About the Book
The landmark book exploring what the Bible actually says—and doesn’t say—about same-sex relationships.
As a young Christian man, Matthew Vines harbored the same basic hopes of most young people: to some-day share his life with someone, to build a family of his own, to give and receive love. But when he realized he was gay, those hopes were called into question. The Bible, he’d been taught, condemned gay relationships.
Feeling the tension between his understanding of the Bible and the reality of his same-sex orientation, Vines devoted years of intensive research into what the Bible says about homosexuality. With care and precision, Vines asked questions such as:
• Do biblical teachings on the marriage covenant preclude same-sex marriage or not?
• How should we apply the teachings of Jesus to the gay debate?
• Can celibacy be a calling when it is mandated, not chosen?
• What did Paul have in mind when he warned against same-sex relations?
Unique in its affirmation of both an orthodox faith and sexual diversity, God and the Gay Christian has sparked heated debate, sincere soul searching, and widespread cultural change on the issue of what it means to be a faithful gay Christian.
A Tree and Its Fruit
My knees buckled, my stomach turned, and I felt the strength drain from my body. It was my sophomore fall at Harvard, and after a long week of classes, I had stopped by the campus convenience
store. Standing alone in the toothpaste aisle, I finally asked myself the question I’d managed to avoid for years. Am I gay?
The answer was obvious—it could have been obvious for years, if I hadn’t worked so hard to ignore it. But it was also terrifying. Even though I was going to a school that embraced gay students and living in a state that had legalized gay marriage years earlier, I suddenly found myself feeling hopeless.
Life at college wasn’t the problem. The problem was sixteen hundred miles away, in Wichita, Kansas. I’d been at school for only a little over a year, and Kansas remained far more important to me than Cambridge, Massachusetts. But for everything I enjoyed about my home state, most people I knew there made a significant exception to their midwestern friendliness: gay people. My Presbyterian church, in particular, was filled with kindhearted, caring Christians. But when it came to homosexuality, their views were set. If you were in a gay relationship, you were living in sin. Period.
Still frozen in place at the back of the convenience store, my new reality triggered memories. With each one came a fresh wave of anguish.
Take the summer before I left for college. Our pastor had lamented from the pulpit that progressives in our denomination were advocating for the ordination of “practicing homosexuals.” Heads shook in dismay and disappointment.
My parents were opposed to the gay rights movement, even though my older sister and I had become more open to the issue. My final year of high school, my sister, Christine, returned from college with the news that one of her close friends had come out. (I’ll call him Josh.) Mom, who had known and loved Josh since he was born, was devastated. Dad questioned Josh’s judgment.
“How does he know he can never marry a woman?” Dad asked. “Well, he’s gay, Dad,” I said. “Why would he?” “I’m not convinced he couldn’t overcome this. It just seems like he’s
decided not to try.” That night, Christine and I shared our frustrations. “They just
don’t get it,” she said. “Josh marrying a woman would be a recipe for disaster.”
I still didn’t know what to think about gay marriage, but I wasn’t all that fazed by her friend’s revelation. The gay people I’d met at school seemed normal enough, and criticizing them for not trying to be straight didn’t make sense. Whether it was a sin or not, gay people were still gay, and ignoring their orientation wasn’t going to help.
But my dad didn’t know any openly gay people, and he had always understood the Bible to be against homosexuality. If God was against it, Dad said, God wouldn’t make anyone gay. So even if some people struggled with same-sex attraction, he was confident they could develop heterosexual attractions over time.
Other students came and went from the convenience store, but I stood there, ashen. I stared blankly at rows of toothpaste, thinking about the year Josh came out—and what would happen when I did too.
For Josh, coming out to his family had been agonizing. Our church, he rightly guessed, would not have been any happier to hear his news. Not wanting to subject himself to widespread rejection, he left town for his out-of-state college.
He left church too.
This was a young man who often shared his musical talents with our church, singing and playing original songs in front of hundreds on Sunday mornings. He was one of the smartest kids in high school, and he was voted onto homecoming court his senior year. Now when peo- ple talked about him, it was in hushed tones. The sense of shame over what people assumed to be his “decision” was palpable.
