From the Spring ’14 issue of the Ichthus. The rest of the issue will follow soon! I have posted this article separately by popular demand. –S.G.M.
God and the Gay Christian, by Matthew Vines
The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Lk 19:10, ESV)
It isn’t every day that a young Harvard dropout sets out to reform the Church’s teaching on homosexuality.
That’s the intention of Matthew Vines, formerly Harvard College Class of 2012 and now the author of God and the Gay Christian.
It was only in the fall of 2009, his sophomore year at Harvard, that Vines first realized he was gay. For Vines, having grown up attending a traditional Presbyterian church with his family, this was an awful, confusing realization. That semester, Vines dropped out of Harvard to research what the Bible truly said about homosexuality, a project to which he devoted two years of full-time research. At last Vines concluded that the traditional case against same-sex relationships rests on a misinterpretation of the Bible, and that loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationships ought to be fully accepted by the Church. But how could that acceptance be achieved? Vines soon delivered a one-hour talk that quickly went viral online. He then founded The Reformation Project, a non-profit organization whose mission is to “reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity through the teaching of the Bible.”1 Most recently, he has written God and the Gay Christian.
When Vines says he’s after a reformation, he means it.
God and the Gay Christian is a work of biblical exposition and interpretation, intended to “bring credible, often-overlooked insights [on the Biblical discussion of same-sex relationships] to light, and to synthesize those insights in clear and accessible ways for a broad audience.”2 Vines contends that if all the biblical themes are brought to light, if the “moral logic” of the relevant passages is recovered, the evidence clearly supports the full affirmation of same-sex relationships.3 Vines follows most closely the arguments of James Brownson and Martti Nissinen, drawing also from Dale Martin, Saul Olyan, and Daniel Boyarin, amongst others.
Vines’s writing is a shining example of articulate exposition: engaging, clear, concise, nuanced. Vines effortlessly draws from his extensive research without overburdening the reader with details. Despite the weightiness of the book’s content, it’s a quick read. And by weaving in many personal anecdotes and accounts of the experiences of gay Christians, Vines achieves an accessible, light, and personal tone, reminiscent of Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation or Justin Lee’s memoir Torn. Vines’s careful fusion of exegesis and experience seems to be not only stylistic, but also expresses a theological point in itself. There is great danger in approaching such a human question with too much theological abstraction.
The main work begins with a carefully developed account of ancient and modern constructions of sexuality. Next, Vines spends a chapter discussing Biblical and traditional views of celibacy. He then considers the six most famous Biblical “prooftexts” on homosexuality: Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22, Leviticus 20:13, Romans 1:24-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10. Finally, Vines spends several chapters tackling the background texts on creation and marriage relevant to Biblical sexual ethics: Genesis 1-2, Karl Barth’s analysis of imago Dei, and Ephesians 5.
Vines’s account of ancient constructions of sexuality is one of the greatest strengths of the book. It is well-evidenced by his use of ancient sources and written with wonderful clarity. The gist is that in the world Jesus and Paul inhabited, “gay” and “straight” were simply not categories of anyone’s thought. If anything, bisexuality would have been regarded as the natural state of man. There was no notion of an innate and exclusively same-sex orientation. Even the Stoics’ condemnation of same-sex intercourse as “contrary to nature” (para physin), which sounds a lot like an orientation category, is in fact based on the assumption that same-sex desires proceeded not from a distinctive kind of orientation, but posed a temptation to any normal person.4
For the ancients, the boundaries that really mattered were not those of gay and straight, but instead those of socio-political status, which was colored by gender. Recall that in the ancient world, women were not citizens, but were legally treated as something more like property. Thus it was acceptable in the Greco-Roman world for women and slaves to be penetrated; that’s what they were for. But a freeborn male of high social standing ought to penetrate, not to be penetrated.5 Same-sex behavior was therefore regarded as shameful only insofar as someone acted out a role inappropriate to his or her own social status.
