A LETTER TO MY CONGREGATION: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender into the company of Jesus. By Ken Wilson with David P. Gushee, Phyllis Tickle, and Tanya Luhrman. Canton, MI: Read the Spirit Books, 2014. Xvi +196 pages.
In every generation pastors face questions of conscience. Issues emerge that demand a change of thought, but moving in a new direction can cause controversy and even chaos. A half century ago it was the Civil Rights Movement and then the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail is addressed to timid white clergy that encouraged him to “tone it down.” Today the issue before us is the role of gay, lesbian, and transgender folks in the church. Once again many pastors face the difficult choice of whether to engage the issue or ignore it, hoping it will go away. The polls all tell us that the times, they are a changin’. The vast majority of Americans under 40 support marriage equality. They are also likely to avoid churches that they believe exclude those who are gay and lesbian from the life the church.
My journey of transformation began more than a dozen years ago when my younger brother came out as gay. That revelation forced me to rethink long held views, including my own understanding of the biblical text and Christian tradition. What had been academic was now personal. Before long it also became a pastoral issue as I began to meet gay and lesbian folks who were interested in the congregations I’ve served as pastor. Because of this changing reality, I began to read and study and pray. I sought counsel from those who had already taken this journey. As my views evolved, I became open and affirming of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. It wasn’t an easy journey, because my understandings of this issue were formed in the midst of my evangelical context. Although I had already evolved on issues of women in ministry and evolution, this had always seemed different.
Because my background and context, I have been drawn to resources that speak to the pastoral side of the question. I’ve also been interested to hear from those who have come to an open position, while embracing a more conservative theological perspective. This is why I was so attracted to Ken Wilson's A Letter to My Congregation. Ken is an evangelical pastor of a megachurch affiliated with the Vineyard Movement. He believes that the Bible is revelatory and the Word of God. He wants to be faithful to the biblical witness. Because he is the pastor a large congregation and a leader within the Vineyard Movement, he has much to lose by coming forward and suggesting that the Spirit is leading him to fully embrace gay, lesbian, and transgender folks as children of God who are welcome and wanted by him and his congregation.
Wilson’s response to a question that is on the minds of many pastors from across the ideological spectrum takes the form of a lengthy, detailed, letter to his congregation. In the course of the letter, he shares his journey, including the steps he has taken to deal with the texts of Scripture that appear to cast persons who are homosexual in a negative light. They are sinners whom God loves, but engaged in activity that God hates – and the implication is – so should we. He addresses each of the texts, from Leviticus to Romans, asking the question whether these texts are descriptive or prescriptive. He also asks whether the practices described match up with the experiences of monogamous gay and lesbian couples. One of the big questions that we wrestle with concerns definition of homosexuality. It seems clear that what the Bible is speaking of in these texts don’t match up with the experiences of most gay and lesbian Christians. This isn’t temple prostitution, pederasty (sex with underage children), or sex with slaves – all of which we would reject no matter the genders involved as outside the bounds of God’s vision. In reinterpreting these texts he engages leading scholars who take a conservative position on this issue -- including N.T. Wright and Richard Hays. Although he highly respects both men and their work, on this issue their interpretations that move in an exclusive direction simply don’t make sense.
His decision to pursue this issue emerged out of two concerns – one pastoral and the other missional. For much of his ministry it was rare for him to engage either the parents of a gay or lesbian child or a gay/lesbian Christian. But all of a sudden, a few years ago, this began to change. Due to a pastoral concern, he found it necessary to deal with this reality, including the way in which he read Scripture. The second reason was missional. It became clear that while his church was doing as well or better than other churches in reaching younger adults, his church was aging. His mission field is a community that is liberal in its politics and social views. It’s a university town after all. Realizing that the most folks under 30 have embraced marriage equality, taking a position of exclusion he was placing a roadblock in front of younger adults. This included gays and lesbians, but it also included their friends. So, he began a journey that led him to embrace inclusion.
