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Pastoral Considerations
Resources for Review

Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian, New York: Convergent, 2014. 213 pages


Imagine a book with a thesis that calls into question 2,000 years of established Christian theology and biblical exegesis. It recasts basic principles of biblical anthropology and human embodiment. It also puts two millennia of faithful obedience to divine revelation on the side of injustice and ignorance. Now, Christians are accustomed to either non-Christians or liberal Christians making claims of this nature, but not from individuals supposedly nestled confidently within the evangelical camp.

This week a book making such claims is hitting bookshelves written by a young author named Matthew Vines.

Readers may not be familiar with Matthew Vines. But you will need to know him, for the movement he is leading aims to change the way the evangelical church thinks about human sexuality. At the very least, his work will help advance the coming rupture in the evangelical church at large over issues of sexuality.

Vines is a former Harvard student whose 2012 video taking aim at the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality went viral. Raised in a conservative evangelical home, Vines struggled with his sexuality while attending Harvard. Finally admitting his same-sex attraction, he came out as gay, left school, returned home, and devoted himself to studying all that the Bible teaches on homosexuality. He emerged from his study convinced that loving and committed same-sex relationships are consistent with the Bible and evangelical faith.

He has not only come to terms with faithful homosexual relationships, Vines has become an activist determined to alter the church’s long-held belief that homosexual conduct is sinful. Vines’ organization, “The Reformation Project,” has one, clear, unmistakable goal in mind: to see the Christian church affirm homosexual relationships. His new book, God and the Gay Christian, is the first step in a larger effort to fundamentally recast long-held, universally acknowledged norms pertaining to sexual ethics.

What makes Vines’ book unique is that Vines does not consider himself a theological liberal. He proudly brandishes the identity of a conservative evangelical, claiming to uphold the authority of Bible, affirming its full inspiration and authority. Throughout the book, he quotes John Piper and Tim Keller, thus signaling his evangelical bona fides.

In the marketing materials for God and the Gay Christian, Vines is a theological wunderkind having found the formula for making biblical authority and homosexuality compatible. Vines no doubt believes the authenticity and sincerity of his interpretation and indeed, that is where the heart of this book resides. As the reader soon discovers, Vines doesn’t believe the error in understanding homosexuality is found within the Scriptures, but in our interpretation. Along these very lines, he cites Galileo’s embattlement with the Catholic Church to help justify the new rationale he’s advocating. Like Vines, Galileo wasn’t advocating the abandonment of Scripture, but certain interpretations of Scripture in light of new discoveries about the universe. For Galileo, it was a heliocentric universe. For Vines, it’s the recognition that homosexuality according to our modern understanding is morally praiseworthy. He writes: “My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships” (3). He attempts to maintain an evangelical account of biblical authority while attributing error to reader interpretation. What I hope to show in this review is that the integrity of Vines’ interpretation is an anomaly unfitting for evangelical consumption or approval.

A few comments are needed, however, about the timing and context of this book.

If I were mapping a playbook for the gay rights movement, this book is an important point in the strategy. It has to be written in order to introduce confusion within the evangelical firmament, one of the last remaining constituencies in America that has not embraced homosexuality with gusto. This book need not be 100 percent compelling or accurate in order to succeed. All that needs to happen for Vines to claim victory is for his readers to be confused and not necessarily convinced of his argument.

Vines will have succeeded in re-fashioning evangelicalism in his image by allowing sexuality to be treated hermeneutically akin to baptism or the Lord’s Supper. If Vines can blur the lines of interpretation, such that evangelicals can rest at ease with “disagreement at how best to interpret Scripture on sexuality,” he will have succeeded. If he can convince evangelicals that sexuality is an issue that can be reduced to secondary status, such as the mode of baptism or the proper form of church governance, his efforts will have succeeded. That’s what makes this book so pernicious: It’s primed to strike at a time when many evangelical Christians are looking for a way to bail on historic Christian teachings on sexuality—because it makes us culturally foreign and estranged, unsophisticated, non-cosmopolitan, and—gasp—unpopular.

