Theologians Find Vines' 'Homosexuality Is Not a Sin' Thesis Not Persuasive
Editor's Note: This is part two in a three-part series that will feature both sides of the debate on the Bible and homosexuality. The series launched with an interview with Matthew Vines. This second story features responses from evangelical theologians. Ending the series will be guest contributions from Christians who have chosen not to engage in homosexuality and those who don't believe a gay lifestyle conflicts with the Bible.
"Being gay is not a sin" is the mantra that one young Harvard student is trying to promulgate. But while Matthew Vines has attracted a growing following with what some are describing as accessible, scholarly arguments, evangelical scholars don't believe he'll make much headway in the Christian community.
"His arguments are not new, and his predecessors failed to win the day within the Christian community," said Dr. Evan Lenow, assistant professor of Ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. "Therefore, I doubt he will have significant impact in the long term."
Vines, 22, grew up in a Christian home and takes his faith seriously. Thus, as a homosexual feeling conflicted with the church's teaching – that homosexuality is a sin – he decided to take a leave of absence from Harvard University two years ago in order to study Scripture and dozens of scholarly works on the subject.
The Wichita, Kan., resident went into his research questioning the "traditional" teaching as it has caused emotional devastation among gay persons in the church, according to Vines. Also motivating his study was a picture of a bleak future for him – where he would "always be left out" and "always be alone" while his friends get married and have children.
Two years later, he ended up producing a dissertation that he believes "dismantles every Bible-based argument against homosexuality."
But the arguments he presents have been rehashed from the work of such scholars as Finnish Old Testament scholar Martti Nissinen, homosexual New Testament scholar Dale Martin (Yale), and homosexual church historian John Boswell, according to Dr. Robert Gagnon, associate professor of New Testament at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, who is considered the foremost expert on the Bible and homosexuality.
"Every one of these rehashed arguments I have refuted in previous work, of which Vines shows not the slightest awareness," said Gagnon, who studied the issue for 15 years after completing a masters of theological studies at Harvard Divinity and a Ph.D. in New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Nevertheless, Vines is challenging the "traditional interpretation" of Scripture, maintaining that Christians who hold this view are misreading the Bible.
His arguments can be viewed in an hour-long video where he breaks down six passages (seven if you include the Creation account) in Scripture that are commonly used to condemn homosexual behavior.
The Christian Post asked several evangelical theologians to respond to some of those arguments.
Genesis: God Created Them Male and Female
Vines argued (in his video) that while Christians cite the Genesis account of God creating a man and a woman to argue against same-sex unions, he said they miss an important point in the creation story.
"In Genesis 2:18, God says, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him,'" Vines stressed.
For Adam, that suitable partner was Eve, a woman. And for most men, a woman is the right partner. But for homosexuals, a "suitable" partner would be someone of the same-sex, Vines contended.
"But the necessary consequence of the traditional teaching on homosexuality is that, even though gay people have suitable partners, they must reject them, and they must live alone for their whole lives," he maintained. "By holding to the traditional interpretation, we are now contradicting the Bible's own teachings: the Bible teaches that it is not good for the man to be forced to be alone, and yet now, we are teaching that it is."
Rejecting the argument, Lenow told CP, "Mr. Vines is missing the point of the text. Prior to the creation of Eve, Adam was naming the animals. Part of the creation mandate in Genesis 1 is that the animals would reproduce after their kind. This is explicitly stated in Gen 1:22 regarding the sea creatures and birds and implied regarding the beasts of the earth in the language of 'after their kind' in Gen 1:24-25.
"Adam surely noticed that each of the animals had a 'partner' by which they could reproduce. Thus, part of the idea that it was not good for man to be alone was that he could not reproduce 'after his kind' without a suitable partner. Therefore, as part of the first marriage in Genesis 2, God intended for procreation to be a part of this union."
Lenow added: "We need to look at Adam not only as a historical figure but also as the representative of all mankind. Scripture itself views Adam in this way in Romans 5 as Paul speaks to sin entering the world through one man – Adam. Therefore, in this context, we see Adam representing all of mankind. God's design for man is that he could enter into a complementary relationship with a woman, who is like him yet still different. At a very basic level, the complementary biological differences between man and woman make this clear. Thus, homosexual intercourse cannot be the union of a man and his suitable helper since the complementary biological differences do not exist.
