By Ken Wilson
I'm an evangelical pastor (founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor) who has publicly stated that I can no longer enforce any exclusionary practices aimed at men and women in gay partnerships. I know many evangelical pastors who are privately troubled by the current approach to gay people. These pastors are in a state of conflicted conscience, looking for a way to honor both their evangelical faith and the gay and lesbian people who are coming to their churches, or are loved by people in their churches.
Many pastors counsel conflicted parents of evangelical faith who are in a psychological torture device: forced to choose between accepting their child who is gay or honoring the faith that saved them.
I have proposed a path for these pastors that allows them to embrace people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender and to accept them fully — welcome and wanted — into the company of Jesus. I wrote A Letter to My Congregation when I realized my views had changed and I needed to communicate the intense theological, biblical, pastoral, and spiritual process that I had been through to get to this new place.
Why was I willing to let divorced and remarried couples know that they are welcome and wanted while refusing that same welcome to gay and lesbian couples?
It began with a burr beneath the saddle of my conscience: why was I willing to let so many divorced and remarried couples know that they are welcome and wanted while refusing that same welcome to gay and lesbian couples? How could I say to the remarried couples, whose second marriage was clearly condemned by the plain meaning of scripture, “You are welcome and wanted,” while saying to the two mothers raising their adopted child together, “I love you, but I hate your sin”?
A story from C.S. Lewis’ life helps point the way.
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A priest going against the grain
C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia and the greatest apologist for the Christian faith in the 20th century, fell in love with a divorced woman, Joy Davidman. Her husband was an alcoholic (and not a Christian) and their marriage fell apart. Lewis had never been married. His beloved Church of England, hewing to the biblical teaching that marriage is between one man and one woman for life, refused to sanction this union on the grounds that in marrying Joy, Lewis would be marrying another man’s wife, making them both adulterers.
But there was one priest who was willing to go against the grain, Father Peter Bide. Lewis turned to Bide, a former pupil who had become an Anglican priest, after the bishop of Oxford refused to marry Lewis and Davidman. Bide knew that Lewis was asking for something that wasn’t consistent with the teaching of the Church of England. But this naïve priest prayed about it. That’s right. He asked Jesus what he should do. What a concept! As if Jesus were alive and might talk back! And he felt led by the Spirit to perform the wedding.
During the ceremony, which took place in the hospital room where the bride was battling cancer, he placed his hands on her and prayed for her healing. She went into an unexpected remission almost immediately and Lewis and Davidman had a blessed reprieve in which to enjoy their union. They had what so many of us long for, including people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender: someone to pair bond with, someone to cuddle with at night, someone committed to care for the other should the other — as so many of us eventually do — get sick and die.
Most evangelical churches have remarried leaders. No one speaks of loving these remarried people but hating their sin.
That was then, over 50 years ago. This is now. The most theologically conservative expressions of Christian faith in the 21st century — Roman Catholicism and evangelicalism — wouldn’t blink at the thought of blessing the union of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman. The Catholic Church would do so by annulling Davidman’s first marriage. Most evangelical churches would ask her a few questions (if that) and determine that God was surely blessing this new marriage.
A third way for evangelicals on same-sex marriage
I studied the scriptures on divorce and remarriage extensively as a younger pastor. I studied the early church fathers and the Protestant Reformers. Their grounds for allowing remarriage were extremely strict, based on a plain reading of scripture. This older consensus held sway in the church — Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox — until it was flooded with remarried couples after World War II.
Today, most evangelical churches have remarried lay leaders and board members. Some have remarried pastors. No one speaks of loving these remarried people but hating their sin. Instead, they are fully accepted into the life of the church. A veritable cottage industry of evangelical books exists to help the conscientious Bible reader make sense of the biblical prohibitions in light of their historical context and apply their teaching in light of the experience of the remarried people we know, love, and often, are.
As I reflected on this issue, the thought hit me like a punch in the gut: if we gave the same considerate reading to the handful of texts condemning same-sex sexual practices that we give to passages on divorce (what did they mean in their historical context and how should we apply them today?), we would likely come up with a very different approach to gay, lesbian, and transgender people. We might even find a way to fully include them in the life of the church as we have done for so many remarried people.
And I wondered: are we reluctant to consider this possibility because it’s virtually impossible to finance an evangelical congregation without remarried people, while it’s easy enough to do so without gay, lesbian, and transgender people simply because there are fewer of them?
Then, the knock-out blow occurred to me: how would that square with the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep to go after the one which has wandered from (or been driven out by) the rest of the flock?
With much trepidation and a sometimes paralyzing dose of fear, I opened myself to the possibility that my received tradition on this subject might be wrong. So I have proposed what I am calling a “third way” between the longstanding and polarized binary — either “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “open and affirming.”
Why Christians can agree to disagree on gay marriage
Some have objected that this “third way” is just “open and affirming” in disguise. But I maintain that this “third way” — I call it “welcome and wanted” — is not equivalent to “open and affirming” for two important reasons.
