Matthew Vines made headlines in 2012 when he posted a YouTube video of a presentation he made calling for the church to affirm same-sex relationships.1 He garnered national attention again in 2013 when he started his ministry The Reformation Project and hosted a conference to teach people how to “reform” the church on the issue of homosexuality.2 And in April of this year, Vines made news once again with the release of his new book God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.3
Days after the book’s release, Ken Ham and I authored a short piece dealing with Vines’s treatment of the creation account in Genesis. As we broke down his arguments concerning the creation order, we realized that God and the Gay Christian was not the typical progressive attack on the authority of Scripture. In fact, after reading Vines’s book, I am even more convinced that it poses a threat to the church—not because Vines proves his case (he doesn’t), but because of his book’s winsomeness, accessibility, and carefully disguised leaps in logic.
Dr. Al Mohler and four professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) have already published an excellent critique of Vines’s book. For a detailed analysis of his faulty arguments in the Old Testament and the New Testament, along with those related to church history and biblical counseling, download the free PDF of the critique by Dr. Mohler et al. Because of their thorough work, I will not look as closely at Vines’s theological problems. However, I want to turn to examine two of the key assertions on which Vines relies in God and the Gay Christian: the idea that “sexual orientation” cannot be changed, and the relevance of celibacy to his point. Ultimately, the answer to Vines’s problem is clear to discerning believers: he needs repentance, not justification for his actions.
The idea that a person’s sexual orientation is unchangeable actually points to a deeper logical problem, particularly for the Christian. Secular philosophies typically come to the conclusion that people form identities based on their experiences and feelings. Vines is no exception to this sort of experience-based thought, which is evident in his book:
The permanence of same-sex orientation does not settle the moral questions at issue here, but we cannot adequately address those questions without acknowledging it. If you are a straight Christian, I invite you to think about your own experience with sexuality. I doubt you could point to a moment when you chose to be attracted to members of the opposite sex. That attraction is simply part of who you are.4
And so, by analogy, Vines believes that his “orientation” to homosexual behavior is just part of who he is. His book’s title hints at this belief, as it refers to “the gay Christian.” Indeed, there are many professing Christians who have adopted terminology such as “gay Christian” as a descriptor for those Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction (SSA).
But this is problematic for the believer who has repented of his sin and trusted Christ for salvation. While Christians still sin, they are not defined by their sin. Dr. Owen Strachan, assistant professor of Christian theology and church history at SBTS, writes about the problem with using the term “gay Christian” to describe believers who deal with same-sex attraction. He explains, “We are not the sum of our lusts, our perversity, our fallenness, whatever shape such sin takes. . . . This means that born-again believers are all, in the words of the same apostolic author [Paul], a ‘new creation’ in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).”5 Scripture repeatedly affirms that believers have new life in Christ, and therefore a new identity:
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:13)
In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace which He made to abound toward us in all wisdom and prudence (Ephesians 1:7–8)
He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins. (Colossians 1:13–14)
Even using “gay” or “lesbian” as a secondary category of defining a Christian introduces confusion. Some Christians argue that while identity in Christ is of first importance for a believer to grasp, we should also encourage them to maintain this other identity as a “gay Christian,” as a way of classifying their experience. But homosexuality is an identity issue—the sinful identity fights against the new identity in Christ. Many people dealing with SSA will be tempted to say what Matthew Vines has—that being homosexual is simply part of who they are—and to treat that as a secondary identity to or as a replacement for their identity as a new creation in Christ.
Homosexuality is an identity issue—the sinful identity fights against the new identity in Christ.
Giving weight in this way to a Christian’s struggle against SSA does not aid in the fight against sin; rather, it opens the door for temptation and the false belief that a sinful desire can be a Christian’s identity. As believers, we are called to bring hope to believers and unbelievers alike. Preaching a message that says Christians dealing with SSA are defined, either primarily or secondarily, by their sexual feelings does not “
impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29). Moreover, such a message also contradicts the Apostle Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 6:11 when he said that Christians have been “
sanctified,” and “
justified” in Christ—and Paul specifically includes homosexuality in the list of things these believers had left behind.
In light of that, what should believers make of Matthew Vines’s stance concerning homosexual orientation? The idea of a sexual “orientation,” I would assert, is not at all helpful in talking about SSA. It only lends credence to the idea that people are defined entirely by their sins. What’s more, Vines’s argument that sexual orientation cannot be changed discounts entirely those believers dealing with SSA who are happily married to someone of the opposite sex as well as those whose feelings of same-sex attraction have lessened or perhaps disappeared entirely.
There is no denying the fact that many repentant Christians dealing with same-sex attraction will struggle with that temptation for most or all of their lives. But it is, like pride, anger, or heterosexual lust, a sinful desire—not an orientation that one is obligated to follow. Scripture tells us clearly about sinful desires:
Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed. Then, when desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, brings forth death. (James 1:13–15)
And what is the Bible’s solution for the repentant believer dealing with these unholy desires? Flee from them, run from them, and reject them (Proverbs 3:5–7; Amos 5:14–15; 1 Thessalonians 5:22; 2 Timothy 2:22). The dogmatic assertions from Vines and others that same-sex attraction is part of a Christian’s identity do not line up with God’s Word.
Vines’s other key assumption in God and the Gay Christian is that celibacy should only be practiced by those called to it, and the men and women dealing with SSA who are not called to celibacy should be allowed to fulfill their sexual desires through marriage. Some progressive Christians affirm same-sex couples that are celibate but who in every other way are in a relationship. This thinking is clearly erroneous, as the issue extends beyond sexual contact and to the heart. But Vines wants to take the error even further:
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. It’s not a fulfillment of sexuality for gay Christians, but a rejection of it.6
Once more, Vines’s belief that sexual desires are unchangeable and must be fulfilled is self-evident. Otherwise, Christians struggling with SSA are somehow rejecting a part of themselves.
Is celibacy relevant to this discussion? Yes and no. The Apostle Paul wrote about celibacy as something that only those with self-control should take on: “
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:8–9). On one count, Vines is correct—those who are not gifted with celibacy should marry, otherwise the temptation to engage in sexual behavior outside the confines of marriage will be difficult to resist.
But the Apostle Paul was crystal clear about homosexual behavior. It is “
against nature” and “
shameful” (Romans 1:26–27). It’s included in two different vice lists in the New Testament, both written by the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; 1 Timothy 1:10). Moreover, the Levitical law refers to all homosexual behavior in no uncertain terms as an “
abomination” (Leviticus 18:22; 20:13). In other words, homosexual behavior, whether in the confines of “marriage” or not, is sinful.7
Could the Apostle Paul have possibly intended this passage on celibacy to include same-sex marriage? Not a chance. Homosexual behavior is sin, making the celibacy discussion relevant only in the sense that a professing Christian has repented of sin such as homosexual behavior and abstains from it for the rest of his life, even if that means accepting celibacy and trusting God for the grace to live up to that call.
But Vines has an answer to this. He believes that the Apostle Paul simply was not aware of homosexual orientation and wrote against same-sex behavior out of ignorance:
In Paul’s day, same-sex relations were a potent symbol of sexual excess. . . . The specific example Paul drew from his own culture doesn’t carry the same resonance for us. That isn’t because Paul was wrong—he wasn’t addressing what we think of today as homosexuality. The context in which Paul discussed same-sex relations differs so much from our own that it can’t reasonably be called the same issue.8
This raises the question: Is the God of the universe not capable of communicating principles that would be understandable and true for all time on all the earth? He certainly is and has in Scripture:
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)
The case Vines makes about the Apostle Paul actually closely reflects the case many theistic evolutionists make concerning the creation account in Genesis. They believe that God “accommodated” the text to say something the ancient Israelites could understand, even if that meant bending the truth or lying outright to His people about the how the world came to be.9 Similarly, many evangelical feminists assert that wifely submission was strictly cultural, and that the gender roles laid out by Scripture no longer apply today, because the culture has changed.10
These culturally based arguments are the height of desperation for those who so badly want the text to say the opposite of what it plainly does. Vines has not done anything new here; he’s simply following in the footsteps of many left-leaning scholars before him as he tries to justify indulging sinful desires. But the solution to the problem—the solution Vines overlooks entirely—is repentance.
