A Letter To My Congregation | Notes & Critical Review

Ken Wilson. A Letter To My Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender into the company of Jesus. Read The Spirit Books, 2004. (196 pages)





The book you hold is a passionate and courageous argument. Many people will not like it. But they should read it and weigh whether it is true, because more hangs on the argument than the fate of gay marriage within evangelical Christianity. At its heart, this book asks Christians to rethink what God and scripture may be saying about what it means to be a good and decent person. The answer to that question will shape what the church becomes in twenty years. (xii)


Chapter 1: A Fleeting Unease, Readily Dismissed

The conscience is a communal organ–a way of knowing that we do with others formed always in reference to others. The members of a congregation have a commonly held conscience on many, but not all, matters. A pastor stands at the crossroads of a congregation’s conflicted conscience. It’s a congested intersection, this place. (1)(

For a pastor to answer a question like this without deep reflection, without a brutally honest appreciation for its impact on real people, is, I think, and I say this advisedly, cowardly. For the people most affected by a pastor’s answer, all this is very serious business, very personal business, something much different than a policy rendered in the abstraction sometimes referred to as “the gay controversy.” (3)

Sometimes a Pastor Has to Pay It No Mind

This, more than anything else, is my concern: the underlying assumption behind any exclusionary policy has to do with belonging. (5)

But sometimes the quest for the right answer keeps us from testing a variety of good ones. In search of the right answer, we assume every answer other than the one we’ve settled on must be wrong. Forgetting that some things have more than one good answer. (7)

Time to Move Beyond a Well-Worn Binary?

The plain fact is, I don’t trust or accept the way this question has been framed by the binary choice we face in answering it, summarized by the code phrases: “open and affirming” and “love the sinner, hate the sin.” (8)

When an evangelical pastor even entertains a minority perspective on a matter of such intense controversy, he or she taps into the anxiety flowing through the system. It’s intense. (10)

The Usual Space a Pastor Occupies

Too many congregations know too little about what their pastors go through in a time of intense cultural, political, and religious polarization, when people feel more free than ever to try a new church when their old one doesn’t line up. Too many congregations don’t know what it’s like to lead in such an environment, to be true to the pastoral calling in a society that seems to revel in forming opinions and spouting them off as a form of something very much like entertainment. Too many congregations look to their pastors for simple answers to problems that their pastors see as anything but simple. And too many pastors don’t trust their congregations enough to say, “It’s not that simple from my point of view and here’s why.” If nothing else, I hope this letter makes a small contribution to closing that gap. Even more fundamentally than dealing with the “gay issue,” I want to help change the way pastors and congregations understand each other. (12)

It’s not my job to be the answer man for God. (13)

God is an intimidating opponent and we only have so many hips. (14)

Retracting a Path of Spiritual Discernment

I have come to see a deeper problem. …to have unity of the Spirit we must either affirm that all homosexual acts are definitely sinful or affirm that some require our moral approval. Either way, our unity in the Spirit hinges on a common moral judgment. (17)

…why should our unity in the Spirit be based on something more than the gospel? In fact, it seems to short circuit a path that more powerfully reveals what it means to be accepted by God because of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (17)

Yeats said the arguments you have with others are rhetoric; the arguments you have with yourself are poetry. (19)

Chapter 2: Intuitions Toward a New Way Forward

Dissatisfied with the Available Options

My Discomfort with My Own Discomfort

As I tentatively shared my concerns with pastor colleagues, I sensed the strain. …an anxious system in which it’s not easy to discuss this issue with the gentleness, calm, and candor that pastoral matters require. (24)

Stumbling Into a Process of Discernment

It’s one thing to adopt a position on controversial questions like divorce and remarriage, Christian participation in war, entering a lawsuit against a fellow believer, or the use of in vitro fertilization, but it’s another to field test them in real life. As a pastor I face these questions with those for whom they are not abstractions. It makes you more careful in your moral judgments. (29)

An Early Experience with a Transgender Person

We pastors have to do our theology on the fly sometimes. (30)

My job as a pastor was not to determine his gender. It was his job as a child of God to tell me what his gender was. (30)

The Remarriage Dilemma, Another Turning Point

Facing the Effects of Exclusion

One study surveyed several congregations. It found gay teenagers in every congregation. If the congregation took the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach, the kids kept their sexuality a secret from pastors and youth workers. Kids in these settings were at greater risk for self-harm, including suicide. These findings are especially troubling, since normally church affiliation is associated with improved mental health. (36)

Experience Changes One’s Perspective

I couldn’t outsource this. …I had to do my homework. (43)

Discernment in the Fires of Controversy

Heeding the Mission Alarm

Two concerns have motivated me: the harm to gay people associated with the traditional exclusionary approach and the harm that this approach does to the Christian mission in Ann Arbor. (48)

Causing an unnecessary disincentive to follow Christ is a serious offense, at least as serious as failing to uphold a moral good. (50)

I Had to Face It: My Predisposition Had Shifted

Chapter 3: A Closer Look at the Prohibitive Texts

We do our best Bible reading full of questions. (53)

Only experience pressed me to scrutinize the text and my assumptions about the text more carefully. As a result, I trust my reading of Scripture more–it feels more honest to me–when I give myself the space to let some cognitive dissonance arise (between what I think Scripture says and what I understand by experience. (54)

Reading the Text in Historical Context

[John] Walton speaks of Scripture as a “context rich” form of communication. In other words, the biblical writers were speaking to those who shared a rich cultural context, which shaped the way they communicated. (57)

The Leviticus Abomination

The attempt to resolve this by categorizing one as a matter of moral concern and the other as a matter of ritual purity is not easy to establish o the basis of textual evidence. (62)

The Shameful Lust of Romans

…the link between sexual practice and Gentile idolatry is central, not incidental, to Paul’s argument. (63)

I think it’s much more likely that Paul’s argument–never intended as a pastoral guide for individuals, per se–is offered in a shared context dominated by same-sex acts characteristic of pederasty, temple prostitution, and slave sex, which were grossly perverse, demeaning, and exploitative. (68)

In a situation like this [two women who are committed to each other and their children], a pastor is left to make the call. Am I to use this text to guide my care of the people I know who are in what appear to be loving, caring relationships involving same-sex intimacy? The text, in my view, is certainly not aimed at them. I feel confident to say that this text is speaking to the kind of wicked behavior–to speak of “relationships” would be completely inapt–to which an idolatrous society is given over as sign [sic] that it has fallen under the judgment of God. (70)

The aim of Romans 1 is not to teach a code of sexual ethics; nor is the passage a warning of God’s judgment against those who are guilty of particular sins. – Richard Hays

Thus, the text does not offer either a pastoral approach or a church policy regarding the people involved. In fact, the exhortation that flows from Romans is to condemn those who would judge others, while participating in any of a wide range of other sins! (71)

A person’s sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual is not the point at issue. What matters is what a person does with his sexuality! – W. Hendriksen

1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy: Effeminate? Male Prostitutes? Homosexual Offender?

The first word, malakoi, has the basic meaning of ‘soft’ but it also came to mean ‘effeminate,’ most likely referring to the younger, ‘passive’ partner in a pederastic relationship–a common form of homosexuality in the Greco-Roman world. In many instances, young men sold themselves as ‘mistresses’ or the sexual pleasure of men older than themselves. The problem is that there was a technical word for such men, and malakos is seldom, if ever, so used. Since it is not the ordinary word for homosexual behavior, one cannot be sure what it means in a list like this,where there is no further context to help [underline added]. – Gordon Fee

Any translation that uses the modern term “homosexual”–common in modern translations–is seriously misleading for two reasons. First, it obscures the fact that only men are in view, since the term in Greek only applies to men. Second, the use of “homosexual” in translation obscures the fact that homosexuality was not a category in use in the biblical period. (75)

The Questions Raise Are Legitimate

In short, my study affirmed my pastoral instinct that whatever the Bible was addressing seemed to have a different context, tone, and application than fit the people I was thinking about. (76)

What the Bible Clearly Condemns: Plenty to Agree On

…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? (79)

I am a pastor of a local congregation. That means, for me to have breathing room, I need to be part of a congregation that has breathing room to work this thing out. We need to step out from under the intense pressure of the cultural-religious-political controversy of our highly polarized day, and find a new way forward. (80)

Chapter 4: The Third Way

I’m now ready to sketch out the makings of a third way, a new approach to inclusion. It’s a way to fully include people whoa re gay, lesbian, and transgender in the life of the church, while recognizing that the church has not yet resolve the question of the morality of gay relationships. (81)

We know that exclusion is the most severe punishment in the New Testament. It is the equivalent to capital punishment in the Old Testament. (82)

Stigmatizing a vulnerable minority is something we should repent of, not something we should perpetuate. (84-85)

Let’s Apply the Bible’s Ultimate Ethic: The Rule of Love

But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of the mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.

