Think of Matthew Vines as a young Gen. George S. Patton. At 24, Matthew Vines is organizing a tough, smart, highly trained force of young evangelicals who are prepared to go toe-to-toe with traditionalist Christians on the issue of whether the Bible allows LGBT inclusion. Through videos, public talks, his new book and a series of national conferences, Vines is determined to martial wave after wave of young men and women, equipped with enough biblical scholarship to crack through the evangelical front still holding that the Bible flat-out condemns homosexuality.
Want to see how he makes this argument? Buy his book, God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships. We recommend a lot of inspiring books at ReadTheSpirit online magazine, but this particular volume is different. This one is going to be a classic—a milestone at this historic turning point when more and more American churches are welcoming gay and lesbian men, women and their families. (Read the OurValues series this week, which summarizes recent research on this change.)
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I can glance at the shelf in my library where other milestone volumes in this movement are stored. There is Yale scholar John Boswell‘s bombshell in 1980, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which won the National Book Award. Next to it on my shelf is the equally stunning book Boswell published just before his death in 1994, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. I remember interviewing Boswell about that book, which reports historical evidence of same-sex Christian marriage in the early centuries of the church. Also on my shelf is What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage, a courageous 2005 book by two respected evangelical scholars: Hope College psychology professor David Myers (the man who writes psychology textbooks used in universities nationwide) working with co-author Letha Dawson Scanzoni.
Compared with those giants in scholarship, Vines’ book seems thin. In his detailed analysis of Vines’ book in Christian Century magazine, Tony Jones concludes that Vines’ scholarly sources in this new book are thin enough that evangelicals will try to discount them. But, anyone who dismisses this book misunderstands Vines’ savvy strategy.
If the opening comparison to Gen. Patton in this column seems overblown, consider that Vines already has launched a winning international media campaign. While still in high school, Vines created one of the most successful Harry Potter fan sites and soon found himself traveling the world with the official press corps covering the movie. His new mission was prompted when he began studying as an undergraduate at Harvard, came out as both gay and evangelical—then decided he should drop out of college to help other gay evangelicals defend themselves. That led to a 2012 talk he gave at a Wichita church that went viral as a YouTube video, shared and re-posted countless times. (Don’t care to watch an hour-long video? Matthew also provides a transcript.)
To be fair to Matthew, he doesn’t call his trained followers soldiers. He calls them “ambassadors” and he urges them to conduct their “discussions” with traditional Christians in “love and compassion.” But—that’s not how evangelical power brokers see his mission. They’re already throwing up barricades against Matthew’s formidable strategy. As Tony Jones put it in Christian Century, they are “incensed” at what Matthew is doing. They’re already firing their biggest guns and are sending their best general, Albert Mohler, after Matthew.
Mohler published a lengthy rebuttal of Matthew’s book that argues: “Matthew Vines demands that we love him enough to give him what he desperately wants, and that would certainly be the path of least cultural resistance. If we accept his argument we can simply remove this controversy from our midst, apologize to the world, and move on. But we cannot do that without counting the cost, and that cost includes the loss of all confidence in the Bible, in the Church’s ability to understand and obey the Scriptures, and in the Gospel as good news to all sinners. Biblical Christianity cannot endorse same-sex marriage nor accept the claim that a believer can be obedient to Christ and remain or persist in same-sex behaviors.”
Mohler and his allies understand that Matthew’s new book really is a field manual for a new nationwide movement. Matthew calls his movement The Reformation Project and the next national “training conference” is in November, 2014, in Washington D.C. Matthew calls these events “training conferences” because they aren’t like any conventions most of us have attended. These are intellectual and spiritual boot camps, drilling participants in close-quarter evangelical debate.
As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I spent more than an hour interviewing Matthew about his fascinating work. Today, we are publishing …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MATTHEW VINES ON
‘GOD AND THE GAY CHRISTIAN’
DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are closely watching the events unfolding around your work and also Ken Wilson’s work with A Letter to My Congregation. In our latest roundup of news items, I see that Southern Baptist heavyweight Albert Mohler is accusing you of not being a Christian, let alone an evangelical.
Despite what he thinks, you do proudly define yourself as evangelical. Explain what you mean.
MATTHEW: My orientation to scripture and the Christian tradition is theologically conservative in line with a lot of the governing norms of evangelicalism today. I grew up in an evangelical church in Wichita—and I imbibed evangelical theology as I was growing up. Today, that term “evangelical” is still pretty accurate in describing my theology. At the same time, that word comes with all sorts of political baggage that I’m not thrilled about. That’s why I tend to say I’m theologically conservative.
On this issue, what matters most to those who identify themselves as evangelicals is the big question: When it comes to scripture, are you saying that we are going to disagree with the biblical authors because we now know better? Are we saying the Bible is wrong? Or, are we saying there is room for a kind of life-long monogamous same-sex relationship within Christianity, a kind of relationship that is not in view in those Bible texts.
DAVID: In other words, as an evangelical, you don’t simply want to say: The Bible is wrong in these half-dozen brief references to homosexuality—just ignore them. You follow the Bible so closely that you’re saying something different: People are incorrectly reading that handful of passages—and, in truth, the Bible doesn’t condemn monogamous same-sex relationships. In your view, you’re not rejecting the Bible.
VINES: Yes, I come down on the side of Christianity that is very much committed to upholding the authority of scripture.
DAVID: If our readers do watch the hour-long video of your now-famous talk in Wichita (or if they read the transcript), give them some context. What are they watching?
