It’s a familiar story: A church is torn apart by a moral issue. On one side, a group is arguing for strict adherence to scripture; on the other side, members argue that biblical adages were meant for an earlier time.
The story is so familiar, in fact, that it is actually in the Christian scriptures.
Paul’s ancient answers to congregational controversies inform a new book written by Ken Wilson, an evangelical pastor in Michigan. In A Letter to My Congregation Wilson argues that the ancient issues of food and Sabbath are analogous to today’s moral struggle over the rightful place of LGBT people in both church and society.
As a pastor in a conservative denomination, Wilson’s journey from a “consensus” approach to full acceptance for LGBT people has not been easy. But just as a lot was at stake in Paul’s era, so too in today’s culture wars. The answer Wilson offers is the same one Paul offered those in Rome: stop judging one another and live in peace.
Wilson spoke with Religion Dispatches’ Candace Chellew-Hodge about the book and how it’s being received.
What prompted you to write this book?
I had been doing a rethink on this question for a number of years and my convictions had changed but I didn’t know how to process it in the congregation at that stage. I had processed it with the church board and pastoral staff and different leaders.
I was doing a lectio divina when I got the idea to write a letter to my congregation. I didn’t want to have congregational meetings to talk about how to handle this because that would stigmatize a vulnerable group of people—and we’ve never done that on any other moral question, so I decided to write a letter.
You said you’ve gotten to know some LGBT people over the years. How did that change your thinking?
Growing up in the ’50s and ’60s in Detroit, I didn’t know any gay people who were out, so it was all undercover and I was just naïve. As a younger pastor, I was in a renewalist community and the gay people I knew there all regarded their same-sex attraction as a temptation they were trying to resist.
I was just taking their story on its face and had no experience understanding about it; I inherited the traditional consensus on the question and never really examined it.
It was probably in the early 2000s, when our church started in the college town of Ann Arbor, that I started to hear different stories. People from the church quietly asked me in the lobby about what I thought about this because they had a sister who was gay or a parent had come out as gay and many adolescent children were dealing with the question.
My wife was a coach at the local high school and knew other coaches and some of them were lesbian. My daughter played field hockey and some of her coaches were a great influence on her life. It was just a whole different story and experience. What I knew about the traditional consensus and biblical texts did not seem to fit the people that I was meeting.
You deal with the seven texts that are always brought up against homosexuality and show how they can’t be applied to the loving, committed gay and lesbian relationships of today. Then you turn to Paul’s letter to the Romans, especially chapters 14 and 15, to propose a way to live together in a “third way” and make the church not just “affirming” of LGBT people, but fully inclusive.
I just assumed there was a well-acknowledged category of “disputable matters” (like those found in Romans 14 and 15).
I grew up in the Jesus Freak movement of the ’70s. I was part of an ecumenical charismatic community where we disagreed about all sorts of issues but had a very vibrant common life. Now I’m part of the Vineyard denomination that is not heavily defined on a lot of doctrinal questions, so I just assumed everyone recognized that there are certain issues that are not part of the common core of Christianity and we just agree to disagree about those questions and we don’t exclude people over those questions.
But I found that’s not a very well-developed tradition in the church at all—this idea of “disputable matters”—probably because most denominations were originally defined by a so-called disputable matter, so there is an institutional disincentive to recognize the category.
I was looking for a way forward that recognized that there are good people on both sides of this question. Romans 14 was just staring me in the face, but if you look at the issues there—which most people don’t—you find these are first order moral questions for that time, things like Sabbath observance and eating meat sacrificed to idols.
The Sabbath observance is rooted in Genesis 1, so to not observe the Sabbath could easily be regarded as a sin against nature. Of course, then, this issue would certainly qualify as a disputable matter. Paul’s answer in the matter is acceptance. If anything, Paul was siding with those he called “strong” on these issues. But, the “weak” side, if anything, had more biblical support for its argument. Sabbath keeping and not eating meat sacrificed to idols was clearly forbidden in scripture, so it makes a great parallel for today’s LGBT question.
In regards to this passage, I find that those we would call “liberal” on this question are in the position of the “strong,” those who have grown beyond simple categories and see things with a clearer light. They were in the place of the “weak” at one point, but grew beyond that.
This “third way” that you’re proposing really emphasizes this idea that there are good people on both sides. You’re trying to find a way to get people to move toward one another, which is a pastor’s job. But, this third way is challenging for both liberals and conservatives. How has your more evangelical audience reacted?
The initial response to the book has been largely positive, but I think that’s because of the subtitle: “An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender into the company of Jesus,” signals where it’s going. The people who are reading it then, are fairly open minded on the question or understand it’s an issue that needs to be wrestled with, whereas the entrenched conservatives are just dismissing it.
Within Vineyard, our new leadership team has made it clear this is not an acceptable position, so I’m not expecting to be embraced warmly by mainstream evangelicalism on this. Evangelicalism has bought into what I think is the demonic reality that somehow this is the defining moral issue of our time and is the litmus test for orthodoxy. Given that, I believe there will be a lot of out-of-hand dismissal of the book.
Do you think the moveable middle of evangelicalism can use your book, especially its biblical exegesis, as a way to move toward acceptance for LGBT people?
Evangelicalism is a very diverse, broad movement and there are many different expressions. I think, very shortly, there will be an expression of evangelicalism which will be inclusive of LGBT people.
There are a number of evangelicals that are very open to this and are having the same experience I had of actually knowing gay and lesbian people, so I think it’s inevitable. I think there will be a sector of evangelicalism that will go past mainline protestant denominations, which have more institutional restraints. The more autonomous congregations will outpace them in acceptance. That’s going to be the big surprise.
How soon do you predict that?
If there are congregations like ours that can demonstrate that you can survive financially, then I think there will immediately be a small, steady trickle of congregations moving in this direction and that will develop into a stream. Certainly, in five years, I think we’ll see that.
I like how you use divorce as an example of how radically the church has changed in regards to moral issues. In our time, we forget that divorce, after World War II, was huge issue for the church. My father was a Southern Baptist minister and when he divorced my mother, he never held a pulpit again. It used to be a very big moral issue, but over the years, the church has come to a point of acceptance.
I’ve been surprised at how often my colleagues will dismiss this argument. What they fail to recognize is that the biblical teaching on remarriage is very strict. The issue is not when a divorced person remarries they commit one act of adultery, the issue biblically is that they are married to someone else’s spouse, so the nature of their relationship is extra-marital and outside the bounds of holiness. It is precisely analogous to the question of same-sex sexual relationships.
So, ongoing adultery is the issue around divorce, but with the rise of the divorce rate the church realized if they applied the teaching in that way it was harmful to people.
There is a strong tradition in Christianity that love does no harm, and love your neighbor as yourself, so this is an important interpretive lens. I think the Bible is really on the side of acceptance of LGBT people.
I was having trouble imagining how conservatives and liberals on this issue could find a way to come to a place of acceptance until I read the part where you compared it to a long-term marriage between people who love each other despite their differences. That’s really what covenant is all about: you agree to live together and find a way to work out your differences.
And research on marriage says couples never really overcome their differences throughout their married life. The couples that survive are not the ones that resolve the conflict, they’re the ones that come to a point of acceptance. The marriage research is exactly the situation we’re facing in the church.
So, the real question is the gospel and is Jesus really risen from the dead and does he really have power to hold a diverse group of people together or not? If all we have is a text with no risen savior, a text doesn’t have the power to unite people unless we go into this continual fracturing of how you interpret the text. But, if there’s a risen Jesus who is an active agent, then he has the power actually to hold people together.
You even assert that marriage is not the biblical ideal for people, or the “gold standard,” as some evangelicals have called it. Instead, you say that gold standard is celibacy. Explain that.
If you want to say what’s the higher way, or ideal way, you have to say according to Jesus and Paul, it’s celibacy. There’s a theological reason for that, because it’s all about the coming kingdom of God and in the resurrection there will be no marriage. If we really want to live according to the new creation, marriage is part of the old creation that’s passing away.
Do you think marriage equality is inevitable for gay people?
Yes, because American culture values equality.
So, how are you living out your new idea of accepting LGBT people into your own congregation, based on your study of Romans 14 and 15 that calls for acceptance of everyone even when there are deep disagreements?
Right when I was ready to “cross the Rubicon,” so to speak, on this issue with my congregation, I received an email from a lesbian woman who told us she and her partner were having their first child and they had not found a church they wanted to attend. They wanted to know if they would be accepted. They didn’t ask if they’d be welcomed, they asked if they would be accepted. In Romans 14, the word is “acceptance,” so this was our test case.
Our answer has to be yes or no—you can’t partially accept a person.
The gay and lesbian people who come to our church require courage, especially if they go to churches in the evangelical orbit. What they find here are people with differing views on this but those who come have found a home and a sense of belonging. However, I have to be extra alert as the pastor to make sure it is a safe place for them.
I try to be honest with the gay and lesbian people who come that it’s not a resolved issue within our church, but gay and lesbian people are used to that. But the gay and lesbian people who come are the most amazing people. The amount of love they have for Jesus to go through that process of reconciling their spirituality and sexuality is incredible. As a pastor, you’re not used to that.
The straight people who come believe the church has won the sweepstakes when they join because they can go down to any other church, so they’re looking for a church to deliver their niche needs. For gay and lesbian people, all they want is to belong and if you’re willing to accept them it’s like the original Gentiles coming to faith.
There’s so much God-activity in all of this and pastors who aren’t welcoming these people are missing out.