"Related to this, if God viewed marriage as the means for mankind to reproduce after his kind, then homosexual marriage and intercourse violates God's command in Gen 1:28."
Sean McDonough, professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, also offered his take.
"His (Vines') take on Genesis 1 is theologically incoherent. He seems to concede the goodness of God's creation of man and woman (which forms the basis for subsequent biblical teaching on marriage and sexuality), then claims that in the current state of things homosexual desire is natural, and therefore good, for homosexuals. But this spectacularly avoids the problem of the Fall in Genesis 3.
"One might equally argue that while peace was a desirable state for Adam and Eve in Eden, murderous envy was the 'natural' state of Cain, and thus he cannot be condemned for acting on his innate desires. He also suggests that the only possible way not to be alone in the world is to be in a sexual relationship. Why would this be so?"
Also denouncing Vines' argument that it is not good for man to be alone and that a "suitable" partner is needed, Gagnon of Pittsburgh Seminary stated:
"Such arguments [show] a complete disregard for context, which stresses that the missing sexual element in man is woman. A more accurate rendering of the Hebrew than NIV's 'helper suitable for him' is 'a helper as his counterpart (ezer kenegdo).' The Hebrew term kĕnegdô consists of kĕ meaning as, like; suffix ô meaning his; and neged connoting both corresponding to (i.e., similarity as humans) and opposite (i.e. difference as regards a distinct sex extracted from him). The text does not present the sex of the 'counterpart' or 'complement' as optional. Four times in three verses (2:21-23) the narrator emphasizes that something is 'taken from' the adam or undifferentiated human and formed into a woman ('side' may be a better translation than 'rib' of Hebrew tsela' since it means this in its 36 other uses in the Hebrew Bible). The principle of two sexes becoming one flesh is thus grounded in the picture of two sexes emerging from one flesh (2:24). What is required in the story line of Gen 2:21-24 is not merely a joining or merger of two persons but a rejoining of the two sexes into one.
"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.
"Moreover, while it is 'not good' for humans to be alone, it is far worse for humans to engage in same-sex intercourse. The former is not a sin but an experience of deprivation. The latter is regarded by Scripture as a violation of a core value in sexual ethics. To engage in same-sex intercourse as a means to averting loneliness is to subvert a higher value in Scripture for the sake of lesser consideration."
Natural vs. Unnatural; Lust vs. Loving
Romans 1:26-27 is a New Testament passage where the Apostle Paul writes, "Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way, the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error." (NIV)
Here, Vines defined "natural" differently from evangelical Christians, who view God's original design of male and female as natural.
"Gay people have a natural, permanent orientation toward those of the same sex; it's not something that they choose, and it's not something that they can change," he asserted.
"If the point of this passage is to rebuke those who have spurned their true nature, be it religious when it comes to idolatry or sexual, then just as those who are naturally heterosexual should not be with those of the same sex, so, too, those who have a natural orientation toward the same sex should not be with those of the opposite sex."
He added, "Paul's reference to same-sex behavior is intended to illustrate this larger sin of idolatry. But in order for this analogy to have any force, in order for it to make sense within this argument, the people he is describing must naturally begin with heterosexual relations and then abandon them."
"The crux of his argument is that Paul knows nothing of committed same-sex relationships. Therefore, the violation would have to be heterosexuals (by orientation) participating in homosexual behavior. The problem with this is multi-faceted. First, it assumes that Scripture is not fully inspired by God. Even if Paul knew nothing of sexual orientation, the Holy Spirit inspired the text. This would imply that God himself was not aware of the concept of sexual orientation and was incapable of framing the message in such a way that it would be clear.
"Second, the idea that homosexuals have a 'natural' inclination towards relationships with people of the same sex is in fact a rejection of what God has revealed about himself. Paul's condemnation of idolatry in verses 22-25 is based on the fact that the unrighteous 'exchanged the truth of God for a lie.' Part of the truth of God is what he has revealed about the creation.
"As told to us in Genesis 2-3 and evident in observing nature, God created two genders that complement one another in multiple ways, not the least of which is through biological differences making sexual intercourse procreative. To reject this natural sexual function of the body is to reject how God created mankind in Genesis 1-2. Thus, Mr. Vines is committing the same sin that he rests solely on the backs of those who worshiped false gods – exchanging the truth of God for a lie.
