The following is an excerpt from a free ebook from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Edited by Dr. Albert Mohler, with contributions from Dr. Jim Hamilton and Denny Burk (editor of the CBMW Journal), CBMW’s own Owen Strachan has contributed God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines. As Matthew Vines attempts to squeeze the square peg of Scripture through the round hole of sexual orientation revisionism, these men (and others) have provided an exhaustive and authoritative response. Reprinted here, with permission, is the contribution made by CBMW Executive Director, Owen Strachan. Be sure to download your free copy of this important resource and share it with your friends.
Have Christians Been Wrong All Along? What Has the Church Believed and Taught?
By Owen Strachan
“History,” journalist Ted Koppel once said, “is a tool used by politicians to justify their intentions.” This quotation reflects a certain skepticism about the world not unknown to the media class, but it makes a valid point: among long-standing academic disciplines, history is among the easiest to use for one’s purposes. It is therefore easy, one could say, to abuse it.
Skepticism over history is a valid place to start in considering the new book God and the Gay Christian by former Harvard student Matthew Vines. Vines takes on a weighty task in his new book. He seeks to prove that the Bible approves of a homosexual orientation, and that traditional evangelical interpretation of six key biblical texts has erred. Though Vines is at pains to say “I am not a Bible scholar” (2), he nonetheless attempts to overturn centuries, even two millennia, of Christian consensus on the issue at hand.
Four Assertions Debunked
But Vines does not stop with lecturing the exegetes in his book. He attempts, in fits and starts, to overturn the prevailing historical narrative of the church’s rejection of homosexuality. In what follows, I will address four major flaws in Vines’s historical engagement. As I address the historical deficiencies of Vines’s work, I will show that the Christian tradition speaks with one voice on the matter of homosexuality.
First, Vines’s view that evangelicals sought the abolition of slavery primarily due to experience is incorrect.
In his first chapter, Vines makes the case for an evangelical reexamination of homosexuality on the grounds that Christians have historically reversed their positions due to experience. His test case for the “bad fruit” of an idea is abolition:
[M]ost Christians throughout history understood passages such as Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-25 to sanction at least some forms of slavery. But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christian abolitionists persuaded believers to take another look. They appealed to conscience based on the destructive consequences of slavery. A bad tree produces bad fruit (15, emphasis original).
The case for abolition included reference to the consequences of slavery, to be sure. But even a cursory summary of classic abolitionist writings shows that the evangelical abolitionist movement was richly exegetical. In The Selling of Joseph (1700), a short pamphlet by Puritan judge Samuel Sewall, Sewall made reference to more than a dozen Bible verses. His case was rigorously biblical: “And seeing God hath said, He that stealeth a Man and Selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death, Exod. 12:16.” Thus Sewall concluded that “Man Stealing is ranked among the most atrocious of crimes,” a view that he substantiated from a range of Old and New Testament texts.1 Other famous abolitionists sounded the same biblical horn, with the “Immediatist” movement led by William Lloyd Garrison citing text after text in its appeal.2
For Vines, experience drives interpretation. He felt same-sex attraction, and concluded that the Bible must support his lifestyle. In his biographical comments, he cites the normalcy of homosexual experience as a matter of fact — “criticizing [gay people] for not trying to be straight didn’t make sense” (6). God and the Gay Christian is a lengthy exercise in reading Vines’s experience, and affirmation of it, into Scripture. The abolitionists, by contrast, judged their experience by reference to Scripture. Unlike the pro-slavery faction, they did not go to the Bible to justify their behavior and their society’s practice, but to critique it.
Christians have historically operated in consonance with the Reformation decree that Scripture is norma normans, “The norm that norms.”3 We are image-bearers, yes, but we are also fallen image-bearers who must be remade by the gospel of Jesus Christ and thus put to death our sinful tendencies (Rom 6:6; Col 3:10). Sadly, Vines is twisting Scripture to fit his desired sin patterns. We find this same behavior in history, but on the wrong side, not the right side.
Second, Vines’s view that past Christians disapproved only of certain homosexual acts but not a homosexual orientation is deeply flawed.
Vines develops an argument throughout God and the Gay Christian that boils down to this: ancient Christians, like other influential voices, spoke against certain homosexual acts but did not speak to the sinfulness of sexual orientation. Vines concludes that this means that past Christians would have had no quarrel with homosexual orientation. And thus, knowing this new category of human experience today, we are free to approve of a gay Christian lifestyle. He says by way of summary, for example, that “ancient societies didn’t think in terms of exclusive sexual orientations” (36). He sharpens the point further in his discussion of Romans 1:26-27: “Same-sex behavior condemned as excess doesn’t translate to homosexuality condemned as an orientation — or as a loving expression of that orientation” (106).
It is true that the exact term that the same-sex lobby uses to describe self-described gay and lesbian people, “orientation,” was not used until recently. But this is a red herring, and an anachronistic one at that.
The term “orientation” is recent, but Christians have called incidental or regular homosexual practice sinful for millennia. Commenting on Romans 1:27, fourth-century pastor Ambrosiaster traced the root of homosexual sin to “contempt of God.” Those falling into homosexual passion “changed to another order and by doing things which were not allowed, fell into sin” — sin so destructive that it “deceives even the devil and binds man to death.”4 It is hard to see anything but biblically justified condemnation of homosexuality in these words, whether as a discrete act or a fixed state of lust.
Preaching on this same passage, Chrysostom concluded of those who practiced homosexuality that “not only was their doctrine satanic, but their life was too.”5 This passage is of particular note, because Vines cites a portion of it (106), but he leaves out this section, claiming only that Chrysostom condemned “excessive” lust. This is no new argument (indeed it is a well-worn one). Vines’s contention suffers not merely from a common misreading of Romans 1, but from a failure to cite properly Chrysostom’s homily. Both the “doctrine” and the “life” of those who abandoned “what is according to nature” — i.e. those who embraced homosexual behavior — should be considered “satanic.” There is no stronger term by which one may identify sin than that.
Chrysostom’s words from the fourth century are instructive and reflective of the broader Christian moral tradition of the past two millennia. For him and countless others of orthodox fiber, homosexual behavior cannot be considered as an isolated act unrelated to moral concerns. The heart that willingly indulges in such behavior is thoroughly sinful. There can thus be no abstraction of practice, as Vines strains to prove. If it is wrong to get drunk, then it is wrong to be oriented (whatever this means precisely) toward drunkenness. If it is wrong to commit pedophilia, then it is wrong to be oriented toward pedophilic acts. If it is wrong for a husband to harm his wife physically, then it is wrong to be oriented toward doing so. There cannot be what Vines calls a “loving expression” of these and any other sins.
Believers still dishonor God after our conversion, but we no longer find our identity in our sin, as Vines wants to do. Indeed, one wonders whether the “coming out” experience of “gay Christians” is more of a conversion than their profession of faith.
For the truly repentant, our identity is in Christ, and we have left behind our wicked practices and our former identities, becoming by the grace of God a “new self” in Jesus (Col 3:10).
Third, Vines is wrong to argue that Christians have never made the case against homosexual practice based on “anatomical complementarianism.”
God and the Gay Christian may have the moral legitimization of homosexuality in its sights, but there is a strong secondary target as well: biblical gender roles. Throughout the text, Vines mixes both subtle and explicit rebukes of complementarianism. In a manner that initially seems unseemly, for example, he pats Paul on the back for his good-hearted (if ultimately unsuccessful) attempt at championing the equality of men and women. “Paul,” he writes, “may not have endorsed fully equal roles for men and women, but his views were remarkably egalitarian within his cultural context” (110).
I say this seems unseemly, but perhaps I am unduly swayed by Paul’s apostolicity. We are in the age of equality, after all, which means a 20-something with no formal theological credentials feels no hesitation about telling an apostle of the living Lord, a man who saw Christ with his own eyes and shed blood for the gospel, “Nice try, buddy.”
