A Christian family, a gay son – and a Wichita father’s change of heart

Monte Vines sits at his desk at his home with a copy of his son Matthew’s book, “God and the Gay Christian,” on Thursday. (June 5, 2014)
Monte Vines sits at his desk at his home with a copy of his son Matthew’s book, “God and the Gay Christian,” on Thursday. (June 5, 2014) The Wichita Eagle

The worst day of Monte Vines’ life, or so he thought, was Jan. 2, 2010, when his son Matthew told him he was gay.

Matthew, now 24, has told about that day at length, in a book published in April, “God and the Gay Christian.”

He wrote about how his Dad was an elder at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Wichita. How his Dad warned that Biblical verses forbade gay relationships. How his Dad urged therapy. And how he and his father agreed to jointly study the Bible, revered in the Vines household as a bedrock of their faith.

Other parents have found themselves facing a child coming out. That’s one reason Monte agreed to tell his side of things.

His other reason is to explain why he changed his mind.

And what that cost.

The conversation

Matthew had been home from Harvard University for several days. He seemed fine. Then came the conversation.

“I want you to commit to me that you won’t freak out at what I’m going to tell you,” Matthew said.

“Of course I’m not going to freak out,” Monte said.

Matthew talked for a long while, leading up to:

“I’m gay.”

As a business litigation attorney, Monte had learned to listen to people with a lawyer’s face revealing no feelings. But inside, he felt sick.

Doctors and nurses often ask patients: On a scale of one to 10, how bad is your pain?

“Nine,” Monte would say later. “And it wasn’t pain – it was profound sadness.”

He asked questions: Are you sure? How do you know? What about therapy? What about Biblical teachings?

Monte suggested, and Matthew agreed, that they do a joint Bible study. Monte assumed that once they did that, Matthew would see his error.

But his son was a Harvard sophomore. He didn’t do things based merely on instinct. In their long, anguished talk that night, he had looked determined.

“I sat there and listened to him as he explained things that night,” Monte said. “And at the end, I told him I loved him and gave him a hug.”

Monte did not sleep.

Life in the church

At 13, Matthew built a Harry Potter website so popular that it got him invited to London to a Harry Potter movie premier, where he interviewed author J.K Rowling on the red carpet.

As a junior in high school, Matthew and other students led a lobbying effort to persuade the Kansas Legislature to pull investments out of companies that did business in Darfur, where the ruling government has carried out genocide.

Then Harvard.

And now: “I’m gay.”

There had been no clue.

Monte’s wife, Kim, had hidden her own knowledge of Matthew’s thoughts for two days. Matthew had told her first. She told Matthew that he had to tell his dad himself. She was as surprised as Monte.

Sadness crowded in, as Monte lay there, not sleeping.

Matthew could lose jobs.

Matthew could be rejected.

Matthew could become infected with HIV. Matthew could die.

Matthew could be rejected by fellow Christians. Faced with that rejection, would Matthew leave his faith?

Kim had gone to Eastminster as a high schooler. She and Monte got married at Eastminster on June 11, 1983. Matthew and Christine, their daughter, had been baptized there. They had cemented their beliefs at Eastminster. Most of their friends: Eastminster.

The church, nearly 2,000 strong, was governed by pastors and 24 elders, including Monte and Kim. Kim had taught Sunday school for years.

But Eastminster people were rigorous about Biblical teachings, and to Monte himself, the case looked clear.

Love and fulfillment

One central point about Bible study is that while the Bible is clear, the Bible also says many things.

Bible critics, as Matthew would later point out in his book, use some Bible passages to discount Biblical teaching. Matthew and Monte had no intention of doing that, as they took up the Bible again in this new light.

But like all careful readers, they had to learn how to navigate certain Bible passages.

The Bible says, for example, that men lying with men is abomination. But it also says abomination includes eating shellfish. And pork. And wearing mixed fabrics.

It appears to say, in several passages, that slavery is OK. That women should submit to husbands. That males should be circumcised.

In Leviticus 20:13, it says that men who lie with men “shall surely be put to death.”

He and Matthew studied for six months. It deepened their faith, and it made Monte realize that his more mature understanding of some Biblical passages wasn’t what it had been before.

Monte was also deeply moved about things he learned, including how some traditional thinking in some churches makes thousands of gay people feel rejected.

Matthew later pointed out in his book that Paul’s letter to the Romans in the New Testament was what brought many people to faith in Christ.

“But there is a sad irony here,” Matthew wrote. “For countless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, Romans is the book that has driven them away from their faith, and torn them from their homes and families. It’s the book that’s sent so many down a path of despair.”

The specific passage: Romans 1:27, which deals in part with men lusting after one another.

Matthew said the verses in the Bible regarding homosexuality, in his view, appear to be concerned with lust and excess. But he argued that none of the Bible passages appear to address, or condemn, or even mention the idea of committed and loving same-sex relationships.

Monte knew many Biblical scholars would disagree. And so would their friends from Eastminster, he thought.

Matthew said he did not want to leave the church. He wanted instead to deepen and nurture his faith – and persuade friends to face the question together.

Matthew had studied and had rejected “ex-gay therapy” as a solution. Neither he nor Monte can find evidence that therapy ever changed many sexual orientations.

And though he said he had never been in any relationship, Matthew rejected lifelong celibacy.

It wasn’t only that he wanted love and fulfillment in his own life, he told his father. It was that the Bible extols loving relationships.

Somehow, less

In the end, what prompted the Vines family to leave Eastminster was not solely any disagreement about Matthew’s coming out.

By coincidence, Eastminster confronted its own views on same-sex relationships when the national denomination it was affiliated with, Presbyterian Church (USA), voted early in 2011 to allow gay people to be called to the clergy.

The church elders at Eastminster voted overwhelmingly, with Monte dissenting, to leave their national denomination and join the Evangelical Presbyterian Church. That organization did not allow gay clergy.

What followed, not long after, was a letter from Monte to his Eastminster governing board.

“I have decided to resign as a member of Eastminster church,” the letter said.

He disagreed with the new denomination’s position on gay Christians. He thought that because of his views on gay Christians that he would no longer be acceptable to Eastminster as an elder.

“I know I don’t have to be acceptable as an elder in order to continue to be a member of Eastminster,” he wrote. “But I think members should eagerly embrace and be good representatives for what the church stands for.”

The church that had nurtured the Vines family had, in Monte’s view, decided that gay people who decline to change their behavior or who decline celibacy are, somehow, less.

So Monte left. Matthew left. Christine left. Kim stayed long enough to finish teaching her class that year. But she left, fully supporting her son.

They go to church. But not there.

‘None of us is perfect’

Pastor Stan Van Den Berg, the new pastor at Eastminster, declined interview requests for himself and other church leaders. He instead sent the following e-mail:

“I have clearly seen how much Monte and Kim Vines are loved, how their life of service is valued and appreciated, and how they would be warmly embraced with love and acceptance were they to return,” the e-mail said. “They were never asked to leave, nor were they asked to reject their son in his struggle with same sex attraction. Rather, our people grieved when they left and empathized with their pain.

“Furthermore, Matthew was loved and cared for growing up in this church. But, he chose to leave our church. A break in fellowship came as a result of his defining the parameters of what made the relationship acceptable and feasible to him.

“We, along with the Christian Church of the past 20 centuries, disagree with Matthew’s interpretation of Scripture. Nonetheless, that does not mean we stopped loving him or caring for his spiritual well-being. Disagreement is not equal to rejection. We believe that none of us is perfect and we all struggle with doing God’s will. We seek to have transformed hearts by the Spirit of God working in us and extend grace to those who struggle, just as God extends grace to us.”

Winning arguments

Monte looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. He was wearing jeans after a day at the law firm. And he was again wearing his lawyer’s poker face.

On a scale of one to 10, how bad was your profound sadness on the day you left Eastminster Presbyterian Church?


Why only five?

He grinned.

“One trouble with human beings is that they find it hard to agree about some things,” he said.

It was an echo of something he had said in a church in April, when he stood before an audience, beside a crucifix, and introduced his son as the author of “God and the Gay Christian.” He told them that people often try to win arguments rather than try to understand each other.

And they argue a lot. Maybe that’s why there are not only different Christian denominations – Catholic and Lutheran and so on – but at least 17 different Presbyterian groups, he said.

He was sitting in his living room in Wichita. His son was in New York, talking with author and blogger Andrew Sullivan, who recently wrote a blog praising “God and the Gay Christian.”

“Matthew doesn’t intend to go back to Harvard,” Sullivan wrote. “Indeed he has set his sights on living in Wichita, Kansas, where he is from, and building his fledgling organization, The Reformation Project, to create change within the evangelical church.”

The Eastminster people, Monte said, did not harm his son. But they did fail to understand him, he said.

“But I came to the conclusion that the church does not have a workable answer for gay people,” he said.

Two years ago, Matthew created a video in which he told his story and pointed out what his own studies of the Bible found. Monte began to monitor the hundreds of comments posted.

He was shocked. One wrote, “On the day that they stone you, I want to be there.”

He reached up with a finger and wiped tears from his eye.

“There were others who said that they were going to commit suicide – until they saw my son’s video,” Monte said.

He pulled a sheet of yellow tablet paper out of his shirt pocket. He had scribbled down Bible verses. He began to read aloud Matthew 10:37:

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

What many Christians will argue, based on that passage, he said, is he should have stayed with the church and prioritized Biblical commands over his own son. His answer: “I do prioritize Jesus, but found a different and better understanding” of what God wants of us.

Monte laid the Bible passage on the table and leaned forward.

“There are many churches.

“But I have only one son.”