When Multnomah Books published Christians in the Wake of the Sexual Revolution, written by popular Christian author Randy Alcorn, in 1988, it was assumed that Christians were merely dealing with the aftermath of the sexual liberation movement. But with the publication of the controversial title God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships by Convergent Books, one of Multnomah’s sister imprints, Christians must wake up to the fact that the sexual revolution is not dead. It is alive and well. And it is now claiming scriptural support.
Having evolved over the last several decades, the sexual revolution is continuing its advances. With a solid presence established in the media, academia, legislatures, and law courts across the country, the revolution is now encroaching upon the church. With one foot already firmly planted in the doors of mainline Christian denominations, the revolution is now threatening to sneak its way into the conservative domain of modern evangelicalism.
“If I were mapping a playbook for the gay rights movement, this book is an important point in the strategy,” writes Andrew Walker, director of Policy Studies for the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, in his review of God and the Gay Christian. “It has to be written in order to introduce confusion within the evangelical firmament, one of the last remaining constituencies in America that has not embraced homosexuality with gusto.”
There is no question about it: Matthew Vines’ book, God and the Gay Christian, and the movement it represents, is threatening to dismantle the church’s traditional understanding of Edenic sexuality, the only type of sexuality that is sanctioned by God. If the book falls into the hands of uninformed Christians, who are liable to succumb to cultural pressures and adopt the sexual standards of a secular world, then the rising generation of evangelicals may lose sight of God’s design for human sexuality. And this is exactly what Matthew Vines aims to accomplish.
What is the purpose of God and the Gay Christian?
When Vines, a self-professing conservative evangelical, admitted to his family and his church that he was gay, he was not content with the compassion they showed him. He longed for affirmation — an unqualified approval of his sexual preferences and practices. The only thing standing in the way of the affirmation he sought was Scripture.
After spending four years studying liberal biblical scholarship on sex and gender issues, Vines successfully persuaded those closest to him that same-sex relationships are not only consistent with Scripture, but they are also God-honoring. In God and the Gay Christian, Vines invites his readers on the same journey that led conservative Christians in his hometown of Wichita, Kansas, to support monogamous relationships between same-sex couples.
With a conversational tone and a personal touch, Matthew Vines, a 24-year-old Harvard graduate, uses Scripture as the basis for his assertion that “same-sex orientation is consistent with God’s image.” His thesis is that “Christians who affirm the authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.”
Vines’ position is clear: He wants to sanctify his sexual desires, which he considers fixed and unchanging, and express his sexuality in a God-reflecting covenant — just as opposite-sex couples do. And he won’t let anything — including Scripture — stand in his way.
“It isn’t gay Christians who are sinning against God by entering into monogamous loving relationships,” Vines declares. “It is the church that is sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships.”
The mission of the Reformation Project, which Vines launched in 2013, is to change the church’s stance on gay marriage. The release of God and the Gay Christian is the first step in accomplishing that goal.
What Are Vines’ Arguments?
Christians are accustomed to hearing arguments for same-sex relationships from secular sources. But now, for the first time, a professing conservative evangelical with a high view of Scripture is defending gay marriage, popularizing liberal biblical scholarship in an effort to normalize gay relationships in the church.
Matthew Vines makes numerous arguments to support his claim that monogamous same-sex relationships are consistent with Scripture. In God and the Gay Christian, Vines analyzes six biblical passages that are typically used by Christians to prove that same-sex relationships are sinful. Vines’ interpretation of these passages depends on some mistaken assumptions. Below, we will review several of his points and provide a brief response to each.
Vines states that sexually-exclusive gay relationships exhibit Christian virtues. Describing how he lost confidence in the sinfulness of same-sex relationships, Vines notes: “Not only were [same-sex relationships] not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice. What other sin looked like that?” Vines asks: How can a relationship characterized by love, fidelity, and self-sacrifice be a vice?
Response: Rarely is an act of vice completely devoid of virtue. Think of a street gang that requires loyalty and faithfulness to a particular creed. Is that street gang acting virtuously by exhibiting loyalty?
Or think of Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan exhibits courage and self-sacrifice when he promises to undertake the treacherous journey from Pandemonium to the new world in order to corrupt humankind and take possession of paradise. But why does he exhibit these traits? As Milton describes it, he does so in order “to confound the race of mankind in one root, and Earth with Hell to mingle and involve, done all to spite the great Creator.” Is that truly virtue?
Same-sex relationships include the exercise of love, self-sacrifice, and fidelity, but for what purpose? Are these virtues employed to honor the Creator or to honor humanity’s impulses? By claiming that the Bible stands in the way of affirming gays, Vines has signaled his goal, which is to interpret Scripture in a new way, one that affirms his desires and his preferred way of life, in spite of God’s design for human sexuality. When we spite the Creator’s design, we spite the great Creator Himself, harming ourselves and our communities in the process.
Vines states that traditional Christian teaching has produced bad fruit. Because their lifestyle is not supported by conservative churches, Vines says that gay Christians are frequently tormented by depression, suicidal thoughts, misery, and self-loathing. In Vines’ opinion, such bad fruit is directly caused by the bad tree of traditional church teaching on sex, which has led to “rancorous” and “mean-spirited” treatment of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
Response: We are always miserable when we want what we can’t have. And, as fallen human beings with wayward desires, we all want what we can’t have. This is part of the universal human experience — no one is exempt from the sin permeating our world. Still, while we may undergo considerable torment when we can’t follow our natural human impulses, we experience even greater torment when we make reason subject to desire and operate contrary to God’s design.
In Romans 7:22-24, Paul writes, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul — as a Christ-follower — knew that he was responsible for adhering to God’s design, even though the battle between sin and holiness caused inner turmoil and wretchedness. He did not attempt to change God’s law to suit his preferences. Instead, he humbled himself before God’s law, regardless of what felt right to him.
Vines states that the Bible does not speak to our current situation. Because the concept of a fixed sexual orientation is a modern development that was foreign to biblical writers, Vines insists that we must develop a modern ethic to keep up with our developing understanding of human sexuality. “The new information we have about sexual orientation actually requires us to reinterpret Scripture,” Vines writes. Because Jesus and Paul had no awareness of an unchanging sexual orientation that could be expressed in a monogamous gay relationship, Vines says we cannot turn to either of them for answers. In Vines’ opinion, neither Jesus nor Paul has anything relevant to say on the subject. “The Bible doesn’t directly address the issue of same-sex orientation — or the expression of that orientation,” Vines concludes.
Response: If Vines truly had a high view of Scripture, then he would accept the notion that Scripture is “God-breathed” and relevant across times and across cultures. In the Gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was asked about marriage and divorce, he did not base his response on prevailing cultural norms. Instead, he referred his listeners to the Genesis creation account, which states that, in the beginning, God created male and female. Within this marriage relationship, sexuality is properly exercised. That was the norm utilized by both Paul and Jesus in all of their discussions on sexual ethics. Indeed, Vines fails to take into account the entire biblical narrative, in which sexual ethics are based not on the shifting sands of modernity, but on God’s design before the fall, which — as far as sexuality is concerned — consisted solely of the comprehensive, one-flesh union between a man and a woman.
To think that Jesus and Paul would approve of any sexual relationships — even monogamous ones — that occur outside of marriage is simply ludicrous. Andrew Walker writes: “If homosexuality — whether in orientation or in practice — is considered a disordered passion, then commitment and monogamy are irrelevant.” Paul does not simply denounce excessive, unconstrained, or lustful sexual practices, as Vines asserts. He forbids all sexual activity outside the bounds of a marriage relationship consisting of one man and one woman, who together form a one-flesh union.
Although Vines insists that we live in a new world with new truths with which we must align ourselves, we are really dealing with the same old truth of creaturely rebellion. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, a new situation emerged. With newly opened eyes, they began determining for themselves what is right and wrong. Ever since that tragic moment, humans have developed new norms, established new mores, and created new theories. But our Christian faith does not call us to create a new ethic to match these new situations. Like Jesus, Christians are called to look back to paradise — at the purity of unblemished, obedient humanity — and to live according to our design as human beings. When we create a new world — one that is untouched by the Bible — and form a new sexual ethic, we reject God’s design. In its place, we implement a new design that is more palatable to us. And in the process, we turn ourselves into creators rather than creatures subject to their Maker.
There is only one pre-fall sexual ethic. But Matthew Vines claims that Jews and Christians have been misinterpreting that sexual ethic for centuries. In his analysis of the creation account, Vines radically reinterprets the meaning of the first marriage.
