God and the Gay Christian: the Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. Matthew Vines, Convergent Books 2014.
ISBN-13: 978-1601425164 £15.11
CHRISTIANS who discover themselves to be gay face a dilemma. Do they be true to themselves and risk being outcast and lonely or continue to live as if they can ignore this fact about themselves? Quite a few of those who have come out to family, or friends or members of their home churches have not always been well-received. Many gay Christians have come under so much pressure that they have been ostracised from their families and driven away from the congregations where they had previously felt at home. Some have sought useless ‘reparative therapy’ to try to change their sexual orientation; others have left the faith or taken their own lives in despair.
This is the background to Matthew Vines’ decision to research and write this fascinating book, God and the Gay Christian. Vines is a young evangelical Christian with a ‘high’ view of the inspiration of Scripture and this book is probably one of the first to address the issue from a theologically conservative perspective. He argues that, ‘Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monagamous same-sex relationships.’
The Crucial Passages
Vines identifies six crucial Bible passages; three in the Old Testament and three in the New Testament, which have been interpreted for generations in such a way as to prevent gay Christians from full acceptance in their churches and by many Christian friends and family members. The OT passages are Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. The NT passages are Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10.
The argument, according to the author, is not one of experience over Scripture but over the interpretation of Scripture. He quotes the great Reformed theologian, Charles Hodge that “Theologians are not infallible in the interpretation of Scripture…” and makes the point that slavery was once accepted as reasonable. The Bible regarded this as a given; so much so that some passages were quoted to back up this institution as having divine sanction, (Colossians 3:22-25 and Ephesians 6:5-9).
Vines reminds us that a literal reading of the Bible made many Christians oppose Galileo’s argument that the Earth circles the Sun and that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Today everyone realises that Galileo was right. Galileo’s observation ran contrary to the received interpretation of the Bible. Vines points out that most Christians have not changed their minds because they lost respect for their forebears in the faith or for the Bible but because they examined evidence not previously considered. They didn’t reject the Bible but clarified their interpretation of its meaning.
Vines asks if the modern understanding of the nature of homosexuality warrants a similar revision of interpretation. The rest of the book seeks to answer this question affirmatively.
He looks at the ‘complementarity’ of the sexes argument against same-sex unions; men are from Mars and women from Venus, their bodies fit together, the penis and vagina seem to be made for each other even when there is no procreative possibility.
The ancient world, Vines points out, did not recognised the modern concept of orientation bout only ‘preference’ so, he argues that in ancient Greece and Rome, the main same-sex activity was an unequal relationship between master and slave or adult and boy. ‘Pretty boys’ and attractive women were regarded as fair game for many men who had marital sex with their wives supplemented with recreational sex with female and male slaves and concubines.
Gender roles mattered in this society. Adult males were supposed to be active rather than passive. Women were regarded as weak and inferior so any form of ‘effeminacy’ was despised. Homosexual behaviour was regarded as the fruits of excess, lust and novelty-seeking. This notion continued until quite recent times; hence the association with pederasty, the exercise of power over boys. The assumption made was that this was a vice open to anyone rather than the orientation of a minority of people. The modern understanding of homosexuality didn’t begin until the nineteenth century and come into wider acceptance until the mid-twentieth century.
‘Reparative therapy’ doesn’t work as sexual orientation is not a choice. The only way for Christians who don’t want to express their sexuality in ‘lustful ways’ is in the context of a committed monagamous relationship, call it partnership, union, marriage or whatever you like.
Christians are called to a life of self-denial and sacrifice in following Jesus. Does that mean, asks Vines, that gay Christians are doomed to a life of mandatory celibacy as over and against the voluntary variety entered into by many straight Christians? He points out that such mandatory celibacy means that all and every expression of gay sexuality is regarded as sinful. If all such acts and desires are sinful, gay Christians cannot fulfil their love for one-another. Where, he asks can the line be drawn? Gay Christians can certainly choose not to act on their desires but they can’t eradicate them. Same-sex attraction persists. This mandatory celibacy imposed by this widespread interpretation of Scripture requires a constant fear of intimacy and love and often leads to despair, mental illness and even suicide.
