God and the Gay Christian: An Interview with Matthew Vines

In 2012 Matthew Vines made a video that went viral; no cute kittens, just a speech he gave to his Presbyterian Church USA congregation in Wichita, Kansas, explaining exactly why six pieces of scripture, commonly called the “clobber passages,” do not in any way condemn homosexuality.

That video is the basis of a new book called God and the Gay Christian, specifically tailored for a more conservative, evangelical audience.

That audience has proved less than receptive so far, with Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, penning an entire booklet designed to refute the book’s arguments before it even hit the shelves.

Vines is using his newfound fame to start what he calls The Reformation Project, an initiative to change the church from the grassroots up.

Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge spoke with Vines recently about his book.

Why did you write this book?

I hadn’t originally planned on writing a book. My original goal was born out of my experience in my church in Wichita, Kansas and the really clear need for more resources that were specifically tailored to a conservative and Evangelical Christian audience.

Most of the resources I found were either from a theologically progressive or mainline standpoint but my target audience is different. In some cases, the arguments are pretty similar, but it other cases they need to be different—and it may be a slight nuance in how you say things but the key fault line in how conservative Evangelicals understand their own theology is how they regard the authority of scripture.

In my church in particular, people were saying it was not really this issue that was their biggest concern, but was symbolic of a larger move away from a high view of scripture and its authority.

I knew the people at my church cared about me and loved me and I could tell they were pained because they wanted to be able to embrace and support me. I could feel the anguish and internal tension, but many felt they didn’t know how to embrace me without having to significantly revise their understanding of scripture. This is why many people will be compassionate and sympathetic but only within the parameters of their biblical interpretation—which means there is a limit to how far their compassion goes. You need people not to just tolerate you; you need people to embrace and affirm you.

I appreciated the sympathy and that people did care and love me, but I needed more than that in order to be able to have a healthy and faithful Christian life. To get people from compassion to affirmation it required me to go back and focus laser-like on their concerns about scripture.

The year I was coming out to my PCUSA congregation was the same year the denomination had voted to approve the ordination of non-celibate gay clergy, so this was a live discussion. I had a different perspective on it because I got to see how that conversation was playing out in churches that were not very accepting. What I realized was that even though there have been three-plus decades of conversation and dialogue and engagement with these passages, there is a limit to how far that conversation has percolated.

In my church, it was as though the conversation had never happened. That was because people were very firm about what they see as their evangelical theological identity. So, it was amazing to me when I began talking to my church about this issue that so many of them had never once had a conversation on this topic.

In a lot of ways that doesn’t make sense, because we’ve been debating it in the denomination for three decades, and yet, even though there had been a significant change at large in the denomination and many of the individual communities, that change had not reached them yet. In general, the more conservative the church the more resistant they are to outside influences—and for understandable reasons. They have a core worldview and if those outside the community don’t share it they don’t feel valued, and so they resist to keep from unraveling the whole basis of their faith community.

If there is going to be change, especially in conservative churches, you have to have people in these communities who have grown up in them and have long-standing relationships with them and learned how to read scripture with them—but who can open up the conversation and make it clear they share the same faith commitment, but think the issue should be explored. That’s hard work.

When I was trying to do that a few years ago and had written a paper on these passages, it was the first time that everyone who read the paper had even considered a different understanding of the passages. It’s not surprising then that they’re not willing to do a 180 the first time they’re exposed to it. It takes time. You have to plant seeds and have multiple advocates in each community.

Why do we need yet another book about the Bible and homosexuality?

The conversation has progressed tremendously in progressive and mainline communities and that is a credit to the incredibly difficult work a lot of LGBT Christians have been doing for decades. I wouldn’t even be in the position of having this conversation with anybody in my church about this were it not for all the groundwork that’s been laid.

I don’t want anybody to think, “Hey, we’ve been talking about this forever and you come along and people treat it like it’s something new.” I want to be intentional about recognizing how much I appreciate and am indebted to all the work that has come before in terms of grassroots organizing and activism, the writing, the scholarship, all of that. Because back when progressive Christians were not affirming of LGBT people, there’s no way you’re going to get a conservative Christian to even talk about it, because they’ll say, “Hey, even the liberals don’t agree with this.”

The progressive church has to change first and then the moderate churches have to change next and once that’s happened, then it’s possible to even start the conversation in conservative churches. That’s where I feel like we are right now.

In that sense, I feel like what I’m doing is just an extension of the groundwork that’s been laid and it’s probably the best sign of respect I can give to everyone who has done all that work. I’m taking the baton and moving forward.

This book then is for a particular audience that we’ve just begun to engage—so I think there is a lot of potential for starting that conversation on grounds that are potentially persuasive to more conservative Christians.

Already you’ve met some fairly formidable resistance from the conservative camp—in fact Albert Mohler wrote a whole booklet refuting you. It may be hard for those of us outside of evangelicalism to start this conversation, but it seems that even insiders have a hard time.

I don’t have any illusions about this being easy. The fact that there is backlash is a prerequisite for starting the conversation, that’s not something that I’m concerned about. It’s healthy. I’m trying to be as gracious and not to be unintentionally inflammatory. I want to respect people and their motives, even though I strongly disagree with their beliefs.

