A Review of God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines

* We have made a few adjustments to this review since we first published it. Please see our updates below.

As the conversation about LGBT issues in the Church has continued to develop, more and more queer Christian books have begun to line the shelves in bookstores around the world. Here at A Queer Calling, we are interested in discovering what these resources have to say to celibate LGBT Christians or those who are considering celibacy. Because of this interest, we have decided to post occasional resource reviews on the blog.

We’re going to start with God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines, which was released on 22 April 2014. This much-anticipated book has generated considerable buzz, and you can find many additional reviews on other sites. Because our review will focus on a specific topic within the book, we would like to link you to a couple of reviews that address the book as a whole. For those seeking a review that speaks positively of God and the Gay Christian, citing only a few quibbles, we’d recommend the review hosted at Queering the Church. For those interested in a critical perspective by a reviewer who disagrees strongly with Vines’ argument, we’d recommend Gabriel Blanchard’s review at Mudblood Catholic. Please feel free to share links to other reviews you’ve found helpful in the comments.

Before we start our own review, we would like to reiterate that the purpose of our blog is to engage in conversation about cultivating meaningful, mature, Christ-filled ways of life as celibate LGBT Christians, drawing particularly on our own experiences as a celibate couple. Therefore, our review of Vines’ work will not focus on what he has to say about the question, “Does God bless sexually active same-sex relationships?” Instead, we will frame our review around a different set of questions: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

Vines’ strongest contribution to addressing these questions is in arguing that vocations should not be mandated. He articulates clearly and forcefully the grave harm that celibacy mandates can do to Christians exploring their sexual orientations and discerning what it means to live a Christian sexual ethic. This aspect of his work is exceedingly important for those interested in moving forward in the conversation about sexual orientation and Christianity. Few Christian traditions show awareness of how their teachings on marriage and sexuality impact the lives of gay Christians on a practical and pastoral level, and this reality needs to be challenged. We agree with Vines’ view that focusing on doctrines and dogmas without providing any pragmatic support for living those teachings has failed countless LGBT Christians. Related to this issue, we’ve shared some of our own thoughts about celibacy mandates, providing spiritual direction, and actively cultivating celibate vocations. Our agreement with Vines about the harmfulness of celibacy mandates has one caveat: we believe Christian traditions that teach a traditional sexual ethic have the resources and capability to do so without presenting celibacy as a mandate, whereas Vines seems to believe that because celibacy mandates are harmful, no Christian tradition should teach a traditional (or as he calls it, “non-affirming”) sexual ethic at all.

For the LGBT Christian who is already committed to a celibate vocation or is considering celibacy as a way of life for whatever reason, the utility of God and the Gay Christian ends here. We do not wish to downplay the powerful manner in which Vines gives voice to Christians harmed by mandatory celibacy. Those stories are real and deserve validation. However, outside of this aspect, Vines’ book contributes nothing of value to those who have chosen or might choose celibacy. In several places, Vines even mischaracterizes and disparages the celibate vocation while simultaneously claiming to honor and appreciate it. Consider his argument on page 18 that assumes celibacy is about denying one’s sexuality and asserts celibate gay Christians struggle mightily to cultivate any meaningful relationships:

For gay Christians to be celibate in an attempt to expunge even their desires for romantic love requires them to live in permanent fear of sexual intimacy and love. That is a wholly different kind of self-denial than the chastening of lustful desires the church expects of all believers. It requires gay Christians to build walls around their emotional lives so high that many find it increasingly difficult to form meaningful human connection of all kinds.

