Matthew Vines is out to show that the Christian case in favor of same-sex relationships is not the exclusive purview of the liberals.
As an Evangelical, who seems to me to hold a view of scripture that is something akin to inerrancy, Vines writes God and the Gay Christian in order to establish what he calls, in his subtitle, “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships.”
The way in which Vines is committed to scripture means that the whole thrust of the book is to open up new ways of understanding passages that people have long taken to stand in condemnation of same-sex relationships. The problem, in short, is not what the Bible says, but how we have been interpreting it.
Vines precedes his scriptural argument by making three important appeals: (1) the “fruit” of the traditional position on sexuality has been destructive to people who know themselves to be gay; (2) in the ancient world, the idea of sexual orientation was not the same as our idea–in Rome people assumed most men would be attracted to both men and women; and, sexual rules assumed a patriarchal view of the superiority of men; and (3) the church’s understanding of celibacy has always been that it is a state entered into voluntarily by those who know themselves so gifted and called.
Point 2 is important, and I anticipated awhile ago that it would come to take an increasingly central place in debates about homosexuality.
Point 3 also needs to be weighed: are we “changing the definition of celibacy” by demanding such a way of life for those who are not so gifted, and feel no call to such a life?
Vines’ first two chapters of biblical exegesis examine the Sodom and Gomorrah story and the prohibitions against same-sex intercourse in Leviticus. He rightly distances the Sodom story from specific connotations of homosexual attraction or desire and does a fine job contextualizing Leviticus within a framework of laws and of cultural ideas that we no longer see binding.
Vines’ exegesis of Romans 1 is a mixed bag.
He brings in a number of important points, including some cultural considerations. The “unnaturalness” of same-sex intercourse might well be seen as a problem of “excess desire” rather than “wrongly directed” desire as such.
The problem, however, is in showing that “excess” desire is what Paul himself had in mind. And here’s where we get to a running undercurrent of the book that I did not find persuasive.
Vines regularly distinguishes between Paul’s understanding of homosexuality as expressive of “lustful” desire and our modern ideas of it as something that can be expressed in love, even within relationships of fidelity and commitment.
The implication seems to be throughout that if Paul had only known about the kind of homosexuality we’re talking about he would have been on board. I’m not sure that this argument holds. It might very well be that he would continue to say that there is an inherent problem here, that it is by definition an expression of lust due to the fact that it is wrongly ordered.
Vines says, “We have to remember: what Paul was describing is fundamentally different from what we are discussing” (italics original). I’m not sure that works. Or, if it does, we have to be very careful how we wield such an instrument–we might find that it’s so blunt that it destroys the Bible’s capacity to address us about much of anything.
In this chapter, and the following on 1 Cor 6, Vines puts some important pieces in place. We often read “nature” in Rom 1 as referring to an order of creation; however, in 1 Cor 11 that same word is used to talk about appropriate length of hair. One of the best pieces of interpretive advice I received came from a classicist who said, “For ‘nature,’ read ‘culture.'” Vines opens up the importance of recognizing how cultural mores are possibly shaping Paul’s discourse in ways we would fundamentally disagree with.
But Vines’ argument has a number of weaknesses. While it is true that we have an idea of homosexual orientation that the ancients did not share, it is also the case that Romans 1 and 1 Cor 6 largely delineate actions that typify people’s behavior. He complains about translations that capture this, such as “men who have sex with men,” but the complaint seems to arise largely from his wanting to have room to say that same-sex sex itself isn’t the issue.
This seems to be the point at which Vines is never quite able to pin down the biblical writers. There is a gap between the cultural milieu he establishes and what the scriptures say, and his argument is not quite up to the task of demonstrating that this gap is filled by the former being the reason for the latter.
Matthew Vines has put a good deal of important information on the table. And his is one of a number of significant voices in the new chorus of evangelicals who are committed to scripture while advocating for the full inclusion of same-sex relationships. In many ways, I see this volume as indicative of where the argument for same-sex relationships is moving among more conservative Christians.
And, Vines frames the argument with some issues that might, in the long run, be the sorts of questions that help create a culture in which Evangelicals read the Bible differently.
For those who are waiting for a book to come along and tell them what to do with irksome passages that seem opposed to same-sex relations, this will no doubt be received as a God-send. For those demanding a higher degree of argumentation, this book will not likely persuade, but it might outline a way that others (such as James Brownson) have or will yet fill in with greater skill.
**In compliance with Federal guidelines, I hereby disclose to you, the unsuspecting reader, that I was supplied a free copy of this book by the publisher.**