If this construction is correct, then it poses a problem for the traditionalist reading of the prooftexts. Typically, traditionalists frame the moral logic of the prooftexts in terms of “gender complementarity.”6 This is the idea that God created male and female as necessarily and naturally fitted for each other. Moreover, the union of male and female is regarded as a lived symbol of the union of Christ and Church. Vines’s overall project is to show that “gender complementarity” is not a Biblical notion, and is not what the prooftexts are addressing. Rather, the Biblical authors had in mind entirely different concerns: purity, lust, honor and shame, all located within a highly patriarchal Hellenistic Jewish society.
Let us now consider Vines’ discussion of the prooftexts themselves. I’ll omit discussion of the Sodom story (Gen 19), since, as Vines rightly observes, the general scholarly consensus is that this text is essentially irrelevant to the question at hand.7
The Levitical laws (Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13) merit more discussion. It takes some care to determine whether any particular Levitical law remains normative for Christians. To answer that question, we must inquire into the moral logic underlying each law. Vines first makes the point that the ancient law condemns only male-male anal intercourse, and not all same-sex behavior. He neatly uses Olyan’s lesser-known philological argument to argue for this reading of the laws.8 Vines then argues that, in light of his constructionist account of sexuality, the moral logic underlying the ancient laws is rooted not in any idea of gender complementarity, but instead in the specific shame incurred by the “feminizing” of the passive partner. In other words, Vines argues, the laws presuppose that women are inferior to men, and therefore it is disgraceful for a man to play a woman’s role. If we disbelieve in the inferiority of women, then we are no longer bound by the moral logic of these Levitical laws. Vines succeeds in posing a compelling challenge to any interpreter who would apply these laws to modern same-sex relationships.
In 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10, what is at stake is the translation of one highly disputed word, arsenokoitai, which is mentioned offhandedly and without explanation in two lists of vices. Paul appears to have coined the word himself (it doesn’t appear in any earlier writings), and later occurrences of the word are equally offhanded and unexplained. According to David Wright, the word appears to be a compound of arsenos (man) and koiten (to lie), directly echoing Leviticus 20:13 (meta arsenos koiten gynaikan).9 But as Vines rightly notes, one cannot reliably infer a word’s meaning from its etymology; that would be to commit the “root fallacy,” as the notable Reformed evangelical theologian D. A. Carson calls it.10 Meaning is determined by the way a word is used.11 Therefore I agree with Vines that no serious traditionalist case can rest on 1 Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10. And to translate arsenokoitai as “homosexuals” (NASB) or “men who practice homosexuality” (ESV) is not only anachronistic, but also deeply tendentious, given how little we know about the word itself.
[[EDIT, 6/9/14: In the published version of this article, I wish I had remarked on the significance of the fact that Paul is referencing Leviticus. This reinforces the hermeneutical relevance of Lev 18:22 and Lev 20:13 for Christians. Though Paul firmly rejects Leviticus qua cultic law-covenant, he nevertheless upholds Leviticus qua wisdom. Ultimately, though, all this must be evaluated against the cultural backgrounds of both the Holiness source and Paul.]]
I have saved Romans 1 and the background material for last. Rom 1 is easily the most important passage in the whole debate. Vines presents a clean, cohesive case against the traditional interpretation of Rom 1 that impressively avoids sounding ad hoc. Recall that Vines’s reconstruction of ancient sexuality includes the complex interplay of purity, lust, masculine honor, feminine shame, patriarchy, and social status. Vines then points out the ways in which Paul’s language in Rom 1 reflects these various concerns. The “lust” category perhaps requires more explanation. The Stoics regarded same-sex intercourse as lustful excess, precisely because, absent a concept of sexual orientation, any normal person ought to be content with opposite-sex intercourse. This, Vines argues, was not a matter of gender complementarity, but rather an exhortation against excess desire, typical of Stoic thought.
