Response to Tim Keller’s Review of “A Letter to My Congregation” and “God and the Gay Christian”

I was honored to have my book, A Letter to My Congregation  (along with God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines) reviewed by Tim Keller. Keller is an influential pastor and pastor of pastors. It wouldn’t take much humility on my part to regard him as my better. As far as I can tell we share similar passions in ministry: making the gospel accessible to the growing ranks of the religiously unaffiliated and those in cities where church attendance is low, dealing with disputable matters (like science and faith) as though a world hungry for God is watching us. Keller’s concluding remarks about the tone of my book were therefore especially welcome. I am also honored to be associated with Matthew Vines, a courageous gay Christian who has written a powerful book. (See Vines’ response to Keller’s review.) I’ll focus on Keller’s critique of my book.

A Difference on the Role of Experience

My proposal runs counter to the prevailing wisdom of Evangelicalism, so I didn’t expect a ringing endorsement. Keller’s review highlights the differences between my proposal and the current wisdom of Evangelicalism in pastoral approach to LGBT people and the use of Scripture to inform that approach. The first of these differences is the most telling. My book was written from the vantage point of my pastoral experience with LGBT people and those who love them. I asserted the stigmatizing harm of exclusionary policies (disqualification from membership, leadership, disciplining clergy who do their weddings) that I came to see through my pastoral experience. I emphasize the proper role of experience much more than Keller does within the context of his Reformed tradition. As a Christian from the renewalist wing of faith, I am perhaps less suspicious than Keller of the role of experience in the moral discernment process.I think God’s truth is experimental truth in the sense that it is meant to be field tested in reality—its grace and liberating power demonstrated in the experience of those who embrace it.

Keller’s brief opening section on pastoral experience simply asserts that it is important to know gay people and that bigotry must have informed the previous views of those of us who have revised their views on what the Bible teaches. That’s it on pastoral experience. But then he is on to his analysis without saying how his pastoral experience has informed his understanding of how best to care for the LGBT people in his church.

But the fact that more pastors like me, supported by a leading evangelical ethicist David Gushee and others are well into the process of changing their minds, did not rise in a vacuum. It has been prompted by LGBT people, for the first time in centuries, coming out of hiding and sharing their experience with us. It has been prompted by startling admissions by evangelical leaders in the ex-gay movement saying that intense programs involving powerful means of grace like prayer, counseling, and accountability structures, do not alleviate or even substantially diminish same-sex attraction in the vast majority of people. In other words, we now know that we pastors were making assumptions about the experience of gay Christians that have proved over time and experience to have been inaccurate.

So yes, knowing LGBT people and those who are deeply affected by the way the church responds to them (the parents of gay kids, for example) is critically important. By paying only glancing acknowledgment of this in his review, repeating the truism that we should know gay people, Keller simply didn’t engage a central emphasis of my book. In particular, Keller simply didn’t address my claims of harm associated with exclusionary policies. If such policies are based on truth they ought to set people free rather than harm them. What do we make of the harm then? Is it real harm or simply a smokescreen? Keller doesn’t weigh in on this question. He doesn’t assert that claims of harm are unfounded, citing evidence to back up his claim. He simply ignores the question of harm. And, of course, if one doesn’t take the harm caused by these policies into account, what incentive would there be to reassess the traditional consensus?

Keller did note something that I regard as deeply significant: that some people’s religious views on homosexuality are in fact rooted in bigotry rather than in what the Bible actually teaches. Naturally, I wanted more from Keller on the significance of the bigotry he recognizes at work in the church. Have our interpretations of Scripture, for example, contributed to the bigotry? Or, as he seems to infer, do people who change their minds do so because their previous support of the traditional view must have been rooted in bigotry in the first place rather than in clear biblical thinking?

My own acceptance of the exclusionary polices aimed at gay people, policies which I implemented as a pastor for decades, was fueled in part by this bigotry. And I don’t think I’m alone in this or unusual. I grew up in a liberal family. But I grew up, like Keller did, in the 1950’s. How could I not be affected by a society and church culture shaped by Thomas Aquinas’ view that same sex acts are worse than incest (because they “violate nature”). This a view that even today is supported by the Reformed scholar, Robert Gagnon, widely acclaimed as the evangelical scholar to consult when understanding what the Bible teaches that pertains to LGBT people.

