Book Review: “God and the Gay Christian” by Matthew Vines

Back in June, Tim Keller published a review of two books that each argue that the Bible does not disapprove of same-sex relationships: A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson and God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. Rather quickly, Matthew Vines wrote back, alleging that Keller unfairly misrepresented his views at several critical points and questioning if Keller had even read his book.

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This exchange fascinated me and I decided to read God and the Gay Christian in order to see just what was going on and also to try to further educate myself on the issue. Here’s what I found.

Content

Perhaps the first thing I should note is that Vines admirably maintains a gracious tone throughout his book. While he clearly disagrees with many of the scholars, pastors, and individuals he references or engages with in his book, there is never the impression that he is attacking them personally, condescending in tone, arguing ad hominem, or unfairly misrepresenting them. Indeed, in several instances where it might be very easy to do so (e.g. gender complementarianism), Vines steers clear of this, instead fairly describing an opponent’s position and then unpacking why he disagrees.

To boil down Vines’ overall argument into several movements would look something like this:

  1. The church’s current approach to gay relationships (“mandatory celibacy” as Vines refers to it) produces “bad fruit” including “despair to the point of suicide” for some (p. 19).
  2. Jesus says bad fruit can’t come from a good tree in Matthew 7.
  3. We must reexamine our interpretation of the 6 texts—Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26-27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10—used against gay people by the church as a result of the “bad fruit” principle.
  4. None of the texts clearly condemn modern, monogamous, loving same-sex relationships.
  5. Marriages need not be between one man and one wife to fulfill the purpose of marriage, which is to reflect the gospel via a covenant relationship.
  6. Therefore, the church can and should affirm same-sex marriages. Q.E.D.

There is obviously MUCH more to the book and my simple distillation has doubtless under- or over-emphasized certain aspects of Vines’ argument. But, this is the main outline as I understand it.[1]

That said, there are two critical issues that keep Vines’ argument from convincing me. Somewhat ironically, one of them comes from him being correct! But these two issues serve to effectively pull the foundation out from under his argument and render the book ultimately unconvincing. Though there are copious other topics or issues I could engage with, I will content myself with just these two.

What Vines gets right: The church must change either its stance on celibacy or marriage.

One of Vines’ early arguments is that if “non-affirming Christians choose to maintain their interpretation of the Bible on homosexuality, they will have to change their interpretation on something else: celibacy” (41). During my initial pass through the book, my first thoughts were along the lines of: “Wrong. This argument is a false dichotomy and neither issue needs to be reexamined. Not convincing.” However, the more I thought and considered it (and the more I read outside resources on similar subjects) the more I came to realize that Vines was right.

The Evangelical side of Christianity has a severely anemic doctrine of singleness. This topic is a whole other post or series of posts in itself but boils down to the fact that marriage is more highly valued in the Church than singleness. Marriage is seen as something essential to a full and whole life that somehow completes an individual who was deficient before. Much of this is cultural: marriage is not simply a wonderful and good blessing from God to those he chooses to bestow it on but rather an inalienable right.

This is not biblical.

Now that’s easy to say about any given subject. “Drums in worship isn’t biblical.” “Watching R-rated movies is not biblical.” “The baptizing of infants is not biblical.” And guess what? There are strong arguments for and against issues like these and others!

What I would ask you to consider (as I did) is that the idea of singleness as a “gift” only for a select few is a misinterpretation of Scripture. The main text we derive this idea from is 1 Corinthians 7:7. In the ESV, Paul says “I wish that all were as I myself am.” (He was single). “But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”

Those who understand singleness as a spiritual sort of gifting given to a select few point to this verse and say “Look, Paul says it’s a gift. There.” But that’s not at all what he is saying.

Yes, in this verse singleness is a gift. But marriage is also! “Each has his own gift” (emphasis added). Yes, in talking about marriage and divorce Jesus said in Matthew 19 that “not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (v-11) and then talks about different types of eunuchs (a passage many interpret as referring to singleness). But that does not make marriage something that is not just as given by God! And just because a teaching is difficult for many doesn’t mean this is a gift only given to a few. Jesus’ teaching on eating his flesh and blood (communion) in John 6 was a hard teaching and his instructions to the Rich Young Man in Matthew 10:17-31 demonstrate how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God. But we don’t then infer that riches or communion are some sort of special spiritual gift for only a select few. The idea that God only gives singleness as a spiritual gift to a certain few just doesn’t carry much weight, at least not when paired with a huge overemphasis on marriage and devaluation of singleness.

Vines is right: the church either needs to change its practical understanding of marriage or celibacy. But he’s wrong when he concludes that we must reinterpret marriage (at least in the way he suggests). Instead, we need a robust theology of singleness that can affirm those who are not married as just as valuable, just as loved, and perhaps even more anxious about pleasing the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32) as those who are married.

What Vines gets wrong: “In the ancient world” means the same thing as Jesus and Paul’s historical context.

Vines has clearly done his research on attitudes in the ancient world on homosexuality. But just because philosophers in Greece or Egypt thought a certain way about the topic does not mean that is exactly how Jesus, Paul, and other figures in the Bible had to think about it. To insist so ignores the massive influence Judaism in general and the Torah in particular would have had on a first-century Jew.

As an example of this problem, Vines spends page 108 and 109 showing how the terms “natural” and “unnatural” when applied to sex “in the ancient world” were really more about the active or passive roles in sex. His examples are Plato, Plutarch (who quotes Plato), Josephus (who describes heterosexual sex as natural and homosexual behavior as unnatural but whom Vines discounts because of his views about women’s inferiority to men), Philo (a 1st century Jew from Alexandria), and Pseudo-Phocylides. By my count that’s two Greeks, one Jew from Palestine generally favorable to the Pharisees, and two Hellenized Jews from the Diaspora.

So what’s the problem here? Vines then applies these conclusions about “natural” and “unnatural” to Paul in Romans 1, the hinge text of the six that he examines.[2] Paul invoked “those terms as a shorthand reference due to their well-established usage” (110), Vines claims. There is, however, zero evidence that this is what Paul is doing in the passage. In fact, Paul does not fit the profile of anyone that Vines discusses except partially Josephus, the one example Vines brushes aside. Volumes have been written about Paul himself and the views he himself held and I do not claim to add anything to the discussion here save that lumping Paul in with a social and cultural context which we cannot be sure or even mostly confident he subscribed to is tendentious and dangerous. Vines dismisses the argument that Paul’s use of words such as “‘creation’ and ‘Creator,’ ‘females’ and ‘males,’ ‘image’ and ‘likeness,’ among others” in Romans 1 alludes to Genesis 1 as “highly speculative.” He’s entitled to that belief but must be unaware either how much stronger that argument seems in comparison to his own or how the reasoning he employs to dismiss it (“highly speculative”) is more applicable to his own argument. I find it difficult to believe that Paul would be employing those definitions of natural and unnatural and yet not purposefully alluding to Genesis 1.

The Verdict

Though gracious in tone, well-researched and ably argued, Vines ultimately fails to convince because of problematic foundational assumptions that undermine his argument. The book did, however, force me to carefully consider the specifics of his argument and actually inadvertently changed my mind about the “gift” of celibacy and left me with a more robust ethic of singleness. 3 stars out of 5.

As a postscript and for those wondering, after reading the book and rereading both Keller and Vines’ articles, I’ve come to the conclusion that neither of them are exactly right in their articles. Keller does indeed ignore vast portions of Vines’ book and argument, especially his thoughts on the Leviticus passages. I can’t tell whether this is because Keller simply found Vines’ discussion of patriarchy to offer little to nothing to the actual issues (as I did) and chose to ignore it or actually didn’t read it (or perhaps made an error in recalling the book’s details). But the omission remains. On the other hand, some of Vines’ objections are more technicalities than anything. He notes that Keller only cites two scholars in his portion on historical scholarship versus the large number he himself consults. However, Keller is writing a book review (of TWO books!) where space is much more limited than Vines’ book. Here differences of genre come into consideration. Both articles have issues and both must be read critically.


Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian. Convergent Books, 2014. 212 pp. Hardcover.

 

[1] I would welcome any attempts to help clarify my understanding if anyone feels I’m way off base somewhere!

[2] Vines maintains that Genesis 19:5 is not mainly about the homosexual behavior of the townspeople of Sodom of Gomorrah. His discussion about Leviticus 18:22 and Leviticus 20:13 veers into discussions of patriarchy in ancient societies and never really gives a definitive verdict on the verses, instead demurring. Additionally, he contends that 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 should not be translated into English with any specific terms resembling homosexual behavior at all. This leaves Romans 1:26-27, which Vines admits as critical. If Paul’s “moral objection in Romans 1 was to the anatomical sameness of the partners, not primarily to lustfulness, then that rationale would extend to all same-sex relationships” (99-100).

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