Just over ten years ago, I was a newly married, newly-minted intern at the church I’d been to as an undergraduate. The years that led to those designations, for me, had involved some quite significant theological and spiritual rethinking. Key to some of that – largely to admitting I was in fact a theological charismatic – were two books, one by and one co-authored by Ken Wilson, at the time the pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard church. ‘Mystically Wired’ drew together medicine, neuroscience spirituality, and simple theology to explain some of what I was experiencing, whilst his book with Rich Nathan, ‘Empowered Evangelicals’, gave me the theological language and framework to explain what was going on.
As Jesus says in John 8:31-32, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free”
My discovery of the Vineyard and Kingdom Theology resonated with those words of Jesus. And so I am immensely grateful to God for Ken Wilson’s work in those and other books.
As a result, in the run-up to going to and presenting at my first ‘Society of Vineyard Scholars’ Conference (in the then Vineyard Anaheim, in LA) I was very excited to see that Ken Wilson would be presenting a long-form paper on the pastoral care of and theology around LGBT* persons. This was a concern that is both personal and missional to me – and it was with genuine excitement that I started reading the paper that eventually became Ken’s book, ‘A Letter to My Congregation’. As I read it, my heart sank – and whilst my time at Anaheim was immensely personally, spiritually, and theologically renewing (And the SVS has been a source of great friendship, fellowship, and sharpening ever since), the memories I have of Ken’s presentation and what ensued are not among the happy ones I have of that trip.
You could sum up the above paragraphs as ‘Ten Years ago, an author I massively appreciated ended up writing a book that I found deeply disappointing’. If you’ve got the time, you might want to go and read (or even re-read) my review of ALTMC – at over six and a half thousand words, it’s a significant bit of writing, but it covers a significant topic.
As I say, I believe the questions raised are of deep personal, theological, and missional significance – and that’s why I’m writing this ‘Ten Years on’ post – because it’s good to look back and think about change and constancy. In this post I want to briefly think about whether I’ve changed my mind about ALTMC and the key issues; consider some of the practical repercussions of the conversation (beyond just Vineyard USA’s Position Paper on the issue); suggest some ecumenical questions and related theological/missiological topics, and offer some personal reflections. I’ll close with some theological questions for individuals.
Right at the outset, I make an observation about ‘people who are gay, lesbian and transgender’. I’d expand that, now, to include words like ‘straight’ or ‘CIS’. By modifying the idea of people we are unwittingly making an element of someone’s identity or a major aspect of their behavior, a fundamental ‘think’ about who they are. We aren’t just thinking about ideas, these ideas affect real people – and it is important to acknowledge that. I’m writing this post to help process some of my own thinking and feelings, as an encouragement to those in contexts where these things are being discussed, and as a challenge to those seeking to change church teaching on this. All of us are made in the Image of God – but that doesn’t mean all of our views are equally valid or valuable. There are bad ideas out there.
There are also other entities involved and every time this topic comes up there is often a sense of something else going on. Or, as Ken puts it, “This is the hottest hot button of our time in society and in many churches. The fact that this is so, is a work of the devil, the Evil One, Old Scratch, the hater of God and by association, humanity” [Kindle loc. 199]. As I wrote then, I completely agree. Because human beings – all of us – are associated with God by virtue of being made in his image, part of which is our sexuality and sexual differences. The right argument is made – that how we do this is as important as where we end up. My concern, shared by many orthodox Christians seeking to combine right belief with right practice, is that Ken’s proposal ultimately cedes the territory the Devil is trying to occupy. Consider, for a moment, that the ‘traditional’ position is right, and is often practiced very wrong (I blogged about the stupidity of so-called ‘ex-gay’ ministries a while ago). Surely it would make sense to hold on to the core, the truth, and work out the praxis, in love? I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in John 14, particularly verses 15-21, which contrasts the Spirit of truth, of whom Jesus says ‘The world cannot accept him’.
