Ken Wilson

Ken Wilson on Christian Community (part 1)

When City Church in San Francisco announced that it was altering its policies with regard to the inclusion of LGBTQ folks, they indicated that an important voice guiding them forward was that of Ken Wilson, founding pastor of the Ann Arbor Vineyard Church.

Yesterday Wilson preached at City Church, part of an ongoing conversation about what “inclusion” might look like (sermon audio here).

There were two parts of his sermon that resonate with some themes I have been working out here on the blog over the past several years. The one I want to engage today is this (I discuss the second theme in a later post, here):

Knowing what you believe about something does not tell you what you should do about it–especially with respect to people who do not share your conviction.

I have talked about this before as we have had some discussions about what it means to hold a traditional position in a society that does not identify as Christian.

The imperative to love our neighbor as ourself is a weighty one that demands serious introspection. What civil liberties would we want our religiously motivated neighbor to take away from us to keep us from going about life in the way that they think is pleasing to God?

The answer to that question (i.e. none whatsoever) should guide our own actions as we strive to love neighbor in the public sphere.

Wilson encourages us to ask this question of our life together in the church.

The sermon he preached yesterday threaded together various themes from A Letter to My Congregation. He focused on the imperative of Christian community Paul develops in Romans 14.

What’s happening in Romans 14 is not a call to affirmation. It is a call to acceptance.

There, Paul addresses issues of food consumption and holy days. The conservatives, the ones with the Bible on their sides, avoid meat (probably due to concerns over the meat’s association with sacrifice) and observe holy days. No doubt Sabbath is included here. That is, one of the Ten Commandments.

Wilson’s point, and historically I think he is correct, is that these were not dispensable “ceremonial” issues to the Jewish believers in Rome. These were core issues about fidelity to and worship of the only true God.

The point here is that the issues of dispute were ones over which “the weak” had the better biblical grounds. And yet, Paul calls the parties of the dispute to recognize in one another those who have also been gathered together under Jesus’s lordship.

Wilson did well to underscore that the weak are not being asked to abandon their convictions. And, on the other side, the “strong” who eat everything are not being called on to abandon their freedom.

Paul is presenting them with something else to consider in addition to their respective positions. Beyond, “What do you think, and how do you practice your faith before God?” is the additional question, “What does this mean for people who disagree with you?”

Here, Paul is saying, there is a vocation to express and live into the unity of the family. We don’t treat each other with condescension (ye strong!) or condemnation. We trust that each of us is striving to give faithfully, knowing that we will be answerable to our common Lord.

In Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? I suggested that the one truly new thing that the church has to learn how to deal with is the presence of Jesus-following LGBTQ Christians. Although they have no doubt always existed, it is only in this generation that we are having to confront the reality that God is calling such people into Christ, and they are answering that call and following Christ–as LGBTQ people (sexuality and all).

This is what Wilson is asking us to take seriously: what does it mean to call people sister or brother, to see the Spirit of God at work in them, and then to begin the process of figuring out what this means for the composition of our Christian communities?

Contrary to our gut instinct (on both sides of many debates), scripture does not provide a clear directive that tells us to separate and create a people of purity every time we differ. And when the Spirit of God shows us that God is at work in people, the urge to differentiate ourselves must be contained and quieted.

Holding a certain view does not immediately tell us what we must then do with respect to those who differ from us. That is its own important, subsequent question.

This is the third way that Wilson is drawing us into: not one in which mutual acceptance is a concession to the progressives, but one in which we do no see our differing positions as reasons to impede the goal of God in Christ, to have one people, with one voice, glorifying our God and Father (Rom 15).

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27 thoughts on “Ken Wilson on Christian Community (part 1)

  1. No πoρvεία is good πoρvεία, even in modern California. Μὴ πλαvᾶσθε! [I Cor. 6:9]

  2. As you point out, Paul in 1 Cor 5 is excluding someone who is acting in a certain (different) way while in Rom 14 he is asking both groups to not exclude the other that is acting different from them. How might we know when to APPLY Rom 14 to a situation we find ourselves in today (and teach accepting the differences) and when to APPLY 1 Cor 5 (and teach not accepting the differences)?

