Ken Wilson, founding pastor of Ann Arbor's Vineyard Church, has just authored the best book available for folks who want to explore LGBT inclusion in the church.
Wilson's book, A Letter to My Congregation, sets itself apart by foregrounding his role as a pastor. The church sexuality debates, Wilson argues, have grown toxic, even demonic. How else can one explain the division and recrimination that attend this one discrete issue? Our prisons are full of people serving time for minor drug violations. Economic and social disparities eclipse realistic hope for millions among us. The window of opportunity for forestalling major environmental disruption is closing rapidly. Yet somehow folks have turned human sexuality into the litmus test for faithful Christianity. The entire debate stigmatizes queer folk as if they constitute a special class of problem. According to Wilson something has clearly gone wrong.
Speaking as a pastor, Ken Wilson reminds us that our church conversations involve not abstract principles but people. Pastors, Wilson reports, bear the heavy weight of pronouncing blessing on many people but on occasion excluding a few people from participation in the church's life at one level or another.
For years Ken Wilson held to the party line: homosexual behavior was sinful, and his congregation expected leaders and members to refrain from same-sex sex. Wilson rarely needed to examine himself. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, few people came forward publicly to seek the church's blessing for sexual minorities. However, Ann Arbor is a university town with a diverse intellectual population. Over time Wilson noticed two things: first, the number of people who avoid the church due to its condemnation of LGBTQ folk is growing rapidly; and second, more and more church members came to seek Wilson's advice concerning their gay brother, their lesbian sister, or their transgender friend.
Confronted with the reality that the church's traditional message was actually pushing people away from the life of faith, and confronted by loving, established gay couples, Wilson had the courage to examine his convictions.
For one thing, Wilson pondered why the church embraces members who have divorced and remarried while it condemns queer folk. The Bible's condemnation of remarriage after divorce is far more explicit and consistent than its teaching on homosexuality. Why, Wilson wonders, do churches find ways to accommodate second marriage couples while passing judgment on sexual minorities? Could this pattern amount to nothing more than hypocrisy, as we encounter many, many more remarried couples than self-identified LGBTQ folk?
Wilson's pastoral reflections, combined with a searching account of his own personal struggles regarding the issue, shape this book more powerfully than do his theological and biblical arguments. The question of Christian sexuality does not come down to abstract theological principles or technical biblical expertise. Wilson has done his homework: he's read his biblical scholarship and reconstructions of sexuality in the ancient Mediterranean world. But when push comes to shove Wilson identifies as a pastor: how do I respond to LGBTQ folk and those who love them when I have the power to bless or to curse?
Aware that many Christians believe the Bible condemns homosexuality, Wilson digs through the major biblical texts. Like any responsible interpreter, he sees the Sodom and Gomorrah story from Genesis 19 as irrelevant to the discussion. He gives more attention to Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, to Romans 1:24-27, and to the vice lists in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 Timothy 1:10. Wilson concludes, as I do, that the biblical authors simply aren't talking about the same things we're talking about in 2014. Ancient sexual conventions so differed from our own that what we call "homosexuality" scarcely existed in that world. (See Sarah Ruden's "Paul among the People" on this topic.) The biblical authors simply aren't addressing people who experience an exclusive sexual orientation or complicated gender identity. They are not discussing same-sex couples who fall in love and desire to build lives marked by faithfulness, mutuality and sharing. Biblical condemnations of same-sex sex, Wilson concludes, target behaviors that are violent and exploitative. They present no compelling reason to condemn sexual minorities.
Most (but surely not all) professional biblical scholars would agree with Wilson's basic conclusions. However, Wilson also gifts us with a brilliant example of constructive public biblical interpretation -- the kind more likely to come from a pastor than an academic.
Wilson appeals to Romans 14-15, a discussion that never mentions sexual practices in any direct way. Instead, this passage speaks to a conflict involving diet: some Christians believed it was sinful to eat meat, and others felt empowered to eat whatever they chose. Wilson guides us through the nuances of this ancient debate, but it basically boiled down to one thing: did the meat available on the open market compromise people's faith? Maybe the meat hadn't been butchered according to kosher standards, or maybe (and this was common) it derived from pagan temples. Those Christians who identified with traditional Jewish piety may well have abstained from eating meat, while others felt free to eat whatever they liked. Indeed, both sides were passing judgment upon one another.
Wilson's interpretation of Romans 14-15 provides an admirable model for biblical interpretation that addresses complex moral and ethical questions. Many of the issues we face, including sexuality, receive no direct resolution within Scripture. In some cases the biblical world was very different from our own (government, economics), in others the Bible includes conflicting perspectives (women's leadership, slavery, warfare), and in still others the Bible simply doesn't speak to the question (abortion, dating). That is why the most capable interpreters disagree on such matters. Wilson shows how biblical wisdom that initially addressed very different issues, often problems that don't even occur to us today, may illuminate how we approach our own divisions.
Wilson applies Paul's teaching from Romans to contemporary church life. Drawing from theologian Roger Olson's work, Wilson regards the "homosexuality" debates as a "disputable matter." People may have strong opinions, as did the Roman Christians regarding food, but their differences do not merit division or exclusion. Traditionalist and inclusive Christians alike appeal to Scripture, to core gospel convictions, and to the work of the Holy Spirit in arriving at their understandings. As Paul admonished the Roman Christians to welcome one another despite their differences, and without condemnation, so Wilson encourages Christian communities to a "third way," a way tolerates disagreement, refuses to condemn one side or the other, and empowers Christians to accept one another as God has accepted them.
Many LGBTQ folk and their allies will find themselves dissatisfied with Wilson's third way. Many have experienced violence, slander and outright hatred in the church. I would imagine that being accepted without being affirmed will not satisfy their longing for holy community. At the same time, I want to honor Wilson's point: we have no biblical warrant to "affirm" the moral lives or convictions of others; instead, we receive the gospel's power to move us beyond moral affirmation to a more profound acceptance. Still, the lived experience of some LGBTQ folk I know rules out a morally neutral space in which we accept one another even as we agree to disagree. Ken Wilson reports that LGBTQ folk are responding very positively to his congregation's third way approach, and I've consulted with LGBTQ friends who find it attractive. This complication merits deep conversation, reflection and prayer.
Despite my serious reservations concerning Wilson's acceptance if not affirmation proposal, I recommend A Letter to My Congregation as a serious and important book. The biblical, historical and theological work is here. But it is Wilson's identity as a pastor -- his humility, compassion, introspection and integrity -- that makes this book so valuable.