A few years ago, Matthew Vines faced a major life crisis. He’d grown up as part of a very conservative Presbyterian church congregation in his native Wichita. Now, as a twenty-something Harvard undergrad, he’d reached this moment of painful truth. For years he’d been more or less blissfully oblivious to it, and later, as discomforting realization began to creep in, he tried to repress it. But on this particular angst-ridden evening, standing in the toothpaste section of a convenience store, Matthew Vines finally admitted to himself, “Oh crap – I’m gay.”
This kind of self-realization poses enough worries and resultant problems for anyone, but for a devout Christian who is deeply ensconced in the conservative Evangelical branch of American Christianity, it’s all the more difficult. In the midst of this newfound self-awareness, and the inevitable opposition to the news that he encountered from family and friends – all of whom loved him deeply, but who, based on their interpretation of the Bible, were not open to the possibility, let alone the acceptability, of being simultaneously a deeply committed Christian and gay.
This led Mathew Vines to do something drastic. He put his undergraduate studies on hold, and began a lengthy and very detailed scholarly study of the biblical texts which the church has traditionally interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Not a biblical scholar himself, he turned the work of many very well-regarded Bible scholars, from across the full spectrum of Christian thought. In the process, he discovered that the traditional, “non-affirming” position, which has been the prevailing interpretation of these texts for most of Christian history, is far from the only interpretation of them. He discovered that not only was the non-affirming interpretation not the only theologically and scholarly rigorous interpretation, but he came to believe – as others have – that all of the best and most rigorous biblical scholarship shows that the traditional interpretation of these passages has been simply wrong. In this process, not only Matthew, but also his deeply conservative and traditional parents, came to accept the validity of the non-traditional, affirming interpretation of the scriptures.
Following up on this in-depth research, he gave an hour-long presentation summarizing his findings to an audience gathered in a local Methodist church (his home congregation denied him a venue). This presentation was recorded and uploaded to YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY where it went viral – to date, it has been viewed by at least three-quarters of a million people. It was this video that first introduced me to Matthew Vines. And now, Matthew Vines has written a book, God and the Gay Christian, in which he details the arguments in favor of an affirming interpretation of the Bible and weaving in parts of his own personal story, while he makes his larger point: that a person can identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian, holding to the full authority of the Bible, while also ascribing to an affirming interpretation of the scriptures.
I was especially struck by his scholarship and the video because his research regarding the church’s stance on homosexuality very closely paralleled my own. Matthew Vines grew up in a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) – a congregation that has since, sadly, voted to leave the denomination largely over its decision to allow openly gay and lesbian ordained ministers, elders, and deacons. I am a long-time member of the same denomination, albeit in a significantly less conservative congregation than his. My original entry into Christianity was via a very conservative, non-Presbyterian strand of the faith, and I’d retained this conservatism, and the traditional, non-affirming stance toward gays after becoming a Presbyterian. I’d been disturbed at my denomination’s gradual movement toward an affirming, inclusive stance with regard to LGBTQ issues. At the time, I thought that the denomination was being unfaithful to the Bible, throwing out the scriptures in favor of a position defined more by current secular thought than the Bible. In my mid-forties, I discerned a call to the ministry, first as what the Presbyterians called a Commissioned Lay Pastor, and later as a seminary-trained Minister of Word and Sacrament. During the coursework to become a CLP, I’d dug into the scriptures, their origins, and the interpretive methodologies that we Presbyterians had historically adopted more deeply than I ever had before. At the same time, the denomination was loudly arguing about “the gay issue” and whether to amend our constitution to be more affirming. It was also around this time that I first encountered a person who was simultaneously deeply Christian and openly gay, and the cognitive dissonance that this set off in my brain led to many questions. Still very conservative theologically at that point, I set out on an in-depth study to refute the non-traditional, affirming biblical and theological arguments that were being put forth. At the end of my efforts, however, I ended up at the complete opposite end of the spectrum of the matter, and I had to grudgingly and sheepishly admit to myself, “Oh crap – they’re right.”
