The Gospel and Same-Sex Relationships

Recently, one of the girls in my youth group shared a video with me titled “God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” (available here). She shared it with me because one of her Christian friends at school was circulating it, and she wanted my input.

First, let me say that I am thankful she is thinking through her faith and challenges to it and that she is willing to engage those challenges. My response will be to address Mr. Vines’ opening contention, followed by his exegesis, and finally to address how the gospel informs our understanding of sexuality.

I. Mr. Vine’s Opening Contention

Mr. Vines begins by informing us that “marriage equality is on the rise, but despite this trend, religious belief remains a major obstacle to acceptance.” This statement raises at least two questions: (1) What is the context in which this trend has arisen; and (2) What specific religious belief is hindering acceptance?

We must ask the first question, because no trend occurs in a vacuum. The context in which marriage equality is on the rise is increasingly secular-humanistic: people want liberty, individualism, and happiness, while rejecting belief in God as necessary to experience them. According to the website www.secularhumanism.org, individualism is the celebration of the emancipation of the individual “from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life” (emphasis supplied). In other words, the context in which marital equality increasingly accepted is one in which God and His Word, as the inspired moral standard of our Creator, is increasingly rejected.

Understanding the context in which marital equality is on the rise helps us answer the second question. Given our secular-humanistic context, it is unsurprising that the religious belief Mr. Vines claims is hampering acceptance is the conservative Christian church.

Mr. Vines tells us that he grew up in such a church with his parents. Both the church and his parents (initially) rejected such marital equality. However, when Mr. Vines realized he was gay, he determined to study the Scriptures “intensively” on the matter, the result of which study is contained in his video. It is important to recognize that the “conservative” church takes the historical church’s perspective on this issue: marriage is defined from the beginning of the Bible and then throughout as a loving, committed, monogamous relationship between one man and one woman, within which each has a specific role. Therefore, Mr. Vines’ conclusions from his personal study are contrary to 2000 years of church understanding. Furthermore, we might ask, were Mr. Vines’ studies more “intensive” than John Chrysostom’s, Augustine’s, and the other church fathers who share a unified voice on this issue? More basically: is the level of a study’s intensity directly proportional to the validity of its conclusions? It is also worth noting that Mr. Vines sees his project as a new Reformation of sorts, as indicated by his website: http://www.reformationproject.org.

II. Mr. Vines’ Exegesis

From his study, Mr. Vines concludes that there are six “relevant” passages: three from the Old Testament and New Testament each. His thesis is: though each passage speaks negatively of certain homosexual behavior, not one of them addresses committed, same-sex relationships. In fact, he believes “the Bible never addresses the issues of sexual orientation or same-sex marriage,” and therefore other Christians should feel free to support and affirm their practicing gay brothers and sisters.

The problem is the Bible addresses both issues, and there are more than six relevant passages. Furthermore, we might say that the paradigm of same-sex marriage does not appear in the Bible precisely because the Bible from the very beginning establishes marriage as a monogamous heterosexual relationship. However, Mr. Vines ignores Genesis 2:18-25, arguably the most relevant – and certainly the most foundational – passage to the discussion. In other words, his requirements for a biblically-endorsed marital relationship stop short of the first one revealed in Scripture: heterosexual. That he has ignored this passage indicates either he hasn’t researched the literature throughout church history on the subject, or that he has simply chosen to ignore it. Again, the church has consistently defined marriage heterosexually for 2000 years, and it has appealed to Genesis 2:18ff for this definition.

II.A. Old Testament Passages

II.A.1. Genesis 19

Let’s spend some time analyzing Mr. Vines’ exegesis of the “relevant” passages. First, he takes us to Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19). While he acknowledges the presence of homosexuality in these cities, he emphasizes “the only form of same-sex behavior described is a threatened gang-rape.” In other words, what Genesis 19 is condemning is lustful, violent same-sex behavior, not a loving, committed, monogamous same-sex relationship. Therefore, his conclusion is Genesis 19 is not actually relevant to the discussion.

Mr. Vines also argues from Ezekiel 16:49 that the main issue in Sodom and Gomorrah was not same-sex behavior (or desire), but “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, and [their inhabitants] did not aide the poor and needy.” Let me offer two responses. The first is from the book The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, written by Rosaria Butterfield. The second will be from the context of Ezekiel 16 itself.

