[Note: An edited version of this post was published in the e-book, God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines]
Matthew Vines doesn’t throw his knockout punch at the beginning of his book but at the end. The book’s final sentence says of condoning same-sex relations as moral and good: “As more believers are coming to realize, it is indeed a requirement of Christian faithfulness” (183, italics his).
With these words, Vines hopes to send to the mat, down for the count, the view that has been held by the people of God ever since God made them male and female and said “the two shall become one flesh” (Matt 19:4–5; cf. Gen 2:24 LXX). The Law of Moses clearly prohibits same-sex relations (Lev 18:22; 20:13), and that prohibition is reinforced in the New Testament (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9–10; 1 Tim 1:10).
How could Vines possibly hope to convince Christians that faithfulness to God requires them to champion what God forbids?
Vines employs an old, subtle strategy, asking “Did God actually say?” (Gen 3:1). Calling for a re-examination of the Bible’s teaching, Vines doesn’t come out swinging but wooing. He tells his own heart-wrenching story, winning sympathy because he obviously did not want to admit his own same-sex attraction. Vines relates that his father told him the day he “came out” was the worst day of his life. With readers softened up by sentiment and compassion, Vines humbly asks them to reconsider the Bible’s teaching.
His attempt to convince readers that they should condone what God has condemned is a study in sophistry. Sadly, those who lack a firm foundation in the Scriptures, those who do not take up the Berean task of examining the Scriptures for themselves (cf. Acts 17:11), and those who do not examine the logic of Vines’ arguments (to say nothing of those who want Vines to be right) might think the traditional view of marriage has been floored, like Mike Tyson at the hands of Buster Douglas.
But has it?
Tellingly, Vines does not encourage his readers to be Bereans. He can’t afford to have readers test his arguments against the Scriptures. For people to endorse as righteous what the Bible says is sin, they must rely on the account of the Bible that Vines gives. To argue that people can do exactly what the Bible prohibits, Vines proceeds as others have before him:
- isolate a small number of texts that speak directly to the issue;
- extract those texts from the wider thought-world in which they fit, replacing it with contemporary standards and expectations;
- use “evidence” that supports the case, whether that entails the reinterpretation of a few words or makes appeals to purported historical backgrounds that informed the author of the text but are irrelevant today;
- make pervasive use of logical fallacies: force false choices, assume conclusions, appeal to authority, make false analogies, etc.
Every time Vines suggests that those who hold the Bible’s teaching have caused gay people pain, he assumes his conclusion that the Bible does not treat all same-sex relations as inherently sinful. Every time he dismisses the sexual complementarity of the created order, he rejects the thought-world of the biblical authors. Every time he quotes Greek or Roman authors to show that they viewed women as inferior to men, he imports a false background, smuggling in a thought-world foreign to the biblical authors.
On this shifting sand of failed logic and bad use of evidence Vines builds his house: the conclusion that what the Bible condemns as sinful must now be celebrated as righteous. Justice requires it. But Christians believe that God determines the meaning of justice; that in the Bible God has revealed what justice is.
Vines engages in a kind of deconstruction of the Bible’s teaching by isolating the six texts (only six! the gullible exclaim with surprise) that speak explicitly on this issue. Having divided, he seeks to conquer by reinterpreting these passages. Countering his attack requires understanding these texts in context, understanding them in the wider symbolic universe the biblical authors built with their words. If that seems complicated, take an example from The Hobbbit and The Lord of the Rings. If we are to understand the significance of the ring of power, we must see how it fits in the context of the story Tolkien tells. In the same way, understanding what the biblical authors show and tell about same-sex relations requires setting their statements against the big story that unfolds in the Bible.
Vines gives lip service to the wider context of the biblical portrait, showing just enough awareness of it to create the impression that he has accounted for it. For his case to stand, however, he cannot allow the full force of the wider story to be felt. That would destroy his argument.
Are you uncertain about whether these things are so? Be a Berean. Allow the Bible to answer the question of whether it condones or condemns same-sex relations. Go read the Bible for yourself. Start from Genesis 1 and read straight through to gain context on the relevant statements. See which explanation of the Bible stands up to examination.
