Love, Lust, and the Bible: A Further Response to Matthew Vines

Love, Lust, and the Bible: A Further Response to Matthew Vines May 5, 2015

Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian (and subject of yesterday’s post), kindly responded to my critique on Facebook:

Thank you for writing this post and for sharing your perspective about what I’m doing. Thanks also for reading and engaging with my book.

Some of your criticisms, however, are factually wrong. While it is true that I am specifically asking
 churches to bless same-sex unions along the same lines that they bless opposite-sex unions—i.e., teaching that the ideal context for sex (not “sexuality,” which is a much broader concept) is marriage—it is wrong to suggest that I “explicitly denigrate” people in non-marital sexual relationships as “lost in unbridled lust.” I have never said anything like that.

In my view, churches have sound theological reasons to encourage their own members to strive to link sex and commitment together. But that is specifically an ethic for Christians, not for people outside of the church, and I have no interest in casting aspersions upon anyone for their differing beliefs or their consensual sexual behavior that may or may not align with that perspective. Even within the church, I speak regularly about how evangelical Christians in particular have done a poor job of discussing sexuality, namely by fostering a shame-based purity culture that does in fact denigrate people who are sexually active outside of a marital relationship or who have been in the past. One need not advocate for churches to assess all consensual sexual conduct in the same light in order to push back against those harmful elements of evangelical purity culture.

If you have a different view of sexual ethics, that is fine. Argue for that viewpoint and explain why you think a normative linkage between sex and long-term commitment is a bad or harmful thing for churches to be presenting as an ideal specifically for professing Christians. But please do not misrepresent my character or beliefs by writing that I “explicitly denigrate” those who do not share my perspective, because that is neither fair nor true.

I want to first thank Matthew for responding, and for responding in such a polite (though forceful) way. I think that speaks to his willingness to engage in serious dialogue with those who disagree with him, and that does him credit. I want to thank him for his work countering the “shame-based purity culture” which, as he rightly notes, does great harm within the church. Since he says this work happens within churches I am not privy to it – I will just trust that it is excellent and valuable.

I want, too, to clear up what seems to be a misconception: I did not claim in my original post on this matter that Matthew “explicitly denigrates those who do not share [his] perspective.” Rather, I said that his argument denigrates “those who wish to pursue sexual and romantic satisfaction outside of marriage”.  It is that practice and the people who choose to engage in it which is, in my mind, necessarily belittled by his argument – not people who “do not share his perspective”.

Furthermore, nowhere in my post do I criticize Matthew’s character. I tend to scrupulously avoid character judgments of any kind in my writing and I certainly avoided them in my last post. Indeed, I heaped praise on his work at the start, calling it “heartening and inspiring”, and I stressed that “to a certain degree I am glad he is doing what he is doing.” I regret that Matthew saw an attack on his character where there was none. 

That said, there are two main responses I want to make to Matthew’s reply. First, I note that it does not address the central point of my post, which was that as a meta-ethical principle it is dangerous to subordinate our moral judgment to any text, and that our decisions as to which behaviors to promote or condemn should be based solely on the impact those decisions will have on people.

Naturally, I don’t expect Matthew to be so wowed by this argument that he immediately becomes a Humanist, but I do find it interesting that he does not address it at all. It is clear from his general approach to this matter – going through the text with his father, arguing about the text within churches etc. – that he thinks scripture carries some ethical authority over and above the experience of LGBTQ people – otherwise simply pointing to the harm caused by conservative interpretations of the Bible would be argument enough against them. That, to me, is a very big problem.

Yes, Matthew’s approach is likely to be successful in evangelical circles. Yes, it is consistent with his worldview. But it is still problematic and likely to lead to harm in the long run, and it is perfectly legitimate to voice a meta-ethical criticism of a project grounded in a certain meta-ethical perspective.

Now to the question of whether I present Matthew’s views on sex outside marriage unfairly or falsely. That is a serious criticism which I take seriously: I don’t like it when people misrepresent my views, I’m committed to intellectual honesty, and I’d be upset with myself if I felt I had unfairly mischaracterized Matthew’s position.