The greatest pressure point in this reading of Rom 1 is Paul’s use of the Stoic phrase para physin, “contrary to nature.” We’ve already discussed why para physin need not imply any concept of sexual orientation, if the Stoics indeed thought that same-sex desires were a temptation that could befall anyone. Furthermore, Vines argues, in the context of sexuality, the ancients specifically used para physin to describe the transgression of now-familiar social and gender roles, without introducing any further complications.12
But in the context of Rom 1, it would appear that “nature” is connected to a more ancient and far-reaching theme in the Bible. Vines recognizes that Paul’s language in Rom 1 hearkens back to the creation stories in Gen 1-2. For Paul, the echoes of Genesis provide the context for our understanding of human idolatry and wickedness; these things are rebellions against the created order.
Vines takes this notion of creation order to be very general, arguing that there’s no reason to suppose that “the violation related to creation runs any deeper than lustfulness.”13 But, crucially, in Gen 1-2 the creation of Man as male and female is highlighted as a special and significant divine act. Could Gen 1-2 express specific divine intentions for sexuality that transcend even cultural biases and social constructions? Vines does not concede this possibility. I find his discussion insufficient.
Let us examine the notion of creation order more carefully. If one believes that the world was created by a good and wise Creator God, then nature is not at all just a bunch of matter, but is a piece of craftsmanship. As such, it might be expected to come with some “givens”: a pre-set purpose, a normative design, and a fixed moral order. The traditional view of sexuality is grounded in the notion that Gen 1-2 expresses the normative pattern of God’s will in creation, particularly in the area of sexuality (which indeed receives an inordinate amount of attention in these creation accounts). If there are divinely created “givens” of this sort, then the ethical boundaries for Christians may not just lie at the utilitarian, psychological level of what appears to maximize everyone’s happiness, but may be more essentially teleological in nature. Thus, for instance, the universal prohibition of incest and polygamy does not make sense at the utilitarian level (what if there’s a menage a trois who are really happy together?), but might make sense within an overarching framework of creation order. The teleology of sex and marriage, in turn, is grounded in God’s intention for his relationship with humankind, Israel, and ultimately the Church. Humankind is to be monogamous, because “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). A man is to hold fast to his wife, because God always remains faithful (2 Tim 2:13). Thus we have Jesus’s teaching on divorce in Matthew 19,
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
And thus we also have Ephesians 5:31-32, “ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
So goes the traditionalist line of thinking, anyhow. Vines’s responses to this deep, unifying theological and hermeneutical approach are regrettably brief and scattered. The reader is left feeling that the Vines has not fully placed himself into the stream of the traditionalist dialogue. I do not hereby intend to judge whether the traditionalist interpretation is in fact correct; but it seems to me that unless Vines engages with the notion of creation order more seriously, he is unlikely to persuade any well-informed traditionalist.
One further criticism pertains to the chapter on celibacy, which we have now to revisit. Celibacy, Vines tells us, is a difficult vocation, reserved only for those who discern a special gift for it, who have received from God the emotional fortitude necessary for it, and who voluntarily and joyfully accept this vocation as their own. Vines then argues that no one should accept celibacy involuntarily or joylessly, because anyone who doesn’t have the gift for it will inevitably end up an emotional train wreck.
Yet to me there remains the question: does Vines leave room in his theology for the unwillingly celibate? For there do exist many Christians, gay and straight, who find themselves committed to celibacy, not willingly, but out of theological conviction.14 Their stories are noticeably absent from Vines’s discussion. The stories these men and women share, in their efforts to carve out a liveable space for the celibate within the Church, are rich with both joy and pain, meaning and meaninglessness, hope and confusion, eros and sacrifice. It is grossly simplistic, and indeed unjust, to depict all unwilling celibates as either specially privileged with “the knack for it,” or else doomed to emotional repression and instability.
I can think of no better example than the gay celibate Christians who blog at Spiritual Friendship: Wesley Hill, Eve Tushnet, Ron Belgau, Joshua Gonnerman, Aaron Taylor, and many others.15 The blog Spiritual Friendship intends to reshape the culture and thinking of the church so as to make celibacy a liveable possibility for Christians. Vines, on the other hand, makes it sound very much like the only options are marriage or bust.