Vines states that gender differences are not essential to marriage. In the second chapter of Genesis, God presents various animals to Adam to see if he can find a suitable partner among them. When that project fails, God presents Eve, a human being, to Adam. Vines surmises that it is Eve’s humanness, not her femaleness, that is the basis of her partnership with Adam. Thus, Vines comes to the conclusion that “Adam and Eve’s sameness, not their gender difference, was what made them suitable partners.”
If Vines is correct, then gender differences are incidental to the marriage relationship, and sexually-exclusive relationships between both heterosexual and homosexual couples are consistent with God’s design for marriage. If Adam and Eve’s marriage was based solely on companionship and not on complementarity, then Vines is able to make a convincing case for gay marriage.
Pressing his theory that marriage is primarily about companionship — and not physical complementarity — Vines writes, “The most important aspect of marriage is the covenant the two partners make. … In Jesus’ understanding of marriage, covenantal commitment is foundational. The ability to bear children is not. … In keeping with the focus on Ephesians 5, the essence of Christian marriage involves keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a relationship of mutual self-giving. That picture doesn’t exclude same-sex couples.”
Vines continues, “[A]ccording to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in the Bible’s understanding of those words. What is necessary is that two lives are joined in the context of a binding covenant.” In Vines’ view, the Bible’s language of one-flesh union is not literal. With this figurative account of the one-flesh union, Vines makes the case for a covenantal marriage relationship between two people of the same sex.
Response: Vines’ entire thesis depends on his re-interpretation of the creation story. According to Vines, the Bible’s language of one-flesh union is not literal. It is purely figurative. Throughout the Bible, however, one-flesh union is considered to be both literal and figurative. In order for a couple to become one flesh, they must actually become a single organism in the procreative act. The literal physical union between husband and wife symbolizes and completes the spiritual, mental, and emotional bond that is based on a Christ-like, covenantal love. In the conjugal act, the male and female who commit to each other as though they are one-flesh actually become one-flesh. When the biblical writers mentioned one-flesh union, they did not forsake the common-sense meaning and completely spiritualize the concept in the process. Biology attests to the Creator’s design, indicating that his intention for a comprehensive one-flesh union between a man and a woman in marriage includes physical oneness.
The marriage relationship encompasses the whole self — the mind, the spirit, and the body as well. As Christians who are interested in upholding God’s design for sexuality, we cannot ignore the sanctity of the human body. We are not disembodied spirits. In order to refute Matthew Vines’ interpretation of Adam and Eve’s marriage relationship, we must rediscover why human embodiment and gender difference is essential to our understanding of marriage, sexuality, and one-flesh union.
Developing an Ethic of Sexual Wholeness
According to the traditional Christian conception, a human being is a dynamic unity of mind, body, and soul. Unfortunately, many Christians have a tendency to discount the importance of either the body or the soul. This is a mistake. If we are to maintain a robust view of human nature — and as a result, human sexuality — we must take seriously the body and the soul, both of which are integral to a proper understanding of marriage and sexual wholeness.
The Dangers of Evangelical Gnosticism
Because of the prominence of the secular worldview, which is based on scientific materialism, Christians must constantly resist the pressure to view human beings as simply bodies. The secular worldview, which dismisses a priori the existence of a spiritual realm, promotes a naturalistic conception of man. Such a depiction of man, which presents him as nothing better than an animal fueled by desire, leads ineluctably to an ethic of pleasure-seeking or pragmatism. When there is no eternal court of law — when there is no objective right and wrong — we may legitimately pursue whatever we want as long as no one else is harmed in the process. That’s why secularists often promote a sexual ethic that is permissive, allowing for liberation from “superstitious” and outdated moral norms. Without the soul, the body rightfully rules. Whatever the body desires is right. This is the ethic that propelled the sexual revolution.
Christians, who believe that humans have souls, assert that the soul — the divine part within us — should rule the body, disciplining it in accordance with God’s eternal law. But this hierarchical view of the human person has led some Christians to spurn the body, viewing it as an obstacle to godly living and, as a result, as something with less worth than the soul. Perhaps influenced by Paul’s differentiation between the “spirit” and the “flesh,” these Christians exalt the former at the expense of the latter, ignoring the passages in which Paul actually affirms the importance of the body.
