In this third and final review of Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My CongregationI want to dive into the main point of his argument. (The first two are HERE and HERE.) As I mentioned in the first post, the “third way” uses Paul’s approach to the disputed matters in Romans 14 as paradigm for how affirming and non-affirming believers can agree to disagree about same-sex relations and yet still worship in unity.
“A third way departs from the ‘open and affirming’ and the ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’ approach by regarding the question of whether and how the biblical prohibitions apply in the case of monogamous gay relationships as a ‘disputable matter’ in the Romans 14-15 sense” (pg. 112).
In Romans 14, Jewish Christians abstained from eating meat altogether in order to avoid the possibility of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. (There are about 7 different interpretations of Romans 14; I’m going with the majority view and so does Ken.) These believers also thought they should observe certain holy days (which probably includes the Sabbath). Gentile Christians in the same communities believed that it was fine to eat meat and they didn’t think it was necessary to observe the Jewish holy days.
Paul considers the latter Gentile group to be the “strong” believers, while the former Jewish group to be the “weak” believers.
Ken Wilson maps the current homosexuality discussion onto these two groups and correlates the “strong” believer to the affirming Christian who thinks that consensual, monogamous, same-sex relations are blessed by God. The “weak” believer parallels the one who doesn’t affirm the sanctity of same-sex relations. Please note that Ken does not think these matters are adiaphora, or not very important. He argues that the disputed matters of Romans 14 were of great moral concern.
But this is one of the points that I have some questions about. Does Paul consider the issues of Romans 14 to be serious moral matters? I’m not sure he does.
Paul considers the issues to be “disputed matters,” or more specifically, “disputes about opinions” (dialogismon, Rom 14:1). Paul never cites a Scriptural passage in this section, and since he considers the holy days and dietary observances to be “opinions.” It doesn’t appear that Paul himself considered these matters to be serious moral concerns. His audience may have. And certainly the weaker believers did. But remember: Ken is using Paul's approach to these matters as an interpretive lens for the homosexuality debate. And Paul did not consider observing Jewish holy days and eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols as serious moral issues.
It’s like drinking alcohol today. Some people are adamant that drinking any alcohol is a horrible sin. It’s the devil’s drink and you are in serious sin if you toss back a cold beer. An ice cold Northwest IPA, fresh out of the keg and loaded with hops, and served in a chilled…
Sorry, got sidetracked. So the matters that Paul talks about may have been viewed as serious moral issues by some believers in Rome. And drinking alcohol is considered a serious moral issue by some conservative Christians today. But there’s nothing in the Bible saying Christians can’t drink. And there’s nothing in the life and teaching of Christ, the apostles, or NT writers which says that Christians must observe the Jewish holy days and only eat vegetables. Such “opinions,” as Paul calls them, were human boundary markers constructed to protect them from their pagan environment. If drinking that fresh hopped Northwest IPA could lead to becoming a drunken pagan, then it’s best to avoid the stuff altogether. Or so the “weak” believer argues.
I don't see any evidence that Paul would have considered same-sex relations to be a “disputed matter” that believers can agree to disagree on.
Furthermore, there were massive debates about keeping the holy days both in Judaism and in Christianity around the time Romans 14 was written. In Judaism, calendar debates among Jews were widespread and well-documented. (See, for instance, 1 Enoch, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Srolls [esp. 4QMMT, the Temple Scroll, etc.). Jesus said some pretty radical things about the Sabbath (e.g. Matt 12), though it’s not clear that he broke the Sabbath according to OT law. Some early Christians started to view Sunday as the “new Sabbath” in celebration of the resurrection of Christ. Paul himself seemed to say that Sabbath keeping and observing holy days weren’t mandatory for Christians (Col 2:16; Gal 4:10). Likewise, Jesus (possibly; see Mark 7 cf. Matt 15) and early Christians (Gal 2, 4) believed that the dietary laws were part of the Old Covenant Law that didn’t carry over into the New Covenant.
Yet same-sex relations were unanimously prohibited in Judaism, the NT, and early Christianity. There’s no debate, no ambiguity, and no other view. It’s nothing like the disputed matters of Romans 14.