VINES: That video captures the beginning of a two-year-long journey. By the beginning of 2010, I had come out to my parents. At first, my parents did not agree with my perspective, but my parents were open to learning more. That’s why I took off a semester from school in 2010 to dive into scripture and study. After several months of doing that, I felt I had a much better grasp of the issues. I came out to more friends including some friends at church.
It was in 2011 that I felt more comfortable talking to a broader audience. I spent eight months that year working as hard as I could to continue to study and to try to engage people on the topic. I tried to talk to people at our church. It was very difficult because nobody had ever come out in our church before and then stayed and tried to engage people in this way. People weren’t rude but that was the first time many people in our church had even been aware that there were other viewpoints on the scripture. Churches operate very locally and our church had simply not been a part of these long discussions in the mainline denominations.
Not surprisingly, most people weren’t willing to go 180 degrees after first hearing this kind of argument.
I felt I needed a platform to be able to speak and get more of a hearing. I was not able to get that kind of open hearing at my own church. At the end of 2011, I began looking around at other churches that might be more receptive to my message. Some were receptive but were reluctant to let me give a public talk. College Hill United Methodist in Wichita said yes.
DAVID: Your family church had been a very conservative Presbyterian congregation, which once was affiliated with the mainline Presbyterian denomination but now has gone off on its own. So why did you give the talk and make the video at this particular United Methodist church?
MATTHEW: It’s one of the more progressive mainline churches in Wichita. And they let me speak one evening. It was a Thursday night, March 8, 2012. We had about 150 people. The goal that night was to give the talk, record the video and post it online. And, as we now know, the response to that video was very inspiring.
TALKING ABOUT THE BIBLE WITH OUR FAMILIES
DAVID: One of the crucial steps in your journey, which readers will learn more about in your new book, is your recommendation that families study the Bible together. Clearly, that’s a core part of evangelical culture. But what you discovered is something that the pollster George Gallup used to say: Faith in America is miles wide and an inch deep. You discovered that even the staunchest evangelicals have big gaps in their understanding of the Bible.
MATTHEW: That’s right. Dad knows a lot about the Bible and studies the Bible regularly. He has throughout his life. But he acknowledged early in our conversations about this: “I’ve never actually studied this issue.” In fact, he couldn’t even identify the main scriptural references. There aren’t many verses and they do seem negative about this.
DAVID: I like Tony Jones’ way of describing this handful of verses that mention homosexuality. He calls them the “clobber verses,” because conservative Christians use them to beat up gay men and women.
MATTHEW: What I learned from studying and discussing the Bible with Dad is that it’s a really important first step we can take: Acknowledging that there might be something we can learn. And if that message is coming from someone who is a fellow believer and has a close existing relationship with the person—then we can come at this with a tone of respect and love and discuss this out of a shared reverence for scripture. That can bear a lot of fruit.
We know that when someone we love comes out, then that person can change a family’s attitude toward this. We’ve seen that over and over again. But, what that process misses is that evangelicals, even if they love people who are coming out, they still feel their hands are tied by scripture. They don’t see how they can change their understanding of same-sex relationships without having their broader faith in the Bible unravel.
So, the ideal reader for my book is a Christian who knows someone who is gay and then the arguments I present in this book can help those readers shift their belief system.
CREATING A NEW FORCE FOR INCLUSION:
THE REFORMATION PROJECT
DAVID: That’s why we’re recommending this book. Tony Jones calls it “a go-to book” for Christians to share with friends who are struggling with this issue. But you’ve also got a much larger force in mind. You’re creating waves of Bible-equipped evangelicals to go toe to toe on this issue. Tell us about the Reformation Project.
MATTHEW: We’re just getting started. Basically what I’ve tried to do in the video and in this book is to mainstream a biblical argument on behalf of same-sex relationships. Then, through the Reformation Project, we are equipping people—we say that we are creating ambassadors—for the widest reach of this approach in congregations.
In September 2013 we had our inaugural conference. We brought together 50 Christians from across the United States and Canada. I had them prepare for this by reading more than 1,500 pages of academic literature about these issues.
DAVID: Wow. A real boot camp. This is heavy-duty training.
MATTHEW: This is a step we need to take. Many gay Christians have been very good about talking about our lives and our relationships and experiences—but when it comes to discussing the Bible, the conversation stalls. We don’t have enough people fully equipped to talk in depth about scripture and the history of this issue in the church. Our conference had a laser-like focus on how to have these conversations about scripture and same-sex relationships. In that first conference, we were building our training model. What we’re doing this year in Washington D.C. is expanding that model. Some of our trained reformers from last year will be helping us.
In November, we’re expecting hundreds of LGBT-affirming Christians to arrive wanting us to help them learn about the biblical tools they need to shift the thinking of families, friends and congregation members on this issue.
We’re meeting at the National City Christian Church just a 10-minute walk from the White House.
DAVID: What’s the capacity? Is there still room to sign up if some of our readers care to take part?
MATTHEW: We can accommodate up to 900 Christians at this conference. Even if you aren’t Christian, you can come and experience this—but we are framing this conference specifically to train people who are already LGBT-affirming Christians and have relationships with people who are not affirming Christians. We’ll be focused on giving them a theologically conservative LGBT-affirming framework to go back home and help us all shift this conversation.
CARE TO READ MORE?
LEARN HOW MATTHEW AND KEN WILSON ARE CHANGING AMERICA—ReadTheSpirit magazine also is publishing an overview of news events as our own author Ken Wilson, as well as Matthew Vines, are changing this conversation nationwide.
CAN AMERICAN CHURCHES CHANGE? The simple answer is: Yes. Read this five-part OurValues series that brings together the latest research from pollsters, including the evangelical pollster George Barna, documenting this dramatic shift.