Today’s church is being asked – pressured, really – to follow the culture’s lead, and the culture is leading towards wholesale approval of homosexuality. So Matthew Vine’s new book God and the Gay Christian is a fresh, eloquent, and well publicized addition to the pressure.
If Vines had authored an argument for immersion baptism as opposed to sprinkling, or for a Mid-Tribulation Rapture viewpoint instead of a Pre-Tribulation one, or for the continuation of the gift of tongues as opposed to its extinction, then I’d say Yawn to the whole thing. Those are non-essentials to my thinking; subjects we can argue about with no threat to unity, because they’re neither foundational to the faith nor crucial to Christian living.
And plenty of Christian voices are calling for us to view homosexuality in the same light. Tony Campolo says believers shouldn’t break fellowship over it because it’s not an essential doctrinal matter, Craig Gross of XXX Church warns against simplistic, black and white positions on the subject, and well known blogger Rachel Held Evans joins equally well read author Andrew Marin by advocating no clear position at all on homosexuality, in lieu of simply showing love.
But a plain reading of both Testaments makes it impossible to share these views, because Scripture does, in fact, elevate the definition of marriage, the family, and normal sexual behavior to the status of essential.
The Creation account in Genesis explains the male/female union as a one-flesh joining, in answer to man’s God-ordained need for partnership (Genesis 2: 20-24), a description Jesus referenced and reinforced by asking, rhetorically, “Know ye not that He who created them created them male and female?” (Matthew 19:4) Anything falling short of this standard (monogamous and heterosexual) qualifies as sin, and significant sin at that. Sexual immorality (i.e. fornication, lust, adultery or incest) is specifically named and condemned in 22 out of the 27 books of the New Testament; Paul exhorted the Ephesians not to let fornication even be mentioned among them (Ephesians 5:3) while warning the Corinthians that it was a significant transgression against the body. (I Corinthians 6:18), So significant, in fact, that it warranted the first recorded case of church discipline via excommunication (I Corinthians 5: 1-5) and a stern rebuke from Paul to the church for allowing it to go unchecked in its midst. (I Corinthians 5: 1-2)
Clearly, then, sexual sin matters. And it matters hugely.
That’s why this book calls for scrutiny. It asks us to revise our understanding of what we’ve traditionally considered a sexual, and thereby serious, sin. If its author is right, then we need to overhaul our thinking. If he’s wrong, then his call for revision is an invitation to gross doctrinal and moral error, having the potential to deceive believers, misinform the public, and further weaken the moral climate in the Body of Christ. And that, I’d say, is a pretty big deal. So this week, we’ll be reviewing Vine’s arguments, offering responses and counterarguments, and (hopefully) some thoughts to equip readers for the conversations they’re likely to have on the subject.
He’s Not All Wrong
I’m impressed with some aspects of the book. Vines shows integrity by clarifying from the outset that most of the points he makes aren’t new, and indeed, they’re not. My overall impression, in fact, was that he’s re-hashed and re-articulated John Boswell’s 1980 work Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, the ground-breaking standard for a pro-gay interpretation of the Bible. But he’s done so in a style that’s much more user-friendly than Dr. Boswell’s original and somewhat ponderous book, and that alone will broaden his readership. Those unfamiliar with Boswell could easily get the impression Vines developed these revisionist ideas on his own, so I appreciated his diligence to cite original sources. Sadly, I know some conservative Christian writers who could take lessons from this openly gay apologist on fairness and honesty when it comes to giving due credit, rather than passing someone else’s ideas off as your own.
I was also struck by his earnest style. If I were to be convinced only by a gentlemanly and balanced tone, then Vines would win me over hands down. Unlike many on both sides who write about homosexuality, he avoids sarcasm and vitriol. I kept waiting for the shoe to drop while reading, and it really never did. No cheap shots; no character assassination; no demonizing his opponents. By the end of the book I found myself disagreeing with practically everything he said, while appreciating virtually everything about the way he said it. Content is primary, but attitude counts, too, so I salute Matthew Vines for displaying a pretty good one. It’s the assumptions and conclusions he comes to that I take issue with.
Assumption 1: We Need to Know Why
I parted company with Matthew by page 12, where he questions how we can call same sex relations sinful if we can’t prove that they hurt anybody. His assumption seems to be that for something to qualify as sin, the damage it does to another person needs to be verified. When considering other sins with obvious consequences he states, “By understanding the reasons behind Scripture’s teachings, I could apply its principles to all circumstances in my life”, he asserts. But what literal damage, he ponders, does a committed same sex relationship cause? The question thus shifts from “Is it declared wrong?” to “Why should it be declared wrong?” In other words, I not only need to know what God has said, but why He said it as well.
But that can’t be right. Does every sin need to be proven harmful to be classified as sin? Sexual relations before or apart from marriage are Biblically prohibited, but can we really prove that an unmarried couple living together, or an adulterous relationship that’s kept secret, cause verifiable harm? Or that the young man secretly and sexually fantasizing about the pretty girl next door is hurting anyone?
No, nor do we have to, because sin needn’t have a verifiable outcome to qualify as sin. It need only fall short of what God intended. Consider King David’s words after his horrendous acts with Bathsheba and against her husband: “Against Thee, and Thee only, have I sinned.” (Psalm 51:4) Obviously others had been harmed, Bathsheba’s innocent husband topping the list. But ultimately sin is an offense to God, no matter who else may or may not be proven to have been hurt in the process. If our bodies belong to Him, than straying outside His will for them is, in and of itself, the definition of transgression.
That said, we do know that a same sex union disregards the obvious biological differences in human anatomy. As Evan Lenow, assistant professor of Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, notes:
“God’s design for man is that he could enter into a complimentary relationship with a woman, who is like him yet still different. At a very basic level, the complimentary biological differences between man and woman make this clear. Thus homosexual intercourse cannot be the union of a man and his suitable helper –“
This isn’t rocket science. In man’s unfallen state, the intended nature of sexual union is evidenced in our first parent’s very specific plumbing, unmistakable in form and function. A deviation from that is inherently a deviation from divine design.
Not that we have to know but, in answer to the question “Why?” – that’s why.
Assumption 2: Better in Love than Alone
The author’s second assumption seems even more serious. Vines argues that, since God declared it’s not good for man to be alone, then everyone should be in a marital relationship, unless they’re called to celibacy, and the nature of that relationship (homosexual or heterosexual) doesn’t matter. The relationship, not it’s nature, is the main thing. To prove his point he makes a few sub-points:
- “Adam and Eve were right for each other, not because they were different, but because they were alike” (p. 46) This undermines the importance of a complimentary union by saying it didn’t really matter what sexes they were; what mattered is that they were brought together, which paves the way for allowing same sex intimacy.
- “Celibacy is a gift, and those who do not have the gift should marry” (p. 48) Therefore, if someone does not have the gift of celibacy, they should not only marry, but they should marry whichever sex appeals the most to them. Again, the form of marriage becomes secondary to the experience of a partnership.
- “Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians — sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful.” (p. 57) Since everyone should be married, and since people should only marry those they are primarily attracted to, it logically follows that gay marriage is right because gay people, like all people, should be married, and gay people can only marry their own sex. So the real issue for partnership, according to Vines, is not the sex of your partner, but the fact that you have one, and to tell homosexual people not to partner with other homosexuals violates God’s observation that man should not be alone.
The Junk Food Dilemma
But having a legitimate need for intimacy cannot justify illegitimate ways of fulfilling that need. It’s not good for man to go hungry; that doesn’t legitimize unhealthy foods. It’s not good for a man to be broke; that doesn’t legitimize robbery. It is better, in fact, to have a legitimate need go unmet, than to fulfill it in the wrong way, and our sexual needs aren’t exempt from this principle. In this fallen world, and dealing with my fallen nature, if the only thing that really turns me on sexually and emotionally is Activity B, yet only Activity A is sanctioned by God, then I cannot rewrite the rules to accommodate my taste. Rather, I need to explore the possibility of engaging in Activity A, or do without. That may not mean I have the gift of celibacy so much as the unfortunate necessity of celibacy, but if the choice is between celibacy and sin, for the Believer the decision should be a no-brainer.