I’ve continued to read and think about the issues in the biblical texts on this area – and I think a good summary is this: from beginning to end the Bible clearly teaches that sexual intimacy is reserved for male/female marriage, and same-sex sexual acts are sinful (alongside different-sex sexual acts outside of marriage. There are also clear texts prohibiting same-sex sexual acts, and to dismiss (for example) Romans 1 as ‘just’ being about idolatry is to read the Bible in a strangely flat way – in my mind, Romans 1 is about idolatry, an aspect of which is exchanging good for evil. Richard Hays’ comments in the before-its-time The Moral Vision of the New Testament puts it well:
‘Paul singles out homosexual intercourse for special attention because he regards it as providing a particularly graphic image of the way in which human fallenness distorts God’s created order. God the Creator made man and woman for each other, to cleave together, to be fruitful and multiply….
Homosexual acts are not, however, specifically reprehensible sins; they are no worse than any of the other manifestations of human unrighteousness listed in the passage (vv. 29-31)‘
[p. 388, emphasis mine]. To put things another way – the traditional, orthodox view of human sexuality in the Biblical tradition is a combination of a clear positive vision on the one hand, and a number of clear negative statements on the other. As I wrote in that review, ten years ago, We don’t have to buy in to the false dichotomy that says if you believe certain things are sinful, you must hate and exclude certain people. Jesus didn’t do that. He confronted people with their sin, while providing a solution, and offering a better life. And this is what the church must do. Not muddy the waters, confounding the scriptures, but speaking of life, a better life. Jesus must be more attractive than any human way of living, because he is, because he is God, because he died for us.
I sometimes hear that because Jesus didn’t directly address same-sex marriage, it is a disputable matter, something intelligent modern Christians can disagree on. Indeed, that’s a part of Ken’s argument – and common to contemporary permutations of it. Yet I think Matthew 19 is very clear on what marriage is. As Jesus says:
“Have you not read that He Who made them in the first place made them man and woman? It says, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and will live with his wife. The two will become one.’”
Jesus taught this in the centre of his teaching on divorce – and I think it’s important to state that the question of remarriage and divorce is different than that of same-sex relationships and marriage. It is different in substance – Jesus’ clarity of male/female marriage is notable, and it is different in biblical and historical theological content/context. To try to use one biblical ethic to counteract another is a strange way to argue – and I think it is good for churches to take a hard look at our teaching and practice in areas that have more to do with ‘heterosexual’ relationships and sin than just ‘homosexual’ ones. That is perhaps a topic for another day, though.
Practically, one of the things that Ken signposted as being ‘new’ in his book was his suggestion of a ‘Third Way’. I think it is reasonable to state at this point that he wasn’t offering a ‘Third Way’, but rather a path towards the revisionist position. Indeed, in a recent post, Ken writes “I advocated for full inclusion (also known as affirming)”. With resources like ‘The Difference Course’, the failed attempt at ‘Good Disagreement’ in the Church of England, and other attempts at finding a way through the fog, I’m more convinced than ever that this is an issue on which it is impossible to agree, and remain together.
- how can a church contain two viewpoints on what is sin? Eventually, we have to recognise that we have parted company.
- how can a church effectively pastor someone with same-sex attraction who feels called to celibacy, if it is simultaneously saying that an active same-sex relationship is ‘good’ and can be ‘blessed’? It involves doublethink and double-speak.
Ultimately the issue is not about what we think about sex, but about what we think about the Bible, and God’s lordship over our lives.
ALTMC Ten Years on – Some Practical Repercussions
- How is Blue Ocean doing? Ken planted a new church under ‘Blue Ocean’ – a network that appears somewhat defunct and dormant. I’d suggest that this is because it has lost it’s moorings, and whilst some charismatic and engaging communicators/leaders exist within it, it won’t last. At least, that’s what the data seems to say, about for example The Episcopal Church in the USA, but also churches in the UK.
- Did 50+ churches leave the Vineyard in the USA over this issue? No. And this is something that puts the lie to informal threats and conversations.
