A Third Way is Possible – Interview with Ken Wilson
Tim: Ken, I read your book A Letter to My Congregation and appreciated so much the combination of the pastoral heart and the biblical scholarship and the carefully thought through theology. And you’ve also lived out this stuff in the context of the local congregation, so I’m eager to hear from you. Maybe we should start by you just saying a little bit about your journey with this topic of LGBT inclusion.
Ken: Yeah, it was a long, slow fizz, rethink. It began when I started meeting more people who had family members who were gay and out. The first gay people that I encountered in a pastoral context were conflicted about their sexuality. They were relating to their being gay as like an addiction or a compulsive disorder. That’s how they were presenting to me and I just took my cues from that and from the traditional, trusted authorities around me.
I didn’t see much of what one would call progress or healing or whatever, although some people had a little bit of that story, but it didn’t last for a long time. So when we brought the church back to Ann Arbor, it was maybe 2000, 2001 and more and more gay people were starting to be out. More people in the congregation were in active relationship with gay family and friends, and so that’s what really got me rethinking.
As I read Romans 1 for example, the language of Romans 1, the tone of Romans 1, it just absolutely did not fit the people I was coming to know. And as a pastor the tone of the text—it has to fit. And so intuitively, early on, I was like, “I think we’ve probably gotten this wrong.” And, but I didn’t know how, or I didn’t have the confidence to go up against 2000 years of orthodoxy. So it was a slow process.
If you’re in the evangelical orbit at all, you know that if you cross the line in this issue, you lose your credentials, lose your standing, you’re putting your church at risk. So there’s a lot of disincentive for people in the evangelical orbit, even with strong intuitions, otherwise, to rethink the issue. So I understand that, from personal experience, it took me a long time, took me way too long.
Looking back, I’m like, how could I have missed it?
Tim: But it’s 2000 years of history so it is understandable. And you’ve come to a place where you’ve said the traditional stance is the historic Christian stance, and we ought to allow for that, but we also ought to allow for an affirming stance. So, you and others were calling that the Third Way. Can you say a little bit more about that?
Ken: Well, I wouldn’t exactly characterize it in that way, because Third Way is fully inclusive on the issue of LGBT, and that move of full inclusion is rooted in Romans 14 where Paul is dealing with two highly contentious moral questions. They’re probably first order moral issues—is eating meat, sacrifice to idols, participation in idolatry? Or is dismissing the Sabbath commands of the Bible and not taking a seven-day Sabbath disobedience to God? These are first order moral concerns in their time. And Paul is saying, when we’re dealing with an issue like this, we cannot exclude over it.The unity of the spirit is not contingent on our moral approval of each other. Click To Tweet
The unity of the spirit is not contingent on our moral approval of each other. That’s why I prefer not to use the term “affirming” because I think the term “affirming” has the baggage of moral approval. “I affirm you,” means—especially in a Christian context—we can be in unity because I extend my moral approval to you. I think that’s a mistake. Our unity in the Spirit is not contingent on giving each other moral approval. We have the approval of Jesus Christ who earned it by His own being in nature, and morality. We come under His wing, and so we’re not in the business of giving each other moral approval.
But [the Third Way] is a fully inclusive approach so, I think Paul in Romans 14 is really in the position of saying, if you eat meat sacrificed to the idols, or if you’re a Gentile that doesn’t observe the Sabbath day, we will not discriminate against you. You can be a full member of the body of Christ. You could be a leader in this church. There would have been people on the other side that would have been shocked and scandalized by that just like people are shocked and scandalized by gay pastors and doing gay weddings and whatnot.
Practically speaking, in terms of the atmosphere of a local church that’s implementing the Third Way fully, I think it’s equivalent to open and affirming in the sense that LGBT people are full members with no discrimination and no restrictions. So a traditionalist in that setting is absolutely free to be part of the Church and to maintain your convictions. In Romans 14 Paul encourages people to respect each other’s convictions and not to dispute over the matters, meaning not trying to change everyone’s mind, especially as the price for admission and for full fellowship in the community.
But today’s traditionalists are conservative on this issue and are used to having all the power and the privilege. The conservative in the Third Way church has to give up that privilege and has to give up that power to make the ground rules for who can be part and who’s not. And many, many traditionalists are not able to give up that privilege and won’t go along with the Third Way approach. But some do, and it’s beautiful thing when it happens.Today’s traditionalists are . . . used to having all the power and the privilege. Click To Tweet
Tim: That’s interesting that you put it that way. It seems like you’re calling people to kind of a Christ-like submission or humility. I’m curious about that. It seems like it would be very difficult to hang on to conservative Christians in that context. How do you help people have a vision for staying in the difficulty and tension of a context like that if they are traditionalist?
