Archives For Matthew Vines

Matthew Vines has written a very thought-provoking book, one which exemplifies sound thinking and humble research. In reading his book, I often found myself rubbing my eyes vinesthinking, “I can’t believe this guy hasn’t even graduated from college!”

Matthew, you’re a diligent student of God’s word and I appreciate the work you put into this.

In any case, while I love to eat catfish and wear poly-cotton blends, I still believe that the prohibitions of male homosexual intercourse in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 are still valid today.

To argue that the laws regarding male homosexual intercourse are no longer binding on Christians, Vines cites a few outdated laws in Leviticus: sowing fields with different seeds (Lev 19:19), wearing clothes made of mixed fabric (19:19), getting tattoos (19:28), and shaving the edges of your beard (19:27). Vines also points out that laws regarding circumcision and dietary laws—bye, bye Shrimp Cocktail—are no longer binding on Christians.

So, since all of these laws are done away with in Christ, it’s probable, argues Vines, that the sexual laws about male-male intercourse are no longer binding as well.

Once again, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Matthew’s tone. It’s gracious. Cordial. Humble. And he actually addresses the “what about…” questions that conservatives will have. I often found myself thinking, “Ah ha, but what about…oh…you actually address that. But, have you considered…oh…um…you actually have.”

In any case, there are problems with Matthew’s treatment of Leviticus 18 and 20.

While Matthew highlights the laws of Leviticus that are no longer valid for Christians, he fails to make mention of all the laws that are clearly still binding. In fact, as I’m sure Matthew knows, Leviticus 18-20 is a distinct literary unit. These three chapters are like one long chapter in the book. And this section lists tons of laws that the Israelites were supposed to obey if they were to get along with each other. Now here’s the thing: while some of these laws are clearly overturned (or fulfilled) in the New Testament, most of them are not.

Most of the laws in Leviticus 18-20 are binding on believers. Matthew only cites a few that aren’t; but here are the rest: incest (Lev 18:6-18; 20:11-14, 17, 19-21), adultery (Lev 18:20; 20:10), child sacrifice (Lev 18:21; 20:1-5), bestiality (Lev 18:23; 20:15-16), theft (Lev 19:11), lying (Lev 19:11), taking the Lord’s name in vain (Lev 19:20), oppressing your neighbor (Lev 19:13), cursing the deaf (19:14), showing partiality in the court of law (Lev 19:15), slander (Lev 19:16), hating your brother (19:17), making your daughter a prostitute (Lev 19:29), turning to witches or necromancers (Lev 19:31), not taking vengeance (Lev 19:17), and loving your neighbor as yourself (Lev 19:18).

While Matthew correctly points out a few laws that are most probably done away with in Christ, he doesn’t even mention the large pile of commands that are clearly binding on Christians—commands that surround the prohibition of male-male intercourse.

Now, to be fair, adding up the valid and invalid laws that surround the homosexual prohibitions polycotton blendsdoesn’t seal the deal—even if the homosexual prohibitions are drowning in a sea of valid laws. (I do think it puts the burden of proof on affirming scholars, however.) Vines ends up bringing in another argument: the moral logic of homosexual prohibitions.

Discerning the “moral logic” of a command means that we dig deep underneath the actual command to find out the reason for the command. Take tattoos, for instance. The question isn’t so much if tattoos are forbidden, but why they are forbidden. And if you look closely at Leviticus 19:28, you’ll see that tattoos were forbidden because they had to do with some sort of cult of the dead. The tattoos that were forbidden for the Israelites were cultic and pagan; they symbolized allegiance to other gods. And that’s the “moral logic” for the prohibition.

But what about gay sex? What’s the moral logic underlying the prohibitions? Gay sex is clearly forbidden—but why? And are the reasons for the prohibition still valid today?

Vines argues extensively that the reason—the moral logic—for the homosexual prohibitions in Lev 18:22 and 20:13 is because of an assumed male hierarchy. That is, men were valued above women, and when men have sex with other men, they treat the passive partner as a mere woman.

One problem: Nowhere in the context of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 does the text assume some sort of gender hierarchy—that females were inferior to males and that’s why men shouldn’t assume the female role in sex. Nothing. (The phrase “as with a female” only speaks of gender boundaries, not gender hierarchy.) The two prohibitions are “unqualified and absolute” (Gagnon); that is, they simply say that men shouldn’t have sex with men. Period. There is no “moral logic” revealed in the command (just as there is no clear moral logic revealed in the incest laws, though I suspect God gave the commands for similar reasons.) The only hint of moral logic is that men shouldn’t violate their God-given gender roles in sexual intercourse; that is, men should have sex with women, and women sex with men. The command tells men not to have sex with men “as with women.” In any case, assuming some sort of hidden gender hierarchy as the reason for the prohibition is…well…an assumption. An assumption that’s not in the text.

Moreover, every single other sexual prohibition in Leviticus 18 and 20 are still valid for Christians today: adultery, incest, bestiality, etc. They are all valid. Now, Vines points out, or assumes, that the prohibition of sex during a woman’s menstrual period (Lev 19:19) is no longer valid; apparently, men can have all the sex they want during a woman’s period. But my question is: where in the New Testament is this command overturned? Is there any biblical basis—biblical basis—for assuming that men can have sex while their wives are on their period? I’m having troubling recalling a verse, and I can’t explain theologically how it is that Jesus “fulfilled” (yikes!) this prohibition.

So, the point stands: all the prohibitions surrounding sexual immorality in Leviticus 18 and 20 including incest, adultery, sex during menstruation, and male homosexual intercourse—along with a whole host of over commands in Lev 18-20—are still binding on Christians. There’s simply nothing in the context of Leviticus 18 and 20, or in the New Testament, that suggests otherwise.

Having read several reviews of Vines’ book over the last 24 hours, let me begin my critique on a different note. I don’t assume that Vines is reading his view into the text. Last time I checked, I’m not God and I don’t have direct access to his interpretive motivations. What I do have access to are his vines 1actual biblical and historical arguments, and it is these that I will discuss in these blogs.

I also want to set aside the whole “overturning centuries of tradition” critique. Yes, church tradition is non-affirming of gay and lesbian relationships. It was also non-affirming of a heliocentric solar system until Galileo dared to go against centuries of well-established tradition. I’m unashamedly Protestant; I believe that the God-breathed text can (and sometimes does) overturn tradition. While the tradition argument should be considered and weighed, it’s a bit of a red herring. Vines knows that he’s going against tradition. But 80-90% of his book shows why he believes that the authoritative Bible challenges this tradition. Such a proposal is bold, if not risky. But it’s not inherently wrong—if you’re Protestant.

So again, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. It’s not that I don’t like pudding, or that I think Vines is a bad cook. But the pudding he’s served up is missing some key ingredients.

A major thread throughout his book is that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world” (pg. 104; cf. chapter 2), and this is a serious and necessary claim. Think about it. Paul’s language in Romans 1 could be taken to refer to straight people having gay sex—they exchanged the natural function of the male/female. And if Paul didn’t know what we know now, that some people are simply born gay, then perhaps he wouldn’t have said what he did. Or, put differently, since same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world (the cornerstone of his argument), then Paul could not have such people in mind. Paul was only condemning straight people who got bored with heterosexual sex and ventured into new, same-sex territory to satisfy their hyper-lustful urges.

My initial thought is: does it matter? If we were able to bring Paul up to speed with all of our psychological wisdom, would his argument in Romans 1 look different? Or, isn’t it a bit bold to think that we in 2014 have arrived in our understanding of sexual orientation? In 400 years or 800 years, will people look back on our silly and backwoods scientific views, just as some look back on Paul’s (seemingly) patriarchal views? The ever-changing fields of psychology and social science are suspicious starting points for moral arguments.

But let’s grant Vines’ assumption. Let’s say that our modern understanding of sexual orientation is as polished as we think it is and therefore a valid starting point to read the New Testament. Houston, we still have a problem: Ancient concepts of same-sex orientation did exist in Paul’s world.