Indeed, if I were a mega-church pastor who stood to gain or lose on this issue and I was wanting to bypass the contentious debate on homosexuality and same-sex marriage, God and the Gay Christian is the book I’d look to and handout to members of my church.

It’s rather appalling that Vines’ organization is called “The Reformation Project,” a title synonymous with the movement of Martin Luther, because there’s a simple, yet glaring error in how he understands the reference to “Reformation.” Luther never believed the church had been in error from its beginning. He wasn’t calling for the rejection of long-held beliefs; instead, Luther was reaffirming the faith “once and for all delivered to the saints.” Vines, in contrast, is calling for Revolution, the type consistent with the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Vines believes the church has been wrong for 2,000 years. The early Church Fathers—wrong. Augustine—wrong. The Roman Catholic Church—wrong. Luther, Calvin—all wrong. But I wonder if Vines is willing to accept the alternative—that he’s wrong? Here are the stakes of this book: If Vines is right, the Christian Church must repudiate its long-held teaching. But if Vines is wrong, he isn’t just leading people down the path of error; he’s leading people down the path to hell by denying that homosexual sin needs to be repented of.


If I was to condense the substance of Vines’ book, here’s what is happening: Vines has compiled liberal biblical scholarship and popularized it for a non-technical audience. Let me be clear: Vines is not advancing new arguments. In fact, his work draws largely from existing gay-affirming scholarship. Vines is making liberal scholarship accessible for common audiences and then compounding its effect by bringing in the emotionally laden context of our times.

Space prevents me from working through a thorough chapter-by-chapter synopsis and the arguments he cites with each relevant text, though resources to counteract his hermeneutical errors will be provided. I would, however, like to hit upon four significant arguments that Vines advocates and considers central in each chapter of his book. These theses form the basis of his interaction and criticisms of the six “clobber passages” in Scripture that condemn homosexuality. What Vines does is filter each of the six passages through his hermeneutical grid, thus allowing him to say that the Bible intends or can be adapted to communicate his point of view, but got lost in a sea of misunderstanding and bigotry.

There are four main theses of God and the Gay Christian. I’ll explain each thesis separately and then provide interaction in a following section.

Thesis 1: Vines believes the historic position that the church has held on homosexuality leads to “bad fruit” in the lives of homosexuals.

Drawing off imagery used by Jesus, Vines insist that only practices that enrich a person’s life meet the criteria of “good fruit.” Hence, the historic Christian position that celibacy and chastity is expected for all those with same-sex attraction is considered “bad fruit,” because it consigns would-be committed, loving same-sex couples to a life of separation, psychological duress, and unrequited love.

His sexuality made him uncomfortable with the Bible’s prohibition on homosexuality and he began “losing confidence in the belief that same-sex relationships are sinful: it no longer made sense” (12). He continues: “As I became more aware of same-sex relationships, I could not understand why they were supposed to be sinful, or why the Bible apparently condemned them. With most sins, it wasn’t hard to pinpoint the damage they cause. Adultery violates a commitment to your spouse. Lust objectifies others. Gossip degrades people. But committed same-sex relationships did not easily fit that pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they seemed to be characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice” (13).

So, for Vines, “If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree” (15). Homosexual relationships, for Vines, bear good fruit.

It is important to recognize here that Vines’ a priori assumption brings a moral category to the Bible itself without first subjecting one’s moral assumptions to the text itself.

Thesis 2: The world of the Bible does not speak to the issue of a modern and comprehensive understanding of sexual orientation.

Says Vines:

“Same-sex behavior in the first century was not understood to be the expression of an exclusive sexual orientation. It was understood as excess on the part of those who could easily be content with heterosexual relationships, but who went beyond them in search of more exotic pleasures” (129).

“The Bible does not directly address the issue of same-sex orientation—or the expression of that orientation. While its six references to same-sex behavior are negative, the concept of same-sex behavior is sexual excess, not sexual orientation. What’s more, the main reason that non-affirming Christians believe the Bible’s statements should apply to all same-sex relationships—men and women’s anatomical complementarity—is not mentioned in any of the passages” (133).

Thesis 3: The Bible speaks without any reference to the modern knowledge of faithful, loving, and committed same-sex couples.

Pertaining to Romans 1, Vines says that Paul omits all references to “love, fidelity, monogamy, or commitment. So should we understand Paul’s words to apply to all same-sex relationships, or only to lustful, fleeting ones? How we answer that question has profound implication for our conversation in this book. If there is a substantial difference between the type of behavior Paul condemned and the intimate, committed relationships of gay Christians, then he has not relegated our gay friends and loved ones to the proverbial dustbin. But if his moral objection in Romans 1 was not primarily about lustfulness, but about the anatomical complementarity of men and women intended by ‘nature,’ then that rationale would extend to all same-sex relationships” (102).

Vines believes that Paul is condemning sexual acts based on “excess passion.”

Thesis 4: The patriarchal context within the world of the Bible explains the prohibitions against homosexuality.

Vines writes about “Customary and Uncustomary Gender Roles,” saying:

“In the ancient world, if a man took the active role in sex, his behavior was deemed ‘natural.’ But if he took the passive role, he was derided for engaging in ‘unnatural sex.’ The opposite was true for women: Sexual passivity was termed ‘natural,’ while sexual dominance was ‘unnatural.’ Same-sex relations challenged those beliefs about nature and sex by putting a male in the passive role or a female in the active role. That inversion of accepted gender roles, combined with the non-procreative character of same-sex unions, is why ancient writers called same-sex behavior ‘unnatural’” (111).

He continues: “These texts show how the terms ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ were used in ancient writings. They were not synonyms for ‘straight’ and ‘gay.’ They were boundary markers between what did and did not conform to customary gender roles in a patriarchal context” (112).

Gender roles, Vines argues, issue from a patriarchal worldview evident throughout antiquity and within the world of the Bible. In a time where women were seen as inferior to men, it would be wrong for a man to place himself in the passive and thus, female, role in sex. This thesis allows for Vines to see Scripture prohibiting excess lust and passion, not a normative condemnation of homosexuality itself. He says that the argument against homosexuality based on “nature” and “anatomical complementarity” as evidenced in the work of Robert Gagnon is “speculative” (114). So according to Vines, Scripture does not condemn homosexuality, what it actually condemns—by way of patriarchy—is a man mimicking a women’s role in sex. Had Paul had a modern understanding of sexual orientation, Vines believes the Scripture’s narrative arc would lead toward condoning and celebrating homosexuality and “marriage equality.”

Aside from offering personal biography peppered with a highly unusual concept of celibacy, Vines spends the middle section of his book addressing and correcting what he sees are wrong interpretations of the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality. Vines presents the offending text, offers rebuttal from liberal scholarship, and then weaves in either one or all theses mentioned above. He concludes that the church throughout the ages has been, ostensibly, “on the wrong side of history” when it comes to biblical interpretation.

What one will observe is that refashioning of texts condemning homosexual conduct also requires Vines to refashion central themes of the entire Bible. For example, he is forced to render established principles such as the complementarity of human physiology and anatomical complementarity as irrelevant to the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and marriage. He is forced to extinguish the significance of Ephesians 5 from its immediate context. [1] Vines writes,

“So according to Ephesians, gender difference is not necessary to become one flesh in Bible’s understanding of those words. What is necessary is that two lives are joined in the context of a binding covenant” (148).

A similar move is made in his re-interpretation of Romans 1 and Genesis 1-3. Vines is forced to advance untenable and awkward interpretations that wreak havoc on the text’s authorial clarity—that God’s creation of male and female is somehow not uniquely orientated around biological difference, but rather “covenant keeping.” And, ostensibly, Jesus must be wrong in affirming the creational structure of marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. And this is the key problem with Vines’ project: To accept his arguments, one has to question almost the entire narrative of Christianity’s most basic teachings—marriage, human embodiment, biblical anthropology, etc. Vines’ interpretations require that we overturn two millennia of church teaching.


For saying he has a high view of the authority of Scripture, Vines is wholly dependent on scholars and books that are no respecters of biblical authority. He has drawn exclusively from a pool of scholars stalwartly liberal and hostile to evangelical hermeneutics. What Vines has done is put together a piecemeal re-telling of liberal hermeneutics for a lay-level readers.

First, Vines’ interaction with conservative scholarship is specious. While he likely has read and interacted with individuals such as Robert Gagnon, he did not elucidate any clear interaction with heavyweight scholarship such as Gagnon in the book. Dismissively, at one point Vines calls Gagnon’s work “speculative” on the issue of creation and human nature, something that cannot be done against the weight of evidence in The Bible and Homosexual Practice, what many consider the definitive work on the topic.

But as to the larger aspects of his four main arguments, responding to Vines can be done in tandem.

It becomes apparent from the introduction that Vines’ basic thesis regarding orientation is not derived from the text of Scripture. Rather, the moral force of his argument in favor of legitimizing homosexual desire is used to explain away the text. Which is to say, he’s relying on some other authority for his basic claim—namely, an extra-textual moral authority that neither the history of scriptural interpretation nor church history considers valid. This is evidenced immediately by way of his appeal to “good fruit” and “bad fruit.” Vines does not appeal to the actual exegesis of this imagery in Scripture, but rather employs it in order to enact a moral pronouncement based on a lived and subjective experience. Vines’ argument is first a moral presupposition, followed by a belief that the Scriptures could affirm homosexuality based on the cavalier exegesis and theological interpretation he offers.

Let’s examine Vines’ second assumption: The Bible is silent on “sexual orientation.”

First, just because the biblical authors may not have elucidated an understanding of sexual orientation in modern terms, it does not mean that they didn’t have at least some recognition that individuals of their time were expressively and uniformly homosexual. This is the point that Gagnon makes in his work.

Gagnon has showed convincingly in his volume that New Testament writers like Paul wrote in a context that “could not have been unaware of the existence of men whose sexual desire was oriented exclusively toward other males.”[2] Gagnon cites multiple classical sources that demonstrate this familiarity. To insist, as Vines does, that a classical Greek like Paul would have lacked this understanding lacks warrant itself. Vines merely assumes that Paul could not have familiarity with this concept, despite classical sources proving otherwise. Vines nowhere proves that Paul lacked familiarity with men interested in homosexual relations only. Moreover, an argument in favor of orientation and against conduct is a bifurcation read into the text.

Scripture may not have a highly developed explanation for the modern categories of same-sex attraction such that is a now an “orientation.” In one sense, it’s anachronistic to read our time back into Paul’s. But Paul was not ignorant. He was a man of his times, steeped in the soaring intellectual arguments of his day. He was also infused with the Spirit of God to author what he did. A well-developed understanding of “orientation” in modern terms does not mean that a semblance of this feature is absent from Scripture. What Scripture does unequivocally prohibit and consider sinful, however, is the manifestation of these desires in homosexual sex. Working backwards, it seems sensible to conclude that if the branch (homosexual sex) is considered falling short of God’s intended sexual design, so too is the root (homosexual attraction/desire/attraction).

Liberal scholar William Loader—who is in favor of same-sex marriage—has acknowledged similar claims in his book The New Testament on Sexuality.

Loader states that Paul’s indictment of homosexual relations in Romans 1:26-27 “included, but [was] by no means limited to exploitative pederasty,” “sexual abuse of male slaves,” or “same-sex acts … performed within idolatrous ritual contexts” (325). “Without differentiation he condemns all with such sexual attitudes and desires” (326). Same-sex relationships in the Greco-Roman world “could include lifelong consensual adult partnerships” (324). “It is inconceivable that [Paul] would approve of any same-sex acts if, as we must assume, he affirmed the prohibitions of Leviticus 18:22; 20:13 as fellow Jews of his time understood them” (322). Again, “it is also hard to imagine that Paul would approach [issues of homosexual practice] without awareness of the prohibition of same-sex relations in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which had come to be applied to both men and women” (314).

This is a devastating blow to Vines’ entire argument. Indeed, the hinge of Vines’ argument is really whether Paul and the Bible have a comprehensive understanding of human sexuality vaguely reminiscent of “sexual orientation.” The question of gay identity is superfluous from the condemnation of acts that issue from a gay identity.

