The question of homosexuality keeps moving inward on Christianity. Once it was, “can you be gay and be accepted in secular society?” Later it became, “can you you be gay and be accepted in liberal churches?” Now, with the publication of books like Matthew Vines’s God and the Gay Christian (reviewed here), the question has moved inside the walls of conservative Evangelicalism. Can you be gay and Christian?
A Question for Conservative Christians
It’s a specific kind of question, whose answer depends on what one means by being Christian. The gay Christian question has come all the way inside the church, including places where “being Christian” is understood in terms that any conservative Evangelical would accept: believing in Jesus Christ as risen Savior, accepting the Bible as the authoritative truth, and guiding one’s life and practice according to biblical teachings. Matthew Vines represents a movement that is telling Christians — Bible-believing ones — that the Bible affirms homosexuality.
The issue has torn liberal denominations apart. Conservative churches, in contrast, have tended to hold together in unity through their biblical convictions; but what if conservative opposition to gayness is rooted in cold disgust and Pharisaism, rather than biblical truth and love? What if the anti-gay passages in the bible we rely on are mistranslations or misinterpretations? What if the love of God means accepting and affirming people the way they are? What if we’ve been getting the Bible wrong?
Contrasting Views on a Common Question
Writers like Matthew Vines say we’ve been getting all that wrong, though he was hardly the first one to say so, though. While he was writing his book, released late in April, Michael Brown was writing Can You Be Gay and Christian, which came out early in May. Brown’s book was not written in response to Vines’s, but for my purposes here it seems to make sense to treat it as if it had been. Vines’s arguments echo those that Brown addresses in his book, and the two books are in strong competition with each other, currently running at number one and two on Amazon’s bestseller lists for their shared topic categories.
And they cover very similar ground. Both authors claim to represent historic Christianity. Both claim to believe in the authority of the Bible, and make biblical arguments for their positions. Both make the Bible the crux of their case. This is not a Bible-against-secularism controversy, but a dispute among those who claim the Bible as the word of God. They have that much in common.
Contrasts in Competence
Where they differ is this: given that the question is, “what does the Bible say?” Michael Brown speaks from a position of reliable knowledge. Vines doesn’t. Brown holds a Ph.D. in ancient Near East languages and literature from New York University: highly relevant, when questions come up regarding the meaning of Levitical passages on sexual morality. He demonstrates a broad-ranging and competent grasp of the Bible’s interpretive history. He demonstrates (unlike Vines) that he has read the whole Bible; for much of Vines’s argument depends for its strength on ignorance of the full Scriptural context.
Old Testament Questions
For example, Vines raises doubts about the usual interpretation for the “abomination” described in Leviticus. He quotes Phyllis Bird’s conclusion that it’s a “term of boundary marking,” setting Israel apart from other nations, and therefore no more morally relevant than the stricture against eating shellfish. It’s a common enough point in this dispute, which Brown handles in a chapter-length discourse beginning (as do most of his chapters) with a survey of literature on the pro-gay side, followed by a discussion of the broader biblical and interpretive context that gay authors have failed to include. Through careful, balanced research, he finds persuasive reasons to conclude that the prohibition against homosexuality was not merely a matter of boundary-marking, but was universal.
There were laws that God gave to Israel alone, and laws that God gave to all people, including Israel, and for the most part, using the entire Bible as our guide, it is easy to see which is which…. God said plainly [in Lev. 18:24-30] that he judged the Egyptians and the Canaanites—idol-worshiping pagans, according to the Bible—for committing these very sins…. And that’s why God tells the people of Israel not to commit these sins.
New Testament Interpretations
There’s much more there than I could cover in this space. Turning to the New Testament, he dispenses cleanly with multiple misconceptions, some of them having to do with ancient culture (no, the centurion’s servant was not his male sex partner!), some of them having to do with language and translation. Here his strongest point can be summed up,
There is strong unanimous support [for the traditional translation of anti-gay words] in all major dictionaries and translations.
and in the multiple ways it can be shown that no one ever saw anything in the Bible to support homosexuality until “after the rise of an out and proud ‘gay Christianity'”—quite the opposite, in fact.
There is much more in this part of the book, too. I haven’t begun to touch on other important points, especially his heartbreakingly disturbing quotes from gay authors who have tried to distort Jesus himself into a sexually active gay man. In my review, I criticized Vines’s book on the basis of “the tree and its fruit;” the fruit Brown tells us about here is far more damaging and disturbing yet.
The Background Question For All of Us
I must return to my earlier question, though: can you be gay and Christian? Sure, in a certain sense; any person can come to Jesus Christ for life and forgiveness! The real question raised by both Vines and Brown, though, is this: can it be Christian to be gay? Even more to the point—because being same-sex-attracted is not the issue, but rather what one does with one’s desires—does the Bible affirm gay practice? Brown’s answer is clear, comprehensive, and persuasive. There ought not be any divide within the ranks of Bible-believing Christians on this question, because the Bible definitely abhors the practice of homosexuality. Of this there can be no doubt.
The Crucial Question for Christians
I close with the question that always looms in the background of conversations like these: isn’t this bigoted? I wish you could spend some time with Michael Brown, as I have done. You would discover he’s a man of remarkable sensitivity, caring, and even tears over this issue. That might help you understand that this is not a matter of prejudice or bigotry.
In this case, though, that’s not the right question. Both Vines and Brown have attempted to show that the Bible supports their position. Those of us who accept the Bible as true and authoritative, the very word of God, need to listen to the one who makes his case successfully. We need to reject the other view. Then we need to find biblical ways to live in grace and love with the ones we disagree with.
These two books carry the heart of the question into the core of conservative Christianity: which way is more biblical? The answer, it seems to me, is quite objectively clear. In the sense that Vines and others like him want us to think of it — where the issue has to do with the rightness of certain sexual practices — it’s not Christian to be gay.
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