I recently watched a video lecture by a Harvard student named Matthew Vines entitled "The Bible and Homosexuality" (http://matthewvines.tumblr.com/ hereafter referred to). In the lecture, Vines seeks to present the Biblical case for homosexuality, and attempts to prove that the Bible does not condemn homosexuality as sinful, thus allowing homosexuality to be a valid form of sexuality and marriage within the Christian worldview. I was glad to hear a thoughtful, intellectual argument for homosexuality based upon the Bible. Vines seems to understand that the Bible is the big issue in the debate. I agree that it is. God's revelation is everything. If we are to be people who conform our lives to the truth of God, we must hear from God. This means resisting every temptation to go along with what we merely want or feel; it means clearing out misinformation and dogma; it means honestly listening to the only one who is wise and omniscient: our loving Maker who knows what is best for us.
What follows is an exegetical examination of Vines' lecture and is said in Christian love.
I believe Vines is wrong in his conclusion that the Bible does not teach that homosexuality is sin, or that it is ambiguous at best. I believe the Bible teaches quite clearly that homosexuality is sin, and that to say otherwise is Scripture twisting. Let me explain why I am convinced of this.
Vines' argument for Biblical homosexuality is as follows. He first takes the position that homosexuality is natural (this position is not arrived at from the Bible), and then proceeds toward the text, seeking to show that the common verses used against homosexuality are invalid. Since the Biblical case against homosexuality is based upon what is regarded as explicit texts which negatively condemn homosexuality, he must of course deal with them. In this way, he is not so much bringing forth positive Biblical evidence for homosexuality (as I think he himself admits that there is none), but is only trying to show that there isn't any Biblical evidence against it. Fair enough given the Biblical data. But it is important to note this, that the Biblical case against homosexuality is in fact based upon what is believed to be explicit evidence in the Bible, while the Biblical case for homosexuality is in fact not based upon explicit evidence in the Bible, but upon what is conceived to be silence concerning homosexuality in the Bible, and the extra-Biblica belief that homosexuality is natural. Vines' positive argument from the Bible is that Christianity is all about love, and that it is unloving to deprive homosexuals of their natural God-given desires. Thus it is Christian and Biblical to accept homosexuality.
If the Bible were explicitly silent about homosexuality, that wouldn't necessarily make homosexuality right, but nor would it necessarily make it wrong. At that point we would have to govern our belief of the Bible's stance concerning homosexuality upon general principles in the Bible which would reveal God's implicit will concerning it. I believe there is an implicit case that could be made against homosexuality from the Bible. The original design of God with Adam and Eve, the numberless examples of relationships in the Bible between a man and woman, the absence of any homosexual relationship in the Bible, the order and convenience of creation that is stressed in the Bible, the raising of godly seed that is one major divine purpose of sexuality, and the true marriage of Christ and the Church of which earthly marriage is but a picture. The implicit case that Vines is purporting is not as strong as the implicit case that can be made from the other side.
Vines argues from Matthew 7:15-20 that "good teachings, according to Jesus, have good consequences" (Vines, 12:22), and that the consequences of the Church's position against homosexuality have not been good but bad, thus showing that the Church's traditional position against homosexuality is bad teaching. But there are two serious problems with this argument. First, deciding what is a good consequence and what is a bad consequence is highly subjective and relative. What may be seen as a good consequence to one may not be seen as a good consequence to another, and therefore it becomes impossible to discern what is good teaching based upon this criteria. One could argue just the same against Vines' position using this criteria, since good and bad consequences are in the eye of the beholder, so to speak. But Jesus was most certainly not giving us an impossible subjective standard to judge teaching by, which brings us to the second problem with this argument. Vines is actually misunderstanding this saying of Jesus, for if you compare this passage with its parallel passage in Luke 6:43-43, and with its counterpart passage in Matthew 12:33-37, you see immediately that Jesus was not saying that you know a teaching is good or bad based upon its consequences, but rather that you know a teacher is good or bad based upon his teaching. "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks." (Luke 6:45) "For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned." (Matthew 12:37) What Jesus is actually talking about is false teachers and their words, which words enable you to know whether they are false teachers or not. In fact, you won't be able to discern false teachers based upon any other criteria, because "they come to you as wolves in sheep's clothing". By saying this, Jesus is in keeping with the Old Testament which gives only one method of testing false prophets: by what they say - that is, whether their words agree with what God has revealed or not (Deuteronomy 13:1-5, Isaiah 8:20).
Therefore, the ultimate question concerning our topic at hand is: does the Biblical case for homosexuality or the Biblical case against homosexuality agree with what God has revealed in the Bible? Simple enough. That is the test of whether a teaching is Biblical or not; not whether it's consequences are good to whoever thinks it is.