So is Vines’s work convincing? As someone who has studied the traditionalist and revisionist views extensively and still has not made up his mind, I am not yet persuaded by Vines. There is no doubt that Vines is a learned and powerful thinker, as well as a man of great compassion. I eagerly look forward to seeing how Matthew Vines continues to shape the current debate in the church.
If nothing else, revisionists like Vines will continue to serve the Church by reminding her of her first and greatest duty: What “good news” does the Church have for gay people? Perhaps in the middle of the sound and fury of the “gay debate” within the Church, this much at least of Vines’s message will survive: that Christians must engage seriously with gay people as people. That means wrestling seriously with the Biblical texts on their behalf and for their sake and allowing our theological presuppositions to be challenged by the experiences of real people. And at all times we must remember the central mission of Christ himself, to seek and to save the lost.16
Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. 224 pp. New York: Convergent Books and Random House LLC, 2014. $22.99.
Stephen Mackereth ’15 is a Mathematics and Philosophy concentrator living in Mather House, and is the Editor-in-Chief of the Ichthus.
2 Vines, Matthew. Introduction. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. N.p.: Convergent, 2014. N. pag. Print.
3 The phrase “moral logic” is James Brownson’s.
4 The Stoics held that man’s nature was essentially rational. All passions that interfered with reason, including sexual desire, were therefore “contrary to nature,” and were to be controlled or avoided. Sex, in particular, was vindicated only by its natural function of procreation. This is the reason for the Stoic condemnation of same-sex intercourse.
5 This is not quite accurate in the context of ancient Israel, even during its most Hellenistic period. Slight modifications must be made to Foucault’s thesis. The sharp distinction between the roles of penetrator and penetrated was still present, but politics was less relevant for the Jewish understanding of sexuality. See Boyarin, Daniel. “Are There Any Jews in ‘The History of Sexuality’?” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.3 (1995): n. pag. Web. See also, Satlow, Michael L. “‘They Abused Him Like a Woman’: Homoeroticism, Gender Blurring, and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.1 (1994): n. pag. Web.
6 Robert Gagnon is an influential proponent of this view.
7 Sodom is a story about gang rape, entirely disanalogous to the case of monogamous, loving, committed same-sex relationships.
8 Olyan, Saul M. “ ‘And with a Male You Shall Not Lie the Lying down of a Woman’: On the Meaning and Significance of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 5.2 (1994): 179-206. JSTOR. Web. 27 July 2013.
9 This is the Septuagint (LXX), translating the Hebrew “lie with a man the lying down of a woman.” See Wright, David F. “Homosexuals or Prostitutes?” Vigiliae Christianae 38.2 (1984): 125-53. Print.
10 Carson, D. A. “Word-Study Fallacies.” Exegetical Fallacies. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1984. Print.
11 In particular, Vines defends Dale Martin’s arguments that arsenokoitai are engaged in some form of economic exploitation, since the vice lists containing arsenokoitai tend to group it with economic sins.
12 Cf Paul’s own baffling remarks in 1 Cor 11!
13 Vines, Matthew. “Excess Passion and Unnatural Acts in Romans 1.” God and the Gay Christian ch.6.
14 This is actually quite common. The female to male gender ratio among churchgoers in America is approximately 3:2, according to the US Congregational Life Survey 2008-9. Given St Paul’s exhortation that Christians ought not to marry non-Christians (2 Cor 6:14), it is therefore the case that many straight women in the church are effectively commanded to be celibate if they wish to remain faithful to their theological convictions.
16 Further reading: For less technical (but very thorough) discussions, see James Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, and Sexuality (revisionist) and Richard Hays’s chapter “Homosexuality” in The Moral Vision of the New Testament (traditionalist). For more technical discussions, I’d first recommend William Loader’s excellent survey of the current debate in his chapter “Same-Sex Intercourse” in The New Testament on Sexuality (2012). Other important technical discussions include Martti Nissinen’s Homoeroticism in the Biblical World (revisionist) and Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice (traditionalist).