Last night I had the opportunity to discuss the Bible and Homosexuality with Matthew Vines. It was hosted by Living Oaks Church as part of their “Get a Grip” series. We will post the video soon, but for now, here is my opening statement. I normally don't post an article this long, and I rarely write out a speech word-for-word. But here it is nonetheless!
My thanks to pastor Jon and the church for hosting this conversation, and my respect to Matthew for being willing to enter into this dialogue at a church that holds the historic Christian view on sex and marriage.
I appreciate Jon’s opening statement. This issue is too important to be decided by personality, experience, or likability. Don’t be tempted to believe something because you like me or because you don’t like me. And the same for Matthew. The ultimate question we have to keep asking is: What does God say about same-sex relationships? We must carefully discern truth.
To address this issue more specifically, I am going to focus on the life and teachings of Jesus. Here is the specific question I am going to address: What is the view of human sexuality that Jesus believed, lived, and proclaimed?
Before I lay out my case, please allow me four qualifiers. First, my assumption is that the sexual ethic Jesus taught is what will bring true flourishing in human life and relationships. In John 10:10, Jesus said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
God’s commands are for our good. We may not fully understand them—just like children don’t fully understand the good directive their parents give them. But his commands are always for our good. David said, “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalms 19:7). In his final speech before the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses said, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”
Imagine a world in which everyone followed God’s design for sex and marriage: There would be no sexually transmitted diseases. No abortions. No brokenness from divorce. Every child would have a mother and a father and experience the love and acceptance each parent uniquely offers. There would be no rape, no sex abuse, no sex trafficking, no pornography, and no need for a #Metoo campaign. Think of the healing and wholeness if people simply lived Jesus’ life-giving words regarding human sexuality.
This is why I don’t embrace the term “non-affirming” to describe my own view. I am affirming of Jesus’ view. Jesus knows best for mankind. I affirm that Jesus knew what he was talking about and had good reasons for it. Thus, I prefer the phrase “Jesus’ view” to describe my view—the view that God designed sex for the one-flesh marital union of a man and a woman, and the term “revisionist” for the position, which Matthew embraces, that God blesses some same-sex unions. Two of the leading revisionist scholars use the term, so I think I am on solid ground.
My second qualifier is to remind us that Jesus is for the marginalized. Jesus healed the sick. He cared for the poor. He loved those on the margins of society, even when he took flack for it. It was Jesus who told the story of the Prodigal Son, which illustrates God’s unending love and compassion for His children. And Jesus gave us the ethic of the Good Samaritan, which reminds us to love and care for the least among us. Jesus gave us the greatest moral teaching of all time.
And yet, Jesus’ love for the marginalized never made him overlook or minimize their sin or their need to turn from it. Though Jesus absolutely loved their souls, he never tolerated their sin. Jesus loved the broken, which involved caring for them personally and calling them to repentance. In that sense, even the Pharisees were marginalized. Jesus came to the “marginal” of every class—calling sinners of all kinds to repentance. Whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, Jesus always responded to the repentant sinner who came to him for forgiveness by caring for them, and by saying, “Go and sin no more.” And regardless of personal status, his message was the same for all: “Whatever far land you have gone off to, return to the Father who loves you.”
My third qualification is this: Even as a single person, Jesus was fully content. He was not married, and he never engaged in a single sex act. Think about that. Yet he experienced profound contentment, joy, and peace with his sexuality as an adult, single male.
Humans can live without sex and marriage. But we weren’t designed to live without love and intimacy—and there’s a big difference.
My fourth and last qualification is this: Christians have separated the teachings of Jesus from his humanity. We have turned the good news of God’s plan for sex into a set of moral rules. Yet we need to remember that Jesus was a real human being with flesh and blood. He didn’t merely look like a man. He was, and is, a full human being like us. Yes, he was God, but he was also a man, a male! — tempted in every way as we are, and yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).