Other chapters in this book will respond to what Vines says about the New Testament, about church history, and about sexual orientation. This chapter focuses on how Vines interprets the Old Testament. In what follows I will seek to sketch in the wider story and thought world in which we are to understand the sin of Sodom in Genesis 19, the command not to lie with a male as with a woman in Leviticus 18:22, and the death penalty for those who do in Leviticus 20:13.
The Old Testament’s Explanation of the World
Authors communicate by showing and telling. Once they have told, when they go on to show they don’t have to re-tell. In other words, as a writer introduces his audience to the world in which his story is set, if he tells them that world includes the earth’s gravitational force pulling objects toward itself, he does not have to reiterate that explanation when he shows a plane crash. The author does not need to interrupt the narrative and remind his audience about gravity.
Anyone who understands this will question the interpretive skill of the person who isolates the account of the plane crash from the wider narrative, then attempts to prove that gravity did not pull that plane to the earth because, after all, the author did not mention gravity when he narrated the plane crash. Of course, if that interpreter does not like gravity, if he is committed to denying the influence of gravity in his own experience, we can understand why he argues as he does, but we will not be convinced. After all, the author did tell us that his world included gravity, and nothing in his story ever went floating off into space.
This example about gravity is precisely the way that sexual complementarity—an idea that Vines acknowledges and then dismisses as irrelevant—functions in the Bible.
The story-world in which the Bible’s narrative is set, of course, is presented as the real world, and the narrative that unfolds in the Scriptures is world’s true story. Moreover, the teaching of the biblical authors is without error, normative, and authoritative because God inspired the biblical authors by his Spirit (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20–21). This is the view that Jesus took of the Old Testament (John 10:35), and followers of Jesus think as he did.
Genesis 1–3 introduces the story-world, the setting and moral parameters, of the Bible’s narrative and our lives. This is a world that God made (Gen 1–2). Prior to human sin everything was good (Gen 1:31), and as for humanity, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). Whatever people in other ancient societies may have thought about the inferiority of women, those who embrace Genesis 1 believe that men and women are equal in human dignity because God made male and female in his own image (Gen 1:27).
At several points Vines asserts that whereas those who hold to complementarity today hold that men and women have different roles but are equal in value, “in the ancient world, women . . . were thought to have less value” (94, cf. 89–96, emphasis his). Anyone who thinks women inferior is either ignorant of or has failed to appreciate Genesis 1:27. When Moses and other biblical authors addressed same-sex relations, they had not forgotten Genesis 1:27.
God made the world good, and he made both male and female in his image, equal in dignity. Genesis 1:28 also teaches that God created the sexual complementarity of male and female to enable them to do together what they could not do alone: “God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. . .’” The author who put Genesis 1 next to Genesis 2, Moses, intended the two accounts to be read as complementing one another. In Genesis 2, God gave to man the role of working and keeping the garden (Gen 2:15), and to the woman he gave the role of helping the man (2:18, 20). What took place when God presented the woman to Adam in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:22–23) is understood as normative for all humanity in Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”
Answering a question about divorce in Matthew 19:4–5, Jesus quotes Genesis 1:27, “male and female he created them,” then Jesus quotes Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man . . .” Significantly, Jesus attributes the words of Genesis 2:24 to the one who made them male and female. Jesus asserts that God himself declared that what happened between Adam and Eve was determinative for mankind in general. When Matthew Vines argues against the idea that Genesis 1–2 teaches that procreation is a fixed standard for marriage (140–44), and when he argues that sexual complementarity is not required for the one flesh union (146–49), he sets himself against the understanding of Genesis 1–2 articulated by Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus said that God the Father created them male and female (Gen 1:27), and Jesus said that God the Father concluded from the union of Adam and Eve that man should leave father and mother and cleave to his wife, the two becoming one flesh (Gen 2:24; see Matt 19:4–5). Matthew Vines does not interpret Genesis 1–2 the way Jesus did. The interpretation of Genesis 1–2 provided by Jesus is the one that binds the conscience of Christians.
Prior to sin, prior to the curses spoken in Genesis 3:14–19, God instituted marriage as a permanent, exclusive covenant between one man and one woman, and the one flesh union of their bodies brings about a biological miracle neither could experience without the cooperation of the other: the begetting of children, procreation. Marriage is referred to as a creation ordinance because God made it in the garden prior to sin as a moral norm for all humans at all times in all places.
Rather than dropping into Genesis 19 or Leviticus 18 and 20 without consideration of the story world Moses has constructed from the beginning of his work, and rather than reading these passages through the categories and assumptions of other ancient cultures or our own, we must read Genesis 19 from the perspective Moses meant to teach. We cannot understand Genesis 19 or Leviticus 18 and 20 apart from Genesis 1–3.
Prior to sin, there was no shame between man and woman (Gen 2:25). After sin, they hid their nakedness from one another (3:7). When God spoke judgment over sin, he cursed the serpent (3:14–15), and he made the roles assigned to the woman (3:16) and the man (3:17–19) more difficult. God’s words to the woman in Genesis 3:16 provide the explanation of all marital disharmony, all sexual perversion, and all procreative dysfunction—not only in the rest of Genesis but in the rest of the Bible. That foundational word of judgment also explains the perversion, dysfunction, and disharmony experienced across world history.
God made the world good (Gen 1:31). Man and woman sinned (3:6). God spoke judgment (3:14–19), subjecting the world to futility in hope (Rom 8:20). Deviations from the norm, therefore, such as what Moses narrates in Genesis 19 or prohibits in Leviticus 18 and 20, are to be understood as departures from the created order.
Like the author who does not have to mention gravity when he narrates the plane crash, because in Genesis 1–3 Moses has told his audience about the world in which his story takes place, when he shows them what happens in Genesis 19 he does not have to spell everything out. Similarly, with the created order stated in Genesis 1–3, when God gives commands in Leviticus that reflect the created order, those commands do not need to articulate the undergirding sexual complementarity. It has already been established. Vines makes specious claims: “the Bible never identifies same-sex behavior as the sin of Sodom, or even as a sin of Sodom” (77), and regarding Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 he demands that we ask, “Do these writings suggest that same-sex unions are wrong because of the anatomical ‘sameness’ of the partners involved?” (89). It is as though Vines asks, does the author specify that gravity pulled that plane to the ground?
Read in context, the commands against same-sex relations in Leviticus 18 and 20 mesh perfectly with the moral order of creation presented in Genesis 1–2, correctly interpreted by Jesus in Matthew 19:4–5. This indicates that Moses intended the intentions of the men of Sodom to be viewed as flagrant violations of God’s created order, as can be seen from the way later biblical authors interpret Genesis 19.
Vines suggests that Philo was the first to interpret the sin of Sodom as a same-sex violation. He argues that later biblical authors only speak of inhospitality and violence, arrogance and oppression when referencing Sodom. Vines also holds that the gang-rape intended by the Sodomites cannot be compared with the kind of committed, consensual same-sex marriage relationship he advocates. Rape is obviously a violation of what God intended, but that does not mean that the same-sex aspect of Sodom’s sin was not also a violation of God’s intention. As for later Old Testament interpretation of Sodom’s sin, Vines has failed to notice—or chosen not to address—a significant connection between Genesis 19, the two passages in Leviticus, and Ezekiel 16:48–50.
Ezekiel, who makes abundant use of the book of Leviticus, describes various sins of Sodom (Ezek 16:48–49), then concludes, “They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it” (16:50). This indicates that the “abomination” committed by Sodom led to their destruction. Ezekiel’s reference to Sodom’s “abomination” uses the singular form of the term toevah, and that term is used in the singular only twice in the book of Leviticus, when same-sex intercourse is called an abomination in 18:22, and when the death penalty is prescribed for it in 20:13. The four other instances of the term in Leviticus are in the plural, making it likely that Ezekiel uses the term from Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 to reference the same-sex intentions of the men of Sodom.
Jude also speaks of “sexual immorality” and the Sodomites’ pursuit of “strange flesh” (Jude 7). Vines tries to explain away this mention of “strange flesh” as referring “to the fact that the men of Sodom attempted to rape angels instead of humans” (71). But the Genesis narrative refers to the angels as “men” (Gen 18:22), and that is how the inhabitants of Sodom designate them as well (19:5). For those who adopt the sexual complementarity taught in the Bible, the violation of the order of creation at Sodom is an abomination (Lev 18:22; 20:13; Ezek 16:50). That abomination is only intensified by the angelic identity of the men the Sodomites intended to abuse. 2 Peter 2:6–10 also treats the sin of Sodom as sexual immorality rather than as oppression, violence, a failure of hospitality, or some other kind of sin.
The Sodom story in Genesis 19 shows the destruction of those who have deviated from the Bible’s authorized sexual norm, and the prohibition of deviation from that norm is made explicit in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Vines suggests that these Old Testament prohibitions are part of the law that has been fulfilled in Christ (80–85), attempting to buttress this with the argument that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 “reflect the inferior value that was accorded to women” (96). In spite of what Moses wrote in Genesis 1:27, Vines alleges that Moses thinks women inferior to men. Moreover, in spite of what Moses established about the order of creation in Genesis 1–3, Vines argues that the problem with same-sex relations was not that they violated sexual complementarity but that they violated the gender roles appropriate to a patriarchal society because the act reduced the passive partner to the status of a woman.
In addition to misrepresenting Moses, Vines does not account for the punishment that fits the crime in Leviticus 20:13. If Vines is correct, the problem with same-sex relations is that the man who plays the active role has degraded the man who plays the passive role, lowering him to the status of a woman. This understanding would make the active partner the more guilty, and this degradation in patriarchal society is crucial to the distinction Vines draws between what Leviticus condemns and today’s same-sex relations between equals (cf. p. 132).
Leviticus 20:13, however, does not say that only the active partner has sinned, nor does it say that only the active partner is to be punished. If it did, it might support the idea that the nature of the sin was the degradation of the passive partner to the inferior status of a woman. But Leviticus 20:13 punishes both active and passive partners as equals: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”
The punishment in Leviticus 20:13 sheds light on Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” The abomination here is not the degradation of a man to the status of a woman, as Vines would have it.
What is it that makes these practices abominations? The Bible’s answer is that Yahweh’s holy character determines what is holy and common, clean and unclean (e.g., Lev 10:10–11, cf. 10:1–11; 18:2; 20:8). The Old Testament law was an expression of Yahweh’s holy character. The new covenant law is likewise an expression of Yahweh’s holy character. Because Yahweh’s character has not changed, and because the proscription on same-sex activity is reiterated in the New Testament (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9–10; 1 Tim 1:10), Vines is wrong that “while ‘abomination’ is a negative word, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin” (88). On the contrary, in the Old and New Testaments, sin is an affront to God’s holy character and should be viewed with abhorrence and detested.
There are statements that treat forbidden food as an abomination, such as Deuteronomy 14:3, “You shall not eat any abomination.” There are also sexual regulations not all Christians follow today (some do), such as Leviticus 18:19, “You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness.” With cases like these we see a difference between the old and new covenant expressions of God’s righteous character. Under the old covenant, God’s unmixed purity was to be reflected in what Israel ate. With the coming of the new covenant, Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19), and God told Peter not to call common what he had made clean (Acts 10:15). The regulation about menstrual uncleanness reflects the way that under the old covenant people became unclean by contact with life fluids that had left the body, explaining why childbirth (Lev 12) and other bodily discharges (Lev 15) made people unclean. Whereas the prohibition on the abomination of same-sex activity is reiterated in the New Testament, statements about uncleanness resulting from contact with life fluids that have left the body are not reiterated in the New Testament. Other moral verities, such as the command not to offer children to Molech (Lev 18:21) and the command not to lie with any animal (Lev 18:23), do not need to be reiterated to remain in force.
Has Matthew Vines thrown the knockout punch to the biblical norm? Has he refuted the view that the only expression of human sexuality the Bible endorses is that between one man and one woman in marriage? Has he defeated the view that the Bible regards all indulgence of same-sex desire sinful?
