I got the chance to spend some quality time with Matthew Vines earlier this year at a conference, and it was clear through both our interactions and his writing that Matthew is a sincere man who engages this conversation with grace. Matthew takes Scripture seriously, and he argues for affirmation of same-sex marriage because he truly believes that is the redemptive vision of Scripture and the most loving posture the church can have toward gay people. I want to say from the outset of my review of his book, God and the Gay Christian, that it’s obvious Matthew has been deeply troubled by the way the church has mistreated the gay community, and he feels it can’t reflect God’s heart toward men and women made in His image. I believe he’s correct in that analysis, and while I disagree with his answers to the problem, I believe the church would do well to listen to the concerns he raises because they’re concerns that need to be taken seriously if we’re going to demonstrate love and compassion toward this group of men and women loved by God.
Here is a summary of his main points. He acknowledges these are not new arguments; rather they are previously stated Revisionist arguments that he seeks to make more accessible to a popular audience: Matthew says we now have a more advanced understanding of sexual orientation than they had when the Bible was written. Because we now believe a gay orientation is fixed and unchosen, and the biblical authors were writing to a culture that only understood homosexual behavior in the context of their patriarchal society that viewed gay sex as excessive lust, we have to acknowledge the gap between Scripture’s context and ours, admitting Scripture doesn’t speak to the idea of loving, monogamous same sex relationships. Biblical condemnation of homosexual behavior is primarily related to gender hierarchy in a patriarchal context (rather than gender complementarity), and since we no longer live in such a context then we should reconsider the commands that were written to that specific culture for that specific culture. By imposing the same commands in our current context, the church is mandating celibacy for all gay Christians and forbidding an avenue for them to sanctify their sexuality in the context of a Christian marriage, causing tremendous damage that results in the “bad fruit” of isolation and self-hatred for gay men and women made in the image of God.
With regard to sexual orientation: Matthew is correct that we now tend to categorize individuals as gay or straight and see sexual behavior to be the overflow of their orientation. He says in biblical times homosexual sex typically occurred in addition to one’s heterosexual marriage, that gay sex was an expression of excessive lust, and there was no such thing as an entire group of people with a gay orientation. Rather than running with his assumption that we’ve made progress in our understanding of sexuality, however, I think we should question whether or not we ought to consider sexuality with such rigid categories now. He says the idea of lifelong celibacy sounds like a death sentence to gay people because they have an unchosen orientation that cannot change (and he points to the failure of the ex-gay movement as “evidence” of this), but I’m not sure our modern construct is necessarily correct. Perhaps the story of sexual orientation, were it told to us in different terms that shaped us in different ways, would create space for more of a spectrum and erase the idea of “mandated celibacy for an entire group of people” altogether. Perhaps then, all celibate people would feel a sense of solidarity in pursuing chastity in light of our circumstances as opposed to gay Christians perceiving it as a mandate imposed upon a particular class of people.
Having said that: it is the context we’re in, and we do now think in terms of rigid categories when it comes to sexuality, which does intensify one’s sense of an enduring, unchosen sexual orientation, and can lead one to feel like they’re doomed to a life of failure if they’re never permitted to express it because they belong to a distinct class of people. Matthew raises a good point when he says: “For gay Christians to be celibate in an attempt to expunge even their desires for romantic love requires them to live in permanent fear of sexual intimacy and love. That is a wholly different kind of self-denial than the chastening of lustful desires the church expects of all believers. It requires gay Christians to build walls around their emotional lives so high that many find it increasingly difficult to form meaningful human connections of all kinds” (pg 19). The church has yet to offer a compelling answer to this criticism, and even if our modern way of thinking has caused some of the problem, it is a problem that gay Christians should not be forced to face alone. I don’t believe the challenge of celibacy in light of our context permits a re-imagination of Scripture’s teaching on sexual expression, as the difficulty of obedience (whatever the reason) has never been an occasion to question the command itself, but we need to honestly wrestle with a way forward if gay Christians are going to flourish as sexual and relational beings.