God could have revealed His divine nature in a number of ways, but he chose to become a man who entered into the world through a woman—the virgin Mary. Through the incarnation, God fully embraced male and female sexuality. You see, in the incarnation, God affirms the male gender, and he affirms the female gender.
As the apostle Paul said, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman” (1 Cor. 11:11-12). Through the incarnation, Jesus affirmed that human beings are essentially male and female and interdependent for existence and survival.
With these four qualifications in mind, let's look at Jesus' teaching on God's life-giving design for human sexuality.
Matthew has said this next point is the most persuasive for people to embrace the revisionist view on sex and marriage. It is also the opening chapter in his book.
It is an argument based in the Gospel of Matthew 7:15-16. Let’s first read the passage:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits.
Matthew writes, “Jesus’ test is simple: If something bears bad fruit, it cannot be a good tree. And if something bears good fruit, it cannot be a bad tree.” He’s exactly right, but the question is, “What did Jesus mean by fruit?” And this is where Matthew errs in a costly way: He interprets “fruit” as the experience people have in living out Christian teaching. Matthew says, “Today, we are still responsible for testing our beliefs in light of their outcomes.”
And the “test”—according to Matthew—of historic Christian teaching about sex and marriage is that mandatory celibacy for gay Christians “produces bad fruit in many of their lives, and for some, it fuels despair to the point of suicide.” In other words, it is the historic Christian teaching itself that is responsible for the pain and hurt experienced by many LGBT folks.
That’s why, later in the book, Matthew says, “So it isn’t gay Christians who are sinning against God by entering into monogamous, loving relationships. It is the church that is sinning against them by rejecting their intimate relationships.” And then he adds, “This kind of love and affirmation—regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity—is, in fact, a requirement of Christian faithfulness.”
In other words, Matthew Vines believes that if you hold the historic Christian teaching, you hold beliefs toward gay relationships that “have led to crippling depression, torment, suicide, and alienation from God and the church.” You are sinning and an unfaithful Christian unless you change your theology to the revisionist view. Now, I have no animus towards Matthew for holding this view. In fact, I appreciate his candor and clarity. But this puts us at an impasse. You see, he believes I am sinning and unfaithful for not adopting the revisionist viewpoint. Worse—and don’t miss this—Matthew has to think that me—and all other Christians who taught Jesus’ view for 2,000 years—were wolves in sheep’s clothing.
I think Matthew is twisting the Scriptures and importing a foreign narrative onto the Bible that Jesus would have rejected. The bottom line is this: our views cannot be reconciled. Either he is right, and I am sinning (and twisting God’s Word) or if I am right, then he is twisting God’s word by encouraging people to engage in sinful sexual behavior. There is no other option.
So, the key question here is: What did Jesus mean by “fruit”? If we can only recognize a good and bad tree by its fruit, we have to know what Jesus meant by fruit. This is where the context is important. Here is what we know:
Bad fruit is not the bad experiences people have when they are told to obey God. Jesus did not teach us to evaluate Scriptural teachings and doctrine by the emotional effects they have on our lives, but on the moral effects they have on our lives.
According to Jesus, bad fruit is sin, and good fruit is obedience. The next verses make it clear that good fruit is following the teachings of Jesus. Matthew 7:21-23:
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’
Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, when John the Baptist was preaching repentance, some Pharisees came to one of his baptisms. John said:
“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matt 3:7-10)
In other words, according to John the Baptist, three chapters earlier in the same Gospel, good fruit is turning from sin and bad fruit is continuing in sin.
The Apostle John confirms this understanding of the word “fruit” when he records Jesus as saying:
“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love (John 15:8-10).
Jesus asks his disciples to bear much fruit, which means living obediently to his commands. Good fruit is obedience. Bad fruit is disobedience. And the good fruit Jesus envisions includes the fruit of submitting to God’s intention for sexual expression.
In Greek, there are two ways to express “bad.” The term both Jesus and John the Baptist chose, in reference to “fruit,” is poneros, which has the connotation of wicked or evil. “Bad fruit” really means “immorality” or “immoral behavior.” In other words, immoral behavior, not bad feelings.
When we consider the context of Matthew 7:15-20, the other ways Jesus uses “fruit,” and the Greek words chosen by John the Baptist and Jesus (poneros), “bad fruit” simply cannot mean the harmful consequences that result from following biblical teaching as Matthew wants you to believe.
With that said, there is a serious issue of concern over the sufferings of LGBT people. I mourn for those who suffer from depression, loneliness, and consider suicide. I have cried with my LGBT friends and students regarding much of the shame and pain they often feel. This is a pastoral issue the church MUST step up and address better because lives are at stake. Matthew, I think you can help the church with pastoral sensitivity to the unique needs of LGBT people. But the way to do this is not to distort biblical teaching. For we must remember, it is only the properly understood and applied words of Jesus that bring “abundant life.” And if we distort the words of Jesus, we prevent others from experiencing the abundant life as well.
Now, let’s consider some specific teaching where Jesus offered his view on sex and marriage. The passage is Matthew 19:3-6. Jesus was asked about divorce, but he offers principles that apply to the question of same-sex unions, since he grounds his answer in God’s created order and purpose.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.”
Notice a couple things. First, when the Pharisees ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce, he points back to the creation account in Genesis 1, 2. Jesus believed that what Moses wrote down captured God’s universal plan for sex and marriage. Thus, Jesus said, “Have you not read?”
Second, Jesus quotes both Genesis 1:27 (“He who created them from the beginning made them male and female”) and Genesis 2:24 (“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”). Now, to answer the question of the permissibility of divorce, which of these two passages is the only one he needed to cite? Genesis 2:24. So, why did he include 1:27? It is as if Jesus is going out of his way to affirm that marriage is a permanent, gendered institution, of one man and one woman, who become one-flesh, for one lifetime.
To fully understand what Jesus taught about marriage we need to take a closer look at the passages in Genesis 1, 2.
Genesis 1:27-28 says, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it…”
A few important things follow. First, men and women are both made in God’s image and have infinite dignity and worth. Second, God made human beings into two kinds: male and female. Third, God both blesses and commands mankind to procreate and fill the earth.
Genesis 2:23-24 says, “Then the man said, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’ 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” 25
Don’t miss the pattern here. The man leaves his “father and mother,” which indicates that the home is meant to be one man and one woman. And then he shall “hold fast” to his wife, which means the relationship is meant to be permanent, and they shall become “one-flesh.” This new couple will begin their own marital union, which will also be oriented towards filling and populating the earth through procreation.
Matthew has a few responses to this commonsense reading of the text. First, he says, “But the account of Eve’s creation doesn’t emphasize Adam’s need to procreate. It emphasizes his need for relationship… He also lacked any human friendship or community, which would have made his loneliness all the more profound.”
Notice how he inserts the word “loneliness.” The text never says Adam was lonely. It does say it was not good for him to be alone (v. 18), but it does not say he was lonely. Now, with that said, I do agree that human beings are made for relationship, for community and it is not good for man to be without community. But to claim that this text is primarily about companionship and not procreation is a false dilemma. In Genesis 1-2, Adam and Eve are given a blessing and command to populate and fill the earth—procreation (thus fulfilling the creation mandate from Genesis 1:28), and to care for and cultivate the earth. To fulfill God’s specific command to fill the earth, Eve needed to be a woman.
Second, Matthew says, “The text doesn’t focus on the gender differences between Adam and Eve. Rather, it focuses on their similarity as human beings... the Genesis text focuses only on what these two have in common” In other words, it was her humanity that mattered, not her gender.