Ken: As a pastor, it’s not my goal to keep conservatives. The part of “evangelical” that I like is the part that wants to make the Gospel accessible to the outsider. And so it’s not like I have a goal to keep conservative Christians happy and part of the Church. I think what Third Way is demanding of conservatives is a radical discipleship of Jesus, and in fact, few will follow that way.
It’s been my experience, that people from conservative backgrounds really have to get it. They have to buy into Romans 14. They have to let go of their privilege in order to follow this path. And some can do it and some can’t. But that’s true of many things in Christianity. How many conservative Christians are obeying the Gospel commands of radical discipleship, and materialism, and greed, and other areas of life? So the fact that it’s not easy for people to do, doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do.
I think a lot depends on what your fundamental posture is. What does it mean to preach the Gospel? Who are you preaching the Gospel to? Who do you want the Gospel to resonate with? Are you trying to collect a group of people who are already in the evangelical orbit, and make them happy and give them the best possible church experience they could have compared to all the other options they have? Or are you fishing in the blue ocean and out there where the fish are?Are you fishing in the blue ocean and out there where the fish are? Click To Tweet
Other Christians are not trying to make the Gospel accessible to these people. That’s really my missional heart as a pastor. We do have conservative Christians on this issue. They’ve come to accept having gay members of the church who are full participants, and leaders, and whatnot. So, they’ve already made a kind of break, sociologically with evangelicalism. I don’t actually think you can go, you cannot create a church community that makes full space for LGBT people without making, at this point in time, a sociological break with the evangelicalism. That’s just the raw fact of the matter on the ground.
Tim: It seems like the Third Way is straddling a difficult in-between position. Because obviously you get criticism from the conservative side. But then some people on the liberal side have been critical too. There has been one queer theorist who said that the Third Way is a worst way, and I think she was saying that sexual minorities have been victimized and because you’re not taking a clear affirming and welcoming stance that it’s perpetuating that repression that has always gone on. How would you respond to something like that?
Ken: Well, I’d love to invite that theorist to our church, and have her come and experience the church. And talk to LGBT members, and then I’d love to hear what she has to say. What is she seeing that I’m not seeing?
I think that part of it is that the evangelical church and the whole church world in a sense, has drunk the Kool-Aid of Christianity as a new moralism. And so, there is a concern about about extending moral approval to one another. Like it’s our job to do it. I think that’s a false understanding of the Gospel.The . . church . . . has drunk the Kool-Aid of Christianity as a new moralism. Click To Tweet
I have a friend who’s a lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church, and she said to me, “you know Ken, I really, I like the Third Way because as a gay person the affirming language sometimes feels like the people with heterosexual privilege are giving me a piece of their privilege when they affirm my relationship with my partner. But Third Way kind of puts us all on the same ground of we’re not going after that, that moral approval of each other. That’s not what it means to be a Jesus follower.” So I get the fact that there are a lot of people that don’t get Third Way, because fundamentally I am promoting a different understanding of the Gospel than is common in modern day evangelicalism or even in the mainline for that matter.
These are theological perspectives that Dietrich Bonhoeffer was working out in his book Ethics. He talks about the original sin is eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. And so, the moral task is fraught from the beginning. We have to ask ourselves ‘is there a Christian morality?’ ‘Is there a Christian ethic,’ says Dietrich Bonhoeffer because so much of the moral enterprise in Christianity is just a Christianized version of eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.So much of the moral enterprise in Christianity is . . . eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Click To Tweet
What Jesus is offering in contrast is eating from the Tree of Life where we have an innocent relationship with God. A new innocent relationship with God. God is our parent. We are the dependent child, and we, we just follow God and we don’t have an independent moral gauge to tell us which way to go. There are some deeper theological issues that I’m trying to unpack that can be a little bit subtle in the current, controversial context of talking about “The Gay Issue.”
Tim: I mean, on one level they’re subtle but, on another level, it’s a faith that actually requires faith. Like it requires a moment by moment dependence on the Spirit. Rather than a kind of moralistic map that you’re handed that you have to follow like a slave.