As we will make clear, Christians cannot afford to devalue the body, which was created by God and designed to be used for his glory. When we disparage the body, we are more inclined to adopt a figurative account of one-flesh union that ignores its essential bodily component. If we are to live as evangelical Gnostics, who shun the body and embrace only the spiritual, then we will be exposed to the flaws of Matthew Vines’ interpretation of the first couple, Adam and Eve, which emphasizes their spiritual unity and de-emphasizes their physical unity, thereby creating space for a sexual ethic that makes companionship — not complementarity — the basis for marriage.
Rediscovering the Importance of the Body
Plato thought of the body as a prison from which the soul was desperate to escape. In St. Augustine’s day, the Manichees considered the material world to be evil and the spiritual world to be good. Like other Gnostic sects, whose heresies were rejected by early Christians, the Manichees taught that material existence was the cause of all evil and that salvation, which was accomplished solely by spiritual means, required the denunciation of the body.
Such a negative portrayal of the material world is nowhere to be found in the Bible. The author of Genesis repeatedly expresses the goodness of the material world that God created (Genesis 1). The Psalmist frequently praises God’s handiwork, which attests to his glory (Psalm 19). Furthermore, human beings are designed as physical and spiritual beings who reflect God’s image. They are formed from the dust of the earth and receive the breath of life. When “God saw all that he had made,” he declared that “it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).
Jesus’ ministry served to reaffirm the goodness of God’s creation. John, the beloved apostle, reminds us that “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). God took on human flesh and offered his body as a sacrifice for us (Hebrews 10:10). During his lifetime, Jesus healed the bodies and the souls of those who came to him in faith. More than anything else, Jesus said, we ought to fear the one who has the power to destroy both body and soul (Matthew 10:28). Throughout his ministry, Jesus gives every indication that the body is more than simply clothing for the soul (Matthew 6:25). It is an essential part of our being. The resurrection of Jesus’ body, which foreshadows the bodily resurrection of all the faithful, is the ultimate indication that our bodies matter. And if our bodies matter, so does our sexuality.
Paul says as much in 1 Corinthians 6:13-14 when he writes, “Our bodies were not made for sexual immorality. They were made for the Lord, and the Lord cares about our bodies. And God will raise our bodies from the dead by his marvelous power, just as he raised our Lord from the dead.”
Since we are supposed to honor God with our bodies, we should flee sexual sin. Paul notes, “No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Or don’t you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-19).
We glorify God through our bodies when we act according to God’s design. Beth Felker Jones, Assistant Professor of Theology at Wheaton College, writes, “Where sinners want their bodies to be for themselves alone, a means of unfettered personal gratification, Christians have ways of seeing the body as being turned outward, toward God and others.” According to the secular worldview, personal gratification is an appropriate end. But, for Christians, the path to happiness is the path to holiness — the pursuit of God’s will, which, when it comes to human sexuality, is fully conveyed in the pre-fall marriage relationship between Adam and Eve.
As fallen human beings, however, we are prone to use our bodies for ourselves, not for others. While our bodies are good, they are also broken. If we are to honor God with our bodies and with our sexuality — with our femininity and masculinity — then we must fight the temptation to express our sexuality in ways that are opposed to God’s design. According to that design, physical complementarity is an essential — and not an incidental — component of the marriage relationship. Having established the importance of the body as presented in Scripture, we must now consider how masculinity and femininity, the two ways of being in a body, make possible the mutual self-giving that is definitive of marriage and constitutive of human fulfillment.
Establishing a Theology of the Body
Early in the Genesis 2 creation account, man is a solitary being — alone among God’s creation — and he is referred to solely as ‘adam. With the introduction of Eve, there is a shift in Scripture’s language. No longer is man the solitary ‘adam. From that point on, man is distinguished between ‘is and ‘issah, male and female. Thus, there are, in effect, two incarnations — two ways of being human. And the complementarity of these two ways of being human is indispensable to the institution of marriage as designed by God.
At the moment of creation, humanity is separated into two parts, and the unity of these parts enables us to come to a fuller realization of our human nature. J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy at the University of Texas, writes, “Short of a divine provision for people called to celibacy, there is something missing in the man, which must be provided by the woman, and something missing in the woman, which must be provided by the man. By themselves, each one is incomplete; to be whole, they must be united.”