In view of his logical fallacies, his failure to account for the big story that frames Genesis 19, Leviticus 18, and Leviticus 20, and his suggestion that the Old Testament presents women as inferior to men in spite of their Genesis 1:27 equality, I would say that Matthew Vines is not even in the ring. His attack on the Bible’s teaching is ultimately an attack on the one who inspired the Bible, God.
In view of the way that Jesus authoritatively interpreted Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 in Matthew 19:4–5, the attempt of Matthew Vines to overthrow the Bible’s teaching is more like a kid on the street trying to sucker punch the champ. The Bible’s teaching, however, is untouched by the arrogant attempt to lay it low.
 Creation narratives produce estimations of value. Vines quotes Greek and Roman authors on the inferiority of women, which follows naturally from their story of the creation of women: “In his poem ‘Works and Days,’ Hesiod presents the creation of woman as a punishment against both Prometheus and man. Prometheus had stolen fire from Zeus, who was unwilling to give it to men himself, so Zeus punished Prometheus and man by making woman. Hesiod presents Zeus announcing to Prometheus, ‘you are glad that you have outwitted me and stolen fire—a great plague to you yourself and to men that shall be. But I will give men as the price for fire an evil thing in which they may all be glad of heart while they embrace their own destruction.’ Zeus then bids Hephaestus to ‘make haste and mix earth and water and to put in it the voice and strength of human kind, and fashion a sweet lovely maiden-shape . . . . And he charged Hermes the guide, the Slayer of Argus, to put in her a shameless mind and a deceitful nature’” (James M. Hamilton Jr., God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment: A Biblical Theology [Wheaton: Crossway, 2010], 72–73; quoting from Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns and Homerica, 7).
 Vines cites lower vow redemption prices for women in old covenant Israel (Lev 27:1–8) and other differences (94), but these can be explained the same way that lower wages for women in our own culture can be. They do not necessarily indicate that women were deemed inferior as human beings: differences in economic valuation of men and women in that culture and our own likely result from other factors.
 The fact that Jesus read Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 together in Matthew 19:4–5 speaks against what Vines asserts, “While Genesis 1:28 does say to ‘be fruitful and increase in number,’ Genesis 2 never mentions procreation when describing the first marriage” (143). The connection between marriage and procreation, however, is so obvious it does not need to be stated. When Jesus speaks of the resurrection of the dead and says that the raised “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30), part of his point is that in the resurrection, as with the angels, there will be no procreation, so there will be no marriage.
 On the issue of polygamy, the Greek translation of Genesis 2:24 reads, “the two shall become one flesh,” and this is the way that Jesus quotes the passages in Matthew 19:5. The Hebrew of Genesis 2:24 does not specify two, reading simply “they shall become one flesh.” Still, every instance of polygamy in the Old Testament is presented in a negative light, indicating that the Old Testament authors understood Genesis 2:24 as the later Greek translator did and as Jesus authoritatively interpreted the text: pointing to the union of one man with one woman in marriage.
 So also Gordon Wenham (“The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality,” Expository Times 102 : 362): “It is now generally recognized that many of the most fundamental principles of Old Testament law are expressed in the opening chapters of Genesis. This applies to the laws on food, sacrifice, the sabbath as well as on sex.”
 For discussion and defense of this understanding, see Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 79–85.
 Vines claims that this explains “why Leviticus contains no parallel prohibition of female same-sex relations. If the issue were anatomical complementarity, female same-sex relations should be condemned on an equal basis. And yet, the text is silent in this matter” (93). Against this, the Old Testament laws are not and could have been an exhaustive list. The commandments and prohibitions are clearly representative, on the understanding that applications from what is addressed could be made to what isn’t. Thus, nothing is said about female same-sex activity because nothing needs to be said. The prohibition of male same-sex activity obviously prohibits female same-sex activity.
 Gordon Wenham (“The Old Testament Attitude to Homosexuality,” 360) points out that in Middle Assyrian Law 20, only the active partner is punished, while “The passive partner escapes all censure.”
 Wenham writes, “the Old Testament bans every type of homosexual intercourse, not just forcible as the Assyrians did, or with youths (so the Egyptians). Homosexual intercourse where both parties consent is also condemned” (ibid., 362).