Matthew goes on to claim that condemnation of homosexual behavior in Scripture is related to a patriarchal context that devalued women. Because women were inferior to men, it was degrading for a man to be treated like a woman, which is what occurred in the act of gay sex. He believes Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex is rooted in that rather than considering gay sex sinful because homosexual behavior fails to align with God’s design for sexual expression based on gender complementarity. As I worked through his book, however, I found myself wishing he would interact a little more with the idea that gender complementarity really could be the basis of Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex. He dismisses that notion and says an assumption that Scripture’s commands are rooted in gender complementarity is “speculative”, but he does not substantiate that claim and it seems Matthew’s assumptions are speculative. To say Scripture’s condemnation of homosexual behavior is primarily related to the patriarchal context, and that Paul’s primary concern was excessive lust as opposed to the actual act of gay sex, is conjectural as well—and far-fetched at that. He reiterates time again that the Bible does not explicitly refer to anatomical complementarity in its discussion of sexual expression, but it seems complementarity could be so obvious that the writers of Scripture might not have seen the need to reiterate it every time they discussed sexual ethics. I personally would need more than the hypothetical assertion Matthew makes in order to re-imagine the meaning behind Scripture’s condemnation of gay sex.
Because he believes a gay orientation is rather fixed, and because he believes Scripture is not referring to a monogamous loving gay relationship in its condemnation of gay sex, Matthew believes the church is placing an unbearable burden on the backs of gay people by telling them faithful discipleship requires a life of celibacy. He suggests that a Christian marriage is not marked by gender difference, but by a one flesh union, and that gay Christians should not be excluded from this covenantal bond. He makes some emotionally charged arguments that say our choice not to offer the hope of marriage to gay Christians can lead to self-destruction and even suicide, implying that if we care at all about gay Christians living healthy, whole, integrated lives then we have no choice but to broaden our understanding of a Christian marriage.
As a gay Christian who affirms the church’s historical teaching on marriage, I do not agree that changing our understanding of marriage is the way forward for the church. I do agree with Matthew that we need a new way forward, however, because I’ve seen much of the despair he describes firsthand. Matthew supports his claim by sharing some heart-breaking stories of gay Christians who crumbled under the weight of the call to celibacy, and I grieve that some dismiss those stories as irrelevant to the conversation at hand. They are not irrelevant. They’re my friends and they’re people the church has failed. Perhaps the stories are not reasons to shift on theology (as Vines proposes), but the stories do demand us to make tremendous changes when it comes to pastoral care. The few stories he references represent thousands of others who have walked in their shoes, and to the extent that Matthew is seeking to offer hope to those hurting people, I applaud him.
There have been a number of conservative Christians who have refuted Revisionist theology (and are refuting Vines’ work already). I value their theological contribution immensely and believe we need thoughtful people addressing these questions in our current context. But no small number of these individuals dedicate their rebuttals to their wives and children, tearing down Revisionist arguments without adequately addressing the despair of the gay Christians who will never have a family of their own. Addressing Revisionist arguments without acknowledging the despair the arguments are seeking to alleviate leaves gay Christians feeling personally dismissed as quickly as the arguments. Those stories shouldn’t be dismissed.
Gay Christians, Matthew says, “pursue same-sex unions for the same reasons straight Christians pursue opposite-sex unions. They desire intimacy, companionship, and long-term commitment” (pg 109). We gay Christians desire—and need—each of those in order to flourish. Matthew seems to think a sexual relationship is the primary context in which those needs should be met, and I disagree with him on that point. I hope the church will recognize the problems with assuming a shift in theological interpretation that affirms gay sexual relationships is the answer to the concerns Matthew raises. I also hope the church won’t stop there, though, and will listen closely to the claim he’s making that gay Christians feel the need to enter into sexual relationships because they don’t have a place for those needs to be met within the structures we currently have in place in the church. We cannot refuse to meet those needs for intimacy and then chastise gay Christians for seeking to express their love elsewhere. The concerns Matthew raises warrant more than a critical analysis of his claims. I hope the church will listen closely to his concerns and offer a compelling alternative for human flourishing that aligns with the church’s traditional understanding of marriage.