Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships (Convergent, 2014)
In March 2012, Matthew Vines, a 21-year-old college student, presented a talk at College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, Kansas. A video of the talk was upload to YouTube and after just six months it had almost a million views. What was so exciting about the video? Vines was an evangelical Christian who was gay and was arguing that same-sex relationships are not condemned in the Bible. Published a few years later, God and the Gay Christian expands on the case Vines initially made in his 2012 talk, arguing not only that same-sex relationships are not condemned in the Bible, but that same-sex marriages are acceptable to God and even that true Christian faithfulness requires affirming their acceptability.
On a quick first read, it might seem that Vines has a strong case. He contends that the traditional sexual ethic is damaging to gay people and hasn’t produced the good fruit which Jesus said would come from true teachings. The Bible can’t address modern gay relationships because there was no concept of a static sexual orientation in the ancient world. In addition, same-sex sexual activity was only condemned because it was believed to stem from excessive lust – which we know now isn’t true – and because it went against cultural expectations about gender roles – which are now very different. And to top it off, the idea that sex and marriage should be reserved for opposite-sex couples because of some concept of complementarity between the sexes isn’t found in the Bible, so the most common argument for the traditional ethic has no support from Scripture. Case closed.
However, a little further reflection raises some serious problems. Vines makes much of the idea that the traditional ethic has caused harm to gay people. He shares stories of some who’ve left the Church, others who’ve lived with crippling shame, and heart-breaking stories of people driven to addictions and even suicide by bad application of the traditional ethic. It is these stories and experiences that motivate Vines to write. He doesn’t want this to happen to others, and that motivation is admirable. I question, however, whether Vines’ diagnosis and solution are correct.
It’s striking that Vines doesn’t acknowledge the existence of same-sex attracted Christians who experience the traditional ethic as life-giving and that he doesn’t explore how singleness might be a fulfilling way of living life.
Vines assumes that the traditional ethic inevitably means that same-sex attracted Christians will be rejected by the Church, will forever feel ashamed about their experience, and will find it impossible to faithfully follow Jesus. However, none of this needs to be true. Many people have found the traditional ethic to be life-giving and have felt truly welcomed by churches that share that ethic. Sadly, some do have bad experiences in churches and are made to feel ashamed, but this is a reason to help people better understand and apply the ethic, not to reject it completely. It’s striking that Vines doesn’t acknowledge the existence of same-sex attracted Christians who experience the traditional ethic as life-giving and that he doesn’t explore how singleness might be a fulfilling way of living life.
There are also problems with his handling of the Bible. He assumes that because the concept of sexual orientation wasn’t known in the ancient world, the Bible can’t say anything relevant to modern same-sex relationships. However, it is not quite so certain that there was no knowledge of sexual orientation it the ancient world, 1 and even if there wasn’t, that can’t, on its own, prove that the Bible’s teaching isn’t relevant to modern relationships.
It is also questionable whether the Bible only condemns same-sex sexual activity because it was believed to stem from excessive lust and to transgress gender roles. While this was a common view in the ancient world, Vines fails to show that the details of the biblical texts suggest this understanding. Very often he focusses on the broader cultural context while neglecting the immediate literary context of the verses he is discussing.
This same lack of attention to the details of the text is the reason Vines can claim that complementarity between male and female isn’t important in the biblical sexual ethic. It is striking that he fails to note Jesus’ clear affirmation to the contrary when, teaching on marriage and divorce (Mark 10:6-10; Matthew 19:4-5), he links the creation of male and female (quoting Genesis 1:27) and the existence of marriage (quoting Genesis 2:24).
God and the Gay Christian is well-written, thoroughly researched, and engaging, but it suffers from a failure to honestly assess all the evidence.
God and the Gay Christian is well-written, thoroughly researched, and engaging, but it suffers from a failure to honestly assess all the evidence. While claiming to be evangelical, Vines has ignored key details in the biblical text and has allowed modern assumptions about the need for romantic and sexual relationships to shape his view. Ultimately, he may have rightly isolated a problem, but both his diagnosis and proposed treatment are flawed.
We should receive and wrestle with the challenge of the negative experiences some same-sex attracted people have experienced in churches. But to find the answer, we must take a more careful look at the Bible’s teaching on sex, relationships, and singleness. Ultimately, we must trust that the creator does know better than the culture.
- See John Pike, ‘Were Loving Faithful Same-Sex Relations Known in Antiquity?’, Psephizo.