Celibacy is the lot – according to the traditional Christian interpretation of Scripture – of all Christians before marriage. If gay Christians are not permitted any possibility of same-sex marriage they must then, Vines argues, be celibate for life. That changes the nature of celibacy as it is traditionally a spiritual gift and calling, not a life sentence. Any attempt to maintain traditional teaching over same-sex relationships and celibacy is untenable. Something has to be modified.
Jesus taught that celibacy is a voluntary step (Matt 19:10-12), live like eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. This passage mentions three types of men; impotent men, castrated men and those who choose celibacy as a gift and calling from God. Jesus taught that the one who can accept this should be celibate and the one who could not should marry. That’s the principle message at the back of this passage. The traditional interpretation uniquely forces gay Christians into lifelong compulsory celibacy. This is new as it had been previously assumed that same-sex attraction was not innate but self-indulgent perversion. Vines argues that the new information regarding sexual orientation requires us to reinterpret Scripture. Those who don’t will instead have to reinterpret their understanding of celibacy.
In 1 Tim 4:1-5 Paul warns of false teachers who forbade Christians to marry and to eat certain foods. Marcion and other Gnostic Christians demanded that all Christians abstain from sexual relations and marriage. Tertullian and Jerome argued that God’s creation is good and that Marcion and his ilk were despising the Creation that God had called good.
Since the time of these early Fathers, the church has taught that celibacy is a gift that can’t be forced. The Protestant Reformers and the late Pope John Paul II argued for the, ‘voluntary and supernatural nature’ of celibacy as a gift of God freely chose – not imposed. Given this, Vines argues, we need to either change our understanding of celibacy or of marriage as forcing mandatory celibacy on gay Christians say that their sexual identity is inherently shameful.
The Sin of Sodom
What was the ‘sin of Sodom’? Was it homosexuality or was there more to it? Officially Christians claim that all sin is of equal offence to God but in practice, the author notes, there is a hierarchy of sins. As he puts it, not much is thought of gossip, gluttony or selfish behaviour in comparison with publicly exposed sexual transgressions. Old Testament references to Sodom highlight oppression, murder, theft, pride, arrogance, and haughtiness. This also carries over to the apocryphal books of Sirach, 3 Maccabees and Wisdom.
What the men of Sodom wanted to do was to indulge in gang rape; not express desire. They were intent on degradation and humiliation of Lot’s guests. The Levite and his female concubine met with a similar situation in Judges 19. Lot said no to the men of Sodom as ‘these men are guests’ not because it’s a same-sex act. He offered his daughter to the mob in his guests’ place as at that time women were treated as inferior to men and worth a lot less.
Vines looks at the history of the interpretation of the sin of the men of Sodom as merely same-sex intercourse. He places this with Philo in the first century. He compares this misinterpretation with the traditional interpretation of the story of Onan whose selfish act of coitus interuptus was mistaken for masturbation for many years. His story in Genesis 38 was used for many years to condemn both masturbation, contraception and any form of sexual activity not intended to make babies.
Abominations of Leviticus
Vine asks why Christians today do not follow the whole Levitical laws. This is not arbitrary picking and choosing as can be seen by the Council of Jerusalem as reported in Acts 15. This council agreed that Gentile believers were not obliged to follow Old Testament law. Christ was the fulfilment of the Law. Hebrews 8:6. The old covenant was temporary but the new is absolute. Galatians 5:1 describes the old law for Christians as a yoke of bondage. Circumcision is no longer necessary nor is the detailed dietary code.
The Levitical code prohibited the eating of many foods, required the quarantine of lepers and others with infectious diseases, forbade planting two different seeds in the one field, mixed fabrics, tattoos and the cutting of the hair at the sides of the head.
