Editor's Note: This is the first part in a three-part series that will feature both sides of the debate on the Bible and homosexuality. Following Matthew Vines' interview will be responses from evangelical theologians, and finally, 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. Read Part 2: "Theologians Find Vines' 'Homosexuality Is Not a Sin' Thesis Not Persuasive."
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Matthew Vines is a 22-year-old gay Christian who believes being gay is not a sin. He came to that conclusion after two years of studying Scripture and the works of dozens of biblical scholars. The Harvard University student, currently on leave of absence, is now trying to win over fellow believers not just with an emotional testimony but with what he is presenting as biblically solid arguments.
"There is no contradiction between being Christian and being gay," he told BBC.
His arguments – mainly against six Bible passages that are commonly used by Christians to condemn homosexuality – are gaining popularity as evidenced by his YouTube views. In six months, an over hour-long video of Vines meticulously challenging what he calls the traditional interpretation of Scripture has garnered nearly 400,000 views.
In an interview with The Christian Post, Vines made it clear that he believes that Christians who believe homosexuality is a sin are wrong. "Loving, same-sex relationships" are not addressed in the Bible, let alone condemned, he argued.
Vines distinguishes between lustful, casual homosexual behavior and loving, "natural" same-sex relationships, arguing that it is only the former behavior that the Bible speaks against.
The Wichita, Kan., resident has already changed some Christians' stance on homosexuality, including that of his devout Christian father, whom he came out to just a couple years ago.
Vines has stated that he was raised in a loving, Christian home – never molested or abused – and a church community that holds the traditional view of homosexuality. He expressed optimism that the acceptance of gay Christians will soon prevail.
Below is a transcript of the interview.
CP: What were the scholarly works or people you talked to that led you to develop your view on Scripture and homosexuality?
Vines: I became more interested in understanding the issue when I came to meet gay people for the first time in high school because when the issue is just an abstraction, then it is much easier not to talk about it very much. But when you have gay people in your life that you care about, it makes you want to consider things more deeply.
So once then I decided to really study the scriptural issues in depth, what I did was, there are dozens of works of scholarship out there now on this subject from all perspectives, and so I started buying different books that seemed to be regularly referenced. The goal was to read books on both sides in order to try and understand those perspectives, to get one argument and then to see all counter-arguments to it back and forth. I now own several dozen books on the subject, I've read many more than that as well, basically just reading a lot of different works of scholarship on the subject, and trying to get as wide of a range of views as possible so that I could feel that my views were as well-informed as they can be.
CP: Are there any specific works that inspired you more than others?
Vines: I wouldn't say that there is any one book that in of itself that was transformative for me. There are some books that I found to be particularly well thought-out. There is a book called Homoeroticism in the Biblical World by Martti Nissinen. He is a Danish scholar, and it is a very well-researched book. But on the whole, what was more persuasive for me was less a single work than the collective experience of studying a lot of different perspectives, and also not just studying on my own, but having many different conversations with people, with other Christians who have very different views on the subject. So having many different conversations with fellow Christians about the issue, and also many different conversations with gay people about the issue, I feel that that was what was most influential to me – this amalgamation of experiences and studies rather than any other one work or experience.
CP: In the video, you give an explanation about the scriptures that address homosexuality and how you believe they have been misunderstood by a lot of mainstream churches . But how did this "misconception" arise and how has it survived for hundreds of years?
Vines: That gets a little bit into some murky historical terrain, in terms of going back to the first millennium of Christian history, which is somewhat difficult to recover with a lot of confidence on this issue. You can find isolated ecclesiastical opinions from the 4th century or the 7th century. But in terms of really understanding how widespread and uniform church practice at a lay-level really was in the first millennium of church history, it's still fairly unclear how all of that played out. But by the 13th century, opposition to same-sex relationships became part of the understanding of natural law theory. This became an official part of the Catholic doctrine at least from the 13th century on. That's the point at which we have clear institutional writings and teaching to that effect.
I am not in a place where I can confidently state, and I'm not sure anyone is, that this is exactly how the misconception arose. However, what is instructive is to look at parallel issues because there are several major issues in biblical interpretations where the vast majority of Christians believes that the correct understanding of the Bible is not the historic, traditional understanding of the Bible.
Take slavery for instance. We reject it today, and we also believe that the passages that were used to support it – well, we weren't really looking at their appropriate historical context and so we were misusing them for a very long time to allow for slavery. So how exactly did that happen? How did that particular misconception arise? I don't think that there is any grand conspiracy that brought these things about.
In general, people and Christians are shaped in the culture that we live in. A misunderstanding about sexual orientation, because very few people percentage-wise are gay, it is very easy for people who are heterosexual to project their own experiences onto those of everyone else's; and then to end up marginalizing and excluding gay people because they don't really understand that they are not simply misbehaving by acting in a different way and by pursuing same-sex relationships, but they are fundamentally different, have a different sexual orientation. And what they are pursuing and trying to find for themselves is really the same thing as straight Christians. It just looks different because they are gay.
This type of misconception can arise because gay people are few in number. So when there is a lot of hostility toward them, it is extremely difficult for people on a broad level to understand them, and people are more likely to read into Scripture a worldly prejudice. And I do believe that homophobia is fundamentally of the world, and then therefore the church is tainted by accepting something that is worldly rather than godly. And I think that often times it is difficult for all of us to distinguish between what is of the world and what isn't, and in this case I think that once people have absorbed a societal prejudice, then they are more likely to read it back into the Bible, rather than allowing the Bible itself to direct the thinking on the subject.
