Fifty hand-picked Christians were part of a seminal conference last week planned by Matthew Vines, a 23-year-old Christian who believes Scripture allows for monogamous homosexual activity, in an effort to spread the idea in the American church over the next decade.
Vines says he has had success in convincing lay members of churches over the last year that monogamous homosexual activity is allowed by Scripture, but is encountering resistance from Scriptural scholars. He is likely to encounter much more, say theologians.
More than 100 people applied to participate in the four-day conference, though only 50 were accepted, and the chosen were required to rigorously study throughout the summer before the conference even began. Vines sent them 1,100 pages of dense, academic reading material, for example, to make sure they understood both sides of the issue before the event began last Wednesday.
"The goal of the conference was to be training Christians who are in churches that don't currently support LGBT people and to give them the biblical tools and knowledge that they need to go back to their churches and have constructive, persuasive conversations with other believers on these issues," Vines told CP.
Some conference participants do attend LGBT-affirming churches, Vines told CP, though those who do so have other ties to conservative Christians.
The event was held last week at Asbury United Methodist Church in Prairie Village, Kan., and was hosted by The Reformation Project, an effort started by Vines to re-educate the church concerning gay activity. The Reformation Project is a "Bible-based, Christian non-profit organization that seeks to reform church teaching on sexual orientation and gender identity," according to the group's website.
Event participants, who are simply being called "Reformers," are required "to be willing to be a public, accessible, visible leader in their communities for the indefinite future going forward on these issues," said Vines. Regardless of what each leaders' strategy is for inspiring reform, the 23-year-old said it is important for them to be both "respectful and sensitive" when engaged in dialogue with others.
"Our primary goal is not to make the church pro-LGBT," said Vines. "Our primary goal is to protect the integrity of the body of Christ as the witness to God's love on earth."
Vines, a gay Christian, delivered a speech in March 2012 in which he argued that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality. The hour-long video of that speech has been viewed over 600,000 times on YouTube and has been the subject of debate among pastors and theologians.
He told CP that the writers of Scripture understood same-sex behavior as "an impulse toward excess," much like gluttony or drunkenness. But the issue must be approached differently, he says, when discussing Christian gays who are living out "an expression of covenantal love in a faithful, monogamous relationship."
Many Christians think they cannot believe in the full authority and inspiration of the Bible and at the same time support same-sex relationships, says Vines, though he hopes to convince them that isn't the case.
Vines says he's received several hundred emails over the course of the last year-and-a-half from conservative-minded Christians who have changed their minds on the issue. Most of them were laypeople, he says, though he never expected conservative pastors to change their minds immediately.
"I don't think that they will be likely to change their minds until they see a significant change within their own church communities," he said.
Evan Lenow, assistant professor of ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was just one of a number of scholars who spoke out about Vines' speech after it hit the Web. He says Christians must uphold a faithful interpretation of the Scriptures, which he says "declares homosexuality to be a sin."
"The church has always viewed it that way," said Lenow. "And there's been small minority groups here and there that have offered a different interpretation, and what Matthew's doing is no different than what has been done before. That doesn't mean we should ignore him. We should listen to what he has to say, but also respond, which is part of what I'm attempting to do."
Lenow, who is teaching a class on Christianity and human sexuality this semester, says conservative Christians have at times been "ridiculed as being backwards or stuck in the past" for upholding a traditional view of homosexuality. Still, he says, there are ways for conservatives to approach the issue.
"We need to participate in the discussion on two levels," he said. "We need to have the academics, the facts, the hermeneutics on the issue, but we also need to be winsome. We need to be engaging. We need to be kind in our approach to it. It's not simply about winning the factual debate. It's about winning both the mind and the heart."
Vines' YouTube video just started the conversation, he says, but he has a book coming out next spring that he believes will take the discussion to the next level. The book, titled, God and the Gay Christian: What the Bible Says-and Doesn't Say-About Homosexuality, will be released Mar. 18, 2014.
Vines says he suspects that many conservative Christians will accept the interpretation of the scriptures he subscribes to within the next decade.