Coming to terms with being gay was especially difficult for Matthew Vines, as it is for many who not only grew up in conservative Christian households, but who also had embraced that kind of faith on their own.
It was such a heart-wrenching experience, in 2010 Vines took a leave of absence after finishing his second year pursuing a philosophy major at Harvard University and went back home to his native Wichita, Kansas, to study the issue of the Bible and homosexuality in depth. His parents at the time were both lay leaders at a local evangelical Presbyterian church, a church that would eventually, Vines says, break ties with the Presbyterian Church-USA denomination because members found it too liberal.
While the issue has certainly been written about by others, Vines says he was frustrated by what he says was a deficit of resources that addressed the matter while also maintaining the high level with which U.S. evangelicals hold scripture.
In March 2012, Vines gave a speech in another church in Wichita — he says merely finding a church willing to host the event took significant effort — in which he relayed his findings. A video of it was posted on YouTube as “The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality,” which now has nearly 700,000 views. A New York Times profile led to a book deal. Vines’ “God and the Gay Christian,” essentially his 67-minute speech in book form, was released last week from Convergent. The 224-page book retails for $22.99 in hardcover.
“The vast majority of resources I came across were either just too academically esoteric and inaccessible or they were written in more of a mainline or progressive kind of theological language that can be subtle, but have a big impact on the way people receive what you’re saying,” the 24-year-old says. “It’s not so much that the facts, evidence and data are new, it’s not. A lot of this has been out there for decades. … I think a lot of people (who saw the video), it was the first time they had encountered anything like this that explained it in a way that fit in with their broader approach to the Bible.”
Among his findings, Vines contends that:
• The issue of complementarity — the notion that homosexuality is wrong because of the way male and female bodies supposedly fit together — is not in the Bible and therefore should be a non-issue for those who subscribe to a “sola scriptura” (“by scripture alone”) brand of theology.
• The bizarre story of Lot and his guests in Genesis 19 (Sodom) was really an issue of hospitality and male honor, not sexual orientation as it’s understood today.
• New Testament passages such as I Corinthians 6 seem to be talking more about people who are overwhelmed by lust and desire to the point that they seek out same-sex activity but who are really straight. Vines calls it a “negative moral judgement that’s really about the subversion of patriarchal gender norms” that should have no bearing on “gay Christians today in committed, loving relationships.”
The book is already drawing controversy. Anti-gay blogger Matt Barber calls Vines a “homosexual activist and Bible revisionist known for manipulating Christian terminology to advance the counter-Christian homosexualist agenda.”
Vines chuckles at the charges and says he thinks the backlash and vitriol is probably “just getting started.”
Vines has big plans. Now engaged in religious LGBT advocacy work full time, he’s busy promoting his book and establishing his “Reformation Project,” a Bible-based, non-profit he hopes to use as a tool to reform teaching in conservative evangelical churches on the issue of homosexuality. He plans a conference in Washington at National City Christian Church in November (details at matthewvines.com or reformationproject.org) to equip LGBT believers to take pro-gay biblical interpretations back to their home churches.
He admits significant change is “not inevitable” but says it “is conceivable.”
“If you have the right biblical foundation and if you have enough persistence, grit, patience and grace and fuel for the journey, I think it can be done,” Vines says.