Review of Ken Wilson: A Letter to My Congregation

After I had posted Abominations and the Father’s Kingdom, I began work on what I thought would be the next post. Soon, though, I realised that I would need to do a wider re-reading or first reading than I currently have time for, of relevant publications and their critical reviews – a rigorous academic study.

Then I happened upon “A Letter to my Congregation” (Wilson, K. (2014). A Letter to My Congregation. Ann Arbor, Michigan: David Crumm Media) and was elated to discover that he had done much of the heavy lifting for me.

Wilson (a conservative pastor with many years’ experience), considers three important biblical concerns: (Wilson, Kindle loc. 403)

  • The prohibitive texts regarding homosexuality;
  • How an often ignored part of the New Testament can help us maintain unity of the Spirit in the face of differing views regarding gay relationships;
  • How the previous controversy over “the biblical definition of marriage” might inform this one.

As a result of this consideration, Wilson then proposes ‘a new way forward, a way that is not based on the assumption that underlies … the “open and affirming” and the “love the sinner, hate the sin” approaches. This path emphasizes acceptance over either affirmation or exclusion, in keeping with the demands of the gospel’ (ibid.).

Dealing with the prohibitive texts, Wilson writes (Wilson, Kindle loc. 1311), “[I]t is clear from the historical context that there were several widespread practices [in both Old and New Testament times] crying out for condemnation. These texts need to be affirmed in light of these practices! Let me list them:

  • Temple prostitution
  • Homosexual orgiastic practices associated with pagan worship
  • Homosexual services for hire
  • Requiring homosexual services from slaves or others
  • Adults engaging in pederasty
  • Homosexual gang rape”

And he adds, “The biblical emphasis on steadfast love and fidelity justifies an expanded circle of prohibitions:

  • Pornography
  • Casual or recreational sex
  • Promiscuity
  • Acts exerting dominance over others”

Wilson believes that it is tenable that these were the only kinds of homosexual connection that were in view in the prohibitive texts, contrary to the usual conservative view that the scope of the prohibitive texts can be definitively ascertained from the (allegedly) plain and simple meaning of the words without regard for historical context. Thus, for Wilson, it is not a capitulation to liberalism and an abandonment of a conservatively high view of the Scriptures to say that this question is a disputable matter.

That brings us to another plank of Ken Wilson’s argument. He holds that the matters on which the “strong” and the “weak” differed in Romans 14 and 15 were not (as we tend to see them) relatively trivial matters. In their day and to the two parties, they were every bit as controversial as is the acceptance or not of gays into churches in our day. Each party saw their position as an important matter of faithfulness to God. In his counsel, Paul shows which party he believed was closer to the truth by calling them “the strong”, but he does not try to shut down the debate with an authoritative pronouncement that calls on the “weak” to change their views. Instead, he shows both parties how to love and honour one another, accepting their different views and leaving the final outcome in the hands of God. Disputable matters are not simply adiaphora; they include matters of great weight.

Romans 14 and 15, therefore, are not “Other Business” introduced ad hoc at the end of the agenda, unrelated to the weighty exposition of the gospel that is the main purpose of Romans. They are as strongly a part of the gospel exposition as (say) chapter 3. Applying that to the present context of the Anglican Church here in New Zealand, it is not just an idealistic dream that the Motion 30 working party should reach a solution that holds the church together: it is a Christ-given imperative.

I will not say much about the third section of Wilson’s reflections. Sufficient to say that he believes that if we think about the process and concerns that have led most churches to receive into communion divorced and remarried persons, relaxing previous absolute exclusionary rules and replacing them with pastoral discretion, we may see a template for the way forward in the present controversy.

Two thirds of the customer reviews on Amazon.com are enthusiastic (five stars); the unenthusiastic reviewers predictably think that Ken Wilson has been deceived by the spirit of the age when he suggests that the prima facie interpretation of the prohibitive scriptures is inadequate. Some make this shibboleth a test of faithfulness to God and – if disobeyed – a sure and certain pathway to hell. For my part, I think that Wilson has a better grasp of the gospel, including the holiness of God, than do his critics. Accepting this controversy as a disputable matter will not destroy the Church – neither those churches that decide to receive gay, transgender and Lesbian communicants nor those that don’t. It will give us a chance to see how holiness looks when such people can live their lives openly in a many-faceted community that is committed to holiness, away from the shadows of the secular gay world where the enticement to promiscuity is huge.

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6 thoughts on “Review of Ken Wilson: A Letter to My Congregation

  1. Hi Trevor
    On the face of it (i.e. without reading Wilson’s book), his arguments look strong, reasonable and potentially persuasive (especially, as you point out above, to those who are keener to find a way for the church to hold together than to be divided on this particular point of difference).

    What I do not see (from the above review) is an argument to meet the objection from 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (i.e. that permitting people to think gay sex is okay is to deceive them about the eternal consequences of their actions).

    Nevertheless I think the key point which Wilson may be establishing is that the possibility of a faithful, permanent, same sex partnership can be considered to be a disputable matter rather than a divisive matter.

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    • Thanks, Peter.

      Wilson addresses your question indirectly. In the section where he deals with 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, he says, inter alia, ‘When a scholar of Fee’s stature describes the difficulties in translating malakoi and arsenokoitai, a pastor has good reason to exercise caution before excluding same-sex couples on the grounds that these texts speak clearly. In this case, the exegetical uncertainty is far from insignificant.’ (Kindle loc. 1272)

      Shortly afterwards, he adds, ‘As I reviewed some of the writings that treat homosexuality in a topical manner, I saw that they fell predictably into their respective camps. Neither the “open and affirming” position nor the traditional exclusionary one satisfied my concerns. Liberal approaches seemed willing to dismiss some of my biblical concerns while conservative approaches failed to take my pastoral concerns into account. The latter, in particular, seemed to make assumptions about homosexuality that I couldn’t square with my pastoral experience or my reading… I found myself saying to pastors with growing conviction, “This issue is not going to be settled for us in the academy. This is ours to deal with as best we can and we can no longer avoid our responsibility.”’ (Kindle loc. 1290-1297)

      I infer also from the overall tenor of Wilson’s book that he has come to the same conclusion as me, that if a pastor hears a credible testimony of faith from a gay person and sees a determined commitment to follow Christ while maintaining a single faithful same-sex relationship, the pastor can depend upon the grace of Christ to see that person safely into the Kingdom of Heaven.

      My own view of the particular warning in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 is that in the total context of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s wider exposition of the gospel, we should understand it as a carrot, not a stick. I will enlarge on that in a later post.

      Trevor

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  2. Thanks, Trevor, for your thoughtful work in this regard.

    Personally, I am saddened that this is the defining debate of our generation as Christians. I hesitate to use military imagery, but we are focusing on one battle, and losing a far bigger war.

    I think expanding the third point – returning to how we deal with women and divorcees in church and ordained ministry (including bishops) may be a template for this.

    I also think no progress will result from continue to argue about the six or so verses that people say are about homosexuality in the Bible. As you suggest, the strong/weak exegesis may, hence, help us move forward.

    Blessings

    Bosco
    http://www.liturgy.co.nz

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    • “…we are focusing on one battle, and losing a far bigger war.” Yes, indeed. I believe that accepting that this controversy as a disputable matter will not destroy the Church – quite the contrary. Those who cannot trust the grace of God on this matter seem to me like Uzzah when he put out his hand to steady the Ark of the covenant. Let us love one another and move on.

      Thanks for your words, Bosco.

      Trevor

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  3. ” Accepting this controversy as a disputable matter will not destroy the Church – neither those churches that decide to receive gay, transgender and Lesbian communicants nor those that don’t. It will give us a chance to see how holiness looks when such people can live their lives openly in a many-faceted community that is committed to holiness, away from the shadows of the secular gay world where the enticement to promiscuity is huge.”

    Whoever wrote these words in this thread (I’m not sure whether they are those of Dr, Peter Carrell or someone else), I must say I heartily concur with their sentiments.

    With Trevor Morrison, I am constrained – by the tenor of the gospel – to believe that promiscuity, and not homosexuality per se, is the evil against which Paul and the rest of the commentators in the scriptures were militating against.

    This is why we need to encourage monogamous, faithful, long-term relationships between ALL loving couples; whether Gay or straight. – just one reason for entertaining the idea of Blessing or even sanctifying by Marriage all such relationships.

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