But this is misses the full force of verse 18, which says, “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.’” “Helper” communicates that Eve was a companion in completing the tasks God had given Adam: to work and keep the garden and to populate and fill the earth. Another man could only help with the first task, but not the second.
This is made clearer with the Hebrew term for “fit for him,” or as some translations say, “suitable.” The Hebrew word is kenegdo, which has been translated “fit for him,” but it literally means “like his opposite.” She is like Adam (ke) in that she is human. But she is different than him (neged) because she is female. According to Hebrew professor Brian Peterson, “God seems to be declaring that the man needs a helper that, when standing ‘in front of him’ (negdo) is his opposite…That is why God built the woman with the perfect physical anatomy that would ‘fit’ the man’s anatomy when they stood ‘in front of’ one another!”
Like right and left hands—they are the same, but opposite. Facing each other they match (“fit”) perfectly.
Matthew focuses merely on the similarity between Adam and Eve, but the text indicates that both similarity and difference are in view. When we consider both the Hebrew words and the context of Genesis 1-2, it is clear that the otherness of Eve is precisely her sexual difference and not her different Strengths Finder evaluation, to quote my friend Preston Sprinkle.
Third, Matthew says that the “one-flesh” union of Genesis 2:24 focuses on the familial commonality two people share in forming a new kinship bond. In other words, sexual difference or complementarity is not part of the nature of the “one-flesh” union. He cites Genesis 29:14 in which Laban, upon learning that Jacob was his relative, exclaimed, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh” (Genesis 29:14). And likewise, David told the elders of Judah, “You are my brothers; you are my bone and my flesh” (2 Sam 19:12).
Matthew is right to consider the union of Adam and Eve as a kinship union. They are starting a new family unit. But he is wrong to disregard sexual complementarity as part of that union. Two observations. First, if we dismiss sexual complementarity, then I wonder how Matthew limits a marital union to two people. On this reasoning, a polyamorous or polygamous union would count as one-flesh. After all, in his own example, David referred to the elders of Judah (a group) as his own bone and flesh.
Second, there is a difference between being of the same flesh and being one flesh. My daughter and I are of the same flesh, but only my wife and I are “one-flesh.” The one-flesh union involves not only the sex act, but also oneness—a wholeness—in all the physical, social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of life.
Think about it: Individual human beings can perform every biological function as individuals—respiration, digestion, blood circulation—but there is one biological function where individuals each have half—reproduction. Male and female come together as one “organism,” “one-flesh,” which is oriented towards procreation. Marriage is about much more than sex and procreation, but it is about no less.
This is why Jesus said there is no need for marriage in heaven: “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, 36 for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36). Since a central purpose of God for marriage is procreation, and people will not die in heaven, there is no need for marriage.
My final point regarding the teaching of Jesus is that Jesus moved in a more conservative direction on sexual ethics, not a more progressive direction. For instance, in Matthew 19, when Jesus was asked about divorce, he took a strong conservative stance. Remember, he said, “Have you not read?” and points back to the creation account. He said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” Jesus tightened the grip on allowances for divorce. In fact, his teachings were radical, that his disciples said, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.”
Second, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus moved adultery from a sin solely of the body to a sin that included the heart and mind. He made the law against divorce even more strict than other teachers of his day.
This is why N.T. Wright observed, “When we get to the New Testament… We might expect, from the received assumption, that we would move from a strict moral demand in the Old Testament to a slackening of moral tension in the New. Not a bit of it. Jesus is very clear, in Mark 10 and elsewhere: now that he is there, launching God’s kingdom, renewing the covenant between God and his people, the creation itself is being renewed. He goes back to the beginning, to Genesis 1 and 2: God made them male and female and insisted that the two would become one." 
In conclusion, given the teachings of Jesus about marriage being one man, with one woman, becoming one flesh, for one lifetime, it would be more destructive, not less, to encourage people to fulfill their desire for sexual intimacy with a person of the same sex. The abundant life only comes when we follow God’s intent for our lives.