Christian apologist Michael Brown recently debated Matthew Vines on the question “Can you be gay and Christian?” Brown represented the traditional Christian perspective that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian faith while Vines represented the view that they are compatible. You can watch/listen to the debate here and then read part 1 of my commentary below.
Before getting to the debate itself, I’ll say a few words about the moderator, Julie Roys. After that, I will offer comments following on the two opening statements. My commentary in this first part extends up to the first 10 minutes of the debate.
Julie Roys (the Moderator)
For the most part Roys did a decent job moving the conversation forward. And I am grateful that she (and Moody Radio) saw fit to host the discussion. Even better, Roys gave away copies of Michael Brown’s book (Can You Be Gay and Christian?) and Matthew Vines’ book (God and the Gay Christian ). And what I really like is that she gave them away in pairs so people could read up on both positions. Moody is to be commended for taking this open, conversational stance to this controversial topic.
Nor do I begrudge Roys’ decision to set aside the standard role of the neutral moderator by clearly identifying with Brown. I understand that this is a volatile topic among conservative Christians and that showing your colors is a strategic preemptive move to satisfy conservatives. (I am reminded here of N.T. Wright’s quip that for some conservative Christians you have to affirm all your beliefs all the time, because the minute you fail to mention one, it provides fuel for the heresy hunters to speculate on theological backsliding.) Roys stated her allegiance early on just after the one minute mark:
“I will play the role of the moderator. However, I do have an opinion on this issue and I don’t pretend that I don’t. I am an employee of the Moody Bible Institute, and the Moody Bible Institute and myself, we do hold to an orthodox Christian understanding of sexuality and that is that marriage and sex are designed to be for one man and one woman, not for two people of the same sex.”
The thing that irked me was that Roys kept repeating her position, as if we might forget. At the 22 minute mark she reiterated:
“And before we dive back into our discussion I want to let you know, just to be clear, that Moody is airing this debate not because this is a question that is open as far as Moody Bible Institute is concerned. We do hold to an orthodox Christian understanding of human sexuality and marriage. That is, for one man and one woman, not for two people of the same sex.”
Okay, fine, we get it.
Even this was apparently not enough. At the 41 minute mark (as the debate was ending) Roys gives the final word for the whole debate. At this point she closes off the show suggesting that the whole pro-gay Christian position is a manifestation of sinfulness and a failure to appreciate the holiness and power of God.
It seems to me that Roys and Moody Radio are giving out mixed signals here. On the one hand, they want to be seen as providing an open place for debate on important and controversial topics. But on the other hand, they want to ensure that we come out with the right position at the end (their side).
For some reason, this reminded me of theologian Gordon Lewis’ book Decide for Yourself: A Theological Workbook (For People Who are Tired of Being Told What to Believe) (1970). In the book, Lewis invites the reader to come to their own views on the full range of theological topics. But Lewis is the one who sets up the question and frames the issue and provides the full range of biblical texts he deems relevant for settling the question. In other words, the phrase “Decide for Yourself” is a bit of a sham, since Lewis is already doing a lot of the deciding for you. I got the sense that Roys and Moody Radio were trying to do the same.
Matthew Vines: the opening statement
Vines starts off with his personal experience of growing up in the church, coming to terms with his homosexuality, and later coming to terms with the church.
He was told that celibacy was the only option for the gay Christians. So he turned to the Bible and found that that there were six passages in scripture which addressed same-sex acts (three in the OT, three in the NT). Vines studied them and concluded that
“while all six references in the Bible to same sex behavior are negative, none of them directly address or envision the prospect of long-term, faithful same sex relationships that are based on commitment and love.”
He goes on to say that Paul’s condemnation of homosexual acts is based on the acts as lustful, a fact that leaves open the possibility of non-lustful same sex relationships. Meanwhile, the Old Testament condemnations occur in a Levitical law code that is no longer applicable to Christians.
Finally, Vines believes that the basic picture of marriage in the New Testament is centered on “covenantal love and self-giving”, and he believes that homosexual couples can manifest this in their relationships.
Vines also mentions a friend of his who came out of the closet and was subsequently shunned by his church. It is an effective story reminding all participants in the debate that we need to figure out how to embrace those who are different than us.
All in all this was an effective, succinct opening statement.
Michael Brown: the opening statement
Brown presented himself very well when he was first introduced. He even said “Matthew it is a joy to speak with you…” and he really seemed genuine, warm and affable. Altogether, a very good first impression.
Next, at the 9 minute mark Brown was invited to give a response to Vines’ opening statement.
He began by asserting that there is
“zero question whatsoever [about what the Bible says on homosexuality]: The Bible and God’s loving word only ordains heterosexual relationships and always under all circumstances roundly condemns homosexual acts and homosexual relationships. In fact, we have more than 31,000 verses in the Bible. Not a single one of them has a single positive thing to say about homosexual relationships.”
Note that Brown’s absolute language (i.e. “zero question”) does not allow any space for a person like Vines to disagree. This is a disappointing way to start, and it shows that Brown is sure to be completely tone deaf to Vines’ reasonable argument that the biblical authors simply did not envision, and by extension did not address, what we currently understand as “homosexuality”.
Consider another example: transgendered people. These are individuals whose self-understanding of their sexual identity differs from their physical/genetic make-up. In recent decades it has become increasingly common to respond to these individuals by undertaking medical and surgical procedures to “correct” their physical makeup to align with their self-understanding.
The biblical authors did not have a conception of the problem of transgender identity as we now understand it. Oh sure, we have passages like Deuteronomy 22:5: “A woman must not wear men’s clothing, nor a man wear women’s clothing, for the LORD your God detests anyone who does this.” But to think prohibitions like this address transgender identity is at best grossly simplistic.
What about the rejoinder that God don’t make mistakes? If he created Shawn, then we have no right to create Shawna.
This strikes me as a naïve response, for it ignores the fact that we live in a broken, fallen world. The very Christian conservatives who insist that God created Shawn to be Shawn, and so Shawn he must stay, nonetheless believe that if Shawn was born with a cleft palate, then we ought to correct it. That is part of the fall. But if the cleft palate is part of the fall, how do we know that the perceived incongruence between Shawn’s physical body and identity is not also part of the fall? And if we concede that it might be, then who can say with certainty that sex reassignment surgery might not be as appropriate a response as surgery on a cleft palate?
I have spoken with two Christian psychiatrists about this issue and both support sex reassignment surgery in at least some cases. (I have blogged in the past about transgender children here.) They have drawn their conclusions with PhDs in psychiatry and years of practice. And they also do so after careful biblical and theological reflection. One thing is clear to me through all this: the issues surrounding transgender identity are complex and the Bible and Christian theological reflection do not afford simple answers.
Note the close parallel between homosexuality and transgender identity. Just as the Bible does not offer any clear response to transgender identity as we currently understand it, so a person can plausibly argue it offers no clear response to homosexuality as we currently understand it. And that was precisely Vines’ point in his opening statement.
To be sure, this hardly settles the issue in Vines’ favor. But what it does is show that there is indeed room for debate. Two individuals who are equally serious about their Christian faith and the authority of the Bible may, nonetheless, arrive at opposite conclusions on this important ethical issue. And thus, anybody who claims there really is no debate here (as Brown does) is either dishonest or shows himself unable to grapple with the theological nuances of this issue. (In Brown’s case I certainly think it is the latter since I have no reason to think him dishonest.)
Now I will turn to address Brown’s next statement. I’ll start by quoting it again: “we have more than 31,000 verses in the Bible. Not a single one of them has a single positive thing to say about homosexual relationships.”
This is a piece of rhetoric, pure and simple. And Brown repeats it a couple more times in the debate. As a seasoned debater, Brown knows that people are moved more by memorable sound bytes than careful, reasoned reflection. And repeating that 31,000 verses say nothing positive about homosexuality is certainly a memorable sound byte.
Of course, 31,000 verses also say nothing positive about transgender people. Or blood transfusions. Or the germ theory of disease. Or plate tectonics. Or the internal combustion engine. Or major league baseball.
In other words, the more you think about it, the less significant the sound byte appears.
Next, Brown adds immediately:
“That’s not the way God designed us. That’s not the way God made us.”
Brown is here attempting to draw an “ought” from an “is”. And this is certainly not an unreasonable argument to make. However, there are all sorts of ways that human persons are born and develop which reflects a divergence between ought and is. So it is not sufficient to base an argument simply on the observation that we were not “designed” this way.
For example, on a natural law view, eyes were made for seeing. They weren’t made for winking at people. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use an eye to wink at a person. And if penises were not made to be put in rectums, neither were they made to be put in mouths. Despite this fact, most evangelicals seem to have a relatively relaxed view on oral sex within marriage. So it is far from clear which deviations from the intended design are morally permissible and which are not.
From this point Brown helpfully distinguishes his methodology from Vines’:
“And very fundamentally, we can interpret the Bible through the lens of our sexuality as Matthew is doing — very overtly saying that’s how he’s done it in his own life — or you can interpret your sexuality through the lens of the Bible.”
Along with the 31,000 verses bit, this is another MAJOR hit on Brown’s part. He has just framed the debate as one between the Bible and Matthew Vines. For most in the largely Christian audience of Moody Radio, the debate can effectively be settled on this point alone.
Unfortunately, winning debating points in this way is merely a step above “How often do you beat your wife?” The question has been framed erroneously.
Take one of the examples from my list of things about which the 31,000 verses have nothing good to say: blood transfusions. Imagine that Brown is arguing against blood transfusions (like a good JW) while Vines is arguing for them. Once again, Brown could get the upper hand by framing the debate thusly:
“And very fundamentally, we can interpret the Bible through the lens of our medicine, as Matthew is doing — very overtly saying that’s how he’s done it in his own life — or you can interpret your medicine through the lens of the Bible.”
BAM! If the Bible is in then blood transfusions are out.
And a similar argument could be marshalled to support young earth creationism, slavery, genocide, or stoning one’s insubordinate children.
So what’s going on here? What’s going on is that Brown is really just like Vines: both interpret the Bible through their particular lenses, lenses which include their contemporary Wissenschaft and personal experiences. Brown’s heterosexuality, his personal history and life experience all shape the way he reads the Bible as surely as Vines’ homosexuality, his personal history and life experience shape the way he reads the Bible.
And that means that Brown’s rhetorically effective framing of the debate is, in fact, deeply misleading.
This is not the say that the point is without substance. There is in fact a very important word here. The core warning that we should take away from Brown’s word is that each of us is liable to read the Bible in accord with our assumptions. For example, I’m always mystified by the pro-gun evangelical culture of the United States, and I wonder how folks square that with the life of Jesus. At the same time, I also must admit that I am just as much in danger of reading my own personal life experience into the Bible. Maybe my pacifistic leanings are more a result of my personal aptitudes and cultural rearing in wussy Canada than being conformed to the life of Jesus. I can’t discount this possibility.
So Brown is right in warning that Vines might be reading the text to suit himself. But he fails to recognize that he might be doing the very same thing.
Next, Brown asserts:
“The gospel according to Jesus, if we want to follow him, it starts with deny yourself, take up the cross and follow me, not affirm yourself and now make the gospel fit into that.”
This is yet another powerful rhetorical point. However, it ain’t just rhetoric. Indeed, as the debate progresses it will be very relevant as we hear Vines hammer home the fact that same-sex attracted people can only find fulfillment in same-sex relationships.
In response, Brown can point out that the call of the Christian is not finding a life-companion and sexual partner. Rather, it is found in holiness and conformity to the life of Christ. Some Christians find themselves in loveless marriages. Others find themselves lifelong singles even though they have longed for a marital relationships. Regardless of one’s situations, all Christians are called, first and foremost, to holiness as they conform themselves to Christ’s image. And the same is true of the Christian homosexual.
In sum, while Vines effectively laid out his position in his opening statement, Brown has provided a powerful series of counterpunches that have served to frame the debate in his favor. Whether Vines can succeed in redrawing the lines of debate and effectively communicating his perspective remains to be seen.
Here ends part 1 of my review.