I’m not sure if Vines ignored or simply did not come across the piles and piles of historical evidence that works against his thesis. Only God knows. In any case, if you’re genuinely interested in this discussion, you need to know that the ancients did in fact have beliefs about what we now know as “same-sex orientation.”

Aristotle for instance said that some homoerotic desires come from habit, but others spring from nature (Eth. 1148b). In other words, some people are born with same-sex desires. Some ancients even speculated about certain biological defects that cause some men to desire other men. One writer explains that males who desire to be penetrated are born with a physiological vines 3defect where semen is abnormally secreted into the anus and sparks a desire for friction (Pseudo-Aristotelian Problemata 4.26; cf. 879a36-880a5; 879b28-30). Soranus, the Greek physician from Ephesus, also believed that same-sex desire is shaped more by nature rather than nurture, but locates the source of the desire in the mind or spirit (De morbis chronicis 4:131, 132, 134).

We can certainly write off such speculations as unscientific, barbaric, and downright wrong. And we should. But the veracity of such claims about orientation is irrelevant. What matters is that ancient writers were making such claims about orientation. It is clear that at least some of Paul’s contemporaries believed that same-sex desires were biological.

Some writers were not as specific—or creative—as the medical texts cited above about such orientation, yet they still seemed to believe in a form of what we would call homosexual orientation. Phaedrus, who wrote his Fable around the time of Paul, presents a mythological account about why some people desire sex with the same gender. He says that the god Prometheus got drunk and attached male genitalia to women and women genitalia to men. In other words, some women are trapped in men’s bodies and some men are trapped in women’s bodies (Phdr. 4.16). The account, of course, is mythical and humorous, but nonetheless reflects ancient assumptions that desire for same sex intercourse is inherent. Less mythical is Lucian’s report of a woman named Megilla who says: “I was born as a woman like the rest of you, but my mind, desire, and everything else in me are that of a man” (Dialogue of the Courtesans 5:4). Today, we would say that Megilla was a lesbian—or transgendered—even if such categories were not available to the ancients.

Bernadette Brooten—an affirming scholar, by the way—has gathered evidence from ancient astrological texts, which suggested that sexual orientation was determined by the arrangement of the stars. One text says: “If the Sun and Moon are in masculine signs and Venus is also in a masculine sign in a woman’s chart, women will be born who take on a man’s character and desire intercourse with women like men” (Matheseos libri viii 7.25.1). Dorotheos wrote her astrological poem, Carmen Astrologicum, right around the time Paul was sending his letter to the Roman church. In it, she says that if the sun and moon are at a particular location when women are born, they “will be a Lesbian, desirous of women, and if the native is a male, he will be desirous of males” (2.7.6). After looking at many more examples, Brooten concludes: “Contrary to the view that the idea of sexual orientation did not develop until the nineteenth century, the astrological sources demonstrate the existence in the Roman world of the concept of a lifelong erotic orientation.”

I could list many more examples of ancient concepts of sexual orientation, but suffice it to say: Vines’ claim that “the concept of same-sex orientation didn’t exist in the ancient world,” which is crucial to his entire argument, ignores a wealth of historical evidence to the contrary. Maybe Paul did not have any concept of sexual orientation, or maybe he did. In any case, we cannot appeal to the absence of such a view in his cultural environment and then project it upon Paul as Vines does. When Paul therefore says that “men…gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (Rom 1:27), he is not revealing ignorance about sexual orientation.

There’s no reason—no good historical reason—to believe that Paul was unaware of same-sex orientation.

Matthew Vines is fast becoming a significant voice in the church’s debate about homosexuality. Matthew is a young, gay Christian, who has done more research on the Bible’s view of homosexuality than any 10 people I know. A couple years ago, he gave a lecture at a church that summed up his initial findings of his research. The video of the lecture went viral in the Christian world—nearly 1 million views—and now he has written a book that further articulates his vines 1view. God and the Gay Christian (Convergent, 2014) hits the bookstores today (April 22) and it’ll no doubt persuade many Christians to believe that the Bible affirms same-sex marriage.

