empowered by the spirit for mission

A Letter To My Congregation – a book about Welcoming Gay People into the Church

How many mainstream evangelical charismatic churches are welcoming LGBT members into their congregations without saying that they need to repent? Well, probably not many! But this is what is happening in Ann Arbor Vineyard Church in Michigan. Ken Wilson’s book A Letter to My Congregation explains why. Having read this book I’d say that it’s well worth you getting a copy whether you agree with his conclusions or not.

Church of the Pilgrims
A gay friendly church. Photo from Flickr by Drama Queen.

Why is A Letter to My Congregation relevant to me?

As the title says, this book is really an extended letter to his church written by Ken Wilson – an evangelical charismatic pastor in the Vineyard movement. He wrote it to explain why the church has begun to welcome gay people and why it is not exercising church discipline when they continue with their gay lifestyle.

However this book’s relevance goes beyond this one congregation. Wilson’s view is that whether gay sex in itself is sin is not as clear in the scriptures as we once thought. If accepted, this view may cast doubt on the standard evangelical practice of eventually putting someone out of the church for being a practicing homosexual.

Any evangelical with pastoral responsibility might want to examine Wilson’s argument carefully especially if they know anyone who is gay or want to reach out to the gay community. Those in the Vineyard movement or similar evangelical charismatic churches may be particularly interested. Ultimately this book could also be for anyone who, like me, may not have an official role in a church but who takes seriously the Bible’s exhortations to care for one another.

What are the benefits of reading A Letter to My Congregation?

This book gives some very moving insights into Wilson’s own journey with God wrestling with this issue in real pastoral situations and in his own study of the scriptures. He writes about discussions both with members of his own congregation and with other leaders in his own denomination. However, Wilson’s view does not represent the official position taken by Vineyard.

Anyone serious about understanding the Bible will benefit from the example of Wilson’s approach to hermeneutics whether they agree with his conclusions or not. He looks carefully at specific Hebrew and Greek words. He is very thoughtful about when to take a statement as prescriptive or descriptive. And he is very aware of the importance of textual, historical and cultural contexts as well as placing his argument into the wider context of the gospel.

Wilson outlines his solution to the problem of gay people wanting to follow Jesus when the traditional evangelical response is that homosexuality is a sin. But rather than affirming that gay sex is not sin he argues for a third way. His thesis is that this is ‘disputable matter’ akin to those found in Romans 14. He accepts and welcomes such people not feeling that he can dogmatically demand repentance or excommunicate them for not changing.

Yes, but what are the practical implications for me of reading A Letter to My Congregation?

Reading this book will help equip you for conversations on this topic. You will better understand the nuances within this debate and that it is not as black and white as you may have once thought. Some of these arguments might not be easy to get your head around nevertheless they could be very worth your while studying.

Hopefully reading Wilson’s pastoral concerns and situations will give you a greater compassion for people within the gay community even if in the end you do not agree with all that he says. He is clearly dealing with actual people and not a theoretical issue. And for some his arguments may be an eye opener as to how people can be true followers of Jesus and still be gay and yet respect the authority of the Bible.

More importantly it may drive you to examine Wilson’s argument and come to your own informed conclusions of what the Bible does really say and what the implications of this are for today. Hopefully it will do this before someone who is gay and wants to follow Jesus asks you for your thoughts on what the Bible says about homosexuality!

Isn’t A Letter to My Congregation a dangerous book?

Some will undoubtedly see redefining of sexual morality like this as bowing to cultural pressure as gay marriage becomes increasingly acceptable. But perhaps the biggest danger is that this book could cause people to fall out and even churches and denominations to split over this issue. Even addressing this topic may be considered divisive by some.

However Wilson is arguing for a third way beyond either simply asserting homosexuality is a sin or categorically denying that it is. By placing it within the category of ‘disputable matters’ he is saying that Christians can still have unity and be in the same church or network of churches even though they might have strong and opposing moral opinions on this issue. This should not be an issue that divides Christians.

These hermeneutical arguments aren’t that easy to articulate in conversation. Discussions could cause frustration and misunderstanding. But I don’t believe that this should cause us to shy away from them. It might be better to show people the book rather than to try to argue the points yourself. But an awareness of these arguments can certainly inform your conversations.

How does A Letter to My Congregation compare to similar resources?

Most books and resources fall into the two camps that Wilson outlines: the “welcoming and affirming” camp or the “love the sinner, hate the sin” camp.

The “welcoming and affirming” literature may be helpful in arguing some of the hermeneutical points that Wilson outlines. However as much comes from a more liberal Christian position it may be seen as unpalatable and of little relevance by those in evangelical congregations.

The “love the sinner, hate the sin” literature can appear very cold and clinical. It might show the arguments clearly from the Bible but may not always deal with the pastoral consequences. The notable exceptions are accounts by people with gay orientations who have felt that the solution is to remain celibate.

The only book I have seen that takes a third way similar to Wilson’s is Andrew Marin’s Love is an Orientation. Marin is engaged in Christian mission to gay communities. He refuses to come down on either side when asked if it homosexuality is a sin. This approach can come over as very frustrating. Seeing this issue as a ‘disputable matter’ as Wilson argues is really helpful.

It is important to understand that Wilson’s book is just one side of a hotly contested debate in evangelical Christianity. Last year in the UK leading evangelical Steve Chalke came out in favour of affirming gay relationships and published a detailed argument. Subsequently this was debated in Christianity Magazine with articles by Steve Chalke answered by Greg Downes taking the more traditional line.

So is A Letter to My Congregation worth buying?

Yes, I would highly recommend buying Wilson’s book. But please also read the other side of the debate, study the Bible yourself and seek God with an open mind and heart on this issue. If you do read A Letter to My Congregation I would love to hear what you think.

Related Post

The Evangelicals You Don’t Know This book that I reviewed last year gives some of the background to the changing face of evangelicalism in the States.

Further Reading

The Bible and Homosexuality – a series of articles in Christianity Magazine from 2013 featuring opposing views from Steve Chalke and Greg Downes

Against Heterosexuality – a recent article by Michael W. Hannon that gives an important counter argument from the traditional viewpoint. Hannon argues that the modern idea of sexual orientation obscures the real issue.

A detailed review of Andrew Marin’s ground breaking book from 2009: Love is an Orientation

An interview with Ken Wilson

Accepting without affirming – A short review by David Matthew followed by quite a few quotes from the book that should whet your appetite.

March 4, 2014 at 6:00 pm Comments (2)