We think Vines’ discussion of celibacy fails for three central reasons:

Vines makes no effort to talk to anyone who has chosen celibacy as a vocation and is living that vocation in a sustainable manner. One thing we noticed immediately is very few real voices, outside of Vines’ voice, are included throughout the book. We both noticed that Vines gives space to gay Christians who have tried to adhere to the demands of mandated celibacy but were ultimately crushed by despair, loneliness, and depression. While it is true that many Christian traditions ignore these stories and this is a problem, it is also true that there are gay Christians who embrace celibacy as a sustainable way of life and share their stories in a number of different venues. As Lindsey reviewed the footnotes, Lindsey noted that Vines included only one reference to anything authored by a celibate LGBT Christian. In endnote 16 of Chapter 2, Vines cites Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality as a “helpful book for understanding same-sex orientation,” but does not interact with Hill’s experiences in the book’s main text. Since Hill’s work was assigned reading for participants in Vines’ Summer 2013 Reformation Project Conference, we are puzzled as to why he did not try to incorporate Hill’s extensive discussion of how celibates could overcome the pain of loneliness. Vines’ decision not to interact with this work specifically is even more puzzling because including Hill’s discussion of his own difficulties in living celibacy might even have strengthened Vines’ argument. (See Update #2 at the end of this review)

Had Vines talked with LGBT Christians who have freely chosen a celibate vocation, Vines might have developed a more complete view of how LGBT people interact with celibacy. Instead, Vines implies that celibacy, which he understands to mean “sexual abstinence,” requires that LGBT people view their sexualities as broken, fallen, and constant sources of temptation:

The traditional interpretation of Scripture, as currently applied, calls all Christians to abstinence before marriage. But it goes much further when applied to gay Christians, denying them the very possibility of marriage. According to non-affirming Christians, gay people’s sexuality is completely broken, so mandatory, lifelong celibacy is their only real option (pg 43).

This particular view of celibacy is convenient for Vines’ argument, and he has shared publicly on an episode of GCN Radio that loving interaction with a person who holds a traditional sexual ethic involves developing a substantive relationship with that individual, respecting him/her as a person while seeing his/her views as less valid, and encouraging him/her to repent of these views:

I think you need to engage in substantive, meaningful relationships with people, actually care about people. Don’t just talk about this. And be there for people, really learn from people, respect them as individuals and as Christians. But when we are discussing this issue, don’t pretend like their views are valid in the same way. They are valid in the sense that their motives I can very frequently respect, and I know that they’re coming from a good place, but the views are inherently wrong and in that sense inherently sinful, and so we need to encourage people to move away from them, to repent. –GCN Radio interview, 10 July, 2013

We don’t find Vines’ portrayal of celibacy to be very useful for LGBT Christians living celibate lives or interested in exploring the possibility that they might have a celibate vocation: Vines’ portrayal of celibacy seems to be an outgrowth of his personal convictions that an individual with a traditional sexual ethic must repent. (See Update #3 at the end of this review)

Further, Vines titles an entire chapter of the book “The Gift of Celibacy,” yet gives minimal space to discussing the titular idea of that chapter. The message of Chapter 3 is not that celibacy is a gift, as the title suggests, but rather that celibacy cannot be a mandate. Vines opens the chapter by saying he will discuss how Christian celibacy is grounded in “the goodness of creation, the fact of the incarnation, and our future hope of resurrection” (pg 44). However, in all of Vines’ discussions on these three foundations, he says little about what celibacy means for Christian theology, and instead focuses on the rarity of celibacy as a gift and why we must create additional space for marriage.

Vines implies that celibate gay Christians, especially those in denominations teaching a traditional sexual ethic, are celibate only because of mandates. According to Vines, “…non-affirming beliefs about homosexuality undermine the meaning of Christian celibacy” (pg 57). In other words, only a progressive sexual ethic would give appropriate honor to the tradition of Christian celibacy. Another of his central claims is that in determining how to interpret the Bible in light of new information we now have about human sexuality, “We can embrace gay relationships and maintain a traditional view of celibacy, or we can change our understanding of celibacy and keep a traditional view of gay relationships. But we cannot do both” (pg 44). In Vines’ view, a traditional sexual ethic necessarily involves celibacy being mandated rather than presented as a possible vocation for gay Christians to discover.