Dr. Butterfield was a tenured English professor at Syracuse University, where she also taught in the Center for Women’s Studies. Furthermore, she was an outspoken lesbian in a committed relationship. Now she is married to a conservative Reformed pastor, and they have several adopted children. In chapter 2 of her book, she asks, “What was the real sin of Sodom?” In reflecting on Ezekiel 16:49, she agrees with Mr. Vines: “Sodom was indicted for materialism and neglect of the poor and needy.” However, she adds: “[the passage revealed to me] that homosexuality was a symptom and extension of these other sins” (emphasis added). Furthermore, in observing that Ezekiel indicts pride first, she says: “Pride is the root of all sin. Pride puffs one up with a false sense of independence. Proud people always feel they can live independently from God and from other people. Proud people feel entitled to do what they want when they want to.” All of this sounds like the individualism celebrated by our secular-humanistic context. Dr. Butterfield continues: “This [reflection on pride as the root sin] shaped the way that I reflected on my whole life, in the context of the word of God. I realized that my sexuality had never been pure and my relationships never honored the other person or the Lord. My moral code encompassed serial monogamy, ‘safe’ sex, and sex only in the context of love. Love, grounded only in personal feelings as mine had been, changes without warning or logic. . . . My sexuality was sinful not because it was lesbian per se but because it wasn’t Christ-controlled.” So, it is true: homosexuality was not the only or even the main sin in Sodom (though, see Jude 7). However, notice that Dr. Butterfield believed in and was guided by the same essential moral code Mr. Vines suggests is required for a relationship to be biblically justified, while at the same time she argues that such a moral code was not Christ-controlled.

The context of Ezekiel 16 is significant to this discussion as well. In Ezekiel 16, the Lord is lamenting the idolatry of His people Israel. He describes this idolatry as adultery: His Bride prostituted herself to everyone who passed by. In fact, she was worse than a prostitute, because she actually paid her lovers! Certainly the Lord is using figurative language, but it is figurative language grounded in a heterosexual understanding of marriage! The Lord understands Himself to be the groom, and Israel (the Old Testament church) to be His Bride. God’s self-understanding here is consistent with the marital pattern He established in Genesis 2.

II.A.2. Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13

The next two passages Mr. Vines considers relevant are Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, both of which describe the activity of one male lying sexually with another male, as with a woman, an “abomination.” More pointedly, 20:13 says both men are to be put to death. What is clear is the passages do not define the context of this behavior; in other words, it condemns it in any context (i.e. whether in a non-married, lustful context, or in committed, loving, monogamous context). Knowing this, Mr. Vines focuses on the word “abomination.” He then argues that Leviticus describes other activities, like a man having sexual relations with his wife during her period and dietary restrictions, as abominations. He assumes in his argument that anything described by the same moral indicator is held to the same moral standard and falls within the same code. To use his words, “this was part of the Old Testament law code.” However, his argument continues: the New Testament abolishes the entire Old Testament law code. He appeals to Romans 10:4 (“Christ is the end of the law”) and Hebrews 8:13 (“the old law is ‘obsolete’ and ‘aging’.”)

There are three problems with his argument. First, in both Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, there is a qualifying phrase: “as with a woman.” This phrase establishes the natural sexual relationship as heterosexual (“natural” meaning that which was established by God at creation). The surrounding passages define the boundaries of that heterosexual relationship.

Second, Mr. Vines is misusing Romans 10:4 and Hebrews 8:13. Romans 10:4 in its entirety reads: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” Rather than supporting Mr. Vines’ view that Christ has abolished the entire Old Testament law code in general and for everyone, Paul says Christ is the end of the law for those who believe. Furthermore, Mr. Vines takes the word “end” in the sense of termination. What is clear from the context is, Paul means it in the sense of fulfillment. In 9:31-32, Paul says that “Israel, pursuing the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law . . . because they did not seek it by faith.” The point of 10:4 is that Christ did attain the righteousness of the law, because He fulfilled it. Therefore, what is terminated is the penalty for law-breaking for those who believe. More than that, those who believe in Christ are treated as those who have fulfilled the law just as Christ did. This understanding of Christ’s relationship to the law agrees with Christ’s self-understanding of His relationship to the law:

Do not think that I came to destroy the Law of the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or tittle will be no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-19a

