Openly gay Christian author Matthew Vines on the intersectionality of the LGBTQ and Christian communities

By : Jaime Donelson
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The Reformation Project is a Bible-based, nonprofit Christian grassroots organization that works to promote the inclusion of LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups in the church. The organization focuses on reforming the church’s teachings on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Religious author Matthew Vines founded The Reformation Project in 2013. Vines, who is openly gay, had taken a semester off from Harvard University to come out to his parents and research homosexuality in the Bible. That research led to Vines holding lectures on intersectionality in the church. A video of Vines’ lecture was uploaded to YouTube where it was viewed over one million times.

Vines wrote “God and the Gay Christian” in 2014 to help give LGBTQ Christians the book he wished existed when he came out to his family and church.

Vines sat down with Watermark for an interview during The Reformation Project’s sixth annual LGBTQ Inclusion Conference in Orlando.

What inspired you to start writing your book, “God and the Gay Christian?”

Well, really I just wanted to write the book that I wished existed when I was coming out to my parents. I wanted to write a book that an LGBTQ child could give to a conservative Christian parent, that could create more space for this conversation around the Bible and same sex relationships in particular. For most conservative Christians who oppose same-sex relationships, the whole reason they do is because it’s their interpretation of the Bible. I’ve known from growing up in a conservative church and from having a deep love for the Bible my whole life, how particular many Christians are about which types of methodology and approaches to interpretation are acceptable and which ones are not. So when I realized I was gay, I found a number of resources that had a lot value in them. But they were written to more progressive or moderate Christians. Which means there were things in them that would not be received well by more conservative Christians. So what I wanted to do with my book was write one that anybody could give to their conservative parent and give them a framework that they could walk step-by-step to eventually accept and affirm their child without feeling like they have to let go of the Bible.

What inspired you to create The Reformation Project?

Both my book and organization were born off of my own needs and experiences. So I grew up in a conservative evangelical church of about 2,000 people in Wichita, Kansas. When I came out at the age of 19, I was really the first person to come out and stay in the church and try to have conversations with people, which was very hard.

So I felt like there were two things that were really missing for me. One was a clear message tailored for conservative Christians and the other was an organizational infrastructure or support for people seeking to stay in these communities and create change within them. That was something that was not available to me. First, I gave a talk that I posted online, so that was really me working to fill that void of accessible theological resources for conservative Christians. Then I decided to create the organization after months of receiving so many responses, many of them positive, but they said this was helpful to me but I still feel isolated and unsupported in my church and many of them were not willing to watch this video much less have a conversation about it.

I know from my own experiences that no matter how strong your argument is if your just one person out of 2,000 making it, you’re not going to be heard by too many people. I created The Reformation Project in 2013, with the goal of equipping and empowering a broader network of LGBT Christians and allies in nonaffirming churches who want to help their churches become affirming and change their teachings and policies on sexual and gender identity.

How did your church react to the video?

There was not an official reaction to the video, but what was interesting was two years later when my book was published, the church actually released an official statement on the book. It was nice in some ways saying, “Mathew and his family were in the church for a long time and we care about them,” which was nice, but “We believe his book is unbiblical.” Was I offended? Not really because I was just honestly pleased that they felt the need to acknowledge it. Because I think the common tactic in a lot of conservative churches and communities is shut down the conversation because nothing can change if the conversation can’t even start. So if you’ve created enough waves then people feel like they have to acknowledge it. To me that’s a kind of progress and it’s an early stage but it’s important.

Can you talk a bit about the The Reformation Project and what you guys do?

We are a Christian grassroots organization that works to promote the inclusion of LGBTQ people through the reforming of church teachings and polices around sexual orientation and identity. We run conferences and training across the country for LGBTQ Christians and allies seeking to give people theological training. We help people to really be effective in having conversations with their pastors or other leaders in their churches who do not support same-sex relationships or who don’t support transgender people. We also want to equip people with training around community and grassroots organizing. How do you go about trying to create effective long term systemic change? Because biblical arguments are an important part of that but it’s still not enough.

We do our national conference, which is more of an intro level event. We have a lot of people who come to the event who have just recently come out. I was talking to a woman today that just came out yesterday. Often times they’re still pretty connected to these conservative communities where they still have relationships and they want to speak into those contexts in these relationships as effectively as possible. We are working to equip them to do that by providing training and a community support system to encourage people and let them know they aren’t alone.

We also have an annual leadership cohort. That is an intensive program for 35 Christians and allies. It’s pretty competitive, it has an application process. Once we select our 35 people they do three months of pretty intensive study and preparation. We give them a lot of readings on various aspects in theology and around intersectionality. Then we meet for four days at an in-person summit. Applications for that are available until Nov. 30. That’s for people who really want to go a lot deeper in their advocacy. Shae Washington, who is our programs organizing director, went through our cohort three years ago. It’s often a kind of pipeline for further involvement in the organization.

We also do events and forums in nonaffirming churches around the country that still want to create the space for a conversation. They’re somewhat different audiences because it’s intended for Christians are not yet affirming.

I read that you left Harvard in order to research the Bible and LGBTQ inclusion in the church. Did something happen to you that was really eye opening? What inspired you to take a break from school?

Yeah I realized that I was gay. My sophomore fall semester at Harvard I started processing those questions about my sexual orientation and acknowledged that I was gay. That just totally upended all of my planned expectations of my life. The community that I came from was no space for people to become openly gay. The irony is that at Harvard, it’s not even an issue. So I’m having this existential crisis over here and other people are like “wait you’re just gay, it’s not a big deal.” I thought about the relationship with my parents, and I knew that was going to take a lot of work. I’ve always had a close relationship with them and I wanted to maintain that. But I also knew that they didn’t understand the topic in the way that I did. They were nonaffirming of same-sex relationships. I wanted to change their attitudes about that. I was like before I move on with my life I just really want to do my homework on this and make my case, so that in the future if other people disagree with me I don’t have to have the same conversation starting from square one all over again. I can say you should watch the video I made or read my book, then we can have a conversation about it. I don’t want to have to do the same emotional labor every single time I’m having this deep conversation with somebody who’s maybe only spent 30 minutes thinking about this topic. It’s not fair. It’s also not sustainable.

I also wanted to make that available to more people. So many LGBTQ Christians kind of feel like they are in a constant defensive posture. I wanted to create more resources that more people could use and they wouldn’t have to do all that work themselves.

You have so much scholarly evidence towards your argument. Is it frustrating when some conservative Christians still refuse to even listen?

I would say its illuminating more than anything. I think there is a wide variety of reasons why people oppose the LGBT community. Some of them are more understandable then others, but that doesn’t mean any of it is okay. My dad for instance, he literally just did not understand. He had never met an openly gay person before. He just always heard certain religious messages from religious leaders. It’s not like he even thought about it that much. He just didn’t understand that being gay is a permanent part of who some people are. It’s not something therapy can just change. He never even investigated the main Bible verses around this. He didn’t understand that same-sex relationships can and do look very similar to him and my mom. That they can have the same values. If he thinks that’s a good thing for him, why would that not be a good thing for other people. Now he is here at this conference and he’s very supportive.

There are a lot of people, where the reasons that they give you are about the Bible. Maybe they just haven’t been engaged in the right way before. If you are able to do that, especially if you share the same values around faith, then you’re able to have a much deeper conversation around the core of their concerns and beliefs. A lot of people can and do change their mind. That’s worth pursuing.

It’s also true there are some people who tell you “I just believe in it because of the Bible.” I could answer every question and concern that they have about the Bible and at the end of the day they still think it’s wrong. That’s really important because you realize what they’re beliefs are actually about. Frequently, biblical interpretation is used as a cover for a baser prejudice. I think you could argue that’s true in every case. It’s important because they may not change their minds but they won’t have the same veneer of respectability to say it’s not related to personal prejudice. I try not to get so frustrated with this stuff because I’d just be frustrated all the time. Obviously the world is unjust and unfair, but I just try to look at how many people can we bring on board. As long as we are working effectively to do that I try not to get to frustrated by the people who are still propagating hate or exclusion or marginalization. I just want to make sure I’m channeling my energy into something that isn’t beating me down at the end of the day. Something can give me energies into something that can help me to give me more energy to reach more people. With the hope that one day that people who can’t be reached right now can be reached later.

Why do you think the conference is so important?

This conference is the most significant entry point for a lot of our constituents. It provides the first opportunity for a lot of people after they come out to feel supported in their identify. To understand that other LGBTQ Christians or other affirming Christians exist. It can be very empowering for a lot of people on an individual level. Then if we connect with them as an organization is to continue to partner with them to help take that individual level change to a broader community level and ultimately to a system level.

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