    One possible “solution” is to make the 1 Cor 5 application to us as small as possible and Rom 14 as large as possible; the contrast “solution” (of course) is to make the Rom 14 application to us as small as possible and the 1 Cor 5 application as large as possible. By my use of scare quotes, I think both of these paths are flawed and they are both flawed in the same way, by putting the cart before the horse.

    What I think is needed is to figure out how Paul could write both 1 Cor 5 and Rom 14, and from that common vantage point extrapolate how they (both) apply to our new situations. However, I think Rom 14:14 is often translated in a way that can not possibly be correct. The Greek koinos/koinon is often translated in this verse 3 times as unclean when it is better translated as common or profane, in other words, by translating it as unclean it oversimplifies what is going on and makes it impossible to figure out.

  3. Protestant/evangelical Christians are subject to a peculiar malady – “What does the Bible say?”, as if asking that question, and then going after it, will finally resolve the divisive issues. Well, they’re divisive because the anthology we call Scripture is divided itself, offering multiple voices, images, ideas and contrasting ethics. In the end, we’re left with our choice (as God intended, I believe), and that’s what angers and frightens so many evangelical Protestants, who’d rather not make a choice, but have something or someone, tell them what to think, believe and how to act. Ken Wilson is a leader in this matter for evangelicals; he’s pushing the boundary by making choices that have evolved and emerged in his life, through prayer, study and conversation, but choices they are, and he’s claiming responsibility for making them. And this blog is helpful as well. There’s more to our discipleship than simply asking, “What does the Bible say?” … perhaps like Jesus to the disciples who were very good at offering opinions other than their own, we need to be questioned, “But what do you say?” Bonhoeffer is helpful here – there are questions to which there are no clear answers, so we can’t take ourselves off the hook of responsibility, the corollary of our freedom in Christ. The redeeming work of Christ sets us free to make our choices, as best we can; for too many Protestants, they’re stuck at the point of looking for a redemption that eliminates the need to decide. Anyway, keep up the good work of liberating evangelicals from a hopeless corner of “What does the Bible say?” and moving them into a larger and more productive world of redeemed responsibility.

    1. I think male homosexual acts are a cultural boundary marker per Scripture. See Friedman and Dolansky “The Bible Now” and its first chapter on homosexuality.

    2. I think that it is quite difficult to exclude Sabbath keeping from the list of what qualifies as “morality.” It’s tough for us to get our heads around how central this is in the OT scriptural story, the life of post-Biblical Jewish people, and thus the would-be sabbatarians of the NT.

  4. Where Ken fails (and I was his executive pastor for 14 years, so I know what I’m speaking about) is that he is redefining “acceptance” and “tolerance” to mean that Christian pastors must be willing to perform gay weddings in their churches. To refuse to do so would be discriminatory, unloving, and judgmental. Those who do not agree with Ken on this issue cannot serve as pastors in a church he leads.

    1. Hi, Don, I’m trying to keep this from being personal about Ken, so if you don’t mind I’ll shift a bit toward the issue itself.

      It does seem to me that if you are going to have a genuine third way church that it demands a radical openness that is hard to come by. I would that this would mean that people could serve as pastors, elders, deacons representing either view. Some pastors, I would hope, would be with the more traditional side of the argument, some would be with the progressive side, and that way all the people would know that their position is truly viable within the church.

      1. I understand, but nothing I am saying is about Ken’s private affairs. Rather, I am pointing out that in actuality the “third way” approach was nothing like that outlined in his book. 100% of the pastors and board members in Ken’s new “blue ocean” church hold the unorthodox view that same-sex sexual relationships are acceptable to God. None hold the opposing view. Is that a coincidence?

        1. What does that mean for the thesis articulated in the book? That it is nearly impossible to implement? That it’s impossible and one side will always win? That it really would take the miracle of Christ to bring about the unity for which he prayed in John 17?