-Frederick William Faber 1814-1863

We are supposed to listen to the voice within us that says, “Gosh, this just doesn’t sound loving, even though it sounds correct!” (89)

I’ve concluded that one of two things is the case. One, there is a reasonable case to be made that what the texts are addressing is something other than today’s monogamous relationships between two people committed to each other for life. Another possibility is that the traditional reading is correct. Even then, we accept people who violate other biblical standards, like remarriage after divorce. We make accommodations because it seems like the right thing to do, all things considered. … We can agree to disagree. We are ultimately accountable to God for our actions. We can accept each other without approving each other’s moral standing on this or that issue. God does, or we couldn’t be saved. That’s the gospel isn’t it? (91)

It is not enough to have different beliefs from a world gone mad, if in the process w adopt the same patterns of thinking that fuel the madness. (93)

Needed: A Way to Handle Controversial Issues

Practically, this means that they are to maintain or restore the table fellowship that was the centerpiece of Christian fellowship in the first 125 years of the church. Their witness to the gospel seems to be at stake. (98)

The Lord knows we live in a highly polarized time when a robust category lie this would be needed to maintain unity in the face of great diversity. Our readiness to break fellowship over lesser matters is indication of the need. We mourn this divisive spirit until it comes to a controversy over which we feel great passion, then we can hardly believe good Christians could differ in good conscience over such a thing. (104)

Treat This as a Disputable Matter

By “disputable matter” I do not mean that it is not controversial. In fact, controversy is a key component of disputable matters as Paul uses the term. (104)

What are reasonable criteria for inclusion in the category, “disputable matters”? (105)

Roger Olsen in The Mosaic of Christian Belief distinguishes between three orders or levels of Christian truth | Dogma, Doctrine, and Opinion. (106-107)

…with Olsen’s distinctions in view, we can infer reasonable criteria based on Paul’s “disputable matters.” (107)

  1. When it doesn’t involve a matter of basic Christian dogma such as we find in the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles, Nicene, Chalcedonian, etc.) (107)
  2. When the debate brings two or more biblical truths into dynamic tension (e.g. mercy-judgment, law-grace, free will-predestination) so that both parties make reasonable appeals to Scripture. (107)
  3. When faithful Christians take different views on the issue. (108)

Chapter 5: The Gospel Way

A third way departs from the “open and affirming” and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach by regrarding the question of whether and how the biblical prohibitions apply in the case of monogamous gay relationships as a “disputable matter” in the Romans 14-15 sense. (112)

A third approach says, “We can agree to disagree on this question” without separating from each other. We can hold our respective positions as firmly as our conscience dictates. But we have chosen not to treat this matter as something we have to hold in common order to share a true unity of the Spirit. (113)

Acceptance is the key biblical demand of a third way. (113)

A third way asks people who differ on this question to accept each other as Christ has accepted them, without predicating acceptance on affirming the other’s lifestyle in this and many other moral questions. (113-114)

We ruthlessly practice the discipline of seeing those with whom we disagree in the best possible light, trusting God to judge their motives, intentions and heart better than we. (115)

A third way urges disputants to recognize the limits of their personal responsibility for the actions of others and to leave the execution of a judgment to God. (115)

A third way provides time and space for a community to eventually resolve some disputes peacefully. (115)

Churches following a third way practice thoroughgoing acceptance–embrace, not exclusion. (116)

When we single this issue out as the basis for a categorical disqualification from ministry we are practicing a form of indirect or de facto exclusion. We are saying to en entire group of people in the church and beyond: you cannot be trusted to do (fill in the blank). You cannot be full participants in this church, even if in every other respect your service here is exemplary. Such disqualification from ministry is not consistent with how we handle the legitimate disputes over equivalent moral concerns. (117)

A third way challenges “conservatives” and “liberals” on this issue in different ways. (120)

A third way is an opportunity for conservative families to teach their children how to be faithful to Jesus in a pluralistic age. (121)

The third way challenges “conservative” parents to help their children practice one of the key skills of discipleship: the ability to live out convictions that are not shared by others. (121)

A third way challenges liberals to refrain from holding conservatives in contempt (or mild condescension, as the case may be.) (123)

A third way invites liberals and conservatives to redirect the energy that animates their moral concern over this issue to the Lord. (124)

A third way highlights the power of acceptance over the power of affirmation. (125)

Another word for acceptance is embrace. The opposite of exclusion is not mere tolerance, but embrace. The “other” is received as one who is beloved. (128)

Two Brothers, One House

For the Greater Glory of God and the Well-being of People

Ignatius taught that discernment is reserved for a choice between two goods. If the choice is between a good option and an evil option, then no discernment is needed. Choose the good, shun the evil. (132)

And if there is a way to deal with this controversial issue that doesn’t require us to separate from eah other, maybe we don’t have to fear the next big controversial issue. (135)

Chapter 6: Yes, But This Is a BIG Change

Does the “Definition of Marriage” Settle This Controversy?

We Can’t Have it Both Ways

Thanks to our historical amnesia, we sometimes act as though remarriage after divorce is in a different moral universe than gay relationships. (139)

The Limits of the Celibacy Solution

Not the First Big Marriage Controversy

In the meantime, we shouldn’t be naïve about marriage as if it is an unchanging institution, fixed throughout the centuries. As I read the biblical witness to marriage, I don’t see a monolithic, unchanging institution. I see a patchwork of different arrangements over the centuries. The nature of marriage has changed in significant, even dramatic ways throughout the biblical era and throughout church history. (157)

Has the Gay Controversy Overheated Our View of Marriage?