As someone of Keller’s age, I was raised in a culture of rank and largely unquestioned bigotry. I think this affected me insidiously. As a person who hasn’t experienced same-sex attraction, I had a disgust response to acknowledge and overcome at the thought of two men having sexual intimacy, much as my kids had a disgust response when they learned what their parents did to bring them into the world. Following some poor translations of Scripture, I grew up associating all gay sex with the biblical connotations of the term “sodomy” drawn from an account in Genesis 19 of the attempted gang rape of divine visitors by an entire town. Keller’s acknowledgement of bigotry is something we should all sit with for a while. How does one separate such pervasive bigotry from the interpretations of Scripture that are forged within this context?

Still I am grateful for the recognition that such bigotry exists. It’s an important place to start as we grapple together with how best to care for the vulnerable sexual minorities among us. LGBT people have experienced such deep shame, such threat to their belonging among us for so long, not just because of our bigotry but because, based on our reading of Scripture, we have excluded them from membership, disqualified them from leadership and we discipline pastors who bless their covenant-making ceremonies.

As a pastor writing from my pastoral experience, I wanted Keller to show me a better way if he judged my pastoral approach defective. For example, surely some gay women in Keller’s church are raising kids together and having about as much sex as any heterosexual married couple working full time in a place like Manhattan, running around after three kids and their various extracurricular and school activities. What does Keller say when these women say to him, “Show me what the Bible says that directly pertains to our sexual relationship?” How does Keller use Romans 1, the only chapter (one verse, actually) in the entire Bible that might address their sexual relationship directly? When they responsd to this verse by saying, “This doesn’t feel like it’s describing our relationship all. We are not burning with excessive passion. We do not believe that we’ve been given over to these feelings of love, loyalty, and affection for each other as a result of a hardened paganism on our part”, how does Keller respond?

A Difference on the Applicability of Romans 14

Not surprisingly, Keller disputes my view that Romans 14 provides reliable guidance for a pastor in these situations. To refute my claim, Keller cites Loader and Plato (the latter, writing centuries before Paul’s time) as offering incontrovertible evidence that the authors of the New Testament would have known of relationships analogous to the same-gender couples in our churches. And thus the prohibitions of Scripture must apply equally to them as to pederasts (married men abusing minor males) and masters demanding sex of slaves, often to express their dominance over them. To dispute this claim, I cite Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People, highly recommended in a review by John Wilson in Christianity Today. Ruden, a classicist steeped in the literature of the greco-roman period, makes a compelling case that Paul was inveighing against practices like pederasty and slave sex and not anything remotely equivalent to the LGBT people I care for. She deals with the claim that Plato’s Symposium demonstrates otherwise. I acknowledge that there is a legitimate scholarly dispute on this, even among “the best scholars” but Keller does not. This seems to be a pattern: where I see legitimate debate, Keller sees none.

Keller offers what I consider scant evidence that the ancients knew of people analogous to the LGBT people in my church, let alone that such would have been the focus of the prohibitive texts. (See Mathew Vine’s response here.) Whether the ancients knew that a small minority of people experienced what we call same-sex attraction (how could some of the ancients not have?) is not the point for me. The point is this: Is it possible that Paul’s language is a clue to his meaning? That his virtual diatribe in Romans 1—end stage pagan idolators given over by God to their excessive lusts as fitting consequence of their hardness of heart–fits pederasts and masters demanding sex from slaves, who did what they did without social opprobrium in a way that even our most libertine today can hardly imagine? And that the prohibitive texts are not aimed at most of the LGBT people in our churches? Could it be that Scripture, if anything, is simply silent on this question—as it can reasonably be regarded to be silent on whether a woman may remarry after a divorce prompted by an intolerable situation not explicitly covered in the biblical exceptions to the “marriage is until death do us part” rule? I think there is a good possibility—I view it as a high probability—that this is so, and it gives me pause before enforcing exclusionary policies that in my experience are harmful to people that I serve as a pastor.