In his appeal to Hebrews 8:13, Mr. Vines ignores the distinction the book of Hebrews makes between the moral and ceremonial law. In fact, there are three aspects of the Old Testament law code: moral, ceremonial, and civil. The moral law is rooted in creation ordinances and therefore applies to all people everywhere forever. It is summarized in places like the Ten Commandments. The ceremonial and civil laws both arose with Israel and ceased when Christ came. In particular, the ceremonial law was tied to temple worship. In it, we find sacrificial regulations, priestly regulations, what defines a person as “clean” or “unclean” (and therefore able or unable to participate in temple worship), etc. Because the ceremonial law was designed to anticipate Christ through types and shadows, when Christ came and fulfilled the entire law, these anticipatory laws were no longer needed. This is why Paul writes: “Let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). The civil law applied the moral law in specific cases within the lives of the nation of Israel while they were in the land of Canaan. They ceased when Israel ceased to be a functioning, independent nation. Nor would it make sense to continue to uphold each of these civil laws in their particulars, because we live in different circumstances. We would, however, apply the moral law to our particular circumstances. A classic example of this distinction goes like this: in Old Testament times, the Israelites were commanded to install a parapet on their roofs when they built new houses. The situation was, Israelites typically installed ladders or stairs leading to their roofs, where people would spend time. This was to uphold the sixth commandment: “you shall not murder”, which, in this specific case, involved doing what is necessary to preserve life. It would be pointless to install a parapet on the roofs of most of our houses. However, installing a fence around the pool in the backyard, especially when there are small children or others who can’t swim living in the house, is a good modern-day application of the moral law to our specific circumstances.

When we look at Hebrews 8:13 and the surrounding context, we see that the author is describing Christ as a better Mediator than Moses, of a better covenant than the Mosaic covenant. In other words, the author of Hebrews is demonstrating the failure in particular of the ceremonial law. This is why he refers to the levitical priesthood being unable to bring perfection (7:11). Furthermore, these levitical priests “offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of heavenly things” (8:4-5); “but now [Christ] has obtained a more excellent ministry, inasmuch as He is also Mediator of a better covenant, which was established on better promises” (8:6). It is clear that the author of Hebrews has the ceremonial law in mind, because in 9:8-10 he writes that the Holy Spirit was indicating that the first tabernacle (or section of the tabernacle) “was symbolic for the present time in which both gifts and sacrifices are offered which cannot make him [the levitical priest] who performed the service perfect in regard to the conscience – [that is, the service that was concerned] only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation [that is, when Christ came, as the next verse makes clear.]” Compare this passage from Hebrews 9 with the Colossians 2 passage listed above.

This distinction between the ceremonial law and moral law is obvious from other New Testament passages as well. For example, Jesus declares all foods to be clean in Mark 7:19. Christ declared that the distinction between Jews and Gentiles, who were considered “unclean” in the Old Testament, to be void (Acts 10:28); Paul tells us that Christ removed that distinction in His crucifixion (Ephesians 2:11-16). And yet, Jesus and the apostles continued to enforce the moral law’s applicability. For example, Paul says: “Owe no one anything except to love one another, for he who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (Romans 13:8-9). Note that Paul is saying love is the summary and fulfillment of the law; love is not something that stands over against the law. In other words, you cannot truly love someone if you set aside the law, specifically the ten commandments.

We should also note that the punishment for same-sex behavior, regardless of the context in which it occurs, is vastly different than the punishment for the other “abominations” Mr. Vines lists. The former earned the death penalty. Those who violated the latter were simply declared unclean, and ceremonial washings, etc. were prescribed for them to become clean again.

The third problem with Mr. Vines’ argument respecting the Leviticus passages is, the same Hebrew word translated “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 is found in none other than Ezekiel 16, which we have already examined above. (It is interesting to note that in the other cases of “abominations” to which Mr. Vines appeals, it is a different Hebrew word.) In Ezekiel 16, this word is used to describe Israel’s idolatry, pictured so graphically as adulterous prostitution. Would Mr. Vines say that idolatry, adultery, and prostitution are still wrong? In fact, he says at least adultery and prostitution are wrong, for both are lustful activities outside the bounds of a loving, committed, and faithful relationship. I would assume Mr. Vines considers idolatry to be wrong, since that is the New Testament perspective (see 1 Corinthians 10:14 and Galatians 5:20). Thus we see that not everything the Old Testament describes as an “abomination” is permitted in the New Testament, nor is it approved by Mr. Vines’ own standard.