Ken: The church is like a Gentile-dominated sociological entity right now, and the church that Paul is writing to was a Jewish-Gentile enterprise where Jews who continued to identify as Jews who were following Torah, who had been circumcised, who were probably observing the Sabbath day. Or probably keeping kosher came into the church as Jews and their first experience of church was as a Messianic synagogue. And then Gentiles started coming into that same assembly. And the difference in lifestyles between Jews and Gentiles on things that would be regarded by both as moral issues was incredibly diverse on so many questions.
The ability of Jesus as Lord to pull that thing together, without resolving all those moral differences they had, was, I think for Paul, the evidence that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. If Jesus can keep this diverse Jewish-Gentile thing together by the power of sacrificial love, whereas Caesar has to keep those people together under the threat of brutal, violent force. Which is the more powerful Lord? Caesar or Jesus?
This is not something that you’re going to get in your standard commentaries on Romans. Romans 14 is, no matter what people say in terms of the New Perspective of Paul, viewed as an afterthought. I mean even NT Wright, who is one of the major voices in the New Perspective on Paul, talks about Romans 14 and uses the term ‘adiaphora’ to refer to the differences. It is a Greek term, meaning (it comes from stoic philosophy) matters of indifference. Paul was not talking about matters of indifference, he was talking about first order moral differences, and those are the kind of differences that Jewish followers of Jesus and Gentile followers of Jesus were thrashing out.
Tim: Seems really interesting the parallel you’re making between that time of Jews and Gentiles coming together, and the current moment that we’re in. And you might say that initial coming together ultimately failed. That the church wasn’t able to hang on to its Jewish congregants, and yet, seems like you’re suggesting that we have a “do over” at this point. Do you have any hope that we’ll get it right this time?
Ken: Well, actually the person who co-founded with me, the original church that became the Ann Arbor Vineyard, that then out of that came Blue Ocean Faith Ann Arbor, is a messianic Jew and he—his name is Mark Kinzer—has been in dialogue with Roman Catholic authorities. He’s been part of that bigger conversation about the Roman Catholic Church making space for Judaism as a parallel and a path that needs to be respected in its own right. And he advocates for a robust Jewish expression of messianic followers of Jesus who are keeping kosher and abiding by the Jewish Torah as best they can, and following Jesus and not just absorbing Jewish identity into a what is essentially a Gentile culture church. I think that’s what’s going on in the New Testament.
But, but, yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. There’s no evidence I’ve been able to unearth that an expression of Christianity in Rome actually, was able successfully, at least, in some kind of historical perspective that we could detect, put into practice Romans 14. So it could be that like, now 2000 years later, it’s still waiting to be tried. So, as you can see, there’s more that floats my boat than just dealing with the gay question here.
If I had to choose between being traditionalist where the LGBT people I know would be welcome with an asterisk at best: “You’re welcome, but I won’t bless your marriage.” Or, “you’re welcome but you can’t be a leader in our church,” or “you can’t be this level of leader or that level of leader.” If I had a choice between making that kind of church or doing an open and affirming church, in a heartbeat I would do an open and affirming church.
I just think it would be a missed opportunity to not use the pain of this controversy to dig deeper into the Gospel that we all stand on. There’s got to be some redemptive purpose in all the horrible anguish that the church is going through in dealing with this controversy. It can’t just be about the LGBT issue. It’s, it’s too much pain for just that, you know. There’s got to be something at the heart of the Gospel that we’re, that has been obscured and is not giving us the way forward.It would be a missed opportunity to not use the pain of this controversy to dig deeper into the Gospel Click To Tweet
Tim: So there’s a redemptive opportunity here. It’s not just another occasion of division. There’s something that we can learn. There’s a way that we can be more faithful.
Ken: Right. I know lots of pastors who, at first they’re attracted to Third Way because they think it’s a way to avoid the conflict at the local church level of the LGBT controversy, and it is not. It’s very difficult for existing churches to transition into Third Way. It’s not a way around the conflict of the gay issue. I think it’s a faithful way through the conflict of the gay issue. But there will be conflict and there will be casualties. And it won’t be pretty.
It will be painful because we’re in the process of discovering the depths of the gospel in the crazy mess that we’re in. I think Third Way is probably, if it’s being articulated at all faithfully, is probably going to be more effective in the next controversy in terms of helping churches not divide over this.
Tim: Well thank you so much. For talking with me.
Ken: You are welcome. It’s been a pleasure.
Read a review of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation