I have been excited to read Matthew Vines’s new book, God and the Gay Christian, ever since it was announced, so I was thrilled to be given an advanced copy of the book so I could blog my review. I was not compensated for my review, other than my free book, and all opinions are my own.
This book has been called a game changer and I could not agree more. Matthew Vines has an incredible dedication to the validity of Scripture that has often been lacking from this conversation. He also demonstrates tremendous faith in the way he loves and follows God, which is evident in how he loves and respects even those who disagree with him most. God and the Gay Christian engages readers in a scholarly and theologically-rich discussion concerning the Bible’s teachings for gay people and gay relationships and does so in a way that is accessible for those who desire to learn but do not necessarily have a background in advanced Biblical studies. This book is going to challenge, teach, and inspire all who read it with open hearts and ears to hear. I have absolute confidence that Matthew Vines is going to be long remembered as one who lead the Church into deeper revelation of God and His understanding of and love towards His gay children.
In this post, I am outlining just a few of Matthew’s arguments for the affirmation of gay people and gay relationships. What I outline here just scratches the surface of what Matthew discusses and is not meant to be comprehensive coverage of everything presented in the book. I highly encourage ALL CHRISTIANS, no matter where you stand on this issue, to read this book. The Church can no longer refuse to engage in this conversation. I hope that this outline of the discussion found in God and the Gay Christian will encourage you to read the book for yourself. I hope it also encourages you that you can be a devout follower of Christ AND affirm gay people and gay relationships.
The Gift of Celibacy
Many Christians believe that being gay is not sinful but acting upon same-sex attractions is, meaning that if you are gay you are required to remain celibate for your entire life in order to honor God. Matthew makes a very interesting point in Chapter 3 of his book concerning celibacy, in saying, “We can embrace gay relationships and maintain a traditional view of celibacy, or we can change our understanding of celibacy and keep a traditional view of gay relationships. But we cannot do both. Christians who hold, as I do, to a high view of Scripture must decide which tradition to modify.”
Matthew brings us through the traditional Biblical view of celibacy and shows us that you are not actually holding to a traditional, Biblical view of celibacy if you hold to the idea that gay Christians must remain celibate. In Matthew 19:10-12, Jesus is talking to his disciples about marriage and says that a man may not divorce his wife. His disciples understand this this teaching is really hard and so they say that if this is the case, it’s better not to marry. Jesus then says, “There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” Those who make themselves eunuchs are people who choose not to marry for the sake of the kingdom–they remain celibate. But Jesus affirms that this is a gift and it is not for all. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7 that celibacy is a “gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” and that it is better to marry than to “burn with passion.” There are many gay Christians who do not have a gifting of celibacy and do burn with passion to the point of feeling absolute despair at the idea that they could never get married. Additionally, 1 Timothy 4:3 says that there are false teachers who “forbid marriage and demand abstinence from foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.” These false teachers were wrong in forbidding marriage and forcing celibacy on people. Matthew then shows us how throughout history, respected theologians such as Augustine, Calvin, Pope John Paul II, and Karl Barth have all affirmed the idea that celibacy has to be voluntary and come from a supernatural desire for celibacy.
Excess Passions and Unnatural Acts in Romans 1
Romans 1:26-27: Because of this [idol worship], God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Paul’s description of same-sex behavior in Romans 1 is negative, but this condemned behavior is described as lustful. So can Romans 1 be applied to monogamous, loving, committed same-sex relationships? Some considerations:
–The people Paul describes here are capable of having heterosexual attraction, which makes sense culturally because in Paul’s time, the understanding was that all people were capable of being attracted to the same-sex and opposite sex and that same-sex behaviors were a product of excessive sexual desire. For each vice Paul lists in Romans 1:18-32, there is an opposite, virtuous response available: instead of being greedy, we can be generous; instead of hating, we can love. The culture context in which this was written would believe that men who engage in same-sex behavior could be satisfied by having sex with women. But the failure of the “ex-gay” movement (which is discussed in-depth in Justin Lee’s book Torn) shows that this isn’t the case for gay people.