When the Model is Muddled
I was especially struck by Vine’s disregard for the divine concept the male/female partnership expresses – God’s union with His people in the Old Testament (Isa 54:5 Hos 2:7; Joel 1:8) and Christ’s union with His church in the New (Eph 5:25-33)– and how impossible it is to adhere to that model in anything but an opposite sex union. In the Old Testament God’s people are seen in the feminine as the Bride and He as the Bridegroom; in the New Testament Christ is in a specifically male role; His church is an equally specific female one. (Rev 19:7-9, Rev 21:2,9-10; Rev 22:17) You cannot recognize this model without recognizing the inherent heterosexuality of it – a male to female connection. And if the marital union is, as Paul declares it to be, an illustration of Christ and His church, than that union must likewise be male to female. Sex is meant to honor this model; deviate from the model, and you deviate from the plan, muddling what ought to be modeled.
Vines instead focuses the value of the sexual relationship on the level of satisfaction it brings both partners. And from here yet another broad assumption is posed: If you’re homosexual, you can never be anything but homosexual, so marriage to the opposite sex cannot happen. Therefore, your only choice is celibacy, or union with someone of your own sex.
Gay and Only Gay?
At this point it’s tempting to say, “But what of all those who claim to have indeed changed and embraced a heterosexual union?” a protest I myself would be quick to make.
But those are testimonies of people like me who admittedly have a bias – that homosexuality is wrong; heterosexuality normal. More compelling to me, it seems, are the histories of many openly gay women and men who agree with Vines, and who celebrate homosexuality, but who also admit to having once been married to the opposite sex, and to having fathered or mothered children, and to having been able to not only perform sexually but to procreate as well, all the while realizing they were homosexual, yet operating heterosexually as well. They report that their homosexual attractions remained, but – and this is something needing careful thought – those attractions didn’t prevent them from heterosexual union. Their burden was, of course, the continuation of homosexual desires, and the fact that they never seemed to have felt as attracted to their spouse as they were to the same sex. But their same-sex temptations need not have ruled them. At some point many of them chose to leave their families because they decided to partner with the sex they felt most attracted to. Still, their prior marriages proved that, despite Vine’s assertions, they were indeed capable of heterosexual marriage and parenting.
And what about those who never, despite the most earnest prayer and efforts, feel any attraction to the opposite sex? They certainly exist, and many of them are in the pews next to us each Sunday. They are homosexual in attraction but Christian in fact, and their commitment to Christ compels them to say no to what God has forbidden. They are by no means doing anything wrong by simply having those desires, and the fact those desires remain is no indication of shortcoming on their part. For them, celibacy seems the only logical option. After all, no one should marry if they have no sexual attraction to their spouse; no one should be foolhardy enough to think marriage cures homosexuality. And there must be a place in the church for celibate believers who resist same-sex longings and embrace the disciple’s call to both Cross and Crown.
Sexuality and the Cross
But that hardly calls for legitimizing something God prohibits just because it’s what a person feels most naturally inclined to. Vines would have us believe it’s cruel to tell someone their sexual desires are inherently wrong. I would argue that the same can and should be said to most if not all of us. The Christian husband’s occasional attractions to his secretary; the teen’s yearning to go further than he should with his girlfriend; the older man’s inability to be aroused by his elderly wife while becoming quite aroused by a centerfold – these all qualify as “inherently wrong desires.” So at the end of the day, when we tell the believer with homosexual tendencies not to yield to those tendencies, to resist them perhaps on a daily basis, and to accept God’s grace as sufficient in times of temptations, are we really telling him to do anything we ourselves aren’t also required to do?
I appreciate Vine’s concern. I had it myself when I repented of homosexuality 30 years ago, wondering if or when I would ever feel a longing for a woman, or if I’d need to adapt to singleness. And no answers were clear to me other than this: Despite my best efforts to make it say otherwise, the Bible condemned, in the plainest terms, all forms of homosexual behavior, no exceptions or qualifiers. If I therefore wanted to live as a true follower of Him, I’d be called to deny that part of myself I’d become accustomed to indulging, with no guarantee of ever losing the desire for it, or of ever enjoying sexual union with a woman. This, I believe, was nothing more than the cost of discipleship; the lot of anyone ready to take up his cross and walk, not knowing the immediate outcome, but certain of the eternal one.
With perhaps the best intentions, Vines commends not an unqualified obedience, but a gratification of the very self Jesus calls us to deny, baptizing sin in seemingly compassionate but, in the end, very misleading terms. And thereby God and the Gay Christian promotes a God who accommodates man on man’s terms, rather than the One who sets the terms and expects them to be revered, not revised.
Tomorrow we’ll examine Matthew Vine’s approach to the book of Leviticus, and its relevance to believers today. Hope you’ll join us.