Two years ago, former Harvard student Matthew Vines presented an hour-long lecture in Wichita, Kansas, arguing that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as many conservative Christians claim that it does. Several hundred thousand people watched the video of his lecture, and now Vines has released a new book, God and the Gay Christian, making his case in further detail by weaving in stories of his own coming out. Conservatives are taking his book very seriously, prompting many to attempt to refute his interpretations and in doing so, highlighting their narrow understanding of what it actually means to be gay.
Leading the charge in countering Vines is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), produced a full ebook responding to Vines’ book, with contributions from professors at various theological institutes, including SBTS. Mohler is clear in his thesis: “Biblical Christianity can neither endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors.” Contrary to Vines’ pleas on behalf of people who want to be true to their sexual orientation and to their faith, Mohler concludes that one can be gay or Christian, but not both.
The SBTS response provides compelling insights into how the SBC views not only sexuality, but gender. Vines postulates that what God cares about in Genesis is the importance of partnership, not the supposed “sexual complementarity” of Adam and Eve. But James M. Hamilton, Jr., a professor at Southern Seminary, defends the church’s contention that men and women have different “roles.” For example, the SBC does not allow women to serve as pastors, but Hamilton nevertheless argues that male and female are “equal in dignity.” Owen Strachan, a professor of Christian theology at Boyce College, adds that though men and women both “equally bear the image of God,” they should still be treated differently because they “don’t have the same shapes.”
While the SBTS justification for its opposition to women’s equality is subtle, its conclusions for gay people are anything but. In particular, the authors reject the very concept of sexual orientation. Strachan compares an orientation to the same sex to “orientations” toward drunkenness, pedophilic acts, or domestic abuse. Heath Lambert, professor at both SBTS and Boyce, reduces the concept of orientation to “desire,” similarly noting that serial killers and serial liars are not righteous just because they engage in “repeated patterns of sinfulness.”
Though Strachan asserts, “Celibacy must be practiced by those who are tempted to give vent to any sinful, fallen desire,” Lambert provides the inevitable remedy for SBTS’s ultimatum to function: “In Christ, change is possible for even the most entrenched desires.” He blatantly endorses the viability of ex-gay therapy, citing research by Mark Yarhouse, who ironically found that ex-gay therapy did not actually change clients’ orientation. Lambert concludes, “We need to tell them that in Christ they are not gay.”
Andrew Walker, Director of Policy Studies for the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (and previously of the Heritage Foundation), wrote his own review and analysis of Vines’ book, concluding that it is “unfitting for evangelical consumption or approval” because there’s no confusion that “homosexual sin needs to be repented of.” Homosexuality is a “disordered passion,” he argues, telling Vines directly that he’s “deceived” and should “set his desires before the cross” because “Jesus is better than any desire we think needs satisfied.”
Because Vines specifically targets evangelicals, the SBC response is not surprising, but it is also not alone. Among Vines’ other critics is ex-gay advocate Robert Gagnon, who has compared gay-straight alliances to the Ku Klux Klan and claimed that allowing gay Boy Scout leads would be “a recipe for sexual abuse.” Disagreeing with Vines’ biblical interpretations, Gagnon challenges the notion that sexual orientation is a legitimate aspect of people’s identities: “Orientation does not take precedence over formal (embodied, structural) prerequisites such as gender, monogamy, and age. If people are unhappy with God’s conditional provision, they do not get to choose whatever option brings satisfaction to their sexual desires.”
Conservative radio host Michael Brown, who the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted as a leader among the “radical right” for his anti-LGBT advocacy, attacked Vines’ publisher for identifying him as “a bold, young, evangelical writer.” An evangelical advocating for LGBT acceptance, Brown argues, is similar to someone Catholic questioning the office of the pope or an Orthodox Jewish author arguing that pork was kosher. In a separate post, Brown implores those who might identify as gay Christians to justify themselves to him. In particular, he’s convinced that some people are “genuinely ex-gay,” and he thus discourages people who identify as gay Christians from taking the risk that they might be wrong about God accepting them for who they are.
Vines’ arguments are not entirely new, but his book is undoubtedly serving as a catalyst for new conversations about LGBT issues within conservative faith communities. By going to such efforts to challenge his interpretations, these opponents of equality are actually creating more visibility for not only Vines’ reading of the Bible, but also his own coming out story. In doing so, they are also candidly revealing their own misunderstandings of LGBT identities and the real reasons why they oppose LGBT rights, regardless of what non-religious arguments they put forth in the political arena.
Watch Vines’ original lecture on YouTube: