the celibate life as superior to the married life, as a celibate Christian is freed to be “concerned about the things of the Lord, to be holy both in body and spirit” because “without distraction you may give notable and constant service to the Lord.” This is so far removed from contemporary American culture that we can hardly avoid reading this entirely out of the text. It’s certainly rarely preached.
Paul is far from thinking about the hope of one day marrying. Rather, his point is that it’s better to remain single so that you may give yourself more fully to Jesus. My own experience is that, in today’s culture, marriage and sexual fulfillment are so highly valued
— even in church — that Paul’s advice is never even considered, much less attempted.
Of course, plenty of people have attempted celibacy, but how many have attempted celibacy in order to commit themselves entirely to the work of the Lord?
Jesus emphasized that sin does not encompass merely wrong actions. It also encompasses the desire for those actions. As he explained in Matthew 5, murder and adultery are sins, but so are anger and lust. So from a Christian standpoint, if all same-sex relationships are sinful, all desires for them should be renounced as well. But as my dad came to realize, while gay Christians can choose not to act on their sexual desires, they cannot eradicate their sexual desires altogether. Despite the prayers of countless gay Christians for God to change their sexual orientation, exclusive same-sex attraction persists for nearly all of them.
(pp. 17-18). Vines sets up an impossible standard — that to obey Jesus’ command against “lust,” we must “eradicate … sexual desires altogether.” Therefore, celibacy is an unsatisfactory solution.
But that’s a weak interpretation of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount, taking a middle-school level understanding and seeking to twist it into permission to engage in sex to avoid the temptation to engage in sex.
I readily concede that gay Christians are going to struggle against the temptation toward gay sex. Straight Christians have the same problem — even married straight Christians. Jesus’ words should be read with a little more depth than simply “it’s sin to feel tempted to have sex.”
Jesus’ intention is therefore to prohibit not a natural sexual attraction, but the deliberate harbouring of desire for an illicit relationship. (Lustfully is literally ‘in order to desire her’, ‘desire’ being used generally of desire for something forbidden.) Exodus 20:17 had condemned coveting another man’s wife; Jesus here emphasizes that such coveting is not only implicit theft (Exod. 20:17 includes the wife among other items of property!) but implicit adultery.
R. T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale NTC 1; IVP/Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1985), n.p.
The focus is thus not (as some tender adolescent consciences have read it) on sexual attraction as such, but on the desire for (and perhaps the planning of) an illicit sexual liaison (cf. Exod 20:17, “you shall not covet your neighbor’s … wife,” where LXX uses the same verb, epithymeō).
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 204.
Throughout this chapter, Jesus is not just giving moral commands. He is unveiling a whole new way of being human. No wonder it looks strange. But Jesus himself pioneered it, and invites us to follow.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 49.