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.