Keller cites the long tradition in the church prohibiting all same-gender sex categorically as evidence that this question–how does the Bible apply to LGBT people in covenantal relationships?–cannot be properly categorized as a disputable matter today. And surely, the vast majority of leaders in the church have not been disputing this until very recently. But what of the gay Christians in the church over the centuries whose voices have been silenced by the stigmatizing exclusionary policies we have enforced? Doesn’t their objection count? One can imagine leaders in the churches of the slave-holding states making the claim that “the best scholars agree” that the Bible allows people to hold slaves—ignoring the objections of generations of Christian slaves who are as much a part of the body of Christ as they are. Today, the voices of courageous gay Christians like Matthew Vines, Justin Lee, Vicki Beeching, Emily Swan, Brandon Roberston, Rachel Murr and a rising tide of others are no longer silenced. LGBT people of faith, bearing the fruit of the Spirit in their lives, are openly disputing this question today but they are also speaking for the voiceless gay Christians of many generations past.

A Difference on Remarriage as an Analogous Disputable Matter

Keller makes claims about the morality of slavery as a matter that was widely disputed throughout the history of the church. Matthew Vines has responded to this. I didn’t use the slavery example in my book. But certainly it illustrates the point that sometimes Christians use a plain reading of the Bible to justify policies that are harmful to real people and that the biblical injunctions, “Love does not harm the other,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself: this is the Law and the Prophets “ (i.e. the Bible) were given to prevent this. These New Testament injunctions are all the more compelling because they  were written by those who were part of a vulnerable minority–messianic Jews with little religious-political-cultural power–who suffered at the hands of some of their powerfully placed fellows who, in turn, were sure that their own reading of Scripture was indisputable. Most of these admonitions in holy writ were penned by Paul, who once inflicted great harm on this vulnerable minority based on his certainty that his reading of the Bible was indisputable. This is meant to give all pastors pause as we consider the care of vulnerable sexual minorities among us.

Instead I zeroed in on the example of remarriage after divorce as a “disputable matter” that involves a first order moral question (adultery) and in which the strict reading (no remarriage after divorce) has strong biblical warrant according to a plain reading that doesn’t take a sophisticated understanding of cultural-historical context into account. Keller claims this is not a compelling analogy because the church has always had a divided witness on this and other questions. At least in the case of remarriage, he generously overstates how much diversity of viewpoint existed in the church at large until relatively recently. Most evangelical pastors I know bless remarriages that would have been prohibited by Roman Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, Orthodox, Coptic, and Evangelical clergy less than a hundred years ago. Perhaps Keller regards many of these remarried people in his church as though they are in a state of ongoing adultery, forbidding communion to them, preventing them from serving as leaders, etc. But I doubt it. I think the analogy holds and compels to us to ask the question: Why haven’t we shown the same reluctance to subject our LGBT brothers and sisters to exclusionary practices?

A Difference on What Best Serves the Gospel Today

Keller ends with an appeal to the glories of the biblical vision of sexuality and inter-gendered marriage. He is saddened that I spent so much time on the prohibitive texts and did not emphasize this enough. I did this because there are many books emphasizing the biblical vision of sexuality expressed in heterosexual marriage, but these books are simply salt in the wounds of the LGBT members of my church. These books tell them: “This is the glorious vision of sexuality in the Bible and it can be expressed in two ways: by marrying a member of the opposite gender to whom you are not sexually attracted, or by living without the consolations of marriage for the rest of your life, whether or not you have been given the gift of celibacy.” No, I did not want to write another book like that.

But I do have a proposal for honoring diversity in the church, another concern of Keller’s. And my proposal is modest: when people who love Jesus and Scripture and each other have divergent views on a matter like this, let’s obey Paul in Romans 14 and err on the side of full inclusion, acceptance, belonging—the gift Paul admonishes us to grant each other as a fitting expression of the glorious gospel he preaches in Romans. Perhaps then our differences wouldn’t just be controversies that light up the Internet but they could become part of the witness of the glories of Jesus.