As to Vines’ third and fourth theses, he writes that Paul is in fact writing within a patriarchal worldview and views the female sexual role as unfitting for a male to perform. But there’s an authorial intent question at play, one especially relevant to questions of biblical inspiration: Doesn’t Paul still have the right to say, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that sodomitical acts—whether lustful or monogamous—are wrong; that a man should not penetrate another man in a way that chafes against sexual design, regardless of a patriarchal context? Vines assumes that it could only be patriarchy that accounts for a condemnation of sodomy, something that he infers and does not exhaustively demonstrate. What Vines ignores is that even loving, committed, and monogamous homosexuals are engaged in a sexual act that Paul finds contrary to sexual design. That Paul would enlist sodomitical acts as a particularly vivid illustration of human rebellion in Romans 1, it seems compelling that the repugnance that Paul displays is characteristic of all sodomitical acts, lustful or monogamous.

Gagnon writes:

The description of excess passion was a way of demeaning a desire that on other grounds had already been evaluated as abominable; otherwise, how would the author know to characterize the passion as excess? In other words, the characterization of homosexual desire as excessive lust is incidental or supplementary to a prior revulsion toward such conduct.[3]

If Vines’ thesis about sexual orientation is knocked down (and we have historical and textual evidence that it should be) his other arguments fall as well. For if homosexuality—whether in orientation or in practice—is considered a disordered passion, then commitment and monogamy are irrelevant. And so is the question of patriarchy. If Paul is correct in holding to a sexual teleology inherited from a Jewish worldview that saw sodomy as inherently sinful, charges that Paul viewed women as somehow inferior is sublimated under the larger concern that men should not be performing deviant sexual acts—not because they shouldn’t be acting like women, but because anatomical structure was not designed with such actions in mind. Again, one can accept Vines’ argument only if he’s argued convincingly against other themes such as “one flesh” and “nature,” which he has not.[4]

Every issue related to sexual and anatomical complementarity is done only in the context of charges of patriarchy. He simply does not posit any meaningful interaction about the anatomical difference of male and female. For Vines, the Bible cannot posit positive teaching about the significance of male and female embodiment, for if it does, it chafes against his argument. Additionally, questions about human embodiment and sexual architecture are simply missing. From this vantage point, procreation is merely ancillary to the biblical drama that promises salvation through a procreative vehicle (Gen. 3:15).

Throughout the volume I found myself having to willfully suspend disbelief in order to accept his hermeneutics. That’s not because I’ve been immersed in evangelical interpretations such that I’ve become immune from finding liberal arguments compelling, but simply because the interpretations Vines offers are, simply, bizarre.

Vines may read this review and reply, “That’s what I’m saying, the Bible is far more complex on these issues than supposedly ‘settled interpretation’ would have one think.” But this belies a key fault at play in Vines’ work: There are credible and overwhelming amounts of biblical scholarship confirming the traditional biblical interpretation concerning homosexuality. What Vines does is use a set of moral assumptions, insisting that those moral assumptions have to be accounted for, and then finds a way to explain away what the text seems to be saying on the surface. The question for him therefore becomes: What is the basis for this moral assumption that homosexual acts are morally legitimate?

If we account for the Bible’s traditional teaching on homosexuality being correct (and we have exegetical and historic evidence to suggest it is), Vines has two options: 1) To abandon the Bible’s authority, thus negating his evangelical credibility; or 2) Be at peace with representing a minority opinion within biblical scholarship, an opinion that goes against settled scholarship that both liberals and conservatives accept. It seems best to suggest that Vines take “option 1” and admit his disavowal of biblical authority.

But there’s a question that left me with an ache about this book. Matthew Vines is clear that homosexuality and homosexual marriage are to be embraced and celebrated in the life of the church. But here’s my question: If something so vital to Christian theology and human existence has been left ignored and so patently in error, how did it get left out until now? Why should we believe that the church is wrong, now, on issues like sexuality? If there were an opportunity for same-sex marriage and homosexuals to be given its equal place, wouldn’t it have been given its place already—especially in a far more homoerotic culture such as Greek and Roman culture? If we can’t trust the church’s history of interpretation on such things as sexuality, what can we trust it with?


