The Moral Theology of The Reformation Project
The Reformation Project (TRP) describes itself as a Bible-based, Christian organization whose mission is to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church. Given the traditional Christian understanding of biblical sexual ethics and gender identity, this would be considered an unorthodox, if not controversial, position. How does TRP square an LGBTQ-affirming mission with Scripture? Under what sort of ethical framework are they operating? This paper will demonstrate how the ethical commitments of The Reformation Project have led to an unbiblical moral theology and a divergence from biblical positions on issues of sexual ethics. A two-part approach will be employed.
First, the ethical framework used by The Reformation Project will be examined and defined based on the teachings presented in their literature. The following questions will be considered regarding their ethic: What is its intrinsic value? What makes an action right or wrong? Is there an ethical calculus and, if so, how is it employed? How are ethical tensions resolved? Second, the TRP ethic will be compared with Scripture and critiqued. Is their ethical framework biblical? Do their theological conclusions regarding sexual ethics align with an orthodox Christian understanding of Scripture?
The Ethical Framework of The Reformation Project
Rather than reject Christianity or the Bible, the approach taken by The Reformation Project is to attempt to harmonize Scripture with an LGBTQ-affirming worldview. To do this, they present alternate interpretations for key Bible passages that have traditionally been understood to condemn same-sex relations as sinful. The net result is a ten-point Biblical Case that outlines The Reformation Project’s theological rationale for its mission to advance LGBTQ inclusion in the church. The thrust of their theology is that same-sex unions are acceptable by God, provided they occur within loving, committed relationships.
Because TRP’s published ten-point argument is not exhaustive, further research was warranted. In addition to the Biblical Case, a 2012 speech by Matthew Vines, the founder and Executive Director of The Reformation Project, was reviewed along with Vine’s 2015 book God and the Gay Christian. These additional sources present a more thorough explanation of The Reformation Project’s position and its ethical foundations. The full scope of TRP’s literature reveals a set of ethical presuppositions on which its theology is based; presuppositions that color its hermeneutic and influence its theological conclusions. It is from this broader range of sources that the following ethical framework emerges.
Intrinsic Values and Right & Wrong
There are several values that The Reformation Project seems to directly or indirectly rely on as intrinsic, meaning they are seen as having value “for their own sake,” or “in their own right” (Zimmerman & Bradley, 2019). For TRP, these values include romantic love, personal happiness, and equality. These assumed values are not directly argued for in the TRP literature but undergird its arguments in support of LGBTQ issues. The primary intrinsic value recognized by TRP, however, is that of inclusion. There are, of course, different types of inclusion, which can range from integration to radicalization (Warren, 2009, p. 11).1 For this paper, we will define the kind of inclusion valued by TRP as the practice of integrating all people into organizations, particularly sexual “others” who have suffered discrimination or hold heterodox views.
Inclusion is the value explicitly argued for in Point #5 of The Reformation Project’s ten-point Biblical Case, which says, “The arc of Scripture points toward inclusion, not exclusion.” Under this argument, TRP points out that Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-39. The New Testament event leads them to conclude that we find an increasing inclusion of sexual minorities within the arc of Scripture. “Even though eunuchs don’t neatly correspond to modern identity categories like ‘gay’ or ‘trans,’ the New Testament’s trajectory toward greater inclusion of eunuchs offers an important precedent for the inclusion of gender and sexual ‘others’ today” (Vines, 2019).
The intrinsic value of inclusion implicitly undergirds Point #1 of TRP’s Biblical Case as well, which is based on the idea that sound Christian teachings should yield good fruit, not bad fruit. They argue that “non-affirming” teachings about same-sex relationships and transgender identity cause harm to LGBTQ people (Vines, 2015, p. 19). In other words, there are negative consequences to violating the value of inclusion.
The Reformation Project’s intrinsic value of inclusion plays a crucial role in their moral judgments. Similar to consequentialism, TRP’s ethic largely determines whether an action is morally right or wrong based on whether the consequences of that action are intrinsically “better” than other actions one could perform under the same circumstances. In the parlance of TRP, “better” is defined as in support of an LGBTQ worldview. Thus, they consider any non-affirming biblical interpretation morally wrong because its consequences include harm to LGBTQ people in the form of rejection, isolation, and “forced loneliness” (Vines, 2012). In his now-viral speech, Matthew Vines argues along these lines, saying, “The Song of Songs tells us that King Solomon’s wedding day was ‘the day his heart rejoiced.’ And to deny to a small minority of people, not just a wedding day, but a lifetime of love and commitment and family is to inflict on them a devastating level of hurt and anguish” (Vines, 2012).
