God and the Gay Christian: A Critical Review

On March 8, 2012, former Harvard student Matthew Vines gave a talk at a Methodist Church in Kansas titled, “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality.” The talk was uploaded to YouTube and has garnered hundreds of thousands of views. Vines identifies as being gay but he claims to have a very high few of Scripture. As a result, he contends that the Bible, when properly understood, does not prohibit same-sex relationships and even lays the foundation for Christians to wholeheartedly support them.

His first book, which expands on the talk, was released few weeks ago with the title, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Vines is a good writer and keeps the “fluff” down to a minimum focusing more on citations from modern and ancient writers. His writing is without invective and so that makes for a pleasant read but ultimately I’m not persuaded by his arguments.

 

First Impressions

Vines book is clearly aimed at Evangelical Christians, which is probably why it makes no reference to the arguments from natural law that Catholics use to show that same-sex behavior is immoral.[1] Instead, the book engages what Vines calls, “six passages (Genesis 19:5[2]Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 [that] have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches,” (Vines, 11). Vines complains that as he grew up no one explained to him why same-sex behavior was a sin or the reasons God would have for condemning such behavior. Without a foundation in natural law, it’s easy for someone to see these Biblical prohibitions as just being cultural relics we should discard.

As for the book itself, it’s relatively brief even though the chapters are dense in citations. Vines admits that he is not a Biblical scholar and says his goal is to make the work of scholars more accessible to laypeople (Vines, 2-3).  Most of these arguments, in one form or another, have been around for decades. As one peruses the footnotes the names of these scholars continually to pop up especially New Testament professor James Brownson who changed his mind about the Bible’s view towards same-sex behavior after his own son “came out.” Vines heartily recommends Brownson’s 2013 book on this issue and so I will probably review it in the future.

 

Problems at the Outset

Before we get to Vines’ treatment of the passages in question there a few assumptions he makes that need to be challenged. First, Vines argues that Jesus’ condemnation of anger and lust shows that even our desires for evil are themselves evil and so they must be rejected. However, since people like him can’t change their desires for same-sex intercourse, it follows that God has essentially created people like Vines to sin through no fault of their own. But Vines confuses “having desires” with “dwelling on desires.” In Matthew 5:21-30 Jesus isn’t condemning merely having sinful desires (something we all have). He is condemning dwelling on those desires such as by fantasizing about killing someone or having sex with your neighbor’s wife. The call to not dwell on thoughts about illicit sex is expected of all people regardless of their sexual orientation.

Second, Vines claims that true Christian teaching should produce “good fruit” but the sexual abstinence that is expected of self-identified gay Christians produces “bad fruit.” It is, according to Vines, ”more than many of them can bare” and “fuels despair to the point of suicide,” (Vines, 19).  Aside from this odd interpretation of Jesus’ condemnation of false prophets and teachers (Matthew 7:15-20), Vines offers very little evidence in defense of this claim, aside from a few anecdotes and one study.

This study in The Journal of Pediatrics doesn’t even deal with the suicidal effects of not having sex. It instead deals with “family rejection” of self-described gay youth. The study is not very helpful because it doesn’t adequately define “rejection.” The authors even admit that they did not study the difference between teens whose parents merely did not celebrate same-sex behavior and teens that had parents who exhibited more negative reactions like shunning. The authors simply lump all these behaviors into the category of “rejecting.”[3] Therefore, this study does not show that affirming the traditional interpretation of the Bible causes suicide.

Even the anecdotes Vines offers are questionable. He quotes one Christian named Stephen Long who found sexual abstinence from other men unbearable and subsequently changed his views on what the Bible teaches (Vines, 29-30). But Long’s unnamed partner in the anecdote is a Catholic convert who presently identifies as being gay and celibate. This man ably answers Vines’ argument that celibacy should always be “freely chosen” and therefore it is wrong to expect all “gay Christians” to refrain from same-sex behavior (Vines, Chapter 3). He writes, “For someone whose desires are oriented toward something that Christiansen masse agree is wrong for one reason or another -- say, polygamy, or pedophilia, or objectum sexuality -- is apt to experience the same trials of frustration, loneliness, and misunderstanding that afflict a queer experience.”