"Finally, Mr. Vines assumes as scientific fact that which has not been proven. He assumes that sexual orientation is permanent and part of one's genetic make-up. However, there is no scientific study that proves Mr. Vines' position. All scientific studies attempted to prove this suffer from small sample sizes and preconceived agendas."
Dr. Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Seminary, also opposed Vines' argument.
"It is difficult to get around the clear implication here that 'natural relations' means a relationship between a man and a woman. It is quite a leap to suggest that Paul was not ruling out same-sex intimacy. The fact that he does not elaborate on this seems clearly to be due to the fact that he simply takes all same-sex intimacy to be violations of God's creating and redeeming will. It isn't just lustful homosexuality that counts as 'abandoning natural relations' but same-sex intimacy as such."
Gagnon, an ordained elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), asserted that Vines errs in arguing that the Apostle Paul "has only lustful homosexual relationships in view since (allegedly) committed homosexual relationships were unknown in the ancient world."
"Vines … errs in claiming that nothing akin to homosexual orientation was known in the ancient world. Greco-Roman theories (Platonic, Aristotelian, Hippocratic, and even astrological) existed that posited at least some congenital basis for some forms of homosexual attraction, particularly on the part of males desiring to be penetrated," the Pittsburgh professor noted.
"Simply put, many in the ancient world attributed one or more forms of homosexual practice to an interaction of nature and nurture. Moreover, many believed that homoerotic impulses could be very resistant to change. As classicist Thomas K. Hubbard notes, 'homosexuality in this era [viz., of the early imperial age of Rome] may have ceased to be merely another practice of personal pleasure and began to be viewed as an essential and central category of personal identity, exclusive of and antithetical to heterosexual orientation' (Homosexuality in Greece and Rome: A Sourcebook of Basic Documents [University of California Press, 2003], 386). Hubbard also points to a series of later texts from the second to fourth centuries that 'reflect the perception that sexual orientation is something fixed and incurable' (ibid., 446). It is important to remember that many of the same Greco-Roman moralists and physicians who held such views could still oppose the behaviors arising from homoerotic predispositions.
"Paul viewed sin as innate, generating impulses that people don't ask for and often wish they could get rid of. If some Greco-Roman moralists and physicians, operating within a culture that tolerated and at times endorsed at least some homosexual practice, could reject forms of homosexual practice committed by those with a biological predisposition, it is virtually impossible that Paul, operating out of a Jewish subculture, would have embraced homosexual unions entered into by homosexually oriented persons.
"There is nothing in the language of Rom 1:24-27 that limits Paul's indictment only to exploitative or promiscuous forms of homosexual relations. On the contrary, Paul clearly echoes Gen 1:26-27 in Rom 1:23, 26-27, picking up from Gen 1:26-27 eight terms in the same tripartite sequence (human, image, likeness; birds, four-footed animals, reptiles; male, female). Paul's indictment centers around what homosexual practice is not and can never be: a complementary sexual union between 'male and female.'"
Rejecting Vines' argument that Paul only condemns lustful behavior and heterosexuals engaging in homosexual acts, Gagnon further maintained that the expressions "exchanged" and "leaving behind" do not refer to a willful exchange of heterosexual desire for homosexual desire.
"Rather, they refer to a choice of gratifying innate homoerotic desires instead of complying with the evidence of male-female complementarity transparent in material creation or nature. This is clear from the preceding example involving idolatry, where Paul states that the Gentiles exchanged the truth about God and the glory of God transparent to human reason through observation of 'the things made' by God. Likewise, on the horizontal sphere, some humans suppressed the truth about male-female complementarity evident in anatomical and physiological structures of male and female and instead pursued gratification of innate urges to have intercourse with members of the same sex.
"Although Vines claims that Paul means by 'nature' merely social convention, an examination of the use of the word phusis in Paul suggests otherwise. 'Nature' in Paul corresponds to the essential material, inherent, biological, or organic constitution of things as created and set in motion by God (Gal 2:15; 4:8; Rom 2:14; 2:27; 11:21, 24). This includes even the reference to nature in 1 Cor 11:14-15 where the hair argument is similar to the Stoic argument for beards for men, based on natural endowment. Specifically, nature gives an indication that scalp hair is more indispensable for women than for men by making major hair loss there much rarer for women. (Vines incorrectly reads Paul as saying that nature allows men only short hair.)
