Last week, Matthew Vines had an extended interaction with Sam Allberry’s review of God and the Gay Christian. Vines digs his heals in and defends the main thesis of his book while critiquing Allberry’s book Is God anti-gay?
Those who have read my own review of Vines’s book will not be surprised that I find much to disagree with in Vines’s remarks. He continues to argue that same-sex orientation is a morally neutral—and even praiseworthy—category of desire. I won’t rehearse all my reasons for disagreement but simply direct the reader to my earlier review.
It’s worth mentioning, however, that I find myself in agreement with Vines about one thing (though I am not at all convinced that Vines has read Allberry correctly). Vines highlights the inconsistency of those who try to stake out a “middle ground” on the morality of same-sex orientation and behavior. The “middle ground” view holds that while same-sex behavior is always wrong, same-sex orientation is not. Vines writes:
Sympathetic as I am to that attempt at a middle ground, however, it cannot hold from a biblical perspective. The Bible simply does not allow us to consider ourselves blameless for internal temptations to sin, nor does it allow us to view unchanged sinful desires as a sign of a vibrant, faithful Christian life.
As I have argued elsewhere, I believe that this statement is essentially correct. Christians who recognize the sinfulness of same-sex behavior but not of same-sex attraction are in a moral and theological no-man’s land. Biblically speaking, our desires and attractions—no matter how innate they may seem—are not exempt from moral scrutiny. God holds us accountable not only for our deeds, but also for the desires that give rise to them (e.g., Matt. 5:27-28; James 1:14-15).
I think that Vines’s views put him outside the evangelical fold. Nevertheless, Vines highlights an issue that continues to divide evangelical reflection about same-sex attraction. There is broad agreement among evangelicals that the Bible forbids same-sex behavior. There is continuing disagreement among evangelicals concerning the Bible’s teaching about same-sex orientation. On one side are those who see same-sex attraction as morally neutral. They view SSA as a “broken” desire but not necessarily as a sinful one (see here, here). On the other side are those who see SSA as a sinful desire that requires repentance and renewal in the gospel (see here, here). These two perspectives are irreconcilable, in my view, yet they are held by Christians who otherwise have great confessional unity among them.
What does all of this mean? Among other things, it means that conservative evangelicals have yet to think their way through to biblical clarity on the issue of same-sex orientation. It also means that evangelical theologians need to regard the resolution of this question a matter of great pastoral urgency. We are not, after all, arguing about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. How we answer this question determines how we counsel brothers and sisters who contend daily with ongoing and unwelcome same-sex attraction.
That doesn’t mean that we need to let this question be a continuing point of division or that we need to be suspicious of one another in the meantime. It simply means that we need to put our heads together and do some careful and prayerful thinking about these issues. I am confident that those of us who are committed to the authority of scripture will find our way to unity on these things. We’ll get there, but we need to be open to listen to one another and to let scripture speak. I have already had my own thinking refined by brothers with a different perspective on these things. I expect more of that in the future.
To that end, I would mention one conversation forthcoming this November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Wesley Hill, Preston Sprinkle, and I will be presenting papers in a special session on this topic. Owen Strachan will moderate a panel discussion at the end. The presenters hold in common what the Bible teaches about same-sex behavior. We have some differences on what the Bible teaches about same-sex attraction. My hope in proposing this session is to stimulate reflection toward biblical clarity and unity. I hope it’s the beginning of many such conversations among friends in coming days.
For those who will be in or near San Diego during this year’s ETS meeting, here is the info on our session:
Session: “Issues in Sexuality & Gender”
When: 2:00-5:10pm, Wednesday, November 19, 2014
Where: Town and Country Resort & Convention Center, San Diego, CA
Denny Burk, “Is Same-Sex Orientation Sinful?”
Preston Sprinkle, “Sexual Orientation in Paul’s World: It’s Not What You Think”
Wesley Hill, “Is Being Gay Sanctifiable? Scripture and the Great Tradition on Same-Sex Love and Christian Friendship”
Owen Strachan, moderator of panel discussion