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An Appeal to Evangelical Pastors Conflicted by the Gay Controversy

Some of you believe that the traditional consensus of the church regarding homosexuality is essentially correct. We must fight to defend it, come what may. Others are not so sure. This appeal is for the "not so sure."
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Some of you believe that the traditional consensus of the church regarding homosexuality is essentially correct. We must fight to defend it, come what may. Others are not so sure. This appeal is for the "not so sure."

Like you, I am a pastor. Come to revivalist faith in the Jesus people movement, I started a church from scratch and served for seven years on the national board of Vineyard USA, which is a newer evangelical denomination. I am senior pastor of the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and hope to continue to serve for several more years. I have advocated a third way through the gay controversy, one that is neither "love-the-sinner, hate-the-sin" nor "open and affirming." However, it is not a middle way between the two, because it abandons all exclusionary practices aimed at gay couples seeking to be faithful to one partner. It does so on the grounds that the narrow question, "Does the Bible address the relationships that modern day same-sex covenanted couples enter into?" is one about which those faithful to Christ and the teaching of Scripture might reasonably be expected to disagree.

If Romans 14-15 is any help, such questions call for the church to practice full acceptance (or what Miroslav Wolf would call "embrace") of people on both sides of this debate. Err on the side of acceptance. Let God sort it out in His time. All exclusionary practices aimed at same-sex covenanted couples -- including categorical disqualification from leadership roles -- should be suspended. Pastors should be allowed to make their best pastoral discernment about participating in blessing same-sex couples who seek to be faithful to each other through a lifetime of thick and thin -- much as we currently handle the disputable matter of remarriage after divorce.

Those who believe all gay relationships are sinful are likewise accepted. Men and women with same-sex attraction who decide to live celibate or marry those of the opposite sex are supported, their choices honored as decisions made "unto the Lord." In other words, we retain our own convictions and respect the convictions of others, while leaving judgment (and exclusion of any kind is a from of judgment) to God. Those who hold the traditional view yield their right to insist on any exclusionary practice in local church communities, as they do for many other matters regarded as sinful.

There. I stated it as carefully as I could. To the religiously naïve, it may sound reasonable and hardly controversial. But as every pastor knows, each assertion I made is hotly contested. It took years of wrestling to find my way to this third way, knowing it involves the biggest political-cultural-religious hullabaloo of our time. A fact I had to ignore in order to care responsibly for the gay, lesbian and transgender people in my church.

Yes, it is a difficult thing to pull off in the current climate. One can posit many reasons it won't work. But the gospel is powerful when it is believed and its implications obeyed. And the world needs a witness to the gospel's power to unite those with very disparate views on important moral concerns. There is already a robust witness to the tendency of people of faith to divide over such matters.

This is worth trying even if it fails. Our congregation is in the middle of the experiment and trust me, the outcome is not assured, except by a faith that forbids me not to try, and which may prove misguided. But surely, the zeal fueling this controversy is misguided.

The dynamics of controversy in this case -- the intense anxiety, anguish, and pain it generates - - is, in my view, anti-human, harmful, not fueled by the Spirit. Of course, that doesn't mean that people on one "side" of the issue are under an evil spell. It means that we are all under an evil spell, the spell of high stakes controversy, a controversy that threatens our belonging when we disagree. I've lost dear friends over this, thousands of dollars in contributions to the church, and, potentially, my good standing in a much-loved Evangelical tribe. I'm speaking publicly about this, not because I am convinced my approach is the only faithful one to this vexing question, but because I believe it's time for pastors to weigh in. That requires us not to be cowed by the costs that come with intense religious controversy. The era of ducking this question is over. We must engage this issue as thoughtfully and as non-polemically as possible -- something I've no doubt failed to do as well as might be done, given the passions stirred in a polarized time such as we find ourselves.

I started down this path when my conscience became troubled by my willingness to suspend exclusionary practices aimed at remarried couples while not extending the same grace to covenanted gay couples. A plain reading of Scripture regarding what are legitimate grounds for remarriage after divorce easily leads to a very strict view: Either remarriage after divorce is never allowed (the Roman Catholic position) or only in the case of two possible exceptions (which don't accommodate things like severe emotional abuse, or arguably, even physical abuse.) Most of my evangelical colleagues and I take a more pastoral approach, however. We suspend exclusionary practices for many remarried couples whose situations don't fulfill the criteria of these traditional views. They are fully accepted in our churches in every way, including senior leadership. We cite scholars like David Instone-Brewer who argues for allowing remarriage on broader grounds in Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Eerdmans, 2002).

Instone-Brewer claims that a more accepting approach to remarriage is justified because the prohibitive texts must be read in their original social and literary context. The back cover of his book says,

By looking closely at the biblical texts on divorce and remarriage in light of the first-century Jewish and Greco-Roman world, this book shows that the original audience of the New Testament heard these teachings differently.

He concludes the book by saying the traditional approach that held sway until fairly recently has been wrong, and worse, harmful: "The church should now be humble and admit that a great mistake has been made. Too many generations of husbands and wives have been forced to remain with their abusing or neglectful partners and have not been allowed to divorce even after suffering repeated unfaithfulness." We sometimes forget that as recently as 1957, C.S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, adored by evangelical Christians, was able to marry a divorcee, Joy Davidman, only because a Church of England priest was willing to break the rules.

Instone-Brewer's work is dense, informed by research on the ancient cultural context. Reading his book takes effort. Pastors who wish to faithfully care for those who are gay, lesbian, and transgender must now undertake a similar effort. Many gay people have belonged to our congregations without our knowing it because they have been in hiding, but increasingly, they are coming out of hiding. Or they are anguished outsiders who long to belong to churches such as we pastor but don't dare to come for fear that, once known, they won't be accepted -- a crying shame, a gospel shame. And the exclusionary practices (and I take these to include limits on membership and disqualification from leadership on the grounds that a gay relationship makes one morally unfit to serve) are a stumbling block to a new generation that might otherwise have ears to hear the gospel. The gospel, of course, is irreducibly scandalous, but that doesn't justify erecting or retaining unnecessary barriers to its acceptance. So, pastor, it's time to get to work.

Only this work must be done under the pressure of a controversy that is placing a harsh spotlight, fueled by religious zeal, on some of the most vulnerable people in our churches. Because of this, those on both sides and many in the muddling middle will be distressed. It will be a mess for a while. Simply doing your duty as a pastor will contribute to the distress. You won't know how to process this well, let alone, perfectly -- the unrelenting intensity of the controversy will see to that.

Nevertheless, begin.

Ken Wilson is the founding pastor of Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor and author, most recently, of A Letter to My Congregation: an evangelical pastor's path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender into the company of Jesus (ReadTheSpirit 2014)

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