In the months since I have started to reeengage with Christianity, I have read a few books advocating the acceptance of homosexuality (or other forms of sexual diversity) within the Church. This has been less about finding acceptance for myself (as in my own journey I needed to wrestle with and sort through this issue before I was able to approach Christian faith again) as it has been about seeing what other people have said and filling up a hole in my reading on the area, since these were works I simply could not engage in my years as a homosexual Christian committed to lifelong celibacy.
I have been on the whole greatly disappointed by what I’ve found. While the personal stories are generally very powerful, compelling, and beautiful, most of the books I have read in this area have lacked theological depth and rigor and have been hermeneutically irresponsible. So, it was with much scepticism that I approached Matthew Vines’ recent (published May 2014) book God and the Gay Christian, a book which has been getting a lot of press (much of it a little over-the-top) of late. To my surprise and delight, Vines exceeded my expectations at every turn.
My main concern going in was that Vines would be hampered by his conservative Protestant presuppositions. While people in more liberal traditions can shrug their shoulders from time to time and ‘read the Scripture against itself’, evangelicals don’t really have that luxury. So his degree of difficulty was substantially higher than many who attempt his task: He must disarm every passage in the Bible that has been used to justify the exclusion of ‘practicing’ gay people. (By way of comparison, my own studies have reduced the problematic passages to but one, Romans 1; all the others can be, I am firmly convinced on conservative interpretive principles, better understood, without any ‘explaining away’.)
Vines begins by laying out the stakes: non-affirming Christian responses to homosexuality produce bad spiritual fruit: despair, alienation from self, God and church community, emotional isolation, and even mental illness and suicidal ideation. Since Jesus’ primary image for judging ideas and opinions is that good trees produce good fruit (see, for example Mt 3.10, 7.19, 12.33, Lk 3.9 and 13.7), Vines argues — rightly — that these negative consequences should cause Christians to reconsider their beliefs. And because Vines comes from the Protestant tradition, this reconsideration primarily means returning to the biblical texts.
Before he does this, however, Vines spends two chapters fleshing out two aspects of necessary context: the understanding of sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world and the Christian understanding of celibacy. While far from perfect, both chapters are more than adequate as a survey in a popular-level book.
Vines sees the general prevailing views of sexuality in the Greco-Roman (and particularly Roman) world as being of a basic bisexuality wherein homosexual expression was seen as a sign of over-indulgence (p. 31ff). What made this particular indulgence shocking to moralists of the day was less the transgression of an anatomical barrier than of a social norm of gender relations: In a context where females were viewed as essentially inferior to men, sex between equals was not conceived of as a possibility; hence, the visible forms of homosexual expression in Roman society generally maintained this power dynamic: adult to youth, master to slave, or john to prostitute (pp 34-35). This was viewed as fundamentally degrading to men, who were used “as women” — lesbian relations were rarely discussed in the ancient world precisely because it was not possible to demean a woman in that highly patriarchal (and let’s just be honest, misogynistic) context. While this perspective is oversimplified — there is evidence that the Greeks had some notion of sexual orientation similar to our own and there was a long-standing tradition in some places of martial homosexuality among relative equals — it is nonetheless representative of something of a consensus. (I would note, however, that the ancient Mediterranean world covers many cultures and many time periods, which saw considerable change and diversity of opinion; by way of comparison, think of how much our own Western society’s beliefs about sexuality and love have swung back and forth over the past two hundred years, from periods of permissiveness to periods of repression and back again, with important counter-movements existing at all times!) Because ‘sexual orientation’ as we know it was not really on the radar of people in Rome, Vines argues that we don’t actually have a longstanding tradition of how to understand and engage homosexuality in the church, particularly as the homosexuality-as-excess understanding is so so very far from the lived experiences of gay Christians.
Vines’ take on Christian celibacy is similarly useful, if incomplete: he offers a strong defense of celibacy as a beautiful and legitimate lifestyle for Christians, but also notes that an enforced mandatory celibacy for a subset of Christians represents a rejection of much that makes celibacy beautiful and powerful. He concludes: “The purpose of celibacy … is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the Church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it. It sends the message to gay Christians that their sexual selves are inherently shameful” (57). While this conclusion is perhaps stated a little too strongly, it represents a common — and legitimate — frustration among gay Christians: that something that is understood more generally as a rare and beautiful gift from God to be undertaken only with fear and trembling by God’s grace, is for us viewed as a basic condition for membership in the Church. I would argue, however, that Vines would have been smart to explore celibacy more through a more historical perspective, particularly the Christian monastic movement as it related to a general shift in late Roman society towards a greater suspicion of sexuality (of which the increasing Christian push towards asceticism starting in the late second century was only one manifestation).