Unlike a normative ethic, which seeks to define what is right and wrong independent of era or culture, The Reformation Project’s ethic takes on an element of relativity. They acknowledge that Leviticus 18:22, 20:13 expressly prohibit male same-sex intercourse, but claim it is only because in antiquity that act was “seen as uniquely degrading to men, as it placed them in the socially inferior, ‘female’ role” (Vines, 2019). Moreover, same-sex attraction was not understood as the sexual orientation of a small minority of people as it is today (Vines, 2015, p. 114). Thus, same-sex relations are not viewed as a matter of normative sexual ethics but as a matter of society’s changing moral views over time. For example, Vines writes,
While significant overlap does exist between practices the old testament calls “abominations” and practices Christians consider sinful, Christians also except many old testament “abominations” without controversy . . . So while abomination is a negative word, it doesn’t necessarily correspond to Christian views of sin (Vines, 2015, pp. 84-85).
Indeed, we see The Reformation Project’s ethical calculus play out most clearly in the areas where inclusion as the highest ethical value is challenged by the “ancient” ideas found in Scripture. If a biblical text appears to be setting boundaries of exclusion on a matter of same-sex relations, a non-affirming interpretation of that text should be rejected in favor of a more inclusive reading. These ethical commitments provide the basis for the divergence of TRP’s moral theology from orthodox Christian positions on issues of sexuality. Moreover, these same commitments lead The Reformation Project into other errant theological conclusions.
The Theology of the Reformation Project
An exhaustive survey of the theology of The Reformation Project is beyond the scope of this paper. Thus, our examination will be constrained to the seventh point of their Biblical Case, where the theological repercussions of The Reformation Project’s ethical commitments are readily evident. Point #7 reads:
The prohibitions in Leviticus don’t apply to Christians. The prohibitions of male same-sex relations in Leviticus are grounded in cultural concerns about patriarchal gender roles, which the New Testament points us beyond (Vines, 2019).
In support of this argument, TRP lays out a theological case that begins with the orthodox position that Christians have never lived under the Old Testament law. Indeed, the Law of Moses was part of the Sinai Covenant, which was replaced by the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus (Jer 31:31-34; Luke 22:20). On its own, this fact would seem to provide enough justification to set aside the Levitical prohibitions for modern-day Christians. However, The Reformation Project proceeds to offer more than a dozen arguments in support of Point #7, four of which will be examined here.
1.) Levitical Law
The Reformation Project addresses the orthodox argument that the laws related to sexual conduct carry over to the New Testament by pointing out that Leviticus 18:19 also prohibits sex during a woman’s menstrual period, “which most Christians do not regard as sinful” (Vines 2019). They further indicate that in the Old Testament, the death penalty applied to some practices that Christians now accept, such as working on the Sabbath (Ex 35:2) and charging interest on loans (Eze 18:13).2
Here we see the relativistic nature of The Reformation Project’s ethic in which inclusion is the primary value. By contrast, in a Divine Command Theory ethic, “what makes something morally wrong (or morally forbidden) is that God forbids it, and what makes something morally right (or morally obligatory) is that God requires it” (Hare, 2017, p. 123). In an ethic where God is the primary intrinsic value and His commands are what make an action right or wrong, sin is not determined by social norms. What “most Christians regard as sinful” and “practices that Christians now accept” change from age to age and, as such, are incongruent with a biblical standard in which sin is determined by God’s unchanging Word.
As for The Reformation Project’s theological argument that the Levitical prohibitions do not apply to Christians, two points can be made. First, it is true that Christians are not under the Law of Moses, but rather the New Covenant ushered in by Jesus (Jer 31:31-34; Luke 22:20). However, many of the prohibitions given under the Law of Moses were repeated or endorsed under the New Covenant, including same-sex unions. Second, same-sex sins among the Gentiles, who were not under the Law, were also condemned by God. “It was for this very reason that God brought judgment on the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:1-3, 25)” (Geisler, 2012, p. 284).
2.) Gender Norms
The Reformation Project posits that male same-sex intercourse was prohibited because it “subverted patriarchal gender norms of male dominance in a society that devalued women” (Vines, 2019). TRP refers to uncited writings by scholars Saul Olyan and Daniel Boyarin suggesting that Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 specifically prohibited male same-sex anal intercourse rather than all same-sex acts. “That act was seen as uniquely degrading to men, as it placed them in the socially inferior, ‘female’ role” (Vines, 2019). Again, we see a relative ethic at play here in which the attitudes held in antiquity serve as the basis of an action’s morality.
In response, three points can be made. First, as regards the biblical prohibition on same-sex relations, the fact that Leviticus specifically prohibits one male same-sex act rather than all same-sex acts seems to be a distinction without a difference. Second, the assertion that the male same-sex prohibitions in Leviticus were given because of cultural concerns about gender roles does not seem supported by Scripture’s overall teaching on sexual morality. The impetus of cultural gender roles appears to be an anachronism that applies modern attitudes toward gender norms to ancient texts. This line of reasoning also misses the fact that, in the area of moral responsibility, Christians recognize an obligation to God. “A sexual relationship is not confined to just two persons: it also involves God, the Creator and Lord of us all, who for His own good purposes made us the sexual beings that we are” (Holmes, 2007, p. 114). Third, the reason behind any biblical command or prohibition, while of interest and worth knowing, does not affect whether or not we ought to obey it. Even if we suppose TRP’s allegation is true for the sake of argument, it does not change the fact that same-sex relations are prohibited in Holy Scripture.
The Reformation Project further argues that patriarchal norms shaped the Old Testament text and influenced its teaching on same-sex relations:
Even though the Old Testament law does not treat men and women equally, there are countercultural elements within the Old Testament, including the presence of women leaders. In the New Testament, women like Lydia, Phoebe, Euodia, and Syntyche also hold leadership positions. In Matt 19:8, Jesus said, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” As John Piper wrote, “There are laws in the Old Testament that are not expressions of God’s will for all time, but expressions of how best to manage sin in a particular people at a particular time.” That’s also how Christians view slavery and polygamy — and it should be how we view patriarchy as well (Vines, 2019).
This line of reasoning is clearly built on TRP’s intrinsic value of inclusion, particularly as it pertains to the inclusion of social “outsiders” (in this case, women) and the social systems that are seen as excluding them (in this case, patriarchy). This line of argument also demonstrates the relative and progressive nature of TRP’s sexual ethic. The underlying contention is that, now that we as a society “know better,” it is time for Christians to revisit their position on patriarchy and same-sex relations in the same way they have done on the issues of slavery and polygamy.
As a theological response to this argument, the concept of biblical patriarchy must be clarified. Biblical patriarchy is a system in which the father (or eldest male) is given the responsibility to protect, care for, lead, and act as the family’s spiritual head. This system is part of the order of creation established by God (Gen 1-2; 1 Cor 11:3). The patriarchal creation order is grounded in God Himself. God is spirit, of course, and does not have a biological gender. However, in His holy Word, God refers to Himself in patriarchal terms as our Father. This is not only true in the New Testament; the Old Testament refers to God in patriarchal Father terms as well (Duet 14:1-2; Isa. 63:16–17, 64:8-9; Jer 31:20; Ps 103:13). It is important to note that God did not establish biblical patriarchy as a system of oppression, but rather a system of physical and spiritual accountability, provision, and protection for the family, especially the women and children. For example, Paul teaches that humanity sinned in Adam, not in Eve. Although it was Eve who first disobeyed God, Adam, as the head of the first family, was held accountable for it (Rom 5:12-21). Therefore, The Reformation Project’s opposition to patriarchy as a system is an opposition to Scripture and God’s created order and is, therefore, unbiblical.3
4.) The Scriptural Arc Toward Inclusion
Lastly, under Point #7, The Reformation Project argues that the teachings of the New Testament move Christians “away from patriarchy and toward gender equality (see Galatians 3:28), which means that the rationale for the Leviticus prohibitions does not extend to Christians” (Vines, 2019). TRP acknowledges that there are no explicitly identified LGBTQ people in Scripture and suggests that given the “vast cultural distance between understandings of same-sex behavior then and now” (Vines 2012), it would be imprudent to suggest overt biblical teachings regarding same-sex couples. However, TRP does find some level of analogy in the treatment of eunuchs in Scripture:
Even though eunuchs don’t neatly correspond to modern identity categories like “gay” or “trans,” the New Testament’s trajectory toward greater inclusion of eunuchs offers important precedent for inclusion of gender and sexual “others” today (Vines, 2019).