Having said all that, we must now turn to the main body of his lecture, and to the main issue of the debate. Vines attempts to show that the Bible does not explicitly condemn homosexuality as sinful (which he must do if his case will stand) and concentrates his efforts on dispelling this idea. In this attempt I am convinced Vines fails. Beside there being an implicit case in the Bible against homosexuality, there is an explict case to be made against homosexuality from the Bible, which I am certain Vines did not dispel. So long as there remains an explicit case to be made, it necessarily ends the debate for all who take the Bible seriously as God's revelation. But let us take a look at the relevant Scriptures to see for ourselves. Though Vines discussed six different passages in the Bible, I'll consider the three which I believe are most important.
Sodom and Gomorrah. Some have commented that this is his strongest point, and I agree. But it is not that strong. Vines argues that while Christians have traditionally thought that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of homosexuality - thus proving that homosexuality is sin - the Bible in fact states that God destroyed these cities because of other sins instead, such as pride, selfishness and greed.
The Bible certainly points to other sins as well which brought the wrath of God down upon them (Ezekiel 16:49). Certainly homosexuality was not the only sin of Sodom and Gomorrah nor the sole reason the wrath of God was kindled against them. This is important for people to realize. But to point out these other sins of Sodom and Gomorrah is not an argument that homosexuality was not also their sin. One very important verse concerning Sodom and Gomorrah that Vines failed to mention was Jude 1:7. "Even as Sodom and Gomorrah, and the cities about them in like manner, giving themselves over to fornication, and going aside after strange flesh, are set forth for an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire." Here we see that fornication (unlawful sex) was indeed a major sin of Sodom and Gomorrah, and one that contributed to their overthrow. It is no coincidence that the only type of sex that we know Sodom and Gomorrah had from the Old Testament was homosexual sex, and that the following phrase in Jude 1:7 confirms this as an explanation of the fornication: "going aside after strange flesh". Given that we have no other details in the story as to what else this could mean, it must mean homosexuality. Vines point is therefore pressed too far. It is true that the traditional view of Sodom and Gomorrah needs to be modified, but it does not need to be wholly consumed by fire and brimstone.
Leviticus 18:22. This verse is most certainly the clearest prohibition of homosexuality in the Bible. Therefore it is extremely important to the debate, and both sides know this. It is as follows: "You shall not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination." Its counterpart in Leviticus 20:13 is equally as clear: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them." Vines argues that these verses are no longer valid to us today because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He points out how the New Testament teachings make clear that, because of Christ, Christians are no longer under obligation to obey the Old Testament Israelite law. He highlights the fact that many laws of the Old Testament have never been observed by the Christian Church, such as the vast array of dietary laws and ceremonial commandments contained in the law of Moses, and Vines proceeds to argue that homosexuality should be seen in the same light. "Christians have always regarded the Book of Leviticus, in particular, as being inapplicable to them in light of Christ’s fulfillment of the law." (Vines, 26:51)
Now I am a huge advocate of the gospel of Christ setting us free from the law; that is my favorite subject! However, it is absolutely critical that we realize that it is one thing to say that as Christians we are set free from the obligation of having to keep the law, and quite another thing to say that the law's commandments are morally irrelevant to us. I am confident Vines would wholeheartedly agree with me. For example, Leviticus - which Vines states is a book that has been regarded as inapplicable by Christians - contains what Jesus Himself said is the second greatest commandment in the law: to love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, the chapter immediately following the verse in question). As Christians, we are no longer obligated to love our neighbor as ourselves as a condition for inheriting eternal life (otherwise we'd all be damned), yet loving one's neighbor still remains morally relevant and something we should do as Christians. Likewise the commandment to not steal is no longer obligatory to a Christian as a condition to inherit eternal life (since it is by grace we are saved), but it is still morally relevant nonetheless. So the question of Leviticus 18:22 is not whether we are obligated to obey it or not as a condition for inheriting eternal life, but whether it is still morally relevant to us today. Or to put it another way: is Leviticus 18:22 in that class of commandments which we would label moral and thus still relevant to us today, or does it belong to that class of commandments which we would label ceremonial and symbolic (ex. Col. 2:16-17) and thus morally irrelevant to us today?