II.B. New Testament Passages

II.B.1. Romans 1:26-27

As Mr. Vines turns to the “relevant” New Testament passages, he begins with Romans 1:26-27, focusing especially on Paul’s description of women and men exchanging “natural” heterosexual relations for “those contrary to nature” and instead “being consumed with passion for one another.” (Ironically, one of the cross-references for Romans 1:26-27 in the Bible he shows in the video is Leviticus 18:22.) His argument is that Paul was condemning cultural conventions, because (1) lustful and adulterous homosexual behavior was common in the Roman world, and (2) Paul also describes long hair on men as “unnatural” in 1 Corinthians 11:13, which condemnation he claims most Christians understand to be culture-driven, rather than grounded in an absolute standard.

In other words, (1) Mr. Vines is arguing that Paul’s condemnation of same-sex behavior in Romans 1 is a response to Roman excess and lust, and that Paul is not addressing committed, loving, and faithful same-sex relationships; after all, “the context he was writing in was world’s apart from gay people in committed, monogamous relationships.” (2) At the same time, though he joins Paul in his condemnation of lustful and excessive same-sex behavior in his first point, he inadvertently justifies the same behavior in his second point: the kind of behavior Paul describes as “contrary to nature” in Romans 1 is no more unnatural – or wrong – than men having long hair (and who would condemn a man for having long hair today?)

Here are two responses. First, Mr. Vines’ exegesis is inaccurate. He argues that Paul is condemning only same-sex behavior that is lustful and dishonoring to the participant’s bodies. However, the text suggests Paul understood all same-sex behavior to be lustful and dishonoring to the participant’s bodies. In verse 24, Paul makes a summary statement: “therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” He repeats this thought at the beginning of verse 26: “for this reason, God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” The rest of verse 26 and 27 explain what these lusts, impurities, and unnatural and dishonorable passions look like: same-sex behavior. In other words, Paul is saying that all same-sex behavior is lustful, impure, dishonorable, and unnatural. (Again, what makes something natural or unnatural is determined by what God establishes at creation.)

Second, the bigger issue people have with 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 is with Paul’s teaching on male headship within marriage. Paul is describing the natural order of relationships within a marriage, and he is appealing to creation to establish that order as natural. Notice, as with Ezekiel 16, the context assumes a heterosexual marital relationship, which was also established at creation.

II.B.2. 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10

The last two verses Mr. Vines says are relevant are 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10. 1 Corinthians 6 lists a group of sinners who will not inherit the kingdom of God, and 1 Timothy 1 lists lawless and insubordinate people. Both include homosexuals. In 1 Timothy 1, Paul uses the word arsenokoitai. It is a compound word, made from combining ‘man’ (arsen) and ‘bed’ (koite, from which we get our word ‘coitus.’) Koite refers especially to the ‘marriage bed’, and therefore is also used euphemistically for ‘sexual intercourse’ (see A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, by Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker). For example, the author of Hebrews tells us to “let the marriage bed [koite] be undefiled” (13:4). The combination of arsen and koite give the image of a man sharing his marriage bed with another man.

1 Corinthians 6 uses both arsenkoitai and malakoi in its list of those who will not inherit the kingdom of God. Malakoi refers to men who are effeminate and who allow themselves to be used sexually by other men.

Mr. Vines at least acknowledges that “many modern commentators translate these as referring to homosexuals.” However, he goes on to say: “But the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ didn’t even exist in the ancient world.” The question immediately arises, what does this mean? Does he mean that the ancient world didn’t think in terms of our modern sociological psychological constructs? Of course they didn’t. Does he mean that they didn’t use our exact language to describe homosexuality? Again, this is not surprising. What is clear, however, is the Scriptures condemn both unrepentant men who are effeminate and allow themselves to be used sexually by other men and unrepentant men who share marriage beds with each other. Mr. Vines simply has given us a nonsensical statement as a smokescreen to mask the weight these two words bear on the whole issue.