Vines is more comfortable once he turns away from this contextual material to his discussion of the relevant biblical texts themselves, which takes up the bulk of the book. In separate chapters he engages the Sodom & Gomorrah story, the Levitical prohibitions, Romans 1, and the vice lists in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1. The first two of these require little comment: There is nothing but a relatively late interpretive tradition to justify using Sodom & Gomorrah as an anti-homosexuality text (indeed, the Bible itself often refers to the story and indicates Sodom’s sin was such things as injustice, lack of hospitality, arrogance, idolatry and the lust for sex with angelic beings (curiously to our sensibilities, the fact that the story involves a threatened gang rape doesn’t make the cut)), and justifying any moral judgment on a text about ritual purity is for Christians very problematic. The New Testament texts are more difficult for Christians. Yet here again, I — with Vine — am confident the 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy texts are either outright mistranslated or at least very questionably translated (and as Vine demonstrates, they have been translated in an increasingly anti-homosexuality manner since the 20th century). This leaves Romans 1 as the most difficult text. It is difficult, as Vines points out (p. 96), not only because it is the fullest exploration of the issue in the Bible, but also because it is situated within a larger argument rather than being an argument of its own, and because it seems to offer an origin story for homosexuality that completely contradicts the lived experiences of gay people.
Vines connects this passage with the prevailing cultural sentiment of basic bisexuality with homosexual expression as excess which he discussed in his chapter on historical context. This is strengthened with quotations from the historian Dio Chrysostom and the philosopher Musomius Rufus — both rough contemporaries of Paul — which discuss homosexual relations in markedly similar terms to those Paul uses here. Paul’s point, for Vines, is not a condemnation of homosexual vs. heterosexual expression but rather a condemnation of “excess as opposed to moderation” (p. 105). Furthermore, in the context of an honour vs. shame society, “Male passivity, female dominance, and a total lack of self-control made same-sex behavior both the height of sexual excess and the pinnacle of dishonor for many conservative moralists in Paul’s day. These factors also made same-sex relations a particularly apt illustration for Paul as he described the consequences of failing to honor God: we ourselves are given over to dishonor” (p. 114). Whatever other virtues or problems this interpretation might have, Vines is correct in his association of ancient disapproval of homosexual behaviour with patriarchy; my own research over the years has corroborated this understanding: the higher importance a society places on gender differences, the greater it will tend to reject homosexuality; where a more equal understanding of gender develops, some degree of acceptance of homosexuality tends to follow. Sadly, this means that how we finally come to understand such passages as Romans 1 is largely dependent on the far larger issue of whether we interpret the patriarchal language and worldview of the Scriptures as being merely descriptive of the ancient world or prescriptive for Christians today. This raises the further issue of whether Christians must accept biblical teachings based on prevailing first century cultural beliefs, an issue which itself raises even greater issues of the nature of inspiration and the relationship between faith and culture. So, whereas I am convinced the other passages used to reject homosexuality within the church can be easily interpreted otherwise, the interpretation of Romans 1 is far more complicated and raises more questions than it might resolve. I do believe, however, Vines’ contribution to the interpretation of this text is a helpful jumping off point for needful discussions.
After he discusses the relevant texts, Vines moves on to larger, more philosophical issues, of the nature of Christian marriage, creation, and what it means to be made in the image of God. It seems to me that he is far less comfortable on his footing here than he is in the more hermeneutical section of the book. While he touches on all of the important points and objections (e.g., the procreative intent argument, the gender roles argument, etc.), I believe he dismisses them far too cavalierly considering the great importance many non-affirming Christians place on them. He also places same-sex orientation far too easily into part of God’s good creation, when it could equally be understood (even in an affirming context) as a consequence of generational sin (i.e., that the primordial sin of Adam and Eve created an environment wherein everyone is disposed towards sin in certain ways). Nevertheless, they represent a good beginning. Vines regains momentum however when he moves on to relationality and promoting the covenantal capability of same-sex relationships (pp. 155ff), even if his tradition limits him from discussing the far more interesting issue (for me at least) of whether same-sex relationships can be sacramental.
By way of assessment, this is far from “the last word” on the difficult issue of homosexuality in the Church. Yet it is a highly valuable contribution — it is in fact the first Christian book I have read on the subject that I would consider recommending to people wanting to explore the issue in greater detail. At the same time, this is very clearly a book written by a conservative Protestant for a conservative Protestant audience. His language and presuppositions speak from a particular theological perspective; this isn’t a problem, but does serve to limit the effectiveness of his presentation to his own tradition. The author and his father changed their minds about homosexuality by returning to the Scriptures; this represents a built-in self-corrective device in Protestantism that isn’t necessarily found in more intentionally traditional groups. On exactly this point, I remember a Facebook conversation in which an evangelical friend wrote about how the biblical warrant for excluding homosexuals from church life was weaker than he expected, to which an Eastern Orthodox friend of his replied (with rather shameful glee) that she didn’t need to reconsider her opinion because of the weight of tradition on this subject. Now, I happen to be of the (minority) opinion that more traditional churches — and especially the Eastern Orthodox tradition — have sufficient internal resources to move on this issue, but the point remains that they will require more than a simple refutation of some historical interpretations of select Bible passages to do so. (For those interested in exploring the added complexities of dealing with this issue in traditional groups, my favorite book on the subject is by an Orthodox Jewish rabbi named Steven Greenberg, Wrestling with God and Men.) And even within Vines’ own tradition, it is clear that people tend to change their minds about homosexuality primarily when they are confronted with a friend or family member coming out. Therefore, this book will likely be far more likely to assuage the fears of evangelicals searching for a more open and gracious approach to homosexuality in the church while remaining true to their beliefs in the Bible than it will be to persuade those who are opposed.
All that said, this is a very valuable contribution. It is highly readable, informed, passionate, and compassionate, and hermeneutically responsible, none of which are easy to accomplish with such difficult subject matter.