"Obviously, the conclusion drawn from an observation of nature is more convincing in some cases than others, which is probably why the nature argument is only one of multiple arguments used in 1 Cor 11:2-16, whereas it is the argument, along with the echo to Gen 1:27, that Paul uses to reject homosexual practice in Rom 1:26-27."
Homosexuals Won't Inherit the Kingdom of God?
In 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, Paul lists those who will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Vines noted that the King James Version includes those who are "effeminate" but later translations have altered the word to "homosexuals" or "men who have sex with men."
"Effeminate" in the Greek is "malakos" which literally means "soft," he pointed out. In a sexual context, the word was used to describe general licentiousness and debauchery and men who took the passive role in sexual relations. But Vines argued that the term was also used in other contexts such as to label those who are weak-willed, cowardly or lazy.
"So many people were labeled this term for so many different things – most of them not even sexual in nature, and most of the sexual ones about men in relationships with women ... The notion that Paul is singling out gay people here and saying that they will not inherit the kingdom of God simply doesn't hold up under scrutiny."
McDonough said Vines' argument is "fatally flawed."
"He (Vines) fails to recognize that Paul is using (or creating himself) a word drawn directly from the vocabulary in Leviticus 18," noted the Gordon-Conwell professor. "Thus not only does he fail to see that Paul is indeed forbidding all homosexual practice in the church, he is doing so precisely on the basis of the Law – a Law which, contra Vines, was still looked upon a guide for Christian faith and practice in all sorts of ways."
Vines has argued that the "only place in Scripture where male same-sex relations are actually prohibited" is in Leviticus. The Old Testament law code, however, never applied to Christians, he asserted. "We are not subject to the Old Law" because of "Christ's fulfillment of the law," he said.
McDonough offered: "How can we tell which bits (of the Old Testament law) to obey and which bits are purely ritual? One way is to pay attention to places where New Testament writers explicitly uphold the law as here in 1 Corinthians 6."
The Christian scholars called Vines out for not addressing Jesus' teachings.
"Another aspect of the biblical case for marriage that Mr. Vines does not address is the teaching of Jesus regarding marriage," Lenow observed.
"In Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees about marriage. While their question addresses the issue of divorce, Jesus answers them with his interpretation of God's design for marriage – one man and one woman for life," said Lenow.
"In verses 4-6, Jesus responds, 'Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.' In this passage, Jesus affirms that God created male and female and that marriage is designed between one man and one woman ... Biblical marriage and biblical sexuality is heterosexual in nature according to Jesus himself."
McDonough also highlighted Jesus' teaching.
"While Vines doesn't make much of Jesus' own ethical teaching here, it is worth pointing out Jesus' severe denunciation of sexual immorality in the Sermon on the Mount," said McDonough. "It is historically unthinkable to imagine a Jesus who, as a Scripture-following Jew, would simultaneously intensify the Law's teaching on heterosexual immorality, and yet toss aside the Law's clear teaching on homosexual immorality."
Gagnon, meanwhile, cited Mark 10:2-9 (parallel in Matthew 19: 3-9) where Jesus "clearly extrapolated a limit on the number of persons in a sexual union to two from the twoness of the sexes given by God in creation for complementary sexual pairing: 'male and female [God] made them' (Gen 1:27) and 'For this reason a man … will be joined to his woman and the two will become one flesh (Gen 2:24)."
"If Jesus regarded a male-female prerequisite as foundational for formulating other principles in sexual ethics (like prohibitions of polygamy and a revolving door of divorce and remarriage), he obviously was strongly opposed to a behavior that directly called into question that very prerequisite (homosexual practice)," the Pittsburgh Seminary professor contended.
"Why, then, didn't Jesus speak against homosexual practice explicitly? Quite simply, no one in the Judaism of his day was even advocating for homosexual practice, let alone engaging in it. For the same reason Jesus said nothing against incest. It is a historical no-brainer that he didn't need to because Jews already regarded this as a severe offense. Jesus set out to close the few remaining loopholes in the Law of Moses regarding sexual ethics. There never was a loophole for homosexual practice in the Scriptures.
