A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical’s Pastor’s Path to Embracing People Who are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender into the Company of JesusWritten by Ken Wilson Reviewed By R. D. McClenagan
Into the growing field of evangelical literature finding biblical support for same-sex relationships comes A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson, founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. Wilson differs from recent affirming authors such as Matthew Vines and Justin Lee in that, though he sees the Bible supporting same sex relationships, he writes to provide a “third way” forward for Christians between the prevailing binary options of “open and affirming and love the sinner, hate the sin” (p. 8).
Chapters 1 and 2 begin tracing Wilson’s internal unease with the traditional approach to sexuality that he saw to be the “cause of unnecessary harm” (p. 17) to LGBTQ people. These two chapters serve to outline the discernment process Wilson went through as he began to sense the need for a new way, a “third way” forward. Here Wilson notes his dissatisfaction with the available binary options, his consideration of the issue of divorce and remarriage as it relates to the LGBTQ question, the difficulty of seeing LGBTQ people excluded from table fellowship, and his personal experience with people of same-sex attraction.
Chapter 3 evaluates the prohibitive texts concerning same-sex activity. Wilson singles out five texts—Leviticus 18 and 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1—which he acknowledges all speak negatively about same-sex behavior, but his main question is “What are the texts referring to?” (p. 56). Wilson works briefly through each of the five texts and concludes that the type of behavior which the biblical authors are prohibiting is not the type of loving and faithful same sex relationships that we see around us today. Wilson asks, “Is the Bible addressing modern-day monogamous gay unions at all? If the answer to that question is unclear, how are we to apply the prohibitions to gay people who are willing to practice lifelong fidelity with a same-sex partner?” (p. 79).
Chapters 4 and 5 represent the heart of the book, where Wilson unpacks his “third way” approach for the inclusion of LGBTQ people into the community of faith. He uses Romans 14–15 as his biblical basis for his advocacy of a third way approach. The issue in Romans 14–15 is Paul’s concern that the “strong” and “weak” Christians accept each other as family, even as they disagree strongly over the eating of certain types of food. Wilson believes Romans 14–15 “suggests that Paul includes first order moral concerns in his disputable issues category” (p. 104). Wilson then strongly insists that embrace, inclusion and acceptance must mark the church and that disagreement over LGBTQ questions should not divide the church as it has.
Chapter 6 works through the LGBTQ issue in light of “biblical marriage.” Wilson notes (rightly in my view) how lax many churches now are about the serious issues of divorce and remarriage in the church among heterosexual couples. He then deals with the problems he sees in the traditional approach of advocating celibacy as the only option for those people with same-sex attraction and concludes with his answer to “Would you perform a gay wedding?” (spoiler alert: It’s a yes.)
In his concluding chapter, Wilson works through several “I am willing . . .” statements that relate to his understanding of the LGBTQ issue, including the following: “I am willing . . . to be misunderstood” (p. 182), “I am willing . . . to be fearless” (p. 183), and finally “I am willing . . . to continue” (p. 186).
What struck me in reading Ken Wilson’s warm and pastoral “Letter to My Congregation” is that it really is that—a letter to his church, a church that he clearly loves and longs to see be a place of welcome and acceptance for all people. Wilson writes as a pastor who has had a lot of experience with LGBTQ people, and this has clearly shaped both his exegesis and his discomfort with excluding LGBTQ people from the church. You cannot read his book without appreciating how deeply he has wrestled with his revisionist position.
While there are elements to commend in Wilson’s book I want to offer my disagreement with the “third way” that he articulates in the book. Wilson clearly believes that the Bible speaks to issues of sexuality, but that the biblical references to same-sex activity are nothing like the same-sex relationships that we see around us today and so this issue is a disputable matter which should not then be used to exclude anyone. I must respectfully dissent. For nearly two millennia this was not a disputable matter. For the vast majority of Christian people around the world today this is still not a disputable matter. Wilson imports the LGBTQ issue into the specific situation Paul is addressing of the weak and the strong, but this doesn’t hold theological water.
Wilson assumes the same-sex relationships the Bible condemns are exploitative and categorically different from the type of same-sex relationships in 21st century culture, but this an argument from silence. The biblical texts prohibiting same-sex activity cannot be read in a way to argue that they are only prohibiting certain types of same-sex activity. They are prohibiting all forms of sexual activity outside of an opposite-sex marital union.
The central question when considering the Bible and same-sex relationships is not, “Is this relationship loving and monogamous in its sexual expression?,” but “Is this relationship biblically faithful in its sexual expression?” We must let the Bible shape our experiences and not let our experiences move us to revise biblical teaching.
To claim that the issue of same-sex activity is a disputable matter is not a humble position but an arrogant one. It is arrogant to claim that despite the near uniform teaching of the church for two millennia this issue should be seen as disputable matter where we should err on the side of acceptance and welcome. To make this a disputable matter on the level of divorce is not convincing since the Bible does actually make exceptions which allow for divorce and there are many churches that do take divorce and remarriage very seriously.
I am not persuaded that a third way is possible on the issue of same-sex activity. The church must be a welcoming place for sinners and for all LGBTQ people, but being a place of welcome does not mean that we affirm all the choices of people within our churches, especially when we are convinced that these choices are running contrary to good commands of God.
I do not accept Wilson’s own binary position of either full acceptance or full rejection of LGBTQ people within the church. To truly love someone in the way of Jesus means that we speak the truth to them because we believe this truth can set them free and heal them. To speak the truth to LGBTQ people is tell them that they are always welcome to attend our churches, that we will not use (or tolerate) any bigoted language towards them, but that all people are called to repent of their sins and to follow Jesus—the way of true human flourishing.
R. D. McClenagan
R. D. McClenagan
Door Creek Church
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
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