It is likely that Matthew Vines will read this review. As I wrote it, I thought to myself, what would I tell Matthew if we were to sit down over coffee and discuss his book?

First, I would tell him that I love him, and that he’s deserving of dignity and respect as an image bearer of God. I would apologize to him for what I can only assume are the countless insensitivities and insults he’s experienced as a same-sex attracted person. I would also apologize to Matthew for the pat, unhelpful answers and rejection he’s received from Christians who don’t know how to speak about homosexuality.

Secondly, I would give him a copy of Wesley Hill’s book. I would point him toward the testimony and work of my friend Sam Allberry’s book and heroic ministry, Living Out. I would tell him of Rosaria Butterfield, whose testimony is a witness to the power of the gospel. I would be honest and tell him that these ministries provide more hopeful, and holistic narratives.

Third, because I love and respect him, I would be compelled to tell him that he’s deceived. He’s believed the lie that homosexuality will prosper his life. Fourth, I would implore Matthew to repent of a book designed to cast a shadow of suspicion and doubt about the Scripture’s teaching on sexuality. Fifth, I would exhort him to a path of discipleship with incalculable unknowns—unknown difficulties I will not experience and can only sympathize with. But I will commend him to set his desires before the cross, knowing that Jesus is better than any desire we think needs satisfied; that Jesus is better than marriage, than children, than sexual fulfillment itself. I would tell him about costly obedience. I would tell him about radical self-abandonment, something I imperfectly attempt each day. I would tell him the story of the Rich Young Ruler, reprised for today, and reframed around the issue of sexuality. I would tell him that the gospel subverts the very points at which we say, “Yes, Lord, but…”

Pastoral Considerations

What follows are abbreviated points on why pastors should be aware and ready for this book to spark conversations amongst their members.

  • The book subverts how Lordship and sexuality are inextricably bound.
  • It casts a shadow on the clarity and rationality of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality.
  • The authority Vines insists upon casts a shadow over the heroic testimonies of those who have gone above and beyond their sexual desires.
  • For saying he has a high authority of Scripture, Vines has marshaled evidence from authors and volumes that do not.
  • Vines does not clarify that while not all individuals may be called to a life of celibacy, all individuals without a spouse are called to exercise sexual chastity.
  • The book drives a wedge between our design and desire. According to a biblical template, our sexual desires should be oriented to how God intends human sexuality to function. A sentiment underneath Vines’ argument is this: “If it feels good, do it.” Vines makes the claim that an expectation of celibacy has evidence of bearing “bad fruit,” and thus, cannot be accepted. The problem, however, is that this idea assumes any innate attraction or desire must be acted upon in accordance with a person’s will. A proper evaluation, however, would understand that “innateness” is not a normative ethical category worthy of adoption.

Resources for Review

To church leaders, this book will be a pernicious attack on uninformed or easily persuadable Christians that are seeking to abandon the biblical and historic position. In an age when the church is being pressed in on both sides—those outside the church and those supposedly from within the church—it is incumbent that pastors ready themselves with key resources that counteract the errors advanced by individuals like Matthew Vines. Below is a collection of resources that should help. They provide hermeneutical responses to all the thorny issues related to biblical exegesis, along with pastoral responses on how churches should minister to individuals with persistent same-sex attraction.

[1] Because I lack the space to address every argument the book advances, it should be said that Vines’ re-interpretation of Ephesians 5 is disjointed bordering on dishonest. He writes “In keeping with the focus of Ephesians 5, the essence of Christian marriage involves keeping covenant with one’s spouse in a relationship of mutual self-giving, which does not exclude same-sex couples” (146).

[2] Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 385.

[3] Gagnon, 386.

[4] On the issue of “nature,” see Gagnon, 389-91.

Andrew Walker
Andrew Walker is the managing editor of Canon and Culture. He also serves as the Director of Policy Studies for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the denomination’s entity tasked with addressing moral, social, and ethical issues. In his role, he researches and writes about human dignity, family stability, religious liberty, and the moral principles that support civil society. He is a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Andrew lives in Franklin, TN with his wife and daughter and is a member of Redemption City Church. You can find him on twitter at @andrewtwalk.