Here again, we see TRP’s relative ethic influencing its theological conclusions. This repeated line of argument suggests that the intrinsic value of the inclusion of sexual “others” is a moral presupposition that The Reformation Project is reading into the text (eisegesis), rather than a biblical value they have discovered through a careful exegesis of what the text says or teaches.
As least two theological responses can be offered to the argument for the arc of Scripture. First, the New Testament does not “move Christians away from patriarchy,” it teaches the same biblical patriarchy (grounded in God as our Father) taught in the Old Testament. The apostle Paul wrote, “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Cor 11:3, ESV).4 Second, Galatians 3:28 is not about gender equality, it is about salvation. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse is part of a passage which teaches that, rather than being limited to the Jews through the Law, salvation has become available to all people equally—regardless of gender or ethnicity—through faith in Jesus.5 Indeed, both man and woman were created in the image of God from the very beginning (Gen 1:27). Both genders have always been of equal value in God’s eyes.
The ethical framework underlying the theology of The Reformation Project is problematic for several reasons. First, its highest intrinsic value is not God, but rather inclusion. The value of integrating sexual “others” into the Christian Church is a foundational presupposition that has led The Reformation Project into an unbiblical moral theology that diverges from the sexual ethic found in Scripture. Second, the moral reasoning of The Reformation Project is progressive and relative and, as such, is inconsistent with biblical morality, which is grounded in God’s unchanging standards. Rather than an ethic where God is the primary intrinsic value, and His commands determine the moral rightness or wrongness of an action, TRP’s arguments appeal to modern Christians’ social norms. Their case is predicated largely on what “most Christians regard as sinful” and “practices that Christians now accept.” Thus, in the end, The Reformation Project’s ethical framework cannot be affirmed as biblical. As a result of this framework, their moral theology regarding sexual ethics is incongruous with an orthodox Christian understanding of Scripture.
1 Warren identifies at least seven different ways to “include” something. Through addition, revision (or reform), integration, radicalization, a combination of some revision and some radicalization, transformation, and an altogether different starting point or (conceptual) framework.
2 As a matter of theological clarity, it should be noted that Ezekiel 18:13 does not prescribe the death penalty merely for charging interest on a loan. Verse 13 appears at the end of a longer passage (v 10-13) where a list of sins is mentioned. This passage talks about a man and asks, “when he eats at the mountain shrines and defiles his neighbor’s wife, and when he oppresses the poor and needy, commits robbery, and does not return collateral, and when he looks to the idols, commits detestable acts (abominations), and lends at interest or for profit, will he live?”
3 It should be noted that oppressive or abusive patriarchs can be rejected on a biblical basis (Ephesians 5:28-30).
4 See also Ephesians 5:23 and Colossians 1:18, 2:10.
5 See the full passage in Galatians 3:15-29.
Geisler, N. L. (2010). Christian ethics : contemporary issues & options. Baker Academic.
Hare, J. (2017). Divine command theory. In Wilkens, S. (2017), Christian ethics : four views (pp. 123-147). IVP Academic.
Holmes, A. F. (2007). Ethics : approaching moral decisions. IVP Academic.
Vines, M. (2012). The Gay Debate: The Bible and Homosexuality [YouTube Video]. In YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ezQjNJUSraY
Vines, M. (2015). God and the gay Christian : the biblical case in support of same-sex relationships. Convergent Books.
Vines, M. (2019, October 17). The prohibitions in Leviticus don’t apply to Christians. The Reformation Project. https://reformationproject.org/case/levitical-prohibitions/
Warren, K. (2009). An unconventional history of Western philosophy : conversations between men and women philosophers. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Zimmerman, M. J., & Bradley, B. (2019). Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic Value (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Stanford.Edu. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/value-intrinsic-extrinsic/