Evangelical pastor Ken Wilson explains why we don’t have to agree in order to have unity, and what life looks like from “out on the limb.”
Ken Wilson is founding pastor of the multicultural Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor, Mich., and the author of several books on Christian spirituality. In his recently published book-length Letter to My Congregation, he explains why even devoutly evangelical Christians should embrace gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
While his conclusions may make him an outlier to some, his pastoral heart, missional focus, and high view of Scripture set him squarely in the evangelical tradition. We caught up with him in April for a lively and at times surprising conversation as he invited us into the midst of his wrestling and freely admitted, “Hey, I’m in process here!”
I think the controversy itself is something like a demonic construct; it’s a supra-human phenomenon that is not from the Holy Spirit but has its origin in the dark spirit. It has an anti-human effect, and pastors have a responsibility to discern the impact of the controversy, resist the spiritual oppression, and protect the most vulnerable members of their congregation, who are gay and lesbian and transgender people—whether they’re out or not—and the people who love them.
Kristyn Komarnicki: In an article you recently wrote for the Huffington Post, you quoted the founder of Vineyard USA, your evangelical denomination, as saying, “Feed what you want and starve the rest.” Then you wrote that you believe “it’s time to starve the gay controversy—to refuse to play by its rules, regard it with a studied naïveté—so that we can love gay, lesbian, and transgender people while honoring our commitment to Scripture.”
The controversy that you’re referring to is around how the church should respond to sexual minorities in the pews. What is it about the controversy that you think is so damaging?
Ken Wilson: The controversy itself is a force, and it’s driving away the important conversations that need to happen, it’s driving away pastors who need to think about how to care for their lesbian, gay, and transgender people. I think the controversy itself is something like a demonic construct; it’s a supra-human phenomenon that is not from the Holy Spirit but has its origin in the dark spirit. It has an anti-human effect, and pastors have a responsibility to discern the impact of the controversy, resist the spiritual oppression, and protect the most vulnerable members of their congregation, who are gay and lesbian and transgender people—whether they’re out or not—and the people who love them. And in their own way those who hold the traditional view also experience anguish as a result of this intense controversy.
Pastors have a responsibility to spiritually discern and not to yield to the framing of this one moral question as the litmus test for orthodoxy. Moral concerns are part of Christianity, but they’re not the center of Christianity. Whenever a moral issue like this becomes a litmus test for orthodoxy, you have a problem. If Paul were writing his letter to Galatians today and saw this, I think he would inveigh against it as being other than a gospel-driven phenomenon. Because it’s Jesus-plus: Your view on this one moral concern determines whether you belong or not to the messianic community? Please!
Komarnicki: It’s interesting to hear you talk about spiritual oppression in this light. When there’s this much destruction in the wake of something, you know that evil is at work.
Wilson: It comes down to actual people’s lives. I first noticed it early on with parents who would come to me—parents who love Jesus. They love their Bible. They’ve had the transforming experience of the gospel, and that’s at the center of their being. And then one of their teenagers or young adult sons or daughters comes out as gay, and they feel they have to choose either for their faith, which means against their child, or choose for their child, against their faith. Sometimes we do have to make those kinds of hard choices as Jesus’ followers, but this one is a false choice. It creates a psychological torture device for these parents, and it’s part of this demonic controversy that says everything is at stake based on what you think about this one issue.
Komarnicki: People often see things differently after experiencing them for themselves. For example, “I was against medication for depression—until I became depressed and discovered how medication is an important tool of healing.” Or, “I was a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key kind of guy until my kid got arrested. Now I understand how much compassion people in the criminal justice system deserve.”
Wilson: Yes, and the heart of evangelicalism is an experience. It’s the new birth experience. It’s John Wesley—your heart being “strangely warmed.” And certainly the fact that Pentecostalism came out of evangelicalism means that evangelicals are people who value experience. But there are a lot of evangelicals who haven’t really processed that. We feel suspicious of experience, except in very limited contexts.
What I’m trying to say is this: Pastors, you have to pay attention to your experience and allow it to force you deeper into a study of Scripture and an examination of your assumptions. That doesn’t mean experience drives the bus. It stays in tension with our understanding of Scripture. We also need to take seriously the tradition of the church. But I think the refusal to give adequate weight to pastoral experience is a big part of the problem.
