Book Review: A Letter to My Congregation

Whilst this review exists in its three parts, as well as a ‘first thoughts’ post, I thought it might be useful to (and having recieved a few requests for the whole thing!) combine them, and so this very lengthy post is the result.

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– First Thoughts –

Regular readers will know that I am interested in, among other things, sex, gender and the relationships of those to Christian theology. This all comes out of my main interest, which dominates my ‘academic’ work, in the Image of God, the Imago Dei. I’m also a convinced Charismatic, and have been trying to articulate elements of that in my thinking through of some of the less normative aspects, in my sporadic series of posts pursuing ‘Charismatic Clarity’. My Charismatic convictions have landed me in the Vineyard Movement, a family of Churches across several countries and continents. Intellectually, I found Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson’s little book ‘Empowered Evangelicals’ to be incredibly helpful for crystalizing the journey God was taking me on.

The second of those, Ken, has continued to be a helpful author. I’ve found his ‘Mystically Wired’, a book on prayer, to be very formative in my understanding of some of the mechanics of prayer, and his ‘Jesus Brand Spirituality’ has been really helpful too. So I was very excited when I saw that he was to be presenting on the topic of LGBT folk and the Church at SVS in 2013. That paper, which I devoured beforehand and am constantly tweaking my own response to, eventually morphed into Ken’s latest book, which I’ve read on Kindle, ‘A Letter to my Congregation: An evangelical pastor’s path to embracing people who are gay, lesbian and transgender into the company of Jesus’. I felt some real sadness, as well as frustration, as I read through Ken’s latest book for the first time. And the second time. And when I went over various bits.

Before we get into the review proper, I want to make a few observations. Firstly, I want to challenge Ken’s project at a fundamental level, then ask about what I saw as a risky idea, and finally make some observations about the brevity and comprehensiveness (is that even a word?) of ‘ALTMC’.

1) A Faulty Starting Point

Firstly, the faulty starting point that is actually part of the title. Ken buys into the story our culture tells us in the subtitle (my emphasis is added):

‘people who are gay, lesbian and transgender’

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 (more on which in my review) are not embracing people into the company of Jesus. I don’t think thats 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.

2) A Dangerous Idea

The thing that I have appreciated about all of Ken’s books, and my other engagements with his content, is his pastoral heart and willingness to think deeply, carefully and scripturally about things. With this in mind, I found his definition of a pastor quite interesting:

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 that theology is not simply an academic discipline. It’s something all God seekers do

(Loc. 293 in Kindle edition)

So why do I think this is so dangerous, and its expansion confirms my thinking? Well, firstly, because there is a great deal to affirm here:

i – Pastoring is something other than normal jobs

ii – Pastors are members of a body with a history

iii – Wise pastors do have a deep and careful toolbox

iv – everyone is a theologian

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. 

I am not for a minute claiming to have this topic sorted, or to have the perfect vision for scholarly pastoring or pastoral scholarship, but I was slightly alarmed at the implications of what Ken seemed to be saying here.

3) Surprising Brevity

Finally, and fittingly briefly, I want to dwell just a little on the sources, texts and so on that Ken interacts with. I will leave specifics to another time, but I did feel that there were two issues with the usage of other sources (than his own original, carefully written prose). I was surprised with the way that some material was used – notably Richard Hays excellent ‘The Moral Vision of the New Testament’. I was also surprised to see some notable omissions from the bibliography (even as Ken’s research offered a helpful counterfoil to my own growing bibliography). Notably, there was no mention of Jenell Williams Paris’ ‘The End of Sexual Identity’, Champagne Rosaria Butterfield’s ‘The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert’, Stanley Grenz’s ‘Welcoming but not Affirming: Evangelical Attitudes to Homosexuality’ or Thomas Schmidt’s superb ‘Straight and Narrow: Clarity and Compassion in the Homosexuality Debate’, all of which I think are incredibly helpful.

As alluded to throughout, I have been working on compiling (And reading!) a bibliography on sex and gender, as a subset of my interest in what it means to be made in the Image of God. Whilst I cannot claim to have read everything on there, I am attempting to, and I reproduce it for interest and comment below.

Summary of my first thoughts

I hope that I have not been to harsh, but also not lacking in firmness, in this brief set of first thoughts. This book represents a fascinating development on debates within evangelicalism, and is perhaps notable for its attempt to walk a difficult path. Ultimately, though, I remain unconvinced, and I will unpack that more in my forthcoming review.