- The importance of clarity. This isn’t something to fudge. Whether it’s the student website about churches in Oxford, to which I think the FIEC’s response is excellent, or something else, not saying what we think is never a good idea, as Andrew Wilson wisely observed back in 2014. An intentional ambiguity can work for a while, but it cannot last forever, and it actively harms the witness of the church, it’s ability to do mission and discipleship, as well as increasing stress for people on both sides of the issue.
- One UK Vineyard disassociated due to its stance – Riverside Church in Whitstable – the lack of a public stance leads to oddities like this. Let’s be honest about what we think, and have conversations with that in mind. The Vineyard in the UK and Ireland is a member of the Evangelical Alliance, and so arguably has a clear conservative/traditional stance on sexuality (And many individual churches are also members) – I honestly think a lot of conversations around this issue would be easier if it was clearer where we sat/sit/stand.
Ecumenical questions and other repercussions
- The Church of England – which some in the Vineyard and other similar churches look to for some level of leadership, continues to decline in numbers, but also in clarity. One positive result has been increased unity amongst those who are orthodox, including Nicky Gumbel breaking ranks to provide some clarity. Both ‘sides’ are furious at the current state – and the debate has been sapping missional energy, dissuading people from pursuing ordination, and otherwise taking the church away from what it’s doing.
- This graph from the article linked above is sobering – not that revisionism on sexuality is the key, but it is a common thread amongst churches in decline:
- I think I am more convinced than ever that scholarship matters – and I remain hypothetically open to being wrong, though I’ve yet to be persuaded on either the ‘difficult texts’ or the ‘big picture’.
- I remain convinced that people matter – people on both sides, friends and family who I disagree with. We are all invited to come to Jesus – and as a part of that, everything changes.We as humans can’t prescribe the timing, but we can point to what God says in His Word.
- Old Scratch is up to something. Lies and dissent. Disagreement. Christians wary of church. Non-Christians wary of Christians. Those are all things the Devil loves – and so in our prayers and conversations, even the hard ones, we should have in mind the picture of the church in the New Testament, particularly looking ahead to the vision in Revelation.
Some questions for individuals
- if you are in a Vineyard Church and are personally affirming of same-sex marriage, how do you square that with scripture? Have you read the position paper from our American cousins? How would you answer the theological claims?
- if you are active in a Vineyard church, and agree with the theological praxis of ministry in the Spirit, to the poor etc, then you are basing your Christian practice with a certain hermeneutic (way of reading the BIble). Why do you think we should read the Bible differently about this issue of sexuality?
- why do you think that this issue is of such dissonance and passion? Why do you think it is in view now (or in the last few decades), and not something that the church historically has changed it’s mind on?
A bit puzzled by all this, and want to work out what on earth I’m on about? Below are some book reviews of books that I think helpfully explain the Bible’s teaching on this area, as well as a three-part series on sexuality that my wife and I co-taught at the South West London Vineyard back in 2018.
- When we talk about sexuality we need to start with Jesus.
- The Bible has a lot to say about sex.
- We can and should talk practically about this.
Here are some book recommendations:
- Generally good book about sexuality and Spirituality – Todd Wilson’s Mere Sexuality (I really can’t recommend this enough)
- Important book to read about the wider cultural background – Glynn Harrison’s A Better Story
- Superb book on the interplay of Gay and Christian identity – David Bennett’s A War of Loves (Note particularly N. T. Wright‘s foreword)
- A book for those who are victims of, and relating to victims of, sexual assault – Justin and Lindsay Holcomb’s Rid of My Disgrace (a book I’ve re-read multiple times and am still recommending)
- An excellent book for considering the practical application and spiritual importance of following Jesus in this area – Ed Shaw’s The Plausibility Problem.
For a bigger reading list, with reviews linked when I remember, showcasing some of the breadth and depth of stuff on this, I have a working ‘Bibliography: Sex and Gender‘ (at some point I need to tidy this up, note to self.)