Ken Wilson has courageously written a new book, A Letter to My Congregation: An Evangelical Pastor’s Path to Embracing People who are Gay, Lesbian and Transgender in the Company of Jesus. He advocates an evangelical embrace of the LGBT community. Move over Missio Alliance. Your posture now seems excessively close to the Neo-Reformed community. Wilson argues for a genuinely radical middle for the evangelicals with no bait and switch.
We all have strong emotions about this subject. It's loaded with fear; the social media firestorm this week reveals how politically charged it is among evangelicals. But I can't tell you how many evangelicals I've talked to in recent years who just don't know what to think about this issue. These brothers and sisters are serious followers of Jesus but they just don't know where they stand. They don't want to be bullied by fear of enmeshed authority structures monopolizing their voice. For them this is going to be a good book to work to read. I highly recommend it.
I will make a prediction here. More evangelicals will be joining Wilson. Contrary to what we saw earlier this week, the evangelical world is much bigger than the progressives; and it is bigger than conservatives like Missio Alliance and the Neo-Reformed world. The backlash of what happened at World Vision is going to have repercussions among evangelicals.
I've been waiting for a good book by a solid evangelical leader on this issue and Wilson has come forth. For several years, I have felt rather lonely and isolated community wise as I have forged my own differentiation on this and have wrestled with this controversial topic. I'm assuming if you read this you already are aware that my posture on male-female intimacy has made me a lightning rod. More than one evangelical reviewer has called my book controversial. So I am not a stranger to controversy. Some popular bloggers now regularly distance themselves me because I am controversial.
For the last six years or so, I've had a deep interest in this issue. It parallels my research and passion for male-female friendship. I wanted to distinguish between sexuality and friendship--especially platonic male-female intimacy--and the whole conversation around the LGBT community. Both issues face resistance and fear from evangelical authority regarding what healthy, appropriate desire for deep intimacy (sexual and platonic) looks like within friendship and community.
Once you get past evangelical obsession with heteronormative romance the big "I" word stirs many deep-seated fears in many evangelicals. Evangelicals have nurtured a female self and a male self that doesn't know how to be intimate with one another and stand on their own two feet in community. This ignites so much fear both in the the cross-gender friendship conversation and the LGBT conversation.
I have been shaped in this conversation by evangelicals who have bravely dared fear and have expressed great courage to rethink some of their deepest assumptions fueled by fear instead of love. There will be another significant hermeneutical book coming out in May by my friend, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter. I've been greatly influenced by Wendy's blog. Her vision of nurturing a generous spaciousness in the church has been a breath of fresh air in contrast to models where community leaves very little freedom for self to be authentic and grow. I've been heavily influenced and shaped by Andrew Marin.
My own personal journey has shifted in the last five years or so. I've had a passionate interest in it behind the scenes. But I have felt isolated as I have been existing in this "middle place" as it were--a genuine middle where I am differentiated and sort of processing through the deep-seated fears, the politics, and resisting the pressure to conform to something that I am not. I will say this carefully, but still name it. On this issue, it is very easy for leaders to bully others into passive or quiet submission and "herd" people. This would be in the classic description of Edwin Friedman where leaders herd people into the the lowest common denominator and create an undifferentiated togetherness.
I predict more evangelicals will be joining Wilson. Forget the fiasco this week. This book is one more step for evangelicals to join the truly radical middle. With younger evangelicals tending to positively embrace the LGBT community, the evangelical world middle is beginning to shift in the twenty-first century.
This book might be dismissed by conservatives within the Neo-Reformed and the Missio Alliance movements. The leaders in those movements have distanced themselves from any leaders advocating something or the LGBT community with public responses like "sanctification"and "repentance." But there are a growing number of evangelicals who are not wholeheartedly progressive but they don't fit in those two conservative camps concerning the LGBT community--truly a radical middle. For them, this is going to be a book that encourages pastoring communities out of a radical middle. Ken Wilson is a highly respected leader and pastor in the Vineyard movement.
Evangelical David Gushee writes of this book: "This is a breakthrough work coming from the heart of evangelical Christianity and offered into the heart of evangelical Christianity."
The titles to his chapters give you a taste of the territory Wilson bravely walks us through:
1. A Fleeting Unease, Readily Dismissed
2. Intuitions Toward a New Way Forward
3. A Closer Look at the Prohibitive Texts
4. The Third Way
5. The Gospel Way
6. Yes, But This Is a Big Change
7. I am Willing
At the end of the book, he gives thanks, "Most of all, to the unnamed gay, lesbian and transgender people whose lives have revealed Jesus to me."
1. I'm not surprised an evangelical pastor leading a large church near a large university would end up writing a book like this.
2. It's not a surprise that a Vineyard pastor would end up engaging the issue a different way from the conservative exclusionary approaches of conservative evangelicals and those who don't believe God's word is inspired.
John Wimber (the original leading voice for the Vineyard) said way back in the 80s when it was not cool to say it: experience shapes your theology. God draws people to knowledge through experience.
3. His third approach is going to attract evangelicals who understand evangelical diversity:
"I’m proposing an approach that respects the differing convictions of those who disagree and emphasizes the gospel demand of acceptance (over affirmation on the one hand, and over exclusion on the other.)" Not just a shallow response--but a "thoroughgoing acceptance."
4. I love any pastor who considers N.T. Wright as a theological hero but yet humbly differentiates himself with Wright on this issue.
I love N.T. Wright too! But Wright doesn't have the final say on what the Scriptures mean on sexual issues.
5. I loved his last chapter, "I am willing."
The whole book is a journey of self-differentiation but the last chapter? It's pure gold. Every main point in the chapter could easily apply to how I have differentiated myself from many deep-seated fears within the evangelical community regarding cross-sex friendship. This chapter is a bold and beautiful expression of how an evangelical stands on one's own two feet on a controversial issue in the midst of deep evangelical need to create undifferentiated togetherness in community. " I am willing to be....misunderstood, I am willing...to be fearless... I am willing....to be led by the fire of divine love" and more points are such strong points of becoming an adult in this growing conversation.
When Wilson finally gets to the last chapter and expounds on "I am willing" it so resonated with my spirit on what I have had to choose regarding cross-gender friendship. Wilson elucidates for us why he chooses to embrace this breakthrough. I'll encourage you to read the chapter. Wilson writes: "But sometimes in order to walk faithfully with Jesus, we have to be willing to offend some things."
So what do you think about an evangelical breakthrough on this issue?
If you want to know about the radical middle on this subject, I encourage you to follow Michael Kimpan, Wendy VanderWal-Gritter, Rachel Held Evans, Jonalyn and Dale Fincher to name a few. Now, they are not going to all agree with one another but that is part of what it means to be in the radical middle.