While in practice and even ideology (theology), Wilson had moved from “hate the sin, love the sinner” perspective to an “open and affirming position,” be believed that these two options are too binary. Both treat the issue as if it is settled and that one must be one or the other. Being that his own Vineyard Movement sees itself as a third way of being Christian (between traditional evangelicalism and liberal Christianity), he believed it was wise to take a middle road – a third way. The best way to describe this is “welcome and wanted.” Rather than embrace affirmation, he offers acceptance. In part due to his context he feels that it is best to leave room for disagreement. That is, while taking a position of respect, acceptance, and welcome, he and his church see this as a matter of dispute. While the church fully welcomes LGBT folk, giving place for leadership and even marriage, it is not seen as a settled matter.
He uses Romans 14-15 as his model. In this section of Paul’s letter, the apostle is dealing with matters such as eating certain kinds of meat. There are, it seems, two parties – the weak and the strong. The weak are more conservative, and eat only vegetables while the strong are more liberal and see no problem with eating meat. While Paul seems to side with the strong party, his greater concern is with the unity of the body and the prevention of causing another to stumble or separate from one another. While many on both sides will not see this as a matter of dispute, there are many in the middle who are trying to figure out which way to go. Taking the direction suggested by Ken Wilson will take patience and a great deal of respect. It also requires us to look at the whole issue of marriage.
Wilson makes the good point that one of the problems in this debate is that some in the church have over-emphasized marriage – as if marriage is God’s intention for everyone and that there is a proper mode of “biblical marriage.” The truth is, neither Jesus nor Paul take such a position. Neither was married, and both placed the realm of God above marriage. Paul commends the single life, but sees marriage as concession to those unable (ungifted) to remain single and celibate. If marriage is a concession and not a command, then perhaps it is possible to have a conversation that is less polarized. If we are all built differently and differently gifted, then our need for intimacy will be different.
For Wilson the pathway to understanding came as a result, in part, from recognizing the steps of accommodation he and many other pastors (myself included) have taken with regard to divorce. Certainly Jesus had a rather strict view of divorce and remarriage, but over time the church out of pastoral concern has found ways of accommodating these realities. Even the Roman Catholic Church, which rejects divorce, has a means of recognizing the realities faced by their people (is an annulment all that different in the final analysis?). Can we not move in the same direction with regard to our gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters? For him, this has meant welcoming monogamous gay and lesbian couples into full membership, and even a willingness to officiate at weddings.
While I'm personally open and affirming -- the issue for me is pretty settled -- I appreciate his choice. In fact, in many ways it is the one I've chosen to take at this point with my own congregation. If we took a vote today, we'd go open and affirming by a wide majority, but in doing so we might shut down conversation that could lead to further openness among those who aren’t at the same place. In the long run, in a decade or so (perhaps sooner), this designation will be a relic of the past. Twenty years from now, I expect that many in the churches will wonder what this “open and affirming” designation is all about. What is in dispute today likely won’t be in a few short years – even as no one debates the question of whether it’s appropriate for women to be elders or pastors.
This is a most helpful and intriguing book. I can’t recommend it more highly. Why? Because he takes us on a journey that is pastoral, missional, and deeply evangelical. He doesn’t reject the authority of the text – that would not be evangelical – but instead shows us how people committed to that text can come to a new understanding. Some who read this book will believe who goes to far, and others not far enough, but I think it is an important model for us to consider. As David Gushee, an evangelical ethicist, writes in his foreword:
How do traditional scriptural interpretations that have hardened into dogma get broken open for fresh thinking? A key role is played by courageous religious leaders who become that change is needed. Only such leaders have the experience, skill, and authority to make a faith community consider the possibility of changing its mind. The problem is that such leaders generally have too much at stake in the religious status quo to be able to see the need for a change; or if they do see such a need, they risk too much to be willing to pay the price to initiate it, and so they remain silent. (p. ix).
We can give thanks that Ken Wilson has chosen to take this risk and offered a pathway to a new day for so many in our churches, whether gay or straight.