– Part 1: Ken’s Story, Practice, and Introductions –

This is the first part, and in it I will look at the first part of the book, thinking through Ken’s story and his practice. In the second part of this review I intend to be engaging with his important 3rd chapter, ‘A Closer look at the Prohibitive Texts’. In the third and presumably final part of my review, I will engage at more length with his claim that he is proposing a ‘Third Way’, and offer my overall conclusions on this book, as I would in a regular book review. I am reviewing this book in detail partly because of the respect I have for Ken, and the influence he has had on me (through ‘Empowered Evangelicals’ in particular and also ‘Mystically Wired’ and ‘Jesus Brand Spirituality’, as well as his posture regarding science and faith, etc), and the fact this book is making waves in the Vineyard tribe of which I am a part. As my friend Luke has outlined in part one and part two of his (much more detailed) review, there are some serious flaws with this book, which contribute to making it something that just isn’t a third way, perpetuates some pre-existing flaws in literature on this subject, and fails to really engage with reality in the way I believe Jesus would have us so do. I do not pretend for a moment to have a solution, but I believe this book is not it.

Firstly, then, Ken’s story and the path he has taken. I am grateful throughout this book for Ken’s generous heart, honesty, and reflection on personal experience. In my own journey, though, short and strange though it has been, I have learnt that I cannot absolutize my experience. There is a radical difference between the pastoral realities of one community and the pastoral teaching of a movement, or an entire church. And it is with this in mind that Ken’s observation that;

this is the hottest hot button of our time in society and in many churches. The fact that this is so, is a work of the devil, the Evil One, Old Scratch, the hater of God and by association, humanity

[Kindle loc. 199]

I completely agree.

Because human beings – all of us – are associated with God by virtue of being made in his image, part of which is our sexuality and sexual difference. The right argument is made – that how we do this is as important as where we end up. And my concern, shared by many orthodox Christians seeking to combine right belief with right practice, is that Ken’s proposal ultimately cedes the territory the Devil is trying to occupy. Consider, for a moment, that the ‘traditional’ position is right, and is often practiced very wrong (I blogged about the stupidity of so-called ‘ex-gay’ ministries a while ago). Surely it would make sense to hold on to the core, the truth, and work out the praxis, in love?

As I noted in my opening comments, I take issue with the way that Ken sets up the debate. By slapping a new ‘ontological’ reality on the cover page (people who ‘are’ x), the debate is framed. And this is also the case in a key part of his first chapter, ‘Time to Move Beyond a Well-Worn Binary?’. In one sense, absolutely! Binary thinking is a nonsense, as Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim point out so well in their superb ‘Both-And’, especially when the binaries are controlled. Ken identifies the binaries as ‘”open and affirming” and “love the sinner, hate the sin”‘[Kindle loc. 262]. Without wanting to dwell on it, the former is never universally applied (I know of no churches where murderers are affirmed in their murdering, or fraudulent bankers in their fraudster-ing, for example) and the latter is actually a misquotation of Augustine popularised by Gandhi (see Catholic Answers, Andrew Marin). Even conservative denominations such as the Assemblies of God, in a position paper back in 2001, state things like this:

Aware of the claims of God on every aspect of our lives, we must emphasize that we are called to holiness. To unbelievers we must reach out with compassion and humility. We must hold no

malice toward, or fear of, homosexuals—such attitudes are not of Christ. At the same time we must not

condone sexual behavior God has defined as sinful.

The binary is false, because the reality is different.

Living in an either/or world, the Church is called to a harder, longer, deeper and truer way, pointing to the Christ who is our centre, and the Holy Spirit who transforms us, as all of us who follow Jesus are changed in order to realise our adoption by the Father.

The call to live well and love well, even whilst holding a strong biblical theology of sin, is not impossible. The pastoral difficulties of that tension, however, are huge. It is why I would seriously recommend the UK Evangelical Alliance’s ‘Biblical and pastoral responses to homosexuality’, edited by Don Horrocks and Andrew Goddard, which takes the ‘traditional’ view, is full of stories and suggestions about working through the messier tension. And it is this way, the gospel way, which is missional (Ken, like others, falsely suggests that this is the issue that stops young people coming to churches. I’m young. So are hundreds at the Vineyard I attended whilst I wrote this review, a big church. This simply isn’t true – people react to a lack of grace, and a lack of truth, not a conflation of the two), controversial (it simply isn’t easy, and is messy, and can’t be fixed by my blogs, Ken’s books, or even a scholarly conference, but instead a move of the Spirit and a double repentance).