Feeling rejected by our church and alienated from God, Josh started much of his life over on the West Coast. In time, he found it impossible to keep believing in a loving God. As he saw it, the God of the Bible required him to hate a core part of himself. Not surprisingly, he also gave up on the Bible, since it had been the instrument that taught others to reject that part of him too. Thankfully, his family came around over time, and they now embrace him. But much of the damage from our church’s stance had already been done. Josh’s faith, along with the church community that first nurtured it, was already lost.
I walked home from the store that night feeling sick. All weekend, I could barely eat or sleep. Trying to concentrate on my philosophy paper or my Spanish assignment was impossible.
In the days and weeks ahead, I did my best to figure out a way forward. Josh’s path—as much as I empathized with him—didn’t seem bearable to me. The losses would be too great. My faith had been of central importance to me for as long as I could remember. When I was two years old, my parents bought me a children’s Bible, which I studied diligently over the years. One Sunday, while riding home from church at the age of three, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. (I would repeat this request countless times before I made it to middle school, just to make sure it worked.)
My parents nurtured a faith in Jesus in me and my sister, giving us a moral and spiritual anchor as we grew up. Just as importantly, Mom and Dad lived out their faith in loving and authentic ways, daily con- firming for us the value of placing Christ at the center of our lives. So even though I was now facing up to the fact of my sexual orientation, my faith in God was not in jeopardy. Besides, after doing a Bible study of the issue the year before, I had already come to question whether God’s views on gay people matched what Christians back home seemed to think they were.
But while my faith felt secure, my relationship with my parents— and with our entire church community—had never felt more fragile. Homosexuality, to the limited extent it was discussed in our church, was little more than a political football, a quick test of orthodoxy. The “progressives” in our denomination supported it, but anyone who truly believed in the authority of the Bible, I was told, did not. In all this, the concerns, lives, and dignity of gay people were not mentioned. (As more than a few parishioners would later tell me, they had never stopped to think whether there might be any gay people in our church.)
By some strange feat of the will, I had been able to suppress my own awareness of my sexual orientation until I was nineteen. But I knew that wasn’t the case for many others, maybe most others. For a young kid who realizes she is gay and has no one at home or church she can talk to, it can be an impossibly heavy burden. For a young man like
Josh, who internalized rejection from our church with barely a word spoken, it can drive a wedge between him and God.
And what would become of me?
Weeks passed. After deep prayer and several long conversations with my sister and with some friends, I realized what I had to do. I packed my bags that Christmas, boarded a plane home for Kansas, and anxiously peered out the window. Boston would soon be slipping away, replaced by the familiar terrain of the Bible Belt. But this time, going home would be different. This time, I was going to come out.
My Dad’s Worst Day
Ours is a Christian family story. It is also a loving, loyal, confused church story. There’s nothing all that unusual about it, really. But precisely because similar stories are unfolding in countless families and churches today, I want to share it.
I want you to see how sexual orientation and deeply held beliefs are at odds in ways that injure those we love. This debate is not simply about beliefs and rights; it’s about people who are created in God’s image. Those people may be like you or entirely unlike you. They may be your roommate or neighbor, your best friend or a colleague. They may be your son or daughter.
My dad would later tell me the day I came out to him was the worst day of his life. His sister had passed away the year before; his father years earlier. But the day I said “Dad, I’m gay” was the worst day of his life. To his credit, though, he didn’t tell me that at the time. He hugged me and listened as I nervously stumbled over my words for an hour and a half. Then he told me he loved me.
My mom, too, responded with open arms, but the news was hard for her to hear. She could barely eat for several days afterward, and she spent much of the next year deeply dispirited. Still, I was grateful for my parents’ unfailing compassion and love.
What that love would ultimately look like, though, was unclear. At first, my dad wanted me to consider trying to change my sexual orientation. He’d heard of groups that claimed to change people from gay to straight, and he asked me to read some books he had borrowed from our church on the subject. I was skeptical, but I read them.