I don’t think I have, and to demonstrate why I am going to spend some time with the text of the speech Matthew made before he wrote his book. I choose  to focus on the speech rather than his book because: 1) the transcript is online for all to see; 2) it is a more condensed version of his argument than the book presents; 3) it is still presumably fully endorsed by Matthew, as the full transcript and video is presented prominently on his website; 4) it’s beautifully-written and an easy read.

Matthew’s main objective in the speech is to demonstrate that nothing in the Bible speaks against loving, committed, same-sex relationships, and that therefore evangelical Christians should not object to them (those adjectives – “loving” and “committed” – will become important soon). He pursues this objective through close analysis of all the biblical references to homosexual behavior, and by placing those references in context of the broader teachings of Jesus. Repeatedly, during this analysis, he stresses that the references in the Bible often understood to refer to homosexuality in fact only refer to limited forms of homosexual acts – and therefore, if gay people avoid those acts, the church should have no reason to disown them.

Key to Matthew’s argument, then, is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable expressions of one’s sexuality – and the problem which I was pointing to in my previous post is that this distinction is drawn, repeatedly and explicitly, in a way which presents marriage/monogamy as ideal, and casual sex/non-monogamy as less than ideal (which is a form of “denigration”).

Here are some examples of such a distinction being drawn:

the consequence of the traditional interpretation of the Bible is that, while straight people are told to avoid lust, casual relationships, and promiscuity, gay people are told to avoid romantic relationships entirely. Straight people’s sexuality is seen as a fundamentally good thing, as a gift. It can be used in sinful or irresponsible ways, but it can also be harnessed and oriented toward a loving marriage relationship that will be blessed and celebrated by their community.”

Note how here “lust, casual relationships, and promiscuity” are explicitly contrasted to “romantic relationships”, and that this dichotomy is immediately followed by a distinction between “sinful and irresponsible” sexual expression, and “a loving marriage relationship that will be blessed and celebrated by their community.” I  cannot read this in any other way than as an explicit contrast between “lust, casual relationships, and promiscuity” as examples of “sinful and irresponsible” forms of sexual expression, and romantic love and marriage as something to be celebrated – the wording creates and reinforces this dichotomy clearly and directly.

“gay people, though they are capable of and desire loving relationships that are just as important to them, are told that, for them, even lifelong, committed relationships would be sinful, because their sexual orientation is completely broken. It’s not an issue of lust versus love, or of casual versus committed relationships, because same-sex relationships are intrinsically sinful, no matter the quality and no matter the context. Gay people’s sexual orientation is so broken, so messed up that nothing good can come from it – no morally good, godly relationship could ever come from it.”

This passage, which follows directly from the previous one, continues the problematic dichotomy which links “godly” and “morally good” exclusively with “love” and “committed relationships” versus (and that’s the word Matthew chooses to use) “lust” and “casual relationships”. It seems to me a logical implication of establishing such a dichotomy and calling only one half of it “godly” and “morally good” that the other half is being called “ungodly” and “not morally good”. Remember Matthew is framing this discussion, he is choosing the terms to oppose and how he describes them – this is his dichotomy, and here he reinforces it.

In this passage Matthew is examining a section from Paul, trying to offer reasons why it doesn’t condemn same-sex relationships:

surely it is significant that Paul here speaks only of lustful, casual behavior. He says nothing about the people in question falling in love, making a lifelong commitment to one another, starting a family together. We would never dream of reading a passage in Scripture about heterosexual lust and promiscuity and then, from that, condemning all of the marriage relationships of straight Christians. There is an enormous difference between lust and love when it comes to our sexuality, between casual and committed relationships, between promiscuity and monogamy. That difference has always been held to be central to Christian teaching on sexual ethics for straight Christians. Why should that difference not be held to be as central for gay Christians?”

Here again we have the same dichotomy: lustful and casual vs. love and commitment. Again the dichotomy makes very clear which is preferred: when Matthew says “There is an enormous difference between lust and love when it comes to our sexuality, between casual and committed relationships, between promiscuity and monogamy”, it is clear that he is making a value judgment as to which is better. Lest there be any doubt, his explicit reference to “Christian teaching on sexual ethics for straight Christians” removes it: Christian teaching on sexual ethics for straight Christians does indeed denigrate promiscuity and casual sex, and here Matthew is explicitly encouraging applying those same standards to gay Christians.