The simplest and most natural answer is that Leviticus 18:22 falls into the moral category, and that it is still relevant to us today. The entire chapter concerns sexual sin, all of which we would consider moral and relevant today (except, as Vines points out, 18:19, where there may be some debate regarding a woman on her period. One could argue that it is therefore immoral to have sex with a woman on her period, and that the common Christian position on this command is wrong. If, however, we take 18:19 as ceremonial, then we still must ask whether 18:22 fits more naturally with 18:19, or with the rest of the verses in the chapter. I believe it is obvious that 18:22 fits most naturally with the rest of the chapter. In 18:19, the ceremonial aspect is clearly given. It states, "Also you shall not approach unto a woman to uncover her nakedness, as long as she is put apart for her uncleanness." Because she is ceremonially unclean, she is "put apart", and therefore to have sex with her when she is "put apart" is to sin. Sex with a woman is not prohibited here, but only sex with a woman when she is ceremonially unclean. The issue in 18:19 is about when you should not have sex, it is not about who or what you shouldn't have sex with, as the rest of the chapter and 18:22 is concerned about. There is simply no reason to suppose that the prohibition of homosexuality falls into the category of ceremonial law). 18:22 is in keeping with the rest of the chapter which prohibits who and what you should have sex with. Incest, beastiality and homosexuality are all similarly prohibited. God reveals that it is not morally acceptable to have sex with your family members, animals, or people of your same sex. It follows that therefore this verse remains a clear and explicit pronouncement against homosexuality in the Bible.
In John chapter 8, when the crowd brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, the law clearly required that she be stoned to death (see Leviticus 20:10), but Jesus remarkably rescued her from the demands of the law, telling her, "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more." (John 8:11) Truly, because of Christ, we are set free from the demands of the law and the penalty that we deserve. He bore our sins on the cross so that we do not have to bear them ourselves. But by saying, "Go and sin no more", Jesus showed us that the morality of the law is still relevant to forgiven sinners. We do not have to obey the law in order to be forgiven: indeed we need forgiveness because we do not obey the law! Nor should we pick up stones to execute justice upon others who have broken in the law: God alone is the judge, and we are in no place to judge our neighbor, and God has in love undertaken to save sinners through His Son Jesus Christ. But the morality of the law is still righteous, holy and good, relevant to us today in the 21st century. We ought to go and sin no more.
Romans 1:26-27. Vines is right that this is the largest treatment of homosexuality in the Bible, and that because it is in the New Testament it does not have any of the Old Testament legal intricacies that could be appealed to in order to escape its claims. The passage is as follows: "For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature: and likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet." Vines' explanation goes like this: the real issue in this chapter is idolatry. Men exchange the truth of God for a lie, and by so doing, they also exchange what is natural for what is unnatural. But here is Vines' kicker: Vines argues that if these people were heterosexual, then what is unnatural and sinful for them is homosexuality, but if what is natural for people is homosexuality, then they commit no sin by being homosexuals, since that is natural for them, and there involves no exchange. To Vines, the exchange of natural to unnatural itself is the main point, not what is exchanged - not what is natural or unnatural.
Vines fails to see that exchanging one's sexuality from X to Y or from Y to X is not the point that Paul is getting at. It is not exchange itself that is wrong to Paul, but what is exchanged for what. Exchanging the truth of God for a lie is sin, and exchanging the natural use of sex for the unnatural use of sex is sin. And to Paul, the natural use of sex is clearly said to be between a man and a woman, and the unnatural use of sex is clearly said to be homosexual. This point can only be escaped by manipulating the passage to say what it is not saying. Paul uses words such as "vile affection", "against nature", and "unseemly" to describe woman to woman and man to man sex. This is how he describes X, not the exchange from Y to X. X, or homosexuality, is sinful in this passage, and I do not see how this conclusion can be avoided unless we completely ignore Paul's definition of what is natural and unnatural, leaving them undefined - something Paul does not do.
The danger of Vines' idea, that exchange itself is the sin, is that this can be utilized to justify all behavior. So long as someone states that a behavior is natural to them, then it is no longer sin for them to do it, but it actually becomes sin for them not to do it! If a man says he has a natural attraction to animals, then it would be sin for him to not have sex with them, and sin for him to have sex with a human. If a man said he was naturally attracted to children, then before God he is justified in having sex with children, since that is what is natural to him, and to exchange this with adult sex (something he is not attracted to) is itself a perversion of nature! It is absurd to argue this way. It is not Paul's point, and it is subjective and capricious to make your case from what is natural for you. Our convictions must rest upon the word of God and what He says is natural and unnatural according to His design. If we find ourselves lusting after what is unnatural, we need to recognize this for what it is.
I am convinced from our study of the most important passages of Scripture on homosexuality that the explicit Biblical argument against homosexuality still stands. If this is difficult for homosexuals to accept, at least let them acknowledge that the case for Biblical homosexuality is not as bulletproof as they would like, and that the traditional Biblical case is not as irresponsible as they may have thought. I hope Vines acknowledges this.
I am truly glad he gave the lecture and that he is grappling with the Biblical text. The more we do this the better, and the clearer things will become.