Since that time, I’ve moved from identifying as a conservative Christian; to a Christian with progressive beliefs, but who still valued the “conservative” label to the point that I argued that my views were actually the “truly” conservative views; to now, as an ordained Presbyterian pastor who proudly identifies as a progressive Mainline Christian. In that regard, I am not like Matthew Vines, who continues to identify as a conservative Evangelical Christian – and it is precisely that fact that makes his new book so remarkable, and so threatening to a number of conservative, non-affirming Christians. Still, our research, and our conclusions, were almost perfectly parallel. I actually remember being so amazed at his video, which laid out almost precisely my own research and beliefs like no other single source, that I pointed a number of people to the video, via Facebook sharing and other avenues. This sharing was not universally appreciated; by the time the video was uploaded, I had already been serving as pastor to a small congregation for a number of years, and I remember one parishioner in particular who was especially perturbed by the video by this young gay man, who apparently was claiming that “we can say the Bible means whatever we want it to,” and complaining that watching the video resulted in losing an hour of her life that she’d never get back.
I had the pleasure of actually meeting Matthew Vines in October of 2013 in Chicago, while attending a conference of the Covenant Network of Presbyterians. He presented one of the many workshops that I attended there. I was lucky enough to bump into him a couple of times during the breaks, and I shared a dinner table and some very enjoyable conversation with him and three or four others one evening. Since that time, I’d been very much looking forward to the release of his book. Now that it’s arrived and I’ve finished reading it, I can say it was definitely worth the wait. God and the Gay Christian is a very good, and very important, book.
By his own admission, the scholarship presented in Matthew’s book is not new, and not original to him. The interpretations and arguments presented have mostly been around for quite some time. The magic of this book, though – and which I suspect will cause it to have a major effect on attitudes within the conservative Evangelical world – is that it’s probably the single best source for all of these interpretations to be presented together in a single, cohesive location. It does so in a manner that is immensely readable and accessible to the general reader, without diminishing the depth and logic of the arguments. And he provides an abundance of footnotes for even further depth, to satisfy the exegetical/theological nerds among us.
As mentioned earlier, part of the importance of this book is that it’s someone who is still within the conservative Evangelical tent making the case for affirming biblical interpretation. Of course, Matthew isn’t the first to do this either, but in some of the previous instances, the Evangelical movement largely considered these people to be poor deluded souls at best, or liberal turncoats at worst, and in either case effectively shut them out of the Evangelical identity. Only time will tell if the same thing happens to Matthew.
In a number of ways, Matthew has written specifically for the Evangelical – wherever possible, he cites scholars who are more popular within traditional Evangelical circles, rather than others who may be seen as being aligned with progressive Christianity, and whose opinions would be held suspect. Also, most of his biblical citations are taken from the NIV, a translation favored by Evangelicals, with only occasional citations from the NRSV translation officially favored by the PCUSA and other Mainline traditions (both are actually very good translations, with only minor differences where translators were faced with a kind of linguistic fielder’s choice – still, one of the quickest ways to know whether a PCUSA congregation is more progressive or conservative is to see which of these two translations has been chosen for the pew Bibles). These are relatively minor things that a general reader may not even notice, let alone care about, but they make the arguments within the book somewhat more potentially acceptable to a conservative Evangelical than might have otherwise been the case. This is a very good thing.
Another very good thing is his detailed discussion about the dreaded two words in New Testament translation and exegesis, malakos and arsenokoitai. These two words show up in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in the passage that has traditionally been interpreted as denouncing same-sex relationships. Their translation has bedeviled people for centuries, and while many non-affirming Christians may cede the field regarding the Old Testament same-sex “clobber verses,” 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, containing these two Greek words, is perhaps the non-affirming “ground zero.” Matthew makes a very strong and succinct presentation of the scholarship regarding the meaning of these terms – and especially their meaning when paired together – and the reality that they were not being used to denote the meanings applied to them by twentieth-, and twenty-first, century non-affirming Christians. And the subsequent chapters regarding biblical arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, and the significance of humans – all humans, straight and gay – having been created in the imago Dei, are equally powerful and particularly timely given the ongoing legal and judicial environment, as marriage equality and other LGBTQ equality issues continue to move across more and more states.