Many Christians make a distinction between what the call ‘moral’ and ‘ceremonial’ laws. Moral laws stand for all time but ceremonial laws have passed away because they have been fulfilled in Christ. Vine looks at this in some detail. He points out that the Old Testament did not condemn polygamy or concubinage but often assumed it as a given. The Old Testament called for men to marry their deceased brother’s widow and for rapists to marry the virgin they had violated. The Old Testament allowed for divorce and forbade sex with menstruating women. Christians never insisted on following the letter of these laws. These were not ceremonial but moral and not all moral laws carried over to the church. The New Testament rejected polygamy and concubinage.
As many non-affirming Christians – Iris Robinson springs to mind – argue that homosexuality is an abomination unto the Lord, Vine examines what the word means in biblical terms. He describes it as a boundary marker – a taboo. Many of the things described as ‘abominations’ are regularly practised by Christians today; sex during menstruation, (lev18:19); charging interest on loans (Ezek 18:13); burning of incense (Isa 1:13); eating pork, shellfish, rabbit flesh and the flesh of animals already dead (Deut 14:3-21). The death penalty even applied to some forms of prostitution, blaspheming the Lord’s name, disobedient children, working on the Sabbath and charging interest on a loan.
Vine looks at the hierarchy of anatomy. In ancient times the greatest condemnation in same-sex acts was reserved for the passive partner who was regarded as ‘weak and effeminate’. “Because women are inferior to men it is degrading for a man to take a mere woman’s role.” Saul Olyon is quoted as claiming that the only same-sex act prohibited was anal penetration. The reason for this objection was not anatomical incompatibility but on the status of the partners and proper gender roles in a patriarchal society. That’s why, he claims, there is no Levitical prohibition of female same-sex acts. If anatomy was the only objection, he argues, it would apply equally to women. As women didn’t count for much it didn’t matter. Women did not have so much honour to lose.
Many Christians today, such as those who oppose the ordination of women, differ from those in the ancient world as they claim that women are equal in value but not in their roles. In the Old Testament times women were regarded as of lesser value. That’s why Lot could offer his virgin daughter to a band of would-be gang-rapists in order to spare male guests. This, Vine argues, makes sense in the context of the accepted gender roles in the Middle East of the time. All societies were patriarchal.
By New Testament times women had begun to hold leadership positions (Acts 16:14-15) and Romans 16:1-2). In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, bond or free. Old patriarchal values no longer have any validity.
What are the ‘unnatural acts’ referred to by Paul in Romans 1:26-27. Vine explains that the context refers to the fruits of idolatry so ‘God let them go’. At the same time Christians were asked to greet one-another with a ‘holy kiss’ and instructions were given for slaves to obey their masters in order to advance the gospel in that time and place. Today we seek to follow the underlying reasons why we do things rather than the externalities.
In looking at what is natural and unnatural, Vines poses the question, was Paul wrong and the Bible in error on this matter? Some of us on the liberal Christian wing would probably have no hesitation in replying yes. Vines, as a conservative evangelical can’t say this, so he comes us with the ingenious argument that Paul was describing the actions of straight people who just played about lustfully with submissive ‘effeminate’ men. Their sin was ‘excessive passion’. Gay people can’t choose to follow opposite-sex attraction because they have none and can’t make them up. Same-sex relations in the first century were thought to be the product of excessive sexual desire. Then they were most commonly unequal relationships – pederasty, prostitution and slaves. Most men who indulged in these activities also engaged in straight sex with their wives. This was the general understanding throughout the Graeco-Roman world. This was the cultural context at the time of Paul’s epistle.
The objection was not on anatomical incompatibility but on the grounds of objection to hedonistic self-indulgence; to unbridled passions let loose. Same-sex behaviour is not pursued today by gay Christian men because they’ve grown tired and jaded with women and seek new outlets for their insatiable sexual appetites. They do it for the same reason that straight Christians seek opposite-sex union; intimacy, companionship, and long-term commitment; in short, for love.