Briefly, a few observations on Ken’s comparison of the ‘issue’ of remarriage and divorce, and this ‘issue’ of homosexuality. I am lucky to be a product of an un-broken (in that sense!) home, though many of my friends have stories about divorce and remarriage. It is a hugely complex issue about which churches disagree. But I would make one brief comment on the biblical texts, Jesus in Matthew 19 says “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery “. Without starting a textual discussion, there is a radical difference here. Jesus permits an exception. We have no biblical record of an exception for homosexual activity, or, as Luke Timothy Johnson (‘liberal’ on this issue, but startlingly honest) says in an article, “we know what the text says…. we do, in fact, reject clearly the straightforward commands of Scripture” (please read the article to get a sense of context). Comparing the two is a dangerous attempt at rhetorical and emotional blackmail, in my opinion. I have spoken to divorced and remarried people who feel strongly that these are different issues. They are, because of the core of the relationships that I have written about previously. Grace is there for everyone – including the ‘homosexual’ and the ‘divorced and remarried’. These are not categories of people, and we should not buy into the narrative that Ken creates. The Gospel way calls for nuance and a stripping away of false identity markers (of a myriad of kinds) as the King draws us into his kingdom.

So, for the moment, I pause my review. I want to affirm with Ken, and the quoted/linked Assemblies of God position paper, that holding malice, fear and so on towards any kind of people are activities not worthy of the cause of Christ. Pastorally, there is perhaps a reflection here of my recent SVS paper where I reflected on Paul’s words in Galatians 6:17 ‘Do not cause me any trouble…’. But saying this must go hand in hand with a complicated call to both grace and truth. To echo the nature of true inclusion, the kind that transforms us all with the fiery love of the Holy Spirit. I would value comments, suggestions and engagement, and will post the rest of my review in the coming weeks. I don’t want to obsess over this issue, even as I want to engage firmly and fairly and properly.

– Part 2: Engaging the Biblical Arguments –

This part of my review represents my attempt continue thinking through this book, and engaging with his important 3rd chapter, ‘A Closer look at the Prohibitive Texts’. It is worth saying at this point that in my initial thinking through of this section of the review, I was going to be reasonably lenient on this section, given that it is an area we disagree about, but noting what I’ve said in my first thoughts about the ‘pastor/scholar’ divide, the Imago Dei, and so on. Since then, however, Ken has ‘gone live’ in a number of interviews and articles, with one article describing Ken as a ‘scholar’ who has gone on a ‘spiritual and academic journey’. It is also worth noting that this book started life (and remained broadly the same, maybe someone should do a text-critical analysis!) as a paper for the academic Society of Vineyard Scholars. So, it would seem, it would be reasonable to engage this on at least an academically-aware level.

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 oder 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 the Evangelical Alliance’s book, The Living Out Team, Sam Allberry’s book, 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.

Before I finish this review, I would like to make some observations about some missing resources/texts that Ken has not engaged with, based on reading the book and reading his bibliography. As ever, I offer my own expanding and open bibliography on sex and gender as a place to leave comments, hoping that it is a good resource for those wishing to think this through deeply. For me, some major omissions are in the Old Testament area. There is no consideration of sexual difference, as we might note in Barth, Middleton, and so on. There is also no engagement at all with Robert Davison’s superb ‘The Flame of Yahweh’, for example. In other areas, I would have liked some engagement with C. S. Lewis directly, with Oliver O’Donovan, with Michael Foucault, and the aforementioned pastoral resources. There are, it seems to me, a concerning number of omissions in Ken’s bibliography. Whilst it is by no means comprehensive, I’d encourage you to consider my own bibliography, which I have been gathering and working through for nearly two years, as a side project. It isn’t exhaustive, but I haven’t released my book yet, so there’s still time to add to it. Please do leave a comment!

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.

– Part 3: Is Ken offering a ‘Third Way?’ –

This final review-section comes in the context of some reasonably historical shifts in the Vineyard on this issue, as detailed in the appendixes (in order to not detract or distract from reviewing the content of the book).

This third and final part looks more broadly at the second half of the book, and specifically at Ken’s claim to offer a ‘third way’. In doing so, I  consider what Ken might actually be doing here, whilst continuing to critique the various sections and arguments of his book. I write this, soberingly, after having finally met Ken in person at the Society of Vineyard Scholars Conference 2014 (you need to read my review of his ‘Mystically Wired’ and [with Rich Nathan] his ‘Empowered Evangelicals’ to now how much of a celebrity moment that was for me. Ken’s writing attracted me to the Vineyard and embedded me in it). All this said, on with the review.

At the outset of chapter 4 of ‘A Letter to My Congregation’, Ken writes the following;

I’m now ready to sketch out the makings of a third way, a new approach to inclusion. It’s a way to fully include people who are gay, lesbian and transgender in the life of the church, while recognizing that the church has not yet resolved the question of the morality of gay relationships. Instead of forcing a resolution on that question, it calls for regarding it as a “disputable matter” – something we can agree to disagree on. It doesn’t require the members of the church community to affirm gay relationships. It asserts the gospel truth that our common life in Jesus doesn’t depend on granting each other moral approval

[ALTMC, Kindle loc. 1329]

As ever, with interjections from his own story and observations about wider narratives, Ken winsomely puts forward his position. But the thrust of this chapter is contained here. I wish it were as simple as he puts it. After all, who (who loves Jesus, and desires people to meet him) wants to exclude anyone? Who doesn’t want to ground our common life in Jesus? All this said, I don’t think Ken is successful in navigating a third way. Firstly, it isn’t one. What Ken is proposing is simply not a third way. He’s begun by saying that the question of the morality of gay relationships isn’t settled – that simply isn’t true, historically. The Church has traditionally been clear on this – that is why it is called the traditional position. To treat this, then, as a disputable matter, is to ignore the flow of the book of Romans (see Don Bromley [who used to be on Ken’s pastoral staff] on Romans 14 here). By going ahead and blessing gender-neutral (for want of a better term) unions, and refusing to name certain things as sin, Ken is not proposing a third way between ‘welcoming but not affirming’ and ‘welcoming and affirming’, but instead imposing an affirming theology that recognises that others differ, but refuses to take those differences seriously. For all the humility and tentative-ness (not a word, but I’ve been using it a lot recently), this is not a third way that can be sustainable in the long term.

Part-way through chapter 4, Ken shifts gear, titling a section ‘Let’s Apply the Bible’s Ultimate Ethic: The Rule of Love’, with the implication that he and his position on this issue are in line with love, and the rest of us (bluntly) are not. I love Ken’s admonition to evangelicalism to return to a love-based and love-motivated theology/praxis/ecclesiology/discourse – but I’m bemused by his application here. This is another reason why I was delighted to present on ‘The Guiding Trajectory of Love’ at a conference titled ‘Re-imagining Human’. In the previous parts of my review of ALTMC – and in reviews by my friends Luke and Don – we’ve seen that Ken hasn’t engaged well with the biblical text, that the bible is clear on this issue. It is therefore disingenuous – not to mention pastorally suspect – to argue that we can agree to disagree on this. If we trust the Bible, and if we more importantly trust the one the Bible points to, we have to be very wary of this so-called ‘Third-way’, one that attempts to move beyond Scripture and Jesus and pit the Spirit against these in such a way as to cause disunity and strife.

Disunity and strife, though, are far from the readers mind as they approach chapter 5, ‘The Gospel Way’. Ken is a wonderful writer – setting it up so that it is hard to disagree with him. Yet it is here that I really struggled. At the outset of this chapter – arguing that his ‘Third Way’ is what Jesus and the Gospel demands – Ken writes ‘Applying the teaching of Romans 14-15 requires a deep understanding of the gospel‘[ALTMC, Kindle loc. 1784]. I love this kind of language – but I’m wary of the implication. Is Ken saying that those who don’t agree with his ‘third way’ have not deeply understood the Gospel? What about those who cannot understand – as I commented in my related critique of the inadequate theological anthropology of Matthew Vines, this is a case of hypercognivity, assuming that it is we and our brains that make us human and save us – do they get swept aside or does God still have plans for them? Ken writes [ALTMC, Kindle loc. 1811] “With Paul, we recognise that human beings, made in God’s image, must strive toward integrity and unity“, a phrase which resonate with my interest in the Imago Dei, even as it swept aside the complexities of it – sexual difference, brokenness, and the nature of Christ. The Gospel, I believe, is in part the story of Christ (who is the perfect image of the invisible God) transforming us as individuals into the parts of the body that God longs for us to be. The Gospel doesn’t leave us where we are – whatever our brokenness is – but demands and empowers change. I don’t think – and I’ve been re-reading and thinking through ALTMC for months now – that this proposed ‘third way’ can be called a Gospel Way.