Komarnicki: In your book you say that it was your discomfort with your discomfort that drove your work on this. Rather than ignoring your discomfort, you decided to embrace the controversy and view disagreement as an opportunity. You compare the issue of homosexuality in the church today with the “disputable matters” Paul outlines in Romans 14-15. These are important matters that represent deeply held convictions. When people find a way to live in unity bound by Christ—in spite of deeply held differences—the church’s witness is extraordinary.
Wilson: I was helped in that by N.T. Wright, James Dunn, and other scholars who were unpacking what was really going on in Romans 14. There’s a tendency to apply Romans 14 and this idea of disputable matters to yesteryears, disagreements that have now been more or less resolved. Can you be saved and smoke cigarettes or dance? Can you play cards or go to movies and still call yourself a Christian? In past contexts those things were quite significant, but they’re not today. That’s how we tend to read that text now, with a “who cares?” indifference, as if the argument was over worship music or dress code.
But if you actually dig into the text and try to understand what issues they were grappling with in their historical context, great scholarship points to the idea that those issues included something like our first-order moral concerns. They were issues related to eating meat sacrificed to idols, which ties into the First Commandment, or Sabbath keeping, which you might even say is enshrined within Creation itself: God rests on the seventh day, so not to participate in the Sabbath is a sin against nature, which is of course an argument that’s used against same-sex couples.
So these were big, big issues. And as N.T. Wright says, it’s not just a slam dunk; not everyone is going to agree over what is a disputable matter. In fact, Wright would dispute my characterization of it as a legitimate disputable matter, while evangelical ethicist David Gushee would concur that it is.
It takes a really tough pastoral situation like this to drive you deeper into the Scriptures. Why aren’t we applying Romans 14 to really big issues today, as the first-century Roman church did? Romans 14 is an underdeveloped part of the evangelical, even the Protestant, understanding of Scripture. And you can understand why—because most Protestant denominations were formed by one group splitting off from another on an issue that today we probably wouldn’t regard as a disputable matter, right? One’s view of predestination, for example: There are probably a lot of evangelicals who could agree that there are good people on both sides, that it’s a disputable matter, yet it has divided whole traditions as if it is not disputable.
So many of our institutions have been formed by ignoring the counsel of Paul in Romans 14 at some point in history. So there’s an institutional disincentive to have a robust reading of Romans 14. And now we’re paying the piper for that, because we’re reluctant to apply the wisdom of Romans 14 to our big controversies today, and vulnerable people are being hurt by that.
Pastors, you have to pay attention to your experience and allow it to force you deeper into a study of Scripture and an examination of your assumptions. That doesn’t mean experience drives the bus. it stays in tension with our understanding of Scripture. We also need to take seriously the tradition of the church. But I think the refusal to give adequate weight to pastoral experience is a big part of the problem.
Komarnicki: It’s clear in your book that you’re driven by mission, and in that way you are quintessentially evangelical. If you’re going to err, you prefer to err on the side of love and acceptance, but it’s driven by a desire to go out into the community and pull people in. I imagine some people say that you’re just watering down the gospel to make it more palatable. How do you respond to that?
Wilson: Yeah, but anyone who says I’m doing this—or that other pastors would do this—in order to make our lives easier has not walked in a pastor’s shoes. It doesn’t make your life easier. Becoming an inclusive church is not particularly, at this point in history, a recipe for numerical growth for evangelical pastors! But I think it is necessary for missional growth, for the growth of the kingdom of God.
While you tend to lose dear people who view this as a litmus test of orthodoxy, you’re also making space for people who have been staying away from the gospel because of the whole “love the sinner, hate the sin” approach. Their heart, their intuition senses that that approach is not helping them move in a loving or godly way toward, for example, their gay sister, who’s been in a lifelong partnership and adopted two children. So, yes, it is absolutely missional. It’s not just about making space for gay people, although it would be worth it just to do that. It’s also about making space for all the people who love gay and lesbian and transgender people.
You know, calling the gospel the “good news” is very significant—it’s not good news just because we say it’s good. We call it good news because we trust that it’s going to be received by the hearers as good news, right? I think the rise of those who claim no religious affiliation is part of that, because people weren’t finding the churches’ message to be good news. That’s especially true in a place like Ann Arbor. At our church we have a higher proportion of people from an unaffiliated or secular background, we have a higher percentage of young people (millenials and GenXers), and we’re in a college town. It’s a religiously averse, culturally diverse, left-leaning community, so we don’t have much margin of error here for an issue like this. So it’s probably not an accident that there’s an evangelical church in Ann Arbor that’s wrestling with this, because the mission issue hits me here more than it would if I lived in a different community.
