Sean McDowell | March 22, 2016

Should Experience Trump Scripture?

In my recent book The Beauty of Intolerance, my father and I discuss how a new view of tolerance has crept its way into the church. One powerful way this is seen is how an increasing number of Christians approach Scripture.

For instance, in his book God and the Gay Christian, Matthew Vines begins by affirming the final authority of scripture on questions of morality and doctrine.[1] And yet when Vines discovered his own same-sex attraction, his perspective began to change based on his personal experience. Now he has become an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights within the church, and his goal is to lead a movement to convince Christians that they can affirm the full authority of scripture and also affirm committed, monogamous same-sex relationships.

I have met Matthew a number of times, and even had a lengthy discussion with him and some pastors at Biola, which was covered by the NY Times. I have always found him kind, gracious, and engaging, even though we disagree considerably on this issue.

A Simple Test for a Genuine Prophet

Vines claims to recognize how important it is that we not elevate our experience over scripture. In fact, he says, “I wasn’t asking them [conservative Christians] to revise the Bible based on my experience. I was asking them to reconsider their interpretation of the Bible.” Fair point. But he continues, “While Scripture tells us not to rely solely on our experience, it also cautions us not to ignore our experience altogether.”[2] Vines supports his point with an example from the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus warned against false prophets:

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15–20 ESV).

According to Vines, Jesus provides a simple test for a genuine prophet: “If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” Since Vines believes traditional Christian teaching on homosexual behavior brings harm to gay people (depression and suicide, for instance) then it must not be biblical. By contrast, embracing monogamous same-sex relationships brings “good fruit” to gay people, and so it must be right.

Since Vines believes this is a question of interpretation, not biblical authority, the question is a matter of what the text means. If you read the larger context for this passage, it becomes clear that “bad fruit” is not stressed out people who feel marginalized from society, as Vines suggests. Rather, according to Jesus’ words in context, bad fruit is “everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them” (v. 26 ESV). And “good fruit” is “everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them” (v. 24 ESV). In other words, good fruit is characterized by obedience to Christ and to God’s commands. And bad fruit is sin.

The reality is that there are many issues of orthodox teaching that can cause considerable hardship in people’s lives. Can you imagine the amount of distress and anger that would be caused if people followed the biblical guidelines on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:3–12; 1 Cor. 7)? Millions of Christians would experience angst, stress, depression, and frustration over what they believe are unreasonable demands to remain married to someone with whom they’ve fallen out of love.

Sure, many people choose not to follow this teaching. But do we have the authority to change biblical teaching because it is difficult to live? It is hard to imagine Jesus and Paul adopting such an approach. In fact, by Vines’ interpretation, the preaching of the apostles, which lead them to be threatened, beaten, thrown in prison, and even killed, would be considered “bad fruit.” And so would Paul’s “thorn in the flesh.” Even though Paul pleaded with Christ to remove it, he was told, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). For the sake of Christ, Paul willingly embraced “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (v. 10 ESV). Should we expect any less?

Experience and Scripture

In a review of God and the Gay Christian, Christopher Yuan provides a more balanced approach for the intersection of experience and the interpretation of scripture:

A high view of Scripture is more than just talking about Scripture. It is learning from Scripture. Vines certainly talks about Scripture, but he tends to emphasize his experience and tangential background information, downplaying Scripture and its relevant literary and historical context.

Experiences do inform our interpretation of Scripture. As a racial minority, biblical texts on sojourners and aliens mean more to me than to someone who is not a racial minority. However, experiences can also hinder the interpretation of Scripture. Although it is impossible to completely distance the interpretive process from one’s experiences, it is important to recognize our biases and do our best to minimize them. A high view of Scripture involves measuring our experience against the Bible, not the other way around.

It appears to me that Vines starts with the conclusion that God blesses same-sex relationships and then moves backwards to find evidence. This is not exegesis, but a classic example of eisegesis (reading our own biases into a text). Like Vines, I also came out as a gay man while I was a student. I was a graduate student pursuing a doctorate in dentistry. Unlike Vines, I was not raised in a Christian home. Interestingly, a chaplain gave me a book from a gay-affirming author, John Boswell, claiming that homosexuality is not a sin. Like Vines, I was looking for biblical justification and wanted to prove that the Bible blesses gay relationships. As I read Boswell’s book, the Bible was open next to it, and his assertions did not line up with Scripture. Eventually, I realized that I was wrong—that same-sex romantic relationships are a sin. My years of biblical language study in Bible college and seminary, and doctoral research in sexuality, only strengthened this conclusion. No matter how hard I tried to find biblical justification and no matter whether my same-sex temptations went away or not, God’s word did not change. Years later I found out that the gay-affirming chaplain also recognized his error.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author of over 15 books, an internationally recognized speaker, and a part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog:

[1] Matthew Vines, God and the Gay Christian (New York: Convergent, 2014), 2.

[2] Ibid., 13-14.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, a best-selling author, popular speaker, and part-time high school teacher. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell, TikTok, Instagram, and his blog: