Vines’ third chapter aims to show that those holding to traditional Christian sexual ethics have a major dilemma on their hands. Allegedly, the traditional view of celibacy is not compatible with the traditional view of homosexuality. One or the other must go.
The claim is part of Vines’ overall strategy in the book—to frame the homosexuality debate as a matter of human suffering and doctrinal progress vs. uncaring and rigid traditionalism. To Vines, the view that homosexual conduct is wrong even within “committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (41) causes great suffering for homosexuals and depends on a faulty understanding of Scripture. (Kindle location numbers appear here rather than page numbers.)
The basic argument
Specifically, chapter 3 argues that the non-affirming view (Vines’ term for the view that all homosexual conduct is sin) forces celibacy on homosexuals and that this forcing is contrary to the traditional view that celibacy is voluntary and a gift from God.
The traditional interpretation of Scripture, as currently applied, calls all Christians to abstinence before marriage. But it goes much further when applied to gay Christians, denying them the very possibility of marriage. According to non-affirming Christians, gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option. (701-703)
Already, we have a couple of tenuous premises. For one, Vines makes no attempt to show that all, or even most, “non-affirming Christians” hold that “lifelong celibacy” is the “only real option” for all who struggle with same-sex attraction.
The author moves quickly to a second assertion that he hopes will draw us toward his conclusion.
But there’s a problem. Christians throughout history have affirmed that lifelong celibacy is a spiritual gift and calling, not a path that should be forced upon someone. Yes, permanently forgoing marriage is a worthy choice for Christians who are gifted with celibacy. But it must be a choice. (706-708)
On the surface, Vines’ reasoning seems to make sense, though readers who are not already in his camp are likely to sense that something doesn’t add up here. A look at the structure of the chapter helps us put our finger on why the argument fails.
A closer look
After the introductory remarks, Vines moves to a section examining Genesis 2:18’s “it is not good for the man to be alone.” The section claims that the passage focuses on Adam and Eve’s similarity rather their “gender differences” (738) and concludes that “that the opening chapters of Genesis contain different lessons about the purpose of human sexuality than what many of us have come to expect.” Exactly what these “different lessons” are, or why anyone who has studied the passage before would be surprised, is unclear.
The section seems to contribute nothing to the celibacy argument beyond stating what is already undisputed: that God’s design for most people is that they be married. Perhaps the discussion pointing out how similar Adam and Eve were to each other is intended to keep us from noticing that they were also very different in some obvious ways?
The next section examines Matthew 19:10-12 and focuses on Jesus’ discussion of celibacy as something “given, not imposed” (758).
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (ESV, Matthew 19:10–12)
Vines points out three categories of celibacy here then asserts that “none of the three categories Jesus mentioned describes what we would call gay men” (766-767). Several more paragraphs emphasize that “celibacy is a gift,” and arrive at this conclusion:
Jesus’s teaching does not support mandatory celibacy for people to whom celibacy has not been given. If even some gay Christians lack the gift of celibacy, we have reason to doubt interpretations that force celibacy upon them. (783-784)
Next, the chapter offers a section on 1 Corinthians 7’s “better to marry than to burn with passion” and concludes, that “for those who have the gift, lifelong celibacy should at least be possible without causing them grave damage. Sadly, for many gay Christians, that isn’t the case.” A few paragraphs then revisit the suffering of Stephen and Andrew described in more detail in chapter 2.
At this point, the astute reader should be wondering where the relevance is in all this? Though not all agree that there is a “gift of celibacy,” per se, nobody doubts that God intends this life for some people and not for others. And nobody believes that celibacy is a situation Christians should impose on other Christians against their will. The result is that Vines’ case against humanly-imposed celibacy has no bearing on what’s in dispute.
This is the central weakness of the chapter and indeed of the book as a whole so far: much of the discussion focuses on matters that are not relevant to the central issue. Where Vines is accurate—which is often the case—he is usually not making a claim that anyone denies. Where he addresses the real points of disagreement, he is usually inaccurate or presumptuous (assuming the point rather that supporting it).
After the discussion on 1 Corinthians 7, the chapter moves even further from the core issues. A lengthy section examines the rejection of marriage by false teachers (1 Timothy 4:1-5), the goodness of marriage, and the inherent goodness of the physical body (852-874). Though error in these areas has existed throughout Christian history, none of it is essential to the view that Scripture rejects homosexual conduct. Once again, Vines belabors what is either not in dispute or not relevant to understanding the Bible’s teaching on sexual morality.
The trend continues in the section “An Untraditional Proposal” (875), which surveys the opposition of the Protestant Reformers (and others) to the Roman Catholic teaching on celibacy and includes observations by John Paul II and Karl Barth, again emphasizing the nature of celibacy as God-given, not humanly imposed.
A final section attempts to bring the argument to a strong conclusion and sums up as follows:
The purpose of celibacy, as we’ve seen in this chapter, is to affirm the basic goodness of sex and marriage by pointing to the relationship they prefigure: the union of Christ and the church. Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians does not fulfill that purpose. It undermines it. (919-921)
Dodging the questions
Vine’s celibacy argument fails because it distracts from, rather than addressing, the essential question: Has God revealed in Scripture that homosexual conduct (of mind and body) is sin? If the answer to this question is yes, we can agree all day that humanly-imposed celibacy for homosexuals is cruel and unbiblical and that the practice of celibacy must belong only to those whom God has given it.
If God has revealed that homosexual conduct—“monogamous” or otherwise—is sin, the celibacy option is not a matter of humans imposing but of God giving. Vines may object that homosexuality is different from other conditions that would fit Jesus’ “have been so from birth,” but he fails to show that it is different in any way that would transform the celibacy involved from something God-given to something humanly imposed.
And I wonder if Vines would consistently apply the standard he has raised here. If the suffering of unsatisfied sexual urges (or unsatisfied longing for sexual intimacy, to look at the loftier side of it) constitutes “grave damage” (796) and somehow makes the celibacy involved human-imposed rather than God-assigned, what of married persons who are separated from their spouses sexually for long periods of time due to injury, illness, military service, abduction, or any number of other scenarios? Vines frequently adds the qualifier “lifelong” to the celibacy homosexuals must endure, but why should we believe “lifelong” suffering constitutes “grave damage” but suffering for years or even decades does not?
The second essential question Vines continues to dodge is the orientation question: Do we really know that the modern concept of orientation is accurate? Vines offered substantial evidence in chapter 2 (unintentionally it seems) for questioning whether this modern concept is anything close to “settled science” (a phrase that is often oxymoronic in itself). Yet he continues argue as though it’s indisputable that this unchosen, unalterable, either-or orientation is the norm for most, if not all, “gay Christians.”
If orientation is not what he assumes it to be, many who experience same-sex attraction do indeed have other options than “lifelong celibacy” in obedience to Scripture.