He read the books too, and we were both struck by how modest their claims actually were. These “ex-gay” organizations, for the most part, did not claim to be changing anyone’s sexual orientation. They focused instead on changing people’s behavior. For people who had been caught up in promiscuity, abusive relationships, or drug addictions, changing those behaviors was surely beneficial. But those changes had no bearing on their sexual orientation—and they didn’t speak to my situation either.
I had never been promiscuous or suffered abuse. At an early age, I committed myself to abstinence until marriage. That didn’t change just because I was gay. I wanted to honor my body as a temple of the Holy Spirit. But I also cherished the idea of one day having my own family, so I wanted to explore whether a committed same-sex relationship could be honoring to God.
As a lawyer, my dad weighed the evidence for the possibility of orientation change. Pointing to Matthew 19:26, he reminded me that all things are possible with God. Yet after reading a fair amount about “ex-gay” ministries, he realized that none of the evidence seemed to show God was changing gay people’s sexual orientation. So whatever my path forward might be, orientation change was not likely to be it.
That realization answered one question for my dad, but it opened up a host of others. If heterosexual marriage wasn’t a realistic option for me, what should I do? Leviticus called male same-sex relations an “abomination,” and Paul condemned same-sex behavior as “unnatural.” As much as my dad loved me, he couldn’t disregard what he saw as a clear teaching of Scripture.
Searching Out What The Bible Really Teaches
Six passages in the Bible—Genesis 19:5; Leviticus 18:22; Leviticus 20:13; Romans 1:26–27; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10— have stood in the way of countless gay people who long for acceptance from their Christian parents, friends, and churches. I was blessed by my parents’ continued love, but absent a significant change for my dad in particular, we were likely to end up stuck in the same place: compassion, but no support for a future romantic relationship.
I shared my parents’ concerns about the importance and authority of Scripture. In my view, the Bible can’t be reduced to a collection of great literature, stories, and poetry. It’s God’s written revelation to humanity, as the accounts of Jesus’s life and ministry in the Gospels make clearer to me than anything else. Jesus said that “Scripture cannot be set aside” (John 10:35), and since childhood, I’ve made discerning God’s will through prayerful study of Scripture a priority.
But while I’d once agreed with my parents’ views on homosexuality, I didn’t anymore. Even before coming to terms with my sexual orientation, I had been studying the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior and discussing the issue with Christian friends. Some of what I learned seemed to undermine the traditional interpretation of those passages. For instance, Leviticus prohibits male same-sex relations, but it uses similar language to prohibit the eating of shellfish. And while Paul did describe same-sex relations as “unnatural,” he also wrote that for men to wear their hair long was contrary to “nature.” Yet Christians no longer regard eating shellfish or men having long hair as sinful. A more comprehensive exploration of Scripture was in order.
I had a second reason for losing confidence in the belief that same- sex relationships are sinful: it no longer made sense to me.
My mom taught her Sunday school students that sin was “missing the mark” of God’s will for our lives. But while the Bible helps us understand God’s will, neither my parents nor my church referred only to the Bible when I asked questions about morality. They also explained why something was right or wrong, and why the Bible said what it did. By understanding the reasons behind Scripture’s teachings, I could apply its principles to all circumstances in my life, including those it didn’t directly address.
But as I became more aware of same-sex relationships, I couldn’t 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 didn’t fit this pattern. Not only were they not harmful to anyone, they were characterized by positive motives and traits instead, like faithfulness, commitment, mutual love, and self-sacrifice.
What other sin looked like that?
The church’s condemnation of same-sex relationships seemed to be harmful to the long-term well-being of most gay people. By condemning homosexuality, the church was shutting off a primary avenue for relational joy and companionship in gay people’s lives. That wasn’t the case with other sins. Avoiding other sins always seemed to work to our long-term benefit.
I’ll always be grateful that my parents were willing to take a closer look at this issue with me. But we all needed more time for study, prayer, and discussion with others. So instead of returning to Harvard for the coming spring semester, I decided to stay home. There, I set about finding as many resources as I could to better understand the Bible and homosexuality.
By the summer, my parents were more comfortable discussing the issue, and some of our friends from church had responded with grace and openness when I came out to them. But they were only a small fraction of our congregation’s two thousand members.
