Ted Grimsrud—November 2, 2014
I imagine that for those who most oppose the growing openness to same-sex marriage and the acceptance of LGBTQ Christians in the churches, including in leadership roles, one of the most challenging arguments would be one that argues on the basis of the Bible for such inclusive practices. It seems easier (maybe for both sides when the debate gets polarized) simply to assume that the debate is whether Christians should follow the Bible or not.
I suspect that it is because Matthew Vines’s recent book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case for Same-Sex Relationships, is so conservative theologically that it is receiving such sharp opposition from many evangelical supporters of a restrictive approach to these issues. Writers who grant that the Bible is opposed to “homosexual practice” but then want to move the churches in a more inclusive direction based on other criteria (the experience of grace in the lives of LGBTQ Christians, for example) are easier to dismiss.
Muddying the waters
When the debate concerning inclusiveness vs. restrictiveness can be reduced to a debate about Christian orthodoxy vs. heterodoxy, it’s going to be an easier path for those on the side of maintaining the status quo. Vines’s book, though, muddies the waters.
This is a book that situates itself square in the midst of the evangelical churches, claiming to argue from a conservative, orthodox, and traditional biblical reading strategy for the acceptance of “same-sex relationships.” Hence, it is getting much more negative attention than earlier books that argued with more liberal, non-orthodox, and contemporary reading strategies.
It adds to the challenges raised by this book that it is published by a prominent publisher. Convergent Books is a sister imprint with the Multnomah Publishing Group within the Random House conglomerate. That people who work for Multnomah cooperated with the production of Vines’s book has been controversial, leading to Multnomah being pushed out of the evangelical National Religious Broadcasters trade association.
Vines gained a lot of attention a couple of years ago when he posted on You Tube an hour-long lecture where he shared the fruit of his own research that followed upon his acceptance of his own sexual identity as a gay man. The precocious Vines was still a teen-ager when he came to this clarity, and he decided to take time out of his college career to devote his full energies to research. He wanted to find out if he could be both a self-affirming gay man looking in time to find a life-time partner and an evangelical Christian.
Vines concluded that these parts of his self-understanding did indeed fit together. He shared his conclusions in his You Tube video. The video went viral, gaining an audience of hundreds of thousands in a short time. The video led to this book. And the debate within evangelical Christianity over the acceptance of self-affirming gays who are in or seek to be in “same-sex relationships” entered a new phase—one where no longer could it be taken for granted that conservative theology inevitably led to a rejection of such relationships.
The key ideas
Vines writes clearly and accessibly. He has done his research and spells out his argument with an admirable combination of brevity and depth. He doesn’t claim to break new ground. He stands on the shoulders of various other scholars. But what Vines does that makes this book important is, one, as I have mentioned, connect with a much bigger audience than similar presentations have gained before, and, two, combine his unabashed affirmation for the legitimacy of same-sex marriage with his also unabashed affirmation of an impressively conservative approach to biblical interpretation (“impressive” not because I am persuaded by this approach but because he makes such a strong case for inclusion without compromising his approach).
At the heart of his argument is the image from Jesus that what matters most in evaluating people’s connection with God is the fruitfulness we see (or not) in their lives—”by their fruits you shall know them.” Vines realized in his own life and in the lives of people he has been close to, that spiritual fruitfulness is apparent in the lives of gay and lesbian Christians—an important clue that there is nothing inherently wrong with their sexual identities.
Vines insists, though, that the assumptions that have plagued anti-gay Christians for many years have not been because of what the Bible actually says, but because of misinterpretations of the Bible. He then devotes considerable space to showing how the “core passages” that buttress the anti-gay position should actually be read. In each case, he presents a case for seeing those passages as being concerned with particular sexual behaviors that would be problematic if engaged in by heterosexual people, too (for example, in Romans 1, Paul is concerned with excess, with “lust,” not with same-sex relationships in and of themselves). The concern in the Bible is never with the sexual orientation of the people per se.
He argues that celibacy should be seen as a special gift that God gives a select few, not as a requirement to be imposed on all people who are fundamentally attracted to those of the same sex. He also challenges the notion of “gender complimentarity” that currently seems to lie at the heart of the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage.
End the double standard
The bottom line for Vines is that the churches should quit making demands on LGBT Christians that they don’t make on heterosexual Christians—namely, that intimate partnerships are not permissible. On the other hand, Vines insists that the other side of this argument also holds true: those entering into same-sex partnerships should seek to follow the same rigorous standards for monogamy and life-long commitment that the churches call male/female couples to.
So, Vines’s view should be seen to be as conservative more than liberal. He holds a high view of biblical inspiration and of the exclusivity of the gospel as the way to salvation. He has a quite rigorous and traditional view of sexual morality. He argues that his more literalistic inclinations actually are what enable him to make a case for same-sex marriage. It is because of the Bible, not in spite of it, that he makes his claims.
Vines’s main contributions
Even if I don’t agree with all of Vines’s arguments, and I certainly don’t share all the elements of his theological method, I think this is an excellent book. I would especially recommend it to those on the conservative side of the theological spectrum regardless of their views concerning gay marriage. Those theological conservatives who are open to the possibility that God might after all be tolerant of such partnerships may find Vines’s work an answer to prayer—he hopes to give them permission to make the moves they have hoped they could make without giving up their core theological commitments.
Those theological conservatives on the other side, still convinced that same-sex marriage could not be God’s will, owe it to themselves to take on the challenges Vines presents them. I say that not because I think Vines will change such people’s minds. Rather, I think he provides challenges that those who oppose gay marriage in the name of scripture and conservative theology should force themselves to meet for the sake of integrity and internal consistency. It’s too lazy and disrespectful simply to say “same-sex marriage is wrong because the Bible says so” without actually explaining what it is that the Bible actually says that leads to that conclusion. Wrestling with Vines’s arguments could provide the stimulus to do this explaining in a substantive way.
Those of a less conservative persuasion would also benefit from reading Vines’s book. I think it is too bad that theological moderates and liberals, in effect, allow the conservatives to set the terms for how the Bible should be interpreted. The issue then becomes, for both sides, what we do with the “anti-gay” message of the Bible. Vines challenges those assumptions about what the Bible says. In doing so, maybe he can inspire some of those to his theological left to become more resistant to readings that place the Bible squarely on the side of discrimination. I hope so.