Thomas John Creedy has written a few reviews of Ken Wilson's, A Letter to my Congregation. In his first post, First Thoughts, Creedy outlines three initial reactions:
- A faulty starting point
- A dangerous idea
- Surprising brevity
In regard to a faulty starting point, Wilson's subtitle includes the statement, "people who are gay, lesbian and transgender". Creedy proffers:
I think it is dangerous to make such a statement, to not acknowledge the Image-Bearing humanity of every person. By placing these terms - and indeed any definition of sex and gender offered in a fluid culture - as ontological markers is incredibly limiting. The people I know who identify as LGBT are just that, people. To reduce someone to their sexuality, or their gender, is incredibly limiting and damaging and dangerous. There is also the implicit assumption that those who don't take Ken's line ... are not embracing people into the company of Jesus. I don't think that's true.
By starting without challenging our culture's construction of identity, I think Ken misses a trick. I think this would be a wonderful place to consider instead the root problem of our culture, in my limited opinion, the fact that we have in fact a crisis of humanhood. 'Self-definition', bluntly, is a fancy way of echoing that wonderful(ish) line from M People 'Search for the Hero Inside yourself'. Rather, I would tentatively argue (and I haven't finished my dissertation yet, and I certainly haven't written a book on it [yet?]) that true identity can only come from the grace and pronouncements of God. This is why I've written 'Says Who?', 'Soapy Ethics', and reviewed 'The Big Ego Trip', 'Note to Self', and so on. In my mind, the place to start when thinking about specific groups of human beings - however they might refer to themselves - is to start with what God says and gives us regarding all human beings. I could write about this topic till the cows come home, but, bluntly, I think this is a vital topic that Ken could have really engaged with a bit more. I point interested readers to my paper on a summary of the Imago Dei, my first blog post on the Imago Dei, and some reflections from Karl Barth on sexual difference in the Imago Dei.
There is also a lot to be said about the inherently American nature of the binary model Ken seeks to move beyond with his so-called 'Third Way', but I'll leave that for another time.
In regard to a dangerous idea, Creedy reacts to Wilson's statement; ""A pastor is the jack of many trades, master of none. In the age of specialization this intimidates pastors. I have come to believe that we pastors can only be true to our calling when we understand it as something other than another professional specialty. We are not professionals, even those of us who are paid for our service. We are members of a body with a history that precedes the age of professionalism and specialization. Yes, we study our Bibles and if we're wise, we include the tools developed by the professional Bible scholars in our toolbox, but we do so in the context of the community whose book the Bible is. We do so as followers of Jesus who are also pastors. And if we are alert to wisdom, we understand thattheology is not simply an academic discipline. It's something all God seekers do."
After several affirmations, Creedy notes;
The issue, then, comes as we start to place the 'context of the community' above the Bible, above God, or make it an equal for determining things. Ken's reflections on his presentation of an early version of this book make for interesting reading - but set up a dichotomy that I think must be avoided. There should not be a divide between the academy and the church. Where there is, it should be bridged. I am reminded of John Piper's excellent 'Brothers We are Not Professionals', and Piper and Carson's 'The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor'. And so I am concerned that Ken is setting himself up as 'one of the good guys', contrasting the homely, caring pastor with the cold, hard academic. As a young Christian attempting to discern whether I am called to scholarship or pastoral ministry, or what both/and would look like, I am wary of favouring one over the other.
Creedy continues his review here and here - both are worth reading. I found Creedy's analysis of Wilson's rejection of the Biblical prohibition against homosexuality especially useful.
At the outset, as Ken places the observation at the outset (even if he deals with it in more detail later), it is worth noting that we read; 'I had read the texts on divorce and remarriage differently after walking with people through the complexities and anguish of divorce. Only experience pressed me to scrutinize the text and my assumptions about the text more carefully' [Kindle Location 896]. In a recent blog article, Ken again directly compares the the two topics - divorce/remarriage and homosexuality - in a way that is at least frustrating and at worst dishonest. I do not want to underplay, at all, the complexity and difficulty of the question over divorce. But in my mind, when Jesus himself (in Matthew 19:9) uses the word 'except' regarding divorce, there is a conversation to be had about that. There is an exception, a nuance, a point to clarify As we shall see, there is a difference between divorce and homosexuality in the Bible, as the biblical texts are uniformly negative regarding the latter, even though we must note that divorce is not God's best. To compare the two directly is not a good way to treat the texts. And I'm not saying that as a weaselly systematic semi-theologian - I'm observing that Jesus himself says 'except' in a case of divorce, where he is silent, especially regarding showing us a more 'enlightened' way, on the pre-existing prohibition of same-sex activity. Jesus does affirm the created order in terms of marriage, but that is by the by for the purposes of this part of the review. ...
Ken rightly recognises that the Bible addresses same-sex activity a handful of times. I will happily go along with the texts Ken has chosen, for the purposes of responding him, but would note that these need to be read with the wealth of texts celebrating sex in the context of marriage between a man and a wife, and with at least an awareness of the whole range of texts dealing with other kinds of sexual activities. For Ken, the battlegrounds, as it were are Leviticus 18, 20, Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, and 1 Timothy 1. Ken does note, helpfully, that the term 'homosexuality' is a late term, but I would observe that we are skewed in our culture by our obsession and idolatry with sex, and so this is important to note, but I would argue it is more important to go beyond the sexuality discussion, as Michael Hannon notes in his powerful article 'Against Heteroseuxality. I appreciated Ken's humility on this area, stressing that fact 'I hadn't done my homework' [Kindle Loc. 950], but my concern is that the homework has not yet been finished.Ken begins his discussion by say that 'the effect of this traditional reading is thoroughgoing exclusion of all gay persons from the life and ministry of the church, which is widely practiced' [Kindle Loc. 960]. This is a powerful rhetorical point, but it can quickly be demonstrated to be untrue. Whilst I would not want to diminish the struggles that many LGBT folk face in churches, and have written against some of that in the past, I would note the stories of Wesley Hill and Sean Doherty, at least, as good examples of the opposite. Ken moves through the texts in order of scriptural appearance. I was puzzled by Ken's statement that 'Leviticus has nothing to say about lesbian sex' [Kindle Loc. 1005], given that he is in favour of equality been men and women. It would seem selective to apply rules where men are mentioned to only men, if you then apply similar rules, etc, to women in other contexts. Leviticus is dealing with human beings - the point is two people of the same sex. Ken unfortunately misquotes Robert Gagnon, in the same way that Justin Lee has already done in print, and that Gagnon has responded to. I don't need to add to Gagnon's response.
Continuing the side-stepping of texts in the Bible that deal with sex more generally, we jump from Leviticus straight to Romans. Again, Ken states that 'Like Leviticus 18, Romans 1 is framed as commentary on pagan idolatry' [Kindle Loc. 1027]. He quotes Luke Timothy Johnson on the topic - and as ever, it is worth noting that Johnson, like Ken, rejects the biblical prohibitions in this area. Johnson goes further, honestly stating; 'I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good' (Source). I am at a loss to see how this squares with Ken's stated aim of following scripture [Kindle Loc. 888]. But I digress. Ken bases his reading solely on the work of Sarah Ruden, whose book I am in the process of reading. Richard Hays, in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, is more straightforward, and, I think, closer to what is actually happening in the text:'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....Homosexaul 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]Ken goes on to say, as a method of dismissing sources that he finds unconvincing, that these 'simply weren't dealing with the questions that I faced as a pastor' [Kindle loc. 1138]. I would point, now, to theEvangelical Alliance's book, The Living Out Team, Sam Allberry'sbook, Wesley Hill's book, Alex Tylee's book, Vaughan Roberts' book on Friendship, and many other resources (perhaps the work of Henri Nouwen, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others, as calls to better community and deeper relationships), as being some that directly engage with pastoral issues in this area. Whilst some were not available as Ken was writing, many were, and I'd hope that in any future edition/conversation he might engage with them, too.Moving on to 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, via a slight mudding of the water on Ken's part - 'Get ready for some more mind-numbing detail' [Kindle Loc. 1160] - we begin with a slightly frustrating discussion of the meaning of arsenokoitai, which I understand as 'men who have sex with men', which I think is a more nuanced and less loaded understanding than the common translation of 'homosexuals'. My friend Peter Ould has written a very thorough piece on the meaning of this word which I refer Ken and my readers to. I would also note that Ken focuses in so much on the detail of these words, rather than the context of the texts, that he ignores the trajectory and theme of sanctification that is central to the vice list of 1 Corinthians 6, for example:'And such some of you were. Buy you were washed ,you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God' (1 Cor 6:11)The trajectory of new life in Christ is a stripping away of false labels, dangerous idols, and un-real identities, in favour of the fundamental, radical, eternal identity of 'beloved child of God'. There are all sorts of things that are incompatible with this identity, and yet God, I believe, is very gracious in transforming us at a pace that is bearable. Following the vice list - which includes greedy, like me, drunkards, like I can be, and others - is this powerful promise, that there is more, in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit....
In closing this part of my review, then, we have seen that Ken has engaged the right texts but in a rather strange way. By consistently using the badge/motif of 'pastor' as a way of sidestepping some issues (in line with scholar Luke Timothy Johnson's honest rejection), A Letter to my Congregation muddies the waters and forces the unprepared reader to follow Ken's argument. From my perspective, the biblical texts are clear, they are prohibitive, and resources exist to encourage and call the church to be all she can be to all kinds of people in all kinds of places. 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. Do go and read my post about the breaking and damaging of the Image of God, where I talk about 'ex-gay' camps, abortion, and other things.