–The most common forms of same-sex behavior in the Greco-Roman world were pederasty (men having sex with young boys), prostitution, and sex between masters and their slaves. The majority of men who indulged in those practices also engaged in heterosexual behavior, often during the same time in their lives (pg. 104).
–Same-sex relations were not seen as wrong because the partners shared the same anatomy, but rather because they were seen to stem from hedonistic self-indulgence. In Romans 1, Paul is condemning excess as opposed to moderation.
–The use of the words “natural” and “unnatural” do not, in cultural context, suggest that same-sex behavior is “not normal.” The concern had nothing to do with human anatomy not fitting together, but rather the pervasive patriarchy of the time. In the ancient world, men were expected to take the active role in sex–this was “natural.” But if a man took a passive role, this was considered “unnatural” sex, and the opposite was true of women who were expected to take the passive role. Ancient writers such as Plato, Plutarch, Josephus, and Philo all wrote writings condemning males taking the passive role in sex, because it shows that they are week, effeminate, contrary to nature, and spreading a female disease. (pg. 109). The words “natural” and “unnatural” are not synonyms for “gay” and “straight,” in fact men could have “unnatural” sex with women if they took the passive role as well as if they took the passive role in sex with another male.
–Matthew quotes New Testament Professor James Brownson who writes, “What is degrading and shameful about the behavior described in Romans 1:24-27 is that it is driven by excessive, self-seeking lust, that it knows no boundaries or restrains, and that it violates established gender roles of that time and culture, understood in terms of masculine rationality and honor.” None of these reasons extend to loving, committed relationships of gay Christians today.
Will Gay People Inherit the Kingdom of God?
Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate [malakoi], nor abusers of themselves with mankind [arseonkoitai], nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. –1 Corinthians 6:9-10, King James Version
The King James Version of this passage is helpful when looking at 1 Corinthians because newer translations actually translate the two separate words malakoi and arseonkoitai together into the phrase “men who have sex with men” (NIV) or “men who practice homosexuality” (ESV), but there translations are actually not faithful to the original wording and meaning of this passage. Matthew examines both of these words to get an understanding of their original meaning in the original context.
—Malakoi–This was a word commonly used in ancient Greek which literally means “soft.” In a moral context, the term was used to describe a lack of self-control, weakness, laziness, or cowardice. As was discussed in the Romans 1 passage, it was insulting for anything to be described as feminine. For writers of Paul’s day, to be effeminate was to be weak and out of control. These “effeminate” behaviors typically had nothing to do with sexual acts but they were things such as gambling, greed, and vanity. There are some references that malakoi was used to insult men who “willingly submitted to penetration,” which is why the word has recently been in recent times translated as a condemnation of homosexuality. But the majority of the uses of the words are not sexual. In fact, even used in a more sexual context, the word malakos was actually more frequently applied to men who succumbed to women (pg. 120). This is a major shift from what we think of as “effeminate” today. In ancient times, a man who pursued and doted on women (including his wife) were seen as effeminate, as seen in ancient writings such as those by Plutarch.
—Arsenokoitaio–This word is used very little in ancient Greek writings, but it was understood by Bible translators before the 20th century to refer to same-sex behavior. In Greek, arsen means “male” and koites means “bed,” typically with a sexual connotation. This is why many argue that this word has to do with men who sleep with other men, but this is actually not the most accurate understanding. In ancient texts that use arseonkoites, the word has to do with violations of justice such as economic exploitation and power abuses. In other places it is placed in lists between sexual sins and sins of exploitation, suggesting that it may describe “economic exploitation by some sexual means” (pg. 125). In fact, this is what we find in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1:10. So even if this word has to do with same-sex behavior, it would likely have been exploitative forms of it, such as pederasty (men having sex with young boys).
—The words together–Because these words are placed next to each other, some have argued that they should be understood as a pair, condemning both passive and active forms of same-sex behavior (pg. 126). However, these words are never used as a pair by ancient writers. Additionally, we have already seen that same-sex behavior in ancient times was not understood to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation.
The Biblical Argument for Marriage Equality
An important question to ask is this: Can same-sex marriage fit a Christian basis for marriage?
