Yesterday Patheos hosted a live chat for Matthew Vine’s new book God and the Gay Christian, featuring Matthew, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, and, occasionally, Jay Bakker. (No live chat is complete without a few technical hiccups.) I haven’t read the book yet; it’s in my to-read pile. But I listened in on their lunchtime conversation, which is available on the Patheos website.
Here are 6 things that stood out…
1. Dispensing with less helpful arguments
Matthew has no interest in some of the more speculative arguments which are sometimes put forward — for example, the notion that David and Jonathan were gay lovers. Or Ruth and Naomi. Or Jesus and John.
These arguments seem to assume that any affection between two men (or two women) depicted in the Bible must be implicitly sexual, as if there were no such thing as nonsexual affection between two closely connected people of the same gender. If you’re pro-same-sex marriage and you’re making this argument, it’s not helping your case. I’m also worried that it plays into the idea that being gay is all about sex. If the church needs to stop reducing gay people to a particular sex act, then Matthew is right to shift the debate to other issues (regardless of whether you agree with him on those issues or not).
2. Matthew vs. Tony
Not one to disappoint, Tony Jones brought a slightly contrarian voice to the discussion. He and Matthew went back and forth over how to deal with Paul, though think it’s futile to read Paul’s comments on homosexual acts as a commentary on the kind of same-sex relationships that are possible today.
Matthew is writing as an evangelical. That’s the whole point of his book, to make a theologically conservative case for the affirming view. So it’s not surprising he wants to maintain a high view of Paul. “We don’t have to disagree with or demote Paul to affirm gay Christians in the church,” he argues.
Tony countered that Paul couldn’t know what we know today about sexual orientation; therefore, he wasn’t in a position to speak directly to the kind of issues we’re wrestling with today. For Tony, this is no more a problem than the fact that Paul didn’t know anything about cars, yet we’re OK with driving them.
Tony’s point is worth hearing. Part of reading and interpreting the Bible is understanding its original context (and limitations) before we try to bring it into our context. You can’t just dump the Bible into our setting and expect everything to translate. This, among other things, is why no one thinks the earth is stationary, despite clear evidence that’s what the biblical writers believed.
But there’s also a real danger of becoming arrogant, of thinking that we’re more enlightened than the biblical writers were. (Poor old chaps.) Matthew’s caution against this tendency is worth also hearing—especially in this debate.
3. Celibacy as a gift, not a command
All the panelists felt that Matthew’s chapter on celibacy is one of the most compelling parts of his book. Again, I haven’t read it (yet), but Matthew’s argument, summarized by Tony at one point, seems to be that celibacy was never mandated in the biblical text. According to Jesus and Paul, some people had the gift of celibacy. But no one was ever ordered to be celibate. Most of us certainly aren’t wired to for celibacy, in any case.
So the question Matthew raises is what do you do if someone who isn’t wired for celibacy IS wired to be attracted to people of the same gender? The conservative view has traditionally said that gay people have one of two options: conversion therapy or celibacy. Now that even many conservatives have disavowed conversion therapy, celibacy is all that’s left. But if celibacy is a gift, not a command, then doesn’t that mean we have to assume God has given the gift of celibacy to every LGBT person? I don’t think many of us, regardless of what side we take, would be comfortable pressing that assumption too far, in light of reality.
If neither celibacy nor a change of orientation are realistic for the vast majority of gay people, then we’re left to wrestle with the question posed by Rachel Held Evans: is it right to deny gay Christians the opportunity to sanctify their sexual desires through a covenant?
4. What does Al Mohler really think about orientation?
God and the Gay Christian hadn’t been on bookshelves for a day when Southern Baptist leader Al Mohler issued an ebook rebuttal, coauthored with James Hamilton, Denny Burk, Owen Strachan, and Heath Lambert. (Note: They were given prepublication copies of Matthew’s book, so they were able to interact with his content.)
During the live chat, Matthew shared what disappointed him about their response: namely, Mohler’s claim that if you accept sexual orientation as an innate part of someone’s identity, then you’ve undermined the whole Bible.
It seems like the “if you believe X, then you’ve undermined the Bible/gospel/Christianity” card gets played a lot these days. But this one made me skeptical. Could Mohler really have written that? After all, just three years ago he made ripples in his own denomination when he acknowledged that sexual orientation is “not something that people can just turn on and turn off.” At the time he confessed:
We’ve lied about the nature of homosexuality and have practiced what can only be described as a form of homophobia. We’ve used the ‘choice’ language when it is clear that sexual orientation is a deep inner struggle and not merely a matter of choice.
I haven’t read Al Mohler’s ebook yet (I plan to after reading Matthew’s book), so I was curious to see if Matthew depicted his argument correctly.
He did. Here’s what Mohler wrote:
If the modern concept of sexual orientation is to be taken as a brute fact, then the Bible simply cannot be trusted.
That seems like a far cry from his previous affirmation that sexual orientation is not “a matter of choice.” So which is it for Al Mohler?
5. A conservative sexual ethic
One of the key points to remember is that Matthew is not arguing for a more liberal or permissive sexuality. He wants to call gay Christians to the same standard of conduct to which the church has traditionally held heterosexual couples: no sex outside marriage, monogamy within marriage, no adultery, etc.
From a Christian perspective, sex is sacred. Commitment is a nonnegotiable part of sexual ethics.
True, this won’t satisfy those for whom ceding any ground on same-sex marriage is unacceptable — or those on the other side who’ve gone further in questioning the sexual ethic taken for granted by most evangelicals as biblical. But it does seem like it could bolster Matthew’s argument against the “slippery slope” accusation.
6. A broader conversation
Near the end of the live chat, Matthew and the other panelists acknowledged that change won’t come easy.
Rachel Held Evans believes that many people, especially pastors, are afraid of losing everything if they are open with their desire to be more affirming. She called on people to be brave and start some uncomfortable conversations anyway, trusting that there are more people than we think who are ready for a new conversation.
Tony Jones voiced pessimism about the church’s ability to find a third way, accommodating both the traditional and affirming camps. But he felt that more and more individuals will continue to “make the shift” as they come into contact with people like Matthew and books like God and the Gay Christian.
Matthew similarly acknowledged the incremental nature of change and said that the first step is bringing LGBT Christians into the room and making sure they’re part of the conversation. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen, as demonstrated by the Southern Baptists’ recent ERLC conference devoted to the topic of human sexuality. “Having a whole conference about this and not including any gay Christian voices is not OK,” Matthew said.
I suppose someone could make the same point about the live chat. There was no voice there to represent the traditional view. While I don’t think a 60-minute online chat should be held to the same standard as a three-day conference, I hope future conversations will bring more voices to the table. If we are going to find a third way (despite Tony’s probably well-placed pessimism), it won’t happen unless we start listening to each other.
That being said, it takes two to tango. The question is whether Al Mohler is in the mood to dance.