Christians have consistently been faced with a choice: either live counter-culturally and face the wrath of those demanding “tolerance,” or accept at face value the demands and claims of a world where sin’s influence runs riot. With the issue of homosexuality, a rapidly growing minority in the church has chosen the path of least resistance and affirmed same-sex relationships. But it’s up to the majority in the church to preach the gospel and call for repentance.
Another troubling aspect of Vines’s book is how easy he makes it for believers who are not searching the Scriptures to accept his views. Nowhere does Vines encourage readers to see how his ideas hold up against a natural reading of the text.
The reception of God and the Gay Christian among theologically liberal Christian bloggers has been telling. One blogger, who is also a director of a pro-homosexual foundation, recounts Vines’s influence at a lecture:
A funny thing happened in that lecture hall back in January. In a room full of LGBTQ christians, [sic] their families and loved ones, in numbers that sure exceeded fire codes for the room, we all laughed. Of course, Matthew wasn't cracking jokes. He was barreling along with excited pragmatism. But the way he applied a high view of Scriptural authority to the affirmation of same-sex relationships was clearly music to the ears of so many in attendance. . . . But to this group of LGBTQ folks, their family and loved ones, hanging on every word, Matthew's message addressed one of the central question of our lives: Does God bless my expression of romantic love? His answers didn't just provoke thought, it provoked the kind of delight that finds expression in laughter. And a few tears.11
Vines’s arguments, while nothing new to Bible scholars, draw followers because they are attractively packaged and give those who want to reconcile same-sex relationships with Scripture a seemingly legitimate way to do so. Another blogger defended Vines’s misuse of Scripture:
The core message of God and the Gay Christian is not to “challenge” or “dispute” the Bible itself, or to question whether the text is inspired and authoritative in our lives as followers of Christ. Matthew Vines is not placing his own individual experience as a gay Christian over the truth of the bible [sic], and he is not even challenging the words of scripture [sic] because of his personal experience. Rather—and this is an important distinction—Matthew’s experience as a gay Christian has led him to challenge his own personal, limited, interpretation of scripture [sic]. Again, Matthew isn’t placing his experience over the Bible. He’s placing himself under the authority of the text. [emphases original]12
In fact, it’s these repeated claims that Vines is not trying to usurp the authority of Scripture that should put believers on alert that Vines is trying to usurp the authority of Scripture. They protest too much. While Vines’s interpretation is certainly limited, insomuch as it is based on his experience rather than solid exegesis, his claim is that his experience and desires trump the clear restrictions laid down by God through inspired authors.
Finally, Kathy Baldock, whose story was featured in Vines’s book, weighed in with another positive review:
Arguments for inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people in faith communities have evolved over the past 45 years. Often, arguments for inclusion have been dismissively labeled as “pro-gay theology.” Vines presents a careful and more accurate reading of Scriptures in context, and with understanding of the culture in which they were written. The information in his book reveals insights that may be new information for many readers.13
What’s clear from these and the many other positive articles written by professing Christians is that some in the church—whether they struggle with same-sex desires themselves, know someone who does, or simply have an interest in the issue—are not interested in the call to repentance and change in Christ. Rather, they are seeking a solution that is easy and nice. Vines’s solution meets both criteria, but at the cost of scriptural authority.
Christians who stand firmly on the authority of Scripture when it comes to homosexual behavior may want to lash out at people who impugn the Word of God, such as Matthew Vines, or at churches that embrace such a mixture of worldly philosophy with biblical doctrine. But as another winsome blogger rightly put it,
In the face of this new brand of toleration Christians will be tempted to return evil for evil, intolerance for intolerance. Let’s not. We find ourselves in a time in which we may nobly follow early Christians who suffered gladly for Christ’s name (Acts 5:40–41). Like the Leader of our Faith, they loved the unlovely, bore patiently when insulted and assaulted, and ultimately committed themselves to a Judge who judges rightly.14
My heart aches for Matthew Vines. He believes he will be truly happy if he is able to enter a “marriage” with another man—but he is mistaken and lost. Taking on the title of “gay Christian” and dismissing abstinence from sinful sexual behavior will not solve his problem, despite the elaborate arguments presented in God and the Gay Christian. It is our call as believers to lovingly and patiently show him his error, share the gospel with him, and call him to repentance.