In order to answer this question, Matthew asks: What is the meaning of marriage according to the Bible? And, can same-sex unions fulfill that meaning?
Matthew points to Ephesians 5:21-33, one of the key passages in the Bible regarding marriage, to show that, according to Scripture, marriage is intended to model Christ’s love for his church. There is no mention of children, in-laws, property transactions, or marriage as the foundation of a stable society (pg. 135). The text suggests that the meaning and purpose of marriage is actually much deeper than those things. Marriage is, according to Ephesians, a “profound mystery” that points to the ultimate relationship: Christ’s eternal union with the church (pg. 136). If the core of Christian marriage is a lifelong commitment between two adults in a covenant-keeping relationship of mutual self-giving, then two men or two women can fulfill that purpose. But do we lose something essential about marriage if we take away gender differences?
–The Call to Procreate–Only a man and a woman can procreate, so does that prevent same-sex couples from fulfilling the Bible’s basis for marriage? In the Old Testament, this argument does have some merit in that God blessed people such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through offspring, which ensured their lasting covenant with the Lord. But the New Testament changes the criteria: Biological procreation no loner determines membership in God’s kingdom. Spiritual rebirth through faith in Christ does (pg. 138). Lifelong celibacy became a valid option for Christians (it generally was not for the ancient Israelites) and Jesus made clear that relationships in Him are more enduring even than bonds between biological family members (Matthew 12:46-50). Additionally, infertile marriages are never seen as illegitimate, even in the Old Testament. The marriages of Abraham and Sarah and Elkanah and Hannah were valid long before they had children and Jesus allows people to get divorced in the case of infidelity but doesn’t make an exception for couples who can’t have children. Same-sex couples’ inability to procreate therefore does not exclude them from fulfilling the Bible’s basis for marriage (pg. 141).
—Gender Hierarchy in Marriage–Ephesians 5 does assume gender hierarchy, so does that mean that, since same-sex couples can’t live out that dynamic, that their marriages do not line up according to scripture? That brings us to this question: Is the Bible’s reflection of patriarchy normative for Christians, or is it limited in a way similar to Scripture’s accommodation of slavery? In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes that three types of hierarchies would fade away in Christ–the distinction between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and male and female. Since we are supposed to pray that God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:10), Christians have chosen to bring these aspects of God’s kingdom to earth in opposing racial discrimination and taking a stand to abolish slavery. The Church uniformly opposes slavery, and since Paul connects the issue of slavery and gender hierarchy, we should as well. Both the hierarchies of slave and free and male and female fade away in Christ, and Jesus calls us to make that a reality now, meaning that same-sex couples are not excluded from Christian marriages.
—One Flesh–But what about the fact that men and women anatomically fit together? Isn’t this a requirement to become “one flesh” like Genesis 2:24 says? However, to look at the idea of “one flesh” as only sexual union is not accurate and fails to recognize the deep intimacy and covenant relationship established in marriage. In Ephesians 5:31-32, the phrase “one flesh” is said to be a mystery that related to Christ and the Church, which is a relationship that doesn’t involve sexual union or anatomical difference (pg. 146). Additionally, Ephesians 5 says that husbands and wives are part of the same body, underscoring their sameness in Christ to be what brings them together, not their anatomical differences.
The reality is that when the Bible is read and studied faithfully, it becomes clear that there is no valid Scriptural support for the condemnation of gay people or committed, loving gay relationships. I am so thankful for Matthew Vines and the other amazing gay and straight Christians who publicly affirm their gay brothers and sisters in Christ at great personal risk. The Church has failed in this area for so long and I am praying for change to be ushered in quickly. Let His kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven.
I’ll close with this quote from Matthew Vines:
My main request to non-affirming Christians is simply to listen. If you are straight and don’t have close relationships with many gay Christians, it isn’t appropriate to respond to this conversation with knee-jerk outrage and condemnation. I may be young, but this issue affects my life far more intimately than it affects the lives of straight Christians, and I think it is important for straight people in particular to be open to listening and learning. We won’t all agree in the near future, but if we turn down the volume and respect and value one another’s faith, the church will be able to offer a more Christ-like witness because of it.