A Review of A Letter to My Congregation by Ken Wilson

For our resource review this month, we’ve decided to read A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People who are Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender into the Company of Jesus by Ken Wilson. This book has generated much discussion as it outlines a “Third Way” for Evangelical Christians to respond to the controversies about sexual orientation. (We have also reviewed The Third Way film associated with the Roman Catholic Church.)

As usual, we will keep most of our thoughts related to our two focus questions for every review we write: What does this book have to say to LGBT Christians who are living celibacy or exploring the possibility of celibate vocations? How does this book contribute to conversation about celibacy as a way of life that LGBT Christians might choose?

Throughout the book, Wilson thoughtfully details his position as a pastor of an Evangelical congregation. He serves as the founding pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor in Michigan. In his pastoral role, Wilson constantly provides guidance and care when people come to him asking tough questions. He wrote his letter to explain how he has adopted a different approach to counseling LGBT church members.

Wilson makes a powerful argument for using discernment when providing pastoral care to LGBT congregants. One reason why the “gay controversy” is so controversial is that so many Christians have already decided on their response to LGBT people and believe there is no need for further discussion. Expounding upon the role of discernment, Wilson states, “discernment of God’s will is reserved for choosing between two or more possible goods. When faced with a choice between a good and an evil option, no discernment is necessary. Choose the good and shun the evil” (pg. 26). The existing dominant argument within many Evangelical traditions is that it is not necessary to enter into discernment with an LGBT person because same-sex sexual activity is plainly evil. Importantly for LGBT Christians who live or want to explore celibacy, Wilson frames his experience with the dominant argument as follows:

As I first encountered the question of homosexuality, I saw it as a simple matter of choosing faithfulness to God over unfaithfulness to God. …. I assumed (of course) that all homosexual acts and relationships were outside of the bounds of morally acceptable behavior. For me, this was a received tradition. It came with a set of exclusionary practices, but I didn’t examine the practices carefully for two reasons: 1) at first, I wasn’t personally in charge of excluding anyone, and 2) when I was, exclusion per se didn’t need to be exercised because gay people who wanted to remain gay stayed away.

I should emphasize: everyone I respected held this view; no one I respected questioned it. I had other pressing pastoral concerns. It didn’t occur to me to explore the matter further. (pgs. 26-27)

Wilson’s letter may connect with celibate LGBT Christians who perceive that their churches respond to their questions with pat, superficial answers. In problematizing the received argument, Wilson offers space for Christians to use LGBT language and to explore questions about sexuality and gender identity more deeply.

In the quote above and throughout the book, Wilson constantly references exclusion. The question of exclusion undergirds a considerable portion of his argument. We get a sense of what he means by “exclusion” when he says:

Pastors must learn to say no. If someone wants to distribute literature at election time to tell us who God would have us vote for, I’m the one who tells them no. And then listens as they tell me what a weak-kneed leader I am for not standing up for truth. I’ve refused to perform weddings if I didn’t think the marriage had a chance. That conversation hardly ever goes well. I’ve told a member or two of our prayer ministry team that they cannot pray for people in ways that I deem harmful. I’ve called the police to forcibly remove a disruptive person, called protective services to investigate possible child abuse. I’ve asked a lady who brought her tambourine to church and played it with no particular connection to what the worship team was doing to please stop, as it had become a distraction. (pg. 12)

We’ve read much of what has been said about Wilson’s “Third Way” around the blogosphere, so we think it’s crucial to be explicit about how A Letter to My Congregation presents its specific Third Way approach. Wilson argues that the standard responses to LGBT Christians exclude people from the church. When a congregation has already decided that the questions around homosexuality are a simple matter of choosing faithfulness to God over unfaithfulness to God, two extremes surface. Evangelical churches have typically pronounced that gay sex is universally sinful to the point where some churches have actively excluded LGBT people from membership. Congregations with a modern, liberal sexual ethic sometimes exclude anyone who is not fully onboard with various justice initiatives undertaken by the church community. As a pastor, Wilson has had to make calls that have excluded people. Pastors make countless decisions when determining where the boundaries are in their communities. Wilson’s own litany of exclusion highlights areas big and small in which a pastor has to decide where the buck stops.

Ultimately, Wilson’s Third Way seems positioned to avoid exclusion on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity alone. Pastors using Wilson’s approach would still need to draw lines somewhere, but these pastors can discern the boundaries in different ways. Sometimes, the boundary will be clear cut, while at other times, the pastor may make determinations on a case-by-case basis. LGBT Christians exploring celibacy may find that this approach encourages pastors to offer better spiritual direction, gives grace should an individual struggle to maintain his or her celibacy, and removes stigmas associated with being a gender and sexual minority in the church.

However, celibate LGBT Christians will find little by way of practical advice in living their vocations. Wilson spends a considerable amount of space arguing about why certain Scriptural passages need not be read as an outright condemnation of same-sex sexual activity. Unfortunately, his engagement with other passages about marriage lacks the same depth that he displays when talking about re-interpreting the clobber passages. In making a case as to why it’s acceptable for a pastor to lean towards supporting gay marriage, Wilson repeats many arguments about how unrealistic it is to expect LGBT people to remain celibate. The central question he asks regarding gay marriage is, given the broader witness of cisgender heterosexual Christians who are widowed or divorced and remarried, why couldn’t accommodations be made for the marriages of same-sex partners? He writes:

Some people can bear celibacy graciously. But others cannot. For them, the now traditional teaching that the biblical view of marriage–one man, one woman, for life–is descriptive but not prescriptive in the case of remarriage, is absolutely prescriptive in the case of gender. This means that it can only ever be for a man and a woman. Can we understand how that might constitute an unbearable burden? (pg. 154)

Wilson’s analysis of how and why pastors accommodate divorce and remarriage is thoughtfully developed. However, we find ourselves wishing that he had included at least some examples of welcoming celibate LGBT Christians into his congregation and attending to their pastoral needs. It seems to us that like some other “Third Way” approaches, this book implies an assumption that non-celibate LGBT Christians need more support, love, and acceptance than their celibate brothers and sisters.

We hope celibate LGBT Christians will be encouraged by Wilson’s intense commitment to discernment throughout the entire book. Wilson delivers a passionate case for why pastors must be willing to journey alongside their LGBT congregants and welcome them into full participation within the congregation. He shares his own heart for spiritual direction when he writes, “I am willing to be led by the fire of divine love” (pg. 176). We hope that Wilson’s journey connects him with celibate LGBT Christians if for no other reason than to catch a glimpse into the unique features and textures of their celibate vocations.

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