Following Vines’ logic, it is impossible for gay Christians to have chosen celibacy freely without belonging to Christian traditions that sanctify same-sex marriage. In order to assert that it is unreasonable to expect all gay people to live celibate lives, Vines provides evidence of those who have crumbled under the demands of mandated celibacy. It appears Vines is suggesting that gay people who consider celibacy do so only because their Christian traditions maintain marriage as between a man and a woman, and he does not posit any other possible causal mechanism for why a particular LGBT Christian might be interested in exploring celibacy. He fails to consider the plethora of factors, such as personal reading of scripture, life circumstances, spirituality, financial situation, sense of call from God, etc. that may shape a person’s vocational choice.

The subtitle of the book “The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships” reveals a significant bias in Vines’ argument. From our reading, it seems likely that in order to determine a celibate gay Christian’s level of choice in vocation, Vines would first look to see whether that person belongs to a tradition that blesses same-sex marriages. If the tradition does not bless same-sex marriages, then all gay Christians in that tradition must find themselves forced into celibacy as the default according to this line of reasoning. To be clear, our main purpose in highlighting this bias in Vines’ book is to point out the false cause fallacy in this part of his argument. It seems to us that Vines would view our choosing celibacy as a valid vocational choice if and only if we belonged to a Christian tradition that blesses same-sex marriages. Since we do not belong to such a tradition, a logical conclusion one could draw from Vines’ argument is that we did not actually choose a celibate vocation, but were forced into this way of life.

Vines portrays gay celibacy exclusively as rejection of sexuality rather than integration of sexuality. Throughout Vines’ discussion of the traditional sexual ethic, he asserts constantly that this ethic forces gay people to view their sexualities in a negative light. As Vines writes, “For straight Christians, abstinence outside marriage affirms the goodness both of marriage and of sex within marriage. But for gay Christians, mandatory celibacy affirms something different: the sinfulness of every possible expression of their sexuality” (pg 17). We think Vines rightly highlights problems with this view of sexuality. Viewing one’s sexuality as exclusively a source of temptation can (and does) lead to an almost-Gnostic disregard for the body, irrespective of a person’s sexual orientation. But in the aforementioned quote, Vines suggests that a view held by some celibate gay Christians is held by all celibate gay Christians. We find this particular fallacy of composition troubling because we view integrating one’s sexuality as an essential component of a sustainable celibate vocation, and we both have personal experience with said integration. Vines does not address the reality that many gay celibates, particularly those who experience celibacy as joyous and life-giving, accept themselves as sexual beings and have healthy relationships with their bodies.

Regarding rejection versus integration of one’s sexuality within the context of a celibate vocation, we wonder how Vines would address this issue in historical examples where people, for whatever reason, came into celibate ways of life without actually choosing celibacy. When including evidence from the vast historical tradition of Christian celibacy, Vines appears to ignore aspects of this history that could potentially challenge his line of reasoning. He asserts, time and time again, that celibacy must be freely chosen in order to be a valid vocation:

With the exception of some Christians now called Gnostics, whose views were quickly rejected as heretical, Christians from the earliest centuries of the church to the modern era have affirmed that celibacy is a gift that can’t be forced (pg 54-55).

This statement is demonstrably false. We find ourselves wondering how Vines would make sense of, for example, medieval families who gave their young sons and daughters to God by handing them over to monasteries as children. Vines presumes that never in the history of Christianity has the celibate vocation been anything but a free choice, except in the case of modern gay Christians. In light of this, we’re also curious about his conceptualization of the history of marriage. Additionally, we wonder how Vines would respond to the suggestion that marriage does not guarantee integration rather than rejection of one’s sexuality.

