Twenty-something Matthew Vines seeks to change evangelicals through ‘Reformation Project’

Vines with Mark

covnetlogoEditor’s note: The Presbyterian Lay Committee (PLC), the publisher of The Layman and The Layman Online, does not support same-sex marriage. Instead, the PLC “believes with Scripture that God ordained the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman in the very order of creation and that Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, blessed and sanctified this relationship. The article here was posted as a news story about the Covenant Network’s 2013 conference on “Marriage Matters.”


CHICAGO, Ill. — Here is a man who understands the conservative Presbyterian world from the inside. Here is a man with genuine reliance upon Jesus Christ for salvation. A child of the Church and now an openly gay, Harvard-educated, media savvy crusader with a plan to change the hearts and minds of evangelical Christians.

Matthew Vines grew up in one of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s flagship evangelical congregations. He knows the Bible, and he is a person of passionate faith. His parents were both ruling elders, and his family’s social network was centered in life at the church. Vines is wicked smart and after graduating from high school he went to Harvard. There he discovered two things: There’s a world of openness to otherness that he had not known in Wichita, and that he, himself, identifies as gay.

Those two discoveries have led Vines into a passionate pursuit: To help lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people who are in conservative PCUSA churches find their voice and change their churches.

In a workshop at the Covenant Network “Marriage Matters” national conference in Chicago, Vines confronted the reality that many in the pro-LGBT movement have “written off” churches like the one where he grew up.  He said, “We’ve written them off as hopeless, but I have the hope of bringing them around to our perspective.”

In order to accomplish that feat, Vines recognized that an army must be mobilized and equipped. And if those people were to come from the historic ranks of LGBT advocates, then the first hurdle would be overcoming the entrenched dislike LGBT lobbyists have for conservative Christians.

Beyond pejorative stereotyping, they would have to want to get to know people in those churches, enter real relationships with them, and then stick with what Vines knows by experience is a very long process of deconstruction and reeducation.

Vines is focused on raising up a new generation that is already among the ranks he wants to affect. His strategy is to find LGBT people or allies who are already in conservative churches and equip them to do the work he calls “The Reformation Project.”

Vines used his own experience to help others understand how to get conservative Presbyterians to reconsider their beliefs and become open to LGBT people and their concerns.


Studying with his dad

After coming out his sophomore year, Vines described how he left Harvard to invest eight months studying with his dad.

He said, “My dad is not a horrible person, he had just never known an openly gay person. He is a conservative Christian and a lawyer.”  Vines described how his dad went to the church library and brought home ex-gay books because those were the only books the church library had to offer.


Matthew Vines speaks about his intent to change the views of evangelicals through his “Reformation Project.”

Vines described his dad at the time and others like him as having “a moral blind spot, but they don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to LGBT people — I believe in their ability to be decent people — so I want to go back and inform and shift their paradigm.”

Vines says of his dad, “He definitely did hold a non-affirming position on homosexuality a few years ago, but he has changed his mind through careful study of Scripture and is 100% supportive of me today.” Multiplying that change of heart and mind is what Vines want to see in others.

Vines said that most of the material he brought to the table “was not written to my dad — it was written to disregard his worldview and his commitments — creating unnecessary tension.” He went on to acknowledge that “there has been some really excellent high level scholarship — the pioneering academic work has been done. But in order to read these books you have to have a graduate degree in linguistics or theology.”  Vines’ concern is bringing that scholarship down to the popular level where the Biblical convictions of conservative lay people can be challenged and through relationship, changed.

Vines told the Covenant Network about his experience of journeying with his dad from acceptance of him to affirmation that God’s Word does not in fact prohibit his lifestyle, “when you come from a culture that sees things one way it takes a lot of time to deconstruct those old ideas slowly and it takes a lot of time to make those journeys.”

That journey with his dad took place in 2010. In 2011, Vines turned his attention to the wider church.

Referring to churches leaving the PCUSA, including his own, Vines read from a letter to the editor posted on Layman.org. It said in part that “the rhetoric in my church is centered on ‘The Authority of Scripture.'” The letter asserted that “the main concern of those at these churches, of course was theological — or what is sometimes described as theological pluralism. The problem was over simple core beliefs, not arcane doctrinal disputes.”

Vines said that in his former church’s discernment process that ultimately led them to realign from the PCUSA to a more conservative branch of the Presbyterian family of denominations, “mentioned most often here was the change in the language in the Book of Order that we are to make decisions ‘in obedience to Scripture’ to ‘guided by Scripture.’ People found that this change in language violated, for them, one of the most basic aspects of what it means to be Christian, allowing people to ‘pick and choose’ how they might live their lives.”

One workshop participant asked Vines how those two phrases are seen as different by Presbyterians in more conservative churches. He answered, “At the end of the day if you have a question about morality, Scripture is determinative and authoritative for them. To the contrary, many pro-LGBT Christians say Paul may have been a flawed guy, so we can disregard Romans 1:26-27. They say they don’t feel the need to submit to a teaching they don’t like.”

Vines told his audience that “there is a real gulf between evangelicals in the PCUSA and those who are very doctrinally different.” And the resource he needed to bridge that gulf did not exist, so he created it.

Vines taped an hour-long presentation and posted it on YouTube. Six months later, the New York Times ran an article. Two weeks after that he had a book deal (release date May 2014) and now he devotes himself full-time to The Reformation Project.


No more exegetical handiwork or hoodwinking

Vines posed the ultimate question, “Can talking about the Bible and homosexuality actually persuade conservative Christians to change their minds?  Or is this just a dead end?” The answer is both personal and practical. Vines said, “Whether it works depends on WHOM you are talking to and HOW you are talking to them about the Bible and homosexuality.”

Vines told his audience that they “must respect authority of Scripture,” adding that “people like my dad are not going to be moved by discussions of love and justice because for evangelicals it is not loving to support someone who they see as doing something that is sin and keeps them separated from God.”

He told them that no amount of “exegetical handiwork” is going to change what the Apostle Paul has said on the subject. “So,” Vines says, “even if you say you’re not undermining the authority of Scripture, if you’re disregarding what Paul says without having sound arguments, then to the evangelical mind, you are undermining the authority of Scripture and that is the end of the discussion.”

Vines instructed his listeners to focus on the parallel in slavery. “Evangelicals view on that has changed. They are able to distinguish between that which is cultural and that which is trans-cultural. If it’s a command centered in God’s character then it’s trans-cultural and unchanging. But there are things that fit ‘how they did it then’ but ‘not how we do it today.’ God working within first century culture in the real world allowed for slavery but not as authoritative for life today.”

“So,” making the connection to passages in the Bible that forbid homosexual practice, Vines said, “the homosexuality passages are negative. The question is: Are they cultural or trans-cultural as evangelicals see it?”

Laying out his argument, Vines said that “the concept of homosexuality today is orientation — which is significantly different enough from what the Bible is speaking to, which is homosexual excess — that evangelicals can see the cultural difference.”

Vines instructed, “Be informed about why the text says what it does and don’t try to hoodwink evangelicals.”

Carmen Fowler LaBerge