Reclaiming Our Light—an Introduction
I grew up singing a chorus in Sunday school about how we should share the light of our faith with the world. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,” we sang in the classrooms at my family’s church in Wichita, Kansas. “Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine.” That was before I knew I was gay.
Unfortunately, in recent years, many outside the church haven’t been able to see our faith’s light due to the rancor toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Increasingly, young believers in particular feel caught in and repulsed by an often meanspirited theological debate about sexual orientation. They long for a charitable yet biblically sound message on this topic that’s not at odds with the Jesus of the Gospels. Most young people today, it seems, know someone who has been rejected by family, friends, or church after coming out. Citing chapter and verse, evangelical Christians have typically offered a response like this to the gay believers in their midst: “We love you. It’s your sin we hate.”
To be fair, many Christians now support same-sex relationships. But those who do tend to see Scripture as a helpful but dated guidebook, not as the final authority on questions of morality and doctrine.
That is not my view of Scripture.
Like most theologically conservative Christians, I hold what is often called a “high view” of the Bible. That means I believe all of Scripture is inspired by God and authoritative for my life. While some parts of the Bible address cultural norms that do not directly apply to modern societies, all of Scripture is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16–17, nrsv).
That view of the Bible lies at the heart of our culture’s polarization over same-sex relationships. While much of our secular society and many mainline churches have come to embrace gay relationships, the evangelical church has not. Why? Evangelicals’ beliefs are based on how they read the Bible, and most evangelicals believe the Bible condemns all same-sex relationships.
Today, that belief is coming under increasing pressure. For years, many conservative Christians supported efforts to change gay people’s sexual orientation. Some still take that approach, but in 2013, the flagship “ex-gay” organization shut down and apologized for the “false hope,” pain, and trauma it caused.1 The failure of that movement has left evangelicals grappling with how to respond to the reality of sexual orientation without compromising their beliefs about the Bible’s authority.
Not until I confronted my own same-sex orientation did my church’s crisis on this issue become a fully personal one. But that crisis—as I will describe for you in the pages ahead—propelled me on a quest that has resulted in the book you’re holding.
This book is the product of four years of meticulous research, building on four decades of high-level scholarship. I am not a biblical scholar, so I have relied on the work of dozens of scholars whose expertise is far greater than my own. My goal has not been to break new ground, but to bring credible, often-overlooked insights to light, and to synthesize those insights in clear and accessible ways for a broad audience.
My core argument in this book is not simply that some Bible passages have been misinterpreted and others have been given undue weight. My larger argument is this: Christians who affirm the full authority of Scripture can also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Instead of accepting the divide between more progressive Christians who support marriage equality and conservative Christians who oppose it, this book envisions a future in which all Christians come to embrace and affirm their LGBT brothers and sisters—without undermining their commitment to the authority of the Bible.
I invite you to journey with me as we take a careful look at the six passages in Scripture that speak most directly and specifically about same-sex behavior. What I learned in my study has changed the views of my parents along with many other committed Christians in my life. Yet I hope the argument I present in God and the Gay Christian does more than change minds. My prayer is that it opens up a conversation in the Christian community that is truly in the spirit of Jesus. The fiercest objections to LGBT equality—those based on religious beliefs—can begin to fall away. The tremendous pain endured by LGBT youth in many Christian homes can become a relic of the past. Christianity’s reputation in much of the Western world can begin to rebound. Together, we can reclaim our light.
If you are a conservative Christian, that degree of change might make you uncomfortable. If you are an LGBT-affirming Christian, it should give you hope. If you are nonreligious, it might strike you as unlikely. These goals are ambitious, to say the least. But the argument you are about to read is not lightly considered. This is the book I dearly needed when I admitted to myself that I was gay. And it is, I pray, an instrument God will use to help bring healing, reconciliation, and hope to many who need them most.
A Tree and Its Fruit
My knees buckled, my stomach turned, and I felt the strength drain from my body. It was my sophomore fall at Harvard, and after a long week of classes, I had stopped by the campus convenience store. Standing alone in the toothpaste aisle, I finally asked myself the question I’d managed to avoid for years. Am I gay?
The answer was obvious—it could have been obvious for years, if I hadn’t worked so hard to ignore it. But it was also terrifying. Even though I was going to a school that embraced gay students and living in a state that had legalized gay marriage years earlier, I suddenly found myself feeling hopeless.
Life at college wasn’t the problem. The problem was sixteen hundred miles away, in Wichita, Kansas. I’d been at school for only a little over a year, and Kansas remained far more important to me than Cambridge, Massachusetts. But for everything I enjoyed about my home state, most people I knew there made a significant exception to their midwestern friendliness: gay people. My Presbyterian church, in particular, was filled with kindhearted, caring Christians. But when it came to homosexuality, their views were set. If you were in a gay relationship, you were living in sin. Period.
Still frozen in place at the back of the convenience store, my new reality triggered memories. With each one came a fresh wave of anguish.
Take the summer before I left for college. Our pastor had lamented from the pulpit that progressives in our denomination were advocating for the ordination of “practicing homosexuals.” Heads shook in dismay and disappointment.
My parents were opposed to the gay rights movement, even though my older sister and I had become more open to the issue. My final year of high school, my sister, Christine, returned from college with the news that one of her close friends had come out. (I’ll call him Josh.) Mom, who had known and loved Josh since he was born, was devastated.
Dad questioned Josh’s judgment.
“How does he know he can never marry a woman?” Dad asked. “Well, he’s gay, Dad,” I said. “Why would he?”
“I’m not convinced he couldn’t overcome this. It just seems like he’s decided not to try.”
That night, Christine and I shared our frustrations. “They just don’t get it,” she said. “Josh marrying a woman would be a recipe for disaster.”
I still didn’t know what to think about gay marriage, but I wasn’t all that fazed by her friend’s revelation. The gay people I’d met at school seemed normal enough, and criticizing them for not trying to be straight didn’t make sense. Whether it was a sin or not, gay people were still gay, and ignoring their orientation wasn’t going to help.
But my dad didn’t know any openly gay people, and he had always understood the Bible to be against homosexuality. If God was against it, Dad said, God wouldn’t make anyone gay. So even if some people struggled with same-sex attraction, he was confident they could develop heterosexual attractions over time.
Other students came and went from the convenience store, but I stood there, ashen. I stared blankly at rows of toothpaste, thinking about the year Josh came out—and what would happen when I did too. For Josh, coming out to his family had been agonizing. Our church, he rightly guessed, would not have been any happier to hear his news.
Not wanting to subject himself to widespread rejection, he left town for his out-of-state college.
He left church too.
This was a young man who often shared his musical talents with our church, singing and playing original songs in front of hundreds on Sunday mornings. He was one of the smartest kids in high school, and he was voted onto homecoming court his senior year. Now when people talked about him, it was in hushed tones. The sense of shame over what people assumed to be his “decision” was palpable.
Feeling rejected by our church and alienated from God, Josh started much of his life over on the West Coast. In time, he found it impossible to keep believing in a loving God. As he saw it, the God of the Bible required him to hate a core part of himself. Not surprisingly, he also gave up on the Bible, since it had been the instrument that taught others to reject that part of him too. Thankfully, his family came around over time, and they now embrace him. But much of the damage from our church’s stance had already been done. Josh’s faith, along with the church community that first nurtured it, was already lost.
I walked home from the store that night feeling sick. All weekend, I could barely eat or sleep. Trying to concentrate on my philosophy paper or my Spanish assignment was impossible.
In the days and weeks ahead, I did my best to figure out a way forward. Josh’s path—as much as I empathized with him—didn’t seem bearable to me. The losses would be too great. My faith had been of central importance to me for as long as I could remember. When I was two years old, my parents bought me a children’s Bible, which I studied diligently over the years. One Sunday, while riding home from church at the age of three, I asked Jesus to come into my heart. (I would repeat this request countless times before I made it to middle school, just to make sure it worked.)
My parents nurtured a faith in Jesus in me and my sister, giving us a moral and spiritual anchor as we grew up. Just as importantly, Mom and Dad lived out their faith in loving and authentic ways, daily confirming for us the value of placing Christ at the center of our lives. So even though I was now facing up to the fact of my sexual orientation, my faith in God was not in jeopardy. Besides, after doing a Bible study of the issue the year before, I had already come to question whether God’s views on gay people matched what Christians back home seemed to think they were.
But while my faith felt secure, my relationship with my parents—and with our entire church community—had never felt more fragile. Homosexuality, to the limited extent it was discussed in our church, was little more than a political football, a quick test of orthodoxy. The “progressives” in our denomination supported it, but anyone who truly
believed in the authority of the Bible, I was told, did not. In all this, the concerns, lives, and dignity of gay people were not mentioned. (As more than a few parishioners would later tell me, they had never stopped to think whether there might be any gay people in our church.) By some strange feat of the will, I had been able to suppress my own awareness of my sexual orientation until I was nineteen. But I knew that wasn’t the case for many others, maybe most others. For a young kid who realizes she is gay and has no one at home or church she can talk to, it can be an impossibly heavy burden. For a young man like Josh, who internalized rejection from our church with barely a word spoken, it can drive a wedge between him and God.
And what would become of me?
Weeks passed. After deep prayer and several long conversations with my sister and with some friends, I realized what I had to do. I packed my bags that Christmas, boarded a plane home for Kansas, and anxiously peered out the window. Boston would soon be slipping away, replaced by the familiar terrain of the Bible Belt. But this time, going home would be different. This time, I was going to come out.
Excerpted from God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. Copyright © 2014 by Matthew Vines. Excerpted by permission of Convergent Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.