In general, God and the Gay Christian is rarely more gymnastic, more contorted, in its theologizing than in its presentation of biblical gender. As the executive director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (CBMW), I took special interest in Vines’s attempt to jettison both sexual “complementarity” and “anatomical differences” (27-28).
Vines attacks what Scripture plainly teaches and our bodies plainly show: men and women are different. We each equally bear the image of God. But in the most basic and obvious of terms, we don’t have the same shapes. Our bodily differences tell us something about who we are and who we are to be. This information is crucial in such practical tasks as procreation and the nurturing of human life, though publicly saying so of late has landed complementarians in the cultural dunk tank.
Vines wants to plunge complementarians under water. When it comes to Adam and Eve, he posits that “the Genesis text focuses only on what these two have in common” (47). This is a remarkable statement. Adam needed a human being, a fellow image-bearer, who would be able to procreate with him, bear his child and nurture said child. Augustine says it forthrightly: Eve, the helper of Adam, was created “for the sake of bearing children.”6
The point is simple, and marvelously so. Only someone not like Adam could bear children. “Anatomical complementarity” is as fixed a fact as can be. This is true unless one forcibly refigures one’s gender, a process Vines wholeheartedly endorses, and which may be the most audacious position he takes in a book chock-full of audacity (165, 176-77). There are professing evangelicals currently queuing up to endorse same-sex marriage and curry favor from the cultural elite when the moment is right. Fewer Christians are presently in the “The Bible Allows Boys to Become Girls” line, but their numbers will increase in coming days. Currently, Maine and California allow boys identifying as trans-gender to enter girls’ restrooms.7 Vines approves wholeheartedly of this.
Problems with gender abound in the text. In a passage from chapter 5 on Leviticus, Vines cites a number of figures from history, mixing Christian and non-Christian voices. Whether intentional or not, this common shortcoming of God and the Gay Christian seems to present the Christian quoted as affirming the unbiblical prejudices of his non-Christian peers. In the passage in question, for example, there are vast theological differences between the two figures Vines cites: Plutarch and Clement of Alexandria. Vines misreads Clement as engaging in the “denigration of women” when he is not; he is calling men to be manly and not womanly, just like the Bible does (1 Kings 2:2; 1 Cor 16:13).
But this is not all that is awry in this passage. Vines claims that the rejection of same-sex relations on the part of ancient Christians owes to their cultural prejudice against women, not any fixed belief in “anatomical complementarity” (90). This is a take-your-breath-away kind of claim. Countless Christians have grounded their rejection of same-sex relations in natural complementarity, which surely includes anatomical design. A select range of voices on this matter:
Tertullian, influential in the second and third centuries AD, said of Romans 1:26-27 that, “When Paul asserts that males and females changed among themselves the natural use of the creature into that which is unnatural, he validates the natural way;”8
Chrsysostom referenced “legitimate intercourse” in condemning homosexual intercourse;9
Speaking of the sin of Sodom, Martin Luther argued in the 16th century that same-sex conduct “suppresses nature”:
[I]nasmuch as they departed from the natural passion and longing of the male for the female, which is implanted into nature by God, and desired what is altogether contrary to nature. Whence comes this perversity? Undoubtedly from Satan, who after people have once turned away from the fear of God, so powerfully suppresses nature that he blots out the natural desire and stirs up a desire that is contrary to nature;10 and
John Calvin spoke in the Reformation period of the 16th century against same-sex passions as reversing “the whole order of nature.”11
The use of “nature” in these and many other denunciations of homosexual behavior refer to the natural bodily and constitutional design of men and women. In both the early church and beyond, the Christian tradition has argued for the goodness of heterosexual marriage based on the “natural” design of the human body and, correspondingly, what Luther calls “implanted” desire for complementary sexual experience. Conversely, homosexual practice is considered “unnatural,” for it is opposed both to God-authored design and desire. This two-sided view is so popular as to be both dominant and essentially unquestioned in Christian history.
Fourth, Vines’s view that celibacy is not enjoined upon all homosexuals is unbiblical and ahistorical.