As I’ve said, this is a very good and important book. It is very well written and in all likelihood its publication will become a major milestone in the changing of many hearts and minds within conservative Evangelicalism. Without taking anything away from that, there was something that I noticed that I thought was a bit unfortunate. On the very first page of the book, Matthew refers to Christians who currently hold an affirming interpretation of the scriptures, and who support LGBTQ inclusion in the church and same-sex relationships:
To be fair, many Christians now support same-sex relationships. But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.
That is not my view of Scripture.
To be frank, neither is that the view of scripture held by most progressive Christians, or Mainline Christians in general, whether they hold LGBTQ-affirming views or not. I consider myself a progressive Christian, and I travel in circles of other progressive Christians – including some who are far more progressive than I am – and I may have bumped into one or two people who held out the extremely loose view of scripture that Matthew describes. But it’s simply not true that progressive Christians view the Bible as little more than a quaint book of ancient poetry and fairy tales. In fact, the vast majority of progressive and other Mainline Christians believe that, to use Matthew’s words, “…all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is ‘useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness’ (2 Timothy 3:16-17, NRSV)” The extremely small number of extremist progressives who hold such a highly dismissive understanding of the Bible are no more representative of all progressives than are extremist Fundamentalists who hold an absurdly literalist view of the Bible representative of Evangelicals. Portraying progressives in this cartoonishly flat and inaccurate manner does a disservice to both progressives as well as the spirit of civility and unity, in the name of our common Lord, that I know Matthew strives for. It is doubly unfortunate because while having the Evangelicals’ ear, he could have used the opportunity to dispel this unfortunate caricature, but instead, he reinforced it.
In truth, the way that progressive Christians and conservative Christians understand the nature, authority, and even the interpretive methodologies of the scriptures, are very similar. In most cases, it is only a difference of how and where the interpretive methodologies are considered applicable or appropriate. A progressive Christian would not say that the scriptures are “inerrant” or “infallible,” at least in the sense that these terms are defined in our current society. But virtually all progressive Christians would agree that all of scripture is inspired by God, not only in its writing, but in its redaction, editing, and compilation into the canon – and that scripture is indeed authoritative for our lives. In fact, we PCUSA Presbyterians would say, as we state in our Confession of 1967, that “The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written. The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel.” And this is found in the confessional statement that some deride as being the most “liberal” of our confessions. The ironic evidence of how similar the two camps view the scriptures is this book itself: the vast bulk of the scholarship and interpretive arguments presented by Matthew in the book, which he holds out as being consistent with the Evangelical understanding of scripture and interpretation, are exactly the same arguments made by progressives, who also consider them completely consistent with their – our – understanding of the nature, authority, and interpretation of scripture.
Some people within the world of Evangelicalism have said that God and the Gay Christian is a dangerous book. They’re right. Anyone who holds a non-affirming interpretation of the scriptures should feel extremely discomforted, possibly even threatened, by this book – just as countless others in the past who held interpretations of the Bible that were subsequently shown to be not just incorrect, but harmful, felt threatened. Ultimately though, the arc of the moral universe spoken of by Dr. King will continue to bend toward justice, and therefore, toward a higher understanding of God, a truer living out of God’s will, and a more accurate understanding of the meaning of scripture. Most likely within a generation, certainly no more than two, conservative and progressive Christians will look back on our time and wonder why we were so slow to comprehend the more true, more loving, more scripturally correct, understanding of the relationship between God and the gay Christian. We can only wish that day were already here, but I’m sure that Matthew Vines’ book will help to get us there sooner.