Last week I published my first review of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation (ALTMC). I wanted to start the review by offering my initial thoughts and a few observations that I appreciated about Ken’s book, along with a few of the issues I found/find most problematic. It’s a tricky thing writing a series of reviews on ALTMC because I have so much respect and appreciation for Ken, as well as so much concern about what is found in his new book! What a tension to hold! I want to honor what Ken has done in the past while also explain why I find what he is doing now deeply troubling and something my fellow Vineyard friends (and Christians in general) should reject it. Furthermore, I’m deeply concerned that some may read these reviews as indication that I am homophobic or have something in common with the late Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church, an idea that I find repulsive on every front!
In this review I intend to interact with the first chapter in ALTMC, “A Fleeting Unease, Readily Dismissed.” I apologize in advance for being a bit more detailed than I usually am in my reviews. I can’t imagine what it would be like as an author who has every sentence and paragraph critically evaluated, so I’m going to do my best to not go to detailed here. After all, this is a blog, not my PhD dissertation! Yet while I intend to be detailed, I am also intentionally overlooking a fair amount of content within ALTMC that I disagree with, not because it isn’t important to engage Ken, but because I intend to do my best to focus on the most important concerns rather than the minor squabbles.
In this post I have two areas I’d like to interact with: (1) Ken’s “old” answer to the important question regarding gay people and (2) Ken’s two alleged “binary” options. To summarize my problem with these areas I’d like to start by stating that I do not believe Ken has ever been as simplistic as he alleges and I’m afraid that the way in which Ken characterizes the traditional, historic, and orthodox perspective on human sexuality is a straw man; it’s a woefully inadequate misrepresentation how the church he pastors has treated gay people in the past but also a remarkable misrepresentation of many other churches that hold to a tradition viewpoint. Let’s get started…
Ken and Ann Arbor Vineyard Have Always Welcomed Gay People
Reading ALTMC would lead you to believe that Ken used to think gay people were all hell-bound pedophiles. Okay, maybe that’s a bit extreme. But reading ALTMC is a bit difficult to reconcile with what I’ve known of Ken and his church. Let’s consider what Ken writes in his own words:
“There was a time when I answered a question on “the gay issue” by rehearsing the consensus position of Christendom: same-sex orientation itself is not sinful but any sex with a member of the same sex is outside the boundaries of holiness.”
Are we really to believe that Ken would receive an email or a phone call and his answer to the question of “where do you stand on the gay issue” was answered with the one line sentence that same-sex orientation isn’t a sin but homosexual sex is? Really? The guy who outlines his perspective on what is generally considered “center set” in Jesus Brand Spirituality would have us believe that he’d provide this simplistic response to such a difficult question? No nuances? No acknowledgement to the complexities related to human sexuality? His church, Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, would have not welcomed gay people into their church? Ken wouldn’t have baptized gay people, allowed gay people to partake of the Lord’s Supper? Excluded them from serving?
No, this is not the Ken Wilson (or Vineyard) that many of us know and love. In fact, Ken’s recollection of how he has treated gay people does not line up with how former members of his church think either. Don Bromley, who spent over 14 years as a pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and served directly under Ken Wilson, wrote a concerned response letter to Ken and stated,
“I wouldn’t have characterized our church as belonging to either of those camps, at least for the past dozen years that we’ve been in Ann Arbor. We intentionally articulated a “centered set” approach to church membership so that we wouldn’t have to sin-sort or exclude people based on this issue… I don’t think people taking the more traditional/conservative position on this issue are suggesting that people need to “hate” homosexual activity more.
Being a “centered-set” church, my understanding was that a person’s belief or behavior concerning this question was not a matter that had anything to do with whether they were included in the church. Regardless of their belief or behavior, if they were pursuing Jesus, “moving toward” Jesus, they were included. The question of whether or not homosexual activity was “sin” was really not relevant to being included or excluded.” (source)
Ken Wilson, and the church he leads, has never treated gay people in the way that he implies in ALTMC. As I indicated in my first review, this is simply a rhetorical device used make a point. But it’s really misleading and is, quite frankly, sad to read. Moreover, when Don announced that he would be leaving the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor to pastor in California, he had powerful words to describe just how safe and welcoming that church was. He wrote,
“I can’t begin to say how much the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor… has meant to me. I came to Ann Arbor in 1995 as a hurting 22 year-old who wasn’t sure about God or Christianity. Here was a place where it was okay to ask questions, be skeptical, and approach Jesus at one’s own pace. It’s a church where I’ve been loved, embraced, mentored, trained, taught, and equipped. It’s where I learned to follow Jesus, and where I became a pastor.” (source)
One is left wondering how Ken can describe his church in ALTMC as a “love the sinner, hate the sin” unwelcoming community in light of what Don both experienced and what we know of Ken’s previous ministry. In addition to the suggestion of being unwelcoming, Ken recently has made a similar suggestion by writing,
“It’s about welcoming previously excluded groups” (source)
and that he,
“had to decide whether to apply the traditional exclusionary practices (if you are a gay couple you can’t be a member, or you can’t lead, or if you want Jesus to help you stay together to parent your children, don’t ask for our prayers)” (source)
One has to wonder why Ken is now suggesting that he and his church have been so unwelcoming all of these years, despite what his former associate pastor and other members of his church say and have experienced. Might this simply be an attempt to make a rhetorical argument? It certainly appears to be. Ken Wilson and the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor have always welcomed people, regardless of their sexual orientation. Ken has never given simplistic answers to complex questions.
And this isn’t even getting into the fact that I guarantee that Ken and his new views are as welcoming as he implies (and is being heralded!). Ken’s views on those who claim to be bi-sexual are noticeably absent. Ken’s views on homosexuals who are not in committed monogamous relationships/marriages are noticeably absent. I wonder if Ken would exclude bi-sexuals from serving as pastors at the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. What about those who are transgendered? I invite Ken to clarify himself in the comments here (or elsewhere, of course).
Ken’s “Binaries” are, quite frankly, Straw Men
In ALTMC, Ken suggests that it is time to move beyond a well-worn binary. This is all and good if we actually have two binaries that should be abandoned. Unfortunately, Ken creates a straw man for us to move beyond when it comes to the “traditional” approach. I’m not sure this is very helpful. That being said, let’s start with Ken’s own words here:
“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.” I say binary because each of these answers is understood in relation to its opposite, conceived of as its evil twin. To be “open and affirming” is not to “love the sinner, hate the sin.” For too long, our controversies seem to boil down to conservatives and liberals (or, if you prefer, traditionalists and progressives) talking past each other for the benefit of stirring up their loyalists, as partisans do in the primary campaigns of electoral politics. The rest of us are expected to line up with our team just as soon as they show their colors.”
According to Ken, there are two views, the “open and affirming” view and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” view. Being that I do not represent the “open and affirming” view, I will refrain from commenting on that. I do, however, identify with the “traditional” viewpoint, which, according to Ken, is best explained by the phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin.” But this is troubling. Why? Thank you for asking because I’m now going to tell you (ha ha!).
When Ken explains the two views, he creates a straw man argument. A straw man is a logical fallacy where someone misrepresents a certain viewpoint in order to make his or her readers (or listeners) who are ignorant of the facts quickly agree with and/or affirm the position that the one arguing is presenting. In this case, Ken explains to us that the “traditional” approach is not very welcoming, excludes people, and tends to expect people to get “fixed” before they can join church communities. In ALTMC, Ken connects the “traditional” approach to adjectives like “unwelcoming,” “exclusionary,” and the controversial phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
Now I reject that Ken is arguing for a “third way” (as he has made painfully clear in a number of interviews/editorials: here, here, here and here). I’ll deal with this in more depth later. I would, however, like to reflect on this alleged “traditional” viewpoint that is so unwelcoming and exclusionary. And I’ll also overlook the fact that I am willing to bet Ken will, at this point, concede that he would exclude certain people from leadership, ministry, and even the community of his church if he were presented with specific situations (e.g., Would Ken allow bi-sexuals to lead small groups?).
When I read ALTMC, I was surprised that Ken would misrepresent the traditional view so much as well as being completely blown away by the fact that he essentially equates so many nuanced Evangelical positions and conflates them with what can only be described as Fundamentalist, i.e., Westboro Baptist Church. What Ken does in ALTMC is suggest that it is impossible to love someone while disagreeing with them; it is impossible to welcome and receive someone while disagreeing with them. This, of course, is absolute death to discipleship.
Let me get a bit more personal here. I believe the Bible is quite clear on human sexuality and I do, in the future, plan to provide some significant interaction with Ken’s use (and misuse) of Scripture and secondary sources. I would identify myself with the “traditional” approach to homosexuality in that I have a deep commitment to an orthodox reading of the Bible. I’m also, like Ken, a pastor and I have to deal with people and the challenges related to living in a world that is deeply impacted by the Fall. I have absolutely no reason to view LGBTQ people as “dirty” or “gross” because I believe with all of my being that they were created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). I also believe that the church is called to discipleship which boils down to helping people respond to God’s work and integrate the gospel into every area of their lives, which takes time. While I always hear about these miraculous people who get “zapped” when they go forward during ministry times and are then able to “go and sin no more,” I’ve yet to meet anyone like that.
What I have seen, and I’m absolutely delighted to be a part of, are people, including some who have identified as being LGBTQ, coming into the company of Jesus who are engaging with Scripture and dealing with some really difficult challenges. And guess what? Our church, as much as possible, is there to love them and welcome them and help them. We’ve baptized them in response to their response to Jesus. We see them serving alongside plenty of non-believers in our primary outreach ministry, the Fruit of the Vine Food Pantry. Of the 170 families we provide food for, a number of them are LGBTQ and we have nothing but love (and food) to give. I do not identify the “traditional” approach to human sexuality as “unwelcoming” or “exclusionary” or “hateful.”
The only way that such straw man can be granted is if we redefine what “tolerant” or “loving” or “welcoming” or “including” is… and that’s precisely what Ken is doing in ALTMC. Readers of ALTMC must keep in mind that Ken is playing fast and loose with ideas (and Scripture) because he has an agenda here (as all authors do, including this one!).
That being said, I do think we need to be honest about the need for more thinking and engagement on this issue within Evangelicalism (and likely the Vineyard Movement). I am not arguing that all Evangelicals (and by proxy Vineyard) are very good at being consistent with their theology of gospel, mission, and community. But it is from our theology of gospel, mission, and community that we can make a huge difference within the lives of people who are struggling with, thinking on, or living out homosexuality. I’d love for us to become much more of a resource than what we have been in the past. Christians have largely failed, throughout history, in how they love people who self-identify as LGBTQ. We need to model humble and repentant hearts as we have these conversations. So while it bothers me that Ken is pigeon-holing and generalizing all “traditionalists” simply because his generalizations aren’t helpful, there is a ring of reality in his concerns. It’d be unfair and unhelpful to ignore those.
The questions we need to be asking, as Evangelicals/Vineyards/Christians, are numerous:
- Are all churches and Christians who hold to the “traditional” approach to human sexuality as unwelcoming, unloving, and ungracious as Ken alleges?
- Are there ways for us to improve in how we talk to our neighbors?
- How can we be more loving, more gracious, more welcoming while not compromising truth and not compromising the missional thrust of Scripture? (please understand that our lack of love, grace, and invitation is a compromise to the missional thrust of God and that our commitment to “truth” is often simply an excuse to treat people poorly)
- Might we offer better help to people in our communities?
- What are ways for us to train our congregations to be better equipped to deal with the complex questions facing us?
You need to pick up Thomas Creedy’s Random Recommendation on this issue, the Evangelical Alliance Resources for Church Leaders: Biblical and Pastoral Responses to Homosexuality. You should also check out the Evangelical Alliance’s 10 Affirmations. It’s a goldmine.
Oh, and I tried to fix some spelling and grammar issues. Next time I’ll try not to write these reviews from my iPad!
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.