God and the Gay Christian addresses the morality of homosexual conduct, specifically within “committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (41). In the introduction and first chapter, most of Vines’ energy went into framing the debate as a matter of personal suffering (i.e., here’s what happened to me and is happening to homosexual Christians everywhere) and as a matter of progress (i.e., the church should improve its understanding of homosexual morality just as it has improved its understanding of other matters in Scripture).
Chapter 2 continues Vines’ efforts to frame the debate in these terms. (Kindle location numbers appear here rather than page numbers.)
The importance of progress
The section “New Information, New Viewpoints” sets the stage for the chapter by recounting Galileo Galilei’s famous 17th century conflict with the Roman Catholic church. To Vines, it’s a classic example of a traditional interpretation of Scripture that Christians, with the aid of science, eventually discovered to be in error.
How could those who took the Bible seriously be expected to suddenly set it aside in favor of a man with a telescope? (414-417)
Next, Vines clarifies how he will characterize the two main perspectives on the homosexuality controversy.
I have found the terms affirming and non-affirming to be the most direct, respectful ways to describe the differences among Christians on this issue. Some Christians affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships, while others do not. (439-441)
Whether he is consistent in distinguishing “relationships” from people in the book is a topic for later consideration.
Scripture and the non-affirming
In the next two sections, Vines lists the six passages he sees as the core of the Bible’s teaching on the subject, says he’ll address them in chapters 4 through 7, then shifts his attention to how “non-affirming Christians” argue from “the larger narrative of Scripture” (456).
For non-affirming Christians, the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior should be understood in light of the positive heterosexual vision we see throughout Scripture. (458-460)
Vines discusses the differences between male and female that non-affirmers see as “the key moral problem underlying the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior” (473). He strongly emphasizes the supposed importance of “anatomical complementarity” here, citing Robert Gagnon. Allegedly, the non-affirming view depends on seeing “bodily sameness” as the underlying reason Scripture portrays homosexuality negatively (477).
Painful personal consequences
As the chapter returns to the theme of personal suffering, several paragraphs reject the changeability of sexual orientation and dismiss “reparative therapy” (487). Then we meet Stephen Long (500), who formed a friendship with “another young gay man,” unintentionally “fell in love,” and had to endure the agony of breaking up in order to remain celibate. Vines responds with a rhetorical question.
That life is not something any of us would want for ourselves, our friends, or members of our families. So how, I asked my dad, could God want that degree of emotional torment for anyone? (514-515)
The sexual orientation concept in history and today
Five sections of the chapter trace the idea of sexual orientation and homosexual conduct through history. Vines argues here that though the idea of being permanently oriented as either homo or hetero was unknown from the era of Gilgamesh and ancient Egypt up through ancient Greece, Rome, and the early modern era, we now know that it was the reality all along.
Curiously, Vines labors to emphasize that the idea of fixed sexual orientation toward the same or opposite sex was unknown in Bible times. Apparently, the newness of the orientation concept means today’s traditionalists are not truly traditional.
How are their views not traditional, given that virtually all Christians before the past half-century would have agreed with them? The answer to that question lies in a fact just as crucial to our understanding of this issue as the invention of the telescope was for astronomy: in recent generations, our understanding of what homosexuality is has radically changed. (526-530)
The chapter concludes with a look at the goal of chapter 3: to show that holding to the traditional view of homosexuality requires abandoning the traditional view of celibacy.
Vines will have to deal later in the book with passages that speak very directly to the immorality of homosexual conduct. Consequently, he must first frame the debate in a way that will make reinterpretation of these texts seem plausible.
Christians armed with a broad and deep exposure to Scripture can easily resist this strategy, but five observations may be helpful.
1. Obedience to God has always involved uneven suffering.
“Could God want that degree of emotional torment for anyone?” (514-515) This is a truly amazing question! Didn’t Abraham feel far more than “that degree of emotional torment” as he bound his only son and raised the knife to kill him at God’s command (Gen. 22)? Does a failed romance equal the “degree of emotional torment” of Job, who—at God’s direction—lost his entire family as well as his property, health, and reputation (Job 1:12-20, 2:6-12)? What about Hosea, whom God instructed to marry a woman he knew would be unfaithful to him (Hos. 1:2)?
What about Jesus Christ, who “being in agony prayed more earnestly” until “his sweat became like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:43)? Perhaps God’s will included a bit of emotional torment there?
The Bible is saturated with the truth that God has something a little bit larger in mind than every individual’s personal happiness (Rev. 4:11). And in the course of that larger purpose, His will has always included suffering for many, and far more suffering for some than for others.
It would be wrong to forbid homosexual conduct if this brings unnecessary suffering—that is, if the prohibition is man’s and not God’s. But as of chapter 2, Vines has not established that this is the case. Rather he assumes what he needs to prove then appeals to our sense of compassion on the assumption that the suffering of homosexuals has been imposed by mere human will.
2. Even in the short term, the suffering of disobedience is often greater than the suffering of obedience.
The Scriptures call us to believe that disobedience to God’s instructions often brings—even in the short term—more suffering than is immediately obvious. “The way of transgressors is hard” (KJV, Prov. 13:15), and the individuals in Romans 1:28-30, though they scarcely seem aware of it, are not experiencing anything close to happiness.
So far, Vines’ argument from personal suffering completely ignores the suffering that results from disobedience to God through homosexual indulgence. Even if we suppose that forbidding “committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” brings great suffering to many, how does this pain compare to the pain that results from encouraging these relationships?
3. Scripture depicts the suffering that results from faithfulness as an honor and privilege.
Both Scripture and abundant Christian tradition present the suffering that arises from faithful obedience as an honor and blessing for those who follow Christ. Vines would do well do ponder 2 Timothy 1:8, Colossians 1:24, Romans 8:17 and Hebrews 11 and 12:1-2. Peter is very direct:
But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed….if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (ESV, 1 Peter 4:13–16)
4. The view that Scripture rejects homosexual conduct does not depend on any particular understanding of “orientation.”
Vines’ claim that orientation is a newfangled concept invented by a couple of 19th century German psychiatrists (668-669) hardly helps his overall argument. Some of us remember that, as recently as the 1980s, the idea of being either gay or straight (as opposed to “bi”) was not generally assumed. Vines seems unaware of this and equally unaware that his survey of ancient attitudes on the question suggests society’s views on this are likely to change again in the future.
But none of that is truly relevant.
Though the historical information is interesting, the newness or ancientness of the notion of orientation is not particularly important to understanding Scripture’s disapproval of homosexual conduct. Scripture focuses consistently on what we ought not to do in this area (including acts of mental as well as physical indulgence) regardless of what we are inclined or not inclined to do—and regardless of the nature of that inclination.
5. A high biblical view of heterosexual morality, marriage, and family does not rely on an any particular understanding of complementarity or “orientation” (or celibacy either).
Though some “non-affirming scholars” may well argue from complementarity, sameness, and orientation, the view that a biblical family begins with the marriage of a male and a female in no way depends on these particulars. The decisive truth here is really quite simple.
“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Eph. 5:31–33)
Galileo and progress
Resistance to Galileo’s ideas was actually a science vs. science debate until Galileo himself turned the matter into a debate over Scripture and church dogma. Regardless, a historical example of Christians erring in an interpretation of Scripture falls short of proving that we’re misinterpreting the Bible today on an unrelated point. Vines’ obligation is to show that reinterpreting the Bible’s teaching regarding homosexual conduct would constitute progress in a biblical sense of the term. So far, the book fails to accomplish that—just as it fails in its argument from personal suffering.