WASHINGTON - It looked like a typical evangelical service, except for the same-sex couples in pews: a man leaning his head on another man’s shoulder, a woman with her arm around her female partner.
They were among the several hundred gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Christians who recently gathered at the National City Christian Church in Washington for a meeting of The Reformation Project.
The group was founded by Matthew Vines, who grew up in Wichita, Kansas, after an hour-long YouTube testimonial he posted two years ago about being Christian and gay went viral.
He said the aim is to show that “there is a path to both affirming the full authority of the Bible and affirming same-sex relationships.”
Most evangelical Christians believe the Bible unequivocally condemns homosexuality. The Book of Leviticus calls male-male sex “detestable,” while in the Book of Romans, one of Jesus’ apostles, Paul, condemns men who commit “shameless acts" with other men.
But Vines said homosexuality was seen differently in the ancient world, and believes these passages are about lasciviousness, and do not apply to loving same-sex couples.
“The heart of the scripture’s teaching is that marriage is about commitment - that is about keeping one’s covenant with one’s spouse in the same way that God keeps his covenant with us,” he said in an interview. “And that is something that same-sex couples can do just as well as opposite sex couples can.”
Vines also argues the traditional teaching is wrong because it has failed in its objective - it has not stopped homosexuality and it has caused much suffering among Christians with same-sex attractions.
But critics argue he is reinterpreting scripture to justify his own sexual orientation. One of those critics is Sam Allberry, a British pastor who said he is attracted to men, but stays single.
“What you have to do to the Bible to make it approve of same-sex relationships is profoundly un-evangelical,” he told a meeting last month of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
At that meeting, Baptist leaders toned down past rhetoric about gays without changing their core beliefs. That prompted some comparisons to Pope Francis’ recent efforts to reach out to gays, while not changing church doctrine.
The biblical passages dealing with homosexuality are central for Evangelical Christians, because they read much of scripture literally. But evangelical ethicist David Gushee said they are blown out of proportion.
“The Bible has 31,273 verses,” he said in an interview in Washington. “The number of verses that can be called on to support the traditional position is essentially six passages, maybe 15 verses at the most. That is something to pay attention to.”
Gushee, who teaches at Mercer University, a Baptist divinity school in Atlanta, Georgia, recently caused a sensation in evangelical circles when he changed his own position and published a book called “Changing Our Mind.” He said the change partly came about from meeting homosexuals, and after his younger sister came out as a lesbian.
“When I stopped thinking of this mainly as a sexual ethics issue, and started thinking about it mainly as a human suffering issue - rejected children, people kicked out of their families and churches, people wanting to kill themselves because of what they were hearing from their parents and their friends and their churches... it is not just about those six passages, it is about how marginalized people are supposed to be treated,” he said.
In his speech at the conference, he spoke at length about his other area of expertise: Christians and the Holocaust.
“I will view what got us here as one of those tragic situations in Christian history, in which well-intentioned Christians, just trying to follow Jesus, misread scripture, causing great harm to oppressed people,” he said.
A stained glass window above him in the sanctuary depicted the martyrdom of St. Steven, a biblical parable that many Christians historically have read in an anti-Semitic vein, even though both killers and victim were Jewish.
In the interview with VOA, Gushee said the gay issue is just another example of biblical distortions resulting in what he calls “un-Christlike” behavior.
“I think it remains very hard for Christians to say this simple thing: ‘We were wrong,’” he said in the interview. “We’ve been wrong on slavery, on race, on women, on a whole host of issues.”