“Do People Pick Grapes From Thorn Bushes?”
“You’re elevating your experience over Scripture,” a frustrated member of my church told me over coffee. “I don’t accept that.”
It was June, and my coming out to our larger church community was off to a mixed start. A member of the worship band agreed to meet at a coffee shop. There, he expressed concern about my openness to the idea that same-sex relationships may not be sinful. His study of the Bible had led him to conclude that both the Old and the New Testaments condemn homosexuality. So while he could appreciate my dis- tress over the harm that may cause gay people, he said he could not allow mere experience to override Scripture’s witness.
His concern would be echoed by many others. It’s often expressed like this: Our experience is a fallible guide to truth. Proverbs 3:5 tells us, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” So, too, Jeremiah 17:9 reminds us that “the heart is deceitful above all things.” If we simply do what feels right to us, we can be led dangerously astray.
But this principle also applies to how we study and interpret the Bible itself. “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16), yet our understanding of Scripture can be wrong. In fact, our fallibility as human interpreters is precisely why I was asking others to study the issue more closely. I wasn’t asking them to revise the Bible based on my experience. I was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible.
While Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experience, it also cautions us not to ignore our experience altogether. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warned against false prophets, using a term that has long been understood to refer to teachers of false doctrines as well.2 Jesus explained how his followers could determine true prophets from false prophets. In Matthew 7:15–20, he said:
Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thorn- bushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Jesus’s test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.
The earliest Christians used a similar, experience-based test when making what was one of the most important decisions in church history: whether to include Gentiles in the church without forcing them to be circumcised and to obey the Old Testament law. As Peter declared of early Gentile believers, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us…. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:8, 10). The 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.
In the nineteenth century, experience played a key role in compelling Christians to rethink another traditional—and supposedly biblical—belief. This time, the issue was slavery. Much as you and I might be repelled by the notion, most Christians throughout history understood passages such as Ephesians 6:5–9 and Colossians 3:22–25 to sanction at least some forms of slavery.3 But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Christian abolitionists persuaded believers to take another look. They appealed to conscience based on the destructive consequences of slavery. A bad tree produces bad fruit.
The Glasgow Presbytery in Scotland, for instance, denounced the slave trade as being “founded in cruelty and injustice, shocking to humanity, destructive of the rights and enjoyment of mankind, and of every moral and religious obligation.”4 William Wilberforce devoted his energies to exposing “the most cruel effects” of racism and slavery.5 New York abolitionist minister George Cheever called upon the “common conscience of all mankind” to defend the cause of abolition.6
Neither Peter in his work to include Gentiles in the church nor the abolitionists in their campaign against slavery argued that their experience should take precedence over Scripture. But they both made the case that their experience should cause Christians to reconsider long-held interpretations of Scripture. 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.
A Consequence At Odds With God’s Nature
By way of my family’s story, I have invited you to confront the theological and human question that, in our day, goes by various names: the gay debate, sexual orientation, the dignity and rights of sexual minorities, the movement for marriage equality, and others. For Christians, this conversation compels us to look more intently to the Scriptures that first brought us to faith in Christ.
As we have seen, it also brings us together to wrestle with major 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?
Over the next year at my church, some elders and family friends I met with acknowledged that their position asks gay Christians to sacrifice something very significant: the possibility of romantic love and fulfillment. But, they stressed, that doesn’t mean their position is wrong. Sacrifice is an integral part of what it means to follow Christ, and Jesus and Paul both embraced celibacy as part of their callings. All Christians who do not marry are expected to be celibate—even straight Christians who would like to marry but can’t find a spouse.
As one elder said, “It depends on how you look at your situation, Matthew. I know several women in our church who held on to their hopes for a husband for years—maybe still do. But while marriage is a gift that God blesses, it isn’t a right for any of us.”
He raised an important point.
Much of our culture does promote the idea that our greatest fulfillment is to be found in sex and marriage. To the extent that Christians accept that view, we risk idolizing romantic love and losing sight of our first love, Christ (see Revelation 2:4). It is true, too, that God does not promise us easy lives. We are called to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses, and to follow Jesus (see Mark 8:34).