…”the marriage bed” as the author of Hebrew [sic] says, “must be held in honor.” But to honor something means that we must let it be what it is meant to be and not seek to make it more than that. (160)

My views on this have been deeply affected by knowing, and now coming to love, gay couples seeking to be faithful to Christ. That experience–and the thoughtful and prayerful reflection on experience, interacting with Scripture–is an important aspect of a spiritual discernment process in the Ignatian model. It makes a big difference in my more general discernment about what I see the Father doing in the gay community. (164)

What is God Doing in the Gay Community?

Living under such intense opprobrium isn’t good for one’s mental health. (166)

This doesn’t seem to me to be a “slippery slope.” It seems to me that it might actually be instead, a redemptive trajectory. (167)

“Could You See Yourself Performing a Gay Wedding?”

If you are a pastor, you better have your wits about you when your care for someone, especially someone in a position of great vulnerability, draws you into the orbit of a controversy. (169)

Chapter 7: I Am Willing

I might be wrong again and I might be wrong on this matter. But I am determined not to let the fear of that keep me from following Jesus as I understand him to be leading me. | Which is why I am willing…to continue. (186)

— via critical review —

There’s much in here that is inspiring and ought to be admired, and lauded. The mere fact of Wilson’s public vulnerability on this issue is commendable. Even though our culture is progressing, religious circles are still volatile, and there are inherent risks involved with a “self-expose.” In addition, Wilson covers a lot of ground. He considers not just the theological and biblical challenges, but the pastoral ones too. He recognizes this is more than “just an issue,” and I am thankful and appreciative of his approach as one who speaks to the soul, not just the sterile theological, philosophical, and cultural “mechanics” so often found in cheap, vapid, and vacuous soundbites.

I do have some quibbles.

On page 70, in response to a congregant’s inquiry, “Do you expect me to agree with you over against N.T. Wright?” he writes,

I’m a pastor who has the responsibility to advise two women who are committed to each other and their children on whether the Bible condemns the sexual dimension of their relationship. I don’t find N.T. Wright’s assertion convincing. And I cannot outsource my pastoral responsibility to N.T. Wright.

Wilson fails to recognize that Wright is himself clergy, (not just a theologian), and his excuse (too harsh; “reasoning,”) for dismissal that he is a “pastor,” does not have any significance when it comes to the argument of the exegesis. I’m not saying he is wrong or right in his conclusion. I’m simply saying that you cannot say (or even allude) that you dismiss an exegetical argument “because you’re a pastor.” Say that you’ve chosen a different response because you’re a pastor. Or, say that you find the arguments unconvincing. But don’t mix the two, for it muddies the waters.

Next, on page 81, Wilson writes,

[The third way] doesn’t require the members of the church community to affirm gay relationships. It asserts the gospel truth that our common life in Jesus doesn’t depend on granting each other moral approval.

I find this statement contradictory. I recognize I may be quibbling here, but the entire book is a moral argument, and he writes it to sway moral approval. In fact, one cannot make a list of defining community requirements without implicitly evoking some sort of moral boundary set. To be fair, the context yields that he is discussing the topic of “sexual morality,” and I suppose I simply wish he had been more precise. It is critical to understand what we’re doing in this discourse, and this phraseology needs slight scrutiny.

On page 119, Wilson writes that we should not adopt an exclusionary approach because,

To do so will hurt the mission of the church among modern day Gentiles. In our setting, these are left-leaning, science-friendly, religiously-averse Ann Arborites.

The problem with this statement is that many see “mission to the Gentiles” as a work of salvation from left-leaning, science-friendly, and sexually perverse views. I would respectfully suggest a positive statement about expanding the Kingdom of God, and prioritizing the work of Jesus through the Spirit in and through the expression of Jesus’s morals, ethics, and values.

Last, on page 122, in giving an example of a woman who got divorced, Wilson suggests this advice,

A parent might answer, “Even though Mrs. Jones is a wonderful person, she made a mistake in getting divorced. But we love and accept her anyway.”

To this I say, “WHAT?! REALLY!!? UGH!” The underlying implication found in many Christian theologies is that anyone who gets divorce has chosen to violate a covenant and/or sin deliberately. First, not all divorces end like this. Second, teaching a child that “divorce is a mistake” is an explanation of shame, rather than an explanation of understanding compassion. Third, this statement betrays the underlying reality that divorcées are second class citizens in the Church. This does not bode well for the repute of how Christians perceive and view sexual minorities.
Aside from these quibbles, Wilson’s voice is an important, and influential one in the modern debate on sexual identity and Christian faith.

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