Read the series so far.
Before foraying into the New Testament, where he seems to think he will find justification for his views, Matthew Vines attempts to deal with “The Abominations of Leviticus.” He does not deal with the relevant texts by doing contextual exegesis or theological formulation; instead he takes a more indirect route around Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.
Basically his approach is to relativize the Old Testament law by comparing prohibitions and punishments which God mandated for the theocracy of (OT) Israel, and then contrast them with what he believes is Christian practice. At the latter half of the chapter he runs to Philo and the works of radical liberal scholars in an attempt to prove that ancient cultures saw the passive agent in homosexual relations as being lowered to the level of the woman: of being, in other words, “feminized.” This is so he can lift the word “abomination” away from its obvious meaning of “moral repugnance.”
The Law and its purposes
Every attentive reader of the Bible understands that the regulatory system which God gave to ancient Israel does not carry over in all its parts into the New Testament era. Although Christians have understood the relationship between “Law and Gospel” differently, they have, nonetheless, been clear about the fact that the sacrificial system was not intended for Christians. So too, the theocratic governmental codes for the nation of Israel, which served specific purposes, political and religious, do not apply to Christians in blanket fashion. It is in this sense at least that the Christian is said not to be under the Law (Rom. 6:14-15; Gal. 5:18).
That being said the question still has to be addressed regarding the use of the Law in Christian practice. Vines appears to want to nullify it completely. He opines,
Paul said in Romans 7 that the law existed to expose our sin, revealing our need for a Savior. But once our Savior has come, we no longer need the law. We could compare it to the way drivers no longer need road signs once they arrive at their destination. (p. 80)
But it is not that straightforward. In point of fact the very chapter he cites, Romans 7, describes Paul’s acquiescence with and commendation of the moral aspects of the law (See Rom. 7:16-22). In agreeing with the law’s moral teachings (Rom. 7:16), Paul can commend much in the ethical code of the law to Christians, and this certainly includes the shunning of the “dishonorable passions” (ESV) of homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27).
Another simple but profoundly relevant reason for not totally bidding adieu to the Law is that some of the laws retain a universal character because they directly reflect the character of God Himself. Thus, nine of the Ten Commandments are repeated in the New Testament because they speak of God’s attributes as Lord, as Creator of the family, and as holy and truthful (see e.g. Rom. 13:8-10). The New Testament also repeats other Old Testament prohibitions. One of these concerns homosexuality (Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9). These are universal and everlasting verities and are non-negotiables for any Bible-believer. Two of the passages which Vines uses stating that the Christian is not under the law pertain to justification, not ethical mores (including Gal. 3:23-25 & 5:2 which Vines cites in footnote 1).
While he is anxious to support the contention that “Old Testament laws related to sex don’t always align with Christian views on sexual ethics” (p. 79), Vines has to admit that “It’s true that there are a number of Old Testament laws that correspond with Christian beliefs about sin” (p. 82). He is also forced to acknowledge the national and socio-political reasons for certain laws. He notes that, “Given the threats posed to the Israelites by starvation, disease, internal discord, and attacks from other tribes, maintaining order was of paramount importance” (p. 86).
But still he needs to maintain that same-sex relationships were forbidden, not because they are inimical to God’s righteous nature, but only because of more cultural concerns. Since God does not change, any moral behavior which contradicts His character has a universal stamp on it. We shall see that homosexuality is immoral on this score. But for argument’s sake, let’s pretend it isn’t. Adultery, bestiality and prostitution are always treated as sinful. There are several reasons for this, but the foundational issue is God’s nature and its relation to the marriage covenant and the sanctity of the family, together with our status as image-bearers. Vines would have us believe the Bible endorses same-sex marriages. In that way he, along with conservative Christians generally, can inveigh against adultery, bestiality and prostitution, and even condemn same-sex relationships outside of marriage, while finding a loophole for gay marriage.
But always and everywhere in Scripture, marriage, which is a creation ordinance, is between a man and a woman, and a family is a triad of a man and wife and children. Arguing from silence that Scripture affirms gay “marriage” is as vacuous as arguing that Scripture affirms man-boy marriage or man-animal marriage. Both of these arrangements Vines would (we trust) consider repugnant. But he wants adult same-sex relationships to be the exception. If he can’t affirm these other sexual proclivities as leading to valid “marriages,” he cannot use the same reasoning to exempt same-sex “marriage” from the same charge of moral corruption. So this line of argument gets him nowhere.
To further mix things up, Vines brings up the issue of polygamy in the Old Testament. He thinks the polygamous marriages of David were alright in God’s eyes because although he was punished for his adultery with Bathsheba, he wasn’t even rebuked for having more than one wife. He cites the beginning of Deuteronomy 21:15-17 supposing that in saying “If a man has two wives,” it endorses the practice. But David’s sin involved murder as well as adultery. His polygamy, though conventional within the wider culture, clearly went against the precedent of Genesis 2:24 and, as with Jacob, is never shown in a good light. Besides, Deuteronomy 21:15-17 is not about marriage per se, but about the right of inheritance. Moreover, it too casts polygamy in a bad light. The Genesis 2 passage records Adam looking for a partner and God bringing him a woman. Jesus’ words concerning marriage and divorce are based solidly in the Genesis 2 description of marriage (Matt. 19:4-8).