Komarnicki: I’ve heard some gay Christians say that they prefer a traditional church, even though they might not be as accepted there, because in their experience, Christ was missing from the affirming churches they tried. You tell a story in your book about a woman who said something very similar.
Wilson: Yes, it happened a couple of years ago, at the point where I had pretty much settled in my heart and mind where I was on this issue, and the next step was “So what are we going to do about it?” We got an email from a woman who said, “You know, my partner and I are a same-sex couple, and we’ll be having our first child soon. We’d like to be part of a church together. I’m from a Roman Catholic background, and my partner is from a Southern Baptist background. Obviously neither of these churches would fully accept us as a family. We went to your website, and we really like your church. We tried some of the open and affirming churches but, as my partner put it very sweetly, ‘There wasn’t enough Jesus there.’ So we are wondering, would we be accepted in your church?”
It was an interesting question. It wasn’t “Would we be welcome?”—because, sure, everyone is welcome at our church—but accepted, which is the language Paul uses in Romans 14, right? Accept one another as Christ has accepted you. And that meant full embrace. That meant no exclusionary policies, including disqualifications from leadership positions over such things.
So that was when we knew we had to open our hearts and doors to gay folks. It was the way she worded the question—it required a “yes” or a “no” answer. You know, you can’t split the difference on acceptance. A little bit of nonacceptance is not acceptance, it’s not embrace. You can’t embrace someone and withhold yourself at the same time. So that was a very significant crossing of the Rubicon for us, to write back and say, yes, you would be accepted. And then we had to make sure the church could actually pull that off.
But I’d be really cautious about characterizing open and affirming churches as not being Jesus-centered, because, well, first of all, I’m not part of the mainline tradition, and it’s part of the evangelical narrative to dismiss the mainline tradition as diluted. But actually, the pastors I know from those churches in town are much more Jesus-centered and concerned about the Bible than the evangelical narrative I’m used to would have assumed.
But on the whole, the mainline Protestant churches were the ones to make space for gay people first, and sometimes that was associated with perspectives on Scripture that I as an evangelical wouldn’t accept—a kind of backing away from the robustness of a fully vibrant Jesus-centered faith. The response to that in mainline Protestantism has been a lot of church decline; many of those communities are still in membership decline. That’s why evangelicals tend to point to that as a warning: If you go in the direction of affirming gays, you will be part of that decline.
But I want to make it clear that I’m not adopting the language of affirmation, even though the approach I take is inclusive. We have a completely nonexclusionary approach, but I’m not characterizing it as open and affirming because I think the language of affirmation—moral affirmation—is not the language of the gospel. It may get us to the right place, which is nonexclusion, but it gets us there the wrong way, because it sets up this unintended consequence—the idea that in order for us to have unity of the Spirit, to fully accept each other, to use Paul’s language in Romans 14, we also need to affirm each other’s moral standing on this issue or that issue. And that’s just not so; we don’t. We can’t. If we go down that road we’re on the path of moralism. And that’s not Christianity. Morals are important in Christianity, but Christianity is not the new moralism.
We don’t do that on issues like greed: For example, you might have two cars and live in a house that is much bigger than you need and use four times your fair share of energy compared to the world’s population. In order for us to be in community with each other, do we need to be able to affirm those choices we’re making? I don’t want to do that. That just puts us in the relationship of judge of each other.
That was the kind of Israel that the Pharisees were advocating for. The center for the Pharisaical approach to Torah faithfulness was ‘We are the judges, and we do the judging.’ That’s why all the questions that Jesus was asked were test cases of moral quandaries of the day. Jesus was saying, “No, you’re eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and I am offering you the tree of life. I’m all about life and having it more abundantly.” It goes right back to the garden. I think there’s a profound theological issue here, and this controversy is pressing us to examine some unexamined assumptions, and moral affirmation as the basis of unity is one of those things.
Komarnicki: That’s an important part the message of your book, the contrast between a focus on the knowledge of good and evil—and how that puts our emphasis on being “right”—and life.
Wilson: Yes. That’s an underdeveloped part of evangelical theology at this time. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was working on that idea, in ethics, but he died before he fleshed it out. It’s not something you hear preached a lot about.
Listen, God is sovereign. He allows these things to happen. There must be some redemptive purpose to all this. What is all this pain for? I think part of it is just forcing us to get clearer on the gospel and examine some of our underlying assumptions that are not consistent with the gospel.
Komarnicki: I was really struggling with this last year, asking God, “Why all this tearing in the church? If we are all informed by the same Holy Spirit, why are Christians coming to such different conclusions on this issue?” Then I opened Eugene Peterson’s Practicing Resurrection and read:
I want to look at what we have, what the church is right now, and ask, Do you think that maybe this is exactly what God intended when he created the church? Maybe the church as we have it provides the very conditions and proper company congenial for growing up in Christ, for becoming mature, for arriving at the measure of the stature of Christ. Maybe God knows what he is doing, giving us church, this church.
Wilson: N.T. Wright made this point in his Romans commentary when he said that Romans 14 is the climax of the letter to the Romans. He was contrasting the gospel based on the faithfulness of Christ and the gospel of Caesar. Caesar’s empire used gospel language—promising power and salvation to those who pledged their allegiance to the empire. Jesus’ gospel was a subversion of the empire’s gospel, because Jesus is able to hold his disparate empire together without the force of arms, while Rome needed physical violence and force to hold its empire together. But Jesus is glorified because he happens to be risen from the dead. He can be an active force in people’s lives without the use of violence. That’s why Romans 14 leads to Romans 15, which is a paean of praise.
Granting full acceptance to gay people is not about following a social trend—“hey, the millennials are much more accepting of gays so we need to get with the program if we’re going to hold on to our market share in the marketplace of ideas.” No, it’s about a new way of belonging—to God and each other, through the faithfulness of Jesus, the Messiah.
Komarnicki: Do you have any gay folks in your church who choose celibacy?
Wilson: Yes, we do, and I have learned a great deal about the experience of same-sex attraction from people I’ve known pastorally over the years who have experienced strong same-sex attraction and decided that it wasn’t the path of life for them, so they chose either to remain celibate or to be in heterosexual marriages. I respect their choices. I believe them to be led by the Spirit. I think sexuality is a very complex phenomenon, and it’s ultimately up to the individual person led by the Holy Spirit to discern what is the best path forward for them.
I have nothing but respect for the men and women I’ve known who have made those choices. As a pastor, I support their choices. I am not in a position to judge their choices. It’s their story to tell—they have the experience. And I have to grant that same dignity to the person who chooses a monogamous same-sex partnership as a faithful path to Jesus—unless I see some clear indication that it is clearly not a life-giving choice for them.
When I examine the evidence, I have to say that this is a disputable matter, and we’re always going to lean towards acceptance when we’re dealing with these questions. My job as a pastor is to make space for both. And I think Jesus gets more glory if there’s a church that can actually pull that off. So we’ll see.
Komarnicki: Did you shop this book around to many publishers?
Wilson: No, I went with Thomas Nelson for two of my previous books, but I figured that no evangelical publishing house would take this one. And then if I published it in a nonevangelical house, that would just brand it as something that needn’t be taken seriously. And I had a relationship with David Crumm, the founder of Read the Spirit, but more than anything I trusted him. I needed a publisher I could trust, because as the leader of a local church I have a lot of stake in this. I didn’t want to be pushed towards any marketing angle; I wanted total freedom.
In fact at one point I thought, “What I’d really like to do is print this book in pencil!” To send a signal that I’m in process here. We need to be in process here. This is not the definitive answer, and we’re not ready for a definitive answer yet. I asked Phyllis Tickle, who knows the publishing world and is a friend of mine, “Is it possible to print a book in graphite?” She mentioned David Crumm and Read the Spirit, because they have technology for reproducing books in multiple formats, so that literally overnight I could send them corrections and the next printed or Kindle version of the book would reflect those changes.
Komarnicki: What has most surprised you about this journey you’ve been on?
Wilson: One thing is that I didn’t expect the book to get the publicity it did. I was just looking for a good format, because initially I made it available as a literal letter to my congregation. And I was revising it as I got input from people who read it, so there was a communal aspect to it, and I had lots of revisions. Then pastors and others got wind of what I was doing and wanted a copy of it, so I thought, Okay, I’ll make it available in an e-book and keep revising it. So it had almost a self-publishing feel to it.
But almost on a whim I sent the manuscript to David Gushee, who I had met in my work with Evangelicals and Climate Change. I sent it to him thinking that—because he had an ethics column in Christianity Today and co-wrote the classic Kingdom Ethics with Glen Stassen—maybe he’d say, “I don’t agree with Wilson’s conclusions, but this process is really important, so read this book even if you don’t agree with it.” But I never expected him to be so supportive, because he’s an evangelical ethicist with a lot of skin in the game. So I was shocked when he responded by saying, “Wilson, this is really important, and I want to support this in any way I can.”
So I asked him to write the foreword, and I think that’s why it’s gotten more publicity within the evangelical world. Gushee being willing to go out on a limb to write the kind of foreword he did—that’s a big deal. So we’re kind of out on the limb together!
And there should be room for those who are certain about a traditional reading of the texts and thus have a different discernment about the morality of same-sex relationships. But it is only possible to include those who don’t share the traditional reading and those who are gay, lesbian, and transgender if everyone yields their right to insist on exclusionary practices as the basis of fellowship. I’ve offered my understanding of Romans 14-15 as a biblical justification for fully accepting people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender—so that we all belong to God and each other thanks to the faithfulness of Jesus and not a shared view of the morality of same-sex relationships—on the ground that this question is a disputable matter.
Komarnicki: I think it’s really important that you’re respectful of both sides.
Wilson: I’m hoping there will be some other theological voices that will weigh in on this Romans 14 question, because there are some real debatable issues in the framing of it as a disputable matter! Is this in fact the kind of issue that Romans 14 properly applies to? There are all the questions of historical context of the same-sex prohibitive texts. There’s the question of what is the biblical understanding of marriage, and does it allow for two people of the same sex to enter that kind of covenantal relationship? Egalitarian marriage wasn’t anticipated by the biblical authors in their historical context, and many of them probably viewed women as the property of the husband. There are certainly indications of that in the text. Is the biblical understanding of marriage at its core something that allows for these kinds of adjustments as the gospel enters different cultures? I think it does, but that’s going to be hotly contested, and Romans 14 is going to be hotly contested. Did the Greco-Roman world of Paul have anything comparable to today’s monogamous gay relationships? N.T. Wright claims that it did, but I find his evidence for that very unconvincing.
But the controversy is putting pressure on the scholarship, and that needs to be acknowledged, because once you depart from the traditional consensus on this issue it’s easy to get branded as someone stepping outside the bounds of holiness and orthodoxy. And that affects everybody—pastors, scholars, the people in the pews.
Komarnicki: Does your current understanding of this issue put you at risk in your denomination?
Wilson: Oh, it’s clear that my standing within Vineyard is pretty tentative. I think it’s quite likely that there won’t be room for this within Vineyard, although I hope differently.
If you’re a denominational leader, the age of consequences has finally hit on this issue. Every pastor, every denomination is being forced to define where they’re at on the issue, and there are consequences no matter what you say. There are probably denominations that never had formal statements on this question—that’s the case for Vineyard. It had an informal tradition but not any formal statements. Now they’ve made a formal statement, backing the traditional consensus, and now the question is whether there is going to be any tolerance of variant perspectives.
I have nothing but mercy for pastors and leaders of church networks trying to deal with this issue right now, because there is no clear win from an organizational point of view. You’re going to suffer losses no matter what you do. I feel compassion for the leaders of Vineyard USA. They are in a tough position. I was a leader at the national level in Vineyard at one time, so I can appreciate the painful dilemma they find themselves in.
Komarnicki: I sense that it was really your desire to be a better pastor that pushed you into this journey.
Wilson: Yes, well, that’s my skin in the game, as a pastor. I’m not gay, but where the rubber hit the road for me was my pastoral care of people. I’d read a gazillion books on this issue, biblical exegesis, theological books. I didn’t want to just add to that pile. I wondered, Who am I to speak to this issue? But then I thought, wait a minute, I’m a pastor, and congregations don’t really understand what a pastor has to wrestle through to deal with these questions, so I thought maybe that would be a contribution.
I think pastors are the ones who are now in the driver’s seat on this question. We’ve heard from academia. Now pastors are the ones who have to decide—are we going to continue exclusionary practices, including categorical disqualification of gay folks from ministry and service? Or are we going to find a way forward? It’s up to us to decide. Just as pastors had to figure out how to deal with divorce and remarriage. That’s something that got settled in pastors’ offices all over the country. It’s time for pastors to step up.
(Editor’s note: Read a review of Ken Wilson’s book.)
Kristyn Komarnicki is the director of CSA’s Oriented to Love dialogues, which bring together Christians from various sexual orientations, gender identities and theological convictions to listen to each other in love.