The preceding helps make sense of another of Vines’s central contentions in God and the Gay Christian. Vines makes the case that Christians have historically advocated for celibacy to avoid “abusive or lustful practices,” a category that in his view excludes homosexual “covenantal relationship[s]” (18). Requiring all same-sex-attracted people to be celibate, after all, causes them to “detest their existence as embodied, sexual beings” (54). Whether a heterosexual or a homosexual, then, Vines argues that if one is called to celibacy through a divine gift, then one may practice it. If one is not gifted with celibacy, then Vines believes that one can feel free to enter into a God-glorifying “covenantal relationship” of either heterosexual or homosexual form.
Vines begs the question here, though he would not admit that he does so. The Bible, as we have said, renders homosexual behavior sinful. There is no context, however covenantal, however relational, in which Scripture countenances morally permissible homosexual activity. As the surrounding chapters make clear, Scripture deals with same-sex behavior in exclusively negative terms. This has major implications for Christians who feel such impulses. It means, contra what Vines argues, that whether such persons experience the “gift” of celibacy or a sense of calling to this state, they are of necessity and for all their life called to abstain from homosexual behavior. This is true whether one is sexually attracted to the same sex, non-humans, multiple people at once, pre-teens or any other perverse sexual attachment.
Vines believes that such impulses are part of the “goodness of creation” and the body (67). He is woefully wrong. All aspects of the body are in some way corrupted by sin: murderous anger, perverse desires, lustfulness, lewdness. Christians are not permitted to give vent to desires God prohibits. All people have dignity and worth, as Vines says, but outside of God’s transforming work, we do not glorify our Creator by rendering him the holistic worship he desires. Though image-bearers, with body and soul we dishonor him and invite his just judgement (Rom 3:10-18).
By contrast, the apostle Paul disciplined his body and kept it under control as we all must (1 Cor 9:27). Vines argues that such a state is both harmful and essentially impossible (18), but the testimony of countless Christians proves otherwise. Whether or not one marries, self-control over all desire, including immoral sexual desire of either a homosexual or heterosexual kind, is God’s Spirit-shaped gift to all who trust Christ (Gal 5:22-23). Celibacy must be practiced by those who are tempted to give vent to any sinful, fallen desire. Without holiness “no one will see the Lord,” the author of Hebrews reminds us (12:14).
Christian history supports this reading of Scripture. Were Luther confronted with a “gay Christian man” who sought a monogamous “covenantal” relationship with another man, he would have pointed not to the structure of the relationship for his denunciation of it — whether it was mutual or not — but the very “perversity” of a man longing for another man. To be sure, the idea that celibacy wouldn’t apply to a person experiencing same-sex attraction is historically novel. But this does not mean that a novel practice is acceptable or would have been acceptable to past leaders of the Christian church.
In sum, Vines seems to believe that if he can dream up a term or a category related to homosexual activity that was not encountered by historic Christians, then said historic Christians would affirm such activity. This position is deeply problematic for obvious reasons. If online pornography is not expressly prohibited in Scripture, does that make it morally acceptable? If a young man wishes to engage in “covenantal” sexual encounters with multiple partners at once, can he do so?
Vines’s hermeneutic, endorsed enthusiastically by Rachel Held Evans and others, allows these examples to be morally permissible, if not laudable. This is indeed a “game changer” of a text, as Evans says. Its sexual ethics are altogether secular, not Christian. In embracing fully transgender identity, in fact, Vines and his celebrity endorsers have run far past even most professedly secular people. God and the Gay Christian is not modernized Christianity, as it claims. To work off of J. Gresham Machen’s characterization of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Vines has produced not a new kind of Christianity, but a new paganism in Christian dress.
Make no mistake: the packaging is appealing, the presentation is winsome and self-aware, and everything seems neat and clean, if slightly edgy in content. The pleasing presentation and calm tone, however, conceal a neo-pagan heart. God and the Gay Christian is at its core a shocking call to bodily gratification and sexual revolution that, in places, outpaces even the irreligious in its permissiveness.12
In conclusion, I suggest three ways for contemporary Christians to approach the issue of the historicity of so-called gay Christianity.