The parties involved in this conversation within the church are all equally concerned for the cause of the gospel. In 2015, I would submit that the gospel is not served by our claims to have all the right answers to all the important moral issues of the day because we have the correct interpretation of Scripture. The glorious gospel would be better served, I propose, by applying the wisdom of Romans 14—agree to disagree when dealing with moral controversies of this sort, err on the side of full inclusion, let God be the judge on such matters, and demonstrate the power of Jesus to hold people together in love despite these differences. It’s what families do to stay together and it’s what the church is called to do too as a witness to a polarized world in danger of flying apart at the seams. Were the church to follow this path we would be good news indeed.












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25 thoughts on “Response to Tim Keller’s Review of “A Letter to My Congregation” and “God and the Gay Christian”

  1. Thomas Baker says:

    Can you address Keller’s argument that when Paul writes in Romans, “The men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another” he is referring to consensual, mutual sexual relationships between men that does not fit pederasty, slave sex, or prostitution, as you argue?

  2. Ken Wilson says:

    It would be very strange to think that Paul’s language did not include pedersasty, slave sex and or (possibly) temple prostitution, and of course, orgiastic sex (also very common in a culture that openly honored the phallus as a symbol of power.) The sex he refers to is debauched and degraded. To think that this language has primarily in view consensual, mutual intimacy isn’t credible to me. I think this is putting a lot of weight on the term “one another” meaning “others of the same gender” The verse in in question (1:27) according to Jewett (whose commentary is considered platinum standard on Romans) implies “irrational bondage to an egoistic, empty and unsatisfying expression of animal sexuality”, a far cry from the sex that many gay couples experience in the context of a covenantal relationship of mutual care and affection. Keller cites this verse as proof that Paul had something analagous to modern day same sex marriages in view. That requires a lot more evidence than one phrase. It simply isn’t convincingly present in the ancient literature (see Matthew Vine’s response here.)

  3. Thomas Baker says:

    It seems that Paul would have included any same-sex activity in his prohibition. But talking about men being inflamed with lust for “one another” makes absolutely no sense if you’re referring primarily to pederasty, rape, or prostitution. Is the person being abused “inflamed with lust” for his abuser? Is the person being raped “inflamed with lust” for the rapist? No, it only makes sense if it is referring to consensual adults.

    Vines seems to contradict your position. He argues that Paul did know about mutual, consensual homosexual relationships, but that they were “excessive” in some way.

  4. Ken Wilson says:

    Thomas, can’t take more time on this after this, but… The issue is complex because the cultural context of sex in the ancient world was so different, the norms we’re so different, the things that were socially approved were so different. Women were regarded as property for example and were married to men whom they didn’t chose. We would consider that non-consensual. In fact we tend to conflate “consensual” with “equal status” but the ancients did not. Women were not of equal status to men but that doesn’t mean in their eyes the sex wasn’t consensual. And the norms around male sexuality were so different. Men brazenly regarded sexual penetration as a sign of their virility and strength and dominance over others, and this was expected of them. So, pederasty is a very difficult practice for we moderns to understand. It involved consensual relationships between older men and minor males. With our sensitivity to rape we would regard any such relationship as non-consensual even if the minor didn’t openly object. (And in the Torah we have laws about rape that don’t live up that standard–the rapist is required to marry the woman he rapes, for example.) So in pederasty the prepubescent males were offered mentoring by the older men and this was often a way for them to advance in society and so they entered the relationship consensually. Of course that doesn’t live up to modern standards at all. But it was the world Paul knew. So I think to whatever extent “one another” means “consensual” (vs. males having sex with other males) then, perhaps Paul has orgiastic sex and pederasty primarily in view. What we don’t really know because the evidence is so scant is the extent to which there was anything remotely like our modern day same-sex covenantal unions. There is strong evidence that if there was such a thing it was exceptional. Did Paul even know of this is unknown. If he knew, was it a practice that was even on his radar screen when he wrote Romans 1. However the other language in Ro, 1 points to something very different from two women forming a family, raising kids together, and being intimate with each other. What Paul would have thought about modern day monogamous unions isn’t even particularly pertinent. The text that is written is inspired, not Paul’s views. (Paul didn’t seem to view slavery as a morally abhorrent practice. Paul probably would have been fine with what a 40 year old man marrying a 13 year old girl, but that doesn’t make it moral in our context.) And of course all this has to be understood in the light of the strong warnings which were prominent in the early Jesus movement that love doesn’t harm the neighbor, given, I think as a corrective for the well known (especially by the vulnerable minority of messianic jews) phenomenon of people in their religious zeal doing things that were thought to be justified, but were plain wrong.

    • Thomas says:

      When you say that what Paul thought about modern day monogamous relationships isn’t relevant doesn’t that go against how we should interpret the Bible? If Paul thought that all same-sex activity was sinful and he wrote Romans the way he did then should we interpret it is a blanket condemnation of all same-sex activity even if we disagree? It’s like you’re saying that Paul didn’t have in mind consensual monogamous gay relationships but even if he did it wouldn’t be relevant.

  5. Soterphile says:

    It was Plato’s “Symposium”, not the “Republic”, which is the text in question. The Symposium is a dinner party where increasingly higher definitions of ‘beauty’ are put forth, culminating in Socrates’ speech. Aristophanes speaks fourth at the party, only two speakers prior to Socrates himself. And in his speech, Aristophanes tells the story of 3 different beings (male/male, male/female, and female/female) who are split by the gods. Consequently, these three beings spend their lives looking for the other half which will ‘complete’ them.

    a) Isn’t this almost exactly the notion of ‘orientation’ long before the modern term was coined? Here we find gay and lesbian orientations rather clearly and distinctly described, as opposed to heterosexual ones. If this analogy fails to approximate the modern connotations, in what capacities does it fail?

    b) Are we not to consider many of the modern notions of romance to be almost entirely the equivalent (e.g., Jerry Maguire’s “you complete me”)? If not, why? And certainly this places sexuality at the deepest levels of identity, as many gay advocates want to do.

    c) Plato’s Symposium is one of the most prominent works of one of the most prominent thinkers in the ancient world, and he wrote 400 years before the NT. If the idea was that prominent four centuries prior to Paul’s writing in the same Hellenized world, why should we think Paul is completely unaware of such notions?

  6. Aaron A. says:

    If Paul was not opposed to exploitative yet consensual relationships, then why was he opposed to pederasty? Paul’s argument is centered around the exchange of the natural for the unnatural, not about exploitation. And if it just the text that is inspired and not what Paul thought, don’t we have to take the text at face value?

    • Ken Wilson says:

      In my response to Thomas I posited that in the case of pederasty Paul may have viewed it as exploitative, abhorrent, etc., and yet consensual. In that case he would be telling the male mentors to stop it and the younger men to not enter such mentoring relationships. The issue of what Paul means by natural and unnatural is quite nettlesome and is difficult to tease out, given the fact that in some cases he uses the term “unnatural” for practices that whose meanings are culturally dependent (like women wearing head coverings in 1 Cor. 10) There just isn’t much in the NT that makes it clear what he means by this. Aquinas developed this concept later and we often understand it in light of later embellishments like this. But all of this needs to be understood in the context of the pastoral realities that we face: that exclusionary policies are harmful to LGBT people. None of this is applied in a vacuum and our exegesis cannot be done in a vacuum either. We have to seek to understand these texts in the context of the lived reality of LGBT people—biblical truth is personal, not mere abstractions that we apply.

  7. John Doe says:

    What is worse?

    1) Suffering in our current lives on Earth due to, of course, the fall.

    2) Or, eternal suffering in the afterlife due to unrepentant attitudes.

    It would be a great disservice to many of my Gay Christan friends to become unrepentant of their sins only to find out that they are denied entry into the promised land.

    • Joe says:

      John Doe (or whatever your real name is), I don’t agree with Ken’s views on sexuality, but your comment represents the very worst form of spiritual manipulation. The last time I checked, perfection wasn’t the entry criteria into heaven (we’d all fail if it was). If a Christian has studied the Bible carefully and come to a conclusion on something, Jesus will forgive them if they’ve got it wrong, even if that they are wrong about what is and isn’t sin. I am sure there are things in your life that are sins yet you don’t view them as such and haven’t repented of them. And, of course, there are plenty of other areas where Christians disagree over whether something is a sin or not.