I don’t think we can ultimately agree to disagree because this issue, and non-affirming beliefs, are very damaging to the lives of LGBT people. It’s also a double standard, because most people who hold non-affirming beliefs are straight and they don’t have to live with the consequences of their beliefs. They’re asking LGBT people to do something that is vastly harder than they themselves are doing. That separates LGBT people from God and it’s damaging to their dignity and their ability to form relationships.

I don’t see much room for compromise, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t still respect people in their sincerity and their motives. I do believe most people who are non-affirming are not trying to hurt people. I think there is a failure of empathy and compassion that makes people not as clear-eyed about the consequences. I think, however, a lot of people want to be loving, faithful to scripture and they are trying to do their best, so I can respect that and value where they’re coming from.

When I was coming out to my dad a few years ago, as I recount in the book, he held strongly non-affirming beliefs. He did not instantly change his mind. It was a slow process. He was a good, decent, caring intelligent man before he changed his beliefs and he still is. I think that he’s now more able to faithfully witness to Christ now that he is affirming, but to suggest that anyone who is non-affirming is necessarily hateful, I don’t think that’s the case.

In the book, you take pains to stick closely to scripture and not take anything for granted, really anticipating the arguments that conservative Christians might make that you’re “twisting scripture” or disregarding scripture. Tell us more about how you approach two of the big biblical issues, Sodom and Gomorrah and Romans 1.

In terms of the political and religious conversations on this issue, there’s been an interesting shift in the religious conversation over the last ten to fifteen years. When the issue of gay marriage first came on the scene it was regarded as far-fetched and unlikely. People dismissed it because they had never thought about it much. But now even people who basically know nothing about the law and any of the high level argument can make a very strong case for why same-sex marriage should be legal. That requires synthesizing the best arguments and letting them percolate and mainstreaming them.

I think we’re a bit behind in the religious conversation. It’s not that this research and arguments aren’t out there, it’s that they haven’t yet been mainstreamed in a clear, accessible, consistent way, especially for the most key constituency, which is conservative Christians.

So, in the book, I’m not trying to come up with brand new arguments. Instead, I’m whittling down the vast amount of scholarship out there to the clearest and most cogent cases so that eventually your average person in the pews will know the basics of this argument and will be able to make the case just as people on the street can make the case for same-sex marriage.

Sodom and Gomorrah is where we’ve had the most success in terms of the existing religious conversation. A number of conservative Christians have had to move away from making that any significant part of the foundation of their argument because it’s clear the matter there was gang rape when we’re talking about loving, committed relationships. The basic argument is sound. Where we struggle the most in the gay Christian conversation however, is in Paul in Romans 1.

It took me awhile since there are many affirming interpretations of Romans 1. One argument the progressive interpreters make, which I don’t recommend, is that Romans 1 is about temple prostitution. Part of the difficulty with is that there doesn’t seem to be much support for that, and some scholars question whether temple prostitution was commonly practiced at all during this time. So, we have an argument premised on something speculative.

The core argument I make about Romans 1 is not that Paul is only talking about this or that, but that Paul’s entire concept of same-sex relations is fundamentally different from our own, not because Paul was ignorant or wrong, but because the widespread ancient understanding of same-sex behavior was very different from what we see today.

In a nutshell, Paul in Romans 1 is condemning excess passion, and for Paul same-sex relations are merely a symbol of passion gone amok and of people who cannot control themselves—as with other vices of excess like gluttony or drunkenness. Anybody could be prone to act out in this way if they went to an extreme. However, everyone is also capable of acting in a restrained and moderate way. So, for Paul, opposite sex relations are the more moderate, restrained path.

Paul is not saying, “Isn’t it sad that some people are gay and their sexual orientation is a sign of the fall, so those people need to be single and celibate.” Instead, Paul is having an entirely different conversation. Paul is no less negative toward the desire than toward the act. A lot of people will say, “He’s only condemning homosexual acts, not a same-sex orientation,” as if that buttresses their position of accepting someone’s orientation but not their actions. But, Paul never makes that distinction. His language is just as condemnatory toward the same-sex desire as the same-sex act, calling them “shameful lusts.” So, even the non-affirming people are not reading Paul very carefully because they don’t like what it actually says.

Paul is envisioning same-sex desire as something anybody might experience if they lose self-control. That’s why he can condemn same-sex desire itself because it’s not some unchosen, permanent orientation of some people, it’s the potential for excess within everyone. Within that framework it makes sense for desire to be just as condemned as the act. But, that’s not how we understand same-sex attraction or relationships today.

We need to ask, what were the reasons Paul condemned same-sex behavior? Because it showed a total lack of self-control. People were worshipping sex rather than God and people were just following their lusts to an extreme. Is that the reason why gay Christians are in same-sex relationships today? No.

I’m sure you can find some examples of people who pursue same-sex behavior in that way, but that is not the main issue we are discussing. So, the reason Paul is condemning same-sex behavior in Romans 1 doesn’t translate to why gay Christians want to be in same-sex relationships today. It’s not that Paul was backwards, ignorant or wrong, Paul just wasn’t even talking about gay people.

