Evangelicals punished World Vision for walking too far down the Romans Road. "The Romans Road" is what we evangelicals call the gospel as taught by St. Paul in his magisterial letter to the Romans. World Vision had the temerity to suggest that how the handful of biblical texts prohibiting same-sex sexual acts apply to covenanted gay couples is a matter over which good Christians can agree to disagree.
World Vision, one of the finest relief agencies in the world -- actually doing more Bible than any other evangelical organization -- naively thought their financial supporters might recognize this controversy as something over which we can "agree to disagree." This approach is laid out in Romans 14, where Paul tells his readers to accept each other and withhold judgment when faced with "disputable matters."
There are many such issues that evangelicals agree to disagree over. Like whether killing in war is murder (one could make the case biblically that it is). Or whether failing to observe the Sabbath day violates one of the Ten Great Commands (again, the Bible makes us squirm over this one). Or whether people who are remarried after divorce, except in the rarest of circumstances, are in fact, having sex with someone else's spouse.
The Roman church to which Paul wrote was wracked with some moral controversies that make gay marriage seem like the dispute over drinking, dancing and card playing. Some in the Roman house churches were eating meat sacrificed to idols, which others, understandably viewed as idolatry, consorting with demons, even. Some were ignoring the Sabbath, and others, understandably condemned them, saying "This is a first order moral issue, enshrined in the ten commandments and part of the created order." (Remember, God rested on the Seventh Day of creation, so, arguably, failing to do likewise would constitute a "sin against nature.") These issues were not resolved when Paul wrote Romans. They were fiercely contested moral debates in the church.
If the logic of "agree to disagree" applied to issues like this, then, of course it could apply to the dispute over the moral standing of covenantal same-sex relationships. The dispute boils down to this: Clearly the prohibitive texts condemn the well-known (and mostly foreign to us) same-sex practices of the biblical era, things like pederasty (the widespread practice of older men mentoring pre-adolescent males in exchange for sexual services), male-on-male temple prostitution (celebrating gods who acted like pederasts) and the epidemic of masters demanding sexual services from male slaves; the disputed question is whether they also address the equivalent of modern day monogamous gay unions?
The evidence for the existence of anything like modern day monogamous gay unions in that time is sketchy at best. Reasonable people examine it and come to different conclusions. Evangelicals agree that Scripture has to be interpreted in historical context. The text can't be made to mean what it couldn't have meant to the original readers. I love my Bible as much as any evangelical and I think there's a great case to be made that the Bible is simply silent regarding same-sex covenantal unions, as it is silent on many modern day moral concerns, like contraception. In which case, the Bible may still speak to the question, but if it does, it does so indirectly. Which means there will be plenty of honest disagreement regarding what the Bible says.
Arguably, a perfect example of a modern day "disputable matter" a la Romans 14, in which case, we should all "agree to disagree": Maintain our different convictions, but not judge each over them, not insist on excluding each other over such matters, and continue to work together in the name of Jesus to do things like alleviate suffering for orphans in abject poverty.
But so many evangelicals punished World Vision for walking this far down the Romans Road, that World Vision reversed its decision. Thousands of evangelicals were so enraged by the organization's decision to regard this moral question as something beyond the essential core of Christian faith that they stopped supporting orphans! What was World Vision to do in the face of that kind of punishment, affecting such vulnerable children?
I'm an evangelical pastor trying to walk the same Romans Road in my evangelical congregation, the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. We have gay couples in our church, some who have adopted children. Some are female couples. When I read the only text in the entire Bible that says anything about lesbian sex (and St. Augustine thought it referred to something other than lesbian sex) and had to decide whether to apply the traditional exclusionary practices (if you are a gay couple you can't be a member, or you can't lead, or if you want Jesus to help you stay together to parent your children, don't ask for our prayers) I said to myself, "Why not treat this as a disputable matter, and stop excluding people over it?" And that is what I have done.
Doing it, though, I knew would exact a cost. I knew that some would not regard this as a disputable matter. Some would regard it, in fact, as a litmus test of orthodoxy, and would leave the church.
But I was between a rock and a hard place. To keep the those who insist on some exclusionary practices happy (happy enough to stay and give) I had to perform stigmatizing exclusionary practices against these dear gay people who were seeking to follow Jesus in a church community that fully accepted them. The gay people seemed much more vulnerable to me, with fewer options for a Jesus, Bible, Spirit-friendly church like ours. Or at least a Jesus, Bible, Spirit-friendly church that does church the way we do, with that activist evangelical, "let's-do-the-Bible" approach that gave birth to wonderful organizations like World Vision.
Before making my views widely known to my congregation, I felt stuck, much as I imagine the leaders of World Vision must have felt stuck before they decided to hire (or more like, not to fire) people in covenanted same sex-relationships. People who like the other employees of World Vision, love Jesus and want to relieve human suffering. In my mini-version of the World Vision leadership dilemma, I wondered, "How can I tell my congregation that I cannot enforce these exclusionary policies without blowing up the church I love?"
That's when Jesus came through for me. While I was meditating on Psalm 23, using a CD prepared by Tanya Luhrmann, as part of a study on spiritual experience inspired by Vineyard churches, Jesus made himself known to me in prayer. I mean, I could see him in my "minds eye." He turned to me and tossed me an idea, "Why don't you write a letter to your congregation?" (I'm from the experiential sector of evangelicalism, the one that thinks, in Tanya Luhgrmann's charming phrase, that "God talks back").
So that is what I did. I wrote a very long letter that revealed my sometimes tortured path to embrace people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus. (People don't know what it's like to be a pastor under the pressure of such intense political-cultural-religious controversies.) I made it available to the members of my congregation to let them know why I couldn't apply any exclusionary practices to the gay people coming to our church and why I felt that we were all under a biblical mandate to "accept one another as Christ has accepted you." I detailed how I thought this was a Romans 14 moment for the church. I shared my hope, along with St. Paul, that the glorious gospel of Jesus would be powerfully demonstrated by a people agreeing to disagree, rather than separate and divide. Because the latter is what what mere religional ways does: divide, separate, and punish ("Dear World Vision, You won't be getting any
more money from me, until you exclude those gay people again!") until it's just you and me and I'm not too sure about you, and we're just one separation away from hell, where the only presence we welcome is an absence and we hate it.
Before releasing it to my congregation, I presented a summary of the letter at our Society of Vineyard Scholars. It was not well-received by my denominational leaders. Then I made the letter available to my congregation. About 225 people requested copies. Some people left our church over my letter, including some who hadn't read it. Many were dear friends of mine. As World Vision learned, the people who are upset over this issue, are often the same people who give lots of money and they take it with them. So I've been telling the people who stay because they support what we're doing: "Please put your money where your bleeding heart is."
In the last month, I released my letter as a book, there were so many pastors asking me about it. So far, it looks like we're going to make it. Our attendance is a little soft. We average between 500 and 600 on a Sunday -- a little bit down from two years ago when all this started. Our giving is about 12 percent down (but one of our long term pastors, my wife, died suddenly and that hurts giving, too).
On the up side, we have people experiencing the gospel in ways they haven't experienced it before. We have people coming to church now who would never enter an evangelical church before. I've never been happier as a pastor.
Turn back? Are you kidding? This is what floats my evangelical boat! I know lots of other evangelical pastors who are thinking about walking all the way down the Romans Road to Romans 14. In their pastoral bones they know that these exclusionary practices against gay and lesbian (and transgender) people are harmful, and that "love does no harm to the neighbor" (Romans 13: 10). In a very short time, I think the world will begin to see a form of evangelical faith (that's an adjective related to "good news"), a Jesus, Bible, Spirit-embracing faith, that manifests itself in evangelical churches that say to some of the most vulnerable people on this planet -- gay, lesbian and transgender people -- you are accepted (a.k.a, "Welcome and Wanted.) These pastors know what is painful to admit, but must be confessed, that to be truly evangelical in this era when people punish World Vision for trying to walk down the Romans Road, we have to be willing to offend evangelicalism.
Ken Wilson is the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, a former member of the national board of Vineyard USA, and author most recently of A Letter to My Congregation: An evangelical pastor's path to embrace people who are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender into the Company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit, 2014).