Reading Matthew Vines new book reminds me of my first visit to a pro-gay church back in 1978.
The sanctuary was full of folks declaring themselves to be both gay and Christian, and looking, truth to tell, terrific. There were couples of all ages standing arm in arm, single men and women, and even some kids scattered throughout the pews. They seemed robust and sincere as they sang choruses and hymns I was familiar with, and watching the people around me clapping, lifting their hands with eyes closed, and singing earnestly, I thought “My gosh, they look like any evangelical or charismatic congregation you could find any Sunday in America!”
I was all too susceptible to their pro-gay doctrine, largely because there was just enough truth being promoted there to make me comfortable with the error. The songs were traditional and solid; the sermon was, by and large, pretty good; the people seemed fervent. Yet food that’s 90% wholesome and 10% poisonous can do some major damage; teaching that’s largely true but significantly false can do the same.
That’s the impact I fear Vine’s work will have on many readers. Much of what he says is true, and what’s not true in his book is said so well it could easily pass as true. His take on Romans, which we’ll look at today, is a classic example of well articulated error posing as sound doctrine. To the undiscerning, it has the appearance of a solution to the exhausting and very prevalent problem of those who say: “I’m Christian, and I’m same sex attracted. Now what?”
Darn That Paul!
“For this cause God gave them up unto vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due.”
Vines begins his assessment of these verses in Romans One by noting this Epistle has sent many homosexual readers “down a path of despair.” He then relates a well known tragedy, dramatized into a movie called Prayers for Bobby, in the case of a young man whose Christian parents disapproved aggressively of his homosexuality, quoting the Romans verses in question, allegedly driving their son to suicide. He concludes, perhaps rightfully, that Paul’s remarks in Romans constitute the “most significant verse in the debate.”
Paul certainly does throw a stumbling block into gay-affirming arguments with such a precise condemnation, and on this point Vines even goes so far as to admit the Apostle’s description of homosexuality is “indisputably negative” – one might say Duh! if one was the sarcastic sort – but then insists that this description has nothing to do with loving, committed same sex relationships, and everything to do with unbridled lust. In a nutshell, his argument is that what Paul condemns here are certain forms of homosexual expression, but not homosexuality itself. Just as Biblical condemnations of heterosexual lust and fornication aren’t criticisms of opposite-sex unions in general, so, Vines says, we should note the difference between the excessive homosexual free-for-all’s mentioned in Romans, versus committed, responsible same-sex unions. There are three ways Vines tries to convince us of this reinterpretation:
1. Paul’s Limited Understanding of Homosexuality
2. The Exploitive Nature of Homosexuality in Paul’s Time
3. The Male-Dominated Thinking Behind Condemnations of Homosexuality
Today, let’s try unpacking the first of these points, and tomorrow we’ll tackle the second and third.
Did Paul Know Anything About Gays?
A number of pro-gay apologists, Vines included, would have us believe Paul was unaware of committed, romantic love between homosexuals. Instead, they say, Paul viewed homosexuality as something men who were basically heterosexual did after they’d gorged themselves on sex with women, then decided to go for something kinkier or more intense. What Paul didn’t know, according to this theory, is that some people are constitutionally attracted only to the same sex, and that such people are capable of forming deep emotional bonds, similar to a married couple.
But such bonds between homosexuals were written about, and very specifically, by philosophers who were well known at Paul’s time, Plato included. Are we really to believe that a man as educated and sophisticated as St. Paul was unaware of their work? Because the likelihood of Paul being ignorant of Plato is as high as the likelihood of Rev. Billy Graham being unaware of Sigmund Freud and his work. Surely Dr. Graham wouldn’t agree with much of what Freud said, but it’s inconceivable that he was thereby ignorant of what Freud said.
Besides which, perhaps unintentionally, this proposal of Vines hugely negates the inspiration and authority of Paul’s writing, as it presumes that the Holy Spirit who inspired his epistles was, like Paul, ignorant of committed and loving relationships among homosexuals. To believe the Bible is divinely inspired, as Vines claims to, is to thereby believe its authors were not limited by their natural knowledge when they wrote. Even if Paul had been ignorant of loving homosexual relationships, which is a dubious assumption, the Spirit urging his writings was not, and was thereby quite capable of guiding him to write about homosexuality with insight beyond his natural means.
More to the point, when the testimony of Old Testament scripture and the Holy Spirit inspired him to condemn a behavior, that inspired condemnation was made with a full understanding, on God’s part, of the behavior in question. To ignore this is to deny one of the prime reasons we revere the scripture – it is authoritative because it is God inspired, and the God who inspired it needs no education from modern thinkers on the complexities of the human condition. On this point Albert Mohler in his own critique of Vines poses the question: “What else does the Bible not know about what it means to b human? If the Bible cannot be trusted to reveal the truth about us in every respect, how can we trust it to reveal our salvation?”
My biggest objection to this slant on Romans, though, lies not with the fact it presumes Paul was ignorant about Plato, nor with the way it diminishes Biblical authority, though I object strongly to both. My concern is that his argument suggests that love justifies a relationship. He suggests that many of us are against gay coupling because we think no real love can exist between gays. But I’ve never heard anyone argue that point. In fact, I’ve no doubt many same sex couples love each other deeply, and take their commitment seriously.
I’d likewise argue that Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, two of the best known performers of all time who had a longstanding and widely celebrated romance despite the fact Tracy was married to another woman, seem to have loved each other immeasurably. Their relationship was adulterous, loving, immoral, and full of deep commitment. The inherent wrongness of the union didn’t nullify the love involved, nor could the love involved nullify the inherent wrongness of adultery. Love and sin can, and often do, co-exist, the one not cancelling out the other. And, most importantly, the one not being able to justify the other.
Which is exactly why Paul condemned homosexual behavior without context or contingency. He declared it unnatural and immoral in and of itself, whether practiced in the context of idol worship, Roman orgies, pederasty, or a loving adult union.
“We need to discern why Paul wrote what he did”, Vines asserts in his chapter on Romans. There we agree. And a careful examination of what he wrote proves that he wrote what he meant, and what we thought he meant is what he meant, and that what he meant is obvious, unmistakable, and as relevant today as when it was first penned.