First, it grounds the full acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people in a much-ignored portion of scripture: Romans 14-15, in which Paul introduces a category he calls “disputable matters.” The upshot is this: the church in Rome was splitting over disputes about first order moral issues — like whether or not eating meat sacrificed to idols constituted idolatry (one could make the case!), or whether ignoring the command to rest on the seventh day was a sin against one of the Ten Commandments, even a sin against nature, since God himself rested on the seventh day in the Genesis creation account.
If how the biblical prohibitions of same-sex sexual practices apply to modern same-sex couples is an example of a “disputable matter,” then it follows that the church can “agree to disagree” on this question, while practicing full acceptance of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, not to mention full acceptance of those who disagree with whether such people sin by having sex with their covenanted partners.
The biblical “ideal,” if there is such a thing, is not marriage, but celibacy.
I realize that in the current climate of intense controversy over this issue, that would be hard to pull off in many local churches, but that, too, seems to be Paul’s point: Jesus is more powerful than other lords (like Caesar) precisely because he is risen from the dead, and can empower those who follow him to do improbable things — like remain in a unity of the Spirit despite sharp disagreement over important questions. In fact, this demonstrates his resurrection power: he can do what mere religion can’t — keep people together who watch different cable news-entertainment networks.
Second, the “third way” questions why people who accept the gospel of Jesus Christ think they have any business assuming that our acceptance of one another “in Christ” is contingent on granting each other our moral approval. The “affirming” in “open and affirming” implies that the congregation so tagged offers its moral approval to gay couples. But what does that have to do with the gospel? Isn’t the whole point of the gospel that God accepts us thanks to the faithfulness of Jesus and not because he approves of all our moral choices? And that we are to do likewise with each other? Where does this insistence that our unity depends on granting each other moral approval come from?
In any event, the biblical “ideal,” if there is such a thing, is not marriage, but celibacy, according to the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Marriage, according to both, is a concession to human weakness. “If you can’t remain celibate, it’s better to marry than to burn,” said Paul. Hardly a ringing endorsement of marriage. This business of granting marriage some privileged moral status is far from the New Testament ideal.
Call me naïve, but I think there’s a third way for evangelicals in the gay marriage debate, and it’s a way that honors the Bible and the power of the gospel better than “love the sinner, hate the sin” or “open and affirming.” Whether or not it works is another matter. But I think it’s time to give it a try, especially if it could bear witness to a risen Lord better than the current rehashed moralism that we’re calling the gospel.
If you are an evangelical pastor who has felt the same troubled conscience that I have over your exclusion of gay, lesbian, and transgender people, you might try what the pastor who married C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman did: ask Jesus what you should do and do that, come what may.
Ken Wilson is the senior pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor. He is the author, most recently, of "A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embrace People Who Are Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender into the Company of Jesus."
Several weeks ago, a good friend messaged me.
“Your writing puzzles me,” she said. “Because Stephen the Writer seems to feel far more secure and certain of God’s love than Stephen the friend. Stephen the friend struggles daily with knowing that Jesus loves him. Stephen the Writer speaks confidently about the security of God’s love. I know it is terrifying to be more honest, but I think you should be.”
She’s right, of course. I told her that when I talk about God’s eternal, unchanging, unconditional love, I am preaching to myself as much as to others. I want to believe that God loves me no matter what and, sometimes, I do believe it. But it’s much harder to be honest about the reality than it is to talk about the ideal. It’s much harder to speak about me, in the middle of the journey, than it is to speak about where I am going.
When I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that there is no greater struggle in my life than accepting God’s grace for me. More than any addiction or despair, I have struggled with knowing that Jesus loves me with an impossible love, right now, right here, no caveats, no exceptions.
I have patterns engraved in my psyche – patterns so deep that they have carved me out like the Grand Canyon. They are the patterns of shame, hiding, and fear. I’m a yoga teacher, and the Sanskrit term for these patterns is samskara – scars left on the human psyche, body, and spirit through years of repitition. A samskara can be positive or negative, but above all it is formed by habit. A drug addiction is a samskara. Practicing piano every day creates samskara. Keeping secrets from those you love most creates samskara. Samskara takes practice to form, and I practiced my self-loathing, my shame, and my hiding for years. From a very young age I loathed and feared myself for my same sex attractions, but the more I hid and the more I ran the more deeply I hated myself; the more I feared that I was absolutely unacceptable to God. I recently read through some old writing of mine and stumbled across a phrase that vividly describes how I felt for years through much of highschool and college: “I feel like a survived abortion.”
Now that I am out of the closet and trying to live my life with honesty and integrity, I feel like I am in physical therapy for my psyche. Every day, I take on the monumental task of choosing to believe that God loves me. Some days I believe more fully than others. Sometimes I crash, and I’m convinced that he can’t, he won’t. Sometimes I even still lie in bed and wonder if I am going to hell because I have walked away from the traditional ethic, because I self-identify as gay, because I have momentary slipups as I am trying to learn what it means to be a healthy sexual being for the first time at the age of 25.