Matthew’s publisher was kind enough to send me an advance copy of the book, so I’ve been combing through it over the last few weeks. Since this is going to be such an important—and debated—book, I want to write several blogs reviewing it. For this first blog, I want to highlight its positives aspects. This is not because I agree with Matthew’s conclusions, but precisely because I don’t. Having been knee-deep in the same research that Matthew has been engaging in, I’m able to follow his argument and research very easily. From Plutarch to Gagnon, Rufus to Martin, Plato to Brownson, and Seneca to Boswell, I’m reading the same stuff. And if Plato is the only name you recognize from that list, it’ll be good to know that many scholars both recent and ancient have been seeking to understand the phenomenon and morality of men and women desiring sex and marriage with the same gender. Vines’ book is one more addition to a very large, and very old, debate about same-sex unions.

So, for the pros. First, from everything Matthew says, he’s clearly committed to the authoritative, inspired, inerrant text of Scripture. Vines destroys the stereotype of someone who wants to be a gay Christian but is much more gay than Christian. I’ve read many appalling essays and books by people who want to maintain some vague notion of faith or spirituality, even though it’s clear that their sexual desires are their god. Matthew doesn’t believe in a Gumby Jesus, whom we can bend and mold however we see fit; rather, Matthew seems to go where Scripture leads him. And according to this book, Scripture has led him to conclude that the Bible affirms (or at least does not condemn) consensual, loving, monogamous gay and lesbian marriages.

I know, I know. “Scripture didn’t lead him there, it’s his inaccurate, biased interpretation of Scripture that wrongly led him to his sinful conclusions,” some will say. Perhaps. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and we need to look at his actual arguments before we dismiss them. Plenty of Christians were accused of similar non-traditional interpretations of the Bible. Galileo was condemned for his wrong interpretation of Scripture when he said that the earth revolved around the sun, and many abolitionists were condemned by Christian slaveholders because they were forcing their views that all people are equal upon the text. We are all subject to biases and baggage—misinterpreting the text. The best way to tell is to look at the actual arguments to see if they hold weight. And this I will do over the next few blogs.

Second, Matthew Vines has done more research on the Bible and homosexuality than any traditionalist I have met. His rather short book has nearly 25 pages of footnotes, many of which interact with scholarly sources both ancient and modern. He’s not just citing the latest psychological study, nor just relying on his own experience. He’s carefully weighing historical and exegetical evidence for what the Bible says about homosexuality—and what the ancients believed vines 2about homosexuality. As one who has been combing through the same texts, I can applaud Matthew for doing a ton of grueling work. It’s not easy to pour over a pile of dense literature (some of it written in Greek and Latin) and then try to explain it to a lay audience. But Matthew has. And he’s done a fine job for the most part of explaining, even though he makes several mistakes in the process, as we’ll see in future blogs.

Third, Matthew’s book is incredibly clear. Clarity is not always forthcoming, especially in younger writers. Matthew’s book is quite different and he’s clearly a gifted writer, along with being a very good thinker. Few people can listen in on discussions going on in the Ivory Tower and then climb down to communicate them to the masses, but this is exactly what Matthew has done. Matthew, if you’re reading this: you have a gift and it’s evident from this book.

Fourth, I agree with several points he makes in the book. For instance, chapter 4 “The Real Sin of Sodom” is spot on. Matthew and I have arrived at the same conclusion (though independently) that God condemned Sodom for attempted gang rape, not for pursuing consensual, same sex marriages. Also, Matthew has a good understanding of the Greco-Roman view of sexuality and gender, which of course forms the backdrop for Paul’s references to same-sex activity in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and 1Timothy; however, as we’ll see in the next post, he still leaves some important aspects out of this discussion. Same thing with his discussion of Genesis 1-2. Many good points, but he still leaves some key features out.

Matthew’s book is definitely a discussion starter and it will, no doubt, trigger a wave of responses. However, my fear is that people will read this book as the last word on the subject. Or, people wanting to affirm same-sex relations will read Matthew’s book without a critical eye (in the same way that conservatives will read Gagnon or whomever without actually looking for the pros and the cons). There are several mistakes in the book that are significant enough to leave his argument resting on a shaky foundation.