      • Alida says:

        Perfection isn’t required for heaven, no, but I do believe that conscious, continuous, and unrepentant sin is the the sin Paul refers to in 1 John 3 and 5 when he talks about “sin leading to death”, which is eternal separation from Christ.

        Studying scripture carefully and making a mistake is not the same and studying scripture carefully and interpreting it to suit our preferred lifestyle.

  8. Ken Wilson says:

    John Doe, And of course this is just the sort of thinking that could be used to justify almost any mistreatment of anyone based on religious motivation.

  9. Ashley Frost says:

    Ken, are you familiar with the work of William Loader? He is considered the preeminent expert on sexuality in the ancient world. I’m not sure if you interacted with him in your book. He is not an evangelical Christian and is pro gay marriage, but he argues that Paul would certainly have opposed any form of same-sex activity, and that his writings in the NT should be interpreted as such.

    • Ken Wilson says:

      Ashley, I didn’t read Loader for my letter (it came out while I was already writing, I think) but Keller’s review inspired me to order it and I just finished it. There’s nothing in Loaders research that I could see that supports the notion that Paul would have been aware of anything remotely like the now rather widespread desire of same-gender couples to be married, practice exclusive love for each other, be faithful for life according to marriage vow and often raise children together. Nothing in other words equivalent to what we are dealing with today. What Paul would have thought were he aware of the modern situation isn’t the question when dealing with biblical authority or inspirtion. The question there is what was Paul addressing in his time? I think he probably couldn’t have imagined a world in which married couples had the kind of egalitarian relationship they have to today, and certainly not a world that had many people who wanted to be married to members of the same gender, in much the same way that Paul couldn’t imagine a world in which slavery wasn’t a given in human society and something that at least had to be accomodated. What Paul would have thought had he known isn’t a particularly helpful thing to wonder about. I’m guessing his first instincts might have been to feel it was wrong since the same gender sex he knew of was in such a paganized context (pederasty, slave sex, orgiastic sex, sex between males who were married to women, penetration as a sign of strength over another, etc.) But there is nothing in Romans 1 that suggests to me that he had same-gendered couples seeking to be married and live faithfully with each other for life in view. He would have written very differently than he did, had that been the case. And Loader is not the only voice in this. Sarah Ruden is a classicists where Loader spent 5-10 years researching this as a NT scholar, Ruden has spent 30 years with the greco-roman literature (able to translate it, etc.) and her book convincingly refutes that Paul could have been addressing anything like what same gender couples who want to be married a today are about.

  10. Aaron A. says:

    I’m with Ashley on this one. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is about the denial of God’s true nature expressed in idolatry and the related denial of true and natural human sexual relationships (male with female) for false and unnatural relationships (male with male, female with female). This has nothing to do with whether the pair is loving, committed, faithful, etc.

    William Loader writes:

    “There is a certain internal logic to Paul’s argument which suggests that he sees a close link between denying God’s true nature in idolatry and then going on to deny the true nature of human sexual relations: both are marks of sinfulness and alienation. This is all the more likely if the allusion to those deserving death in 1.32 derives directly from the prohibition of same-sex relations in Leviticus 20.13.” (William Loader, Sexuality in the New Testament: Understanding the Key Texts)

  11. Ashley Frost says:

    Sarah Ruden is a classicist, not a biblical scholar by any stretch of the imagination. She is helpful in understanding first century Greco-Roman cultural context. But the Apostle Paul (like Jesus) was a Jew first and foremost, and his letter to the Romans is set squarely within a Jewish theological framework. Paul’s attitude toward same-sex activity is rooted in his theological views, as his allusion to Genesis and Leviticus makes clear, not in his Greco-Roman cultural milieu.

    • Ken Wilson says:

      Yes, but the issue that is germane–what was the social situation in Rome that informed Paul’s writing–is, if anything, more up Ruden’s alley than Loader’s.
      I highly recommend reading both Loader and Ruden. Even on it’s own terms, I don’t think Loader was answering the question, “Was there something equivalent to modern day monogamous same gender relationships–marriage relationships such as we know them–that would clearly have been in Paul’s view as he wrote Romans 1?”