In Old Testament and New Testament times, the male took the ‘natural’ assertive role. The woman was passive. Aristotle took the view that women were deformed men. To act otherwise was regarded as ‘unnatural’. The main objection was that women were inferior so men ought not to play the part of women. Vines quotes Plato and Josephus in support of this (pp108-9). Females were not to initiate the leading role of men. Vines argues that natural and unnatural were not synonymous with straight and gay but referred to ‘proper’ gender roles.
Vines adds that ‘nature’ also referred to the customs of the time. In Paul’s time it was not natural or shameful for a man to have long hair but honourable for a woman (1 Cor 11); whereas in the Old Testament era a Nazirite took vows not to cut his hair (Numbers 6:5). In Paul’s time long hair was a sign of sexual suggestiveness in women. Same-sex relations then, Vines claims, were indications of a violation of the established gender roles of the times. He contends that none of these reasons extends to today’s long, committed gay Christian relationships.
The Kingdom of God
Will gay people inherit the Kingdom of God? Those who will not, according to Paul are described with the Greek words, malakoi (KJV ‘effeminate’) and arsenkoitai (KJV ‘abusers of themselves with mankind’).
Malakoi is variously translated as ‘wantons’ by the Geneva Bible, ‘weaklings’ by Tyndale, ‘those who lack self-control’ by Fredrickson and ‘self-indulgent’ by the New Jerusalem Bible. Vines quotes other ancient writers to demonstrate that malakoi did not only refer to the passive partners in same-sex relations but meant all ‘softness’. The Roman general Pompey was criticised by the historian Plutarch for excessive devotion to his wife. Pompey was described as an ‘unmanly’ general with no self-control.
Arsenkoitai is used to describe relations of injustice, economic exploitations and sexual exploitation and power demonstrations; for example, pederasty. Vines argues that Paul was most likely condemning excessive, abusive and exploitative sexual conduct rather than a distinct group of people. The Bible, he contends, does not address the issue of orientation.
Biblical Marriage Equality?
Can there be any biblical argument for marriage equality? Vines expands on his argument that Christian celibacy is a gift and a calling from God; so insisting, as non-affirming Christians do, that gay Christians must remain celibate, undermines this special status. Is it possible for same-sex marriage to fit into the Christian basis for marriage? Vines looks at the passage in Ephesians 5:22-33 most often quoted and notes that this text ignores property and children and concentrates on a Covenant between two partners. Marriage is about the reflection of the love of God for us. Vines accepts that Ephesians 5 uses gender-specific language but claims that this is because nobody in the first century associated same-sex behaviour with lasting and loving relationships but with intemperate lusts. Given that the Bible doesn’t address the modern conceptions of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage, can the principles transfer to this new understanding or will something essential be lost in the process?
Vines asks rhetorically if the Bible’s principles can be translated into this new understanding of gay relationships. Is a gender difference as essential as covenant keeping? He goes on to make a persuasive argument that if the essence of marriage involves a covenant-keeping relationship, that this can be done as well by two women or two men as it can by one of each gender. For the purposes of his argument, can lifelong commitment be enough? Is there something special about straight relationships that can’t be done without?
The obvious objection is over procreation; only a man and a woman together can procreate. In Genesis, God commands ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen 1:28) and Abraham is told he will father ‘a great nation’ (Gen 12:17). This Old Testament emphasis on procreation led to ‘barren’ women being shamed – Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth come to mind. Now, however, Christians’ membership of the Kingdom is not determined by ancestry and birth. All who are in Christ are Abraham’s seed. Heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:26-29), not by their birth but their new birth. This new vision of Christ and his Kingdom, Vines claims:
1. Allows the Kingdom to grow outside marriage and procreation.
2. Allows celibacy as an option for Christians that it wasn’t for the ancient Israelites.
3. Widens the definition of the family. We’re all ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’. Biological families are temporary things but even celibate persons can be spiritual parents (Isaiah 54:1).
Well, if we accept Vines’ contention that not everyone has to procreate, is it still not expected of married couples? He points out that infertile couples were not regarded as illegitimate. Jesus allowed for divorce in cases of infidelity (Matthew 19:9) but not for infertility. A covenanted commitment was vital to a marriage. Children were not.