III. The Gospel and Sexuality

I want to look quickly now at Ephesians 5:22-33. This passage is part of a household instructions section in the letter. What is interesting to note is that, in any household instructions in the New Testament, the instructions are always addressed to husbands and wives. There are no instructions to homosexual couples. Furthermore, in Ephesians 5, Paul is telling us that the marital relationship between a husband and a wife is a picture of the gospel. For example, Paul says, “husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (v. 25). Furthermore, Paul grounds his understanding both of the relationship between Christ and the church and the relationship between husband and wife in Genesis 2:24.

Commenting on Genesis 2:21-25, Augustine wrote: “Even in the beginning, when woman was made from a rib in the side of the sleeping man, that had no less a purpose than to symbolize prophetically the union of Christ and His church. Adam’s sleep was a mystical foreshadowing of Christ’s death, and when His dead body hanging from the cross was pierced by the lance, it was from His side that there issued forth blood and water,” through which the church was made. And Quodvultdeus says: “It is evident that since Eve had been created from the side of the sleeping Adam, he has foreseen that from the side of Christ hanging on the cross the church . . . must be created.” (Both are from The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Genesis 1-11, pgs. 70-71.) It is the union of a husband and wife alone that prefigures Christ’s union with His Bride, the church. A homosexual union has no relationship to the gospel, because Christ still has a Bride.

The Ephesians 5 passage raises some practical issues. Marriage relationships involve headship and submission. This passage and others discussed earlier clearly teach man’s headship over the woman and the woman’s submission to her husband. (Certainly, this has been abused, but its abuse does not nullify its binding nature.) The question arises, therefore, which person in a same-sex relationship will retain the role natural to their gender, and which one will take on the role natural to the opposite gender? Which woman will be treated and act like a man, and which man will be treated and act like a woman?

Furthermore, in Genesis 1, God blessed the marriage of Adam and Eve by telling them to “be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion” over all the creatures (1:28). While the Fall has resulted in the inability for some husbands and wives to conceive, what is clearly blessed is the heterosexual union, which, apart from the Fall, would have resulted consistently in fruitfulness. The point here is that blessing and fruitfulness – a union that in an unfallen situation would result in fruitfulness – belong together. Sadly, there can be no hope of blessing for a same-sex union, then.

Conclusion

Mr. Vines began with his autobiography. He grew up in a conservative Christian church and home, both of which were opposed to same-sex unions on biblical and historical grounds. However, when he realized he was gay, he embarked on his study, after which he was convinced he had a biblical justification for a loving, committed, monogamous, same-sex union. Sadly, he convinced his parents of this justification, along with several others.

Also sadly, Mr. Vines’ arguments have shown special pleading (a biased selection of “relevant” Bible passages), while ignoring the most critical and foundational passages – Genesis 2:18ff and Ephesians 5:22-33 (among other passages). Furthermore, his exegesis has shown a propensity to ignore one of the most important exegetical principles – paying attention to a passage’s context.

I say “sadly” to both of these issues, because Mr. Vines, and now his family and others, are persuaded that something the Bible and the church throughout her history condemns strongly is biblically justifiable.

Furthermore, it is sad that the church context in which this journey took place was neither able to convince him that Scripture in fact does speak to this issue – quite clearly and strongly – and that God’s grace is sufficient to transform all sinners. The church as a whole must embrace both of these realities firmly, not only with the sin of homosexuality, but with all other sins. We cannot ignore the sinfulness of sin, but we also must hope in the grace that is greater than all our sin!

What I hope comes through clearly in the paragraph above is, I am not writing from a homophobic position. I do not hate homosexuals. Nor do I think homosexuality is the only sin or the worst sin, though I certainly believe it is a sin, just as I certainly believe other things Scripture calls sin are sins. Furthermore, as a man married to a woman, I need transforming grace. I am a sinner, too!

Finally, I hope, if Mr. Vines ever comes across this post, he will trust my sympathy toward him in what must have been a very difficult time and process in his life. I hope he will see that he does not have the biblical support he believes he has and desires, and that to base his relationships on a trend in a society that is increasingly rejecting the God and Bible to which he appeals is a dangerous thing. I hope that he will see that whatever same-sex relationship he might be in is a counterfeit of the gospel, and at the same time I hope sees that Christ gives perfect love, faithfulness, and commitment to His Bride, to all who turn to Him in faith and repentance.