The real question
So where does this leave Vines’ argument? Vines says the real question is, “Are the laws we find in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 grounded in a view of gender complementarity that applies to Christians?” (p. 82). He is prepared to side with leftist liberal scholars who will tell him what he wants to hear. But though I would answer “Yes,” that is not the real question at all. The real question is and always will be, “Is homosexuality portrayed in the Bible as a sin?”
Before turning to the Levitical passages and Vines’ treatment of them, I want first to bring in another passage. Deuteronomy 22:5 is pertinent to the discussion because of the connotations of the language used. The text forbids cross-dressing, calling those who do so “an abomination to the LORD.” This must be viewed as a moral prohibition. If God detests the subversion of male and female by cross-dressing, how much more would He detest the subversion of the male-female marriage ordinance? In God’s economy males are husbands and females are their wives. These roles are vital to the promulgation of the human race, which is to be extended strictly within the ordinance of marriage (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). Thus, any blurring of the concept of the mutual roles of men and women, especially in terms of marriage, is not to be countenanced.
But turning to Leviticus 18:22 we read, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” Because the Canaanites did practice these things the LORD cast them out (18:24) and the land itself is described as vomiting them out (18:25). Vines’ retort that the abomination of lying with a menstruating woman (18:19) is now acceptable to Christians ignores the plain fact that a woman in this condition was ritually unclean (Lev. 12:2b), as was the man who touched her (Lev. 15:19-27). In the case of the prohibition of Leviticus 18:19 Vines should have seen that the issue was ritual not ethical. But the matter of homosexuality is an ethical matter, as indicated by the use of the verb toevah (abomination) in the verse and as a high-handed sin in 20:13.
To navigate around this fact, Vines appeals to the work of feminist OT scholar Phyllis Bird, who has concluded that the Hebrew term toevah “is not an ethical term, but a term of boundary marking” (p. 85). Contrariwise, the standard Koehler-Baumgartner Hebrew & Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Vol.2, 1703), defines the use of toevah specifically referring to Leviticus 18 and 20 as, “the abhorrent customs of the Canaanites…by which is meant in particular sexual perversity…and in special cases sodomy.” OT scholar John D. Currid notes that the term “derives from a root meaning ‘to hate/abhor’ ” (Leviticus, 244).
Bird, like Vines, appears to have an agenda. And since she views the Bible as a non-inspired culturally contextualized text, she may feel at liberty to interpret it with a free hand. But how anyone could read Leviticus 18 and 20 and come away with a non-ethical meaning of “abomination” is hard to fathom. Vines (following his radicals), is badly wrong here. He should not have resorted to agenda-driven liberal scholarship to bolster a poor thesis. In Leviticus, as in Genesis 19, homosexuality is a distortion of a creational intent and is morally repugnant to God.
Appeals beyond the Bible
By appealing to the Jewish Platonist Philo, and other sources such as Plutarch and (certain) Middle Assyrian legal codes, Vines is, of course, going outside the confines of Scripture into the realms of profane history. This maneuver is only helpful if it corroborates what one already finds in Scripture. Otherwise it tends to distort the biblical picture. (This should give readers pause when they see evangelical scholars take this tack on other topics.)
This is Vines’ method toward the close of the chapter, and to do it, he relies upon radical unbelieving scholars like Bird and Daniel Boyarin, both of whom are, unsurprisingly, pro-gay. But why would a supposedly “conservative Christian” rely upon such authorities as Bird, Boyarin, and Saul Olyan? Are these people Bible-believers? Why not turn to more representative and conventional authorities like Gordon Wenham? Wenham has made a study of homosexuality in the ancient Near East and has shown that although such practices were commonplace in the surrounding cultures in the ancient world, the Israelites were different.
Seen in their Near Eastern context the originality of the Old Testament laws on homosexuality is very striking. Whereas the rest of the ancient orient saw homosexual acts as quite acceptable provided they were not incestuous or forcible, the Old Testament bans them all even where both parties freely consented. (362)
The reason for this is identified in the Genesis creation account, with its definition of marriage and distinctions between the sexes. His conclusion is,
It therefore seems most likely that Israel’s repudiation of homosexual intercourse arises out of its doctrine of creation. God created humanity in two sexes, so that they could be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Woman was man’s perfect companion, like man created in the divine image. To allow the legitimacy of homosexual acts would frustrate the divine purpose and deny the perfection of God’s provision of two sexes to support and complement one another. St Paul’s comment that homosexual acts are ‘contrary to nature’ (Rom 1:26) is thus probably very close to the thinking of the Old Testament writers. (363)
Matthew Vines is not reading his Bible to discover what it says about marriage and homosexuality. He is trying to make it affirm what he, as a gay man, affirms. It will not oblige him. Although homosexual attraction is often not sought after, anymore than are urges to steal or to lust after a woman, it must never be baptized to make it acceptable as Christian and its meaning of “follower of Christ.”
Currid, John D. Leviticus. Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2005.
Kohler, Ludwig, L. Koehler, and W. Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Stg ed. Boston: Brill Academic, 2002.
Vines, Matthew. God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-sex Relationships. NY: Convergent, 2014.
Wenham, Gordon J. “The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality.” Expository Times. 102.9 (1991).
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.