Vines argues – compellingly – that the Song of Songs is an erotic love poem and quotes Paul recommending regular sex for couples (1 Cor 7). There are no biblical restrictions on sex for procreation alone. Consequently, he contends, the inability of same-sex couples to procreate does not of itself exclude them fulfilling the covenanted nature of the marriage vow.
Ephesians 5 assumes gender hierarchy. Man is said to be the head of the woman as Christ is the head of the Church. Wives are to submit to their husbands. This is not possible for same-sex couples so does this automatically invalidate same-sex marriage? Vines links the matter of gender hierarchy with another contemporary institution – slavery.
Paul wrote to the Galatians to tell them that three distinct hierarchies would fade away in Christ – Jew and Gentile; bond and free; male and female – all one in Christ Jesus. In praying ‘Thy Kingdom Come’, Vines argues, Christians took this message to heart and abolished slavery. He quotes Peter who linked wives and slaves in 1 Peter 2:18, arguing that both hierarchies will fade away if we seek to make Christ’s Kingdom a reality in our lives. Gender hierarchy is not part of the essence of a Christian marriage but keeping a covenant in a relationship of mutual self-giving is. This, Vines claims, doesn’t rule out same-sex couples. Oddly enough, he does not mention one documented case in the Bible of a covenanted relationship between two men in 1 Samuel 18:1-4, ‘the soul of Jonathan was knit with the soul of David… Then Jonathan and David made a covenant…’.
Does this biblical expression mean a sexual reunion of two bodies that come from one flesh as some commentators argue? Vines replies that the term ‘flesh’ in the Bible refers to kinship bonds as well as intimacy. It doesn’t focus on the mechanical acts but the strength of the bond. This obviously rules out sexual promiscuity. One flesh refers to the relationship between Christ and the Church which is of course made up of men and women – a bond of love – lives joined together. Gender difference, he argues, is not necessary to illustrate Christ’s love for his church.
What of the objection that same-sex love is narcissistic. Vines admits that it can be, but points out that this can also be true of opposite-sex love if partners approach one-another selfishly. Same-sex marriage, he contends, does not undermine the institution for opposite-sex couples.
Humans have a deep need for relationships. As the Bible says, It is not good for man to be alone. These, Vines explains, are not just sexual relations but he contends that sexuality is part of who we are. This is not a matter of self-gratification but love disciplined by covenant which is not how many Christians understand same-sex orientation. These Christians interpret ‘sexual orientation’ as code for disordered sexual lusts; in short, perversion. However, sexual orientation – gay as well as straight – involves more than mere physical attraction to another human being – but can encompass this and channel it into a covenanted relationship. The question, Vines suggests, ought not to be ‘Is gay marriage acceptable?’ but rather, ‘Is it acceptable to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desire through a God-reflecting covenant?’ He points to the rotten fruits of saying no to this; self-hatred, torment and despair.
Vines also examines the claim that gay sexual orientation is sinful. He defines sin as an innate tendency to harbour our own self-interest at others’ expense. Grace is God’s gift to help us turn from destructive habits. However, sexual orientation, he argues, is a created characteristic and not a distortion caused by the Fall. You can’t, therefore ‘pray the gay away’.
Vines must be congratulated on publishing this important book. Sometimes we liberal Christians can be a bit patronising when it comes to our conservative evangelical brothers and sisters in Christ. Often though, we just ignore those bits of the Bible that we don’t like rather than attempt to understand the historic and cultural context in which they were written. It’s good to see that some movement is taking place on the conservative evangelical wing of the church in both North America and these islands.
Vines may not convince those folk – especially in those circles – who have their minds made up, but in this book he has taken the well-rehearsed ‘Christian’ objections head-on and offered a lifeline of hope of acceptance for many young – and not so young – Christians who struggle to come to terms with what can be for them the earth-shattering realisation that they are gay.