 

Vines and The Old Testament

Many Christians reading this review are bound to think that Vines’ task is hopeless. Isn’t it obvious the Bible condemns same-sex behavior? According to critics like Vines, it’s not because in the ancient world there was no understanding of “heterosexual” and “homosexual” as being unique categories. Instead, it was thought that everyone could at least be attracted to the opposite sex and so same-sex behavior was a sign of weakness or excess. Vines says it is those qualities the Biblical authors were condemning and not same-sex behavior between people who are exclusively attracted to the same sex.[4] Therefore, if Vines can show that the reason the Biblical authors condemned same-sex relationships no longer applies to modern relationships, then the prohibition would no longer be relevant and the act would cease to be a sin.

For example, Vines argues that the prohibition of male intercourse with other men found in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 was not grounded in violating the natural complementarity God created between men and women. Instead, such actions “degraded” men by treating them in a way that only women should be treated. Vines then cites Philo, Plutarch, and Clement of Alexandria as evidence that ancient people were more concerned about sex lowering a man’s status to the inferior one held by women then with sexual complementarity, an attitude he calls “deeply misogynistic” (Vines, 87).

He also argues that if Leviticus were about sexual complementarity then why doesn’t it condemn female-female sexual relations? Vines concludes that since we no longer endorse such “patriarchy,” male intercourse can be seen as the loving exchange of equals and not as the degradation of a man to the status of a woman. But I believe Vines has missed the point due to a modern sense of political correctness. 

For example, saying an adult is being childish does not mean children are bad, sub-human, or detestable. It doesn’t even mean children have less worth than adults. It just means adults are not children and so they shouldn’t act like children. Likewise, ancient writers calling men in the passive role of anal intercourse “effeminate” or “man-women” does not mean women are bad and therefore men shouldn’t be brought down to their level. It just means men aren’t women and so they should not be treated like women by being sexually penetrated.

Regarding the lack of female-female sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18, this does not prove the text is not about sexual complementarity. That’s because all the prohibitions in Leviticus 18 were written for a male audience. For example, even though women were not explicitly prohibited from engaging in incest, the fact that men were prohibited means the same rules applied to women. The same assumption can be made for male-male and female-female sexual relations.

 

Vines and the New Testament

The “patriarchy argument” returns in Vines’ treatment of Romans 1:26-27, which is perhaps the most explicit condemnation of same-sex behavior in the Bible. Here Paul speaks of idolaters and how God, “ . . . gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error.”

Vines claims that the “unnatural” intercourse in this passage involved men taking the woman’s passive role in sex and women taking the man’s active role. It had everything to do with ancient patriarchy and nothing to do with either the anatomy of men and women or the body’s natural purpose. But this totally misses the point of the “exchange repetition” in Romans 1.[5] Prior to Romans 1:26 Paul says that Creation shows there’s one true God and the idolaters have no excuse not to worship him (Romans 1:20). But their minds were “darkened” and they exchanged the proper end of their worship, or God, for an improper end, or idols (verses 21-23).

Next, their bodies were “defiled” and they exchanged the proper object of their belief, or “the truth about God,” for “a lie.” This could only happen because they suppressed knowledge of God that becomes obvious when we think about creation. Finally, their passions were “degraded” and women exchanged the natural object of their sexual desires, or men, for women and men did likewise. What all of these exchanges have in common is not failing to adhere to society’s moral norms, but failing to adhere to the natural order seen in creation itself -- whether it’s worship of the creator or sexual relations with the natural partner. Paul even uses the Greek words for “male” and “female” instead of the Greek words for “men” and “women” to no doubt harken back to the creation account in Genesis 1 which describes how God made humans “male and female.”

Vines’ treatment of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10  focuses on the Greek wordsmalakoi and arsenokoitai (the latter of which also appears in plural form in 1 Timothy 1:10), whom Paul says will not inherit the Kingdom of God. Vines argues that these words do not refer to monogamous same-sex relationships or “homosexuals” as some modern translations render the words. Instead, malakoi is ambiguous and could just mean “weak” or “soft” while arsenokoitai refers to some kind of sexual exploitation or pederasty (sex with post-pubescent children). But if that’s the case then why doesn’t Paul just use the Greek word for pederasty (orpaiderastes)?