At the heart of Gospel is, in part, a story of marriage – which I’ve mentioned before in line with Tim Keller. So it is fitting that Ken starts his 6th chapter ‘Yes, But Is a BIG Change’, with a discussion of what marriage means. Ken raises a strong challenge, “We can’t apply a strict “biblical marriage” rule to gay people and not apply it to those who are divorced and remarried” [ALTMC, Kindle loc. 2164]. This is an important question. But it is also one that diverts attention from what Ken is actually saying – divorce and remarriage is a different issue, focused on a different relationship. I’m looking forward to finally reviewing “Divorce and Remarriage in Today’s Church: 3 Views” soon – because this is an important question. However, such a question does in part ignore the fundamental core of what the ‘biblical’ understanding of marriage is, clouding the issue rather than providing a useful conversation partner. I am personally leaning towards a harder interpretation of the divorce passages – that Jesus granting an exception serves to underline God’s positive passion for marriage, rather than creating a loophole. I want to respond to Ken’s challenge with a firm ‘yes’ of holiness, challenging divorce culture and our broken sexual institutions with the light of the Gospel, even whilst being careful in application and loving in tone. Ken’s discussion of celibacy and singleness is one I have engaged with before, and also one that the guys over at ‘Living Out’ have a range of articles on, and my friends at ‘Spiritual Friendship’ are thinking about deeply.

The opening words of Ken’s final chapter in ALTMC – ‘I Am Willing’ are powerful, and, in the light of the various critiques, sobering. He writes ‘The fact that I invested a lot of prayer in this discernment process by no means guarantees the validity of its conclusions” [ALTMC, Kindle loc. 2634]. This struck me deeply – partly because I’ve valued Ken’s writing on prayer and partly because (As you can read generally here and also specifically in previous parts of my review) I disagree firmly with his conclusions in this book. I loved his mention of Jason Clark’s paper at SVS 2013 (on materialism, a bigger issue than sexuality) as being more important – and it is hard that this is the issue that is dividing us. I love Ken’s humility in this final chapter. I love – and long to be like – the Ken who says he is willing to be wrong, and to be wrong again. My prayer is that we will both get this right: for the glory of God and the flourishing of his people. I honestly don’t think ALTMC does this – and that it doesn’t make a strong case for its argument (hidden behind this demonstrably disingenuous language of a ‘third way’) for a radical revision of the church’s teaching on sexual practice and ethics.

So here we are. I hope I have communicated, here and throughout, something of the weight I felt as I wrote these reviews. I’ve honestly never had such a radical disagreement – at so many levels – with something written by an author I’ve loved and learned from over several years. I’ve wrestled with Ken’s story and practice (in terms of what he wrote about that) in ALTMC here, and I’ve also engaged firmly with his treatment of the biblical texts in my second review. This all flows from my first thoughts, which represented deeper general criticisms. I don’t want to repeat that in my conclusion here. I want to firmly underline that I do not think Ken is providing us with a third way. I think he is, unfortunately, being disingenuous about some important stuff, and also warping the wider debate with a call for a ‘third way’ in this book, and his far more affirming articles and interviews (linked in previous reviews). Whilst I think ALTMC is a powerful and readable book, I do not think it is ultimately helpful or ‘true’, and cannot recommend it. It joins the high stack of books seeking to do the same thing that can’t be done, all echoing the false idea that sexuality is fundamental to our humanity. I welcome your comments, and also encourage you to read the two appendices below. Thank you for reading- and if you’ve stayed the course through all of the parts, an especial thanks and congratulations.

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Thus ends the review, in all its lengthy entirety. Coming in at over 6,500 words, if you’ve read to the bottom of this post, congratulations.

For now, a few pieces of further reading from my own writing, that may be helpful:

Bibliography: Sex and Gender (with some linked Book Reviews)

At the time of writing this review, Vineyard USA had not published their new position paper on ‘Pastoring LGBT Persons‘. Whilst this is just a paper, and is partly a response to Ken’s book (As well as that of Peter Fitch, whose similar book I will review here too), the VUSA Position Paper (henceforth PP) is a powerful response to the affirming trajectories of Fitch and Wilson. The VUSA PP is also a firm response to Ken’s various Huffington Post, Detroit Free Press [linked pieces demonstrate that Ken is pushing an ‘affirming’ rather than ‘third way’ agenda, in my mind’] and other articles/interviews. I will blog about the PP separately.

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