Ken Wilson is the senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and has written quite a few helpful books over the years, including the “magisterial” Empowered Evangelicals (w/ Rich Nathan). Ken has somewhat recently changed his views on homosexuality and published those views in A Letter to My Congregation (ALTMC), which is a proposed (alleged?) “third way” of approaching the issue of homosexuality for the evangelical church.
Any topic related to LGBTQ issues tends to be extremely polarizing and, in my experience, difficult to discuss because it is a subject that almost everyone is passionate about because everyone has a stake in the matter. So when people write articles or do interviews or write books or put together reviews of books, people tend to read this issue a bit differently than they do other issues. I realize that this subject has a tendency to be a bit polarizing, so I intend to spend a number of posts review ALTMC so that I can fully engage the topic as loving, gracious, compassionate, understanding, and clear as possible. With that, I’d like to lay out three prefatory thoughts as an introduction to this extended review.
First, this is going to be a review that is done in parts. I’ve read through ALTMC a number of times now (I stopped counting at around four times). I’ve read it while in conversation with Scripture as well as a number of books that take either similar or divergent views. In addition, Ken has spent the last few weeks doing interviews and writing other articles that, in my mind, clarify further his view(s) (and goals!). I believe an extended review of each of the sections and/or chapters within ALTMC allows me to steer the conversation in a way that avoids being more information than can be handled on a blog post. No one wants to read a seventy-five page book review on a blog! In addition, writing a series of posts will allow me to explore how Scripture interacts with ALTMC, as well as provides opportunity to look to some other scholarly works.
Second, this review is going to be largely critical, though hopefully constructive. I find the arguments within ALTMC quite unconvincing. In my reading, ALTMC is evidence that Ken has not created a “third way” but is simply renaming the “open and affirming” view. It appears to be more rebranding and less creative. This is something that Ken, and those who advocate his work, deny, but I believe it can be demonstrated (especially through his recent interviews concerning human sexuality, identity, and more). So this series of reviews will be my attempt to lay out why I reject Ken’s arguments in ALTMC and why I think all other Evangelicals, especially those of us in the Vineyard, should too. Note the acknowledged subjective nature of that last sentence.
Third, I believe that this discussion must include the triad of concerns that we share here at ThinkTheology.org: namely dealing with the biblical, theological, and practical issues raised or proposed. Thus, I will do my best to critically interact with ALTMC on issues related to Scripture, theology, and praxis. In addition to constructively evaluating ALTMC in light of my differences, I’d like to do exactly what Ken suggests in his book. He writes,
“If this third way gets us to a better fourth or fifth way, more power to it!”
While I reject the notion that his book offers us a “third way,” I appreciate that Ken appears to be hopeful in that his work could lead to a “fourth or fifth way.” And by no means do I believe I am going to provide anything unique or substantial on the subject. I’m not N.T. Wright (or even Kenny Burchard!). Like Ken, I’m a pastor. I love Jesus and do my best to consciously submit myself under the authority of Scripture and I also love people and desire to see them experience the transformative power of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is applied to all areas of their lives.
My hope is that our “fourth or fifth way” will actually return back to a biblically rigorous, theologically informed, and practically transformative way of approaching people and our broken world. This, I hope, would be similar to what Jesus taught and demonstrated and the apostles followed and the church has been struggling to carry out for the last 2,000 years.
Observations on Rhetorical Methodology
Readers will likely sense a range of emotions when reading through ALTMC… I know I did! In fact, I think it’s worth noting that Ken clearly and intentionally appeals to the human heart and mind in a variety of ways. He’s a very good writer and his use of rhetoric goes a long way.
One item that I think all who are involved in this conversation should agree upon is that all participants in this conversation are guiding the narrative. It would not only be epistemologically naive but absolutely damaging to assume that anyone can produce a purely “objective” position or response. A purely objective view is essentially impossible. It doesn’t exist here on earth. Everyone is telling a story and everyone is guiding the narrative, right? Let’s just be honest and admit that.
Ken’s writing style is extremely effective at guiding his readers. I think this is because his pastoral thinking is very transparent and I believe most of us coming out of modernity tend to embrace transparency (and authenticity) because it just plain feels human. In fact, as much as I disagree with much of what Ken writes, I can’t help but admit that I find myself entering into his narrative! More on this to come…
All this is to say that I recognize and understand that Ken is using rhetorical methodology throughout ALTMC. And I think this needs to be acknowledged, appreciated, and adequately evaluated.
Things that I appreciate about Ken’s narrative:
Ken writes as a pastor. Since I happen to be a pastor, I can relate to the complexities related to dealing with people and situations connected to a broken world. When he asks his congregation to have a little pity on their pastor, I can relate. When Ken acknowledges that the biggest question facing many pastors is the issue of homosexuality, I can relate. When Ken states that he wasn’t taking the full weight of his previous words or appreciated the implications of his previously held views, I can relate. Ken’s narrative is that of a pastor and many pastors will likely identify with the struggles and implications of this role.
Ken writes as a processor. I do not believe we can undervalue the importance of processing our thinking in the task of doing theology (and the corresponding praxis that comes out of and influences our theology). I appreciate that Ken’s narrative and rhetoric gives readers a chance to step into his world and thinking in order to understand how he went from “A” to “Z” (or whatever starting point and destination you want to call it). Ken is very brave to do so, regardless of whether I think his process is flawed (which I do) and regardless of whether I end up where he does (which I don’t). It’s like when you were in 8th grade and had a math test and your teacher wanted both your answer and the work behind how you reached that answer. Ken certainly does give us a conclusion, but he provides his reasoning along the way. That helps readers evaluate his “work,” to which I am grateful!
Ken clearly values LGBTQ people. This means a lot to me (and many of my friends, especially Thomas Creedy) because all people who identify as LGBTQ are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27; 9:6). His book is forcing countless numbers of people to actually think about, talk about, and deal with the implications of this immensely important doctrine. His intentions are to love LGBTQ people and mine are too. I appreciate that his book is helping many people think about an important topic, even if I disagree with him.
Ken is okay with being wrong. It’s helpful when authors, including myself, acknowledge that they could be wrong. It doesn’t mean that we authors will admit it, but at least we acknowledge its possibilities! The simple fact that Ken has written such is encouraging. It invites constructive feedback and criticism. In fact, Ken makes this quite clear when he writes that he hopes his book would lead to other options (the “fourth or fifth way”).
Ken is a pastor who desires to use scholarship. I do not believe Ken has any seminary training but I appreciate that Ken does not take an anti-intellectual approach to his pastoral work. When reading Ken’s narrative, you see that his process includes turning to scholars and attempting to engage with their research. I like that he seeks to use scholars, not rely on scholars. Or, as he says,
“I cannot outsource my pastoral responsibility to N.T. Wright… a pastor is left to make the call.” (Kindle Locations 1128-1129).
However, there are things that I did not appreciate about Ken’s narrative, some of which is related to the above appreciations:
Ken rhetorically appeals, vaguely, to the argumentum ad populum fallacy. This is the argument that suggests an idea is correct because many people believe it. Readers are primed to reject the traditional view because many in the younger generation do not agree with the traditional view. Additionally, Ken suggests that the majority of people living in his community also reject this view. While I can’t speak for the community of Ann Arbor, I can speak as a “young” Evangelical (youthfulness is quite relative, by the way). Dan Kimball (They Like Jesus but Not the Church) and David Kinnaman (UnChristian and You Lost Me), along with many others, have already demonstrated that young people, both Christian and non, are unhappy with the way that Christians have come across regarding human sexuality, namely homosexuality.
So I think Ken’s point stands regarding the shift in our culture. But I’d like to also suggest that not all of the ideas of “millennials” are correct or healthy. Just because many people hold to a certain view does not mean that view is reasonably defensible or even healthy. Wasn’t that something that Jean Twenge made quite clear in Generation Me? Plus, if we’re going to go with the “many” argument, parents should just give up on hoping that their 27 year old son will ever get a job, stop playing video games, and move out. Now before you misunderstand me here, know that I’m noting that this argument is vague in that it’s not a prominent argument. It’s just a subtle seed sown, which I tend to agree with. We just need to think long and hard on how we engage this changing cultural opinion. Many of us who are both young and who hold to a traditional view are concerned that Ken and others are conceding to the pressures of the changing culture (more on this in the coming reviews). Plus, the majority of authors who have addressed the changing views of younger people note that the concern is primarily how Christians treat the LGBTQ community.
While Ken’s intentions are to love LGBTQ people, if he’s wrong then he’s causing a lot of unnecessary damage to their discipleship. While I am not yet going to jump into explaining why Ken’s ideas are ultimately hurtful to the LGBTQ community in this post, I want to make clear that in the same way that the church has and could be hurting the LGBTQ community, the damage that could be inflicted by ALTMC could just as easily cause serious, if not detrimental, harm to the physical, emotional, and spiritual health of many people I know and love. And that harm could be eternal.
Ken selectively uses scholarly sources (or completely ignores them). While I am thankful that Ken makes use of scholarship, his use appears selective, misleading, or he completely ignores primary sources. In the coming reviews, I’ll interact in more detail with Ken’s selective use of Richard Hayes’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament, his dismissal of Robert Gagnon’s The Bible and Homosexual Practice, and the absence of a single reference to The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament or A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature when discussing malakos or arsenokoites (Greek words translated as or related to “homosexuality”). Perhaps it’s unfair to chide an author for not engaging an author enough (Gagnon) or for not reading widely before hitting “publish,” but I found it curious that Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People seems to be given fair play (and agreement). How in the world can one write a chapter on the biblical texts and provide opinions on the Greek without interacting with TDNT and BDAG? I know, I know… I need to calm down here. Don’t worry, I’m being calm. I’m not even bringing up the works of Williams, Loader, Webb, Dover, Hubbard, Kuehne, Paris, and the list could probably go on. Oops. I just did. Sorry… just trying to show that I’m breathing calmly even though this was and is the most frustrating part of reading ALTMC. Ken controls his narrative by controlling the information. People picking up his book won’t be aware of the fact that there are reasonable and, in my mind, convincing reasons to reject arguments that affirm the legitimacy of homosexuality within the context of monogamous committed relationships (whether called “civil unions” or “gay marriage”). If you control the data, you can control the narrative, which feels a lot like controlling the evidence to me. I’m hopeful that the people in Ken’s congregation will do a bit more reading.
Okay… I think that’s enough for now. Consider this the first of my multi-part series toward reviewing Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation. I understand completely that I have not provided full interaction with Ken’s ideas and critical engagement with his exegesis, theology, or advised praxis. And while this is currently over 2,000 words, you should be thankful that I haven’t even mentioned his use of Romans 14 and “disputable matters.”
Wait… I just did.
Luke is a pastor-theologian living in northern California, serving as a co-lead pastor with his life, Dawn, at the Red Bluff Vineyard. Father of five amazing kids, when Luke isn’t hanging with his family, reading or writing theology, he moonlights as a fly fishing guide for Confluence Outfitters. He blogs regularly at LukeGeraty.com and regularly contributes to his YouTube channel.