This dichotomization of lustful/casual vs. loving/committed/monogamous continues in numerous small ways throughout the speech, as Matthew stresses again and again that it is only a certain preferred type of gay relationship he is supporting:

“three Old Testament passages do not, upon closer examination, furnish persuasive arguments against loving relationships for gay Christians”

Does this passage require us to reject the possibility of loving relationships for gay people…?”

How can we take a passage about same-sex lust and promiscuity and then condemn any loving relationships that gay people might come to form?”

This may have involved forms of same-sex behavior, but coercive and exploitative forms. There is no contextual support for linking this term to loving, faithful relationships.” [note here how “loving” is now explicitly linked to “faithful”]

“[The Bible] hardly ever discusses same-sex behavior of any kind, and the very few references to it are in completely different contexts than loving relationships

The Bible never directly addresses, and it certainly does not condemn, loving, committed same-sex relationships.”

It is in the context of this oft-reinforced dichotomy, finally, that Matthew addresses the question of marriage vs. celibacy, and says:

“For Paul, celibacy is a spiritual gift, and one that he realizes that many Christians don’t have. However, because many of them lack the gift of celibacy, Paul observes that sexual immorality is rampant. And so he prescribes marriage as a kind of remedy or protection against sexual sin for Christians who lack the gift of celibacy. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion,” he says. And today, the vast majority of Christians do not sense either the gift of celibacy or the call to it. This is true for both straight and gay Christians. And so if the remedy against sexual sin for straight Christians is marriage, why should the remedy for gay Christians not be the same?”

The options Matthew outlines are clear: for those who have the “gift”, celibacy; for those who don’t but are unmarried or who do not wish to marry, “burning with passion” in “sexual immorality” and “sexual sin”; for those who don’t feel the call to celibacy but do not wish to indulge in sexual sin, “marriage” – a “remedy” for straight and gay Christians alike.

It is in the context of this close reading of Matthew’s own words, then, that i wrote in my last post:

All those who wish to pursue sexual and romantic satisfaction outside of marriage are explicitly denigrated by Vines as lost in unbridled lust for which marriage is the “remedy” – the same demeaning rhetoric the religious right has always used to condemn LGBTQ people, now limited in use only slightly to non-married, non-monogamous LGBTQ people.”

This is a strong way of making my point, yes. It is somewhat dramatic, as is frequently the tone of my writing. It requires an understanding of the structure of Matthew’s argument and how he crafts it in the course of an hour-long speech. It requires the reader to draw some logical implications of his words. But it is not, I think, a misleading or untrue statement. It represents the fact that what Matthew presents in his speech is an argument that, according to his view of scripture, gay people should be accepted by the church on the condition that they have sex within the confines of a “loving”, committed, monogamous relationship, preferably a marriage, and that the nasty forms of sex the Scriptures are referring to are the “casual”, “sinful”, “lustful” ones.

One might respond to my critique by saying “OK, sure, Vines is presenting his case to a conservative evangelical audience and is arguing that lgbtq people can enjoy the same position vis a vis their sexuality as straight people can within the evangelical framework. Isn’t that equality?”

Granted, as far as it goes. Matthew’s position isn’t exactly homophobic. But it is still not sex-positive or fully affirming of the range of ways people choose to live out their sexuality. The conservative evangelical worldview does denigrate people who choose to have non-monogamous relationships, who like casual sex, who experiment sexually. In a very genteel, learned, and sophisticated way, so does Matthew’s argument.

This is not to say Matthew and I can’t be allies fighting for the dignity of LGBTQ people –  I hope we can be, and it would be awesome to get him out to St. Louis for a tour if he hasn’t been. It doesn’t mean I think he is a bad person. It just means that I expect people engaged in public debate to take responsibility for the implications of the arguments that they make, and to deal with those implications honestly and forthrightly.

If I have made an error, and have misinterpreted Matthew’s position, then all Matthew has to do to demonstrate this is to say that he believes that all forms of consensual sexual expression are equally celebrated by God, whether in committed couples, polyamorous relationships, the result of casual encounters, fueled by lust or love. But that would require quite a different argument than the one he actually made.

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