Keep in mind that before he condemns the malakoi and arsenokoitai for their persistence in sin, Paul condemns idolaters and adulterers and then he condemns thieves and greedy people. Adultery and idolatry are often associated in the Bible and thievery and greed certainly go together. This makes it likely that arsenokoitai goes hand-in-hand withmalakoi. The fact that arsenokoitai matches the Greek words in the Septuagint’s translation of Leviticus 20:13 is unmistakable. The word breaks down to “arseno” (or “male”) and koite (or “bed”) and literally means “man-bedder.”

Paul is saying that at one point some Corinthians practiced the active and passive roles in same-sex behavior but, as verse 11 says, “this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” As the Catholic apostolate Courage shows, just because certain people once engaged in same-sex behavior that is no barrier to them being sanctified by the grace of God. God loves them and us and wants everyone to understand their true identities not as being “gay” or “straight,” but as being sons and daughters of the Most High.

Finally, when interpreting these passages it’s important to have the Bible’s whole context in mind and that’s why the affirmation of male-female sexual pairing in both Genesis 2 and Matthew 19 cannot be ignored. The Bible never portrays same-sex relationships in a positive light but it does portray opposite sex relationships in that way. Vines’ answer to this is to say that the description of man and woman coming together as “one flesh” relates to a very close emotional union and not to anything intrinsic to men and women (Vines, 146).  

But this misses the point that when men and women have vaginal intercourse their body parts work together as an organically ordered whole to accomplish a purpose that cannot be achieved if the two were separate – the creation of new human life. The two retain their identities just as a patient who receives a heart transplant retains his unique DNA, but in both cases two sets of DNA become one in function. No other merging of body parts can accomplish this organically ordered “one flesh” union. (See the book What is Marriagefor a good treatment of this idea).

 

Conclusion

After reading this book I get the feeling that if you are committed to the moral permissibly of a certain behavior, then there’s an abundance of ways to justify it in the same vein as the arguments in this book. For example a person could say,

“There isn’t anything necessarily unbiblical about “swinging” or sharing your spouse with someone else. The Biblical authors only condemned adultery that involved “deception” or “taking another person’s property.” St. Paul would have had no concept of the modern notion of swinging and would not have condemned “loving, equal adult relationships.” Do you even know the complicated history of the Greek word for adultery (or moicheia) and its inherent ambiguity? (Insert scholars who’ve “seen the light” after a recent divorce and now defend Christian “swinging”)

Overall I do commend the book for skillfully compiling much of the recent scholarship on this issue so that readers can easily see the arguments for this position. There’s a lot here I did not have the space to address so if you want to see how the other side might respond in full, then I recommend Robert Gagnon’s book The Bible and Homosexual Practice.[6]

 

 

[1] CCC 2357, “Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.”

[2] I think Vines’ treatment of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is mistaken, but that passage is not very helpful in determining the Bible’s views on same-sex behavior so I won’t address it here.

[3] The study says, “We dichotomized item responses because, at this point in the research program, it is unclear whether the frequencies of different rejecting reactions are equivalent with respect to potential health impact. For example, are multiple acts of exclusion from family activities equivalent to multiple disparaging comments made by the family about LGB persons? We plan to address these questions in subsequent analyses.

[4] This creates a dilemma for Vines when it comes to people who identify as bi-sexual. If they can be satisfied by the opposite sex, then does the Bible condemn their “excessive” relationships with the same-sex? I think Vines would say that as long as they are monogamous with the same-sex, bi-sexual people are not sinning, at least judging from an endnote he wrote on page 206 of his book.

[5] Vines seems to be aware of such an argument but pivots to an explanation from Brownson in response to it that I did not find compelling (Vines, 204-205). It’s too short of an excerpt to analyze here so I will wait until I look at Brownson’s book in full.

[6] Even though Vines says Jim Brownson’s recent book has refuted Gagnon I’ll wait to make my own judgment in a future review of Brownson.