Revised: July 1, 2015, to reflect the more complex nature of applying the Old Law.
If there is one subject I really don’t like addressing, it’s that of homosexuality. It’s not because I am afraid to take a stand on what the Bible teaches but because the way it is handled is often steeped in emotional outbursts rather than civil discussion. The recent reaction to Chick-Fil-A’s Dan Cathy is a great example of this.
At the least, however, I understand that those who do not agree that the Bible is authoritative will not always react well to what the Bible says; I mean, that much is just expected. When I interact with unbelievers, I am less concerned with trying to convince them to accept the Bible as God’s Word (yeah, like that’s going to happen) and more concerned about simply sharing the Gospel with them. What really concerns me, however, is when those who claim to be Christian, claim Jesus as their Lord, and claim the Bible as their authority begin to use exceptionally bad arguments to try to support homosexuality as a biblical lifestyle. Not only do they try to pass off their arguments as sound and biblical, they begin to parrot much of the rhetoric of the surrounding culture that, basically, if you disagree with homosexual marriages, you are somehow automatically a bigot who likes to hate people. While such argumentation has had little success among conservative churches, it nonetheless has caused confusion and has attracted many Christians who want to react against traditional evangelicalism.
Here, I will address the main arguments presented by Christians who believe that a homosexual lifestyle, particularly one that is monogamous and committed, is not condemned in Scripture. More specifically, I will address a Youtube clip of a young college student, Matthew Vines, who has forwarded these arguments recently. These arguments are not new; in fact, I addressed them for our church’s college students over a year ago, and of course they are much, much older than that. Nonetheless, I’ve seen this video posted on Facebook and it seems appropriate to answer them.
Before I begin, I want to make clear what I’m doing: I am not trying to single out homosexuals as especially horrendous sinners, as if heterosexuals are automatically better off. Nor am I trying to make it seem that the error these arguers commit are unique to them. The debate on homosexuality is but one example of our tendency to try to justify ourselves by twisting what Scripture teaches, something that Scripture itself warns against:
3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. 5 But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Tim. 4:3-5)
This is not to say that our interpretations are always perfect; there should always be a healthy amount of humility in interpretation. However, that humility also implies a large dose of self-reflection to guard against making Scripture say only what is comfortable for us.
In any case, here is Vines’ video and transcript. I will quote and answer relevant portions (which will make this long: you have been warned). I honestly appreciate the civlity in which he presents his case, but as we will see, his arguments are unbelievably flimsy and his rhetorical guilt-tripping comes from popular culture rather than Scripture.
First off, it is important to see Vines’ (and others’) central presupposition in this debate: The biblical writers had no concept of homosexuality as an orientation and a lifestyle, and thus they could not have thought of, and therefore could not have condemned, a committed, monogamous homosexual relationship. This idea is extremely important and colors the majority of the following interpretations. I will start out in Part I dealing with his preliminary arguments as well as those from the Old Testament before moving on to the New Testament in Part II.
Misapplication of Jesus Teaching on Matthew 7
In Matthew 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus warns against false teachers, and he offers a principle that can be used to test good teaching from bad teaching. By their fruit, you will recognize them, he says. Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit… Good teachings, according to Jesus, have good consequences… Good teachings, even when they are very difficult, are not destructive to human dignity. They don’t lead to emotional and spiritual devastation, and to the loss of self-esteem and self-worth. But those have been the consequences for gay people of the traditional teaching on homosexuality. It has not borne good fruit in their lives, and it’s caused them incalculable pain and suffering. If we’re taking Jesus seriously that bad fruit cannot come from a good tree, then that should cause us to question whether the traditional teaching [on homosexuality] is correct. (emphasis mine)
Vines commits two errors here: One, he simply misinterprets Matthew 7:15-23, and two, he asserts that just because some teachings may hurt people, make them feel upset, and make them lose some self-esteem, it means that we should think the teaching is wrong because this is “bad fruit.” Regarding the Matthew 7 passage, here it is in its entirety:
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’
Clearly, this passage does not equate “fruit” with “how it makes other people feel.” “Fruit” in this passage concerns the personal conduct of the teacher. This is made clearer when Jesus discusses the fact that not everyone who claims him will enter the kingdom of heaven but “he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” To reiterate this more, verse 24 states, “Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” The passage does not even concern itself with the consequences of a particular teaching but rather the fruit of the life of a teacher, which is his deeds.
Furthermore, just from a logical standpoint, why is it automatically “bad fruit” if someone reacts negatively to a teaching? This is incredibly bizarre reasoning. If this is true, Jesus himself bore bad fruit because many of his teachings insulted the Pharisees and other Jews (and continues to offend people and make them upset). Also, the prophets such as Jeremiah and Isaiah were the worst of them because hardly anyone listened to what they said and many people simply got angry at them. The Bible is ripe with examples and warnings that people will often not react well to sound teaching. The Gospel itself convicts people of sin, and at first, that is not pleasant, although of course the Gospel also teaches hope and forgiveness, but not everyone wants to proceed to that second part. If we are to take Vines’ logic further, then we should not share the Gospel for fear of making somebody feel bad about themselves because Scripture calls everyone a condemned sinner outside of Christ. Of course, it is not our intention to make people upset, but truth is not always easy to listen to, and we are obligated to teach it in the clearest and most loving way possible even if people do not react in the way that we want. Thus, exegetically and logically, Vines gives us an exceptionally poor standard of judging a particular teaching.
Misinterpreting Genesis 2
In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” And yes, the suitable helper or partner that God makes for Adam is Eve, a woman. And a woman is a suitable partner for the vast majority of men – for straight men. But for gay men, that isn’t the case. For them, a woman is not a suitable partner. And in all of the ways that a woman is a suitable partner for straight men—for gay men, it’s another gay man who is a suitable partner. And the same is true for lesbian women. For them, it is another lesbian woman who is a suitable partner. But the necessary consequence of the traditional teaching on homosexuality is that, even though gay people have suitable partners, they must reject them, and they must live alone for their whole lives, without a spouse or a family of their own. We are now declaring good the very first thing in Scripture that God declared not good: for the man to be forced to be alone. And the fruit that this teaching has borne has been deeply wounding and destructive.
This is a major problem. By holding to the traditional interpretation, we are now contradicting the Bible’s own teachings: the Bible teaches that it is not good for the man to be forced to be alone, and yet now, we are teaching that it is. Scripture says that good teachings will bear good fruit, but now, the reverse is occurring, and we say it’s not a problem. Something here is off; something is out of place. (emphasis mine)
Vines’ argument here fails because he seems to equate “helper” with “someone that another wants to have romantic/sexual feelings for,” rather than grounding “helper” in what God himself designed. Granted, there is some debate regarding what the implications of “helper” are, but suffice it to say, at the very least the whole concept of “helper” is linked to the sexual distinctiveness of men and women. All one has to do to see that is to keep reading to verse 24: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Here, it is abundantly clear that Scripture is not just narrowing the idea of “helper” to Adam’s preference or orientation, which so happens to be heterosexual: It is grounding sexual relationships and marriage in God’s created distinctions between man and woman (“Be fruitful and multiply” occurs in chapter one, and obviously, multiplication is impossible through homosexual relations). For Vines to gloss over this is puzzling, to say the least.
With his interpretation of Genesis 2 refuted, any accusation that the “traditional” interpretation produces contradiction simply falls flat. No one is saying that homosexual men and women are “forced” to be alone. They are, indeed, free to enter a marriage with a member of the opposite gender as God designed. The fact that they do not want to does not all of a sudden make God inconsistent when he said it was not good for man to be alone, as if God is obligated to change his designs for the preferences of fallen human beings. It is clear that Vines starts with an idea he is unwilling to let go of–homosexual relationships are just as valid in God’s eyes as heterosexual ones–and forces the biblical text to speak positively on his situation rather than letting the text speak for itself.
Genesis 19: Sodom and Gomorrah
After such preliminary arguments to cast doubt on the traditional interpretations on homosexuality, which are unconvincing, Vines moves on to deal with six individual passages, the first of which is Genesis 19, the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Here, Vines argues that while it is common to associate homosexual behavior with these two cities, particularly Sodom, Scripture does not specifically say that they were destroyed because of homosexuality. For example, in Ezekiel 16, it states that Sodom was arrogant and did not help the poor and needy. The only specific reference to the sexual immorality of these cities is in Jude verse 7, which speaks of sexual immorality only generally. Thus, according to Vines and others who argue like him, Sodom and Gomorrah are not examples of God’s judgment of homosexuality. The threatened gang-rape of the angels was more of an example of their poor treatment of visitors and cruel disposition more than simple homosexuality.
It is true that it would be irresponsible to simply say that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because its inhabitants displayed homosexual behavior or tendencies. I agree, and have taught mutliple times, that Sodom and Gomorrah were judged for the entirety of their wickedness, which includes all sorts of sexual perversion as stated in Jude but as well as their treatment of the poor and their inhospitable behavior, and thus it is inappropriate to use Genesis 19 to single out homosexuality as the sole reason why those cities were destroyed. However, even with that granted, Vines makes the error in implying that just because homosexuality is not listed specifically as the reason for these cities’ downfall, it means that it is not among the many factors that led to God’s judgment or it was not something a Hebrew reader/listener would have seen as sinful in Genesis 19. For sure, the reference to perversion and sexual immorality is general in Jude, but it does not rule out homosexuality if we know it to be a departure from God’s ideal based on other texts, texts that an Hebrew audience would have been very aware of. It is, of course, these other texts that Vines turns to next.
Leviticus 18 and 20: Not relevant today?
Vines essentially contends that the passages in Leviticus condemning homosexuality are no longer applicable to Christians because Christ fulfilled the Old Law. If Christians insist upon treating Leviticus as authoritative, then we must, if we are to be consistent, condemn eating raw meat and shellfish, wearing clothes with different fabrics, etc. Or Christians would need to start stoning people for disobeying their parents and committing adultery, which churches obviously do not do. Since Christians clearly do not follow large aspects of the Levitical law, pro-homosexual interpreters believe there is no good reason to treat the prohibitions on homosexuality any differently, because unlike some other sexual sins such as adultery, it is not mentioned much elsewhere in the Old Testament.
In Vines’ defense, the interpretation and application of the Old Law for Christians has often been a confusing topic, even within the church. On the one hand, all of Scripture is God’s Word, but on the other, several parts of the New Testament, from the words of Jesus to Paul to Peter, pronounce the eating of all foods clean and repeal many of the Old Testament regulations. What gives?
There are several approaches for reading the Levitical law and trying to apply it. One way is given by Timothy Keller’s article here, which aims to differentiate civic, ceremonial, and moral law. For the Israelites, as both a religious group and a nation-state, ceremonial cleanness, morality, and civic punishment were all related concepts. There was also much concern about pagan influences for such an infant nation. Thus, to show the Israelites that they needed to be set apart for a Holy God, they were told to not only be ceremonially clean but morally pure and upright; if they were not, they were candidates for civic justice or in need of providing a sacrifice. With the coming of Christ, the ultimate sacrifice was given, so ceremonial cleanness and ritual sacrifices are no longer necessary; in fact, Christians should not attempt to be “clean” in this manner because that would be an implicit denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement, as Paul saw in Galatians. This, however, does not mean that we now read all of Leviticus as outdated material that has no application whatsoever for us, for much of it is quite obviously still applicable as moral behavior, such as not committing murder, not stealing, and not committing adultery.
There is something to this approach, but it should be admitted that distinguishing between moral, civic, and ceremonial law isn’t always easy. It is worth noting that the context of Leviticus 18 itself states that the laws given in that section do not merely apply to Israel but also all the nations:
The Lord said to Moses, 2 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘I am the Lord your God. 3 You must not do as they do in Egypt, where you used to live, and you must not do as they do in the land of Canaan, where I am bringing you. Do not follow their practices.
Here, it is pretty clear that God is saying that the following list of commands applies to the nations. In any case, there is one approach that every Bible-believing Christian agrees on, regardless of their theological background: If it is re-affirmed in the New Testament, it still stands. I will argue in Part II that the holiness codes on sexuality are definitely reiterated in the New Testament, but I also want to repeat a point I made above: Even if we were to grant that nothing in Leviticus is binding in and of itself anymore, it still has value in understanding the mindset of an ancient Israelite and the Old Testament theologically. In other words, stories such as Genesis 19 should be read with this Israelite understanding, and it should caution readers (among other things, such as zero textual support) from reading gay eroticism in the stories of Ruth and Naomi or David and Jonathan.
Of course, Vines and others try very hard to argue that the New Testament has nothing to say on the matter, and that is where we turn next for Part II.