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This isn’t a great book, but it is a pretty good book. And that is meant as the highest of praise.
When the Christian Church wrestles with significant theological and cultural issues, such as the current debates surrounding LGBT persons, there is often the impression that a “definitive book” or the “watershed moment” will resolve it all. But change occurs as the Holy Spirit nudges us in honest conversations, genuine friendships, and many pretty good books. This book doesn’t aspire to be definitive or attempt to be magisterial.
Ken Wilson is a leading pastor in the Vineyard USA, a charismatic fellowship with roots in the Jesus movement of the 1970’s. A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender into the company of Jesus is just that—a pastoral letter. It has a warm, personal, and pastoral tone, which is not to say it is lightweight or cursory.
As a pastor, Wilson understands that the topic at hand is not well suited for one-sided declarations from the pulpit. A letter, or a safe, honest discussion, are more able to produce light rather than heat. You might wonder, however, if it is a bit of a fantasy to hope that your typical person in the pew will make it through 190 pages, even if it is pretty quick reading,
Wilson’s change of heart about LGBT people is clearly a case of “being taken where you do not want to go.” A national church supervisor told him, “If you choose to speak out on this topic, your pastoral work will forever be defined by this issue.” Wilson calls N.T Wright a “theological hero.” “Disagreeing with Wright gives me pause.” But “I don’t find N.T. Wright’s assertion convincing. And I cannot outsource my pastoral responsibility to N.T. Wright.”
Let me put my own cards on the table. I’ll confess to a little skepticism —er, condescension—toward my Pentecostal and charismatic friends. I probably expect them to say things like, “The Holy Spirit told me…” and “I have message from God for the church…” Grandiose, softheaded, individualistic, experiential—these are my stereotypically sad expectations.
Wonderfully, I would say Wilson gives one of the best examples of sola scriptura that I can remember. We Reformed folk often act as if sola scriptura means that we are to take the Bible into a sterile cleanroom, an airtight laboratory, and there poke around with original languages and verb tenses somehow to tease out the true, original, and unchangeable message. If we can only pin scripture down, dissecting it like a little, limp frog, we will find the actual meaning.
Wilson does his homework. His scriptural exegesis and familiarity with other relevant topics is thorough and thoughtful. He has read who he should read, especially the traditionalists, and is well-versed in the literature. But his reading and eventual conclusions are salted and enlightened by encounters and context. Examples would include his wife’s death and his subsequent singleness, his daughter’s discussion in a high school classroom, his setting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a prominent college town.
These encounters and situations aren’t impurities to be strained out in order to interpret scripture purely and accurately. They are prods, sparks, and corroborations of the Holy Spirit, that enliven and enrich his engagement with scripture. This is not saying that experiences simply twist scripture to say whatever we want it to say. It is dance, a to and fro, a beautiful process, a work of the Holy Spirit to speak to us through the scriptures. Nor does it mean that scripture and the Spirit are confused, contrary, or equivocal, but rather that they are alive, fresh, and speak to us where we are.
Wilson, like Jim Brownson, often looks for a “third way,” beyond the typical conservative and liberal labels. I understand the need for this. Both Wilson and Brownson are rooted in the evangelical community. It is their home turf, filled with colleagues and friends. Talk of a “third way” differentiates them from “those liberals.” In reality, though, aren’t there millions of “ways,” not two or three?—each individual finding his or her own way on this topic? Then the voice of the realist pushes me to concede that there are only two sides, and that Wilson’s evangelical colleagues won’t hear him as a “third way,” but merely one more wayward defector.
Perhaps the freshest insight in Wilson’s engagement with scripture is his use of Romans 14 and 15. Wilson sees parallels with Paul’s discussion of eating or abstaining from meat near the end of the letter to the Romans. Those with a conservative take on matters LGBT are the “weak” brothers and sisters, who scrupulously avoid meat and sincerely observe holy days. Those who today are more open to LGBT roles in the church are the “strong,” in Romans 14 and 15—secure in, perhaps even verging on casual about, God’s grace so they feel no compunction about meat or holy days
Wilson believes Romans 14 and 15 provides “a robust category that can help us maintain unity in the face of serious moral and doctrinal differences.” Questions about the proper place of LGBT persons in the Church are “disputable matters,” where faithful Christians can disagree, just like the questions about eating of meat and observing holy days in Romans. But both groups are called to practice acceptance and “embrace, not exclusion or separation.”
Two tidbits for those in the Reformed orbit: Wilson’ spiritual director is Don Postema, Christian Reformed minister and author of the well-known devotional book Space for God. Also as a young couple, Wilson and his wife were active in The Word of God Community, an ecumenical charismatic community, in Ann Arbor, although looking back he says it “devolved into a form of authoritarianism and legalism.”
A good book with a very humble and honest tone; a good Christian, almost unnerved by where he has ended up: these are good ingredients as the church continues to wonder about the place of LGBT people among us. The Holy Spirit animating holy scripture helps too.