The traditional Christian understanding of homosexuality is wrong. Dead wrong. Cruel, even. Why, you ask? Simple. It’s wrong, Matthew Vines argues, because it makes homosexuals feel bad about themselves.
Vines argues that experience has a critical role to play in interpreting Scripture. “While Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experience, it also cautions us not to ignore our experience altogether.”1 Vines points to Matthew 7:15-20, which is his anchor for all of Chapter 1:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them. (Matt 7:15-20)
Vines’ takeaway is very simple: “If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.”2 This is the foundation for his main argument—homosexuality cannot be a sin, because to call it that makes homosexuals feel bad and this is “bad fruit.” According to Jesus’ own words in Matthew 7:15-20, whatever produces bad fruit must be false teaching. Experience, therefore, does have a role in interpreting the Scriptures. If an interpretation of Scripture produces harmful results in believer’s lives (e.g. “bad fruit”), then perhaps our interpretation needs to change?
An example of this “experience-based test”3 in action, Vines’ alleges, is the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The decision to not obligate Gentile believers to follow the Mosaic Law was based on Peter’s testimony (Acts 15:8, 10). Therefore, Vines argues, “[t]he early church made a profoundly important decision based on Peter’s testimony. Gentiles were included in the church, and the church recognized that the old law was no longer binding.”4
Yet another example is slavery. Vines observes that some Christian leaders used texts (e.g. Eph 6:5-9, Col 3:22-25) to justify the institution of slavery. However, the experience and testimony of men who saw the destructive effects of slavery on others led them to change their minds on this issue. “They appealed to conscience based on the destructive consequences of slavery. A bad tree produces bad fruit.”5
All this goes to prove, Vines argues, that experience should lead us to re-interpret Scripture if necessary. “Today, we are still responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes—a duty in line with Jesus’s teaching about trees and their fruit.”6
Vines knows the Bible commands believers to aim for personal holiness. He asks some good questions:
What is the gospel if it doesn’t bring transformation? Where does passionate loyalty to God’s revelation leave off and convenient loyalty to long-held interpretations take over? And one more: What is Christian discipleship if it may not require sacrifice?7
But, what does self-denial look like? Does it mean that homosexual Christians are condemned to a life of mandatory celibacy? Vines says this is unacceptable because it makes homosexuals suffer. It’s “bad fruit.” Surely, Jesus does not want to cause homosexual Christians this kind of harm:
Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including involuntary celibacy for some straight Christians … but for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality.8
Homosexual Christians are—well, homosexual. Does God really want to force them to deny who they are? Sin, Vines observes, encompasses thoughts and actions. Thus, a homosexual Christian who tries to live his life believing he is sinful is facing an impossible task. He’s doomed. “In order to truly flee from sin as well as the temptation to sin, they must constantly attempt what has proven impossible: to reconstitute themselves so they are no longer sexual beings at all.”9
Vines contends this is fundamentally against the very idea of the image of God. Homosexuals are born that way. The traditional interpretation of homosexuality excludes Christian homosexuals from loving, committed relationships. We’re made in the image of God; among other things, this means we’re relational creatures. Homosexual Christians are being denied the blessing of their religious leaders to find relational fulfillment in the arms of a fellow homosexual. This is wrong. It’s “bad fruit.” After all, Vines observes,
Given that we are created by a God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit— relational to the core— such a consequence seems at odds with God’s nature … it’s safe to say that true Christian sacrifice, no matter how costly, should make us more like God, not less.10
This argument persuaded Vines’ father. He began to see how “bad fruit” had been produced in his son’s life by the oppressive teaching against homosexuality. He saw how much better the “good fruit” of acceptance and love was.11
Vines’ argment answered
“Bad fruit” or rotten hermeneutics?
The entire argument for “bad fruit” vs. “good fruit” has no basis in the text. Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:15-20 deal with how to spot false teachers. These false teachers come disguised as sheep, when they are really wolves (Matt 7:15); their deceit is therefore intentional and malicious. They give every external impression of genuine faith and piety, yet they are frauds. They can be spotted by their fruits (e.g. their actions and doctrine).12 After all, one’s real character is betrayed by one’s actions (Matt 7:16). A good tree produces good fruit; a bad tree produces bad fruit (Matt 7:17-18). A false teacher, therefore, will produce false doctrine. These false prophets will be cast into the fire on the day of judgment (Matt 7:20).
This passage has nothing whatsoever to do with an “experience based test” for Scriptural interpretation. It has everything to do with weighting one’s actions against the Scriptures to weed out false believers. God defines “good fruit” and “bad fruit.” The definition is found in His Word. The Israelites were told a false prophet was somebody who told them to go against God’s previous revelation (Deut 13:1-5). Matthew Vines, ironically, misapplies a text that actually describes him. He is the false teacher. The legs for his “bad fruit” argument have been knocked out from under him.
Vines stumbles badly by suggesting the Jerusalem Council’s decision was based only on Peter’s personal experience and testimony (Acts 15:7-11). The council heard testimony from Paul and Silas (Acts 15:12). James quoted from the book of Amos (Acts 15:15-17). God spoke to Peter in a vision (Acts 10:9-16), and Peter realized that Gentiles were fellow heirs in Christ (Acts 10:28, 34-48). Paul himself wrote an entire epistle to the Galatians proving this very point! Vines is, in effect, suggesting that the primary reason why the early church acknowledged that the New Covenant had replaced the Old is because of an “experience-based test” predicated on Peter’s testimony. This conclusion is, to put it mildly, biblically naïve.
Vines also makes much of the slavery issue. Christians were indeed terribly wrong to argue that the Scriptures supported the institution of slavery. Proponents allowed a modern, contemporary issue to color their interpretation of Scripture. Their experiences (and perhaps their wallets?) drove their hermeneutic. The results were unbelievably tragic and terribly regrettable. The irony is that Vines is doing precisely the same thing with homosexuality, and he doesn’t realize it. The modern issue of “gay Christianity” has colored his interpretation. It drives his hermeneutic. The results in this instance will also be tragic. Far from helping his case, Vines’ use of slavery as an illustration is actually self-defeating.
Vines knows full well that self-denial is an essential part of the Lordship of Christ. But, he has convinced himself that being a homosexual is different. He gets there by assuming (and never proving) that homosexuality is natural. This is his overriding presupposition. With this firmly in place, Vines can then argue that, in essence, it isn’t fair to cut homosexual Christians off from the possibility of love. “But for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality.”13
Vines apparently does not see the absurdity of his own logic:
- Can a Christian man have a loving, sexual relationship with his Christian sister?
- Can a Christian man have a loving, sexual relationship with consenting children?
- Can a Christian man have a loving, sexual relationship with a consenting animal?
In each case, the Christian need only claim he was “born this way” and say it “isn’t fair” to deny him true love. To do so would be “bad fruit.” The examples need not be so extreme. Anyone looking for an excuse can use Vines’ formula of “clear sin + hurt feelings = not a sin anymore” and be pleased with the result.
Perhaps the most tragic thing in all is that Vines is so wedded to the idea of “gay Christianity” that he admits defeat. He can’t change. This must mean that Jesus didn’t have homosexuality in mind when He preached self-denial (Mk 8:34). God did not have homosexuality in mind when He moved the authors to write the Scripture. The Holy Spirit must not want homosexual believers to change. Moreover, the very image of God in man simply must include loving homosexual relationships! So, Matthew Vines gives up. He understands the need for self-denial and sanctification, but rationalizes it away. Jesus cannot want him to deny his homosexual lusts, because that would be “a wholly different kind of self-denial than the chastening of lustful desires the church expects of all believers.”14
Such outcomes made it difficult for my dad to see how the church’s rejection of same-sex relationships could qualify as a good tree that, according to Jesus, produces good fruit.15
Vines’ initial argument is based on a fallacious interpretation of Matthew 7:15-20. Therefore, his justification for the use of “experience-based tests” for Scriptural interpretation also fail. Moreover, his examples in and of themselves are biblically inept and damage his own position. He assumes, but never attempts to prove, that homosexual orientation is natural. Thus, he rationalizes that Jesus’ commands for self-denial do not include homosexual thoughts or acts—because such a command would produce “bad fruit” in one’s life.
Vines’ conclusions are illogical and bblically illiterate. He manages to systematically blaspheme every Person of the Godhead: (1) the Father, by asserting that relational love among homosexuals is part of the imago dei; (2) the Son, by cheapening our purchased salvation and His intercession; and (3) the Spirit, by rejecting His ability to conform us to His image. Moreover, Vines does not see these contradictions. He has drunk deeply from the well of postmodern hermeneutics, all while claiming to be a Bible-believing Christian. As D.A. Carson has well noted,
[i]n academic biblical studies, postmodernism links with the ‘new’ literary criticism to create endless ‘fresh’ readings, many of them clever and parts of them insightful, even if, taken as a whole, their insight is more and more removed from reasoned and defensible anchorage in the text.16
This is prophetic. Vines’ endnotes and bibliography betray his reliance on revisionist scholarship. His arguments on “bad fruit” appeal to the emotions and tug at our sentimental heartstrings; they have no foundation in Scripture whatsoever.
1 Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, Kindle ed. (New York, NY: Convergent Books, 2014), Kindle Locations 280-281.
2 Kindle Locations 288-289.
3 Kindle Location 289.
4 Kindle Locations 293-294.
5 Kindle Locations 298-299. Emphasis in original.
6 Kindle Locations 307-308.
7 Kindle Locations 314-316.
8 Kindle Locations 330-335.
9 Kindle Locations 342-344.
10 Kindle Locations 355-357.
11 Kindle Location 368.
12 On the “fruit” in question being both outward conduct and doctrine, see John Calvin’s remarks on Mt 7:16ff: “It now remains to be seen, what are the fruits which Christ points out. Those who confine them to the life are, in my opinion, mistaken. As pretended sanctity, and I know not what masks belonging to greater austerity of life, are frequently held out by some of the worst impostors, this would be a very uncertain test. Their hypocrisy, I do own, is at length discovered; for nothing is more difficult than to counterfeit virtue. But Christ did not intend to submit his doctrine to a decision so unjust in itself, and so liable to be misunderstood, as to have it estimated by the life of men. Under the fruits the manner of teaching is itself included, and indeed holds the chief place.” (Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 1 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 364). Emphasis mine.
13 Kindle Locations 334-335.
14 Kindle Locations 349-350.
15 Kindle Locations 361-363.
16 D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism, Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 29.
Tyler Robbins is the Pastor of Faith Baptist Church in Divernon, Illinois. He has been married to his wife Starla for 10 years and they have three children. He recently separated from the U.S. Navy after 10 years as a Military Police Investigator and Anti-Terrorism Planner. He is a student at Maranatha Baptist Seminary, studying for his MDiv.