Let me shift gears just a bit. Let’s just say that Ken is right. Let’s say that the “strong” believer parallels the affirming believer, and the “weak” believer parallels the non-affirming believer. Paul makes it clear that the stronger believer should give up her liberty for the sake of the weaker believer (14:21; cf. 1 Cor 8:13). If the affirming gay believer parallels the “strong” believer, and the non-affirming believer parallels the “weak,” then according to Ken’s logic the gay believer should avoid a same-sex marriage relationship for the sake of not offending the weaker believer.
“If your brother or sister is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15)
“If your brother or sister is grieved by who you marry, you are no longer walking in love.” (Ken’s application)
If Ken’s third way wants to use Romans 14 to justify its approach, this is the logical application. From what I can see, Ken doesn’t advocate this. But you can’t have it both ways; you can’t gulp down some juicy bits of Rom 14 to form a third way and spit out the rest that doesn’t feel very third wayish.
I also had some questions about an important pastoral point Ken brings up in chapter 6: the church’s relaxed stance on remarriage after divorce. The church has accepted many people who have been divorced and remarried. So why can’t it also accept gay couples into full communion, even if these pastors aren't convinced that the affirming view is correct?
“Jesus defines marriage as a lifelong union that cannot be dissolved…For centuries, the church turned this definition into a rule: no remarriage after divorce. The church wasn’t just being mean, it was being biblical: according to Jesus, the person who remarries after divorce becomes an adulterer” (p. 141).
“When a divorced person remarries they enter a relationship that is immoral. This is precisely the argument used to rule out gay unions” (p. 142).
Ken goes on to mention two possible exceptions to this biblical rule. If a person divorced their spouse after they were unfaithful, then they might be free to remarry. Or if an unbelieving spouse leaves, then the Christian spouse is also free to remarried. Ken points out that “we pastors are happy to find an exception and we hope it applies because we’re reluctant to lay burdens on people that they cannot carry.”
Honestly, I think every Christian needs to consider Ken’s words, and consider them deeply. Yes, I tend to be one of those non-affirming Christians who gets really tired of my fellow non-affirming Christians making a big fuss about same-sex relations while the church is entrenched in greed, materialism, heterosexual immorality, syncretistic patriotism, and an untamed zeal to kill our enemies rather than love them. And yes, we’ve been terribly lax on divorce and remarriage.
But should our failure to address these sins give us license to overlook others? Would God say, “Well, you guys pretty much stink at the whole remarriage after divorce laws I gave you. So why don’t you go ahead and ignore what I told you about same-sex relations.” This doesn’t make any sense to me.
My emotional response after reading Ken’s section on remarriage after divorce was not that we should replicate our moral leniency on other questions. Rather, we should rip the plank out of our eyes deal with our sins before we start pointing out the sin of the other. The whole “Ya, but you guys suck at taking care of this sin…” isn’t really an argument for same-sex relations. It’s certainly convicting, and it personally motivates me to seriously examine the hidden sins in my own life. But it’s not a good argument (it’s not really an argument) for the affirming or third way view.
I want to close, though, by giving a digital high-five to Ken Wilson. I spent a lot of time focusing on my critiques; such is the nature of book reviews. But I would say that I actually loved and agreed with many things in the book, and the bits that I didn’t quite agree with were still super challenging and provoked my heart and mind more than most books I’ve read in the last year.
Plus, as I said in the first blog, I don’t really fit the traditional “love the sinner, hate the sin” view that Ken describes, and I definitely don’t fit the opening and affirming view. I find myself in some sort of a “third wayish” camp. I’m not convinced of the Scriptural or hermeneutical arguments against the traditional view, and yet I see Jesus radically accepting people that most churches would never let through the doors today. Heck, I’m not sure the enemy loving, nonviolent, unpatriotic Middle Eastern Messiah with a poor religious reputation would be let inside some churches today. Unless we’re making the religious right nervous, I don’t think we’re living out Jesus’s offensive ethic as radically as we should.
Maybe I am a third wayer. It’s not the same as Ken Wilson’s third way. I think his main argument has too many holes. But I do believe in a third way, a better way, to embrace the mysterious harmony of Jesus's strict sexual ethic and his scandalous acceptance of those shunned by the religious elite.