To be united is exactly what God required of the married couple. In Genesis 1, immediately after God created them male and female, he instructed them “to be fruitful and multiply,” which, of course, requires a literal one-flesh union that is effectuated in the procreative act. Without sexual complementarity, there is no procreation. And without procreation, the married couple cannot perform all of the duties assigned to it by God. The author of Genesis notes that all subsequent marriages ought to model the structure of the first marriage. In the imitation of the first couple, “a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24).
In the procreative act, the man and the woman literally become a single organism. Writing about the biological significance of the one-flesh union, J. Budziszewski notes, “If we were speaking of respiration, it would be as though the man had the diaphragm, the woman the lungs, and they had to come together to take a single breath. … [T]hat is precisely how it is with the procreative powers. The union of complementary opposites is the only possibly realization of their procreative potential; unless they come together as ‘one-flesh’ — as a single organism, though with two personalities — procreation doesn’t occur.”
The fruit of the one-flesh union — children — is an indication to us that sexual complementarity is not an incidental aspect of marriage. It is the married couple’s sexual complementarity that allows for a truly comprehensive union that incorporates not only the soul and the mind, but also the body. Through procreation, the married couple continues God’s work of creation and “they confirm and renew the existence of man as the image of God” (Genesis 5:3).
While Adam and Eve shared the same humanity, they also expressed dual natures — two ways of being human. When we combine the masculine and the feminine in a mutually self-giving, one-flesh union, we learn more fully what it means to be human.
It is both their same humanity and their unique, complementary somatic constitutions that enable a man and a woman to come together and form one distinct human person. Each of them fills what is missing in the other. Through the continual and reciprocal act of mental, spiritual, and bodily self-giving, the man and woman represent the totality of created humanity, incorporating both the feminine and masculine components of our nature.
If Adam and Eve’s sexual complementarity matters to marriage, then Matthew Vines’ biblical argument is nullified. As we have seen, scripture’s notion of one-flesh union is not simply figurative. The procreative act both signifies and fulfills the couple’s complete union of mind and soul.
Since the body is no less important than the soul, bodily union is no less important than spiritual union in the marriage relationship. And the only way for genuine one-flesh union to occur is for two sexually complementary beings to become a single operating unit in the conjugal act. In that act, we know and are known; we give of ourselves and we receive the other; we beget children and create a community of life, love, and mutual self-giving that mirrors the love of the Trinity and the love that God, through his son Jesus Christ, expresses to his creation.
Promoting Sexual Wholeness
Christians do not have the luxury of remaining passive as secular ideals invade the church in the guise of theological virtue. As the next generation is bombarded by claims that monogamous same-sex relationships are honoring to God, we must redouble our efforts to defend — in our words and in our actions — the church’s traditional teaching on sexual ethics, which is based on God’s design for human flourishing and was established at creation — before the fall of man. Since alignment with God’s design is the only path to genuine human fulfillment, we must direct people toward the exercise of proper sexuality — not “your” sexuality or “my” sexuality — but true sexuality as God intended it to be expressed.
Conservative evangelicals must continue to show that it is possible to affirm the dignity of gay Christians without affirming their lifestyle. Whereas Matthew Vines and the LGBT community view acceptance of their sexual ethic as the only source of healing, conservative evangelicals view the grace of Jesus Christ and the sanctification of the Holy Spirit as the only source of healing. With a spirit of love and humility, conservative evangelicals must continually submit to God’s design as revealed in Scripture and as supported by centuries of interpretation by venerable Christian thinkers — no matter how painful or inconvenient that might be.
For Christians, the standard of sexual ethics does not change. As Jesus confirmed, the creation account is the basis for our approach to marriage. We should base our notions of right and wrong not on our fallen state, but on our original state. The basis of proper sexuality is not our modern condition, but our initial condition, pristine in its purity and grounded in God’s divine ordering.
Judging from the testimony of Scripture and the entire biblical narrative, a monogamous same-sex relationship is as much of a sexual sin as any other that occurs outside of the traditional marriage model. By sharing a robust biblical worldview and a holistic, scriptural theory of sexual wholeness, we might be able to offer hope, healing, and reconciliation to a world that is suffering from sexual brokenness. Of course, true hope, true healing, and true reconciliation occur in only one place — at the foot of the cross of Christ, where we find our true, God-given identity when we take up our own respective crosses and follow him — without qualification.