          1. If it is going to “work” then we’ll all need to be completely up front about what the implications are and what it will look like. For example, everyone would need to accept that you may have pastors who are non-celibate LGBT at the same time you have pastors who teach that sex outside a man-woman marriage is sin. The problem is, I don’t think anyone believes that will really work. So those who are arguing for this sort of approach know that in reality the leadership is going to need to be of one mind on this issue. It’s precicely why this didn’t work at the Ann Arbor Vineyard and why it’s not even being attempted at Ken’s Blue Ocean church.

            1. I can’t be so cynical. At least not yet.

              I can’t imagine that it would be more difficult to have diversity of views on sexuality then it would be to have diversity of views on food. The latter is much more communal, and requires a lot more willingness on the part of everyone to care for the other in day today activity.

              1. I am not at all opposed to a diversity of views. But this a not like other issues. Sexual preference is now equated with identity. So it would be like having a pastor who taught that races shouldn’t intermarry on the same staff with another pastor who is married to someone of another race. That would never fly, and I’m afraid this won’t either.

                  1. No, but the entire thrust of Romans concerns the breakdown of Jewish/Gentile barriers in Christ. The parallel to gay/straight is only there if you believe that sexual behavior is an identity like Jew/Gentile that is removed in Christ. Paul, and Scriptural witness, is pretty clear that sexual morality and immorality (porneia) are still very much applicable.

                    1. In your previous comment you had said that sexuality was “equated with identity,” which is what makes togetherness impossible. That’s exactly the point with Jew/Gentile–and why it seems impossible, and perhaps why the church came to be largely the included rather than those asked to include the other.

                      Sexual morality is important. I think that’s part of the trick: figuring out how to keep affirming this when one group of people does not agree that a particular action qualifies.

                      And with that, we’re back to the beginning of our circle, with trying to get our heads around the centrality of the Sabbath, and how that might be an important point of commonality because of its moral weight, or not…

                    2. Notice that female homosexual acts are not proscribed explicitly in the OT, only male homosexual acts. And it is a part of the Jewish identity markers, so even it does not apply to gentiles. One can figure this out because abomination is used to describe both eating unclean animals and male homosexual acts but it is not explicitly declared that both are an abomination to God like other things, which means in both cases these acts can be interpreted as an abomination to Israel/Jews.

                    3. Donald Johnson, the 1st century Jewish concept of sexual immorality (Gk. porneia) included homosexual acts. When the New Testament speaks about “porneia” (Matt 5:32; 15:19; 19:9; Mark 7:21; John 8:41) it is not referring simply to *certain* acts of porneia, it is referring to it in its entirety.

                      Clearly there are many aspects of Jewish law and identity that clearly distinguished Israel from its neighbors, yet were also *moral* law that carry over into the present, agreed? The prohibition against men having sex with men in Leviticus 18:22 occurs in the midst of other sexual prohibitions that I’m sure you agree are still in effect. The prohibition against incest, the prohibition against adultery, the prohibition against child sacrifice, the prohibition against bestiality.

                      Is your argument that these are all merely cultural boundary markers that are no longer applicable, or only the prohibition against homosexual acts?

                    4. The porneia refs in Matt 5, 19 and John 8 are in the immediate context of Jewish marriage. Matt 15 and Mark 7 are in the Jewish context. So in all of these cases I see porneia including no male homosexual acts for Jews. However, when porneia refers to gentiles, it does not carry over the Jewish prohibition on male homosexual acts for the same reason that the Jewish prohibition on eating unclean animals does not carry over to gentiles. But the prohibitions on child sacrifice, incest, bestiality, and adultery still hold. So I do not see a slippery slope.

  5. Dr. Kirk, I am not certain that Paul is referring to Sabbath-keeping in Romans 14. “Sabbath” is not mentioned, and the special days referenced could simply be feast days.

    1. The parallel passages in Galatians and Colossians seem clear to me. They each talk about observing days and each talks about days, months, and more seasonal observances. That seems to be a clear pattern from the weekly Sabbath to annual festivals with monthly things in between.