1. Christians who feel as though they might be on the wrong side of history must know that quite the opposite is true.
Vines seeks to “open up a conversation” about homosexuality among evangelicals precisely because the discussion of the previous two millennia has gone in one direction, and that is the exact direction that Scripture itself goes (3). The Bible does not affirm “gay Christianity,” and no major figure among evangelical leaders prior to the 20th century did, either. The category of “orthodox pastors and theologians who historically affirmed gay Christianity” is not merely a small set, but an empty one.
We must note that it is deeply ironic that the position which supposedly places us on the wrong side of history is none other than the historic position. Two millennia of the church’s history, hundreds of Protestant denominations and thousands of church leaders all testify to one reality: until the last few decades, Christian doctrine has unswervingly affirmed heterosexual marriage as the only moral context for sexual activity. This kind of consensus on a theological issue is strikingly rare, and powerfully important for our public engagement. The church must take heart in speaking up against sin today, and can take courage from the witness of the Christian past.
2. Christians are reminded by God and the Gay Christian to engage history fairly and respectfully.
Frequently, Vines cites historic Christian voices to support his creative exegetical conclusions. But the fact that some evangelical preachers focused, for example, on the issue of inhospitality in their preaching on Sodom in Genesis 19 — as John Calvin did — does not mean that they would approve of the behavior of the “gay Christian.” Vines is guilty throughout his book of concluding that, when a few scattered voices he chooses to cite do not explicitly prohibit homosexual practice in their exposition of a given passage, they then take a neutral stance toward it. But this is not fair. It treats historical exegesis of a certain text as sealed-off from all other texts. Christians should be motivated by a reading of this book to remember the importance of relative theological coherence when considering the doctrine of a given thinker or pastor. In so doing, evangelicals will not abuse history, but will approach the discipline fairly.
3. Christians must continue to preach the truth in love, seeking the conversion of lost sinners — sinners like us.
I have not come away from my engagement with God and the Gay Christian unnerved or surprised. I am not hysterical over the book, contrary to the media’s stereotypes of believers. I am burdened for Matthew Vines, and I pray that he repents of his sin and his sinful teaching and discovers the transforming grace of Jesus Christ just as I, a sinner, did many years ago. I am stirred by this book, furthermore, to preach not a freedom driven by the “innateness of one’s passions,” as Robert Gagnon has characterized the secular kind of liberty, but a freedom found only in the convicting and converting power of the cross and the empty tomb.13
When this convulsive power strikes in the human heart, we cease using history to justify our own intentions, as a skeptical journalist famously said. We cease dressing up what novelist Joseph Conrad called our “heart of darkness” in the robes of Christ. We repent of all our sin, the normal and the abnormal, acknowledging, as R. Albert Mohler Jr. has observed, that we all are perverse. From the worst to the cleanest, we repent, beating our chest in ruin. Then clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, we rise, a new creation in Christ. The new has come; the old has passed away.
1 Samuel Sewall, “The Selling of Joseph” (1700), referenced at http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/
2 For more, see Henry Mayer, All on Fire: William Lloyd Garrison and the Abolition of Slavery (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).
3 See Timothy George, Evangelicals and Nicene Faith: Reclaiming the Apostolic Witness, Beeson Divinity Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011), 32, 69.
4 Gerald Bray, ed., Romans, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 1998), 47.
5 Ibid, 47.
6 Mark Sheridan, ed., Genesis 12-50, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002), 69.
7 See my piece for The Federalist, “Children’s Restrooms Are the Next Front Line in the Gender Wars,” accessible at http://thefederalist.com/2014/
8 Romans (Ancient Christian Commentary), 46.
9 Ibid, 47.
10 Jaroslav, Pelikan, ed., Luther’s Works, Volume 3: Lectures on Genesis 15-20 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1968), 255.
11 John Calvin, Commentary on Romans 1:26, accessed at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/
12 For more on contemporary neo-paganism, see my Patheos essay “Your Neo-Pagan Neighbor and the Gospel” at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/
13 Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 391.