In closing, we acknowledge that Matthew Vines wrote this book hoping to stimulate conversation in the Church, and it has already been accomplishing that goal. God and the Gay Christian does make a significant contribution for people interested in discussing the question, “Does the Bible support same-sex sexual relationships?” Vines makes his argument sincerely and after devoting significant time to studying the Bible, and it is clear that misrepresenting others is not his intention. Vines’ book will be valuable for LGBT Christians who have been harmed by celibacy mandates and can identify with the stories included. But while this book claims to offer an affirming position for gay people in the Church, we perceive that Vines affirms only the lived experiences of gay Christians who are in sexually-active relationships, desire/are open to sexually-active relationships, or have been harmed by mandated celibacy to the point that the idea of a celibate vocation is no longer on the table. God and the Gay Christian completely overlooks the experience of the gay person who has made a voluntary commitment to the celibate vocation and is at peace with that decision.

UPDATE #1, 4/24/2014: Matthew Vines contacted us via Twitter to inform us that there are some differences between advance review copies of God and the Gay Christian and the copies that hit the shelves on 04/22/2014. Our review was based upon an advance review copy, which we had the opportunity to read when shown by a friend. Matthew graciously informed us that he does indeed reference Wesley Hill in the final printed version of the book. We are glad to hear this, and will be reading the final version of the book as soon as we can get our hands on a copy. At that time, we’ll make any necessary adjustments to our review in order to ensure that we’ve represented Matthew’s argument correctly. Thanks, Matthew, for pointing this out to us.

UPDATE #2, 4/24/2014: We have now accessed a copy of the final printed version of God and the Gay Christian. We stand corrected on the point that Matthew Vines does not reference anything written by a celibate LGBT Christian. We have amended the review to reflect that he does reference Wesley Hill’s Washed and Waiting. However, our original point remains unchanged as Matthew Vines does not critically engage Hill’s work.

UPDATE #3, 4/24/2014: Matthew Vines contacted us publicly on Twitter regarding our reference to his interview of 10 July 2013 on GCN Radio. He expressed concern that we had misrepresented his position. We value intellectual honesty, and it is never our intention to misrepresent anyone. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, we decided to adjust our original sentence referencing this interview and include a quotation from the interview itself to add more context. For even further context, we have transcribed approximately two and a half minutes of the interview and have included our full transcription of this relevant portion below. If that still does not provide sufficient context, we urge you to listen to the full episode which we have linked within the text of our review.

Here is our transcript, which goes from approximately minute 12:30 to minute 14:53:

“…from a religious standpoint, I’m not going to say that I think it’s okay to think that same-sex relationships are wrong when that viewpoint is destructive, incredibly destructive, to the lives and the value of gay people. So yeah, I mean, that’s why I think what it means to love someone in this conversation is to have that conversation. Respect who they are respect where they are, and respect their motives, but that doesn’t always mean respecting their beliefs because not all beliefs are equal. And if you believe in objective truth, as I do, then you can’t have two positions that are of equal moral value. So what it means to love someone who is Side B, one aspect of that is not affirming them in that belief and in telling them that what Christian love and sacrifice means is willing to submit yourself to God and also being willing sometimes to take the hit to your ego and your pride that necessarily comes when you admit that you have been wrong, and maybe you’ve been wrong about something that you’ve been very public in advocating. That hurts, and it’s not easy, but Christianity was never supposed to be easy. Christian discipleship is not easy. So part of what it means to be loving people who are Side B is, and again, it’s not enough to go and talk at people. We’ve had this experience the other way around, where people think that because they believe in objective truth, because they think their position is right, therefore they can just go and what they need to do to love people is just hold up signs. No. There’s a lot more than that. I think you need to engage in substantive, meaningful relationships with people, actually care about people. Don’t just talk about this. And be there for people, really learn from people, respect them as individuals and as Christians. But when we are discussing this issue, don’t pretend like their views are valid in the same way. They are valid in the sense that their motives I can very frequently respect, and I know that they’re coming from a good place, but the views are inherently wrong and in that sense inherently sinful, and so we need to encourage people to move away from them, to repent.”

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