*The following book review will appear in a forthcoming issue of the Southwestern Journal of Theology. Published here with permission of the editor.
God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. By Matthew Vines. New York: Convergent, 2014. 213 pages. Hardcover, $22.99.
Same-sex marriage, gay rights, and alternative sexual lifestyles seem to dominate the public consciousness today. From professional sports players coming out as gay to judges overturning marriage laws to allow same-sex marriage, the conversation regarding homosexuality is constantly around us. In most of these instances, the conversation pits Christianity against a secular worldview hoping to affirm homosexual identity. However, a highly anticipated book recently changed the focus of the conversation from “Christians against the world” to an in-house discussion among self-proclaimed evangelicals. In God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines attempts to reform the historic teaching of Christianity on the issue of homosexuality and same-sex marriage.
Vines proposes that “Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (3). In order to support his thesis, the author sets out to debunk the traditional interpretation of the six main biblical passages that have been used to condemn homosexuality. In addition, he seeks to show that celibacy for the person struggling with homosexual desires is a damaging state that undermines their expression of the image of God. Finally, he desires to show that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are on par with traditional heterosexual marriage and should be supported by the church.
In order to make his argument, Vines works from a few key assumptions. First, he assumes that suffering is inherently evil. In his opening chapter, Vines draws on Jesus’ parable in Matthew 7:15–20 regarding a tree and its fruit. He compares any pain or suffering brought to homosexuals through the condemnation of their sexual activities to be bad fruit brought forth by a bad tree. By contrast, he considers the affirmation of homosexual activity to be good fruit produced by a good tree.
Vines’ second assumption is that Scripture and its authors know nothing of sexual orientation. As a result, none of the traditional interpretations of Genesis 19, Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, Romans 1:26–27, 1 Corinthians 6:9, and 1 Timothy 1:10 are valid for contemporary discussions of sexuality. He believes that modern understandings of sexuality as immutable and unchosen dismiss any interpretation that condemns homosexual behavior for any reason other than gross excess.
The author also assumes that biological difference and role complementarity have nothing to do with marriage and sexuality. Vines believes that Scripture does not speak of biological difference as valid for sexual expression. He also holds that any discussion of role complementarity is grounded in a cultural hierarchy that understands women to be less than fully valuable. As a result, he builds a vision of sexual expression and marriage on commitment and covenant-keeping.
Using these assumptions, Vines builds his case that Christian teachings need to be modified in order to support same-sex relationships. In modifying these teachings, Vines embarks on a dangerous hermeneutical path that leaves some questions unanswered and creates some problems that he does not foresee.
First, Vines elevates his personal experience above Scripture as a source of authority. This is not a critique of which he is unaware. In fact, he says he was confronted by a church member early on with this exact critique (13). Even though he claims not to do so, he in fact affirms this very thing. He states, “I had a second reason for losing confidence in the belief that same-sex relationships are sinful: it no longer made sense to me” (12). His own experience of trying to affirm his lifestyle with the text of Scripture led him on a journey to reinterpret the Bible in light of his own experience. We see this throughout the book from his basic desire to have same-sex relationships no longer be called a sin to his condemnation of expecting celibacy from Christians who struggle with same-sex desires. His personal experience and desires do not fit that biblical expectation, so he believes it must be wrong.
Second, Vines fails to defend his position that committed, monogamous same-sex relationships are equal to marriage. The biggest failure in his argument is that he does not explain why such relationships have to be monogamous. He dismisses the idea of the potentiality for procreation as a key aspect of marriage (137–141); thus, he can no longer claim any natural extension of parenting as a reason to limit marriage to only two people. He considers the key element of marriage to be covenant-keeping, yet he fails to provide an argument why this would limit marriage to two people. As a result, he assumes marriage is monogamous but provides no real reason for such a limitation. His choice of monogamy is arbitrary in light of his definition of marriage.
Finally, Vines neglects to realize that his claims regarding homosexuality open the door for misunderstanding the Christ-Church relationship. While discussing the text of Ephesians 5 and its implications for marriage, Vines argues that the authority and submission structure in the text is built on ancient patriarchy. He notes the connection to slaves and masters in Ephesians 6 as evidence that we can no longer justify role complementarity since we do not affirm the institution of slavery. However, there are two serious failings of his argumentation. First, he ignores the fact that parents and children are also mentioned in Ephesians 6. The authority of parents over children, and the subsequent submission of children to parents, would also have to be overturned by Vines’ argumentation; however, he does not even mention those verses. In addition, Vines’ argumentation requires elevating the church to be equal with Christ. In doing so, one steps into the realm of heresy since Scripture states that the church is in submission to Christ. Vines’ cultural hermeneutic fails to protect against this logical conclusion to his own argument.
While this book has been highly touted by a number of pastors and theologians, the arguments fall short of making a biblical case. Instead, Vines sets out to make Scripture align with his own desires rather than conforming himself to the truth of Scripture (Romans 12:2).