  12. Elizabeth D. Morrison says:

    Ken, isn’t your question a bit like asking whether Jesus had anything like internet pornography “in mind” when he condemned lust? Clearly the answer is no, but does that mean that his invective against lust doesn’t apply to internet pornography? Isn’t the question whether the underlying principle applies or not? In the case of Paul and homosexuality, the condemnation was based upon an exchange of the “natural” versus the “unnatural.” I am struggling to understand how that underlying argument is affected by whether the same-sex activity was between monogamous consenting adults or not.

    • Ken Wilson says:

      Elizabeth, We can all come up with examples of “what Jesus had in mind” that prove our particular point. For example, did Jesus condemnation of lust toward “another man’s wife” apply to a man who has married a divorced woman and desires his new wife? Sometimes we can make reasonable inferences about what Jesus meant, sometimes it’s much more difficult. I think a very credible case can be made that what Paul was inveighing against in Romans 1 is something different than the relationships between the same-gender covenanted couples I care for. Perhaps you would disagree. I think this difference is an example of a “disputable matter” akin to the differences that orthodox and even very conservative Christians have over how Jesus teaching about divorce and remarriage applies in given cases. When we face such disputable matters, we should err on the side of full acceptance, inclusion. The burden of proof for executing exclusionary practices that have been demonstrated to be harmful to vulnerable people has not been met in my view, given the strong exhortations in Scripture about using Scripture to harm others.

      • soterphile says:

        1) not “using Scripture to harm others”? it sounds like you think a call to repentance is ‘harmful.’ this is begging the question (assuming the thing under debate is already settled in order decide the debate) – it’s circular reasoning.

        2) you’re labeling sexual sins as ‘adiaphora’ (only a “disputable matter”) – when Scripture takes the opposite stance (not just on the debate of homosexuality, but on heterosexual matters as well, e.g., 1 Cor.5). that’s not just a problem on this topic; that’s a broader hermeneutical problem (and note well: hermeneutics is the real point of divide in your opponents’ minds).

        3) finally, and most practically, would you or would you not call a porn-viewing spouse to repent? Or, if the spouse said (as you do) “that’s not what Jesus/Paul had in mind”, would you simply say – as you answered Elizabeth Morrison above – “we should err on the side of full acceptance, inclusion”? Consider how deeply harmful that would be for that marriage. How much more for the Church with her Husband (Eph.5)?

        • Ken Wilson says:

          1. A call to repentance from conditions that one can actually repent from, and which are indisputably sinful, is different than a call for same-gender couples who have formed covenantal unions (sometimes with family units that care for children)

          2. “Adiophora” is a term from stoic philosophy that means “matters of indifference” and is different than the “disputable matters” that Paul dealt with in Romans 14, which in their time were hotly contested issues because they were related to first order moral concerns (idolatry and breaking the 4th commandment)

          3. I’m comparing same-gender covenantal unions to other “disputable matters” in the church such as when is sex in a second marriage simply adultery under a different name, not to all sexual sins.

  13. Greg says:

    Hi Ken, how would you segregate moral law and ceremonial law in the bible? Does Romans 14 apply to both? If it does then isn’t that a slippery slope down toward moral relativism? Additionally, your argument as it relates to ‘harm’ seems to end up on the side of a philosophy of Hedonism. Can you explain how it does not? Finally, what of all the admonitions Paul has as it relates to sexual acts and their spiritual effects?

    • Ken Wilson says:

      Greg, Yes I covered this in my book, A Letter to My Congregation. In Romans 14, many scholars, including conservative ones, believe Paul is dealing with issues that would have been viewed as big moral issues in their day, including eating meat sacrificed to idols (which could be seen as a violation of the first commandment) and Sabbath keeping, which is a 4th commandment issue. i also addressed the fact in the book that the distinction between ceremonial law and moral law is something we tend to impose on the text–the distinction itself is not clearly made in scripture.

  14. Brenda Smith says:

    But the Apostle Paul specifically says in Romans 14 that “all food is clean,” so isn’t he saying that this is NOT a true moral issue? Paul did not agree with the people who were saying that you can’t eat meat. I don’t see anywhere that Paul treats something that he believes is sin, or a moral issue, in the way that you are saying.

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