CP: Do you believe that the view that homosexuality is not a sin is becoming more accepted in churches in America?
Vines: There is definitely a lot of division in the church over the issue today, but the issue has evolved in significant ways over the last 20 years. There are still a number of churches where the issue isn't really openly discussed, but I think that the trajectory is clear, I think that where we are going as a church is clear, because there has been a lot of change, and the change is only really going in one direction. For a lot of gay Christians, the change is coming too slowly, and I would agree – if you are personally being excluded and marginalized, then just because you are becoming slightly less marginalized each year, that does not feel very satisfying. However, gay Christians are getting more and more of a voice in different denominations – the Lutheran church, the Presbyterian Church, they are now accepting gay Christians in the clergy on the same footing as straight Christians.
Even though I feel the issue is still definitely a very contentious one, progress is being made in the favor of acceptance of gay Christians, significant progress over the past 10 to 20 years. And I don't see any reason why that would shift, especially because once you have some gay Christians in any church, it makes it easier for other gay Christians in the same communities, because then they have somewhat of a role model, there is some precedent for understanding and acceptance.
More and more gay Christians are coming out to their friends, to their parishioners, to families and pastors, and that does end up leading the church in the direction of acceptance.
CP: What is your response to gay Christians who decide to stay in the church but practice abstinence because they believe Scripture says homosexuality is sinful?
Vines: I think that, as Paul talks about, celibacy is a gift, it is an individual calling. And so the majority of people and Christians don't feel a call for celibacy. But some straight Christians and some gay Christians do. So if some gay Christians feel a call to celibacy, then they should be supported in that, and that should be respected and they should be able to pursue that calling to the best of their ability and with the support of their community.
What I don't feel is OK is for them to say "well, I feel a call for celibacy, and so all other gay Christians must be celibate as well." That isn't how straight Christians who feel a call to celibacy operate; they don't say "I have been called to celibacy, so everyone else in the church who is married needs to break up and be alone."
I think that it is absolutely fine that some gay Christians feel a call to celibacy, I think that they should be supported in that. I just don't think that the fact that some gay Christians feel the call to celibacy should mean that all gay Christians should be forced into it. The main reason why I think that is because the Bible doesn't specifically address the issue of loving same-sex relationships.
So I think that some would say "well, straight Christians who feel called to celibacy don't think that the Bible condemns heterosexuality, that is just their personal calling." And so gay Christians who feel called to it because of their biblical understanding, well I would argue that their biblical understanding is not the correct one. The passages in question (on homosexuality) do not discuss loving, same-sex relationships, and that's the big issue; that's what a vast majority of gay Christians are interested in and then would like to have a part of their life not a lustful relationship, but a loving, committed monogamous relationship. And because the Scripture is silent on the issue, I think that the broader principles of Scripture, toward love and justice and compassion and dignity should lead us toward an acceptance for them, and because I think that loving, same-sex relationships frequently bear all the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. I think that reflects very well upon them and their place within a Christian context.
CP: What about gay Christians who decide to leave the church altogether because they do not feel welcomed?
Vines: What I would say to them is that I empathize with that I understand their feelings of hurt and rejection, but I would encourage them not to give up on their faith. I would ask them to try and distinguish between the communities that rejected them and what Christ asks of us, how he asks us to love and treat one another, and Jesus himself, and to understand that the Bible itself is not anti-gay. Christianity is not anti-gay.
Jesus would not support the ostracization and marginalization of them, and so I would ask them not to give up on their faith but to keep reading the Bible, to keep a relationship with God, and ultimately to try and find a church community that can actually nurture their faith and support them as Christians.
CP: Is reconciliation possible for those who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality as sin and those who believe otherwise?
Vines: Well, in a sense, the two views coexist at a broad denominational level. There are a number of denominations with different churches and different views; even in different churches there are people with different views, but I think that ultimately one position is going to have to prevail, and the other position will end up losing a lot of its support. Because the understandings are so different in terms of what constitutes sinful behavior in that respect, and what does not, because that is a significant enough disagreement, it is hard for those two views to coexist for the long-term in families and church communities.
I do think that a position of acceptance – and I feel that sometimes when you say "acceptance" people think that that opens the door to anything, but I mean acceptance of a permanent, committed, monogamous relationships for gay Christians, not fleeting relationships, not promiscuous relationships, just a single, lifelong, committed, monogamous relationship, just like what a vast majority of straight Christians have as a part of their life. That's what I mean by acceptance – and I think that position will ultimately prevail because that is a position straight Christians reach after they put themselves into the shoes of a gay Christian and they ask "how does it affect my life and what does this mean?"
I think that a lot of straight Christians who believe that homosexuality is a sin, the first thing that I would ask them is if that's the case, what does that mean for my life? What that would mean for me is that I cannot have a heterosexual marriage and family, because I am not attracted to women – independent of my choice – and I never will be and so I am not capable of having a meaningful heterosexual relationship.
So if homosexuality is a sin, what that would mean for me is that I would just be alone for the rest of my life. I come from a family, but I would never be able to form one of my own. It's different from straight Christians who just can't find the right partner. While I could find the right person to marry and fall in love with that person but then I would still have to walk away from that person that I care very deeply about, and that can happen over and over again. It will be an extremely destructive experience and way of living that is ultimately harmful to my dignity as a person and to the dignity of gay people.
I feel that once straight Christians put themselves fully into the shoes of gay Christians, and walk a mile or two in their shoes, and to consider how to apply the Golden Rule in that situation, that's when attitudes can really begin to change. Because that is happening more and more, that is why I feel optimistic that the position of acceptance of gay Christians is going to prevail.