Does that call to self-denial mean gay Christians should view mandatory celibacy as part of what it means for them to follow Jesus? Or should we view that approach as causing unnecessary suffering—bad fruit, in other words—that should lead us to take a new look at the traditional interpretation of Scripture in the same way our forefathers came to question Gentile exclusion and the institution of slavery?
In chapter 3, we will examine the calling to celibacy in more depth. But in the context of our discussion here—experience versus revelation, a tree and its fruit—I want to make an important distinction.
Mandatory celibacy for gay Christians differs from any other kind of Christian self-denial, including involuntary celibacy for some straight Christians. Even when straight Christians seek a spouse but cannot find one, the church does not ask them to relinquish any future hope of marriage.
Those divergent responses point to the fundamental difference be- tween celibacy for Christians who cannot find a partner and mandatory celibacy for all gay Christians. For straight Christians, abstinence outside marriage affirms the goodness both of marriage and of sex within marriage. But for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality.
Jesus emphasized that sin does not encompass merely wrong actions. It also encompasses the desire for those actions. As he explained in Matthew 5, murder and adultery are sins, but so are anger and lust. So from a Christian standpoint, if all same-sex relationships are sinful, all desires for them should be renounced as well.
But as my dad came to realize, while gay Christians can choose not to act on their sexual desires, they cannot eradicate their sexual desires altogether. Despite the prayers of countless gay Christians for God to change their sexual orientation, exclusive same-sex attraction persists for nearly all of them. The failure of reorientation therapy is why the “ex-gay” ministry Exodus International shut down in 2013. It places gay Christians who adhere to the traditional biblical interpretation in an agonizing, irresolvable tension. 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.8
As we’ll see in chapter 3, that doesn’t match the traditional Christian understanding of celibacy. Functionally, it’s castration. Such an absolute rejection of one’s sexuality might make sense if one’s sexual desires were oriented exclusively toward abusive or lustful practices. It makes considerably less sense when at least some of one’s desires are oriented toward a covenantal relationship of mutual love, care, and self- sacrifice. For gay Christians to be celibate in an attempt to expunge even their desires for romantic love requires them to live in permanent fear of sexual intimacy and love. That is a wholly different kind of self- denial than the chastening of lustful desires the church expects of all believers. It requires gay Christians to build walls around their emotional lives so high that many find it increasingly difficult to form meaningful human connection of all kinds.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness.”9 Lewis’s insight resonated with me even before I embarked on my study of Scripture and same-sex relationships. Lewis, of course, wasn’t making a case for lawless loves. He was emphasizing the destructiveness of living in fear of love.
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. We will consider this idea in more detail in chapter 9, but for now, it’s safe to say that true Christian sacrifice, no matter how costly, should make us more like God, not less.
Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:13, “[God] will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.” But mandatory celibacy for gay Christians is more than many of them can bear. It produces bad fruit in many of their lives, and for some, it fuels despair to the point of suicide.10 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.
So instead of taking the Bible’s references to same-sex behavior as a sweeping statement about all same-sex relationships, my dad started to ask: Is this verse about the kind of relationship Matthew wants, or is it about lustful or abusive behavior? Is this passage about the love and intimacy Matthew longs for, or does it speak to self-centered, fleeting desires instead?
After much prayer, study, and contemplation, Dad changed his mind.
Only six months before, he had never seriously questioned his views. But once he saw the fruit of his beliefs more clearly, he decided to dive deeper into the Bible. In that process, he came to what he now regards as a more accurate understanding of Scripture. He was persuaded by biblical scholarship, historical evidence, and reason. His new views were confirmed by the good fruit they bore—both in my life and in the lives of other gay Christians he began to meet.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that if someone makes you go one mile, go with him two miles (see Matthew 5:41). Whoever you are, and whatever experiences or doubts you bring to this discussion, will you walk with me as I share the evidence that changed my dad’s mind?
I ask as a brother in Christ—one who has sometimes been hurt by others’ unwillingness to listen, and who continues to see fresh wounds open up in the body of Christ. Perhaps you are convinced your views will not change. Perhaps you hope they will.
Either way, I invite you to join me for the journey.