  6. Is it relevant to note that Sabbath-keeping was really not feasible for most people and particularly wholly-owned slaves outside Judaea? And as for circumcision, THAT excluded the female of the species, which I have come to see as a factor on Paul’s polemic in Galatians. It was obviously wrong to instruct people to do, or abstain from, what was not practicable for them. As I write at one point in my Holy Homosex? book:

    In the I Cor. 6 passage we find a significant term at the head of the list, one of several which recur at I Tim. 1:9-10. The πoρv- group of cognates is very interesting. In extra-biblical Greek πoρvεία has a limited semantic range, but in biblical Greek this is greatly extended, for reasons connected with the need in many idolatry-adultery contexts for two terms for unchastity in the Septuagint version. Professor Sir Kenneth Dover is wrong to reproach Paul with using it for all behaviour of which he disapproved, but right in his instinct that in the Greek Bible much more is wrapped up in it than the people and activities of the world’s oldest profession. It comes to mean all irregular genital contact except adultery and in some contexts seems to be a portmanteau for adultery too. Mt. 5, 15 and 19 are cases in point: unchastity is very serious sin which defiles us inwardly, and is grounds for divorce. It is thus not tenable that the Gospel record shows Jesus making no reference to homosexual acts. πόρvoι may be masculine for common gender. This would make “sexually immoral persons” the right rendering. However, given that Paul is dealing with people’s areas of freedom, the feminine cases may be intentionally excluded. Most female prostitutes of any kind would have been the victims of the activities of ἀvδραπoδισταί, “slavers”, who figure at I Tim. 1:10, and these could not have repented of the life women were commonly sold into. Males, even as chattels, were much freer. Plus ça change … I am therefore strongly inclined to start off my translation of this catalogue “No men who are unchaste …”. The Greek covers practitioners of incest and child-molestation as well as those who use female prostitutes.

    Paul never censures the female prostitute at any point!

    As for Bible-thumping and text-slinging, I do believe with all my soul that churches have erred in the matter of homosex by not starting with the fact that it is biologically bizarre, treating the biblical witness (which is actually united) as corroborative of what is clear to all with eyes in their heads and brains between their ears. We have no monopoly on ethical theory. The power and motivation to obey it is another matter.

  7. Donald, I’m sorry, but that is an untenable position. The larger Holiness Code context of the relevant prohibitions shows that we are dealing with a whole catalogue of kinds of behaviour which have been universally execrated, in or out of cultic contexts. Whatever may have been tolerated in the Upper Crust in, say, C5 BCE Athens, or Imperial Rome, these were never generally approved as civilised behaviour. If there were any sign of their being approved in the Jewish ethical scheme, biblical ethics would fall below the best secular standards. They include bestiality, child sacrifice, incest and adultery. These are all evil customs in any culture, not merely in the context of a fertility-cult; to them the text applies the strongly condemnatory תועבה or “disgusting thing”, as highly offensive to God. It is difficult to label all תועבות as arbitrary or having no permanent connection with human good. Moreover there is every sign that the Torah as a whole was taken seriously even under the New Covenant. There is actually no future in any interpretation of C1 Jewish conviction on the Torah which does not recognise that ALL of it was regarded as binding on both Jew and Gentile. It took the mighty act of God in bestowing the Holy Spirit on Gentiles to force re-examination of this position.

    I know of no reputable scholar who claims seriously that homosex was somehow an exception or especially privileged in Judaism. That applies to the female variety as well: in fact if you look carefully at the original and the tendentious Old Greek of Ez. 16: 28, as I first noticed in the late 1960s, that too was associated with Sodom as an extreme form of unchastity (the verb is a Septuagintal coinage made to reproduce the Hebrew ‘ intensive’ form). The translation was made sometime between 150 and 50 BCE. We do see that some in C1 Judaism made an exception of the male interest in ‘new wives for old’, and that this loophole had to be closed by Jesus, who at the same time evened up the gross inequality in the access to divorce. No utterly closed sex-ethical questions were voluntarily reopened by Paul. Pastoral necessity forced their discussion on the Church-Gentile frontier.

    Abstention from mild forms of πορνεία, probably transgressions of stricter Jewish conceptions of prohibited degrees, was at issue at the Council of Jerusalem. Dr. Gagnon has picked up the Acts 15 πορνεία argument from me in my earliest published edition of my paper ‘Biblical Texts Relevant to Homosexual Orientation and Practice: Notes on Philology and Interpretation’. In 1997 I was still interpreting the point at issue too broadly, as ALL πορνεία rather than fringe-πορνεία. I have seen now that it cannot have been core-πορνεία (which included bestiality, incest and homosex) that was in question, because no Gentile convert would have been left in any doubt after conversion about the wrongness of that. A fortiori the onus of proof is entirely and absolutely upon those who would make an exception of homosex. It is significant that when they condemn homosex specifically, the Fathers simply quote the Leviticus texts.

  8. Jesus and Paul corrected many misinterpretations of Torah as recorded in the NT. Matt 19 shows Jesus correcting seven of them made by Pharisees, for example, but if you do not know what they taught, it is easy to miss the corrections, let alone understanding the question that starts the whole discussion.

    Just as food in the NT is one of those words that mean different things to a Jew and a gentile, so I claim porneia is similar. To a Jew, according to Scripture, food is what we could call kosher food; to a gentile eating without needing to follow the clean and unclean animal distinctions, there are more things available to eat. Similarly, to a Jew, porneia according to Scripture includes prohibition of male homosexual acts, but to a gentile, such is not the case. In both cases they are called “abomination” but this is a word that has a group culture meaning and is not general unless the thing is stated to be an “abomination to the LORD”. For example, the way Jacob’s clan ate food was an “abomination” to the Egyptians, but this is far from saying it is generally an abomination. Just because pork and shellfish are an abomination to Jews does not mean they are an abomination to me, a gentile. In other words, exactly because of the use of the word “abomination” without reference to God, either unclean food and male homosexual acts are both prohibited or neither are prohibited, depending on the group one belongs to.

  9. Again I’m sorry, Ken, but your view is without authority anywhere in Jewish tradition. Abstention from male (or female) same-sex physical relations, with incest and adultery, is one of the seven ‘Noachic’ laws. Cf. the view of Philo Judaeus in well-known passages in his De Spec. Leg., a treatise on the Ten Commandments: he regards the whole lot as of universally binding force. It counts as a part of that universally-agreed ethics against the background of which the Gospel was preached. As Paul in effect says at the start of Romans, though the Jew might be outwardly more moral, “Everybody knows, but nobody does.” Hence as the Christian mission proceeded, situations arose in predominantly Gentile settings in which such prohibitions had to be emphasised. The Council of Jerusalem upheld the ban on even fringe-πορνεία together with what was thought of as the most central non-kosher types of food; and these relatively minor restrictions were imposed on Gentile converts as minimal requirements in order to ensure that there was one Church, not two. The Jewish contingent conceded much, but not these relatively minor points.There was no argument whatever about homosex, any more than about murder.
    We really do need to avoid special pleading for any vice which we as moderns practise or think of practising. The whole biblical picture can be summed up as follows: Homosex keeps company with child sacrifice, bestiality, incest, adultery, murder (Leviticus); (as an aspect of sexual immorality in general) with wicked schemes, murder, adultery, theft, false testimony and defamation (Mt. 15); with every kind of vice, violence and wickedness in Rom. 2; with general unchastity, idolatry, adultery, theft, ruthless acquisitiveness, intoxication, defamation, and swindling (I Cor. 6); with parricide, matricide, murder, adultery, slaving, fraud and perjury (I Tim. 1); and by implication with all the other ‘works of the flesh’ in Gal. 5. Jewish thinking from Philo on has condemned it as a form of idolatrous hedonism, i.e. in practice part of the worship of Aphrodite.

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