"Every text in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation treating sexual matters – whether narrative, law, proverb, poetry, moral exhortation, or metaphor – presupposes a male-female prerequisite for all sexual activity. This is hardly a minor position within Scripture. It is, as Jesus noted, a position foundational for all matters of sexual ethics."
Denying Homosexuals Happiness?
To sum up his thesis, Vines stated that the Bible "never directly addresses, and it certainly does not condemn, loving, committed same-sex relationships."
Yet the "traditional" teaching denies a "small minority of people ... a lifetime of love and commitment and family" which in turn inflicts "on them a devastating level of hurt and anguish," the young student said in his appeal to Christians.
"There is nothing in the Bible that indicates that Christians are called to perpetuate that kind of pain in other people's lives rather than work to alleviate it, especially when the problem is so easy to fix. All it takes is acceptance."
"When Mr. Vines speaks of inflicting devastating pain and anguish on homosexuals by denying them the opportunity to marry, he is attempting to quantify pain and pleasure and determine if one outweighs the other. However, such attempts at moral calculus are inconsistent at best. Instead, we should evaluate whether or not homosexual relationships accomplish the goods of marriage according to Scripture.
"Since marriage is not commanded, proponents of same-sex marriage are actually attempting to accomplish a good at the expense of biblical sexuality. Therefore, the evil inflicted by active participation in sin actually undermines any good that could be accomplished in a loving, committed relationship. Mr. Vines, then, has transferred the blame for sin from those in violation of God's command to those who are attempting to uphold the clear teaching of Scripture."
Mouw acknowledged the need to have "real empathy" for those who struggle with same-sex attraction.
But he added, "It is a false choice to say that either we bless same-sex relationships or condemn a person like Vines 'to be alone the rest of his life.' There are many ways to remain celibate and still experience genuine community, including mutually nurturing friendships and shared commitments to serving the Kingdom."
So far, Vines' YouTube video has attracted nearly 400,000 views and the praises of the LGBT community.
Freelance writer Douglas Quenqua recently called Vines "a voice for gay Christians" who is making an impact, in The New York Times. Quenqua quoted James Gooch, a 21-year-old gay Christian, as saying, "I found my faith all over again in that video."
Though Vines' arguments may be nothing new, Lenow believes part of the attraction has to do with Vines' presentation.
"Most proponents of homosexuality have not been making biblical arguments in recent years. Now there is a young man making a plea from Scripture in support of homosexuality," he observed. "Many people still enjoy hearing a reasoned argument, and that is what Mr. Vines is attempting to do."
But for McDonough, Vines' main appeal is emotional, "with a thin dusting of logic on top."
"Vines presents himself as a sensitive, rational soul simply trying to figure out what the Bible really says. But underneath the veneer there is a pretty manipulative premise: if you disagree with me, you are by definition cruel and oppressive," McDonough commented. "Who wants to be cruel and oppressive?"
The evangelical scholars agreed that Vines may be able to sway some believers.
"We are living in a time when many younger folks are looking for alternatives to traditional Christian views about sexuality," said Mouw of Fuller. "Unless we do a much better job of ministering to people with their very real dilemmas, arguments like those set forth by Vines will arise, even though they are highly speculative as interpretations of biblical teaching."
But ultimately, the question is whether Vines has interpreted Scripture correctly, the scholars emphasized.
"I see no good reason to accept his interpretations," said Mouw.
Lenow, meanwhile, believes those who hold a high view of the inspiration and authority of Scripture will not likely be swayed. "Mr. Vines is justifying sinful behavior and encouraging others to do the same. As Christians, we should call one another to holiness rather than to sin."
McDonough stressed the need to "show love for all" and to acknowledge that "we are all sinners saved by God's grace." But, he added, "giving up on the Scripture and redefining sin so that people can follow their own desires is no way to love them."
It's only been in the last four to five decades that people in the church have attempted to condone homosexuality from a biblical standpoint, according to Lenow.
If one were to follow Vines' logic, that calling homosexuality a sin marginalizes homosexuals, then the church would have to approve of all things that the Bible calls sin "lest we marginalize any segment of society," Lenow noted.
"This would, in effect, eliminate sin from Scripture and eliminate our need for a Savior. By doing so, we would eliminate the church and Christianity."