I recently finished watching the show American Horror Story: Coven with my friend Nathan. There was one scene in the show that got to me: one of the most redemptive, lovely characters gets trapped in hell and caught in an infinite loop of her most nightmarish experience. That scene haunted me, and I would lie in bed as it played over and over in my head. It was nothing more than a cinematic display of the samskara I had created for years: the fear of God rejecting me, the fear that, despite my best efforts, I was still going to hell because of my sexuality.
It’s difficult. It hurts. Sometimes I call up my friends, desperate for some kind of affirmation. Sometimes I am able to believe, sometimes not. But I have chosen always to walk towards the cross. I have decided, with gritted teeth and cold determination, to believe that when Christ died on the cross, he died for me, too.
I don’t just struggle with God’s love in the context of a lifetime of learned patterns. I also struggle with his love in the context of recent wounds, bruises, and doubts. I struggle with the shame of walking away from the traditional ethic on homosexuality, even as that choice probably saved my life. The struggle to live the traditional ethic consumed five years of my life – five years of endlessly fighting for a “life affirming sexual ethic”, five years of nurturing spiritual disciplines, five years of fighting to live in community as a celibate being. Five years is not a long time, and yet I would rather receive a lethal injection than go back. The pain was too much, despite all the things I tried to do right. And let me be clear – it wasn’t the universal call to chastity that broke me, and it wasn’t the possibility of never having sex. It was the requirement of lifelong celibacy that crushed me – the fact that, for me, monogamy, or marriage, or committed, faithful love with the person I love would only ever be sin. Friendship and spiritual disciplines were not enough to save me from being crushed. The mandate of required celibacy crushed me, even while I believed – and still believe – that the vocation of celibacy is beautiful and vital for the life of the church.
There is talk in the non-affirming gay community of all the ways to make gay celibacy sustainable, but no, I’m done. After five years of trying, and trying, and trying, I have discovered that it is too dangerous for me.
That was the truly horrid part of it all: if fulfillment could be found in the life of gay celibacy then it should be pursued, but if it could not be found then there was simply nothing to be done. If you are one of the unlucky ones for whom mandatory lifelong celibacy is a white-hot brand on your soul, you simply have to endure it, forever. It was a definite bonus if you found relief and joy, but if you didn’t, you simply had to keep walking. Pain, in those circumstances, did not matter – at least not enough to walk away and find help. That’s what “carrying your cross” means: It means pain, and it means pain that will very likely kill you. Carrying a cross isn’t about being whole or happy, it’s about suffering to the very end. Someone’s pain doesn’t matter enough to put that cross down – even if it is pain so ferocious that it results in a putting a bullet through their skull. The sacrifice is all that matters.
This raises a disturbing question: at what point does the concept of “carrying a cross” become a safegaurd against an individual ever making necessary healthy life choices? At what point does It become a shield against someone ever seeing their own self abuse that hides under the guise of religious obedience?
In the traditional ethic, even my screams felt invalidated, because this was my cross, and I was to take it to my grave. When I went limping and whimpering to others in the church like a wounded animal, the response was always the same:”we are sorry you are hurting. You can rest with us for a time. But just keep going. This pain is part of it.” And even when I wept and said, “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” The answer was still the same: “This is what it means to carry your cross. Just keep going.” When my body became a crisscross tapestry of scars, the answer remained the same. When I would lie in bed awake for hours, replaying the fantasy of killing myself over and over and over again in my head, the answer remained the same. When I started failing all my classes, the answer remained the same. It was the most terrible game of chicken ever imaginable: hold yourself over the flame for as long as you can. If you withdraw, you do so at the cost of your soul. If fulfillment and happiness finds you, that’s nice and a definite bonus. But if not, you just have to keep burning. This is your cross.
After finally cracking and walking away, self-hatred and shame are inevitable. There is shame for putting down that old rugged cross that they all said was supposed to kill me, and choosing to find a better life. There is self hatred for having the audacity to believe that, perhaps, God would rather have a living son who loves him than a dead son who died a martyr on the hill of his sexual orientation. The voices still keep me awake sometimes, and sometimes the voices sound an awful lot like God, speaking His disapproval that I walked away instead of choosing the long, slow, roasting.
Does Jesus really love me? At the end of the day, I come to this: His love is all I have. And no matter how horrible the journey sometimes becomes, I find that I love Him, too. I see a Jesus who was perplexing, demanding, and tender, and I love Him. I see a Jesus whose heart burst for the brokenhearted, the poor, the rejected, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who mends the broken hearted, who releases the captives, who heals the blind, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who invites us to carry a terrible cross with Him, but who also says “my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”, and I love Him. I see a Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life, and I love Him.
If I believe God is good, if I believe He is love, then I also have to believe that He is merciful when we suffer, when we are wrong theologically, when we try our very best. I have to believe that His love is bigger than all our suffering, our valiant attempts at right living, or our capacity to be right or wrong. And I hope that, some day, I will be able to believe that more fully.