What we are discussing today, then, is the marriage issue, so how do you begin to move conservatives toward accepting that?

After my video was released there were those who said, “Even if you’re right and the Bible doesn’t talk about gay and lesbian people of today, we need to look at what is the positive vision of human sexuality in marriage laid out in scripture and that is only within the context of opposite sex marriages, therefore same-sex unions fall outside of what can be blessed by God.”

Their reasons for believing this is procreation and this idea of headship and submission: having a hierarchy in marriage. They are also talking about language in Genesis 2 about how marriage involves a “one flesh” union of a man and woman coming together. I start the conversation about marriage by pointing to a New Testament passage read at a lot of weddings, Ephesians 5, which relates the union of a man and a woman in marriage with the union of Christ and the church. That helps to bring out the core feature of what marriage is for, since Christ’s union with the church does not involve procreation.

It’s about Christ’s sacrificial and covenantal love for us and that we are in covenant with God through Christ.  It’s about that level of commitment, about sacrificing for the sake of the other. I believe a lot of Christians would agree that keeping covenant with one’s spouse is an important part of marriage. If that is the basis of marriage, then, couldn’t two men or two women do that in just the same way?

I also look more closely at the procreation issue, which is very prominent in the Old Testament. But in the New Testament it is significantly less important because now God’s people don’t grow through procreation but through spiritual rebirth—a belief through faith in Christ. You can become a spiritual parent to lots of people without ever having a biological child. Relationships in Christ are the most enduring of all; that’s why eunuchs are then included. Nowhere, even in the Old Testament, does it say that if a couple is infertile their marriage is not valid and in the New Testament, procreation is never directly linked with what it takes for sex to be moral.

The issue of gender hierarchy: it’s true in Ephesians and the Old Testament, it’s a reflection of patriarchal hierarchical gender roles, so the question is, “Is this an essential part of Christian married relationships or is this something more similar to how Christians have come to view slavery in the Bible?”

We can see a blueprint in scripture in passages like Galatians 3:28 where in Christ our identity, whether it’s slave or free, ultimately fades away and we have new dignity, status and value in Christ—so we ended up in that liberating trajectory on the issue of slavery even though the New Testament doesn’t explicitly condemn it.

In the very same passage it talks about how male and female is something that doesn’t affect people’s status when we’re baptized in Christ, so I argue that hierarchy and gender in marriage is not intrinsic or essential to the relationship. I have never heard even the most conservative Christians say that Christian couples in egalitarian marriages are not really married and are “fornicating.” I’ve heard people say they should structure their marriage differently because they understand marriage is not about gender hierarchy even if they wished it would include that.

So, they move on to the “one flesh” issue. Robert Gagnon and others have argued pretty influentially that this is all about intercourse—male and female anatomy coming together as half of puzzle and when they come together the puzzle is complete. Two men or two women don’t fit together in the same way so they can’t form a one-flesh union.

Last year, a book by a Reformed New Testament professor named James Brownson at Western Theological Seminary in Michigan took on that entire argument and very graciously tore it to pieces. This is an extra-biblical idea that one-flesh is about how anatomy fits together. He argued that one-flesh is really about the relational kinship bond created between two people in marriage and how anatomy fits together is not on the radar at all. There’s no reason then for a one-flesh marriage to involve different anatomy at all.

So, there really are nothing essential to marriage in the Bible that could not include same-sex couples because marriage is fundamentally about keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a one-flesh bond.

I don’t think there are a lot of conservative Christians who are ready to make that leap.

I think this is going to require them to think deeper, because the copy-and-paste responses they’ve used to these arguments in the past aren’t going to cut it anymore.

You say in your book that it’s non-affirming Christians who are really sinning instead of LGBT people. How do you figure that?

To figure out what is sin or not sin goes back to this early teaching in scripture about the image of God. Humans are created in the image of God, but after the fall this image changes and we don’t fully embody God’s image perfectly anymore. What it means then to have faith is to become more and more faithful image bearers. So we can weigh our beliefs and attitudes to see if it makes us more like God or less like God.

What I argue about sexual orientation in the book is that it’s a core part of who we are as relational beings. We, as human beings, are relational people. We have relational needs—which is not to say everyone must be sexually fulfilled, but there’s a big difference between someone pursuing celibacy as a calling as a way to serve God and telling a whole group of people that every single desire they experience for intimate sexual bonding with another person is disordered, shameful and wrong and you must renounce them all. That corrodes people’s ability to be in relationship with others and with God.

Ultimately, it is corrosive to people’s image-bearing capabilities—it makes us less relational in really important ways. If that position is producing those results then that position is in the direction of sin, not righteousness, because it is making people less like God. The consequences of this position harm people and taint the image of God within them, so even if you’re sincere and loving and not feeling any hatred, it’s still producing and multiplying sin.

This doesn’t mean LGBT people and affirming Christians are sinless. It means that we all have constant struggles, sins of omission and commission, and we all must keep working toward that image of God.